Why Teacher’s Unions (Not Teachers!) Are Bad for Education

Terry Moe of the Hoover Institution and a Stanford University political-science professor (and winner of the Thomas B. Fordham prize for distinguished scholarship in education) has written an important piece explaining the motivation of Teachers’ Unions. The most important point is that the unions aren’t inherently “bad,” but that they are merely looking out for the interests of their members.

Their behavior is driven by fundamental interests . . . jobs, working conditions, and the material well-being of teachers. When unions negotiate with school boards, these are the interests they pursue, not those of the children who are supposed to be getting educated. . .

When the teachers’ unions want government to act, the reforms they demand are invariably in their own interests: more spending, higher salaries, smaller classes, more professional development, and so on. There is no evidence that any of these is an important determinant of student learning. What the unions want above all else, however, is to block reforms that seriously threaten their interests — and these reforms, not coincidentally, are attempts to bring about fundamental changes in the system that would significantly improve student learning.

The unions are opposed to No Child Left Behind, for example, and indeed to all serious forms of school accountability, because they do not want teachers’ jobs or pay to depend on their performance. They are opposed to school choice — charter schools and vouchers — because they don’t want students or money to leave any of the schools where their members work. They are opposed to the systematic testing of veteran teachers for competence in their subjects, because they know that some portion would fail and lose their jobs. And so it goes. If the unions can’t kill these threatening reforms outright, they work behind the scenes to make them as ineffective as possible — resulting in accountability systems with no teeth, choice systems with little choice, and tests that anyone can pass.

Yes, and so it goes in Rhode Island, too. I appreciate the wonderful job that teachers do and I don’t begrudge them fair compensation. Yet, as Don has recently shown, Rhode Island teachers are well-compensated. They must remember that they are paid by the taxpayers and the taxpayers can’t continue to give-give-give without seeing some results. In fairness, at least in my town, it looks like the teachers are doing a great job bringing the schools up to the standards outlined in No Child Left Behind. I hope all Rhode Island school districts follow suit.

I believe that the overwhelming majority of teachers and school committee members genuinely care about the welfare and best interests of students. However, as Moe points out, Teacher’s Unions are advocates for the teachers interests, not for those of the students. The School Committee, while it does set standards and seeks to look out for the students education, is also occupied with budgetary constraints and must be cognizant of its responsibility to the taxpayers. Thus, there is one group that should have the interests of the students as their primary concern: Parents.
In the end, it is the parents who have to make their voices heard. It is parents who have to watch as their kids are used as pawns, such as when “non-union-mandated” work-to-rule “policies” are in effect and after-school programs and educational field trips are suspended pending resolution of contract disputes. It is the parents who are taxpayers and must let the school committee know when an idea is good or bad. Unfortunately, as in so many other political issues, there is a silent majority. In this case, it is the parents. They are to be reminded that, in the realm of politics, silence equates to consent.

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19 years ago

Read your article and just to make a brief observation, aren’t teachers’ unions just that…unions for TEACHERS? If it were a union for students then I could see students’ needs being met. A union is for job protection, not for protection of what the job entails.

Anchor Rising
19 years ago

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,…

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