Monday, March 10, 2008

Teachers Union Epiphany?

Two editorials in today's NY Times deserve comment.

The first, Educators or Kingmakers? By David White is a litany of stale neo-con ideas that have been kicking around for years and no more pertinent today than when Reagan was in office. White argues that the teacher's union will have disproportionate clout at the Democratic convention and adds,
Good news for the unions, however, might not be good news for education. The union agenda has often run counter to the interests of students and teachers alike.

Take those collective bargaining agreements that the unions have negotiated in school districts across the nation. As Terry Moe, a professor of political science at Stanford, demonstrated, these agreements have hampered student performance in California. Why? Because they protect ineffective teachers — at the expense of everyone else.

Or consider performance-based pay. Forty percent of teachers leave the classroom within their first five years on the job — in some measure because they don’t stand to gain the same performance-based pay raises available to their private-sector counterparts. Merit pay would help public schools retain good teachers by paying them more. But the unions have fought against such measures.

The same can be said about school choice. Despite compelling evidence that it improves student achievement, the national teachers’ unions regularly stand against the policy.

The list goes on. While politicians are aware of the consequences of having these unions set educational policy, they are also aware that they have millions of members and dollars at their disposal. At a convention where every vote is in play, that union power has the potential to be greater than ever before. /span>
While teacher's unions deserve a critical look, most of White's criticism is poor.

As the Times reported months ago, failing schools are often clustered in poverty demographics. Vouchers can't transfer kids into suburbia no matter what anyone thinks and can't fix schools in impossible situations.

And special ed teachers whose students make tiny progress, art teachers, social studies teachers and many others aren't going to receive the merit pay a test score driven subject teacher will. The list indeed goes on.

The second editorial compliments unions for innovating contract negotiations to include rather than preclude what teachers love about their profession. In Teaching Change by Andrew J. Rotherham, Rotherham hopes that teacher's unions begin listening to the desires of teachers.
While laws like No Child Left Behind take the rhetorical punches for being a straitjacket on schools, it is actually union contracts that have the greatest effect over what teachers can and cannot do. These contracts can cover everything from big-ticket items like pay and health care coverage to the amount of time that teachers can spend on various activities.

Reformers have long argued that this is an impediment to effective schools. Now, increasingly, they are joined by a powerful ally: frustrated teachers. In addition to Denver, in the past year teachers in Los Angeles also sought more control at the school level, and found themselves at odds with their union.

Most contracts are throwbacks to when nascent teacher unionism modeled itself on industrial unionism. Then, that approach made sense and resulted in better pay, working conditions and an organized voice. Yet schools are not factories. The work is not interchangeable and it takes more than one kind of school to meet all students’ needs. If teachers’ unions want to stay relevant, they must embrace more than one kind of contract. <-snip-> ...Where this leads is not toward the abolition of unions, as some in their ranks fear and their most rabid critics want. Instead, creating a portfolio of contracts to match a portfolio of schools will give parents better options and re-energize teachers’ unions as an agent of progress.
Rotherham is correct. Teachers unions need to become much more sophisticated about their professional responsibilities to the profession in addition to their members. They can lead educational change or be left in its wake.

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