We hear a lot of complaining in the general public about teachers unions and their detriment to education and schools. Like many other issues in education we are often hearing from those who have little experience in education and no true experience dealing with teachers unions on a day-to-day basis. Tomorrow marks my last full day as my local Connecticut Education Association President. I have served a four-year term as local President for 250 public school educators in grades k-12. I also served 4 years previously as the association’s Vice President. I decided to step away from being the President of our local because the job of teaching in the elementary level and the job of being the leader of our local was just too hard to mange. Especially considering all the recent changes to education with the common core, assessments, teacher supervision and evaluation plans, there just weren’t enough hours in the day to do both jobs successfully, I decided my career was more important than handling the day-to-day operation of our local union.
I do have a great deal of experience dealing with the union on the local and state level, as the President, I often felt like the middle man between the locals need and the needs of the larger state CEA and national association the NEA. I also have had to deal with the frustration, disillusionment and utter confusion of local members to some of the policy decisions made by our state or national association.
While most teachers understand that they are much better off thanks to our union and collective bargaining agreements which give us an amount of protections and salary increases over time they also have a level of frustration with the associations state and national tendency to align themselves with groups or ideas to reform education without first checking in with members on what areas are negotiable and which are akin to crossing the Rubicon. There have been many examples of this in the last few years when it comes to teacher evaluation systems and linking student test scores to performance of educators for example. There are way too many variables involved in any standardized testing to link a student’s performance on such a test to a teachers professionalism, pay or employment. Yet we see in some states as much as 50% of students performance on standardized tests can be used to evaluate teachers. The teachers unions had to be a part of this type of legislation and seems to members like a sell out to special interests not related to education. Reformers, test makers and special interests more interested in privatizing public education than fixing what needs to be fixed.
There was a recent report commissioned by the NEA titled: Teacher Unions and Educational Reform: A Research Review By: Nina Bascia Pamela Osmond. In this 25 page report the authors spell out the national unions activism in relation to public policy and the public’s response to their involvement. They also make some very valuable recommendations to teachers unions about what changes they can make to be more reflective of their membership.
These recommendations are as follows:
- Teacher unions must develop and consistently articulate a coherent message about how the education system (and its parts) should work as well as provide necessary supports for teaching and learning, and they must refer back to this message rather than become caught up in the rhetoric of other reform initiatives. Simply reacting to reform proposals put forward by education officials or others is inadequate.
- Teacher unions must clearly understand the costs and benefits of reform partnerships over the short and the long term. The costs and benefits of negotiated positions must be taken into account.
- Teacher unions must pay close attention to their memberships with respect to the variety of needs, members’ access to the organization, and communications strategies.
- Teacher unions must select and create reform initiatives that further their basic message regarding supports for the education system. At the same time, rather than investing all reform energies into a single initiative, teacher unions should seek multiple initiatives that respond to member needs.
- Because internal organizational fragmentation is a serious detriment to teacher union effectiveness, it is important to develop organizational strategies that strengthen communication, the appropriate distribution of resources, and access 22 Teacher Unions and Educational Reform to information, and to recognize the necessity of unions’ multiple roles. Ensuring teacher commitment by providing a variety of ways for teachers to meaningfully participate should help reduce the tendency to take a triage approach to union functions
All these suggestions relate to having a crisper focus on what is important and more closely reflecting what the membership feels is important and critical in education. As a teacher in a classroom 7-8 hours a day, getting materials ready, answering emails, planning for instruction, analyzing assessment data, attending PLC meetings, staff meetings, PPT’s, ordering materials for the next year, writing report cards and comments, having parent teacher conferences as well as teaching 16 kindergarten students, I need a union that understands what is most important to me and what is not. I need a union that can clearly articulate these issues in the public at large. They must also understand what they cannot negotiate away and what is to its’ membership sacred ground.