Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Future of Unions (part 1)

Ok. One of the touchiest subjects in education. Here's my perspective, and being a charter school teacher I threw away my union membership 16 months ago, which may say more than anything else about what follows. In my view, unions are not the solution or the problem. The way the unions operate in our system today undeniably makes it hard to institute change. The most challenging aspect of the unions' influence comes down to tenure, and the way that tenure discourages teachers from innovating and improving upon their craft. Without any sense of being challenged when displaying laziness, a tenured teacher will only have intrinsic motivation to propel them. Given the emotional burdens teaching frequently causes, teachers need every form of motivation to ensure sustained commitment and effectiveness, and schools need to have more flexibility to remove teachers when they prove to lack in this area.

Thus, we begin this conversation about unions on the question of accountability. Teachers need to be held accountable for what they are asked to do, and more than anything else, having a demonstrable impact on student learning ought to be paramount in the way teachers are reviewed. Some combination of standardized tests, student portfolios, observations, and student/parent surveys could make up the bulk of teacher evaluations. However, the union routinely resists adopting such measures. The argument tends to revolve around what the exact measures should be, but in effect there is no system of fair evaluation in place. Unions should do more to welcome a system of accountability based on fair and transparent evaluations, with at least 50% of that evaluation centering on demonstrable and measurable student learning.

A system of accountability as just described makes up part of the incentive structure in which teachers work (or ought to). The incentives for teachers to perform well also include (a) teacher pay, (b) opportunities for professional growth and advancement, (c) opportunities for acknowledgement, recognition and praise, and (d) satisfaction related to the service of teaching itself. On points (b) and (c), the unions play a constructive role, offering courses for teacher development, protecting teacher time so they can learn, rest, and explore, and granting awards and presenting acknowledgements in union newspapers. The union has little to do with point (d) directly, and as it is now well known, the union plays a major role in the structuring of teacher pay (a). Let us look briefly at unions and pay.

The issue of merit pay has recently gotten a lot of press, and in a nutshell here's my view on pay and unions: (1) if it weren't for unions, average teacher pay would be lower, attracting, as a whole, less well qualified candidates (due to a higher degree of risk and cost associated with the profession). At the same time,  (2) so called "merit pay," which unions currently oppose, could definitely make a big difference in the field of education by increasing the reward for hard work and effectiveness. In essence, unions have both a negative and positive influence on one of the most important incentives--pay--for teachers. What then should be done? In my view, we should look very closely at what Washington DC attempted this year, in which teachers had the ability to vote to be on a salary scale or a merit pay system. This compromise could be the best solution yet considered.

The role of unions in education goes beyond accountability and incentives. In two early 2011 posts, I will look at other aspects of the union factor in education, in particular:

-support for teachers
-flexibility with school day, structure and management approaches
-areas of education relatively unaffected by unions
-Overall value of unions

Happy New Year!

Finally, a book I'd recommend looking at that considers many of these questions in the context of higher education: