Saturday, June 2, 2012

Unions: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

The following is a link to "Romney vs. teachers unions: The inconvenient truth" recently published in The Washington Post.

The author, Matt Miller, writes:
I’ve slammed teachers unions plenty. They make it too hard to fire bad teachers who blight the lives of countless kids. They defend a “lockstep” salary schedule even though districts need to be able to pay much more for recruits with math and science degrees who have lucrative options outside the classroom. They dominate school board races in big cities, putting themselves on both sides of the bargaining table. They embed rules in contracts and state law that make it extraordinarily difficult to change staffing, compensation, employment, curriculum or the length and schedule of the school day. Oh, and they send more delegates to the Democratic National Convention than most large states.

What I know from first-hand experience as a former teacher (over ten years) and former PCS Board of Education Member (over ten years) is that I generally agree with Mr. Miller.
  1. Do teachers' unions make it hard to fire bad teachers? Yes, no question about it. However, the unions are not alone. Many principals, superintendents, and Boards are complicit in retaining ineffective teachers by failing to identify and remove them. Even the most egregiously poor teachers will, when convenient, be defended by administrators and overlooked by Boards. (If this seems hard to believe, get on a board and watch it happen yourself.) 
  2. Do these unions defend lockstep salary schedules? Yes. But there is more to it. While the Step Schedule (one step for every year employed at the school) guarantees teachers a specific dollar amount raise every year, the additional money (above the step money) that is given to teachers when they successfully negotiate a contract is divided up among the steps by a small group of union members. In the 1990's, during my first stint on the BOE, all teachers on a certain step (my recollection is that it was Step 12 or thereabouts) were given over a ten thousand dollar raise in one year while others received, by comparison, very minimal raises. This created quite a brouhaha and is a lesson to union members to be involved with such decisions. 
  3. Do schools need to have competitive salaries in order to recruit highly-qualified teachers?  Of course but I wouldn't limit this to math and science teachers. 
  4. Do teachers' unions dominate school board races in big cities thus putting themselves on both sides of the bargaining table? Yes. However, Mr. Miller is wrong if he believes this is limited to big cities. Local papers have carried news of this at Massena Central. At Potsdam Central, Board member "interests" are as follows: one Board member has a spouse employed at PCS both as a teacher and a member of the negotiations' team for the last teachers' contract; another Board member has a daughter employed as a teacher; a third has a brother-in-law employed as teacher; a fourth has a sister-in-law employed by the district; a fifth has a spouse who is a CSEA employee. That would make the majority and controlling vote on the BOE being made by family members of employees.  All three winners in the recent PCS Board election are either NYSUT members or UUP members (a union affiliated with NYSUT). Tony Vaccaro, long-time Teachers' Union President, sent out an e-mail to teachers prior to the election encouraging them to find candidates for the Board of Education. As a consequence, a recent teacher retiree received dozens of phone messages encouraging him to run for the Board (something that would have entitled him to negotiate teacher contracts which have a direct affect on his own retirement benefits.)  In Potsdam, NYSUT has been highly successful in its goal to own both sides of the bargaining table. Thus, the public cannot be surprised that the last teachers' contract was negotiated by the Superintendent and ratified by the BOE without ever having the attorney for the school district review the contract. Of course, this attorney would have given advice that would have been in the interest of the public and that might have provided the union-compromised BOE with inconvenient truths. NYSUT is widely recognized as a powerful union with skilled attorneys. Teachers deserve to have this powerful organization represent them on one side of the table. A widespread complaint is that the system has been gamed by NYSUT in their successful efforts to place NYSUT members, their family members and friends on local school boards - thus giving the union control of both sides of the bargaining table. Meanwhile, NYSUT hopes that the sleeping giant - the voting public - never wakes up.
Mr. Miller also writes:
How do we talk about upgrading the caliber of people who choose teaching as a career without disrespecting and demoralizing the current corps — a corps that includes hundreds of thousands of excellent teachers working their hearts out for our kids under trying conditions? Yet it’s these teachers who have told me with passion how mediocre too many of their colleagues are.

We’ll need to hire millions of new teachers in the next decade or two as the boomers retire. This is an enormous opportunity. If we adopted the strategic approach to talent that top-performing countries follow, does anyone doubt we’d make serious progress — and that our unions would end up with a different focus? (While I have much to learn about how teachers unions function in these high-performing countries, my early reporting suggests they are real partners in ensuring teacher quality and meaningful professional development. That’s where they spend their time and energy — not fighting to keep bad eggs on the payroll.)

All this helps explain why the answer to our education emergency is to think much bigger about teaching. What about starting salaries of $65,000 rising to $150,000 for teachers (and more for principals)? And federally funded “West Points” of teaching and principal training to model for the nation how it can be done? And new federal cash for poor districts now doomed by our 19th-century system of local school finance, so they can compete in regional labor markets for the talent that today gravitates to higher-paying suburbs? 
                                                                       ~ ~ ~
It goes without saying that most teacher preparation programs need to become rigorous, meaningful, and attractive to competitive students.  Diane Ravitch has said that our country needs to have a renaissance in education and that means change...something that is often anathema to far too many schools. This week a Potsdam official told me that needed educational improvement at PCS is not going to happen as long as  unions have undue influence on the school's governance body - the school board.

Let's hope someone wakes up that sleeping giant soon. 

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