Thursday, February 24, 2011

Teachers' Unions Are Not The Enemy

There has been a lot of discussion positioning teachers' unions as the obstacle to effective education reform. Teaching is an inordinately difficult job and immensely complicated to quantify. Granted, we all expect teachers to apply maximum effort and expect maximum results from their students. We should also recognize that teachers in certain environments instruct students who face far greater personal challenges than students in other environments. While we are not in the business of making excuses, the statistics show the difficulty of maintaining gains in certain student populations from grade to grade, let alone expecting a "corporate style" improvement from year to year at a set percentage of test scores (analogous to stockholders expecting a set increase in earnings from a corporation in which they own stock, quarter after quarter). Sometimes, there is an academic, life-changing miracle in just getting a student on grade level and helping them stay on grade level to graduation. Then, there are the abstract concepts, like teaching students self-confidence and inspiring them about the future, traits that cannot be measured by standardized testing, but which we often (consciously or unconsciously) expect teachers to perform for their students as well. Who is the better teacher: a teacher who fosters intellectual curiosity that lasts a lifetime in her or his class in areas beyond what is covered by a standardized test or a teacher who teaches by rote to the test and produces a class full of students who can regurgitate facts and figures dispassionately, but have no desire to traverse new intellectual terrain or think critically about information they receive?

I have worked with public school students and I have heard the horror stories. One fourth grade student told me about a third grade teacher who once let her entire class spend the year coloring and doing crossword puzzles in lieu of more challenging work; how this veteran teacher escaped some punishment for this post-NCLB is confusing to me to this day. Some would say the process for terminating a teacher is too difficult. I understand the dismay. My daughter attends public Montessori school, where students can "vote with their feet" and move to other classrooms they find more challenging or enriching at will. Perhaps this could be a model for DCPS at large, eventually. We should be encouraging experimentation of this type on a broader level, but we should be working with teachers' unions to accomplish these types of radical transformations, not seeing them as implacable foes.

The current situations in Wisconsin and Indiana (where teachers face the loss of collective bargaining rights) is not the solution to our fiscal or educational challenges. The right to organize predates our fiscal and educational challenges by decades, respectively. Educational progress in this country did not dovetail immediately after teachers gained the right to organize, nor did our economy tank as a result. Where there is an overlap between teachers' union positions and fiscal waste or educational inefficiency, I am willing to challenge the unions to work with me to address these concerns, but I do not believe the elimination of the right to organize will eliminate the fiscal and educational challenges we face, in the District or the nation.

Teachers' unions are not the enemy. Let's work together to deal with the fiscal and academic challenges we face as a city.

addendum: This post was inspired by a question I was asked by the DC Association of Chartered Public Schools about my position on funding parity between charter schools and DCPS. They asked me to limit my reply to fifty words and I responded: "I support funding parity between DC Charter Schools and DCPS, as a position of fairness and justice, so long as parents have the same options to address any failure to create successful learning environments for children and teachers have a right to organize, in all public schools in the city". I want all schools to be responsible to parents and the community regarding the education that they provide (or fail to provide) to our children. I am also concerned that certain ideologues view charter schools as an opportunity to eviscerate the right to organize amongst teachers (although there are scores of well-meaning charter school proponents who do not share this view). I believe in academic experimentation, but I do not think the right to organize and radical transformation of the educational system in the District are diametrically opposed concepts. I welcome your feedback in the comment section below.

(Photo: Ben Russell, used under Creative Commons license)

1 comment:

  1. Alan, I agree on so many points in your message. I am constantly offering similar arguments that the unions are part of a solution to other problems and that the quality of education, reform, funding, and empowerment are other areas that need solutions. We cannot eradicate the unions and expect that the other problems will disappear; instead we can expect other problems to result...especially if we do a bit of history and remember what the quality of education was before unions. We cannot afford to have our schools turn into automation type institutions (such as the images presented in the "A Wrinkle In Time" series of books.

    The real solutions will come when both the whole community: parents, students, educators, unions, politicians, and other advocates sit down together and work through all of the complexities to find real solutions to today's educational needs.

    We must recognize that education and the process of educating young and old minds does not happen in a vacuum. That the outside issues faced by each student plays a factor in her/his ability to learn, retain, and apply knowledge. We cannot ignore the socio-cultural-economic factors of the students, families, communities and then blame (or expect miracles from) teachers/educators when the system breaks down.

    Education is a collective issue and we will only succeed in solving it when we stop looking for who is to blame and look for who is offering real, creative, and progressive thinking to address the real issues, rather than theoretical approaches. The we must be bold enough to apply (i.e ACT on) the best -critical- creative thinking to make the necessary change happen.