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Teachers Unions

In October of 2012, Arne Duncan, President Obama’s Secretary of Education, was the guest on The Diane Rehm Show.  As part of the conversation on the state of American education, Mr. Duncan disputed the claims from the political right that teachers’ unions were at the root of problems with the education system.  As it happens, I generally agreed with him — there are plenty of other issues bedeviling education that have nothing to do with unions.  But I also thought he had been altogether too dismissive of the notion that unions cause any problems at all and thought he had missed something fundamental.  I sent this to the show during the broadcast but it did not make it onto the air.

9 October 2012

Secretary Duncan defended teachers’ unions against the charge that they were “the problem” in education. I believe he is partly right — the extent to which unions are at the source of problems has been grossly overstated — but they are not blameless.

Unions negotiate contracts that typically demand consistent wage rates and work rules across an entire district. They have dependably opposed, often bitterly, any attempts to individualize salaries or benefits or assignment rules or evaluations. Every teacher must be treated exactly the same. Differentiation is only allowed based on criteria like credentials or tenure, never on performance.

And yet, they demand that teachers are “professionals” and should be treated as such. The two viewpoints are utterly incompatible.

The fundamental presumption underlying any union’s approach to its dealings with management — and the teachers’ unions fully align with this — is that individual employees are, and must be treated as, interchangeable labor units. How teachers are assigned to schools, how they are paid, how much leeway or oversight they are subject to must be based on external and “objective” criteria that have nothing to do with a particular teacher’s history or skills.

But that is the antithesis of being “professionals”.  A professional is, by definition, not interchangeable but an individual with individualized skills and strengths and weaknesses.  A professional is expected to take personal responsibility for both the process of his/her work and its outcome.  A professional understands and expects that how he/she is to be treated has everything to do with how well he/she performs and absolutely nothing to do with his/her peers.

If teacher’s want to be treated as professionals and to be given professional responsibilities, for their classrooms specifically and for educational policy generally, they must act like professionals in their dealings with school management and with the public. As long as they behave in their employment negotiations like interchangeable labor units, they can’t really expect to be treated as anything other than that in their classrooms.

© Copyright 2012, Augustus P. Lowell

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