Teachers’ Unions Need a Lesson
To fix public education, the U.S. needs to start with the teachers’ unions. Pro or con?
Pro: An Impediment to Reform
For the past 15 years, critical questions have been asked about our nation’s public education system: What academic skills should our students attain in our schools? Why isn’t the ever-growing amount of money spent on the system leading to sharp increases in student achievement? How should we address failure? These fundamental questions are being asked because they need to be asked. With the exception of some die-hard apologists, Americans universally agree that our education system has some serious flaws and the half-trillion dollars spent annually is not producing the returns we should expect.
Throughout the years, by flexing their political and financial muscle, the teachers’ unions have exercised largely unseen influence over how our children are educated; most people do not understand how extensive this reach truly is. In the corridors of Congress and state capitals, the unions have succeeded in defeating or watering down efforts to increase accountability for student performance. In the school districts, unions have used the collective-bargaining process to stymie efforts to recognize job performance in outstanding teachers or reassign teachers who aren’t measuring up.
Most teachers are heroes. In schools big and small across the U.S., teachers are working very hard to educate and inspire the children who come through their classroom doors. But the brutal fact we must recognize is that there is a tremendous difference between the desires of the teachers and the desires of the union. Teachers’ unions have little or zero incentive to change. Their power and desire for control make it unlikely they will back even the most moderate efforts to bring accountability and results to our schools.
The policies of teachers’ unions are not the sole problem plaguing our education system. But to improve public education, we must not shy away from challenging these powerful organizations in the system.
Con: An Urban Legend Refuted
Nearly 25 years ago, “A Nation at Risk” decried the “rising tide of mediocrity” engulfing U.S. public education. Although the “rising tide” catchphrase at the beginning of this National Commission on Excellence in Education report became famous, the body of the text—taken as a whole—didn’t back it up. On the contrary, the report said Americans were better educated than ever.
Similarly, the role of teachers’ unions in public education has been mischaracterized for decades. Public education faces serious challenges, but educators organizing to improve the quality of public schools has never been one of them. More to the point, there is nothing incompatible between high student achievement and collective bargaining.
Education Week data confirm that states with collective bargaining laws are outperforming the rest of the country. In fact, applying its Quality Counts 2007 measure of student achievement indicators, an analysis of results in all 50 states shows a positive correlation between teacher collective bargaining and improved learning. For example, the No. 1 state, Massachusetts, has a history of strong collective bargaining and tenure laws, and the lowest-performing state, Mississippi, has no bargaining or tenure law.
Teachers’ unions exist to provide quality education to all children and serve the needs of our members. The two go hand in hand. We advocate for wages, employment rights, and working conditions that educators deserve as professionals. We are equally committed to improving teaching techniques, closing the achievement gaps, reducing dropout rates, and making No Child Left Behind more responsive to the real needs of students and educators.
Public schools are plagued by inequality in funding, lack of parental involvement, and difficulties in recruiting and retaining qualified educators. With so much at stake, teachers’ unions will continue to organize and mobilize to give every student the basic right to a great public school.