Reforming the teachers' unions: what the good guys have accomplished - and what remains to be done.
One morning last fall, 28 leaders of the nation's largest union, the National Education Association (NEA), spent a few hours touring through the three cavernous plants of the Saturn car company in Spring Hill, Tennessee. As they wandered past synchronized robot arms and a mechanized foundry that turns foam shapes into engine parts, the unionists commented on the "surreal" placidity and apparent contentment of the workers. But this was no science field trip. NEA President Bob Chase had organized the visit in order to witness Satures innovative arrangement with the United Auto Workers union, which has helped to make it into one of the industry's biggest success stories. And his larger agenda was glaringly obvious to the union reps he took along with him. After three decades of old-fashioned bargaining for better pay and working conditions, Chase and his counterparts in the smaller American Federation of Teachers (AFT) have earned a reputation as the bureaucratic "blob" that is weighing down our public schools. Now Chase and AFT president Sandra Feldman are eager to show the world that they're serious about "reinventing" themselves as advocates for academic accountability and high standards.
It's not an easy task. After Bob Dole's landmark attack on the teachers' unions at the 1996 Republican convention, the NEA conducted a study which concluded that "the NEA is now painted as the number one obstacle to better public schools." Ever since, the NEA and the AFT, which are set to merge starting later this year, have been struggling to improve their public image. In January 1997, Chase gave a speech at the National Press Club (titled "It's Not Your Mother's NEA") in which he offered a personal recantation of his earlier resistance to reform as a state NEA official in the 1980s. At the 1997 summer convention in Atlanta, union delegates voted to change their policies on several crucial school reform issues including charter schools, peer review, and standardized tests.
But when confronted with the hard facts of the Saturn plant, the union leaders were less enthusiastic. According to Education Week, one NEA affiliate president asked a Saturn worker what his company would do if parts from one of its suppliers varied widely in quality. The answer came easily: switch suppliers. But it didn't go over well with the visitors. In the world of teachers' unions, privatization -- even of non-educational services like food and transportation -- is still viewed as the ultimate heresy. The fact that Saturn's innovations were driven by competition with Japan was an even sorer point, since it suggests an argument that the unions still fiercely resist: public schools could use some competition, too. And what about the Saturn unionworkers' contract, which is a mere 33 pages long -- unlike those thick protective tomes the teachers are used to? Or Saturn's "Risk and Reward" program, which provides incentives for workers who do well, and sanctions for those who don't? Don't these analogies suggest that the teachers' unions should be finding similar ways to reward good teachers and force out the bad ones?
Chase's Saturn tour exemplifies his campaign for reform. It sounds like the dawn of a new era, a radical new role for teachers' unions -- until you start asking what he's actually done to translate those good intentions into action. Pressed for an explanation, Chase is quick to point out that the NEA is a vast organization (there are 13,000 local affiliates) and can!t turn around quickly. As recently as a year ago four Wisconsin NEA affiliates signed a letter to Chase comparing his call for a "new unionism" to the policy of appeasement with the Nazis in the 1930s. Meanwhile, the stakes are getting larger. If the proposed merger goes through, Chase will be the nominal head of a single teachers' union representing 3.2 million people, more than 80 percent of American public school teachers. For that reason alone, it's worth taking a look at how much the reformers have achieved and how much farther they have to go.
Chase isn't the first union leader to call for reform. Former AFT president Al Shanker, who died last year, used his weekly syndicated "Where We Stand" for many years to take thoughtful positions on some of the toughest issues facing public schools. Under his leadership, the AFT helped to win passage of "zero tolerance" laws on violence in schools, and to advocate national academic standards. The NEA, which opposed standardized tests until recently out of fear that teachers would be blamed for their students' scores (which is precisely the point), recently came on board, and is now promoting national standards as well. So far the U.S. cult of local control has kept them at bay, despite Clinton's support. But the unions (particularly the AFT) have also pushed for statewide tests. In Texas, student scores on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) are published every year. "There's tremendous accountability when it hits the newspaper," says Gayle Fallon, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers.
Fallon is one of the many AFT leaders who have helped to earn their organization some respect even among its fiercest ideological enemies. For instance: Earlier this year the right-wing Heritage Foundation devoted a cover story to Thaddeus Lott, a Houston elementary school principal who used rigorous, back-to-basics methods to turn around a failing school in a blighted neighborhood. He now manages four schools with almost complete autonomy to hire and fire teachers, thanks to an innovative arrangement that predated the Texas charter school law. Who found Lott, promoted him, and helped him to evade the school board's rules? You guessed it: Gayle Fallon, whose godson attends one of Lott's schools.
