Labor Pains: Because Being in a Union can be Painful

Are Teachers Unions Finally Starting to Learn?

While the rest of the labor movement forges ahead with its destructive agenda, teachers unions are starting to look like rational actors. Los Angeles teachers are on the brink of joining Newark educators by bucking national trends and will allow student performance-based evaluations. The American Federation of Teachers is proposing a “bar exam” for teachers and higher standards for education training. And Wisconsin teachers unions are recognizing that with smaller numbers, merging might be a better option.

Of course, our memory isn’t that short: the actions of the Douglas County, CO teachers union and the strike-happy Chicago Teachers Union are still prime examples of labor unions’ natural inclination of obstinance. But there appears to be some hope in a few select districts.

Considering the history of the Newark teachers union, its recent announcement that it would agree to merit pay came as a shock. Part of the evaluation will be based on peer review, which made the proposal more palatable to the 61% of teachers who approved the change. Newark teachers can now earn up to $12,000 per year in bonuses, including up to $5,000 for good results.

And now Los Angeles teachers will be given the opportunity to agree to system that uses student test scores as part of teacher evaluation. Although both sides have yet to pin a number on how heavily scores will weigh, they have agreed that it will be under 50%. There is still a risk that the union members will not approve the deal, however.

But in both cases, teachers unions really did not have much of a choice: new federal regulations have forced the hand of states to start adopting laws that consider student performance.  In addition, as Laura McKenna explains in The Atlantic:

According to Jeff Henig, a professor of political science and education at Columbia’s Teachers College, the merit pay program in Newark is a sign of the political weakness of teachers’ unions. The AFT, which is more nimble and politically savvy than the NEA, has recognized that they must show that unions are not in the business of supporting bad teachers or opposing innovation. [Professor Harry] Brighouse also noted that the AFT, more than the NEA, is responding to the increasing pressure to do things differently.

Henig said, “local teachers unions with the blessing of the AFT are softening their rigid objection to some kinds of merit pay and some incorporation of student outcomes rather than risk that this will happen without them at the table.”

Teachers unions are recognizing that it would be better to agree to these changes on their own terms. It remains to be seen if this cooperation will distort the intended results.

And in another testament to the AFT’s willingness to show a propensity for reform, the union has announced a proposal raise the standards for those who are educating American children. As the Washington Post explains:

Under the AFT plan, prospective teachers who have undergone training at an education school would have to demonstrate knowledge of their subject areas, an understanding of the social and emotional elements of learning, and spend a year in “clinical practice” as a student teacher before passing a rigorous exam.

The plan also calls for universities to grow more selective in accepting students into teacher preparation programs, requiring a minimum of a 3.0 grade point average to enroll and to graduate, among other things. There are about 1,400 teacher preparation programs in the country, with a wide range of quality, experts say.

But there may also be another motivation at work. It’s no secret that public sector unions hate competition, and teachers unions are no exception:

At the same time, alternative teacher preparation programs have sprouted up, offering a streamlined path to certification and the classroom. Teach for America, for example, gives college graduates five weeks of training before sending them into some of the most troubled schools in the country.

A bar exam would “just level the playing field,” [AFT President Randi] Weingarten said. “Maybe all the alternative certified teachers will pass with flying colors. But if only 10 percent of TFA passed it and 90 percent of the students from Teachers College passed it, that would say something.”

Despite Weingarten’s distaste for Teach for America, the plan suggests that the AFT is willing to actually  improve education, not just teacher benefits.

Finally, in Wisconsin, the reforms of Act 10 have altered the relationship of teachers, labor, and public schools. The result has been a mass exodus from the Wisconsin Education Association Council and the American Federation of Teachers-Wisconsin. As a result, the unions are considering a merger. According to the Associated Press:

WEAC says the most important reason to merge the groups is to strengthen and unify advocates of public education. Kenosha teacher Michael Orth tells the State Journal “it’s about building local union power.”

But collective power is not the answer. As stories continue to pile up from Newark, Los Angeles, and even in the AFT offices in Washington, DC, not all teachers are the same. Collective bargaining sells good teachers short and pushes bad teachers ahead. And that takes away from educating students.

Categories: Center for Union FactsNEANewarkTeachers Unions