In Education Reform, Everyone Must Put Students First

Apr 5, 2011Tarsi Dunlop

children-150Attacking unions can hurt working families, but teachers unions have their own role to play in reform.

After the credits roll in Waiting for Superman, lingering audience animosity towards teacher's unions is understandable. What viewers take away from the film's closing minutes is that a lottery system for children's futures is the cruelest game of all. Michelle Rhee, one of the prominent protagonists in the film, is portrayed as a crusader for these same children; after she resigned as Chancellor of the DC Public School System, she founded an organization called Students First. Ms. Rhee believes that students deserve their own lobbying group that stands up to teachers' unions, with whom she had numerous negative encounters in her tenure as Chancellor. That focus is admirable and certainly logical given her experiences, because the film does make you wonder who stands up for children's interests. David Brooks recently said: "the future has no union," and in this short iteration, he was painfully correct.

Ms. Rhee's attacks on teachers' unions regularly thrust her into the limelight as a controversial figure in education reform. They also ultimately threaten to undermine her ability to justify how she can run an organization called Students First. There are larger implications of attacking the principle of unionism in America. While teachers' unions may pose systemically significant challenges to reform, they are an institution of democracy and the average American worker's advocacy mechanism. We should not destroy unions in the name of students -- the anti-democratic connotations in that message endanger working families who value their children's education. But at the same time, because of teachers unions' unwillingness to negotiate, parents who cherish their children's futures can rightly question union motives. Teachers unions must make sacrifices as well.

Unions may be under attack in many states, but their presence has left an indelible mark on the average American worker's quality of life -- unionized or not. In an industrial free market society, corporations and employers are concerned with making profits. Worker protection laws help ensure that women have the right to equal pay, more than eight hours at work includes overtime, and workers have the right to a safe working environment. Just recently, the nation remembered the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire on its 100th anniversary; 146 lives were lost when bolted factory doors prevented workers, mostly young girls, from fleeing the building. Today, unions and workers continue to speak up against existing abuses.

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The right to organize, and the right to advocate for a higher quality of life on the job, is not at odds with American traditions and values. In a society where other powerful corporations lobby and argue, why should individual workers not be accorded this same right? Sometimes the power of the people to stand together, for each other's rights, is the only voice when those in power are determined to side with anti-worker businesses and large companies. For instance, a recent bill in the Maine State Legislature relaxes child labor laws, so one must then ask how children can prevent or report instances of employer abuse under less stringent laws. Union advocates and representatives become even more vital in cases like this; they provide an education resource for workers, clearly delineating their legal rights. But unions risk losing legitimacy when they refuse to recognize their own shortcomings; this obstinacy threatens to overshadow the rich union history in advocacy of the working class.

The absolute inflexibility of teachers unions is a disservice to some of their key arguments. It makes them look even more like a special interest group when they are unwilling to recognize their own shortcomings. It seems that if teachers' unions legitimately cared about group bargaining power, then they might want to reduce the number of bad apples among their ranks. A signal from the teachers' unions that they are willing to do one of two things might help: first, fully engage in a dialogue on teacher performance standards prior to being granted tenure; second, commit to contributing to higher standards and training for soon-to-be teachers prior their first teaching jobs. Finally, just because a teacher has been in the classroom for twenty years does not mean that he or she is good at the job. That's the unfortunate reality and there should be a recognition and response to it. What if, for example, teacher education institutions and programs took a greater involvement in maintaining teachers' skill sets -- recertification programs that ensured more exposure to new technologies and teaching methods? Ignoring painful realities will not fix systemic problems; people may be more open to engaging unions in the process if they were assured that union behavior more honestly reflected a true commitment to quality education.

Neither unions nor reformers are automatic losers in this fight; it is not a zero-sum game. But sacrifices need to be made. And from all perspectives, most people would agree that Michelle Rhee is not far off in her message of "Students First," however far off she could go in practice. Ms. Rhee said recently at an AU talk, "We know what works," and that may be true -- but now when we discuss moving forward, if it is really is about students first, then it is also about what's next. It's time to stop vilifying teachers' unions, and it's time for teachers' unions to recognize that so long as they continue to protect bad teachers, they both undermine the legitimacy in their arguments and public trust in unions more generally.

Tarsi Dunlop is the Director of Operations at the Roosevelt Institute Campus Network.

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