Can you support teachers and bash teacher unions? The myths and truths


Public sector workers are under assault, and no public worker has been more maligned than the schoolteacher. What’s worse, is that school teachers are being attacked from the usual suspects, but also former allies. As Scott Walker tries to disband unions to our east, and Tom Emmer claims waiters make too much, you can guarantee that the battle against teacher’s unions is nothing more than a fight to weaken labor, the middle class, and public sector workers. You know that the anti-labor propaganda machine is in high gear when even our allies believe them. The fight against teacher unions is a fight to reform the human resources department, not the education department. Teachers are on the side of students. Their success is our success. You can’t separate the health of the teaching profession from the health of our students. The truth is that no one wants reform that works more than teachers. We don’t need merit pay to motivate us. We have our motivation right in front of us each day. 

I’d love for you to take a look at the myths propagated about teachers and their unions. You will see, that most of the myths are easily countered with dispassionate logic and common sense. After the break, see the common myths.

For the rest of the post I use “teachers” instead of “teachers unions” because they are inseparable and on in the same.

Myth #1
: Teachers oppose all reform, like extending the school day.

Fact: Several schools in strong union districts already have extended days for students. For example, Saint Paul has numerous high schools and middle schools that have an extended student day for all students. Teachers and the district worked together to come up with a plan that is cost effective. The teachers work in shifts to avoid raising their salaries. The few teachers who work both shifts get paid an extra hour pay but at a drastically reduced rate of pay. All union negotiated. I, in fact, teach at an extended day school.

Myth #2: Teachers oppose all reform, like year round school, or extending the school year.

Fact: Saint Paul is an example of a strong union district that has successfully run year round schools for over a decade. On a personal note, my children attend a year round, public school. They are in school around 200 days a year, compared to the average in Minnesota of about 175.  These schools are all staffed by strong union teachers. When it came to trying to get an official school year minimum, it was the tourism industry that went full force to block it.

Myth #3: Unions protect bad teachers.

Fact: Teacher tenure is not achieved until the 4th year of teaching. After a 3-year probationary period of heavy supervision, teachers are granted due process rights. These rights are to ensure that teachers are not fired for budgetary or arbitrary reasons. On a rare occasion a poor teacher will fight removal, but these cases are rare. The vast majority of teachers are doing their job. Tenure should also not be confused with that of a university professor. Teacher’s tenure just ensures due process.

Myth #4
: The biggest problem in our schools is bad teachers.

Fact: The biggest waste of talent and resources is not keeping bad teachers. The biggest waste is losing good, trained teachers. Up to 50% of teachers will leave the profession within the first 5 years, and even more in the more challenging schools. This kind of turn over requires re-training, re-acclimating, and re-hiring far too many teachers. Supporting good teachers and new teachers is far more cost effective than going on witch hunts for bad teachers.

Myth #5: Unions don’t care about teaching.

Fact: No one wants bad teachers in our schools, especially teachers and the union. Traditionally, districts would just pass ineffective teachers around from school to school. That is inefficient and malpractice. Several unions have established peer review and mentor teams to help struggling teachers. Administration can identify struggling teachers. Instead of just bouncing them around, the union review team takes over and provides intensive mentoring and monitoring. The teacher improves, or they are counseled out of the profession.

Myth #6
: Teachers oppose all reform, like alternative licensure.

Fact: Teachers love alternatively licensed colleagues. They bring a wealth of knowledge and experience that is invaluable to both students and other staff. Education Minnesota is on record supporting a path to alternative licensure. What teachers oppose, is thinking that five weeks of training, right out of college, is enough to send someone in to help the most challenging students.

Myth #7
: Getting rid of unions, or weakening them, is the first step in real reform.

Fact: We have already seen this experiment happen in many right-to-work states. In fact, the Bill Gates funded National Council on Teacher Quality put out a hand book that graded states on their teacher policies. This handbook is meant as a guidebook for reform. Their premise is that the states with less teacher rights will do better on education. The problem is that the states they grade highest do poorest in education. It is quite obvious that their reforms have more to do with labor power than education.

Teacher Quality Handbook WARNING: This quality handbook extols the virtues of states that do the worst on education.

National Assessment of Educational Progress The states that do the best on this nationally comparable assessment have the strongest unions.

ACT stats  It goes without saying that strong union states have higher ACT scores.

Even Arne Duncan has said we are silly to blame unions when non-union states have the same problems.

Myth #8: Performance pay will motivate teachers to do better.

Fact: The biggest study on merit pay, commissioned by merit pay supporters, shows that it has little effect. Merit pay sounds flashy. Looks like innovation. Does nothing for students.
        Merit pay is actually counter-productive to effective reforms. Effective reforms get teachers working together in collective teams, like other countries have always done. Effective reforms get teachers working on all students, not just their own. Merit pay pits my students against yours.

Vanderbilt merit pay study

Myth #9: Teacher unions protect teachers, not kids

Fact: Teachers and students are not separable entities in a zero sum game. Unions have been at the forefront of fighting for things like smaller classing size, access to the arts, and other student centered reforms. In a bottom line world these are usually the first things to go.

Myth #10: You can support teachers and bash teacher unions.

Fact: Teachers are the unions, and the unions are the teachers. This is like saying I support the Generals, but the Army has got to go.