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Teachers Unions: Agents of Change or an Oppositional Force?

April 29, 2011

We hope this site will serve as a place where people with differing views can present their ideas. In that spirit, StudentsFirst is presenting the views of two guest bloggers today.

The first blog post is from elementary school teacher Eric Bethel who says he watched his teachers union take important steps toward bringing major reforms to the District of Columbia school system.

The second post is from Terry Moe, a Stanford University professor and the author of a recent book about America’s teachers unions. Moe says real reforms can't take place as long as the teachers unions remain as powerful as they are.

Change from within

Eric Bethel   

Eric Bethel was a fifth grade teacher in the DC Public Schools when the new IMPACT teacher evaluation system was introduced last year, a system that rewards the highest performing teachers with bonuses and faster track promotions and removes low performing teachers from the system.

I can vividly remember when the teacher's lounge and copy room conversations at my school shifted from day to day local school and classroom issues to talks about large scale reform; union contracts, teacher evaluation, and performance pay.

It was an interesting time as teachers began to speak passionately and honestly about the future of education in our district. There was a wide range of voices, expressing every emotion from trepidation to sheer excitement. The discussions were rich and meaningful. No matter what side we stood on, the common sentiment was doubt.

No one seemed to believe that such reform could actually take place under the current structures. Some thought that our union would protect the way things were and prevent reform from happening. Others, including myself, thought maybe there weren’t enough voices to push this reform through.

Thanks to the efforts of both our DCPS officials and union leadership, the union members were given the opportunity to talk with our feet. We voted in favor of a contract that has changed the way we evaluate and compensate our teachers.

The union, as it stood, made a collective decision, to put the interest and education of our students first and in doing so provided our teachers with an evaluation system that supports instructional growth and celebrates successes. We were able to bring about change from within.

 

Understanding the most powerful voice in education -- Q & A with Terry Moe

Terry Moe

Terry M. Moe is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, a member of the Institution's Koret Task Force on K–12 education, and the William Bennett Munro Professor of political science at Stanford University.

He is an expert on educational policy, U.S. political institutions, and organization theory. His current research projects are concerned with school choice, public bureaucracy, and the presidency. His most recent book is "Special Interest: Teachers Unions and America's Schools".

Your research has shaped education policy for decades. Why did you choose to study the teachers unions?

Two reasons, really. The first is that the teachers unions are by far the most powerful groups in American public education. They shape the schools from the bottom up, through collective bargaining contracts that -- through countless restrictive work rules -- put the union stamp on virtually every aspect of school organization. And they shape the schools from the top down, by using their formidable political power—arising from millions of members, tons of money for campaign contributions, and armies of activists in virtually every political district in the country—to influence the policies and reforms of state and national governments. No other groups can exercise this kind of far-reaching power. They are in a league of their own.

The second reason is that, precisely because the teachers unions are so extraordinarily powerful, any effort to understand the public school system -- to understand why the schools are organized as they are, why their performance has been so disappointing, and why reforms have failed to bring much improvement -- needs to pay serious attention to the unions and their hugely consequential roles in collective bargaining and politics. Yet they have barely been studied. For decades, in fact, education researchers have done almost nothing to make them a focus of systematic inquiry. My book is an attempt to change that.

What are the key findings of your research?

This is a very long book -- ten chapters, 500 pages -- that is heavy on detail and documentation and covers a great deal of ground, from the unions' early emergence to their nature as organizations to their exercise of power in collective bargaining and politics to their profound impacts on education reform. But throughout, the voluminous facts bear out one very general theme: the teachers unions use their power to promote the job interests of their members, and these interests often lead them to take actions -- and to shape the schools in countless ways -- that are not good for children.

In collective bargaining, they impose bizarre forms of organization on the public schools --seniority provisions, restrictions on teacher assignments, pay rules unrelated to performance, and much more -- that no one in their right mind would favor if they simply wanted schools to be organized effectively for the education of kids. In the political process, the unions use their political power to block or weaken reforms that they find threatening (because jobs are affected) regardless of how helpful those reforms may be for schools and children. They stand in the way of major and eminently sensible reforms, such as accountability and choice, that seek to bring fundamental change to the system. They also stand in the way of extremely simple, easy-to-accomplish reforms, such as getting bad teachers out of the classroom. All of this has been going on for well over a quarter century, and is absolutely central to any effort to understand why this nation had made so little progress in bringing significant change and improvement to the public schools.

A central tenet of the book is that, as long as the teachers unions remain powerful, these problems cannot be resolved. While it may be comforting to think that union leaders can somehow be convinced or pressured to do what's right for children, a clear-eyed understanding of unions as organizations reveals that they will always be special-interest advocates for their members—and that these job-related interests will continue to come into conflict with effective organization, genuine reform, and the best interests of children. If kids and quality education are ever to win out, the power of the teachers unions must be drastically reduced.

Fortunately, because of two developments I discuss in my book -- one political, the other technological -- this drastic reduction in union power will eventually happen. But it will happen slowly, over a period of decades. In the meantime, the problem of union power will remain. And so will its consequences for schools and kids.

Many teachers support reforms that are opposed by union leadership. How is that possible?

Actually, teachers who belong to unions are very concerned about job-protection, and they are quite supportive of their leaders on most education reform issues -- dealing, for example, with tenure, accountability, testing, vouchers, charter schools, seniority, and more. This is not true for all unionized teachers, of course, and there are minorities -- maverick teachers who are true reformers -- who dissent from the standard union positions. In general, though, it's accurate to say that most teachers tend to be fairly unified on the basis of their job-related interests, and that union leaders do a reasonable job of representing those interests. Union leaders are not "bosses" who chart their own paths and ignore their members.

That said, it is important to emphasize that the job-related interests that guide unions in the policy arena -- and that members largely support -- often come into conflict with what is best for kids. Both leaders and members tend to support seniority provisions in transfers and layoffs, for instance, but these provisions often lead to outcomes -- the layoffs of excellent young teachers, while even the most inept senior teachers are kept on -- that are clearly bad for children. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. The problem with union power is not that leaders are departing from what members want, but rather that what members want -- such as deference to seniority -- is not necessarily good for kids. The interests of employees are simply not the same as the interests of children. That is the basic problem.

Many overseas school systems that out-perform us have high rates of unionization. Many US "right to work" states have low-performing school systems. Why is there no apparent correlation between unionization and school performance?

Student achievement is subject to many influences and has many causes. As anyone who has ever taken a statistics class can testify, the only way to determine the impact of collective bargaining on achievement is to control for all the other factors that also appear to be relevant, so that the partial effects of collective bargaining alone can be isolated. For reasons I won't go into, this is very difficult to do, especially when making comparisons across countries or states. Absent such a controlled analysis, however, it can be very misleading to simply look at levels of collective bargaining and levels of student achievement -- and nothing else -- and draw conclusions. The presence of a simple correlation between the two may mean absolutely nothing.

Finland, for example, has collective bargaining and also has high levels of achievement -- but this tells us nothing about the causal impact of collective bargaining on achievement. Countless other factors -- for example, Finland's small size, homogeneous culture, investment in education, virtual absence of poverty, and so on -- are doubtless contributing to this country's high level of achievement, and they are simply being ignored. It is entirely possible that, if Finland had no collective bargaining at all, its student achievement would be even higher.

The same applies to the American "right to work" states -- which are southern and border states that have lower levels of collective bargaining than the other states, and also tend to have lower levels of student achievement. Here too, there is a simple correlation: collective bargaining seems to be associated with higher levels of achievement. But here too, the simple correlation tells us nothing about causation. The southern and border states are different from the other, more unionized states in many ways that might affect student achievement, among them: their educational histories (segregation, low funding), the minority composition of their students, their political and social cultures, and much, much more. All these factors would need to be taken into account in a sophisticated, controlled analysis before conclusions would be warranted about causation.

Bottom line: simple correlations are highly misleading. Nonetheless, union leaders are constantly using them as "evidence" that collective bargaining is good for student achievement. Finland has collective bargaining, they say, but it also has high student achievement -- so collective bargaining must be good for schools. This kind of claim sounds good on the surface, and it works well as a glib public relations ploy. But it is based on causal reasoning that is entirely invalid and unwarranted.

What is your advice to teachers and parents who want reform?

Schools are government agencies, and everything about them is ultimately determined through the political process. This includes collective bargaining, which is itself a product of politics. It would be comforting to think that political decisions about education are made on the basis of what is best for children, but too often this just isn't so. The reality is that politics is driven by power -- and that powerful groups, notably the teachers unions, play out-sized roles in determining how our schools are organized, what policies govern them, and how or whether they will truly be reformed.

If teachers and parents want to make reform a reality, then, they need to get informed, get active, get organized -- and get powerful. This is not an easy thing to do on a grand scale. The American education reform movement has been underway for more than a quarter century, and throughout this time parents have failed to take organized, powerful action on behalf of children and better schools. Teachers, meantime, have been monopolized by the unions; and the reformers among them have made little headway in changing the unions from within or in creating reformist organizations of their own -- although Teach for America is a dramatic exception that is gaining influence and impact.

There is no easy answer. Motivating and organizing huge numbers of people is difficult, due to the "collective action problems" that stand in the way of all such efforts. Fortunately, there are now charismatic reformers like Michelle Rhee who are dedicated to building mass-based reform organizations -- and StudentsFirst is precisely the kind of enterprise, with precisely the kind of inspired leadership, that can bring reformist parents and teachers together and give them genuine power. What parents and teachers need is a focal point for organized action. StudentsFirst, or something like it, can provide that focal point.