Drive for education reform has teachers unions on the defensive

Even supporters of teachers unions have been critical of them in recent months, forcing unions to collaborate with school districts on education reform as never before.

By , / Staff writer

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    Jeannie Turner (l.) and Patricia Armstrong took attendance before a Jan. 19 meeting of Boston Teachers Union Local 66, in Boston. The union represents more than 7,000 workers.
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Are teachers unions the reason America's schools are failing?

According to one increasingly popular narrative, they are. It's hard to think of a time in recent decades when teachers unions have been more under attack, not only from those on the right but also from many on the left, including President Obama and Arne Duncan, his Education secretary.

The recent documentary "Waiting for 'Superman,' " by liberal filmmaker Davis Guggenheim, cast unions as the "bad guys," fighting to help even incompetent teachers retain their jobs. Michelle Rhee, the former District of Columbia schools chancellor and frequent union foe, just launched Students First, an organization that directly opposes the positions of many teachers unions. In numerous cities and states, lawsuits and legislative battles are being fought over tenure, seniority, and teacher evaluations – with the union-backed position often losing.

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And in December, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa called the local teachers union the "one unwavering roadblock to reform" – a statement that would have been unthinkable several years ago coming from a major Democratic politician, himself a former organizer and lobbyist for teachers unions.

Yes, the recession has been a factor in the clamor against unions. But the attacks are unfair or oversimplified, say many education experts and teachers, and the reality is far more complex. For one thing, teachers unions and their attitudes vary drastically from district to district and state to state.

Still, the attacks have put teachers unions overall in a defensive position, and soul-searching has ensued as they consider how to best shape their vision and priorities going forward. Increasingly, unions are breaking with tradition and endorsing new laws and policies that they would have considered anathema a decade ago.

"The unions are suddenly finding themselves scrambling to establish their position," says Eric Hanushek, a frequent union critic and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University in California. "Their traditional role as strong labor union is running into the opinions of parents and policymakers about the need to fix our schools."

The anti-union story line, among other things, says that unions refuse to allow student test scores to be a factor in major teacher evaluations. It also says that unions make the process of firing so onerous – even for the worst teachers – that few districts see it through.

In fact, however, unions don't always have control over all the pieces for which they're attacked.

"I get angry when criticisms are targeted at unions that should be placed on poor administration," says Susan Moore Johnson, a professor at Harvard's Graduate School of Education in Cambridge, Mass. Districts, for instance, would have a far easier time firing incompetent teachers if they did the thorough evaluations they are supposed to do, she notes. "Unions get blamed because it's too hard to understand," she says.

Moreover, when unions are taken out of the equation – in charter schools or in the South (most of which is nonunionized) – the educational results aren't any better, says Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation in Washington. "There's very little evidence that the existence of a strong teachers union or collective bargaining has a negative impact on student achievement," he says.

Still, Mr. Kahlenberg agrees with most education experts that as unions look to their future, they need to shift their outlook. "The biggest problem for unions is that they're perceived as defending incompetent teachers," he says, noting that better evaluation systems, including peer review, could help.

While teachers unions are often referred to as a monolithic body, that is far from the reality. At the national level, there are big differences between the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers, with the AFT generally considered more willing to embrace reform. Locally, the differences are even more extreme.

Across the country, many examples can be found of unions collaborating with districts on groundbreaking reforms.

In Colorado last summer, the AFT surprised many by endorsing a controversial new law that made it easier to dismiss ineffective teachers and overhauled teacher evaluations, making them largely dependent on student achievement.

"I truly believe that we need to be leaders in education reform," said Brenda Smith, president of AFT Colorado, at the time. The law was bitterly opposed by the NEA, which represents most Colorado teachers.

In cities like Baltimore; Washington; Pittsburgh; New Haven, Conn.; and Memphis, Tenn.; districts have been able to work out agreements with unions that have been lauded by reformers, often including more emphasis on thorough teacher evaluations based at least in part on student achievement.

"It's tough because you have a tough economy, but I think more and more if people actually look at districts that are working and the common ground we've made with these progressive new contracts ... then there's going to be a competing narrative," says Randi Weingarten, president of the AFT. "We've held up a mirror: We've tried to see the things that haven't worked, and we're trying to change it."

It's also worth pointing out that unions are made up of individuals – many of whom want the reforms that are supposedly "anti-union" and have no problem changing the way evaluations, pay, and tenure are decided.

One loose network of progressive teachers is the Teacher Union Reform Network, which is committed to redefining "who the clients of the teacher unions are" to include students as well as teachers, says Adam Urbanski, founding director of TURN and president of the union in Rochester, N.Y.

Depolarizing the debates, Mr. Urbanski says, can help find solutions to even the most contentious issues, from tenure and pay to charter schools.

"The work of one irresponsible union can ruin the life's work of so many other unions," he says. "But if we're actually going to make all schools better for all kids, it will be tough enough even if we all pull in the same direction. We are dead in the water if we don't."

But these instances of collaboration are the exception rather than the rule, critics say.

"Us versus them is still the predominant paradigm, unfortunately," says Jonah Edelman, cofounder and chief executive officer of Stand for Children, which helped push through the Colorado legislation and is locked in a bitter battle with unions in Illinois over a similar bill.

In California in 2005, notes Mr. Hanushek of the Hoover Institution, unions spent millions of dollars in advertising to get voters to reject a lengthening of the tenure process. In 2010, California unions fought efforts both in Los Angeles and in the state to change seniority rules.

"For a large number of teachers, these policies hurt them," says Hanushek. "If the unions could find a way to get behind the idea of not protecting the worst of the worst, they could dramatically change their position in the world."

Critics like Hanushek and Mr. Edelman take great care to emphasize that criticizing unions is not the same as criticizing teachers, but many teachers feel under attack just the same.

"We all know in every profession, not just teaching, there are plenty of people who have the job who shouldn't have the job," says Eric Cohen, a social studies teacher at the Manhattan Center for Science and Mathematics, a high school in East Harlem, N.Y.

Mr. Cohen, a union rep at his school, says he'd be happy to work toward a solution that is fair to teachers and gets the worst ones out, but he adds that the current political climate is tough to take: "It does seem like the whole world is attacking teachers."

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