In many of my early memories, my mom told me about her work as a teacher as I sat on a makeshift wooden platform between the front seats of my family’s Volkswagen van. As we drove through the tough neighborhoods of Richmond, California in the 1970s, she told me she became a teacher to work for a world where people were no longer judged by the color of their skin. She also told me she was in a union, like her grandmothers who’d been seamstresses in New York City in the early 1900s.
Over the following decades, however, she became frustrated. She became a union rep, and pushed to have the union make student achievement its primary goal. She was shocked to find that her fellow union reps seemed to only care about job protection and salaries. Later, when she worked with other senior teachers to push for pro-student scheduling changes, she was surprised at how much resistance she found among some of her colleagues.
My mom retired early, exhausted. Like so many of my friends and family in teaching, she remains concerned about ineffective teachers.
Over the course of my life, I have tried to understand why so many teachers felt these frustrations. I have gotten to know my own public school teachers. I became a volunteer teacher in public high schools during and after college. In grad school, I focused on education law and policy. I served school systems as a pro-bono consultant, and periodically left the private sector to work in education policy. I entrusted my own child to a public school.
And in that time, I have learned four things:
1) In both word and deed, most teachers are pro-children
Data show how America’s teachers think and behave. A Public Agenda survey of teachers shows that three quarters of teachers believe that good teachers “can lead all students to learn, even those from poor families or who have uninvolved parents;” two thirds of teachers entered the profession to help put “underprivileged kids on the path to success.” Many teachers, like my mom, take work home and work long hours. An earlier survey of the broader public concluded: “Parents, the public, principals and superintendents say that almost all teachers are caring and qualified.”
A close look shows that many teachers believe in parent engagement and choice. When the chips are down – in other words, when it comes to their own children – public school teachers are twice as likely as other parents to send their kids to private schools. When I had an ineffective teacher as a child, my mom pinched pennies to put me into a private school for a few years. Teachers do this for reasons eloquently explained by Ray Salazar, a Chicago Public Schools teacher who wrote about his choices for his own children and why public education should offer more choices for all parents.
Teachers also share my mom’s specific frustrations. Teachers hold wide-ranging views on reform. The majority believe that tenure is automatic, not dependent upon quality. A plurality believes that unions should focus more on teaching quality and student achievement. On average, teachers believe that about 10 percent of their colleagues are ineffective. Three quarters of all teachers and an even higher percentage of highly recognized teachers believe it needs to be easier to dismiss ineffective teachers. Unfortunately, teachers feel that they have no voice outside their classrooms.
2) Historically, unions have given only lip service to kids
The personal sincerity of proud unionists can be mesmerizing. Consider legendary American Federation of Teachers President Albert Shanker endorsing reforms in the wake of the 1983 report A Nation at Risk; or current AFT President Randi Weingarten pushing the anti-reformers within her caucus; or new National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García showing humor as a parent and grace as a social justice advocate. At the local level, Dr. John Thompson of Oklahoma, Xian Barrett of Chicago, and Ben Spielberg of San Jose all believe their union-driven reforms would have succeeded, but for the so-called “corporate” reformers that Shanker endorsed. For years, optimists have believed in these individuals, and predicted that they will make the unions more focused on students. Dana Goldstein defends unions as “potent advocates for many of the education policies that most benefit disadvantaged children, from tuition-free pre-K to better training for teachers.”
My mom’s experience, however, alerted me to the sincerity of those who have concluded that reform unionism is a mirage. Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who concluded that teachers’ unions have been an “unwavering road block to reform,” started his career as a teachers’ union organizer. Civil rights leader Howard Fuller traveled a similar path: starting his career as a public sector union organizer, but eventually concluding that the unions prioritized political power over student interests.
Unfortunately, history has thus far favored the pessimists. The unions have unparalleled political influence over the best-funded public education system in human history. As reported over the last two weeks, the AFT alone spends millions annually to preserve that influence; the NEA devotes even more. If the optimists were right, the unions would have directed their lawyers, think tanks, communication operatives, and staffers to deliver results in many evidence-based areas, from overhauling schools of education, to promoting hands-on learning in science, technology, and math, to substantially higher salaries for the best teachers, to universal arts programs.
