-By Larry Sand
Despite good intentions, efforts to reform teachers unions and make them partners in education reform will not work.
Last week, the typically sane and sage Andrew Rotherham wrote a provocative article for Time Magazine entitled “Quiet Riot: Insurgents Take On Teachers Unions.” The main thrust of the piece is this:
“But perhaps the biggest strategic pressure for reform is starting to come from teachers themselves, many of whom are trying to change their unions and, by extension, their profession. These renegade groups, composed generally of younger teachers, are trying to accomplish what a generation of education reformers, activists and think tanks have not: forcing the unions to genuinely mend their ways.”
He spotlights three organizations he claims are leading a movement to reform teachers unions and make them partners in an attempt to improve the quality of public education — NewTLA, a dissident faction in the United Teachers of Los Angeles, Educators for Excellence, a reform group in New York started by two young Teach For America graduates, and Teach Plus, an organization that has gained traction in several states, whose goal is to “engage early career teachers in rebuilding their profession to better meet the needs of students and the incoming generation of teachers.”
In addition, Steven Brill (whose new book Class Warfare has received much acclaim) wrote “Super Teachers Alone Can’t Save Our Schools,” a provocative article in the Wall Street Journal this past Saturday. As the article’s title implies, teachers need help. But from whom? After describing the burnout of a young assistant principal at a charter school in Harlem, he says,
“The lesson that I draw from Ms. Reid’s dropping out of the race at the Harlem Success school is that the teachers’ unions have to be enlisted in the fight for reform.”
If only Rotherham and Brill were being realistic in their reform-the-union proposal.
Long time teacher union watchdog, Mike Antonucci, addresses the writers’ flawed prescriptions in “Let’s All See the Plan.” While praising NewTLA’s efforts, he says,
“The teacher union reform field is littered with the bodies of those who sought to alter the union’s primary mission – protecting teachers – and found themselves ousted in favor of challengers who promised to get tough with administrators.”
A day after Antonucci’s post, Terry Moe, another veteran teacher union critic, posted “Will Young People Reform Teachers Unions? Dream On.”
“There are well over 3 million active teachers in this country, and the groups Rotherham points to are a drop in the bucket. In unions all across the country, young teachers barely participate in union affairs–which are entirely dominated by their senior colleagues. In any event, if we look at young union members as a whole–not just those from TFA or insurgent groups, but all of them–the evidence suggests that their attitudes on basic issues are very similar to those of senior unionized teachers: they are highly satisfied with their union locals, they are highly supportive of collective bargaining, they believe that collective bargaining has benign effects for kids and schools, and they have similar positions on most matters of education policy….
“The argument that young teachers are going to transform the unions is just as fanciful, and just as wrong…. Unions are unions. They are in the business of protecting jobs: that is why their members join, that is what their members expect them to do, and that is what they actually do. If you expect them to do something else–to represent children or to represent the public interest–you will be wrong. Don’t expect a cat to bark.”
Over time, teachers tend to get very comfortable with all the perks that unions provide, even though they’re bad for kids – collective bargaining, seniority, tenure, a job that is virtually guaranteed for life, etc. (In Special Interest, Moe’s excellent new book about teachers unions, Chapter 3 and Appendix C deal with young teachers.)
Coincidentally, scholarly journal Education Next has just released its fifth annual survey in which teachers and the general public are interviewed about a variety of reform topics including the unions.
When the public was asked if teachers unions have a generally positive or negative effect on the nation’s public schools, 33 percent said “negative,” while 29 percent said “positive” and 38 percent were neutral – numbers almost identical to the 2009 and 2010 polls.
However, it’s a different story with teachers,
“Among teachers themselves, opinion is moving in pre-cisely the opposite direction from that of the public at large. Only 17 percent now say that unions have a negative impact on the nation’s schools, down from 25 percent in 2010. Fifty-eight percent think they have a positive impact, up from 51 percent the previous year.”
As we see from these statistics, over the past year, teachers are becoming more in sync with their unions. Only one in six teachers thinks that the unions in their present state are harmful to education.
Assuming these numbers are accurate, the union reform crowd, no matter how noble their intentions and dogged their efforts, has little chance to accomplish much, if anything, meaningful. The traditional unionistas may give a bit here and there to seem fair-minded, but with a great majority of their members on board, their mission and game plan will remain essentially unchanged.
If meaningful change is going to happen, it will come from the citizenry via the ballot box. Within the past year, a shift in voting patterns has enabled reform-minded governors and legislatures to greatly restrict collective bargaining, increase school choice opportunities, modify tenure rules, etc. in Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio and elsewhere. One can only wonder what could be accomplished if a majority of the voting public would realize the pernicious effect that teachers unions have on education and act accordingly.
But in any event, change will not come by reforming the teachers unions. As Little Red Riding Hood learned, a wolf in granny’s clothing is still a wolf.
Larry Sand began his teaching career in New York in 1971. Since 1984, he has taught elementary school as well as English, math, history and ESL in the Los Angeles Unified School District, where he also served as a Title 1 Coordinator. Retired in 2009, he is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues – information teachers will often not get from their school districts or unions.
“CTEN” was formed in 2006 because a wide range of information from the more global concerns of education policy, education leadership, and education reform, to information having a more personal application, such as professional liability insurance, options of relationships to teachers’ unions, and the effect of unionism on teacher pay, comes to teachers from entities that have a specific agenda. Sand’s comments and op-eds have appeared in City Journal, Associated Press, Newsweek, Townhall Magazine, Los Angeles Times, San Diego Union Tribune, Los Angeles Daily News, San Jose Mercury News, Orange County Register and other publications. This past May, after his weekly blog proved to be very popular, he began writing a monthly article for City Journal, the Manhattan Institute’s policy publication. He has appeared on numerous broadcast news programs and talk radio shows in Southern California and nationally.
Sand has participated in panel discussions and events focusing on education reform efforts and the impact of teachers’ unions on public education. In March 2010, Sand participated in a debate hosted by the non-profit Intelligence Squared, an organization that regularly hosts Oxford-style debates, which was nationally broadcast on Bloomberg TV and NPR, as well as covered by Newsweek. Sand and his teammates – Terry Moe of the Hoover Institution and former U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige, opposed the proposition – Don’t Blame Teachers Unions For Our Failing Schools. The pro-union team included Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. In August 2010, he was on a panel at the Where’s the Outrage? Conference in San Francisco, where he spoke about how charter school operators can best deal with teachers’ unions. This past January he was on panels in Los Angeles, San Diego and San Mateo in support of National School Choice week. Additionally, CTEN has hosted two informational events this year – one addressing the secret agenda that is prevalent in many schools these days and the other concerning itself with California’s new Parent Trigger law. The latter event was covered by both the English and Spanish language press.
Sand has also worked with other organizations to present accurate information about the relationship between teachers and their unions, most recently assisting in the production of a video for the Center for Union Facts in which a group of teachers speak truthfully about the teachers’ unions. At this time, he is conferring with and being an advisor to education policy experts who are crafting major education reform legislation.
CTEN maintains an active and strong new media presence, reaching out to teachers and those interested in education reform across the USA, and around the world, with its popular Facebook page, whose members include teachers, writers, think tankers, and political activists. Since 2006, CTEN has experienced dramatic growth.
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