Teacher Unions: a Key to School Reform

Albert Shanker's passing is a reminder of the need to break molds in order to strengthen institutions

Al Shanker didn't invent teacher unionism, but for more than a quarter-century he was its personification.

He played the game at the edge. In the 1960s he organized New York's teachers, transforming them from a teachers' guild so weak that its newsletter was delivered in anonymous plain envelopes into the United Federation of Teachers, the nation's largest union local. By the turn of the '70s he was the most militant of labor leaders, jailed twice for leading unlawful strikes, spreading fear and in some cases loathing throughout the land.

Ironically, it was the fear of Mr. Shanker that helped push the National Education Association toward collective bargaining, thus spreading teacher unionism around the country. By 1973 he was to earn a footnote in cinema history. In the Woody Allen film "Sleeper," the title character reawakens in 2173 to say that civilization ended because "a man named Albert Shanker got hold of a nuclear warhead."

Public education crisis

His public persona changed. Early on, Shanker realized that teachers couldn't be strong when education was weak. When New York City went broke in 1975, the UFT pledged $150 million in pension funds to bail out the city. In 1983, when the commission report "A Nation at Risk" criticized public education for permitting a "rising tide of mediocracy," Shanker used the opportunity to remold the union. He turned toward engaging the American Federation of Teachers in educational reform instead of confrontation.

When asked why, Shanker responded with disarming pragmatism that any union leader who had just seen his membership decline by 20 percent would think about doing things differently.

But the point is that most union leaders wouldn't and don't. Typically, unions last only until there is a change in the underlying institution or its production technology.

Thus, Al Shanker's passing is made all the more poignant by its timing. Public education as an institution is arguably entering what Shanker himself called "its first real crisis." The political cleavage line is no longer between those who think public education is doing a good job and those who think it is not. The line separates those who think the institution is capable of educating America's children and those who think it is not. Unionized teachers are no stronger than the institution they inhabit.

At least some teacher unionists have come to realize this. Over the last decade a quiet but concerted effort has taken place to transform teacher unions from their industrial-era ideological base. The latest manifestation of this came when National Education Association president Bob Chase called for his union to move from organizing around what Samuel Gompers called "more" to organizing around "better."

Mr. Chase is right about that - and so was Shanker in his call for unionists to rally behind the cause of higher standards - but the real challenge is over when and how this gets done. Politically vexing as it is, establishing high national standards is not the hard part of educational reform. The hard part is getting more than the top 15 percent of students to achieve those standards. No amount of political exhortation will make it happen. Organizing teaching will.

In our recent book "United Mind Workers" (Jossey-Bass) we call for a teacher unionism aligned with the emerging imperatives about learning. The cognitive revolution, which is reflected in the new standards and tests, is changing our definition of what it means to be smart. And what has been called "the third industrial revolution" has changed what graduates need to know to make a middle-class wage. Teachers are the key to this transformation.

A plan for change

Teacher unions, through collective bargaining, organized what we call the first half of teaching - their wages and working conditions. Now, they can finish the job by organizing the actual work of teaching. In the process, they can play a valuable part in reorganizing the institution of public education by:

* Organizing around quality. This nation is now engaged in a furious debate about learning standards: how we should measure them, what kinds of rewards or consequences should be attached to meeting or failing to meet them. Union leaders have been involved in these debates, but they remain abstractions to most of the country's 2.5 million public school teachers. Unions need to internalize both the debate and emerging standards. They need to back standards with adequate training, professional development, and a strong peer review system. Peer review requires teachers to define good teaching, to develop ways of communicating it to others, to measure and support it. Ultimately it requires that teachers make decisions about other colleagues, removing those who can't perform.

* Organizing around individual schools. By changing the nature and scope of labor agreements, most union critics seek to narrow the scope of bargaining to keep teachers' hands away from public policy. We argue the opposite. Teachers ought to be forced to deal with the question of resource allocation tied to student achievement. This can happen if we slim down district-level contracts and create workplace compacts at individual schools about resources, work rules, and decisionmaking procedures. Why shouldn't the labor agreements that divide most of a school's resources also be its guiding path for educational achievement?

* Organizing around a teacher labor market. Industrial unions organized around jobs, but there is an older union tradition that organized around occupations, one that allowed members to switch jobs and change the nature of their work relatively easily. In a time when education itself is in great flux, it makes sense to organize teaching as a career rather than a single job, to anticipate the role technology is likely to play in teaching, and to organize a career ladder that allows people to enter as helpers or aides and advance to become full-fledged teachers.

We're not sure whether Al Shanker liked the sweep of our ideas or not, or even our point of departure. His last campaign centered on standards for learning and student conduct. But Shanker was committed to strengthening public education as the cornerstone of democracy and making strong unions both the fruit and the bulwark of that great experiment. He also saw a desperate urgency to get on with the task.

A historic transformation

We believe public education faces a transformation as profound as that which took place during the Progressive Era of the early 1900s, when the country transformed from being organized around farms and villages and became a nation of cities and factories. An institutional change of such magnitude spells real danger - and real opportunity - for teacher unions.

The debate about how the unions should respond is just beginning. Al Shanker believed passionately in the power of the intellect and in the value of debate. His voice will be missed.

* Charles Taylor Kerchner and Joseph G. Weeres are professors at the Claremont Graduate School in Claremont, Calif. Julia E. Koppich is managing partner at Management Analysis and Planning Associates in San Francisco.

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