Even with all of its faults, I’m sticking with the union


Given the national wave of public sector union bashing, it’s not surprising that people like Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, is out making speeches about the virtues of collective bargaining in public education.

The case against teachers unions has been simmering for decades, with horror stories about the rubber room in New York (now gone); countless instances of union resistance to modification of rigid seniority rules in promotion and layoffs, and, often, general insensitivity to the needs of children and the concerns of parents.

It had to blow – and what more likely time than during a recession and the accompanying tight state and local budgets. Nor does it come only from the Republicans of Wisconsin and Ohio (and Washington, D.C.), but from national foundations and from fully certified liberals like Davis Guggenheim, whose film Waiting for Superman portrays Weingarten as a villain in the struggle of parents to get their children into decent schools. Even Barack Obama and his education secretary Arne Duncan don’t seem so sure.

But Weingarten’s effort – I heard her in the East Bay suburb of Lafayette last week – was but a frail dike against that wave. She told stories to illustrate how bottom-up input in collective bargaining from the people in the classroom helps make schools both more effective and fiscally more efficient.

Randi Weingarten, AFT president

Randi Weingarten, AFT president

She argued that her union has worked hard to make teacher evaluations – including dismissals of bad teachers – fairer and faster; that there should be more focus on improving teaching and less on testing; and, perhaps most tellingly, that debates about federal policy – most immediately revisions in the fraying No Child Left Behind law – are almost irrelevant when states and local districts are being ravaged by fiscal crises and laying off thousands of teachers.

She left out much on both sides of this complicated story. She said little about the long history of union intransigence, especially by the National Education Association, far and away the bigger of the two national unions, which brought us to this point. (Asked whether her stories about the leadership of her own organization in school reform applied to the rival NEA as well, she diplomatically allowed that there was a lot of diversity in the movement; slowly, she also seemed to suggest, the NEA was letting itself be dragged into the 21st Century.)

Defenders of public schools against privatization

But she didn’t say anything about – or maybe forgot  to mention – things that may have been all too obvious: It’s been the teachers unions, for all their intransigence, that have been the most effective defenders of the common schools through three decades of increasingly virulent attacks from the voices of privatization. It’s the common schools that promise, even if too often they fail to deliver, the acculturation and social integration on which citizenship rests.

Even as she was speaking, the Republican-dominated Indiana legislature was passing HB 1003, the most sweeping voucher law in the country. It will provide a private school voucher to any child from a family with an annual income of under $60,000 who’s currently enrolled in a public school.

Proponents of the plan argue that since the voucher, which would come out of the budget of the transferring student’s school and vary according to the student’s family income, is never worth more than 90 percent of a school’s public funding (and often much less), the schools would in fact gain from the program.

But since schools can choose applicants according to their usual standards, it in effect makes the public schools, which have to take all comers, the default system for those rejected by the private schools – assuming any were accessible.

And since parents can supplement the voucher with their own funds, the program not only becomes a public subsidy for families who can afford private schools, but a subsidy for those schools. Eventually, if the statements of the law’s proponents are credible, the means test will be liberalized and children already in private schools will also become eligible. They’re playing with similar ideas next door in Ohio.

Unions modeled on industrial labor organizations were never a comfortable fit for teaching, which is not supposed to be assembly line work but a profession unrestrained by fixed working patterns and rules.

Moreover, they sit on top of a civil service system already providing tenure and promotion rules (themselves sometimes debatable) and exercise great political power in state legislatures, on school boards, and in the Democratic Party. That’s clout on top of security on top of yet more security.

But after all that’s said, public employee unions are not even remotely the cause of our present budgetary difficulties, they’re the fall guys in a fiscal system that – no secret to anyone – tilts heavily toward the rich and powerful and a public ethos that’s nearly forgotten the critical importance of community, equality, and public services in the maintenance of a good society.

For the 30 or 40 years after the mid-1930s, recalling what things had been like before, Americans celebrated and broadened public services provided by social democracy. In the past generation or two we’ve forgotten that past, or take it for granted. At this moment, for all their flaws, it’s the unions that are  the biggest defenders of adequate public services.  That history, too, is something that people like Weingarten – and a lot of others – should be talking about.

