Some of today’s leading school "reformers" claim that the primary cause of the ills affecting American education is a glut of bad teachers, and that the unions that represent them are the major obstacles to progress. How does this viewpoint square with what is happening in our schools?
Consider New Haven, Denver and Newark. All three are large urban districts that are creating partnerships with teachers and their unions that will serve as a framework for a new era of school reform. In Newark, the teachers union signed an agreement that will make it possible for six high-needs schools in the city to operate on a longer school day. In Denver and New Haven, teachers unions are working out agreements with school administrators that place great emphasis on providing support to teachers and working collaboratively with them to raise student achievement. The key to such agreements is flexibility in work schedules, teacher assignments and evaluation. In all three districts, qualitative and quantitative measures of academic performance will be used to evaluate teachers and to make decisions about pay and placement.
The agreements demonstrate that when district leaders are open to working with teachers and their unions, progress can be made toward improving public schools. This may come as a surprise to those convinced that such fruitful collaboration is impossible. A manifesto by Joel Klein (outgoing schools chancellor of New York City) and Michelle Rhee (formerly of Washington), published in the Washington Post in October, said, "The glacial process for removing an incompetent teacher…has left our school districts impotent and, worse, has robbed millions of children of a real future." Similarly, articles in Newsweek and Time have singled out teachers unions as the scourge of public schools. The movie Waiting for Superman even suggested that it is because of teachers unions that American students lag behind their peers in other countries.
A close look reveals a much more complicated picture. Concerns about the state of public education are not unwarranted, but there is no evidence that the presence of unions impedes academic success in American schools. Consider this: in states like Massachusetts and Minnesota, where public schools are heavily unionized, students earn the highest scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the standardized exam known as the nation’s report card. In contrast, students in states such as Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas, which have few if any teachers union members and virtually no union contracts, have the lowest NAEP scores. What’s more, in almost all the nations that outperform the United States in education, teachers are unionized and teaching is a respected profession.
One can reject the idea that unions are the cause of the problems that beset schools and still know that public schools need significant reform. Signs of trouble are pervasive and impossible to ignore: high dropout rates in most major cities, a decline in the percentage of students enrolling in college and a steady decrease in academic performance in math and science, particularly when our students are compared with students in other wealthy nations. However, to bring about the necessary changes, we must treat unions as partners rather than adversaries in the reform effort.