Teacher Unions – Rhetoric vs Reality

Member Group : Guest Articles

Teacher unions often d o not stand alone in their opposition to reform – or to deregulation. Unions generally oppose reforms and deregulation outright, while school board associations may say they are for it. Closer examination, however, reveals that school board associations are for reform or deregulation at the state and/or national levels, which, of course, would increase their local options and power. But when it comes to local deregulation, such as allowing the creation of charter schools, school board members’ enthusiasm disappears.

As for the unions,, Robert Brown noted in his book about the American Federation of Teachers, Teachers and Power, that

A strong teacher union in an urban center must oppose decentralization. The power of the organization lies in its own strict decentralization with authority concentrated at the highest levels…(A) union…is not structured to be responsive to the public; it is hardly structured to be responsive to its own membership.

Which is one reason the unions oppose charter schools.. Despite other reforms they ostensibly favor – such as site-based management and teacher autonomy – the last thing they really want is for teachers to be "professional" and work directly with those they serve, as do most professionals in other fields.

A leading example of this was personally witnessed during my years as a union activist.

An ad hoc group of about fifteen of us started meeting to consider teacher pre-service and in-service training. Among the participants were staff of the major teacher unions plus college presidents and deans of schools of education. Even though the group had no official standings or authority to implement any decisions it might make, it was agreed at the outset that all decisions had to be unanimous.

During one of the meetings it was noted that the state had just announced the winner of the Teacher of the Year Award. Someone then suggested that he be invited to a meeting to share his views on teacher training. As the vote went around the room all but one agreed, including the Executive Director of the state Federation of Teachers.
The one negative vote, which vetoed the idea, came from a staff member of the state Education Association.

Ironically, the teacher was a member of the Association, whose staffer rejected him but not of the Federation of Teachers, whose Executive Director voted to accept him.

While that startled most of those in the room, it didn’t surprise me since I had formerly served as the president of the state association and had worked with that staff member. To me the only surprising thing was that he told everyone why he voted no. His explanation was that "if you are going to hear from any of our members, we will decide which ones it will be."

In other words, only the party line will be permitted. So much for teacher autonomy, or representing the interests of this teacher, who was paying hundreds of dollars a year in state dues for the union to represent him while it blackballed him from having any personal influence at the state level.

Because of another inside-the-room advance agreement to keep our discussions confidential, to this day that teacher doesn’t know his participation was vetoed, much less how and why.

Nor is that the only such example. A few years later the state legislature created a professional standards and practices board for educators to be appointed by the governor. The governor at that time appointed me to screen the applicants for him and suggest original members. One of these was, like me, a former president of the state association. A few years later he favored considering renewable certification – not adopting, just considering.

The union used its influence and saw to it that his service on the board was terminated.

Of all the rhetoric about favoring reform, the one regarding teacher autonomy and professionalism is perhaps the most harmful; it is the one most overlooked, even by union critics or opponents. Union officials will bitterly oppose any steps leading to teachers being truly autonomous professionals. While clearly in the interest of teachers – at least the good ones – it is not in the interest of the union or, most particularly, union staff.
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The teaching profession is the only profession that has not participated in the revolution of the past fifty years, in which technicians and aides relieve the professionally competent person of non-professional chores so as to enable him to concentrate his time and professional activities and to make his competence available to larger numbers" Clarence H. Faust, Student, School & Society, edited by John A. Dahl, San Francisco: Chandler Pub Co.., 1964
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