Unfortunately, state legislators and superintendents do not report union emphasis on these items. Aside from occasional lip service, pro-student movements within the unions disappeared as quickly as they’ve arisen, and have rarely ever delivered.
Instead, the unions pick only two real fights. First, unions attack charter schools and oppose direct scholarships for students. Second, they critique meaningful differentiation among teachers as well as defend policies such as last-in-first-out layoffs, lockstep pay, and tenure. Even teachers know the NEA and AFT don’t push for meaningful evaluations. To take one high-profile example, they opposed John McCain’s effort to cut corporate welfare and redirect the proceeds to pay more to great teachers and teachers in poor schools. In picking these two fights as their demonstrated priorities, the unions have chosen to defend a century-old industrial model of labor that casts teachers as interchangeable assembly-line cogs.
The question is why.
3) Unions are structurally biased against student interests
To see why, start with the truisms that union defenders will themselves admit. Some teachers are great, many are middling, and some are terrible. Some work very long hours, some work very few. And although money isn’t everything, it matters.
Now consider two different teacher profiles to see how incentives skew average union engagement. Imagine a fifth year teacher named Pat, who has outstanding skills and works long hours. At $50,000 per year in compensation, Pat would likely see hourly compensation go up if fired and forced to obtain a different job. Pat has very little near-term financial reason to get involved in union politics. Now imagine a veteran teacher named Ronni, who has a weaker skill set and works contract-minimum hours. Close to a generous retirement and earning six figures or more, Ronni would likely see a significant drop in hourly compensation if fired. Ronni has an immediate and strong personal financial stake in making sure that the local union takes a strong stance against accountability and choice. As a result, Ronni votes a lot more often than Pat, especially if a district considers reform.
The result is that union leaders tend to be unrepresentative. A 2005 survey of membership and leadership by the National Education Association found that only 15 percent of teachers are actively involved with the union. The same survey also showed that the larger the local affiliate, the less likely the local affiliate president will reflect the demographics and political views of their members.
To see how reform-minded teachers are systematically under-represented in union elections, consider Washington, D.C., as a case study. In 2010, George Parker, the president of the AFT’s Washington Teachers Union, negotiated a lucrative-yet-reform-oriented contract. But some teachers expressed fears about job security. Parker lost his seat shortly thereafter to challenger Nathan Saunders in an election with 25 percent turnout. Afterwards, Saunders declared in his victory comments, “this is a race about job security.” Unfortunately, 25 percent is not a particularly low turnout for a union election. Last year, in the election held by the AFT’s United Federation of Teachers in New York City, retirees cast more votes than current teachers (only 17 percent of working classroom teachers voted); this year, during an election held by the union’s United Teachers Los Angeles local, an anti-reformer won with just 22.5 percent turnout. The combination of low turnout, and systematic under-representation of pro-student voices, has decimated the viability of pro-reform unionism.
No matter the personal sincerity of leaders like Weingarten and García, they remain subject to the politics of their unions. When a fast-growing splinter group pushed unions to militantly oppose reform, the AFT spent millions on a “national day of action” to that end. As Stanford University Professor of Political Science Terry Moe concluded in a comprehensive 2011 study, “union leaders are never going to [reform, because] their incentives are heavily front-loaded and short-term.”
The structural biases against reform do not work perfectly. Across tens of thousands of districts, pro-student constituencies occasionally gain control, such as in San Jose, Calif. Unfortunately, the power structure of the unions makes such exceptions irrelevant. This is because neither union holds direct elections for senior offices. A few thousand of the most active and invested union politicians attend national conventions to choose the national leaders. Within these conventions, dissent is rare. Weingarten earned a 98 percent margin in her recent re-election to lead the AFT, while García earned 94 percent of her convention’s vote. Union leaders elected in this environment tend to intervene against reform-minded locals. In the San Jose case, the local’s parent union, the NEA’s California Teachers Association, pushed the state board of education to stall the affiliate’s request to modify local tenure rules.