Yet Fallon is an exception; even Shanker himself never really acknowledged the problems that came with the very nature of teachers' unions. Ironically, Shanker helped to create these problems by leading the first great teachers' strike in 1961 and winning collective bargaining rights. In every state that recognized them, the unions could now negotiate with school boards on behalf of all district teachers to gain standardized pay schedules, better working hours and conditions, and direct union deductions from paychecks.
What Shanker failed to see was that the industrial model isn't exactly a perfect fit for education. Union contracts mandate an assembly line-style seniority system, whereby teachers are hired and promoted regardless of performance. They also support a hopelessly bureaucratic licensing system that encourages mediocrity and repels smart young people. Perhaps worst of all, the unions are duty bound to defend their most incompetent tenured members, in a process that has often taken years and cost school districts hundreds of thousands of dollars. By the 1990s the NEA and the AFT had become the targets of frequent blistering attacks in the press, each of which described another classroom Hannibal Lecter who simply could not be fired.
For the most part, Al Shanker skillfully avoided facing these problems, or claimed that higher academic standards and greater respect for teaching as a profession would make them go away. But Bob Chase says he wants to address them. In an astonishing reversal of NEA dogma, Chase declared repeatedly in 1997 that "it is our job to improve [poor] teachers, or, that failing, to get them out of the classroom" How does he propose to do it?
The answer he offers most often is "peer review." This is an idea with a long history -- and, until recently, very little application. It started in 1981 when Dal Lawrence, the president of the Toledo Federation of Teachers (the AFT local), persuaded his school district that veteran teachers would do a better job of evaluating teacher performance than principals. Under the union's plan, new teachers in the district start off with an "internship" year during which they are supervised by a "consultant teacher" (who is responsible for several teachers, and works full time reviewing them). At the end of the year the consulting teacher presents his case to the intern board of review, which is composed of five union teachers and four management people, on whether or not to retain the new teacher. There is also an "intervention" program for retraining or weeding out veteran teachers.
When Lawrence started the program, "the entire union was outraged. Except for one person" Luckily, that person was Al Shanker, who came to Toledo and applauded Lawrence for his innovation. Still, many union members continued to deplore peer review as heresy until the past few years, when the AFT leadership finally began to promote the Toledo program. The NEA, which opposed peer review for years, only reversed itself last summer. "First they said we couldn't do it," says John Grossman, president of the Columbus, Ohio local that pioneered peer review in the NEA 12 years ago. "Then they ignored us. Then, six years later, they gave us an award."
Teachers who've gone through these programs say they make an enormous difference, keeping teachers., and administrators vigilant about the level of teaching throughout their schools. Yet how much difference has peer review actually made? In Toledo, about 64 percent of the roughly 170 interns who start every year have been fired. Thirty-five experienced teachers have been put into the "intervention" program since 1981, and 23 of them have been fired or allowed to leave (there are about 2,800 teachers in the district). The Columbus program has eliminated about 6 percent of each year's roughly 300 starting interns over the past decade. It has also taken 178 veteran teachers in for "intervention" evaluation, in a system with about 4,700 teachers. About 85 of those have been fired or quit (or retired), and most of the rest are teaching again.
So there's some evidence to support Chase's claims about his union's commitment to getting poor teachers out of the classroom -- but not a lot. Peer review is still only being used in a handful of districts. Moreover, handing unions that much power to hire and fire teachers isn't necessarily a good idea. Good schools need strong principals, but they rarely get them in a system where principals know they aren't responsible for the quality of their teachers.
What the unions should really be focusing on is state tenure laws, which make it extremely difficult to fire problem teachers. Currently it takes the average district two to three years and $60,000 to fire a teacher. "Tenure negates a district's ability to look at other options," says Anne Bryant, executive director of the National School Boards Association. Replacing current tenure laws with short-term contracts, to be renewed after a performance review, would go a long way toward clearing the deadwood from our schools. The unions have long resisted this reform, which is after all the practice in many of our best private schools. In the past year the NEA and AFT leadership have finally opened the door to revising (though not abolishing) tenure. "It's under discussion in a number of state affiliates," one NEA official told me. Chase could win a lot of credibility for his reform efforts by pushing for it.
