Are teacher unions anachronistic?

Has the basic need for unions evaporated in America as worker conditions improved? One education expert uses current evidence to question these improved conditions for teachers. Learn how teachers unions remain necessary and how they can be used effectively to improve the quality of education.

Today’s New York Times raises important questions about the fracas over unions and the teaching profession in Wisconsin. A news analysis explores the possibility that unions, including those representing teachers, may have become anachronistic — ending with a quote from a private sector employee: “I know there was a point for unions back in the day because people were being abused,” she said. “But now there’s workers’ rights; there’s laws that protect us.”

Perhaps she is right when it comes to basic employee law, and the rights of workers to fair wages and basic working conditions (e.g.,hours worked per week and job safety). But as Diane Ravitch recently wrote in the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog, the unions still have a role to play in advancing teaching as a profession — in terms of advocating for basic conditions that all teachers must have to teach effectively:

I recently visited Arizona, a right-to-work state, and parents there complained to me about classes of 30 for children in first and second grades, and even larger for older students; they complained that the starting salary for teachers was only $26,000, and that it is hard to find strong college graduates to enter teaching when wages are so low.

Too many policymakers, unfortunately, would prefer to opt for cheap and compliant teachers, and not those who are more well-prepared and willing to aggressively advocate for the kinds of conditions and teaching practices they know will help students learn more. Much as it has been during 150+ year history of the American common school, too many policymakers want teachers to be seen, but not heard.

But isn’t it time to invite classroom experts  — whose deep knowledge of teaching, students, and families is a precious public resource — to inform and shape education policy?  Isn’t it time for teacher leaders to enforce standards among their ranks and work with policymakers and the public in creating a 21st century results-oriented teaching profession?

And isn’t it time for teacher leaders to press forward the discussion about transforming unions into  professional guilds that seek not only to maintain but to advance public education as the cornerstone of our democracy? This is the vision for the teacher unions of tomorrow set forth in our new CTQ/TLN book TEACHING 2030. We need a collective voice of teachers now more than ever — functioning not as maligned defenders, but as respected leaders who are about the business of creating the world’s finest public school system.

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