RE: Why Teachers’ Unions (Not Teachers!) Are Bad For Education

Marc’s posting highlights another outstanding piece by Terry Moe. I would encourage you to read both Marc’s fine posting and the entire editorial by Moe, which you can access in Marc’s posting.
As a former East Greenwich School Committee member, I would like to expand on several of Marc’s points:
First, I agree that parents need to make their voices heard about educational issues in their town, including the impact of “work-to-rule” actions on their children. Marc is right that silence equals consent to the status quo – and the union will not stop pushing to maximize its self-interest during that silence. However, I would add this cautionary note. The most frequent comment I received from parents – by far – while serving on the committee was: “I agree with you, I want to openly support you but I am afraid to speak out because I do not want my children to suffer as a result.” What a sad commentary on the politics of public education. The impact of this potential threat should not be underestimated and dictates that others of us who don’t face the same threats must lead the change efforts.
Second, people should not underestimate the long-term impact on teachers from working in a union environment that blocks change, punishes excellence and protects mediocrity. Public school teachers desperately want to be considered “white collar professionals.” Yet, many of them buy into a work environment that provides lifetime tenure, outrageously rich benefits and pensions, equal pay simultaneously to the best and worst teachers while resisting accountability and making the removal of bad teachers nearly impossible. In the end, public school teachers cannot have it both ways – they are either professionals or they are unionists. Right now, some of them hide happily behind the union label and that makes those teachers part of the problem.
Third, the public education bureaucracy is also a significant part of the problem because they have no incentive to challenge the mediocrity of the status quo. They should not be expected to support meaningful change since their economic (including healthcare and pension benefits) and professional self-interests are largely aligned with the unions. As a result, the bureaucracy can easily outlast parents who raise concerns, wearing them down until the parents simply give up and go away.
Fourth, a quick perusal of Linda Chavez’ book entitled “Betrayal : How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics” drives home the point that this is all about money and power politics. The lack of competition and proper incentives in the public sector creates a fundamental impediment to change, a point I have made in a previous posting.
Fifth, the power politics angle is only reinforced when you look at the balance of power in union contract negotiations. On one side of the table, you have a part-time volunteer school committee aided by an educational bureaucracy with the wrong incentives and who will be dealing with the union long after the committee members move onto other activities in their lives. On the other side of the table, you have the national teachers’ unions with essentially unlimited money and political muscle. In Rhode Island, that structural problem is compounded by having nearly 40 tiny school districts individually going up against national unions. All the unions have to do is find a weak spot in one of the tiny districts and then they use that concession as a negotiating hammer with all the other districts.
There are all sorts of contract “tricks.” Here is one of the more current ones: The union agrees to have teachers pay a percentage co-payment on health insurance premiums but… most deals have either dollar caps which make the percentage irrelevant or the teachers receive other new cash payments (for things like professional development) which just happen to offset the amount of the co-payment. And the unions and teachers really believe that they have made a concession in such a deal! The taxpayers – whose hard-earned monies fund these contracts – are often the last to know that a bait-and-switch was pulled on them.
Why are all of the above points important? Education is the gateway to the American Dream for all citizens. Yet, we are failing to provide a quality gateway for our children. The performance of public education in America is absymal as we have one of the weakest performing educational systems in the industrial world. It is not for lack of spending money: We have tripled our per-pupil spending in real terms over the last 40 years, a period of time which coincides directly with the growth in power of the teachers’ unions. More money won’t fix the structural problems highlighted above. Only competition from true educational choice will solve the problems.
As an aside, I find it particularly ironic that certain liberal U.S. senators (who often have sent their own children to the most elite private schools) consistently do the bidding of the unions to block the inner city black children of Washington, D.C. – who are stuck in the worst public education system in our country – from receiving the educational vouchers which would give them educational freedom and a fair shot at living the American Dream. The unions and their cronies are willing to risk creating a permanent underclass so they can maintain their chokehold on public education in America. That is morally offensive.
Competition from true educational choice is the only thing that can bust this underperforming and overcharging monopoly. With choice, comes accountability for performance results. I would gladly support merit pay and no cap on the maximum salaries for great teachers in exchange for having true educational choice and accountability, including the ability to fire poor teachers. That will never happen as long as we have a union-dominated public education system. Years of experience have led me to conclude there is no viable middle ground.
ADDENDUM:
Well, silliness from the opposition continues unabated, as shown in this ProJo letter to the editor. Part of the letter states:

Of course unions must take a hard line in order to secure certain rights for their members, but, as Ms. Ohanian says, “positing teachers’ need for a living wage and adequate working conditions as proof of their disinterest in what’s good for children is one more page in the corporate-politico agenda of deprofessionalizing teaching and gutting public education.”
Time and time again, we hear about how important it is to educate our children, yet any time a financial dispute arises, the teachers are the ones who bear the brunt of the public disdain…

For a contrasting viewpoint that is fact-based instead of opinion-based, see this earlier posting.
ADDENDUM II:
Sometimes, there are simply no words available to respond adequately to sheer, utter nonsense. Today’s ProJo contains one such ridiculous letter to the editor. Here are two choice quotes:

Merit-pay plans are contentious and divisive. They rarely have objective criteria. Merit pay is nothing more than a means of cloaking management favoritism in meritocratic mumbo-jumbo. The results are that a healthy group dynamic is undermined, morale is lowered, and higher-level employees receive the bulk of the money available…
Institute merit pay and those who compromise the integrity of their teaching to curry favor with administrators and parents will be rewarded. Taskmaster “unpopular teachers” who maintain the integrity of their classrooms (and whose students can demonstrate achieved goals of learning and attainment of critical skills) will be punished…

Those of us that live and work in the real world know that merit-pay plans work well because competitive pressures of the marketplace allow the natural alignment of good individual performance and good system-wide outcomes. By contrast and without realizing it, the author of the letter has just presented the core reason why the existing union-dominated government monopoly of public education is structurally incapable of working effectively and efficiently. Only true competition will get us the results our children deserve.
ADDENDUM III:
Justin has added some valuable, additional perspective on the letter referenced in Addendum II.
ADDENDUM IV:
To further clarify my final point in the original posting, I don’t believe charter schools – as currently defined – can be the answer. Marc has already shown (here, here, here) how the teachers’ unions and public education bureaucracy will play power politics and/or will selectively twist data to knock performance by today’s charter schools. All in all, there are too many ways for them to manipulate the status quo, thereby ensuring the existence of an uneven playing field. Even though there may be well-performing individual charter schools, these postings and the Washington, D.C. experience reinforce how the educational establishment will make every effort to sabotage any broad-based implementation of a truly competitive alternative.
Therefore, for all the reasons noted above, charter schools today represent only incremental changes that leave the status quo in place and will not be able to deliver a broad-based, high-quality public education. We must seek more significant structural changes to the status quo. Our children, particularly the most disadvantaged, need and deserve nothing less.
ADDENDUM V:
Another nonsensical letter has now appeared in the ProJo. Here is the first sentence:

Only the naive can truly believe that merit pay will reward superior teachers and shun incompetent ones.

Sometimes foolish people make your case for you. It’s almost enough to make you feel embarrassed for them.

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Marc Comtois
16 years ago

Don,
Thanks for the amplification. Your points also call to mind one of the systemic problems with ALL unions: they seem to prioritize protecting the “rights” of the worst of their membership (the “bad apples”) over taking a more holistic view of what is best for their given profession/industry. I also recognize that, eventually, many otherwise fine teachers succumb to the disease of union “groupthink.” I would note that this doesn’t necessarily mean that their classroom work is affected, just their sense of what is “rightfully theirs” regarding salary and benefits. Putting that aside, I agree that school competition and/or a more centralized teacher negotiation apparatus would benefit Rhode Island. (That doesn’t necessarily mean I support a “State School Committee, though.”)

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