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Stickin' (It) to the Union

Interesting conversation going on over at The Jose Vilson: Vilson posted the now-infamous clip from the NBC Teacher Town Hall of Little Sister claiming that her students needed Saturday sessions in phonics, vocabulary and "test prep" to be successful on their state assessments, but the union prohibited giving students extra help due to contractually obligated hours. She also said she didn't need a "piece of paper" to prove that she should be re-hired.

It speaks volumes that NBC selected this utterly non-representative clip out of two hours' worth of passionate teacher commentary. Of course, the teacher is young, attractive and bubbly: camera-ready. She's also clueless.

That little piece of paper gives her due process should a parent falsely claim that Little Sister--a good, hardworking teacher--was the reason her child didn't learn to read, or came home emotionally distraught. School hours represent an agreement made by the district and the teachers' association of a minimum work standard. There's no reason that Little Sister can't do all the supplementary test prep and phonics lessons her heart desires. Go for it.

Scott McLeod (whose Dangerously Irrelevant blog is huge--a savvy must-read) jumps into the fray at Vilson's, asking what teachers should do when their unions prohibit them from going above and beyond. And all heck breaks loose.

The thread feels like one of those "your sister is ugly" exchanges--respondents know that there are cases where unions get caught between strict interpretation of a master agreement and the flexibility needed to do right by both students and their members. But unions have unfairly become the boogeyman in school reform, and unions are family. Taken together, the posted messages form a thorough and mostly dispassionate explication of why teacher associations, on balance, help to keep school reformers honest: union contracts get all the issues out there for mutual examination and discussion.

I worked for 32 years in public schools in the strongest of strong-union states. I've got dozens of union stories to tell, from the noble and principled to the petty and ridiculous. And I'm here to tell you that the union is not an entity separate from its members.

A local association made up of capable and caring teachers will develop policies and practices that strengthen a school district, helping to keep it on an even keel, through changes in formal leadership--including policies that facilitate the off-loading of incompetent staff. Since school boards and administrators turn over many times faster than teaching positions, a solid union contract forms the spine of good district policy.

There are also dysfunctional union-administrative situations, of course, where the entire purpose of organizing becomes thwarting the adversary. A poorly run district may attract uncommitted, short-term employees and push honked-off teachers who are sincerely trying to make a difference to rage, seeing the negative impact that poor management has on innocent kids. It's hard to say which came first--the dysfunctional chicken or the infuriated egg--but the mere fact that teachers are unionized is not the root cause of what Michelle Rhee calls "crappy schools."

It also says something about the way America regards her teachers that teacher associations look more like the UAW and less like the ABA. There's a kind of snobbery underlying the scapegoating of teacher unions: how could a brownbag-carrying public servant who hangs out with third graders all day have a clue about the intricacies of crafting innovative policy?

And that's why NBC plucked Little Sister from obscurity. Because they believe that teachers and their unions are the problem.

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