Editor’s note: This is the second of four guest posts on the future of teachers unions.
by Joe Williams
When I was a cub reporter in my 20’s at a unionized (but open shop) newspaper in the Midwest, I waited about five years before I signed my union card and started paying dues to the Communications Workers of America. The delay wasn’t because I was cheap (though I was). It was out of principle: I had trouble supporting a union and a collective bargaining agreement which was at complete cross-purposes with my interests. I actually liked my job and wanted to keep it.
I was the youngest, least-senior reporter at a time in the early 1990’s when newspapers nationwide were just starting their cost-slashing death spirals, which meant I was watching colleagues take buyout after buyout, while position after position would subsequently go unfilled. The contract held that if there were layoffs, it was “Last In, First Out.” And rumors of layoffs were almost always in the air.
I understood the union had a job to do by representing the older folks who were worried that a cheaper (and perhaps more handsome) young worker might inch them out of a higher-paying job. But it just seemed stupid for me to pay dues to a union that was fighting hard to make sure I was going to be the chump who was teed-up to get tossed out onto the street. (After a few years, some new chumps came on board and I gave in to the argument that I had been a free-loader on the union contract for a long time.)
I mention this at the start of this post on the future of teacher unionism not because I want to hammer away at LIFO or the newspaper industry, but because I believe it is important to remember that self-interest is a pretty important factor in this discussion. Two considerations, in particular, are worth noting:
1. Teachers will continue to seek protection from teacher unions if they believe it is in their interest.
2. Unions will continue to operate using business models which are in the union’s interest.
Let’s take the first point – teachers and their needs. As long as teachers believe they are heading off to work each morning in an uncaring, dysfunctional bureaucracy surrounded by a punitive political system, there will be an important role for unions to play. (This is one reason it is usually union leaders out in public talking about how awful it is to work in public schools. It keeps teachers adequately miserable.)
Put under the best possible light, most teachers want to focus their time and energy on their students and classrooms. If there is a union there to fight with the human resources department when their paychecks aren’t quite right, or if their transcripts/fingerprints have been lost in the black hole that is the central office, there will be plenty of teachers lined up willing to support it. (And yes, while most teachers are forced to be members of their union, I am really talking about hearts and minds here.)
For people who just hate unions, I don’t really know how to say it other than: get over it, unless you are crazy enough to believe we will start creating public school bureaucracies that are managed so well teachers won’t feel a need to have protection. Good luck with that. Unions aren’t going away just yet.
The second point, I believe, is far more interesting. Teacher unions are businesses, and businesses generally aim to do whatever they need to do in order to thrive and survive. I do believe we are on the cusp of a radical shift in business models for teacher unions which will play out over the next decade. This shift is rooted in the recent (though years in the making) nationwide belief/understanding that it is no longer cool to pretend all teachers were created equal and that all teachers perform equally well in their classrooms. We are closer today than we have ever been to seeing large school systems differentiate performance in ways which recognize (and hopefully, reward) excellent teaching.
Here is why this shift toward recognizing excellence in the classroom matters: At some point in the near future, those excellent teachers out there are going to figure out the bulk of their dues money is going to support a union that is currently pre-occupied with the lowest-common-denominator in the classroom. There are a whole bunch of great teachers who will inevitably conclude they are supporting a union business model which spends most of its resources defending and protecting the worst teachers. The union’s time and resources, under current arrangements, are disproportionately paying for endless arbitration hearings for teachers even their colleagues don’t want in the classroom, and even worse, working to help pedophiles and other criminals keep their jobs.
From coast to coast, I have met reform-minded unionized teachers who aren’t afraid of accountability (as long as it is fair) and who are starting to ask whether there is a better business model for their own teacher unions to pursue.
How about something like this: Rather than spending the bulk of the union’s energy on the back-end, defending the same people who have given public education a bad name over the years, what if we flipped the model on its head? What if the union exerted the same amount of energy on the front-end, making sure teachers are adequately trained, mentored and otherwise prepared for the challenges they face in the classroom? What if the union (who knows the bottom-feeders better than anyone because they spend so much time sitting with them in legal proceedings) played a key role in keeping those folks out of the profession in the first place? Did I just say profession? Holy Moses!
I realize there are plenty of skeptics out there who don’t believe this kind of shift is even possible, given the deeply-instilled DNA of the teachers unions. I am willing to bet my entire collection of Rick Hess books that I am right, and that this will happen. Think about this in terms of self-interest. At some point, all great teachers are going to have to decide whether their “protection money” is worth it after all, if so much of it is actually going to defend bad classroom teaching.
Aren’t there any teacher union leaders out there who want their unions to survive?
Joe Williams is executive director of Democrats for Education Reform.
Coming tomorrow: Gary Beckner, executive director and founder of the Association of American Educators.