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teachers unions

Critics have portrayed teachers unions as impediments to reform efforts around the country because they have fought against changes such as pay-for-performance and the abolition of tenure. But stories of unions working with school district officials to craft new teacher quality initiatives are slowly becoming more common. And, according to a new study that surveyed more than 1,000 teachers, that’s exactly what a growing number of teachers think unions should be doing.

Trending Toward Reform: Teachers Speak on Unions and the Future of the Profession,” released Tuesday by Education Sector, a nonprofit education think tank located in Washington, D.C., reveals that teachers are more likely to think unions should help with and even lead reform efforts than they were five years ago.

In 2007, 32 percent of teachers said that unions should focus more on improving teacher quality. In 2011, that number was 43 percent.  Just 14 percent of teachers thought that union involvement would be an obstacle in reform efforts while 62 percent said unions could be “helpful partners in improving schools.”

Yet, when it came down to the specifics of how the teaching profession should be improved, teachers didn’t necessarily agree with many of the in-vogue education trends,  such as merit pay, overhauling teacher evaluations to include student test scores and eliminating tenure.

For instance, only a third of teachers are in favor of rewarding those whose students get high test scores. Forty-six percent liked the idea of giving more money to teachers whose students make more academic progress than other similar students, which is similar to how many merit pay programs across the country are structured.

Far more teachers were in favor of raising the salaries of teachers who work in low-performing schools (83 percent) or who teach in hard-to-fill subject areas like math or science (58 percent). In other words, teachers are likely to support differentiated pay, but in the areas where they have the most control, said Sarah Rosenberg, a co-author of the study.

Few teachers are happy with the idea of eliminating tenure altogether, which traditionally is earned after a certain number of years in the profession and provides a degree of job protection. Critics argue tenure policies make it nearly impossible to fire poor teachers. While teachers agree that tenure shouldn’t protect bad teachers, only a third would be willing to trade it for a $5,000 bonus, according to the survey.

Still, a growing number of teachers believe that unions should play a role in making it easier to fire ineffective teachers. “Teachers pay the greatest price for incompetent teachers,” one teacher wrote in response to the survey. “Year after year, [other teachers] pick up the slack.”

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