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Are unions blocking school reform?

A growing chorus of education observers believes so. Here's where they're right--and wrong

The issue of school reform has been heavily debated in recent months.

The issue of school reform has been heavily debated in recent months.

In a new film called Waiting for Superman, there is a scene in which hidden-camera video shows a teacher reading a newspaper and looking at his watch while his students fool around. Another scene shows slow-motion footage of teacher union leaders giving speeches opposing school reform.

Directed by the same filmmaker who made An Inconvenient Truth, the documentary could do for public education what the latter did for global warming, some observers say: Push the issue into the national consciousness as a dire problem in need of fixing.

Superman investigates student achievement, teacher quality, and assessment as it attempts to explain why U.S. students are falling behind their peers from other industrialized countries on international benchmark exams. But in exploring the troubles of American public education, the film ends up pointing to one culprit above all others, those who have seen it say: teacher unions, which are portrayed as blocking much-needed reform.

It’s the latest in a string of union criticism that has only intensified recently.

Last year, Hoover Institute affiliates and education reform proponents Terry Moe and John Chubb released a book called Liberating Learning: Technology, Politics, and the Future of American Education, which explored technology’s potential to revolutionize education through online learning. The book argues that unions are hampering this potential progress to protect their members.

And some local union chapters have come under fire for their hesitation or refusal to sign onto districts’ Race to the Top applications. Created with federal stimulus funds, this $4.35 billion competitive grant program awards money to states based on how their school-reform plans align with the Obama administration’s goals, which promote charter schools and using student achievement data to influence classroom instruction and teacher pay.

But how much of the criticism is really justified?

The issue is not a simple one. Critics say unions hold too much political power and block important reforms out of self-preservation, putting their members’ interests ahead of students. Others say unions support many reforms but have valid concerns over how those ideas are implemented.

Paul Heckman, associate dean of the School of Education at the University of California, Davis, said teachers have come to represent both the unit of change and the unit of blame in education.

“Children are educated and learn over a period of time, but we have this notion that children are to make a year’s growth for every year they’re in school,” Heckman said. “This is … a problem, because children do not develop in nine-month chunks except during gestation.”

It’s much easier to put the blame on teachers, Heckman said, than it is to suggest that a school’s entire structure plays a role in student success. That’s not to say unions are blameless, he said–but reformers should spend more time re-evaluating education as a whole, and how schools can better support and encourage high-quality teaching.

“Teachers work alone, and they have infrequent opportunities during the workday to come together, talk about what they’re doing, and find out that other people are struggling or succeeding,” Heckman said. “They don’t [have a chance to] share what they’re doing, or challenge what they’re doing.”

Heckman sees stagnant results by U.S. students on international exams as a systemic failure, suggesting that U.S. schools aren’t doing a good enough job of keeping up with the times.

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Comments:

  1. twinkie1cat

    February 20, 2010 at 12:05 am

    The purpose of the unions is to protect the teachers and help them do their jobs better. Why do teachers need protection? corrupt, racist, incompetent, often oversexed administrators, politicians running the schools and parents, especially middle and upper middle class parents whose “little darlings” can do no wrong. (I can deal with a parent who is slow, on drugs, or illiterate. But the sneaky ones who “know people” and show up in the principal’s office as I am leaving are major problems.)

    A further purpose for the unions: anti-teacher sentiment in which all the above blames the teachers for the problems the schools have. Complaints about the unions are little more than blaming the victim. The unions can speak up for the teachers where the teachers as employees cannot without risk of losing their jobs. If the teachers were in charge of their schools (the real teachers, certified, experienced and with education degrees–preferably 2 or more) the schools would function much more effectively. As it is, teachers are told from the outside how to teach and what materials to use. The least competent follow the directions and get exceedingly brown noses. They are popular little social butterflies, some of whom sleep their way to the top. The good teachers are the ones that are picked on. They are a threat because they know what they are doing and do it every day.

    Most states do not even have real unions with bargaining power, just professional associations that threaten with negative media, demonstrations and, occasionally sickouts. They can withhold funding from their PACs to politicians who don’t put the teachers first. If the unions were strong, there would not be the problems the schools have. There would be smaller classes, clean and decently maintained buildings and adequate materials and support staff. Teachers would not have to buy their own supplies. The students would be learning (not all at the same level or at the same speed, but making progress) and the teachers would come to work with joy in their hearts that would carry over to the students. Happy involved teachers=Happy learning students=achieving schools.