Peter Schrag is the former editorial page editor and columnist of the Sacramento Bee. He is the author of “Paradise Lost: California’s Experience, America’s Future” and “California: America’s High Stakes Experiment.” His latest book is “Not Fit for Our Society: Immigration and Nativism in America” (University of California Press). He is a frequent contributor to the California Progress Report (californiaprogressreport.com) and is a member of the TOP-Ed advisory board.

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  1. While the “Superman” documentary overplayed many of its points, the cruel reality here in California is that it remains nearly impossible to dismiss ineffective teachers and/or make personnel decisions on the basis of need, capacity, and/or merit.  Weingarten may be trying to get her union to open-up a bit, but California’s unions generally seem to remain hopelessly stuck in reverse gear.
    ‘Tho I’m no fan of vouchers, Schrag’s critique ignores the fact that the same argument can be leveled against gerrymandered school district boundaries that allow for islands of well-financed privilege immediately next door to the opposite (one of my favorite examples is the Piedmont doughnut hole in the midst of Oakland Unified, or the East Palo Alto mess next door to rich/elite, Basic Aid-funded districts on the San Francisco Peninsula).
    Teacher unions have played a strong and often-positive role in protecting K-12 education funding in California.  Arguably they remain important, especially when facing the onslaught of well-represented prison guard unions, local redevelopment agencies, and the like.  At the same time, their inability to shift out of reverse gear is also a millstone on the K-12 system.  They need to break free from the industrial model, focus on quality instruction and real professionalism, while maintaining strong advocacy for K-12 funding.  If the unions can’t reform themselves from the inside, we may need to continue to use powerful medicines like vouchers, charters, inter-district choice, parent trigger, and the like until the pressure builds to levels adequate to secure serious reform within the unions.

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  2. To me, the most poignant line in Schrag’s piece is, ” In the past generation or two we’ve forgotten that past, or take it for granted.”  We certainly have.

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  3. I agree with Peter and thank him for writing.  I think that the GOP will reap a bitter harvest for its attack on worker rights; the backlash has started already.  At the same time, I fault teacher unions for losing the battle of public opinion and for their utter failure to anticipate changes in education and and to organize around them.  Internal reforms have been too stunted, and those who speak truth to power within the unions have been shunned.  But teacher unions have done something that the commentators miss entirely: They brought into the house of labor the largest occupational group of college educated workers in the country, particularly college educated women.  The issues that teachers face are not unlike those nurses face, or physicians, or anyone who thinks for a living and works for wages.  I believe that the next generation of organizing, which may be starting now, will seize on that commonality.

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  4. Organizing is hard work.  And the little I’ve seen of the internal workings of the teachers’ union I’d guess following the recommendations in the Mind Workers pamphlet would require a new level of coordination.  But the recent events in Northern Africa offers a compelling story of how the tools for much more sophisticated and flexible organization are becoming available.  And maybe the teachers’ unions could get a grant from the Gates Foundation to help create whatever might be missing.  Now that would be working together!

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  5. Though “Waiting for Superman” has inspired discussions, it barely scratches the surface of the real management issue: how to hold administrators and schools trustees accountable to oversee each public school district.

    Any union is an association of working people who have the right to organize, the right to express opinions and the right to employment due process.  Most teachers’ union contracts provide for systematic review of teachers – even in a tenure environment.  In the rush to bash classroom teachers, the public overlooks that administrators such as principals, district managers and superintendents are paid much more than teachers in exchange for their responsibility to exercise top notch administrative skills.

    It’s not the day-to-day job of elected education board members to review the performance and skills of individual classroom teachers.  However, elected trustees absolutely have to ensure highly-compensated administrators and mid-level administrators do their jobs extraordinarily well.  How does each education board review the performance of administrators?  What standards are adopted?

    Most classroom teachers are effective and many are highly effective.  Even harsh critics admit that only a small percentage of public school teachers should be dismissed.  So, with a small group of teachers to ease out of their jobs, education board members should demand that six-figure administrators report frequently on how they deal with ineffective teachers in a challenged economic environment.

