Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Should We Blame Unions?

The opening of the movie, Won’t Back Down, which lays the blame for failing schools at the feet of teacher unions, has re-opened a wound to teachers’ sense of self respect. In some ways, it is a self-inflicted wound, because teachers have allowed their unions to focus more on adult issues than student issues.

While I wouldn’t argue for continuing unions as presently constituted, this blame is misplaced. Teachers deserve a place at the table when decisions about teaching are made, and currently, unions are the entity that usually provides that representation. But I have never been convinced that traditional labor unions, which are organizations built to address the needs of blue-collar workers, are the right fit for representing professional employees. Using the labor union model makes teachers seem less like professionals, and more like hourly employees.

This is why much of the anti-union rhetoric of late has had a ring of truth to it. Hourly employees collectivize and bargain to win benefits for employees. The adversarial relationship between management and workers in the private sector over the rights of the workers does not impinge on the rights of the widgets being made by those workers. In schools, however, benefits for teachers and benefits for students must be seen as interdependent.

That interdependence compels teachers to work  together with management to improve learning by students. This will often be accomplished by improving the working conditions for teachers, but just as often, those benefits need to be balanced by the needs of the students. These kinds of issues are not resolved by adversarial negotiations, but by professional relationships of mutual respect. Of course those relationships are difficult to build and maintain. But they begin with an organization that is designed from the ground up to reflect the professionalism of teachers.

Recently Howard Gardner, in a New York Times essay, defined professionals as, “a cohort of individuals who were given status and a comfortable livelihood in return for the license to render complex judgments and decisions in a disinterested manner.” Teachers, administrators, parents, and the public at large, should be guided by this view of teachers as professionals. Teachers should be represented by an organization that works to shore up the status of teachers as critical decision-makers in the process of running schools.

So what should the unions do?

First and foremost is to quit calling themselves a union. When I began my career, the NEA was not a union. It was a professional organization for teachers that worked to improve education. We should go back to that. The organizations that now function as a union should change their focus away from bargaining for teachers’ benefits to the augmentation of teachers' professional standing in communities across America. Stand up for teachers, sure, but stand up for them by improving the perception of them as respected professionals promoting improved use of assessment data, increasing sophistication of instructional methodology, or tighter integration of career preparation into curricula, not as wage earners, whose only priority seems to be job rights, salary negotiations, or pension plans that threaten to bankrupt school districts.

Though it would be foolish to drop collective bargaining right away, because the system has been in place for too long to allow a rapid change, teachers need to evolve into another system that recognizes and defers to the collective intelligence and professionalism that we bring to the table for the discussion about what’s best for kids. The teacher organization, in whatever form it takes, needs to be a respected and listened to part of the discussion.

Of course teacher union leaders do make gestures at addressing the professional issues of teachers. However it clearly isn’t what they see as their main job, which is to fight management to maintain benefits for teachers. Though they are not necessarily perfect, teachers should consider as models the professional organizations that doctors and lawyers create to represent their interests .

What do the managers of school systems need to do?

School administrators, legislators, and politicians of all stripes need to recognize that teachers are not simply replaceable cogs in the mechanism. Take for example the recent fuss about evaluating teachers, which is mostly about establishing acceptable procedures for identifying and firing ineffective teachers. Even upon reaching agreement about accurate identification, firing every ineffective teacher would result in an even larger problem–replacing them with better teachers who don’t yet exist in numbers large enough to meet the need. A better solution is a system that accomplishes three things. First, make it possible to identify and remove the worst and most irredeemable teachers. Second, commit to working with teachers who are capable of improving and help them become more effective. Third, improve teacher education to recruit and more effectively prepare prospective teachers. The teaching profession has a great deal of expertise that can be brought to bear here. They ought to be part of the process.

School boards and taxpayers need to face up to the fact that incentives are needed in order to recruit and keep the best teachers. Salary and benefits are incredibly important for this. Administrators need to see teachers not as expendable and interchangeable, but as valuable and unique resources. Hiring the best teachers, and getting them to work at the most challenging schools, requires seeing the marketplace as competitive. To get the best talent, you may have to loosen the pocketbook a bit.

Some form of job security is a must. Tenure, perhaps modified to some degree, is unavoidable because, once again, teachers are not, and never can be, cogs in a machine. I want to reiterate here that as professionals, teachers make complex judgments and decisions about human beings. In business the customer is always right. But when you are dealing with what’s best for a child, sometimes that customer, the parent, may be unclear about what is right for that child. Teachers need to be at a bit of a remove from the day-to-day controversies surrounding curriculum and instruction decisions they make based on what they believe is right. This is not an absolute right, but there needs to be some buffer to insulate these decisions and give teachers room to use their professional judgment and do what’s best for their students.

Perhaps most importantly, teachers need to be treated with the respect they deserve. This involves dialogue, not monologue. Teachers need to be partners in the discussion. Schools cannot achieve the best results if all of the talk is from the top down. Site based organization, in which principals serve as leaders not managers while sharing decision-making with teachers, has to be the key here. Those higher up in the chain of the organization must see their role as establishing what needs to be achieved and to clearly identify what goals are to be met. As you get closer to the classrooms, roles should switch to a focus on how to achieve those goals, with the freedom to think outside the box in figuring out the best way to help students learn what needs to be learned.

Both teachers and administrators should be part of the conversation about accountability. Teachers will tend to gravitate toward fuzzier accountability models with less hard data. Administrators will tend to prefer the security of data, even when that doesn’t necessarily doesn’t prove what they think it proves. Dialogue between both groups is what will generate the best solutions.

You will notice that the list for teachers is shorter than that for leaders. That doesn’t mean their task is easier. Unions, with their willingness to be adversarial and confrontational, have proven their ability to increase the clout of teachers. And to be fair, before the unions, school leaders operated largely from a position of unquestioned power and authority. They held all the cards, and no one should be willing to go back to those days.

The school district where I worked most of my career decertified the union back in the 70’s. In it’s place was created a group called the Faculty Senate which has for years now functioned as a representative of the faculty, though not a legally constituted collective bargaining agent. The District releases a teacher to serve as the president of the organization and invites this teacher to be a part of many of the various committees at the District Office. The Senate plays a role in salary and benefit discussions, assists individual teachers in disputes with the administration, and serves as a two-way conduit of information between teachers and administration. Salaries and benefits have either met or exceeded those in other districts in the area because the school board is committed to hiring the best teachers and realizes compensation must be competitive for that to happen. It isn’t perfect, but it has mostly worked for us.

The biggest benefit, as our former superintendent used to say, was that we were the only district around where teachers and administrators could legally talk about doing what was best for kids. It’s not a bad idea.

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