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teachers unions and change
Chris Christie (Photo by Walter Burns)

As unlikely as it sounds, Chris Christie—the Republican governor of New Jersey who assumed office in January 2010—is a YouTube sensation. He has gained national notoriety for taking on teachers unions, in part by posting videos of his attacks on union leaders to his YouTube channel. The videos boast a combined total of over two million views.

At a town hall meeting in Robbinsville, N.J. last June, Christie was at his bluntest: “The teachers union is about the accumulation and exercise of raw power … The fight is about who is going to run public education in New Jersey—the parents and the people they elect, or the mindless, faceless union leaders who … have the money and the authority to bully around school boards and local councils.” This, he said, “is the fight we have to win for our kids.”

Though harsh, Christie’s attack is but a skirmish in what has become an all-out war on teachers unions that casts them as the enemy standing in the way of improving America’s schools. The far right and business entities such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have always seen unions as a drain on progress and profits. Over the past quarter-century, union membership has fallen from 20.1 percent to 12.3 percent of the U.S. workforce, as manufacturing has declined. But public-sector union membership—led by teachers unions—has remained relatively steady at about 37 percent over the same time period, whereas private-sector union membership has dropped from 17 percent to 7 percent.

Now even centrist Democrats, including President Barack Obama, are pressing teachers unions to change their positions on such issues as performance pay, evaluations, seniority and charter schools. The administration’s $4.3 billion “Race to the Top” competition required states to win compromises from teachers unions on those issues. Wisconsin was unable to do so, which meant it had no real shot at winning hundreds of millions of dollars to carry out school reform.

A common claim—made in the pro-charter schools movie Waiting for “Superman” as well as by outgoing New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, former Washington, D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee and many others who don the mantle of reform—is that teachers unions look out for the adults in the system, not the children.

Indeed, that was the reason teachers unions were formed—and for good reason. Prior to collective bargaining, elementary school teachers (most of whom were women) were paid a lot less than high school teachers (who were mostly male). Female teachers could be forced to quit if they became pregnant. Teachers could be forced out without due process by vindictive principals. But, as teachers began to unionize, they had no labor organization representing professionals to mimic—so they modeled themselves on the factory-floor organizations that emerged during industrialization.

One characteristic of industrial unions is that all members must be treated equally, which historically has meant that teachers’ performance, specialized knowledge and skills cannot be taken into account when determining their pay and duties.

Andrew Rotherham, author of the Eduwonk blog and the weekly “School of Thought” column in Time magazine, says that version of unionization de-professionalizes teaching. A “completely contractual approach prevails” in teaching, Rotherham says, with work regulated to the minute and restrictions on both the timing and frequency of supervisors’ visits.

“We’ve created a culture where teachers are infantilized in how they’re treated,” he said, and that’s “one of the reasons why people leave.” He sees districts’ contracts with teachers, which often run hundreds of pages, less as a cause than a symptom of current problems in education. There needs to be a change in culture, Rotherham says, with the entire educational system reorganized around performance—and with people in positions of responsibility given discretion and then held accountable for results.

Whatever lies ahead in education reform, though, it seems clear that teachers unions are here to stay—which means district administrators have to learn to work with them.

The two national teachers unions have different structures and characters. The National Education Association (NEA), with 3.2 million members, is a bottom-up organization. According to its bylaws, it is difficult for the national union to take policy stances that contradict those of its locals. The Wisconsin Education Association Council and the Milwaukee local are both affiliated with the NEA.

The American Federation of Teachers (AFT), with 1.5 million members, has been a far more willing and sometimes even enthusiastic participant in reform efforts. In part, this is because the AFT is a more top-down organization, in which the national parent union can lead local affiliates to new ideas.

For example, the NEA’s Colorado affiliate refused to support state legislation requiring 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation to be based on growth in his or her students’ test scores. It passed narrowly in June with the backing of the AFT. The NEA then withheld its support of Colorado’s Race to the Top application, which was one reason the state didn’t win a grant. It also spent heavily prior to last month’s elections to defeat legislators who favored certain reforms.

Even so, one of the few established merit pay programs in the country, Denver’s Pro-Comp, was enacted with the cooperation of the Denver Teachers Union, an NEA affiliate. ProComp, which rewards teachers with bonuses of up to $1,000 for raising test scores, is often cited as a model by the Obama administration, though it is far less transformative than newer performance pay programs in AFT-affiliated cities such as Washington, D.C. and Pittsburgh.

In Pittsburgh, teachers can earn as much as $8,000 on top of their base salaries for student achievement gains; in Washington, D.C., private philanthropies are funding a merit-pay pilot program that could raise teacher salaries to $130,000 at the top end, with bonuses based on student achievement of up to $10,000 for teachers willing to give up their tenure rights.

Eighty percent of D.C. teachers ultimately voted for the contract that included those provisions in the spring of 2010, after two years of contentious negotiations with then-chancellor Rhee. But the AFT did not stand down after the vote, reportedly spending $1 million to defeat D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty, Rhee’s patron. She resigned soon after. Vincent Gray, D.C.’s mayor-elect, has promised to work harder to earn teacher support for education reforms.

In Seattle, the teachers union, an NEA affiliate, signed on to a different approach, using low student test scores as a “trigger” that will prompt a teacher to be more carefully evaluated. The Seattle Education Association supported the new contract even as its members—at the union leadership’s urging—passed a symbolic vote of no confidence in Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson. She had originally pushed for 40 percent of all teachers’ evaluations to be based on student test-score growth.

Indeed, the introduction of such “value-added” measurement of teachers has been controversial across the country, with the AFT generally supporting some limited use of the data, and the NEA opposing any use of the statistical technique, which was pioneered by economists.

Most education policy experts, both supporters and critics of teachers’ unions, agree that the AFT’s national president, Randi Weingarten, is a hard-nosed realist who has accepted that the political winds have shifted. She realizes that unless the AFT commits to creating a culture of excellence in teaching, teachers unions will lose public support and face declines in both membership and influence.

Yet for Weingarten, there are real risks in backing controversial reforms such as ending last-hired, first-fired policies and allowing student achievement to be factored into teacher evaluations. She praised a contract agreement in Baltimore that sought to end seniority-based pay while preserving tenure, hailing it as a model of union-district cooperation. But the teachers voted against it in October. A re-vote, held in November after the union had time to explain the fine print to its members, resulted in the contract’s approval by a two-to-one margin.

The AFT is pressing forward with its reform agenda. In September, it received a $5 million federal grant to explore new ways of evaluating teachers in New York and Rhode Island.

Rotherham says it’s important to remember that there’s no such thing as a perfect evaluation system—and this fact shouldn’t get in the way of reforming what’s currently in place. “People can be let go for the wrong reasons. That can happen. That is life. … You can’t have a system that makes sure nothing unfair happens to someone,” Rotherham says.

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