Teacher Unions: An Observation or Two

Member Group : Guest Articles

In their collective roles as represented by their unions, the last thing teachers are about to do is take on the status quo. When the unions talk about reforms they favor they invariably include such things as smaller class sizes and early education. Whatever merits these may have, and that may not be much, they call for variations of the status quo rather than reforms that would involve real change. Not coincidentally, they can be expected to call for spending more money, and/or the creation of more teaching positions, which result in an increase in union membership, income and power.

Nor are they above inaccuracies or exaggerations.. One such instance came some years ago, in a letter to the editor of The Wall Street Journal, by Sandra Feldman, then President of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) in New York City. She claimed that a UFT site-based management model "became the basis of federal legislation governing the use of compensatory education funds in hundreds of thousands of schools around the nation."

That was an unbelievable success, literally so, since, at that time, there were only some 110.000 schools in the nation – 85,000 public and 25,000 private. Admittedly the purpose of letters to the editor of a publication is to give the public a chance to express their opinion on a matter of public interest. Editors are understandably hesitant to challenge or correct something in such a letter. But in this instance the claim was both blatantly wrong and it came from someone who represents the organization she said was directly responsible for the program she was citing. A polite correction or footnote would seem to have been appropriate.

This is one of the less-noted advantages of not only teacher unions but of the pubic school establishment. They can issue a statement, whether in writing or verbally and expect that if it is reported it will be done without a challenge as to its validity. And this may be true even in those instances where the press reports critical comments of their own or from other sources.

Once while attending a conference of education researchers, a speaker made reference to union obstructionist tactics but didn’t pursue it in any depth. As he continued speaking I began jogging down a list of reforms that I had seen unions oppose during my many years of activity as one of their members, including service in leadership positions at both the local and state level.

Within minutes my list had 23 items, such as alternative certification, distance learning, home schooling, merit pay, tuition tax credits and vouchers. Union officials will say that they have supported some of these, such as distance learning which, with the arrival of the Internet has begun to not only involve online course but virtual schools.

An example of a soft version of their opposition to such approaches came in rural Pennsylvania with a low-tech distance learning program involving primarily speaker phones..
The union first opposed what the district was considering but finally agreed but only on the condition that the number of students involved not exceed 35, as if this was a typical classroom.

Even so, the project had some interesting results. One concerned the teacher. Originally he didn’t wish the accept the assignment, not because he opposed it but because he was planning to retire that year. Persuaded to take it on, he enjoyed it so much that he postponed a retirement for a number of years.

A second, also unanticipated result occurred when some of the highest achieving results were obtained by students working alone at their end of the telephone lines when compared to students working where there were other students or adults present. When the students were asked why they thought this was they replied that they didn’t know but it might have been because, working alone they had no one to work with, or question, when the class ended so they paid closer attention and took better notes.

Still, the union wasn’t particularly anxious too replicate the program elsewhere.

Despite opposition from nervous teachers and their unions from such little seeds have come the mighty oaks of virtual schools with thousands of students.
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"[The NEA] has a record unblemished by support for any recognizable form of educational creativity or accountability." Reporter Joe Klein, Newsweek, Sept. 9, 1993
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