    Take away the unions and the teachers are like baby birds in the nest and the snake is climbing the tree. The unions are mommy and daddy bird who see the snake just in time and peck him off.

  2. twinkie1cat

    February 20, 2010 at 12:05 am

    The purpose of the unions is to protect the teachers and help them do their jobs better. Why do teachers need protection? corrupt, racist, incompetent, often oversexed administrators, politicians running the schools and parents, especially middle and upper middle class parents whose “little darlings” can do no wrong. (I can deal with a parent who is slow, on drugs, or illiterate. But the sneaky ones who “know people” and show up in the principal’s office as I am leaving are major problems.)

    A further purpose for the unions: anti-teacher sentiment in which all the above blames the teachers for the problems the schools have. Complaints about the unions are little more than blaming the victim. The unions can speak up for the teachers where the teachers as employees cannot without risk of losing their jobs. If the teachers were in charge of their schools (the real teachers, certified, experienced and with education degrees–preferably 2 or more) the schools would function much more effectively. As it is, teachers are told from the outside how to teach and what materials to use. The least competent follow the directions and get exceedingly brown noses. They are popular little social butterflies, some of whom sleep their way to the top. The good teachers are the ones that are picked on. They are a threat because they know what they are doing and do it every day.

    Most states do not even have real unions with bargaining power, just professional associations that threaten with negative media, demonstrations and, occasionally sickouts. They can withhold funding from their PACs to politicians who don’t put the teachers first. If the unions were strong, there would not be the problems the schools have. There would be smaller classes, clean and decently maintained buildings and adequate materials and support staff. Teachers would not have to buy their own supplies. The students would be learning (not all at the same level or at the same speed, but making progress) and the teachers would come to work with joy in their hearts that would carry over to the students. Happy involved teachers=Happy learning students=achieving schools.

    Take away the unions and the teachers are like baby birds in the nest and the snake is climbing the tree. The unions are mommy and daddy bird who see the snake just in time and peck him off.

  3. tcommeret

    February 20, 2010 at 2:33 pm

    This is a great discussion. I agree with much of what has been written. One thing is for sure. Teachers work too hard to have to spend their time on anything other than how to effectively teach their students. That includes any discussion about how to put them in competition with each other, which is ultimately where an individual reward system ends up, no matter how it is constructed. However, if pay for performance is something that can improve education, then it might be worthwhile to figure out a way to do it fairly and productively.

    I think a monetary reward system could possibly work, but rewards should only be given as an incentive to promote a group effort to educate kids well. Perhaps percentage raises for all school personnel could be added as a bonus point system for student performance (i.e., whatever increase in test scores overall would be tied to x % pay raise for all school personnel). I think this would also “sell” much better to teachers than any individual reward system would.

    As veteran school administrator, my feeling is the only way we’re going to get this done right is to figure out how we can work together as well as individually to help our students achieve. It can be done and we can do it. We have to do it. Our children are suffering because many are not getting the education they need to succeed. This is a fact we cannot ignore. The issue is too important not only because it impacts so many lives, but also because it is ultimately tied to the future success of our country and the world.

    I think state standards and nationalized tests are here to stay, whatever one’s opinion on their ultimate benefit or use, so why not work to make the tests as relevant and informative as they can be on the basic level of competence needed by an individual to become an independent and contributing member of the community. That includes reading, math, science, but also cooperative behavior and creative and critical thinking.

    I think if school unions knew what was good for them, they would be leading the reform effort, not fighting with Washington or the State Board about how best to improve education. They certainly ought to have a seat at the table as far as what rewards might be given for positive student improvement and how that is measured. Then at the bargaining table, school committees (or the federal government) can respond fairly with a shared monetary reward for overall student improvement.

  4. tcommeret

    February 20, 2010 at 2:33 pm

    This is a great discussion. I agree with much of what has been written. One thing is for sure. Teachers work too hard to have to spend their time on anything other than how to effectively teach their students. That includes any discussion about how to put them in competition with each other, which is ultimately where an individual reward system ends up, no matter how it is constructed. However, if pay for performance is something that can improve education, then it might be worthwhile to figure out a way to do it fairly and productively.

