Editor’s note: This is the first of four guest posts on the future of teachers unions.
At the heart of any discussion of the unions’ role in American education, whether that role is now or in the future, lies a fundamental dilemma. On the one hand, it is clear that teachers are the key determinants of student achievement, that they are the experts on teaching, and that, if human capital is to be organized in the best possible ways for educating children, teachers need to have systematic input when decisions are made. They also need to be involved in the implementation process as decisions get translated into action. The teacher unions – which represent teachers and provide the key means of coordinating their behavior toward agreed-upon ends – would therefore seem to have very positive roles to play in both the making and implementation of education policy.
There is, however, an on the other hand. And herein lies the dilemma. Teachers join unions to protect and promote their occupational interests as employees: in job security, in better wages and benefits, in restrictive work rules. These job interests – which are the core interests that motivate union behavior – are simply not the same as the interests of children or the requirements of effective organization. Throughout the modern era, as a result, the teacher unions have often used their political power to block or weaken major reform efforts – efforts that would expand school choice, evaluate teachers based on performance, pay teachers with some reference to performance, move bad teachers out of the classroom, and more – because these reforms are threatening to the jobs of their members. Similarly, the unions have used their power in collective bargaining to impose work rules – seniority based layoffs and transfers, restrictions on teachers assignments, onerous evaluation and dismissal procedures, and the like – that are not designed to promote effective organization, and indeed are perverse and counterproductive.
So the dilemma, to state it simply, is that teachers are enormously important to the effective organization of schooling, and their involvement in decision making and reform makes eminently good sense – yet when teachers are organized into unions, the teacher unions use their power to promote the job interests of their members rather than the best interests of children, and this often leads them to undermine effective organization and stand in the way of reform.
That there is a dilemma here is not a secret. Indeed, over the last decade or so, this problem has increasingly become a topic of concern within the reform community, particularly among the growing numbers of liberals, moderates, and Democrats who – while supportive of teacher unions and collective bargaining in general – are now critical of the teachers unions for being obstacles to reform and effective schools.
The widespread view among this crucial group of reformers, however, is that there is a solution to the problem. The solution is reform unionism: which rests on the belief that, with enlightened union leadership (think Randi Weingarten) and sufficient pressure from the outside (think Race to the Top’s “union buy-in” requirement), the unions can be expected to change their behavior – to stop blocking reform, to stop imposing restrictive work rules, and to actively embrace whatever approaches to schooling are best for kids. In a world of reform unionism, then, union power is not a problem and indeed can be welcomed and embraced – because the unions will use their power in the best interests of children and quality education.
This belief is a way of squaring the circle for those who see unions and collective bargaining as essentials of the good society. But in the hard light of reality it is fanciful and misguided, and it prompts reformers to look for solutions where they don’t exist. Continue Reading →