Teacher union stance shifting from picket line to professionalism

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

For about 20 years, teacher unions have been known primarily as hard-driving collective bargainers: as Big Labor -- always ready to spar with the nearest school board, or to walk out on your child's education over an extra 10 cents an hour. Today, that identity may be changing. New research and education specialists both indicate that there is a slow but significant move within America's teacher unions toward redefining their priorities, policies, and practices. Experts call it a change in the ethos of teacher unions.

(About 86 percent of the nation's 2.2 million teachers are unionized.)

Key to the change is the concept of ``professionalism'': that teaching isn't just a job -- it's a profession. It takes expertise to teach eighth-grade math to eighth-graders -- to disassemble and reassemble knowledge. It is work that can be done well, or poorly. And the union, just as in any other profession, should monitor its members and help them develop.

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By far, the leading thinker and strategist for ``professionalism'' is Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), who has been urging his union to establish higher standards -- to police its ranks, hold teachers accountable to the union standards, and bargain cooperatively rather than contentiously with management.

``We have to take a step beyond collective bargaining,'' Mr. Shanker says, ``. . . build on it . . . , develop a voice in professional matters.''

A growing number of educators are applauding Shanker's step. Scott Thomson, president of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, feels that the emerging union ethos is the ``biggest development in education today.''

``In the past five years,'' he says, ``leaders in the teacher unions have made a 180-degree turnaround'' -- adding that the change may have ``a greater positive impact on public education than state or federal reforms could ever have.''

Sources note that ``professionalism'' is taking hold more quickly in the AFT, with its 610,000 members, than in the National Education Association (NEA), with a membership of 1.4 million. But Mary Futrell, president of the NEA, has come out recently for increased ``teacher accountability'' and ``a strengthening of the profession.''

Union-watchers say the shift toward ``professionalism'' -- with its emphasis on accountability, responsibility, and developing a resource base to help further teacher education -- may start to put the days of fist-shaking teachers on the picket line further behind us.

Education thinker Gary Sykes of Stanford calls the change ``the beginning of the end of the old-line, industrial-union ethos.'' ``Teachers can't act like teamsters or longshoremen anymore in pursuing their goals,'' he says. ``They are now trying to win public trust -- you don't do that by walking out each year.''

Chris Pibho of the Education Commission of the States, a states' policy concern, notes that in local school districts, teachers are starting to solve workplace problems quietly on their own, or with small ``clusters'' of other teachers -- instead of as a formal ``union block.''

``More and more I find teachers making decisions based on common sense,'' Mr. Pibho says. ``If collective bargaining proves too cumbersome, teachers just try something else.''

Ideally, the ``professional'' union does not -- as in the past -- define itself in opposition to management. It negotiates instead from a position of: ``Here's what we can do to make your school better.''

A local union, for example, might negotiate in its district to exchange a ``factory model'' approach to school management (in which one principal serves as instructional leader and judge for, say, 100 teachers) for a more collaborative model, where clusters of teachers share knowledge, add to each other's expertise, experiment with staffing patterns, and enforce standards of competency.

Such negotiations are already taking place in Pennsylvania, Utah, California, Florida, Illinois, Ohio, and New York.

Observers such as Ernest Boyer of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching say that the school reform movement, combined with more tax money for education, has made the atmosphere ripe for these negotiations.

In Pittsburgh last September, the AFT local reached a contract settlement a full year ahead of time -- specifically to allow that much time for the school board, administration, and teachers to discuss changes in the workplace: peer review, retraining, collaboration.

A good many teachers, worried about job protection, resist change. Research, however, shows that the reforms have bolstered the morale of many other teachers.

Nancy Ewing, who has been teaching English for 17 years at a Pittsburgh high school, says that ``for a long time, the only way to get anywhere as a teacher was to get out of the classroom -- be `promoted' into the administration. The changes are going to make teaching more meaningful. I'm looking forward to more professional exchanges.''

Dr. Boyer states that only a few years ago such reforms were ``unheard of.''

In Toledo, Ohio, teachers now elect their own peer evaluators. Harriet Tyson-Bernstein of the Rand Corporation, who studied the Toledo operation, says, ``I was skeptical at first . . . ; [I] thought union hacks would be doing the evaluating.'' Instead, she found that teachers had chosen their best colleagues to do the reviews. She also found that ``more incompetent teachers have been replaced under the new system.''

Typical of the new attitude were the words of a young teacher from Buffalo, N.Y.: ``Why should belonging to a teachers' union mean automatic job protection? Why shouldn't we have to live up to professional standards?''

Or, as Adam Urbanski, an AFT leader in Rochester, N.Y., says, ``Teachers shouldn't feel like they have to choose between being union and being professional.''

Analysts say that, while the new ethos is a natural outgrowth of the school reform movement, it also fits in a larger pattern of social change: a demographic need for teachers, and a need to make teaching more attractive for what Mr. Sykes calls ``a generation brought up under different assumptions than their parents.''

Something of this pattern is documented by Charles Kerschner of Claremont College, who researched 72 Illinois and California school districts last spring and summer. Mr. Kerschner says more and more teachers are ``beginning to identify themselves differently . . . , are groping toward a concept of professionalism.'' He found a simultaneous ``breakdown of the union as a kind of club'' in these districts.

No one is certain how ``professionalism'' will play out among rank-and-file teachers in the next few years. Sources say ``the old guard'' within the union is still quite powerful. Kerschner notes that professionalism is ``a new bud, but it's blooming in a hostile garden.''

Also uncertain is how well today's teachers will adapt to the trend. An experiment with peer review in Durham County, N.C., for example, showed that teachers -- often acculturated or used to top-down management -- don't always ``take charge,'' even when given the chance.

Others worry the new ethos will allow some teachers to say: ``We're professionals because we say we are.''

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