Monday, February 21, 2011

Teachers' Unions: Part of the Problem with Education?

          I have never been a huge fan of labor unions, except for their historical significance. There is no doubt that unions played a huge role in eliminating the exploitation of workers, making working conditions safer, and getting child labor outlawed. Labor unions were needed during the industrial revolution. But have they outlived their usefulness?
            I’ve been avidly watching the battle between the teachers’ unions and the Wisconsin legislature play out this past week. The teachers are adamant about preserving their unions, and as a non-union teacher in Georgia, I have been wondering whether that’s the right choice. Is retaining the union worth the battle?

            No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top have placed the blame for poor education directly on the shoulders of teachers. It is not a pleasant time to be a teacher. The pressure to teach students what they need to know in order to pass one multiple choice test has crushed the life out of teaching. Federal politics interfere with the ability of our teachers to teach our children to think for themselves; instead, success is measured by the ability of our children to parrot rote answers to superficial questions.

            To date, I have seen no evidence that local teachers’ unions are able to make a difference in the political maneuverings that have caused this crisis in education. In Wisconsin, the teachers’ unions simply want to retain their collective bargaining rights. They want salary levels and benefits to be based on a uniform scale, and they want to reserve the right to go on strike when they don’t receive a raise in pay or benefits. These demands may sound like little enough to want – especially to a non-union teacher in Georgia who was furloughed 6 days this year – but don’t think there aren’t negative consequences to being a member of a teachers’ union.

            In my opinion, teachers lose their “professional” status when they’re unionized. If you are a good teacher – and a majority of the teachers I know are – then you should receive a fair salary based on your own merit. People who are employed in private industry work hard to get ahead. A teacher in public education who works hard earns the same money as the teacher across the hall who checks her e-mail while her students fingerpaint on the walls. You put in your time, you get your paycheck. That’s a job, not a profession.

            And what about that lousy teacher across the hall? Not only does she make the same pay as the highly effective teacher, but she also has immunity. It is nearly impossible to fire an incompetent teacher who is a member of a union. That teacher makes us all look bad and we should be able to replace her with someone who can do the job. Our children deserve the best.
Talk about making us all look bad...

            Finally, we teachers can proclaim all we like that “the children come first”, but when our actions interfere with the processes of teaching and learning, the parents and students perceive that the children are not actually our priority. We lose their respect. Sick outs and strikes do not help our children learn and do not enhance the image of the professional educator.

            Now is the time to stop and ask ourselves if the small amount of protection afforded to members of teachers’ unions is worth the consequences of fighting to keep them alive. Do the teachers’ unions have a legitimate place in solving the problems in education, or have they become part of the problem?


  1. Unions, like all organizations that grow large enough, become focused on survival and growth, to the detriment of their original mission or purpose. It happens with all bureaucracies: the Catholic Church, Boy Scouts, Salvation Army, or political parties.

    Pournelle's Iron Law of Bureaucracy states that in any bureaucratic organization there will be two kinds of people: those who work to further the actual goals of the organization, and those who work for the organization itself. Examples in education would be teachers who work and sacrifice to teach children, vs. union representative who work to protect any teacher including the most incompetent. The Iron Law states that in all cases, the second type of person will always gain control of the organization, and will always write the rules under which the organization functions.
    It’s the “Gresham’s Law” of organizations: as in money, “bad” commodities drive “good” commodities out of circulation, so in organizations, those who work for the end purpose of an organization are overwhelmed and often driven out by those who work for the continuation and growth of the organization. Spend your time doing lesson plans, while the lazy oaf next door will be working his way up the union organization.

    There can be two responses to these overblown organizations: do away with them, or correct their flaws. In the world of corporate lobbyists and high-powered big-money professional associations (ADA, AMA, ABA, Chamber of Commerce—gee, they look like unions) unions represent the only way middle class workers can be empowered to control to some degree their working conditions and future.
    So, like the Church or political parties, should we get rid of them, or try to fix the (admittedly serious) irregularities? Is that even possible?
    I wonder what a teacher’s lot would be if there hadn’t been unions. What kind of situation did teachers have in the old Soviet Union. I’ll have to look into that; my feeling is they were not as well off as in the US, but I have no facts at this time.

  2. Joe,
    Thank you for your well thought-out rebuttal. You have some great points. I'd like to hear what you find out about teachers in the Soviet Union.
    As a non-union teacher in Georgia, I earned $49,000 last year. My portion of benefits were taken out of the gross, and that figure includes 3 furlough days. I have 3 college degrees and 7 years of teaching experience. I am an awesome teacher, if I say so myself :-), and the teacher across the hall still allows her students to fingerpaint on the walls while she checks her e-mail.
    WI teachers average $100,000 a year and don't have to contribute to their benefits. WI, incidentally, is rated 44th out of 50 states when it comes to student performance. GA is just slightly below that. The extra teacher pay obviously has little or no effect on student learning.
    Union or non-union, education has some serious issues. Maintaining the status quo - which is what unions do - is not going to change the system. The real losers are our children.

  3. In a lot of professions in is difficult to assign objective metrics to performance. Is the young lady down the hall with the Katy Perry outfit going to get the same evaluation from a male or female principal? Did you annoy your previous principal because he/she saw you knew more about teaching the he/she did? Did that affect your evaluation? One way out of this non-objective issue is to set standards for continuing education and time-in-job, etc. Meet your marks and you get ahead. Not the best way, of course, but when dealing with human nature, it's tough to find an honest and objective evaluation process. A union can be a countervailing force against management-by-whim.

    Soviet Union education link here; not union vs. non-, but interesting. http://countrystudies.us/russia/52.htm

    $100,000 AVG!!! Are you kidding? Average??!!

  4. http://www.teacher-world.com/teacher-salary/wisconsin.html

  5. It is difficult to locate definitive numbers online. However, I noticed that your source is "teacher-world". I suspect that their agenda might be interfering with the accuracy of their numbers.

    How about The Daily Caller, which references its sources at the end of the article? http://news.yahoo.com/s/dailycaller/20110221/pl_dailycaller/wisconsinsteachersmakealittlemoremoneythantheyrelettingon

    Another interesting article is from Megan McArdle, the business and economics editor at The Atlantic. http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2011/02/whats-at-stake-in-wisconsin/71532/

    Thanks for sending the link about Soviet education. It seems the Russians have inherited big problems with their education system. I'm pretty sure they shouldn't use the US as a model. :-)

  6. Wow! Nice work if you can get it. How does Chris feel about moving to Wisconsin?
    Well, this discussion needs to be continued over a nice bottle of Chardonnay. Maybe next summer..if it ever gets here. Brr.

  7. I look forward to our discussion, the Chardonnay and summer!