    I think a monetary reward system could possibly work, but rewards should only be given as an incentive to promote a group effort to educate kids well. Perhaps percentage raises for all school personnel could be added as a bonus point system for student performance (i.e., whatever increase in test scores overall would be tied to x % pay raise for all school personnel). I think this would also “sell” much better to teachers than any individual reward system would.

    As veteran school administrator, my feeling is the only way we’re going to get this done right is to figure out how we can work together as well as individually to help our students achieve. It can be done and we can do it. We have to do it. Our children are suffering because many are not getting the education they need to succeed. This is a fact we cannot ignore. The issue is too important not only because it impacts so many lives, but also because it is ultimately tied to the future success of our country and the world.

    I think state standards and nationalized tests are here to stay, whatever one’s opinion on their ultimate benefit or use, so why not work to make the tests as relevant and informative as they can be on the basic level of competence needed by an individual to become an independent and contributing member of the community. That includes reading, math, science, but also cooperative behavior and creative and critical thinking.

    I think if school unions knew what was good for them, they would be leading the reform effort, not fighting with Washington or the State Board about how best to improve education. They certainly ought to have a seat at the table as far as what rewards might be given for positive student improvement and how that is measured. Then at the bargaining table, school committees (or the federal government) can respond fairly with a shared monetary reward for overall student improvement.

  5. dptechteacher

    February 21, 2010 at 8:04 pm

    There may be some incompetent teachers out there, just like in any other profession. How about getting administrators to do their jobs and keep these teachers accountable? How about the media celebrating education and good teachers? That would be a switch. Let’s shake the bad apples off of the tree, but let’s not cut the tree down in the process.

  6. dptechteacher

    February 21, 2010 at 8:04 pm

    There may be some incompetent teachers out there, just like in any other profession. How about getting administrators to do their jobs and keep these teachers accountable? How about the media celebrating education and good teachers? That would be a switch. Let’s shake the bad apples off of the tree, but let’s not cut the tree down in the process.

  7. sqfinny

    February 22, 2010 at 12:17 pm

    I once read an article where a teacher was talking to a dentist, about a “new” rating system that would list dentists according to how many cavities their patients had at the ages 4, 8, 12, 18 and so on.. The dentist was shocked and argued “But I have no control over how they care for their teeth! Parents might let their kids eat sweets, not make them regularly brush or floss. They could be genetically pre-disposed to tooth disease. I can only do so much and control a small portion of these kids lives!” The teacher said, “Exactly why you can’t expect a teacher to be the only factor in a child’s success in school.”

    I work in a school where many parents don’t make children do their homework, or go to bed a decent time, or give them a good breakfast and make sure they get to school on time. Many don’t value education or respect teachers. We have a staff of hard working teachers who work very hard to help motivate and push their students towards higher achievements, as well as higher standardized test scores. It’s hard to motivate kids who think this is a waste of time and don’t want to be here. When talking about their future goals many want to be pro- basketball & football players or singers and rap-artists. They have no idea of how to make those dreams a reality, or to set other goals that will lead them in that direction.

    Maybe introducing a monitory bonus to parents and children would motivate families to work together to reach these results. No one ever talks about that. Teachers (most) didn’t make this their career for the money. However some of the poorest schools have the lowest test scores. Instead of putting more pressure on teachers to perform, there needs to be something to entice our families. Something they could achieve together. Unfortunately, there needs to be a reward other than a job well done or grades on a report card. I don’t believe in pay for performance, unless it’s for those kids who turn off the TV and video games, work hard and try their best in school everyday.

  8. sqfinny

    February 22, 2010 at 12:17 pm

    I once read an article where a teacher was talking to a dentist, about a “new” rating system that would list dentists according to how many cavities their patients had at the ages 4, 8, 12, 18 and so on.. The dentist was shocked and argued “But I have no control over how they care for their teeth! Parents might let their kids eat sweets, not make them regularly brush or floss. They could be genetically pre-disposed to tooth disease. I can only do so much and control a small portion of these kids lives!” The teacher said, “Exactly why you can’t expect a teacher to be the only factor in a child’s success in school.”

    I work in a school where many parents don’t make children do their homework, or go to bed a decent time, or give them a good breakfast and make sure they get to school on time. Many don’t value education or respect teachers. We have a staff of hard working teachers who work very hard to help motivate and push their students towards higher achievements, as well as higher standardized test scores. It’s hard to motivate kids who think this is a waste of time and don’t want to be here. When talking about their future goals many want to be pro- basketball & football players or singers and rap-artists. They have no idea of how to make those dreams a reality, or to set other goals that will lead them in that direction.

