Are unions blocking school reform?

By Laura Devaney, Managing Editor
February 17th, 2010

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.