    Public sector management is different from running a small retail business.  If one wants a comfortable salary public education management career, then be prepared to justify the extra pay.  Every principal and higher level public school district administrator should know the details of their district’s union contracts.  But unless an elected board and other community leaders hold administrators accountable for implementing contract details, the administrative path of least resistance is attractive.  Direct deposit checks post for administrators each pay period – whether or not the board holds them accountable.

    The problem isn’t the right to organize.  The problem is the abdicated responsibility to oversee.

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  6. I agree with Chris that “the manager’s job is to manage”, as they say in the business world.  And teachers certainly have the right to organize freely and communicate their concerns to management.  But let’s also be clear about the obstacles that keep conscientious administrators from “dealing with” ineffective teachers.

    As it happens, I had a conversation just this morning with a high school principal who was criticized by the teachers in his English department for “taking the side” of a parent in a dispute with a teacher.  The parent had said that she found it “insufficient” that the teacher, seven months into an AP English course, had assigned only two short papers to the students.  The principal agreed with the parent that those two minor assignments did not seem like enough writing work for college-bound students to be doing in a high school AP English course.  The other English teachers in the department generally agreed (they all give out more work than that), but they still maintained that the parent and principal were wrong to criticize the teacher — that the decision should be left solely up to that teacher. 

    I was interested in that discussion because my own son had a similar issue with a teacher in that same department.  He was given exactly four writing assignments in the first semester of sophomore English, only two of which were longer than two paragraphs!  What’s more, none of the papers were handed back before the end of the semester.  The students simply received a final semester grade in the course, without knowing anything about how their writing had figured into it, or how they might have worked to improve during the semester.  As far as I can tell, despite feedback from the principal and parents, this experienced, senior teacher has no intention of changing her approach.

    This principal, who is a very good leader (IMHO) and has brought many positive changes to the high school, seems to be well-liked by most teachers, parents, and students.  Yet, he has confided that it takes about 3 years to dismiss a teacher — one year for observation and documentation of the problem, one year for “coaching and development feedback”, and one year for due process if things don’t improve.  Other principals in this and other districts have confirmed this timeline.  And they all agreed that an administrator would only pursue dismissal for someone who “was really a major problem”.  Teachers who are just substandard performers aren’t worth the trouble, and efforts to dismiss them often fail anyway, if the problem is “just” substandard performance. These administrators didn’t invent this timeline.  It resulted from years of experience and negotiations with our teachers’ union.  (And to be fair, I know of private schools where a similar timeline prevails…)  Now, three years may seem fair to the teacher, but that is three years of students who do not get adequate instruction in writing, Algebra, Chemistry, or whatever the subject happened to be.  It may be a “small minority of teachers” who have performance problems, but if a poorly performing teacher has four classes of 30 students or so, that is almost 400 students who are adversely impacted over those three years by missing a year of critical instruction.

    I think most parents would like to see our teachers and union leadership more actively engaged in addressing teacher performance.  Currently, it seems as if our local union polices the “process” and nit picks any deviations, but does nothing to actually encourage better instruction and the “high standards” that most of us associate with the word “professional”.  More proactive involvement by teachers in improving the performance of their colleagues would do a great deal, I believe, to improve their professional standing among members of the public.

