Monday, September 1, 2014

Talkin’ Teachers Union

A Labor Day Message

Come you ranks of labor, come you union core
And see if you remember the struggles of before
When you were standing helpless on the outside of the door
And you started building links on the chain, on the chain
And you started building links on the chain.
                                                Phil Ochs, Links on a Chain

I have always felt that Phil Ochs metaphor of the union activism as “building links on the chain” to be very apt. In his song, Ochs reminds us of the reasons for the union movement (workers at the mercy of the employer, police strike busters hired by companies, horrible safety conditions in the workplace) and also admonishes the unions for their excesses (particularly as it concerned the treatment of minorities in the 50s and 60s).

With teachers’ unions under siege in 2014, it may be a good idea to look back on the conditions for teachers and students before teacher unions had significant power and also to look forward to what the purpose of the union can and should be in the future.

When I began my teaching career in Pennsylvania in1969, the teachers’ association I joined was a largely toothless organization that had no collective bargaining rights, no right to question pay or working conditions and no influence over educational policy. I was paid 6,300 dollars to teach 30 periods a week with two periods a week for lesson preparation, an average class size in the mid-30s in a dilapidated classroom where the temperature rose to 98 degrees on warm June days. I taught using outdated and worn textbooks that were totally inappropriate for my student population using a curriculum that was taken directly from the table of contents of that old textbook.

In 1970, the teachers’ association got the right to collectively bargain. I joined the negotiating team and together we teachers embarked on a remarkable decade of growth and improvement of the profession. It was certainly messy at times, with contentious and lengthy bargaining sessions, recriminations played out in the local press and even a brief strike or two. But by the time I left that school district in 1982, my salary had quadrupled (in part due to a Masters degree and years of service, but also due to the bargaining process). I now taught 25 periods a week with 5 preparation periods and class sizes averaging in the mid-20s. My classroom now had an air-conditioner. I had new textbooks and taught from a curriculum that I had developed myself after a series of professional development opportunities that had been negotiated into the collective bargaining agreement.

Working together, we teachers improved our working conditions and our lives as well as improving the learning conditions for our students.

As Labor Day dawns here in 2014, teachers’ unions, perhaps in part because of past successes, are embattled. The unions are blamed for protecting “bad teachers”, being resistant to change, and for fighting for a status quo that has us falling behind other nations in international tests. While the public in general, still holds the individual teacher in some level of esteem, the teachers’ union is held up to ridicule even by some members of the profession.

Perception is often more powerful than fact. The perception of the union as protector of “bad teachers” is a hard one to kill. Let’s try to kill it anyway. Tenure laws were put in place long before there were any viable teachers unions. Tenure does not mean a lifetime job for the teacher, it only guarantees due process. It is the union’s job to ensure that an employee gets due process. Having worked on both sides of the educational fence, as union leader and school district administrator, I know that the very few “bad teachers” who do persist in our schools are there due to lax administration and not union protection.

As far as resistance to change, like any large organization, teacher unions tend to like the status quo. But when teacher unions fight against so-called reform laws like No Child Left Behind or Race to the Top, are they resisting change or recognizing that an extreme test based accountability system will fail as a way to improve student learning?

When the union opposes a teacher accountability system based on demonstrably flawed statistical methods, are they resistant to change or protecting their members from spurious evaluations and protecting the public from the cost of the lawsuits that are bound to follow?

When the union opposes charter proliferation and vouchers is it because they want to maintain the status quo or because they recognize that charters and vouchers steal money from the already cash strapped public schools while failing to provide any improvement in student learning and being rife with fraud and waste?

Indeed, our teachers’ unions have made missteps. Stung by the criticisms of the last three decades, the union leadership has tried to work with the reformers on such initiatives as the Common Core State Standards. 

The error here is clear. Whatever the merits of the Common Core, and there are some, the Common Core fails the sniff test that every veteran teacher uses on a new initiative: “What classroom teachers were involved in the production of these standards?” We know the answer to this question was few, if any. Hence the Common Core with all of the Gates funded marketing behind it was doomed to failure one way or the other.

Moving forward, I would like to see our teachers’ unions focus on the role of the teaching professionals in developing a viable evaluation method that allows teachers to police their own profession. Unions, partnering with administration can create an evaluation system that is effective and fair. It has been done in places like Montgomery County, Maryland and Toledo, Ohio.

I would like to see our teachers’ unions fighting for equity. This is a traditional role of unions and never has it been more important to fill this role than now. Inequity is rampant in this country and it is financial inequity that is the prime reason for our educational failures. It is not bad teachers or unions that are responsible for our struggling schools,, but the bad economic policies that lead to 25% of our children living under the educationally debilitating effects of poverty.

Finally, I would like to see our unions fighting for the teachers’ voice on educational policy decision making. Our public school system was established to help the country maintain an educated populace well prepared to participate in democracy. Policies that are handed down from the wealthy educational oligarchy cannot and will not perpetuate a democracy. Democratically established teaching and learning standards, developed with the voices of the actual teachers included, have a better chance of survival and impact.

Teachers who truly care about the profession, who truly care about the children, who truly care about the future, must recognize that it is only through concerted, coordinated and united action that we will be able to hold off the wealthy one-percenters who seek to turn public education into a private fiefdom. More than ever we need to continue to build and strengthen our “links on the chain.”