Teachers And Their Unions: A Conceptual Border Dispute

Posted by on May 2, 2012

One of the segments from “Waiting for Superman” that stuck in my head is the following statement by Newsweek reporter Jonathan Alter:

It’s very, very important to hold two contradictory ideas in your head at the same time. Teachers are great, a national treasure. Teachers’ unions are, generally speaking, a menace and an impediment to reform.

The distinction between teachers and their unions (as well as those of other workers) has been a matter of political and conceptual contention for long time. On one “side,” the common viewpoint, as characterized by Alter’s slightly hyperbolic line, is “love teachers, don’t like their unions.” On the other “side,” criticism of teachers’ unions is often called “teacher bashing.”

So, is there any distinction between teachers and teachers’ unions? Of course there is.

People who disagree with policies traditionally supported by teachers’ unions, or support policies that unions tend to oppose, are not “anti-teacher.” That’s kind of like arguing that fighting against environmental regulations is tantamount to hating members of the National Wildlife Federation. It’s certainly true that the rhetoric in education can cross the line (on both “sides”), and extreme, motive-ascribing, anti-union statements are understandably interpreted as “bashing” by the teachers that comprise those unions. Some of the discourse involving unions and policy is, however, from my (admittedly non-teacher) perspective, more or less substantive.

So, you can “love teachers and disagree with their unions,” but don’t kid yourself – in the majority of cases, disagreeing with unions’ education policy positions represents disagreeing with most teachers. In other words, opposing unions certainly doesn’t mean you’re “bashing” teachers, but it does, on average, mean you hold different views than they do.

Of course, it’s very important to note that neither the teaching profession nor teachers’ unions is a monolith. Teachers’ views on policy, like those among incumbents of any occupation, are nuanced and diverse. For example, teachers support some forms of compensation reform and not others. Opinions also vary by context and teacher/school characteristics, and they are subject to change over time.

Moreover, it goes without saying that not all teachers agree with the stances taken by their unions (though the overwhelming majority of them, including new teachers, believe their unions are important). Many educators, unfortunately but inevitably, don’t participate much in their union’s affairs. Similarly, there are thousands of teacher locals around the nation, with their own officers, members and priorities. There are some policies on which most are in strong agreement, while there is more variation in views about others; these positions can and do change over time. Such is the nature of democratic organizations.

That said, teachers’ unions are comprised of members who are teachers, they’re led by teachers (many still in the classroom) who are elected by teachers, and union policy positions and collective bargaining agreements are voted on and approved by teachers.

The reason why so many locals tend to oppose things like bonuses based on test scores, and support measures such as class size reduction, is because their members tend to oppose and support them. If you disagree with these stances, you can – and should – speak out. And if you think that teachers shouldn’t have a right to collective bargaining, you are of course entitled to that opinion as well. These are policy disagreements, not “teacher bashing.”

Nevertheless, while I acknowledge that this is a generalization (and far from an original thought), vociferous opposition to teachers’ unions is too often a shield behind which advocates hide, thus precluding their having to acknowledge and address their disagreement with most of the teachers who make up those unions.

To be sure, such tactics are common on all “sides” of the debate (e.g., accusations of “profiteering”), and I’m not quite so naive as to believe that you can remove the politics from policy debates. But, when you hear “teachers’ unions,” at least some part of you should think “teachers.” It would, in my view, improve the tone and quality of our debate if we all recognized that there is a distinction, but, when it comes to views on education policy, usually not much of a difference.

- Matt Di Carlo


11 Comments posted so far

  • While local unions are comprised of real classroom teachers, many union priorities are determined at the state and national level. Outside of collective bargaining, very little seems to be determined locally. More often than not, locals take their marching orders from “higher ranking” union leaders. There are few real opportunities to influence policy locally, and many teachers feel disenfranchised by the top-down decision making process.

    Comment by Todd Hausman
    May 2, 2012 at 12:12 PM
  • I sure wish more teachers would stand up against union practices that make it hard to remove poor teachers, and consequently make it hard to reward the best teachers. We’ll never get to a point where the best teachers are paid at a level reflective of the value they add, as long as unions insist on collective bargaining tactics and contracts that protect the poor teachers at the expensive of real education reform.

    Comment by Charles Smith
    May 2, 2012 at 2:47 PM
  • The problem with opposing union practices that make it difficult to remove poor teachers (and there really aren’t the numbers of poor teachers that the media and opportunistic politicians assert) is that it also removes due process protections that shield good teachers from abuse.

    In most cases, the impediment to removing a poor teacher is an administrator who is unwilling or unable to articulate a case why that teacher should be fired.

    As for paying good teachers at a level that reflects the value they add, it will never happen because there is no means available to measure what a good teacher adds and more importantly there is no pubic desire to pay teachers a salary that reflects the value of their work.

