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Teachers' Unions: Moment of Truth

War appears to be imminent.  A California judge has ruled that tenure, seniority rights and other core provisions of the typical teachers' contract are unconstitutional in the state, because they subvert students' constitutional right to competent teachers.  The teachers will, we presume, appeal.  On the other side is a determined and very well funded coalition that sees an opportunity to critically weaken if not completely eviscerate the unions, not just in California, but nationally.  In their eyes, the unions may be the single most important obstacle to real education reform.

The opponents have the inestimable advantage of being able to frame the issue.  Traditionally, democrats and liberals have been dependably in the camp of the unions.  But, in this case, as the judge pointed out, they have to choose between the unions and poor and minority children.  Faced with that choice, they are bolting to the children, leaving the unions isolated.

This conflict needs to be seen in context.  For decades on end, the vast majority of teachers in the United States were members of an association that also included school administrators and other professional educators.  The National Education Association was no union, and most Americans saw classroom teachers as advocates for the interests of their children.  But, in the 1970s, teachers' pay fell sharply relative to other occupations requiring a college education.  The American Federation of Teachers became militant and the National Education Association became a teachers union, throwing out the school administrators and others, creating a sharp divide between the interests of management and labor.  

For a while, all went well for the teachers and their new unions.  Compensation improved.  Often, when local boards refused to raise compensation because they did not want to face voters angry about the tax increases needed to pay for them, they were quick to grant the unions improved 'working conditions' instead.  These improved working conditions included 'due process' provisions that made it virtually impossible as a practical matter to fire teachers for poor performance, the right to control appointments to key leadership positions in the schools, the right of teachers with more seniority to bump teachers with less seniority in the case of layoffs and so on.  At the time, school boards granted these concessions willingly and no one objected to them.  Industrial contracts had similar provisions.  But this was not about building cars; it was about students.

Then, over the next two decades, through the 1990s and 2000s, the country invested more and more in its schools.  The cost per student, in inflation-corrected dollars, rose more than 250 percent.  But the unions pushed hard to use that money to reduce class size.  This proved to be a disastrous choice.  Through this whole period, while costs were mushrooming, the NAEP 4th grade reading scores were flat.  Other countries, during the same period, also increased their investment in their schools, but they used it to improve the quality, not the quantity, of their teachers, and their reward was greatly improved student performance.

In the nations that used the increased investment in schools to improve teacher quality and professionalize the occupation, student performance improved, the public in those countries saw teachers as advocates for their children and tended to trust their teachers more with every passing year.  There was little or no political distance between the teachers and the electorate.  Not so in the United States.  As costs increased and student performance refused to improve, the country looked for someone to blame, and teachers and their unions became suspect number one.  The result was first, NCLB and its harsh accountability regime, then the Obama agenda, which places accountability squarely on teachers and now an increasingly vigorous push to strip the teachers and their unions of all the gains they achieved by organizing strong unions.

I see the unions as being at a crossroads.  Many teachers want to take to the barricades and invest everything they have in defending seniority rights, tenure rights and so on to the last.  If they do that, they will cement in the public's mind their image as being in business to defend to the last the most incompetent teachers and they will, without a doubt, lose everything and gain nothing.

But other teachers want their unions to become the nation's strongest advocates for creating a world-class quality teaching force and for the professionalization of the teaching occupation.  They understand that, if teachers and their unions chose to do that, they will, at one and the same time, regain the support and confidence of the American public and policy makers, drive up the compensation of teachers and greatly improve the status of teachers in society.  

This would mean becoming champions of greatly raising the requirements for admission to schools of education, moving teacher education into the research universities, greatly raising the licensing standards needed to become a teacher, instituting career ladders of the kind needed to create real careers in teaching, basing compensation on progression up those career ladders and increasing class sizes to international averages in order to make it possible for teachers to collaborate with one another in the way that professionals everywhere do.

At the same time, teachers would have to let go of the idea that they need to defend incompetent teachers to the last redoubt and instead take the lead in getting rid of incompetent teachers from their profession.  They would have to abandon the idea that the teachers with the most seniority should have preferred access to more desirable schools and leadership positions and should be able to bump others who are better teachers from their jobs, and embrace instead the idea that these things should go to the most competent among them instead.  They would have to abandon the idea that they are entitled to a lifetime appointment after a few years on the job.

The point is this.  Either the teachers and their unions decide that they are and always will be blue collar workers insisting to the last on the rights of blue collar workers, or they will decide that they want at last to be true professionals, with the compensation, status, risks and obligations that come with being true professionals.  They cannot have both.  I know how I would vote.

Follow NCEE @CtrEdEcon.

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