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In Defense of the Unions

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In Denver, it's been all about performance pay for the last few days. First the school district and the teachers' union settled a long-running dispute over changes to the teacher merit-pay plan, and now the Democrats at their national convention are all set to embrace performance pay as a party-platform issue.

For the teachers' unions, which are out in full strength at the convention, this has not been a blessing, exactly. In fact, they have been looking like everyone's favorite punching bag.

The unions have long disliked any deviation from teacher tenure and seniority, and the National Education Association has been vehemently opposed to any form of merit pay based on student test scores. The American Federation of Teachers has been slightly more open to the concept, and new President Randi Weingarten even negotiated a merit-pay plan in New York City last year.

But on Sunday, speaking at an education symposium, Washington schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, who is embroiled in her own performance-pay dispute with the Washington Teachers Union, blamed the unions for standing in the way of reform.

Al Sharpton also took a potshot at the unions and their refusal to change with the times, saying they were more interested in protecting their interests than in uplifting children.

Read more about opposition to the unions at the Democratic convention from my colleague Michele McNeil here.

But having long covered performance-pay plans nationwide and the unions, I wonder: Isn't everyone being a little too quick to judge here?

The national unions may indulge in rhetoric against performance pay and refuse to endorse it outright, but many locals around the country, including Minneapolis and New York City, have partnered with their districts on performance-pay plans, and many more are working on them.

In states like Arizona, which has long had a career-ladder performance-pay plan in effect, the teachers' union has been fighting to expand the program. In Denver itself, the performance-pay program was created jointly by the union and the school district. Groups like the Teacher Union Reform Network of NEA and AFT Locals exist to help progressive local leaders partner with districts on school reform.

Change may be slow in coming to teachers' unions, but it is coming, and maybe they deserve some credit for that. Or don't they?

You tell me.

1 Comment

Vaishali is absolutely right. Teacher unions are far from monolithic and there is a lively debate within and among locals and the national unions. Many or even most local leaders are trying to figure out what kinds of reforms or improvements to compensation systems, professional development and evaluation systems really make sense - with much piloting and experimentation going on. Harvard professor Susan Moore Johnson's study, "Leading the Local," published by Ed Sector last summer made a start at documenting that. So it strikes me that the frontal attack on the unions by those taking the low road is really about politics. Those really interested in reform should take a closer look at what union locals are doing in Cincinnati, Minneapolis, Portland (ME), Rochester, Seattle, Milwaukee, Austin, Albuquerque, Montgomery County (MD), NYC, or in countless other locals too numerous to mention or on the state level in Illinois and elsewhere. That's not to say that some union leaders aren't taking more of a head-in-the-sand stance, but its not the norm. The democratic organizations that teachers created to articulate their viewpoint must be central to education reform. Those who categorically seek to vilify teacher unions should be ashamed. Quite frankly, there must be something wrong with their approach if they are willing to dismiss the teaching workforce as potential partners. Hopefully the DNC and the Obama administration will reject those who seek to polarize and scapegoat. Dramatically improving teaching and learning in public schools in this country will require unions as partners in reform.

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