Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Myth of the Evil Teacher Union, Part I

Last night, as I lay in bed, I found myself itemizing some of the most pernicious lies people accept about the teaching profession and the teacher’s unions in particular. Then, when I came into work, I received this great cartoon from a colleague (and my former student teacher) and felt compelled to put it all down on paper (so to speak).

parker - Share on Ovi

We'll get to merit pay in a few days. As I began to hammer out this list, it quickly became too long for a single post, so I'll put them up in serial form. Here's lie #1:

1. Teachers unions are responsible for keeping bad teachers in the classroom.

I can’t speak for every school district nationwide, but if my district is any guide, this is flat-out wrong. I’m not saying we don’t have any bad teachers teaching in our district. But the union does not protect them. Our contract, like many, creates a three year window at the beginning of a teacher’s time in the district (regardless of how many years he/she has taught elsewhere) in which a teacher can be fired for no reason whatsoever. The union does not prevent these people from being fired, but in my years as a teacher, the district has not exercised this ability once. Not once. Teachers have been let go due to budget cutbacks (Reductions in Force, or RIFs), and a couple of teachers have been let go because of inappropriate behavior which came to the attention of the state’s Teachers and Standards Commission (TSPC), but new teachers, even if they are really struggling, aren’t fired. That’s not the union’s fault. In fact, the representatives who serve on union committees are all teachers, and we don’t like it when a bad teacher makes us look bad. But getting teachers fired isn’t our job. We play our role, trying to fight for fair and consistent working conditions, and we privately wish that administrators would do their jobs and take care of certain teachers.

Now, once a teacher has survived that three year probationary period, they CAN still be fired. At that point, it gets a bit more difficult because the school district would have to find a reason. But they have a lot of discretion in this area. They would simply have to do some classroom observations, put someone on a dreaded “plan of assistance” (the threat of which can often send a teacher into early retirement or in search of another school), and then show that the teacher was not making adequate progress on that plan. The union does try to make sure that this is done fairly, that the school district isn’t running someone out for political reasons or creating some unfair and impossible plan of assistance as retaliation for union activity, but if a teacher is performing below par, they could certainly be let go and the union couldn’t do a thing about it.

Unions don’t keep bad teachers in the profession. School districts that are frightened of consequences, or loathe to do the extra legwork, allow those teachers to stay in the classroom. Or they try to avoid hurting anyone’s feelings by promoting the bad teachers into (sometimes made-up and completely unnecessary) administrative positions. Some administrators were great teachers. And some are great at their current jobs. But the Peter Principle is alive and well in public schools, and that's not the union's fault. We don't make hiring decisions for teachers or administrators.

So if your kid's teacher stinks, don't blame the union. Look up the chain of command. But don't be totally shocked if you find yourself talking with someone who wasn't all that hot as a teacher once upon a time.

Tomorrow, Myth #2: Teachers are overpaid.


Anonymous said...

Your experience is contradicted by statistics as far it applies nationally. 1 in 2500 teachers lose their teaching credentials. 1 in 97 lawyers lose their law licenses and 1 in 57 doctors lose their medical licenses. I know for a fact from having been a student that there are many more bad teachers floating around than bad lawyers and doctors because teaching is extraordinarily difficult and there are lower barriers to entry. Unions do not try to ensure teacher firings are done fairly, they try to make sure teacher firings are not done at all. Examples abound of this absurd obstructionism. Look at New York City's so called rubber room or any of the other systems in place nationwide for schools to exchange bad teachers with each other in the hopes of receiving a better batch of the bad ones than they are forcing upon someone else. If administrators do not fire bad teachers, it is because they are not willing to suffer the bother of dealing with arcane union rules or are themselves beholden to the same moronic mantra that the unions espouse that teachers are all equal for all intents and purposes. That clearly is a wrongheaded notion, and it is that notion that prevents merit pay from being used. If you agree that there are bad teachers and good teachers, how can you possibly oppose paying the good ones more to incentivize the bad teachers to do better or entice people who really want to help children to enter into and remain in the profession? Speaking of entry, the tenure process is a complete joke, as evidenced by the fact that we have so many bad tenured teachers in the first place. One has to acknowledge that something has got to give if we are going to fix America's terrible test scores. Please don't say pay teachers more money. Since per student spending has doubled in real terms over the past thirty years while performance has plummeted, money cannot possibly be the only answer or the bigger part of any solution. There is strong evidence to suggest that eliminating the worst teachers and replacing them with even average teachers would improve the situation dramatically; correspondingly, I beg you not to stand as an obstacle to necessary reforms out of greed or self-delusion!

Benjamin Gorman said...

This comment, along with its fellows, is worthy of a whole new post. Unfortunately, the timing is bad. I put in 64 hours last week (paid for forty, mind you) and will put in significantly more this week. Today I was at school for for 13 hours, and will probably do the same each day this week. I do hope you will return to continue this conversation.

Moskva81 said...

Perhaps the first commenter would utilize some of the skilles he/she learned in school and cite the statistics he/she is utilizing.

The second sentence is ancedotal and a very poor argumenative approach. I too was a student and have experience teaching at the middle school, high school and collegial level and in my estimation there are better teachers than lawyers or doctors. See how easy that was to spin the other way?

Do you think the dire conditions of the new york city school system have something to do with their reluctance to fire teachers. If you were an aspiring teacher would you want to teach in any of American's inner-cities - like say Detroit or St. Louis? Do you think merit based pay will fix the base socio-economic issues (like say poverty) that affect our schools.

The fact we have bad tenured teachers means the tenure system doesn't work...ok well we have bad lawyers, doctors, accountants, car salesmen, and so on, in merit-based systems - so using your logical approach then merit based systems are also a failure.

Have you ever considered why we have a tenure system in public schools and academia? There's a reason for it and it has a lot to do with what the system would look like when adminstrators, politicians, and parents could take retribution at a moment's notice against teachers. It existed at one point in time - I'd suggest reading about history of the process to get a better understanding.

The same goes for the function of a union. Unless you can demonstrate a basic understanding of what they do and why they came into existence it seems silly to engage in an argument against them now. I'm not saying you should agree with what they do or not be critical of them, but I doubt you hold a basic conception of what labor looked like before unions existed.

"Fix American's testscores." I believe education, it's worth and vitality for a society, has a lot more to do with testscores. You could improve test scores and still diminish the ability to think critically about a wide range of topics. I'd be happy to show you the work of many students at an elite US university that demonstrate this point clearly.

The idea that teachers are greedy members of American society is stunning. If teachers are supposed to be wealthy please show me where all the extra money my family of teachers was supposed to receive and how we can claim it.

Benjamin Gorman said...

Excellent argument, Moskva81. I did reply to this poster here:

I'd be interested in your take on that one.

Moskva81 said...

Thanks - I wrote it a bit quickly for my liking. I should also say thanks to the respondant - it's also nice to see well-mannered responses to hot issues like this on anyone's blog - regardless of viewpoint.

I'll check out your response very soon - I have your blog bookmarked for further reading. I occasionally touch on education issues over at my blog: I should be back up writing soon.

Anonymous said...

Excellent read, I just passed this onto a colleague who was doing a little research on that. And he actually bought me lunch because I found it for him smile So let me rephrase that.

Anonymous said...

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