How About Pro-Teacher Teachers Unions?

Jul 26, 2017 12:00:00 AM

by Peter Cunningham

On August 1, Celine Coggins, a former classroom teacher who founded an organization called Teach Plus, will publish a new book about the importance of engaging teachers in policy development. It’s called “How to Be Heard.” I have just begun reading it, and I am hopeful it will drive dialogue about the role teachers, and especially teachers unions, play in bringing needed change to public education. Classroom teachers have always been the biggest agents for change in our education system. Most reform ideas have come from teachers, who shine a light on inequity and invent new ways of organizing schools and delivering instruction. Teachers unions, on the other hand, are increasingly out of step with their younger members and often stand in the way of change that would both help students and support teachers. If they want to remain relevant, they should read Coggins’ book. Today, [pullquote]teachers unions are stuck in an antiquated, industrial-style model, focused on working conditions, job protections, wages and benefits.[/pullquote] We all agree teachers should be well-compensated and work in healthy, productive environments. After all, teachers work where children learn.

Fixing Teacher Prep Programs

Unions could take greater responsibility for developing and sustaining the teaching profession. Teachers need a union that shares responsibility for preparation, addresses inequity in quality, fills teacher shortages, and improves student outcomes. Teacher after teacher complains that he or she wasn’t prepared to enter the classroom on day one. Our teacher prep programs are largely outdated and ineffective. The responsibility for fixing teacher prep programs rests primarily on the shoulders of our colleges and universities. But, it’s also on unions, which represent many university professors. The highest-performing countries set a high bar for becoming teachers; America doesn’t. Teachers argue for resource equity and most of us agree that the most important resource in schools is high-quality teachers. Yet, unions often resist policies to put the best teachers in front of the neediest kids. Teachers don’t want their least effective colleagues clustered in the lowest-performing schools. But, that’s an unfortunate fact of life in many districts, and we cannot address it without the cooperation and leadership of teachers unions.

Budgets, Tenure and Evals

It’s also disingenuous for teachers unions to fight tooth and nail for higher salaries and good benefits and then complain when districts make other budget cuts to pay for those things. There are inevitably trade-offs between higher salaries, smaller classes, more planning time, or non-teaching support staff like nurses, librarians and school counselors. Unions could be partners with districts in setting budget priorities. There should be open, honest debate.  But, at the end of the day, labor and management need to own those decisions together. A professional teachers union could also embrace tenure reform. Today, most states wait three or four years before giving teachers tenure. California, on the other hand, awards tenure after less than two years. Yet, a bill developed by teachers with broad teacher support to raise the bar for tenure in California was killed by the state teachers union. Then there is evaluation. Many teachers will tell you that evaluation is spotty, inconsistent and for the most part, not very useful. Teachers unions have pushed back hard on the policy of using student growth measures, even in part, to evaluate teachers. They claim evaluation policies tied in any way to test scores have led to over-testing, and they’re mostly right. But the unions have not advanced a responsible alternative to current evaluation policies. A professional union could take the lead in developing better systems of evaluation.

Unions Should Embrace Public School Choice

Finally, there is the issue of public school choice. Parents, including teachers, choose schools when they buy a home near a high-performing neighborhood school or when they apply to magnet or gifted programs, or a school with a specialty like the arts. Some unionized, public school teachers choose public charter schools for their own kids, even as their unions advocate against charters. Rather than fighting a policy some teachers personally agree with and benefit from, unions should embrace public school choice. Good public charter schools enable teachers to escape the stifling bureaucracies that often drive people out of the field. In fact, many of the best charter schools were founded by teachers looking to create better learning environments. Union leaders initially embraced charters as laboratories of innovation from which district schools could learn. And, while about 90 percent of charter school teachers are not in a union, there is no restriction on unions organizing them. In Chicago, for example, about 1 in 4 charter teachers are in a union. Over the years, [pullquote]unions have supported needed reforms but often abandon them when the implementation gets hard.[/pullquote] In 2010, the National Education Association (NEA) released a comprehensive report called  “Transforming Teaching,” which included dozens of ideas for strengthening and modernizing the field. Most of those recommendations have still not been implemented. If they had we could be having a different conversation. Celine Coggins shares a similar story in her new book of collaboration with the unions that ultimately fell by the wayside. Hopefully, her book will rekindle a conversation that’s long overdue.

Peter Cunningham

Peter Cunningham is the founder of Education Post and serves on its board. He served as Assistant Secretary for communications and outreach in the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration’s first term. Prior to that he worked with Arne Duncan when he was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. Peter is affiliated with Whiteboard Advisors, a DC-based education policy, research and communications firm. He serves on several non-profit boards, including Oakland-based Great Schools, which provides school quality information to parents through a national online platform, The Montessori School of Englewood, a Chicago public charter school, Manufacturing Renaissance, a career education program that trains public high school students for jobs in manufacturing, Unbounded, an organization supporting teachers in schools that are transitioning to higher standards, and, which is focused on financial literacy for students. Peter founded Cunningham Communications, serving public, private and nonprofit clients, worked for political consultant David Axelrod, and was a senior advisor and speechwriter for Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley. A native New Yorker, Peter began his career as a journalist with small weekly newspapers in New York. He earned an M.S. in Journalism from Columbia University and a B.A. in philosophy from Duke University. He is married to artist Jackie Kazarian, and they have two adult children who are proud graduates of the Chicago Public Schools. Peter joined the Education Post board in 2018 after stepping down as the organization's Executive Director.  Meet our board →

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