Presentation Day, Part II: Continued

The first two presentations yesterday — about standardization and evaluation — led, of course, to the last group and its beautifully titled presentation: State of the Unions. This is certainly one of the most controversial issues of all. I was struck here by what seemed to me to be a bias against unions. I don’t think this was intentional (it may well have been, though, as I mentioned yesterday, it was difficult to tell from the presentation), but more likely the result of what happens when we set something up as a pro/con dichotomy. I tried to illustrate the problematic nature of this approach by asking that straightforward question at the end: if research suggests that students in heavily unionized states achieve more than students do in non-unionized states, why isn’t that the end of the conversation? Yaou had no trouble immediately poking a hole in this argument — obviously lots of other factors contribute to student achievement — and I expect that many of you would have made the same point, but oversimplification seems to rule the day in the education policy discourse. My sense is that the conversation about tenure and teaching is so heavily skewed against tenure that it’s very difficult to actually evaluate the issue fairly, and really easy to fall into a false equivalence situation that only causes partisans on either side to harden their positions. To me, tenure is about job security and academic freedom; when teachers feel insecure and muzzled they cannot do their best work. I’m not arguing that all teachers should have a job for life simply because they got their first one, but what we call tenure does not guarantee this most public school teachers anyway; it merely promises them due process if they are fired. This should be the least we expect, especially given everything else we know about the state of public education today. We’re using student test scores to evaluate teachers without the assurance of knowing that there is a definitive link between the quality of the work a teacher does and the score his or her students get on a test; that fact alone should give us pause when we think about granting administrators (or politicians!) the right to fire teachers without notice or explanation. In this economy, losing your job — especially in middle age — can be a financial death sentence, if not an actual one. We ought to be mindful of that as we contemplate kicking people to the curb with or without explanation.

As Meredith, Melanie, and Kate pointed out, unions not only can protect individual teachers but they can also give them a voice in the loud and contentious debate on education reform. It is often noted that teachers haven’t been playing much of a role in determining the direction that reform efforts take; if we don’t detect a connection between the declining influence of unions and the muted voices of teachers in the conversation about things that affect them and their students directly, then we need to adjust our collective eyesight and hearing. It is true, as the group pointed out that unions have protected bad teachers in the past, as we might expect from any loosely comprised group (not all unions are the same) operating at such a scale. But scapegoating unions, to me, is only a step above scapegoating teachers. It might be fair in world where teachers made all the decisions about what happens in schools but since when has that been the case? Maybe, as Chris suggested in his group’s presentation, we’d all be better off if policymakers had more skin in the game. Or maybe we’d be better off if teachers did.

Then there’s the political truth that members of teachers unions tend to vote predictably for certain candidates, and that unions historically have supported one party over the other. Unions, like other organizations and special interest groups, have the ability to communicate with their members in ways that can be very persuasive. Remember what we read about the rise of the NEA in the Carter years? On some level the ongoing attack on unions — which is by no means confined only to unions of teachers — can be read as plain old fashioned hard core political hardball. As we have said over and over again this semester, politics often trump good sense when it comes to making policy, no matter how you define good sense. In other words, we’re not averse to doing things for political reasons even if those reasons make it harder for us to accomplish other goals.

Is this an argument for teachers’ unions? Not necessarily. I’m not part of a union but I have tenure — the kind that does come with better-than-average job protections, though I can still be fired for incompetence or any of a number of other reasons; where there’s a will, there’s a way — and I have it, I think, because permanent and semi-permanent faculty at colleges and universities are respected in ways that classroom teachers are not. I am also lucky to work at a place where there is an unusually high level of accord between faculty members and administrators, which is also not the case in many K-12 schools. It may well be the case that unions — which have historically existed to provide bargaining rights to workers and serve as a counterweight to the entrenched power of the people who owned the capital unionized workers worked with and produced — are holding back the development of teaching as a genuine profession. After all, you don’t see many unionized doctors and lawyers. In some ways, identifying teaching with unionization implies the need to defend something rather than proactively fight for something else, as unions often have found themselves operating from a point of weakness against much wealthier and better-connected adversaries. That certainly seems to be the case with teachers unions. But how can teachers speak with a collective voice otherwise? What’s the alternative? How can we provide teachers with some level of job security, especially as evaluations of teaching become more capricious, and also protect their ability to challenge students academically and intellectually without fear of reprisal if unions disappear? That’s a question I’d love to see Kate, Meredith, and Melanie tackle in their project. It’s a tough one, but you three are more than capable of getting after it. Have at it!

So, all in all, I really enjoyed all of these presentations. We covered an impressive amount of ground and I think the foundation has been laid by each of you for a meaningful final project that will push these ideas even further. Well done, everyone, and thanks for your hard work.

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