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Peril and Possibility for Teachers' Unions

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In this post, Jack Schneider and former Massachusetts Secretary of Education, Paul Reville, discuss challenges facing teachers unions, as well as what the unions might do to shape a new agenda.

Reville: Teachers unions continue to be potent forces in the world of education but at the same time, they are facing challenges from within and outside. From court challenges like the Vergara case, which attacks sacred cows like tenure and seniority, to fierce internal disputes over strategy, to legislative attempts to limit unions' capacity to use dues for political action, to dwindling membership, the unions have their hands full in very challenging times.

On the brink of a presidential campaign season, our nation is in the midst of a vigorous conversation about reform strategy—a kind of pause in the two plus decades of momentum for standards-based reform. In this moment, unions will have an opportunity to shape a new agenda and describe a new public profile. I see both peril and possibility in this moment.

The peril lies in the temptation of some union leaders to see the controversies over the Common Core, testing, and teacher evaluation as creating a perfect storm which would enable them to mount a campaign to roll back many, if not all, of the reforms of the past twenty-five years. This "take back the night" campaign, at the extreme, might attack the notion of standards, seek to abolish accountability and eliminate the need for teachers to be evaluated. Pursuing such a campaign might placate certain union members and be one way of addressing various, real, reform implementation problems. But it would present the unions to the public in a reactionary and negative light, as opponents of and obstacles to change and reform. Such an image would reinforce the unfair stereotype promulgated by many naïve, prejudiced school reformers that "unions are the problem." In my view, such a reactionary course of action by the union leadership would be disastrous and ultimately empower those who seek nothing short of the elimination of teacher unions.

Schneider: I see the unions playing a critical role in our system, as I've written before on this blog. Still, much of the rhetoric from leaders at the NEA and the AFT is pretty reactionary. Yes, testing is problematic; but it isn't destroying education. Charters are hardly a silver bullet, but they're a drop in the bucket in terms of enrollment; and most aren't operated on a for-profit basis. Value-added is an unreliable method of evaluation, but it isn't the sole means of teacher evaluation anywhere.

I also don't think it helps when they assert that the policies they disagree with represent efforts to destroy public education. That just isn't true. Now, there is a small handful of folks who genuinely don't believe in public education and would like to see the system dismantled. But for the most part those people constitute an irrelevant fringe. They're vocal and provocative. Yet they don't wield much influence.

The reformers who do wield influence aren't hell-bent on destroying public education. Instead, they hold a common set of beliefs—deriving from similar class backgrounds, educational experiences, political orientations, etc.—that link them together and that separate them from educators (who have their own common set of backgrounds and experiences). I wrote about this in my first book, Excellence For All.

Still, I've had union leaders make the case to me that there really isn't much of an alternative. Their rhetoric is reactionary because, well, they need to react. Because all too often, policy elites frame unions as standing for adult interests at the expense of children. Unions, they argue, are standing in the way of progress and need to be circumvented. And recent attacks, like the Vergara case, have threatened to undo much of what the unions have worked for.

What, then, is a reasonable alternative response to this kind of attack?

Reville: I'd propose an alternative strategy that is positive, constructivist and pro-children—one that could cast the unions in the best possible light as advocates fiercely pursuing the interests of both children and the profession. This pathway would have leaders articulating a message like this:

"We agree with policy-makers that all children should achieve at high levels. This is the right goal for many reasons, moral and economic. We believe that taxpayers invest a lot of money in education, and our field should have standards and be held accountable for performance. We take issue with some of the ways and means that accountability policies have been administered, and we will work to correct some of the excesses such as the over-reliance on testing. However, our main focus will be to finish the work begun by well-intentioned but naïve policy-makers who conceived of a set of reforms which were completely inadequate to the desired policy goal of educating all children, and all means all, to levels of achievement previously attained by only the elite. 

If we are to truly achieve such a goal, it can't be accomplished simply by enhanced accountability or school choice—these strategies are valuable but modest improvements to a system which will need fundamental redesign if it is to achieve the goal of "all means all." We know this because after two decades of standards-based reform in this country, we still have an iron-law correlation between socio-economic status and educational achievement and attainment. We can do better and who better to show how to get the job done than teachers.

To start the conversation, we'd propose that current reforms be complemented by system changes that achieve at least three major goals:

  • Individualize, personalize, and customize education to meet every child where he or she is in early childhood and give him/her the quantity and quality of instruction and support needed to be successful at each stage of the educational journey;
  • Integrate, physical health, mental health, and other human services with education systems so as to eliminate obstacles to children coming to school and supplying their best, motivated effort when present;
  • Level the playing field in terms of access to out of school enrichment/learning opportunities for students. Children spend 80% of their waking hours outside of school and some have access to virtually unlimited learning opportunities during this time while others have next to no enrichment. These factors have every bit as much to do with achievement gaps as anything that happens in school. So, we've got to do better in after school and summers to provide comparable access to out of school learning."

I'd propose that the unions lead a children's campaign designed to develop a realistic, opportunity-based strategy for achieving the ambitious goal set by policy-makers—a children's campaign, and an equity campaign. This is the high road and the one most likely to lead to genuine benefits and ultimately, success, for both students and teachers. 

Schneider: A children's campaign, as you call it, makes a lot of sense from a certain perspective. Organizations like StudentsFirst and Stand for Children have staked out ground that situates unionized teachers as the opposition. Children on one side. Teachers on the other.

That hurts teachers politically. But it also misrepresents reality. Teachers aren't anti-kid any more than doctors are anti-patient. They get into the profession because they want to help young people.

Still, unions are professional organizations that have traditionally advocated for things like working conditions. So I wonder if what you've proposed isn't too much of a stretch. Why not focus on elevating the profession through more robust support for professional development, peer observation, engagement with research, etc.? As I've argued before, I think unions and teachers have a lot to gain from shifting away from traditional trade-unionism and toward the work done by professional organizations.

That, of course, can only happen if they have the space to make this shift. It's going to take some high-profile partnerships in our biggest districts—New York, Los Angeles, Chicago—to allow unions to begin rebranding themselves. Because as long as they're on the defensive, they can't drop their guard long enough to pursue a new kind of identity.

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