    Maybe introducing a monitory bonus to parents and children would motivate families to work together to reach these results. No one ever talks about that. Teachers (most) didn’t make this their career for the money. However some of the poorest schools have the lowest test scores. Instead of putting more pressure on teachers to perform, there needs to be something to entice our families. Something they could achieve together. Unfortunately, there needs to be a reward other than a job well done or grades on a report card. I don’t believe in pay for performance, unless it’s for those kids who turn off the TV and video games, work hard and try their best in school everyday.

  9. gisele

    February 24, 2010 at 2:13 pm

    In the flurry of comments defending teachers and arguing against “merit pay,” the only significant posting is the fact that in Turkey, 15,000,000 students are learning on line, vs. about 1,000,000 in the U.S. All these discussions about who should be blamed are as meaningful as similar arguments when the Titanic was sinking.

  10. gisele

    February 24, 2010 at 2:13 pm

    In the flurry of comments defending teachers and arguing against “merit pay,” the only significant posting is the fact that in Turkey, 15,000,000 students are learning on line, vs. about 1,000,000 in the U.S. All these discussions about who should be blamed are as meaningful as similar arguments when the Titanic was sinking.

  11. Puleng Mafale

    February 25, 2010 at 6:26 am

    There is a saying that goes “bad news travel fast” so this is what is happening here. I don’t get it, why haven’t i heard of teachers doing good deeds for students? Students are also reponsible for their own learning, they can’t blame teachers for failure to do their work.. So i don’t think unions are blocking school reforms…

  12. Puleng Mafale

    February 25, 2010 at 6:26 am

    There is a saying that goes “bad news travel fast” so this is what is happening here. I don’t get it, why haven’t i heard of teachers doing good deeds for students? Students are also reponsible for their own learning, they can’t blame teachers for failure to do their work.. So i don’t think unions are blocking school reforms…

  13. 13123106

    February 25, 2010 at 7:02 am

    it is true every one is blaming teachers but they dont look at the pile of work teachers have that is why union is on their side parents must also play their part

  14. 13123106

    February 25, 2010 at 7:02 am

    it is true every one is blaming teachers but they dont look at the pile of work teachers have that is why union is on their side parents must also play their part

  15. dkoch

    February 25, 2010 at 11:20 am

    Unions support their members. There members are teachers. By definition, teachers unions put the interests of their members before all else. Any policy, initiative, program, project that has the potential to negatively impact teachers will be opposed by the union. That includes changes that we know are in the best interest of students.

  16. dkoch

    February 25, 2010 at 11:20 am

    Unions support their members. There members are teachers. By definition, teachers unions put the interests of their members before all else. Any policy, initiative, program, project that has the potential to negatively impact teachers will be opposed by the union. That includes changes that we know are in the best interest of students.

  17. bina lehoko

    February 25, 2010 at 3:02 pm

    Unions are the mouthpiece of teacher component, so are therefore not blocking the reform of education. Departmental officials and politicians are the ones that are blocking the reform. In my opinion unions are doing splendid job by protecting the rights of the multitude of teachers who are helpless and stressed about loads and loads of work without proper salaries and poor working conditions.
    There must be mutual relationship between unions and educational officials, departmental officials must consult before introducing any change in the department all because the change is going to affect the very same teacher. Nowadays teachers are clouded with lot and lot of work, they need to teach and do lot of paper work, so unions are therefore essential to see to it that teachers are treated like humans. Yes reforms are essential in the education system, but they must’nt be in the form of slavery. Unions are there to protect such inhuman acts.

  18. bina lehoko

    February 25, 2010 at 3:02 pm

    Unions are the mouthpiece of teacher component, so are therefore not blocking the reform of education. Departmental officials and politicians are the ones that are blocking the reform. In my opinion unions are doing splendid job by protecting the rights of the multitude of teachers who are helpless and stressed about loads and loads of work without proper salaries and poor working conditions.
    There must be mutual relationship between unions and educational officials, departmental officials must consult before introducing any change in the department all because the change is going to affect the very same teacher. Nowadays teachers are clouded with lot and lot of work, they need to teach and do lot of paper work, so unions are therefore essential to see to it that teachers are treated like humans. Yes reforms are essential in the education system, but they must’nt be in the form of slavery. Unions are there to protect such inhuman acts.