Another item in Chase's agenda has been incentives for good teaching, like the "Risk and Reward" program at Saturn. Currently, teachers are rewarded for their years of service, not for their ability. "The system is deeply flawed, because it provides dollars no matter what happens in schools," says Joe Nathan, director of the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota's Hubert H. Humphrey Institute. "Unions have certainly contributed to that." Both Chase and Sandra Feldman now acknowledge that the seniority system is inadequate. Their solution is to offer financial and professional incentives to teachers who become certified with the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS), which was created in the late 1980s and has won wide respect for the rigor of its training programs.
Yet this isn't much of an advance either. The NBPTS is still under construction, and doesn't yet offer certification in most fields; there are less than a thousand certified teachers nationwide. Furthermore, it would be better to have incentives tied directly to student achievement than just to teacher training. (There is no hard evidence that teachers who've gone through the NBPTS program have improved the performance of their students) In fairness to the unions, a number of "merit pay" schemes have been tried in schools around the country, and education critics on the left and the right agree that they've been a failure.
Still, that's no excuse for the current system, which reduces all prospective public school teachers to the same level no matter what their skills. Our best private schools hire and promote on the basis of subject knowledge and demonstrated teaching ability, not just on having taken a few meaningless "education" classes. There's no reason why public school certification can't be raised to the same high standards, and the unions should be putting all their strength into that effort.
What about charter schools, which offer a way around many of the bureaucratic rules t ' he unions have held to? As recently as 1991, the NEA was "unalterably opposed" to them, and when it reversed its policy last summer it received a lot of good press. Yet here again the "new unionism" line is not all it appears to be. NEA and AFT leaders favor charters only so long as they hire certified teachers and abide by a number of other union-friendly rules. At the local level, many affiliates have actively fought charter laws, or burdened them with so many regulations that they become meaningless. In Arkansas, "the union essentially wrote the charter law," says Joe Nathan, "and it's a joke. There are no charter schools"
That may be changing, if only because the unions have had to make some concessions in order to keep fighting school vouchers, which they still resist with all their might. (Even small-scale voucher programs for the worst-performing school districts are distorted by the union lens into "lifeboat" strategies that hurt students and pose a dire threat to public education) In Arizona, the unions struggle to derail a voucher bill resulted in the strongest charter school law in the country. "Politically, you can't make those [anti-voucher] speeches and then turn down public charter schools too," says Arizona!s state School Superintendant Lisa Graham Keegan, who helped to put the law through.
Charters could be a crucial wedge issue for the unions, because their method -- minimum regulation, maximum accountability for student performance -- is diametrically opposed to the traditional union position. If Chase and Feldman really want to transform their unions, they'll reach out to the growing numbers of charter schools whose intial five-year contracts are starting to come due. These charter members could then start to exert pressure on the union from the inside. "Media-wise, it would be a big mistake for the unions to tell us to take a hike," says Yvonne Chan, the principal of an enormously successful school in Los Angeles whose charter is up for renewal in May, and who hopes to negotiate a new union contract for her teachers. "We have proved to the public that we can achieve the dreams the unions always said they wanted"
Which Side Are You On?
Will the unions ever stop fighting vouchers and place themselves squarely behind charter schools, teacher accountability, and tenure reform? That may depend on how threatened they feel. In the past, their cozy relations with the Democratic party have protected them from the cold air of change. Ever since 1976, when the NEA broke its longstanding nonpartisanship policy to endorse Jimmy Carter and he rewarded them by creating the Department of Education, the unions have been big campaign players. Myron Lieberman, author of a 1997 book on the teachers' unions, estimates that the NEA and the AFT together spent over $50 million for the 1996 campaign, compared with $35 million by the AFL-CIO. At the 1996 Democratic convention the teachers' union caucus constituted 11 percent of all delegates. That's a bigger share than the state of California. At the state level they're even more firmly entrenched, as Dante Chinni wrote last year in the Monthly ("Teacher's Pets," Jan/Feb. 1997)
This alliance has done far more than just damaging union credibility with governors, school board members, and local politicans. It's a great irony that the Democrats, who ought to be the party of the poor, have done so little to improve the public schools that hold them down. Clinton has scarcely touched on the need to get problem teachers out of these schools, and he has adamantly resisted limited voucher trials, which may be the only way out for many poor kids (see Richard Whitmire's article in this issue). There can be little doubt that Clinton's agenda has been shaped by his party's dependence on the unions. And while the unions are right that many conservative voucher advocates seem bent on seeing the end of our public school system, the Democrats could end up achieving that goal for them if they aren't willing to make the relatively minor concessions that could save it.
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|Title Annotation:||peer review, tenure reform|
|Date:||May 1, 1998|
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