Monday, March 28, 2011

Unions (Part 3) : Teacher Support, Protection, and School Reform Flexibility

Today we will reflect on two aspects of unions that are very important as it comes to how schools function, but that often are overlooked by outside observers. These two aspects are (1) support for teachers and (2) flexibility with school day, structure and management approaches.

Teaching is hard work. Between planning, managing student behavior, grading, contacting parents and administrative duties, teachers have many different "buckets" to tend to, and it takes a good deal of energy, hard work, talent and experience to effectively manage all these areas. For the average teacher (especially in their first few years) doing the job well means getting support, and the sad truth is that managers in the workplace don't always operate from this support framework, but instead act strictly as evaluator, delegator, or punisher. While this could thus open up a discussion for us about school leadership, let's instead look at how unions respond to this reality:

1) Unions protect workers from unreasonable or unfair management practices, giving the teacher room to learn, make mistakes, and grow without the unnecessary stress of unbearing supervisors.

2) Unions offer avenues for professional development that otherwise might not be accessible to teachers. For instance, unions offer generous course catalogs of credited and non-credited courses teachers can take to advance up a salary scale and maintain their licensing. These courses are low cost or cost free, and address critical needs for staff. Unions also protect teacher time, which gives them the opportunity to pursue areas of growth through fellowships, independent research, travel, and graduate study. 

These aspects of unions are important and should not be dismissed by critics. At the same time, these services do draw criticism. For instance, critics could respond by saying:

1. teachers need to be held accountable, and unions protect bad teachers
2. unions shouldn't be in the business of providing professional development--it's not their core function, so it shouldn't excuse unions from obstructing reform and improved schooling.
3. while some teachers might advance their practice with time off, others might not. 

So unions protect teachers, and that can be a good thing or a bad thing. Big surprise. What can we learn from this little exercise? Well, it clearly places the union between the teachers and the management. So if management is working for reform and teachers are lazy, unions are the enemy. But if management is incompetent or corrupt and teachers are hardworking and skilled, the union is the hero! Clearly, on the teacher side, we know that neither extreme is the truth. Perhaps we should look at a corollary issue--what does management in a school actually do? How does management interact with, or should it interact with, the union?

While politicians make the rules, unions are still instrumental in setting them and this is frequently sited as an obstacle to reform. School leaders find union reps to be a thorn in their side, disrespecting and subverting well-intentioned efforts, and calling out minor infractions of work rules that might be counter-productive in the first place. Leaders cannot manipulate their staff when a vigilant union rep is around, and this truth can go both ways for the students. With tight budgets, principals can't ask unionized teachers to stay late without paying them overtime, and a series of issues stem from just this one conundrum. Questions abound about what schools could be without unions, and charter schools are a laboratory testing these hypotheses. We ask: What could we do with a longer school day? Longer school year? More flexibility with staff assignments? More options for holding teachers accountable? 

With experience as both a unionized teacher and a non-unionized teacher, and through my observations of what is going on at other schools across the nation, here is my conclusion on this point about unions, teacher support, and flexible school rules. I'd argue that the union is not the problem--though it also does not contribute enough to the solution. Rules in schools are not set by unions, they are set by politicians who are accountable to voters and donors. The unions do have a voice and this voice is generally used to do what unions do--protect workers rights. I would argue that this is not such a blatant cost to the students, because protecting teacher time, privacy, and academic freedom actually serves the students in many ways. By contrast, having longer days (one of the most sought after goals of school reforms) is not a recipe for higher achievement by itself. Instead, higher achievement comes from this equation:

longer days+good curriculum+good teaching+good social support=higher student outcomes

Charters that produce better results with longer days often have better teachers, better leaders, smaller classes, excellent enrichment courses and STILL work hard to protect their teachers. Taking away unions might take away some of the bureaucratic headache associated with reform efforts, but it would not guarantee that all the building blocks for achievement are in place--it could just as easily lead to more burn-out for teachers and students as bad/desperate managers pressure the school to do more, but not better. 

With all that is said here in support of unions, I want to emphasize that I do not support tenure nor do I support union "protections" that run counter to sound research about good student learning. 

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Unions (Part 2)

In an earlier post (already 2+ months ago), I weighed in on the discussion about unions. Since then, anyone paying the slightest attention to the news would have observed a heated national debate on the role of public sector unions, especially in Wisconsin and Ohio. The argument generally breaks down like this:

Pro Public Sector Unions:

-Union negotiated pensions are earned benefits, protected by contract, and therefore ethically and legally should not be cut (though future pension benefits could be re-negotiated).
-Collective bargaining should be a right for workers in any industry. Especially for those providing public service it guarantees  that the workforce has a minimal level of negotiating power to keep salaries and benefits competitive.
-When compared to private sector, why are we asking why public sector "has it so good," instead of asking "why does the private sector have it so bad?" If the public sector unionized workforce has a compensation package that is attractive and the private sector workforce is struggling, shouldn't we be looking for measures to encourage a "race to the top" as opposed to a "race to the bottom?"
-Some public sector employees have already accepted pay freezes, unpaid furloughs, layoffs and other sacrifices. When will the the idea of "everyone pitching in" apply also to the richest sector of the population, who are growing wealth at epic levels thanks in part to government tax and regulatory measures?

Anti-Public Sector Unions, or Pro-Austerity:

-Governments are strapped for cash, and the benefits granted to public sector employees are unreasonable and based on an outdated evaluation of economic conditions.
-Collective bargaining presents a conflict of interest, for the unions are major donors to (mainly Democratic) politicians. Unlike private sector employers who must deliver profits to share-holders, politicians' main stake holders are also those they are supposed to negotiate with (donors and voters). Inflated compensation is the inevitable result of this conflict of interest, and dismantling collective bargaining would eliminate the conditions that give rise to this fiscally damaging decision making framework.
-The public sector unions are anti-competitive, and with their rules and protections make it extremely hard for government to adapt to new economic realities. Public agencies need to be able to change and streamline in order to provide better services and a more reasonable cost to tax payers. 

My assessment:
Is it unhelpful to say both sides are right? The problem with this debate is that neither side has the absolute truth on their side, and so it is impossible to determine whose predictions would actually bear out. A compromise agreement, well designed, could address some of the weaknesses of the current system, but if it is not well crafted it will do nothing beneficial. At the same time, no compromise almost guarantees the losing side's predictions will play out.

The real issue here is that this is NOT the debate most needed at the moment--we have greater systematic flaws that are projecting far more powerfully destructive ripples. Like Michael Porter at Harvard Business School repeatedly says, we need economic strategy. Our school system is outdated in it's entire design, our economy seems to be driven entirely by the interests of oligopolist firms and the uber-rich, we are still engaged in two wars, climate change rages out of control, and the ability to find sustained, national, meaningful discourse in the marketing and PR chatter is insanely difficult. Ultimately, if we discuss the real system wide changes needed to address much larger economic, social and environmental issues, in all likelihood a solution to the public sector union question would emerge naturally. 

Note: I am back from international trips to Israel and Spain, and am still working on getting to a regular posting schedule on the blog. Stay tuned for more on unions, this is definitely not the end of what I have to say on the topic. Also, please comment! Thanks for visiting. :)