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Teachers' Unions at Crossroads

The National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers are convening this month in different cities at a time when their very existence is on the line ("Do Teachers' Unions Have Any Friends in the Obama Administration?" Huffington Post, Jul. 1). The No. 1 reason for their precarious future, in my view, is the widespread belief that they put the rights of teachers before the rights of students.  I'd like to examine this charge more closely.

Long before the Vergara v. California verdict, there was evidence that called into question the claim that teachers' unions hurt students. If the argument is true, then states where teachers' unions are strongest should report the worst student performance. But that is not so. Massachusetts and Minnesota, which both have strong tenure laws, post the highest level of student achievement on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Conversely, Mississippi and South Carolina, which have neither collective bargaining nor due process rights for teachers, have a long record of student underachievement.

Then there is the charge that the unions' duty of fair representation by its very nature always shortchanges students.  But as a spokesman for New York State United Teachers said: Tenure "allows good ones to fight for what students need." This was an extremely risky undertaking prior to the 1950s and Albert Shanker because even the best teachers were too intimidated to speak out.  If teachers' unions were suddenly to disappear, principals and superintendents would be able to operate without any significant restraints. Who would then speak for students? 

In Jan. 2004, for example, The New York Times revealed that the principal of Brooklyn Tech, one of New York City's elite high schools, gave unsatisfactory ratings to several exemplary teachers who openly criticized his decisions.  His action poisoned the atmosphere to such a degree that a teacher exodus followed, depriving students of their talent.  Without tenure, these same teachers would likely have been fired.  

I'm not arguing that all principals are tyrants who abuse their authority, but let's not forget that state education codes, court decisions and board of education policies give them extraordinary power.  Without a counter-check, teachers would be at their mercy.  I stress that even though "the job of a modern-day principal has transformed into something that would be almost unrecognizable to the principals of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s" ("The Changing Role of the Principal," Center for American Progress, Jul. 1).

When New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg was in office, teachers were expected to adopt a specific instructional model, even though they did not believe it was effective. Without a union, those who refused to comply could have been charged with insubordination. Was the existence of their union also not good for students?  More recently, a survey by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that teachers in the U.S. work harder and under much more challenging conditions than teachers elsewhere in the industrialized world ("To Close the Achievement Gap, We Need to Close the Teaching Gap," Huffington Post, Jun. 30). Why would eliminating teachers' unions improve the situation?

Nevertheless, I recognize that change is inevitable. There are bad teachers who don't belong in the classroom, and there is a case to be made for merit pay when it is done correctly. Therefore, I believe that the only way teachers' unions can exist in anything other than an advisory capacity is to become part of the reform movement.  That means compromising on key issues.  Diehards will say this is selling out. But I see it as necessary to protect the interests of both students and teachers.

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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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