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  7. Jim, I found your response interesting.
    The three-year period that the principal reports for dismissing an underperforming teacher represents a worst-case scenario; basically, we are assuming that the teacher is classified as “permanent” (“tenured”, in layperson’s terms). Even so, I have worked in schools where three years means three different principals, so it would seem that some caution is in order.
    And for the teacher’s first two years with that school district — when endemic performance deficiencies surely would have been apparent — the principal could have let the teacher go at the end of the school year without following any sort of process, or even disclosing a reason. A flick of the pen is all that is necessary to dismiss a teacher classified as “probationary” at the end of his or her first or second year. This easy dismissal window re-opens whenever a teacher switches to a new school district, which happens rather frequently.
    What’s more, very large numbers of teachers are now classified as “temporary”. It’s a classification in the Education Code that is often misused by school districts (legally, they may only use it when a position is expected to end before the end of the school year, or when an employee is replacing another employee who is on leave). One of the reasons why school districts abuse this classification is that it allows them to dismiss a teacher at any time during the first three quarters of the school year, and to let the person go at the end of the year, again without following any sort of process, or even disclosing a reason.
    On the question of the number of essays assigned in high school classes, a California high school teacher typically serves 35 students x 5 teaching periods per day = 175 students per day.* The teacher will receive an average of 45 minutes of preparation time per day, which is not sufficient to cover lesson planning, parent communication, and paperwork. If we agree that just handling one essay and writing and recording the grade takes 1 minute, we have a minimum of 175 minutes ~ 180 minutes ~ 3 hours, not counting the time required to actually read the essays. It quickly becomes clear that grading each essay assignment takes up an entire, unpaid weekend. No wonder high school teachers don’t assign much written work! The public gets exactly the level of educational service that it is willing to pay for. Reducing the number of daily contacts and increasing paid, non-contact hours — essentially, recognizing that a major part of a teacher’s work is done before students arrive in class — is one solution.
    * In a handful of “excess revenue” districts , the number is 20 students x 4 teaching periods per day = 80 students per day, and there may be up to 2 hours of preparation time. In worst-case environments, on the other hand, the number may rise as high as 40 students x 6 teaching periods per day = 240 students per day, with the same 45 minutes (on average) of preparation time.

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  8. Last week I quit CTA to the extent that the law will allow. I still have to pay 3/4 of the union dues.
    Am I better off financially because of the union? Yes.
    Is that a reason to support it? Yes. It’s a selfish reason, but self-intererest isn’t the only thing that makes the world go round.
    “I’m sticking with the union” is a line from a Pete Seeger song.
    Peter Seeger didn’t sing songs about folks who drive new cars and vacation in Hawaii every summer.
    CTA is big, blind business.
    Teachers aren’t in the working class and Pete Seeger didn’t sing about them.

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  9. Pablo:
    You raise some valid issues; however, they do not pertain to the example I raised.  Of course principals can, and do, fire temporary/non-tenured teachers who underperform.  But most teachers are not temporary.  They have tenure.  The teacher in question (like almost all of the teachers at our local high school) was a permanent teacher whose performance was deteriorating after many years on the job.  (I know that, because her performance was quite a bit better, just a few years earlier, when she taught the same course to my older son.)  Even the other teachers in her department agreed that her writing assignments were insufficient.  Yet their “bunker mentality” prevented them from providing that feedback to their peer — even though their feedback could have been far more convincing than any comments from a parent or principal.  Yes, it is a lot of work to assign, and provide feedback on, writing assignments.  I know from personal experience that writing instruction is one of the most time-consuming forms of instruction.  The teacher can’t just check for correct answers: to be effective, the teacher needs to provide fairly detailed feedback not only on the student’s written words, but also on the thinking that went into them.  You may consider correcting papers to be “unpaid” work if it extends beyond the normal school hours, but most members of the public do not view it that way.  They feel that teachers receive a “salary”, not an hourly wage, and that teachers need to complete all of their key instructional duties, using as much time as it takes.  That is what salaried professionals do, even if it means working evenings and weekends, as many, many parents do.  Now, it could be true that teachers ought to be paid more.   I believe that most teachers ought to be paid more.  But they are paid what they are paid, and no one is forcing them to remain in their jobs.  If you take a job, you are obligated to fulfill the professional expectations for that job.  Calling oneself a high school “English” teacher and then not assigning, reviewing and grading writing work is simply not professional.  Watching a peer underperform and ill-serve students, while saying nothing, is also not professional.  You may see things differently, but I can assure you that most parents have those kinds of expectations for anyone who presumes to call herself a “professional”.  To my original point, if teachers are to regain the respect of more of the public, as I would like to see happen, they have some work to do, both individually, and through the organizations that represent them.

