Prompted by Diane Ravitch, who best I can tell is now a stronger teacher unionist than most of my friends actually active in teachers’ unions, Mike Petrilli hosted a lively debate on the question of whether or not teachers’ unions get in the way of reform — using the landmark Massachusetts reforms as a test case. All the installments can be found through this post. Like most large state reform packages, Massachusetts had its own set of idiosyncrasies and the discussion plays some of those out.
On the more general question, it’s a common one but it’s the wrong question. My take remains pretty much what’s in this post from a few months ago: In today’s education system “unionization” per se tells us very little about the norms and operations of schools and there isn’t solid systematic evidence one way or the other. See Dan Goldhaber’s chapter in the book on teachers’ contracts Jane Hannaway and I did a few years ago for more. I thought Leo Casey was going to make the same point when I saw the title of this EdWize post. But alas no.
This debate goes on and on. A few years ago you’d go to dinner parties and be asked about vouchers, then it was performance pay, now it’s teachers’ unions. So here are the three most common assertions related to the debate that I’ve heard and some basic rules for non-eduwonks:
- What’s good for teachers is good for students. Well, not quite. Teachers’ unions are not inherently at odds with what’s good for students but neither is everything they want in the best interest of students. Overall, most of what they want (funding, better professional development for teachers, etc…) is for the good, but not all. And that is where the action is today. Their resistance to better performance measures for teachers and support of rigid salary schedules and seniority policies are one example of stances where the interests of the workforce and the interests of the students diverge. So is their general opposition to allowing more providers of public education — for instance public charter schools — into the marketplace to better serve students who are not well served now. This shouldn’t surprise anyone, to varying degrees most interest groups are mixed bags. It’s the nature of the beast. The NRA, for instance, supports a lot of problematic gun measures that are at odds with public safety, yet they also promote very good gun safety programs for youths. Overall I prefer the NEA to the NRA, but you get the point.
- Schools in the South aren’t very good and they don’t have unions so unions must not be a problem. Actually, schools are pretty similar across the country in their norms and their procedures. Visit a lot of schools, not the outliers on the high-or low-end but rather the average schools that define the system, and it’s striking how alike they generally are in how they approach things. State and local policies are, too, to a large extent. That’s why “unionization” actually tells us very little. Culture and institutional norms are powerful in this field. Virginia, for example, has some of the weakest “unions” in the country but you wouldn’t know it based on how the commonwealth runs its schools.
- Education is unique among human endeavors so what works elsewhere can tell us little. Education is not as unique as its insiders often try to make it out to be. The idea that the education field is completely an N of one and consequently best left to its elites is a strategy to build prestige and hoard power. It’s undemocratic considering the democratic imperative of good public schools. And the basic norms of human behavior don’t stop at the schoolhouse door. So, when thinking about education policy questions, ask yourself, in a large field, a mass service profession, with complicated, dispersed, and sometimes opaque work, does x or y make sense? For instance we don’t link student data to teacher data in most places, does that really make much sense if we’re allegedly committed to using data and evidence to improve the system? Sure, education has some peculiarities that policymakers must be cognizant of and some complex implementation questions, but more often than not comparative analysis can serve a useful purpose here in thinking through various strategies and revealing proposals that really don’t make sense for what they are.