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Accountability and the Modern Teachers' Union

In my last blog, I described a very different approach to holding teachers accountable for the quality of their work than the approach now dominant in the United States.  The strategy I have in mind is based on professional—as opposed to blue-collar—models of organization and management.  And this is because the countries with the best performance overall in education are now characterized most importantly by their adoption of a professional model of teaching and of the management of teachers.  

In this entry, I address an obvious question.  How can we move to a professional model of teaching when we have unions that are based on a blue-collar model of teaching?  Aren't the unions the single biggest obstacle standing in the way of organizing teachers as a true profession?

Before we get into these questions in earnest we need to get some facts on the table.  First, there is no correlation between the strength of unions and student performance.  In the United States, the states with the strongest student performance are often the ones with the strongest unions.  Globally, we find that some of the countries with the best student performance have some of the world's strongest teachers' unions. There is no evidence to support the case that strong teachers' unions are, per se, among the most important obstacles to high student performance, in the United States or elsewhere.

But that said, there is a problem, and it is a big problem.  This series of blogs is about accountability.  When districts are not performing for their students we want to be able to hold the district accountable.  Likewise schools.  But when we look under the rug, what we often see is that the union contract makes that impossible.  In many cases, it is the union that controls which teachers can work in which schools, which teachers are appointed to leadership roles in the schools, which teachers can be fired for nonperformance of their duties, how the schools will be organized, how the time in the school day will be used, and much more.  In many districts, schools councils dominated by teachers picked by the union play key roles in selecting principals, determining the way the school budget will be used and what the curriculum will be.  In these circumstances, it is unreasonable to hold management accountable for the performance of the students, because management has given up control over many of the factors that account for differences in student achievement that are potentially within the control of the school.  But there is no mechanism for holding the union accountable for these decisions.  So, for all practical purposes, no one is in charge, and there is no accountability for results.

How did this happen?  Two factors account for this.  The first one is American labor law.  Under the Taft-Hartley Act, the law not only assumes that all the important decisions will be made by management, but it actually requires labor to conduct itself as an adversary of management.  The law reflects the realities of industrial organization prior to World War II.  It long ago ceased to reflect the realities of modern industrial organization as redefined by people like Douglas McGregor, Peter Drucker and Daniel Pink in the books I cited in an earlier blog in this series.

The second factor is the way collective bargaining evolved in the field of education after Albert Shanker created the modern labor movement for public education.  Year after year, school boards, unable or unwilling to raise the money required to fund adequate teachers salaries, and scared of causing strikes that would lose them their seats on school boards, instead offered teachers concessions related to "working conditions."  In the factory these included working conditions related to how often one got bathroom breaks and how long they lasted.  But, in the schools, they related to the factors I described above, and, after decades of this practice had gone by, the school boards discovered they had given the store away.  The public and policymakers were furious with the teachers; they should have been furious with the boards.

Eight years ago, I went to the Executive Committee of the NEA with a proposition.  I congratulated them on all the gains they had made for their members in the 70s and 80s.  But I then pointed out that, beginning in the 90s, they had been fighting a losing battle to retain what they had won earlier.  They were losing that battle because the public and policymakers were increasingly holding them responsible for the high cost and poor performance of the schools.  I told them that I thought they had two choices.  They could remain in a defensive crouch and continue fighting to retain what they had earlier won, until everything they had won was gone (note the California initiative to abolish tenure).  Or they could ditch their defensive posture and, instead of defending archaic and counterproductive practices in the schools, practices perceived to benefit the teachers but not their students, take the leadership in raising the quality of teachers to much higher standards and championing the measures needed to turn teaching into a true profession.

They have nothing to lose and everything to gain by doing that.  The high status professions long ago championed very high standards for entering their professions because they understood that by raising standards, they would choke off supply, and with a much smaller supply, they could charge much more for their services.  It would not cost the country any more to do that, because the very costly attrition rates for teachers would fall dramatically as quality rises.  Much higher quality teachers would produce much better performing students, which would enhance the status of teachers and make it even easier to raise their compensation.  With rising student performance, the public would trust teachers more and would be much more likely to give teachers the kind of professional autonomy that professionals in high status fields have always had.  I am not guessing at this.  This is exactly what has happened in the top-performing countries.

Because teachers are public employees, there would still be a need for teachers' unions, but they would be bargaining at the state level, with the legislature and the governor.  And they would be doing that, not as representatives of blue-collar labor, but as the representatives of an admired and respected profession.  Management would get their prerogatives back and would be held accountable for results, but the professionals, granted far more autonomy, would be also holding each other accountable for the quality of their work, as professionals everywhere do.

Follow NCEE @CtrEdEcon.

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