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  10. Jim:
    Within limits, I agree with you about the duties of salaried employees. The limit, especially for high-touch professions like teaching, is personal health. Being on-site at school for 7 to 8 hours a day, and giving up most of one’s evenings (as is necessary for planning and preparation, before any essays are graded), and then also giving up two or three weekends in the month is a physically and emotionally unsustainable work pattern. I know. At times, that has been my life in teaching. No time to prepare meals at home and eat healthy. No time to exercise. No time for friends. No time for a partner (a recipe for losing the one you have, or not being able to meet a new one if you are single upon entry to the profession).
    It is not a question of pay so much as one of time. Notice that I argued for changing the balance of contact and non-contact hours in a teacher’s day. You, and many parents, seem to want teachers to give up nights and weekends, and then come in to work the next day energetic, refreshed, and effective. There are only so many hours in the day. Nights and weekends are necessary rest periods.
    It is true that no one is forced to become a teacher. The average career length for teachers is already alarmingly low — 8 years, according to one source. We hear often that half leave within five years. I would submit that unreasonable time demands beyond the school day are one of the major reasons. And these time demands are growing, as programs like K-3 and 9-10 class size reduction are eliminated, as more special education, English Learner, and Section 504 students are placed in regular classes without support, and as testing obligations are being increased. Your expectations are a recipe for a force of short-timers, certainly something that is detrimental to children’s education.
    Perhaps my “you get what you pay for” point offers a way to bridge yours and my positions. I believe that many parents would put their money where their mouth is and support maintenance of past levels of education funding (and concomitant taxation), as well as increases for the increased system workload. (Proposition 13, for example, falsely assumes that the workload of government systems like K-12 education is fixed, inflation and population growth notwithstanding. This ignores relatively new problems like special education, the influx of English Learners, and general social change, to that extent that this brings us students who require more attention than the homogeneous classes of generations past.) Unfortunately, the sets of voters, taxpayers, and parents do not correspond exactly. The desires of parents must be tempered by what voters and taxpayers are willing to underwrite.

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  11. Pablo:
    Your points about balance and teacher turnover are certainly valid.  And your last paragraph touches on the intriguing possibility that I tried to highlight in previous posts.  We are certainly trying to do education on the cheap in this country, and in California in particular.  The system we have cannot function appropriately on the current levels of funding.  Unfortunately, the public seems less and less inclined, with each passing year, to provide more funding.  That paradox (as well as being a parent of school-age children and working with schools across the U.S. for most of the past 14 years) has driven me to become a proponent of School Choice and editor of a new blog on School Choice.  I truly believe that more Choice can bring (and has brought) more accountability, and therefore more legitimacy and public commitment, to public education.  We cannot continue to prosper as a society by doing what most districts are doing now.  We cannot continue to have 30% or more of our high school students drop out.  We cannot continue to ignore the unique needs of a burgeoning population of English Language Learners.  We cannot continue to try to make every remaining student succeed in a college prep curriculum, when only 70-80% will try to attend college, and fewer than half of those will complete college.  The amount of attrition and waste is just enormous, and after several decades of “reform”, and some pretty large increases in funding (rising nationally at twice the rate of inflation until recently), it’s not surprising that the public has lost faith in the power of the education establishment to improve things.

    Many people look at public education and see this bizarro world that lacks the accountability and sense of urgency that they see every day in their own lives and in the organizations where they work.  The education and non-education worlds have diverged so much in the past few decades.  People are appalled by public school monopolies that are allowed to under-serve their students year after year, and yet, are also allowed to prevent their students from attending other public schools and are even allowed to veto the establishment of a public charter in their own boundaries.  Many citizens cannot understand, and will not support, such an archaic and unresponsive monopoly.  I believe that more School Choice has demonstrated three advantages:  1) it allows parents to choose the educational environment best suited to their child, giving families a vested interest in their school that forced attendance at a designated school cannot engender; 2) it allows more innovation, and more rapid change that can demonstrate to the public that schools are meeting our 21st century needs; and 3) Choice can show the public, including the growing numberof households without school-age children, that publicly funded schools can deliver learning environments that people actually want.

    We are a rich country.  I would like to see us invest a LOT more in our teachers and our schools.  But I don’t see the public supporting that until they see more evidence of accountability and the ability of public schools to meet the public’s needs.  They may not have a deeply informed perspective, but the public pays the bills, and currently, it is clear that they don’t want to pay more for the status quo.  Until we change that, our students — and our teachers — will suffer.

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