4) The hope is that eroding traditional union power will empower pro-student teachers
Overcoming these structural and cultural barriers will not be easy. But changes are taking place that might, finally, give real weight to the pro-student voices within the unions.
For starters, reformers may be outgunned, but they are gaining momentum. Philanthropists finance radically disruptive technologies, charter schools, and direct scholarships (also known as vouchers). These changes increasingly create pro-reform parent constituencies among traditional labor allies such as civil rights organizations. Public opinion favors reform, and parents opt out of the system through private schools and by homeschooling. All of these trends threaten the $600 billion in annual taxpayer expenditures that finance the unions, and thus compel reform.
Second, as we learned in the cases of leaded gasoline and cigarette toxicity, evidence can overcome well-funded adversaries. As bad charter schools have closed and good ones have expanded, evidence has accumulated that new schooling models can deliver better results for students in poverty, black students, Hispanic students, English Language Learners, and students with disabilities. As a result, we see the rapid growth of high-performing nonprofit charter school operators such as Success Academy, along with high public approval of charter schools.
With great charter schools proving how much all children can learn, public deliberation is also making progress on improving traditional schools. Consider the recent Vergara v. California case, in which a neutral state judge rejected a well-funded union legal team and ruled that California’s teacher work rules violated the rights of students. The unions launched a full PR fusillade, endeavoring to make support for Vergara into a litmus test for whether someone was anti-teacher. Despite this, the decision was endorsed by virtually every major editorial board in the country, including the New York Times, and the Washington Post. And longstanding union allies such as House Education and the Workforce Committee Ranking Member George Miller agreed.
These trends are weakening the unions’ clout within the progressive movement. NEA was exposed as toothless when its resolution condemning Democratic Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was widely ignored. The AFT’s two affiliates in New York snubbed Gov. Andrew Cuomo to no avail. As I have written elsewhere, progressives have strong reasons to oppose public-sector unions, and private-sector labor is splitting from NEA and AFT. Thanks to private-sector unions, Rhode Island Treasurer Gina Raimondo won the Democratic primary for governor in spite of opposition from NEA and AFT affiliates. Meanwhile in California, superintendent candidate Marshall Tuck faces heavy opposition from NEA and AFT affiliates, but is winning union households by a 2-1 margin.
As this dynamic accelerates, it compels the unions to pick winnable fights, such as the NEA’s fight against standardized testing. If this push by the unions leads to more holistic, sophisticated evaluation systems for students and teachers and schools, the whole country will be better off.
Even more powerfully, changes legal and fiscal are eroding the unions’ structural bias against reforms. In the past few years, several states – including Tennessee, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Indiana – have passed laws dismantling the ability of NEA and AFT affiliates to compel teachers into paying dues. Indeed, this might soon be the national norm. As Dropout Nation noted in July, the U.S. Supreme Court has signaled that it may soon strike down compulsory dues in the public sector as a violation of free speech. A case filed in California last year could trigger that ruling relatively soon, which would essentially eliminate the anti-reform leaders’ advantage within their unions. Union leaders who wish to earn the dues of their members in such states will need to be much more solicitous than in the past of pro-reform teacher sentiments.
As these financial changes happen, the last defense of the status quo – district-level implementation – will begin to crumble. Pro-reform local unions will be free to innovate. Idealistic and entrepreneurial teachers will be attracted to those districts. We will learn from their experiments, and voters in other localities will notice.
After listening to my mom’s stories about teaching, I briefly spent time working in high school classrooms with legendary teachers Tommie Lindsey of James Logan and Cathy Berman of El Cerrito. Perhaps my proudest moment as a professional was when Tommie told me, “It’s obvious that great teaching is in your blood.” But after hearing my mom’s frustrations, I chose not to enter the profession myself. Today, my daughter wants to be a teacher. By the time she enters the workforce, I believe that teaching will be much more welcoming to her voice.