School Reform and the Greening of Teachers’ Unions

Summary: Announcement that the National Education Association will engage dissident teachers in dialogue is a welcome step toward improving teachers’ union real involvement in school change.

The apparent dearth of reform themes emanating from the union side in bargaining talks continues to confound me. Within the many rich memories of my time in schools are countless conversations with teachers about their interactions with different students in their classes, and a willingness on their part to participate in a plan for improvement of the students’ academic success. That is what the many good teachers do; it remains a mystery why this ethic does not better “osmose” into union stance in contract talks, particularly on the district grass roots level.

In my own former district, for example, more or less by administrative fiat formative testing has been employed with some success in order to target instruction with individual students. Though there has been some resistance to the lack of collegiality in some of the implementation, I like to think teachers have recognized the positive outcomes the testing has facilitated.

Of course, it may be a quantum jump from the recognition that testing has been useful to focus instruction, to endorsement of student test scores as a factor in one’s own professional evaluation.

Still, the success of the school reform movement in painting teachers’ unions as the bad guys resisting necessary change suggests across broad reaches the underlying professional ethic of teachers has too little crossed the membrane from membership to union leadership.

Perhaps leadership has not listened, though in defense of my local union leadership, input in recent years has clearly been solicited. I am indicted with my companions in the membership in that I handed off my priorities in survey form, and then let the process commence without further elbow grease on my part.

As a corollary factor, I and my now former colleagues operated without raise or cost of living increase for some years, so it should hardly be a surprise that money is the first priority in negotiations, along with rising class sizes. Other more complex and subtle topics involving pedagogy, or the dilemmas low income students bring, or the finer points of teacher evaluation, tended to remain low on the totem pole, or remained as questions not broached by teaching staff struggling to keep heads above water financially and or in terms of their work load.

On teacher evaluation in particular, despite the anxiety naturally elicited by the sea change implied in evaluation that includes student test scores, in a perfect world a response might be to look into the option further, with an eye to maintaining a balance that includes fairness to the individual teacher. Moreover, to stonewall the issue invites the criticisms that currently descend, and without the input that only teachers are in a position to provide.

So I welcome news I first encountered in a Seattle Times editorial that the National Education Association is reaching out to those among its ranks that value their union membership, but at the same time have voiced concern that the union both nationally and locally is “not acting in the interest of students or elevating the profession of teaching,” in the words of Christopher Eide, the executive director of the Seattle teacher organization, Teachers United.

Over the next year the NEA will host discussions with a selected group of these dissident teachers.

Though the 53 invitees from around the country seem a drop in the bucket compared to the overall NEA membership, one hopes this is only the start of a deeper, more long lasting, and wider conversation that opens up the union side of the reform ledger, and allow unionism to serve, as it has not been, as a real world balance to the sometimes theoretical slants of the most vocal self-styled reformers.

Before the union can engage in substantive dialogue in the reform world, it must first dialogue better with its own members.


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