This series has been slow to develop, but not for lack of things to talk about. I’ve tried so far to be fair with my comments, as I don’t need a lynch-mob of teacher-relatives and teacher-friends breaking down my door.
Unions, or organized labor, developed over 200 years ago as a way for workers to put pressure on employers to improve working conditions and pay. If you go back and read about some of the dangerous factories and what workers went through, it seems completely reasonable that unions were created. Individual workers couldn’t make things happen, but if they all protested together, they could get the attention of management and push for improvements. It was a good idea, and it worked.
Flash-forward to today. Today’s unions are still groups of employees working in a concerted fashion to demand change from their employers. The difference is, those employees aren’t in dangerous jobs, they aren’t being mistreated, they aren’t being underpaid… In most cases union workers are already paid more and given more benefits than their private-sector counterparts. They’re no longer fighting against the “man” to solve their grievances, since they don’t really have any. They’re just pushing to get as much money and as many benefits for their members as they can.
Now that we understand where unions came from, why they exist, and what they work towards, let me explain why they are detrimental to the public education system.
1) Tenure. Tenure is a very bad thing. It’s a benefit pushed by the unions which means that once a teacher has worked a certain number of years at a school, they can no longer be fired without cause. Many private-sector employees are “at-will”, which means either the employee or the employer can terminate at any time without giving cause.
2) Job description and seniority-based pay. Unions have negotiated pay levels that are tied to specific job descriptions and years of service. Two teachers with the same qualifications, doing the same job, teaching the same subject, with the same number of years of experience, get the same pay. They get paid the same, regardless of how good they are at their job or how hard they work. What happens is that poor-performing teachers aren’t penalized and given reason to improve. High-performing teachers see the poor-performing ones getting the same pay and it demoralizes them to know that their hard work isn’t going to be rewarded.
3) An us-against-them attitude. Unions have cultivated this attitude among their ranks. If you’re in the union, you’re on our side, and if you’re not in the union, you’re the enemy. Any suggestion that puts even the slightest crack in the unions’ control of the situation is treated as an attack on the teachers themselves. Schools are struggling to find ways to make budgets work, but if they suggest that teachers should help pay for their health insurance for example, they’re labeled as anti-teacher.
4) It’s all about the kids. Unions love to use this one. Everything they do, they claim that it’s for the kids. If you’re against the union (see #3 above), you’re against the kids. What they don’t explain, and no one ever presses them to, is how asking teachers to contribute to health insurance is going to hurt the kids? Wouldn’t it be harder on the educational process if the school board has to lay off teachers and increase class sizes to meet the budget? Really, if all they care about is the kids, why aren’t they teaching for free? It’s an extreme example, but it makes the point that when unions negotiate for better pay or benefits, it’s about pay and benefits – nothing else.
5) Bad teachers. No one likes to admit it, but there ARE bad teachers in the system. Education is no different than any other industry. It has good employees and bad employees. The difference is, in private non-union industry management can terminate bad employees (see #1 above). In education bad teachers languish in the system for years, collecting salaries but either doing nothing at all or just doing a bad job. For the most well-known example, read this article at the New Yorker about New York City’s Rubber Rooms. Schools need to be given the ability to weed these teachers out. This would also help #2 above.
Overall, what needs to happen is to move education towards a business-type employment environment. Give control back to management. Use merit-based pay to encourage teachers to succeed. Discontinue the tenure program, good teachers don’t need it to hide behind. Eliminate bad teachers and fill their spots with someone who wants to succeed. If these things were done, it would have a positive affect on the education system as a whole and would show the community that teachers aren’t just a faceless union unwilling to change.
Next Installment: Curriculum