All State Teachers Unions Are Not Created Equal

Some teachers union officials care deeply about the failing kids, and want to tackle the achievement gap head on, rather than oppose every plausible reform except for more and more spending.

“It’s not good for a union to say anyone can walk into a classroom and teach,” she (Maryland teachers union president) said. “It diminishes the work we do.” See EdWeek’s Staff Investment Pays Dividends in Maryland District. She endorses the district’s “weed and feed” strategy, which invests a lot in teacher training, peer reviews new teachers, and ixne’s the weak ones.

Meanwhile, other union officials try the Wag the Dog approach: find an enemy and declare war, in order to distract your members from your inability to do anything about their real problems. See the Boston Globe’s Some Charter Teachers Join Union.

So far, the bark is worse than the bite.

48 out of 2,000 Massachusetts charter school teachers (spread over 12 schools) got a new “Associate Membership,” which means they get a monthly magazine and discounted liability insurance and some pizza coupons, and the union gets a nice newspaper headline.

But it’s not like any school is about to have a vote on whether to unionize – the impression given by the headline. Does that mean MA charters should be cavalier about the threat? Of course not.

Some thoughts:

1. On the Maryland story, lots of investment into Research For Better Teaching. GGW is a fan: practical, specific methods to improve student outcomes. RBT should have its own Graduate School of Education: they would set the standard. If you’re not familiar with this outfit, try The Skillful Teacher on for size.

2. I’m curious how many of the 48 teachers work at big charters. The one quoted in the story is from Boston Renaissance. This was originally an Edison School, founded in 1993. It teetered along for awhile, then severed its Edison contract. But it was left with the Edison model: serve 1200 kids and therefore 100 or so teachers. (Most Boston charters serve 200 to 300 kids).

With that many teachers, it makes the challenge of charter teacher participation so much harder. A single principal can’t possibly build the same depth of personal relationships with 100 as he might with, say, 25 teachers. Was it Deborah Meier who said “A small school is one where all the teachers can fit in a circle in a single classroom” or something along those lines?
The large institution intrinsically becomes more bureaucratic, less “We’re a family business, and instead of expecting administration to solve everything, we all chip in.”

And while small charters can use their collective personal networking to identify a couple good teachers each year – Joe’s niece who just finished Teach For America; Keesha’s neighbor who taught the last couple years at a Catholic school slated to close – big charters are often hiring in bulk, and therefore need HR machines. Without the personal touch, the HR machines are more likely to snare more disaffected teachers who couldn’t get jobs elsewhere – prime union targets.

That’s not to say “small is automatically good” (the 2 charters revoked in MA last year were both small) and “big = bad” (c.f., Shaq). It’s fair to say, however, that “big = bigger challenge.”

3. Long-term, GGW believes: for some charters, this could be a healthy kick in the butt to some charter leaders to communicate more clearly with teachers, thereby strengthening schools and improving achievement. After all, charter leaders should be able to make the case to teachers that the school’s flexbility (and often longer hours) pays off.

For other charters, this may nudge leaders into conversations with teachers that move away from the KIPP “Effort = Success” motto, where required teacher training and after-school help for kids is reduced.

4. Biggest union obstacle to organizing charters may be those charter teachers who used to work in traditional unionized district schools. They have no illusions about what life would be like; they’ve lived it.

- Guest blogger GGW

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