Do unions benefit education?

This piece was originally published on EdNews Colorado.

I’ve been on strike twice in my life, both times when I was a truck mechanic and a member of the International Association of Machinist and Aerospace Workers. Each time I hit the picket lines, I knew what we were fighting for – wages and working conditions.

The union gave a collective voice to the workers against the power of the business owners. I had no problem defending the role of the union for the profession and for the betterment of our society.  History holds that the unions filled both roles well.

As much as I’ve supported unions from my vantage point as a mechanic, I have always struggled with the role of unions in education.  I have been a member of our local union since I became a teacher, and I served on the union’s executive committee. Despite this, I’ve struggled with the purpose of teachers’ unions.

In my mind, the question comes down to this simple one: Do teachers’ unions benefit our education system? In other words, can unions represent teachers while at the same time maintain or improve the overall quality of education in our country?  Unlike what the media says, teachers’ unions aren’t just looking at the almighty dollar as the point of discussion. We are looking at the education of our children – and I think this is an important distinction.

In most school districts, 70 to 80 percent of the budget is dedicated to labor costs.  Teachers, administrators, paraprofessionals, bus drivers, building maintenance personnel and myriad other professionals all work toward educating our children and they need to be supplied with salaries, benefits and positive working conditions

As a member of the mechanics’ union, we addressed issues such as building maintenance, the quality of shared equipment and personnel issues (such as when supervisors played favorites with some mechanics by giving them plum jobs). Some of these unfavorable conditions lead to poor performance and unsatisfied workers, all of which lead to a drop in worker output and eventually a drop in revenue.

Teachers face similar issues – lack of heating and air conditioning, decrepit and outdated technology, and principals who take care of their favorite teachers by giving them cushy class schedules.  These conditions result in unsatisfied teachers, which either lead to quality teachers leaving the profession or unhappy teachers staying – both of which negatively affect student learning.

In fact, according to the recent MetLife survey of teachers, working conditions and a drop in job satisfaction are some of the major reasons teachers are leaving the profession. Teachers are a long-term investment and, as such, every time a teacher leaves the profession it costs money to hire and train new teachers.

Why teachers – collectively – must play a role in reform

Society’s long-term investment in education isn’t just about individual teachers, though. It’s about teachers working together, collaboratively, to bring about sustained and institutional change. Here again is where teachers’ unions play a key role.

Education is a labor-intensive “industry.” It’s an industry that relies on the same capital many businesses do – individual and social capital.  Andy Hargreaves and Michael Fullan have written a wonderful book on the symbiotic relationship between individual teachers and the collective group.  The book, Professional Capital: Transforming Teaching in Every School, makes the compelling argument that if we continue to focus on individual teacher quality, we will never make the changes necessary to improve the education for all students.

Using data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) highly respected international tests of student achievement, Hargreaves and Fullan identify four countries – Singapore, South Korea, Finland and Canada – whose unions and education systems we can learn from.  These countries use fresh approaches to reforming education and professional effectiveness that don’t include bashing teachers or unions. All four of these countries have strong unions.

If we recognize that individual teachers as a collective have the greatest impact on education outcomes, unions become necessary. Our largest investment in education is in our educators, the personnel necessary to educate our children. Unions are one of the keys to bringing about permanent change to our educational landscape by ensuring productive working conditions for teachers.

So if teachers’ unions are necessary, how do they best work for students and education? There is a need for a collective voice when it comes to some basic union responsibilities: working conditions, wages, and other bread-and-butter issues. But as Hargreaves and Fullan write:

It [also] means recasting teacher unions not only to become sources of outraged opposition to negative, imposed changes that narrow learning, harm students, and create burnout among classroom teaches, but also to become active and inspirational agents of change that serve students, especially the most disadvantaged, improve quality among the teaching force, and to put teachers in the vanguard of large-scale change.

For teachers’ unions, the main struggle should be about the profession and not self-interest or power. There are unions around the country that are beginning to take on this role.  The teachers union in Toledo, Ohio, started Peer Assistance and Review or PAR programs, which call for teachers evaluating other teachers.  In Colorado, the Jefferson County Education Association is piloting an evaluation system in which master teachers evaluate other teachers. PAR programs identify teachers’ strengths and deficiencies, which helps to ensure high-quality teachers.  Both of these approaches exemplify the role of the unions as change agents for the profession

When I was a member of our teachers’ union executive committee, we researched and put together a proposal for a PAR program in our district.  I knew that this proposal was not going to come from a disparate group of teachers without understanding their power as a collective group of professionals. This is what the union can and should do – tap into the collective power of teachers to transform teaching.

To profoundly change the way we do the “business” of education in this country, we need to focus on direct group action versus isolated attempts at reform. Teachers’ unions, through their local, state and national organizations, can and should play a role in this transformation.

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