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Divide Within Teachers Unions

Just when it seemed that teachers unions could not possibly be subjected to any further attacks, they find themselves confronting a totally unexpected foe. According to a new survey by the National Center for Education Information, nearly one in five educators say they support abolishing teachers unions ("Profile of Teachers in the U.S. 2011").

The 33-question survey of 1,076 public school teachers across the country found that 19 percent favored eliminating unions and 33 percent supported eliminating tenure. This compares with 15 percent and 28 percent, respectively, from 15 years ago. Fifty-nine percent also said that they should be paid on the basis of student achievement, as compared with 42 percent in 2009.

What stood out were the contrast between new and experienced teachers. According to C. Emily Feistritzer, the author of the report, newer teachers are "considerably more open" to reforms than their veteran colleagues. Teachers with five or fewer years of experience were twice as likely as teachers with 25 or more years of experience to support evaluating teachers primarily on student achievement.

The survey also found that there were "striking differences" between teachers certified through alternative routes and teachers certified through traditional routes. The Wall Street Journal was quick to argue that "unions are opposing education reforms that an increasing number of their members support" ("The New Teachers," Review & Outlook, Aug. 6).

Yet it's important to note that half of new teachers nationwide quit within five years. In inner-city schools, half leave after only three years. Teach for America, which is the best known source of alternatively certified teachers, requires only a two-year commitment. According to a study by Zeyu Xu, Jane Hannaway and Colin Taylor, the majority of corps members leave at the end of that period ("Making a Difference? The Effects of Teach for America in High School," Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, Summer 2011). Once these new teachers from traditional or alternative certification are gone, what difference do their attitudes make? They cannot be the agents of change that reformers hope.

Nevertheless, teachers unions would be foolish to dismiss out of hand the changing attitudes. If the teaching profession continues to get younger - since 2005, the portion of teachers with five or fewer years of classroom experience increased from 18 to 26 percent - unions will not be able to count on the same support they automatically received in the past. That's because new teachers take for granted the rights they possess. But these were not given to them out of the goodness of the hearts of boards of education and state legislatures. They exist only because previous generations of teachers went on strike to obtain them. Albert Shanker said it best: Before collective bargaining, there was collective begging.

I wonder if new teachers fully understand the difference.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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