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