    Comment by David Freeland
    May 2, 2012 at 5:52 PM
  • [...] An exploration of the conceptual border separating teachers and their unions. (Shanker Blog) [...]

    May 2, 2012 at 6:20 PM
  • As a 45 year member of the AFT and UFT (run by a one party system for 50 years) I find some specious arguments going on here in saying “though the overwhelming majority of them, including new teachers, believe their unions are important)”. Of course most public school teachers feel a union is important. But maybe if there debates were allowed and multi-party systems more people would take part. The total control by Unity Caucus in NYC where debate is shut down and all policies are issued as dictums from the top and enforced by people working in a patronage system is a major reason the anti-union message has gained some credence.

    Comment by norm scott
    May 2, 2012 at 10:03 PM
  • Without the union, the job becomes political. Grades are given in exchange for continued employment. Before I had tenure, my job was on the line for not giving away grades to politician’s kids. Tenure is due process, not a guarantee, unless administrators are ineffective, or political. Regarding resisting change, I wish unions had been able to resist whole language and new math. Both are disastrous policies that were pushed as educational reform by those who didn’t understand education & saw an economic opportunity to sell a program. Many of the new “reforms” are not effective, but are forced on the system, and the teachers are blamed for the failure of a poorly thought out program. Maybe it the “reformers” were to work with the unions and respect the opinions of the people who actually do the job, we could see actual reform.

    Comment by Pete
    May 4, 2012 at 10:05 AM
  • [...] ‘Other’ Consequences of Debt Charter Schools Are… [Public? Private? Neither? Both?] Teachers And Their Unions: A Conceptual Border Dispute The Endless Arrogance of Wall Street Anti-choice bill sponsor in Minnesota: Viagra is a [...]

    May 4, 2012 at 4:38 PM
  • being in a union for a number of yrs myself i had no choice where my dues went,and was asked on my card payment if i wanted to contribute even more to the D.N.C. (basically a slush fund ) for the D.N.C only…Until they have equal representation from both parties it’s a one sided argument(politically) ,and the families,taxpayers and communities are left in total frustration.

    Comment by beatles music
    May 7, 2012 at 11:29 PM
  • Matt,

    I think the bashing is a lot more common that you seem to indicate.

    Anti-union statements are often made in the context of teacher bashing. They are just used to justify teacher bashing, or are justified by teacher bashing.

    Losing due process rights? That because it is too hard to remove the huge number of horrible teachers that are keeping this country from leading the world in this that or the other.

    That’s teacher bashing.

    Class size reduction? If you are against class size reduction than you are saying teachers current work load is fine and just (in some way). You are arguing against making the workload (e.g. grading of papers, contacting parents, making sure every student is well known, etc..) more managable. Is that bashing? Well, at the very least it is not far. Steadfast refusal to acknowledge how hard and how much teachers work feels a lot like bashing to me — even if the bashers don’t realize it.

    I could go on and on.

    One does not have to say “Teachers are lazy,” “Teachers are stupid,” “The kinds of people who go into teaching couldn’t get a any other job,” “Teachers are overpaid for the work they do,” or anything else so explicitly to be engaged in teacher bashing.

    The Common Core State Standards have teachers focusing more are teaching students to be better aware of the assuptions and implications of claims and arguments. Those things count.

    And if you really pay attention to what the union-bashers are saying, there’s usually quite a bit of teacher-bashing right there, too.

    Comment by ceolaf
    May 10, 2012 at 12:03 AM
  • [...] Di Carlo at Shankerblog has some, as always, thoughtful and nuanced ideas on the discourse surrounding education policy. He argues that accusations of “teacher [...]

    May 13, 2012 at 10:02 AM
  • The idea that unions are responsible for unreasonable impediments to removing ineffective teachers is a myth. Usually the reason the ineffective teacher isn’t removed is because an administrator or administrators have screwed up and they don’t want their actions examined.

    Teachers don’t want to work with ineffective teachers, but they don’t want a colleague’s professional rights ignored, either. And, teachers don’t become ineffective over-night. So, either an admin screwed up in the placement or subsequently in their supervision of the teacher.

    Comment by Dan McGuire
    August 29, 2012 at 2:14 PM

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Disclaimer

This web site and the information contained herein are provided as a service to those who are interested in the work of the Albert Shanker Institute (ASI). ASI makes no warranties, either express or implied, concerning the information contained on or linked from shankerblog.org. The visitor uses the information provided herein at his/her own risk. ASI, its officers, board members, agents, and employees specifically disclaim any and all liability from damages which may result from the utilization of the information provided herein. The content in the shankerblog.org may not necessarily reflect the views or official policy positions of ASI or any related entity or organization.

Banner image adapted from 1975 photograph by Jennie Shanker, daughter of Albert Shanker.