How Teachers Unions Lead the Way to Better Schools

Amy B. Dean

Amy B. Dean

by Amy Dean

Diane Ravitch upends the “bad teachers” narrative.

Part of what I object to is the assumption that somehow the problems in American education are all tied up with teachers. The teachers are causing low performance, and if we could just find the ideal teacher evaluation system, we would be the highest performing nation in the world. I think that’s a false narrative.

I have a concern: Teachers are getting pummeled. Too often, they are being demonized in the media and blamed by politicians for being the cause of bad schools. Right-wing governors, power-hungry mayors and corporate “reformers”—all ignoring root issues such as poverty and inequality—have scapegoated the people who have devoted their lives to educating our children. Moreover, these forces are seeking to destroy the collective organizations formed by educators: teachers unions.

The stakes for our country could not be more profound. The labor movement and the public education system are two critical institutions of American democracy. And they are two that go hand in hand. Teachers unions have played a critical role in advocating for public education, but you’d never know it from mainstream media coverage. Therefore, there is a great need to lift up this tradition and highlight the efforts of teachers to collectively push for top-notch public schools.

To figure out how we can push forward on this issue, I talked with Diane Ravitch, one of the country’s leading education historians and public school advocates. A professor at New York University, Ravitch is a former Assistant Secretary of Education and the author of several books, including 2010’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education.

What do you see as the role of teachers unions in preserving public education?

For many years, there has been an effort to diminish teachers unions and to blame them for all the problems of public education. I believe the reason, first of all, is that some people just hate unions. But there’s also a political reason that’s very specific. That is that if you silence the union, then there’s nobody at the table when the legislature or the governor wants to cut the budget, so they can hack away at will. That’s happening in states across the country. I was in Texas a few weeks ago, and there the legislature cut over $5 billion dollars from the education budget, but they did manage to squeeze out $500 million dollars for more testing. They have a weak union. They had no one at the table to say, “You can’t do this.” And no one cared what the teachers thought anyway.

This past summer, you championed the Chicago teachers strike as an example of teachers publicly transcending self-interest and pushing for better conditions in the schools. Can you speak about some of the victories have shown a different style of advocacy from teachers?

Well, the teachers’ union had a problem in that most of the things they were concerned about they’re not allowed to collectively bargain. The law says they’re not allowed to collectively bargain the teaching and learning conditions, but that was the essence of the strike. They had to say that they were striking over something that was legal and not over something that the law didn’t allow. I think that one of the things that they were able to accomplish—and it’s a small accomplishment but an important one—is that the mayor wanted the [teachers’ performance] evaluations to be based, I think, 40 or 50 percent on [student] test scores. They got it down to what was the legally required minimum. My own view is that the test scores should account for zero in teacher evaluation.

One of the historical roles of the labor movement is that unions have been a symbol of high standards of quality. If you have your electrical wiring done by a union electrician, for instance, you don’t have to worry about fires in your home. In the same way, teachers’ unions played a role in forming teaching as a profession with high standards for its practitioners. Can you point to examples where teachers are taking the lead on issues of accountability and evaluation?

The nature of being a professional involves self-regulation. Professions are supposed to set [their own] standards. That involves a certain amount of autonomy, but it also means that you meet professional standards. Lawyers set standards for lawyers, and doctors set standards of good practice for doctors. Then there’s a certain amount of self-policing.

I think that if there’s any way in which unions could be faulted, it’s that they have ceded that to management.  So over the years, unions have come to see their role as defending their members and not setting the standards of practice, and so that’s management’s job. They have ceded that role. And I think that now they find themselves in a bind because there’s been this mass of publicity campaigns to make unions seem evil.

What I’ve seen in state after state is that the teachers are losing their collective bargaining rights. I’m not sure that anything they could have done as a union would’ve changed that because in so many of these states, the governors, whether it’s Ohio or Indiana or Texas, the governors are just very, very right-wing and don’t want unions, period. Nothing they could’ve done would’ve changed the governors’ and the legislatures’ desire to strip the unions.

I agree. But in Democratic states and some strongly pro-union areas, we still hear a trope about teachers not stepping up on issues of accountability and evaluation. Do you see some hesitation here?

I think that this is where peer review comes in, and I think that in places where there are peer review systems, then the union does step up.

Part of what I object to about in this whole line of discussion, not from you but nationally, is the assumption that somehow the problems in American education are all tied up with teachers. The teachers are causing low performance, and if we could just find the ideal teacher evaluation system, we would be the highest performing nation in the world. I think that’s a false narrative that’s been promoted by a combination of Bill Gates and Arne Duncan and lots of right-wing groups who want to say we don’t need to spend anything more on poor kids, we don’t need to do a thing about poverty, we just need to weed out those bad teachers.

I also agree that poverty and inequality are core issues that are not being addressed, and that teachers cannot be held accountable for these. Can you identify some of things that are within teachers’ field of control, around which unions could help create just systems of evaluation?

Knowing your subject, being able to communicate your subject to the students, giving assignments that students understand, that are thought-provoking, encourage and enable students to produce good work—and reviewing the quality of that work so it shows that the students are really engaged and are really learning. The metrics would not be hard metrics like a test score, but they would be meaningful metrics. These would be professional judgments.

We have very high-performing schools both in the US and overseas in places where there are strong teachers’ unions. In these schools, union strength and quality of education are going hand-in-hand. How are these examples relevant to the discussion?

Everybody likes to point to Finland. Finland is a great country, and they have a wonderful school system there. It’s 100 percent union, and the principals and the teachers all belong to the same union.

You find the same thing in the US. The highest performing schools in the US are in union states. What are the three highest performing states? Massachusetts, New Jersey and Connecticut. They’re all union. The lowest performing states are either right-to-work states or nonunion states, places with weak teachers unions.

If you look at the highest performing districts, public schools districts in the US, they’re all union—and they’re in suburbs. It’s because the relevant factor is not union or non-union but wealth and poverty.

Politicians often refer to the high pay of teachers and imply that somehow it’s not a good investment. How, in your opinion, taxpayers should view teacher pay, and what role should unions play in trying to influence public perception?

The national media is so anti-union and anti-teacher and anti-public education that you will see it frequently. That the average teacher’s salary in Chicago is around $75,000 is supposed to be a big black eye for the union. Well, that’s ridiculous. Why shouldn’t a professional be paid $75,000? The people who are complaining about this are usually paid many multiples of $75,000. I don’t see that as something the union should be embarrassed about. They should be proud of it.

Part of what unions have done has been to create a middle-class. You don’t become a teacher and go through four years of college and then get a master’s degree or even higher in order to work for poverty wages. You’re supposed to be a professional. Why shouldn’t professionals be paid as professionals?

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