This Week’s TIME School Of Thought: The Renegade Upstarts

Renegade Upstarts sounds like a good name for band.  In fact, it’s a movement quietly – and not so quietly – happening in and around teachers unions. This week’s School of Thought at TIME takes a look at the new organizations that are springing up as alternative voices within and around the teachers unions. Can they succeed where many others inside and outside of teachers unions have not?

…But perhaps the biggest strategic pressure for reform is starting to come from teachers themselves, many of whom are trying to change their unions and by extension change their profession. These renegade groups, comprised generally of younger teachers, are trying to accomplish what a generation of education reformers, activists and think tanks have not: forcing the unions to genuinely mend their ways. Here are the three most talked about initiatives…

…It’s too early to tell whether any of these groups — or even all of them working in tandem — will succeed in changing the teachers’ unions. Will the uprisings bring about a transformative revolution like Tahrir Square or a deadlock like Libya? And while ridiculous seniority policies provide easy targets, more complicated issues such as teacher evaluation and creating a genuinely professional culture within schools lie ahead for them. Union leaders, meanwhile, bristle at the upstarts and so far seem less inclined to help them than to co-opt or marginalize them. And there is an obvious structural hurdle facing the insurgents: like all unions, teachers’ unions exist to protect their members, creating a natural conflict between, say, maintaining job security for everyone and implementing measures that differentiate based on performance or create real accountability for results. 

…But when you talk to progressive union leaders and the teachers at the vanguard of this new movement, it’s striking how much they have in common — even accounting for disagreements around specific policies. Most notably, they share a frustration with the education conversation today and a desire for actual change.

You have an alternative, too.  If you choose to read the entire column you can do so by clicking here.

25 Responses to “This Week’s TIME School Of Thought: The Renegade Upstarts”

  1. john thompson Says:

    When I was a Teamsters, we needed and we had a real renegade insurgency called the TDU. In today’s teachers unions, you don’t need renegades. The national union has pressured the locals for years towards reform. The best way that data-driven “reformers” could help is not by funding “renegade” unionists, but by pressuring your allies to have higher ethics and respect the integrity of contracts. If I have heard it once, I’ve heard it a thousand times from AFT leaders. We have got to take real risks in making compromises, as we work towards a 21st century union of professionals. But the rank-in-file rightfully ask, if “reformers” refuse to respect today’s contracts that were signed in good faith by both parties, and we continue to make huge concessions, how can we be confident that the new deals will be honored.

    I welcome new ideas from younger teachers. I just hope they, and their allies and/or sponsors, will listen to Old School wisdom. The bottom line can’t be the fad of the day. We must change, but we must protect the integrity of the colletive bargaining agreement.

  2. Fuji Smith Says:

    I can’t speak to the collective bargaining agreement, but clearly union policies and certain agreements that have been made are detrimental to quality education for our children. Unions have two responsibilities, to ensure that teachers are treated fairly and not to create situations that harm education, and there is no doubt they have not lived up to at least one of those responsibilities.

    Thank you for this article, it was a great read!

  3. ver Says:

    I also agree with you, Fuji. Clear policy of trade unions and certain agreements are made ​​and loss of quality education for our children. The union has two responsibilities, to ensure that teachers are treated fairly and not create a situation detrimental to education, and no doubt they did not live up to at least one responsibility.

  4. khan Says:

    Why are many who agree with the opinion of Ver and Fuji? I am still confused. Indeed, teachers should be treated fairly and not create a situation detrimental to education, and no doubt they did not live up to at least one responsibility.

  5. Attorney DC Says:

    The continued bashing of teachers unions is simply a useful red herring in the school reform debate. Teachers unions don’t create good or bad schools: They simply protect the rights of teachers against arbitrary dismissal and violation of their contracts. To my knowledge, no studies have shown that students perform more poorly in unionized districts vs. non-unionized districts. In fact, across the country, states with unionized teachers (e.g., Massachusetts, New York) tend to have higher test scores that states without unionized teachers.

    The anti-union brigade is simply looking for yet another way to trash our nation’s educators. Let’s blame it all on the teachers! They’re the reason that inner city kids with no parents, surrounded by gangs, do so poorly on the SAT’s (sarcasm intended).

  6. Chris Smyr Says:

    Do you not know what a red herring is, Attorney? It’s completely relevant to discuss inept policies and how the unions continue to defend them, considering these are policies that reformers want to, umm, reform.

    You also sound like Linda with the whining about union-bashing. I’m not interested in making the point that “trashing” the unions is different from “trashing” educators (I’ve done it enough here), or how you’ve confused causation and correlation (bo-oring!).

    What I’d really like to know is, why must you adopt Linda’s strategies for debate? Please, Attorney, for the good of the readers, renounce these terrible ways!

  7. Attorney DC Says:

    Chris: I figured you would chime in with a rejoinder to my comment! A red herring is a distraction. I truly believe, from my time spent teaching in both union and non-union schools, that teacher unions have little, if any, influence on the academic instruction of our students. If anything, I would guess that their influence is of a positive nature, because better working conditions for teachers are likely to attract and retain a higher calibre of educator.

    In any event, focusing on teacher unions as a major reason for low-performing, inner city students is, in my opinion, nothing but a distraction from the real issues facing these kids. These real issues include poverty (or lower income levels), cultural barriers to academics, English fluency, motivation, lack of parental support, crime, gangs, etc… I don’t see how unions would affect these issues at all – yet these are the reasons that low-income, minority students continue to post very poor grades and test scores all across the country (in unionized and non-unionized states alike).

    Look at all the non-unionized states: Are their low-income, minority students excelling in the schools? NO. Given that, why would anyone think that busting the teachers unions in other states would have any significant, positive effect on students’ academic achievement?

  8. Linda/RetiredTeacher Says:

    As someone who taught for 42 years, I really don’t even understand why people accuse the unions of affecting student progress. Affecting it in what way? In all my years, the union had absolutely nothing to do with my teaching. By law they could not hire, fire or evaluate teachers. Legally they weren’t even allowed to contest the content of a principal’s evaluation. They could do nothing to prevent almost 50% of new teachers from leaving the profession.

    What the union did for me was to protect me against unfair treatment by administration. So when the president of the board of education came to school to “talk” to me about a letter to the editor I had published, the union sent its lawyer and the board president made a hurried retreat. The union also represented me at the bargaining table to make certain I got a fair shake in regard to salary and benefits. We know what happened before teacher unions: pregnant teachers were dismissed when they started “showing,” salaries were extremely low, and nepotism was rampant in districts.

    But as Attorney DC tells us, all that is irrelevant. There is a mountain of research to show that unions do not affect instruction. Why would they?

    Teachers’ unions will surely change when the next teacher shortage comes along. Look for much stronger, fully professional teacher organizations (similar to what other professionals have) that enable teachers to make most of the decisions about their profession.

  9. Anthony Krinsky Says:

    The teacher unions are organizationally bullet-proof from threats posted by renegade upstarts. They were designed that way to prevent intra-union raids.

    See what UTLA did to Jordan Henry in Los Angeles as an example of how disgruntled teachers are systematically shut out.

    http://edobserver.blogspot.com/2011/01/newtla-and-disenfranchisement-of-jordan.html

  10. Chris Smyr Says:

    Attorney DC:

    It is relevant to the school reform debate to discuss school policy, just as it is relevant to discuss organizational and bureaucratic obstacles to enacting reform. Regardless what side you would like to argue on this issue from, the above is a fact–unions will continue to be part of a long, exasperating discussion that is all too critical to keep engaging.

    However, it’s utter nonsense to imply this topic is a distraction because of issues such as “poverty, cultural barriers to academics, English fluency, motivation, lack of parental support, crime, gangs, etc…”. Yours is just another shade of the futile straw man that is continually leveled here, along the lines of accusing reformers for not fixing poverty because they’re too “distracted” by school policy reform. As soon as folks like you can offer a tenable solution to addressing poverty, maybe then we can talk specifics. Regardless of whether this day ever comes, expect heated debate regarding what school policies are best for children.

  11. Linda/RetiredTeacher Says:

    It is much easier to understand AttorneyDC’s argument if you look at a particular child. Let’s take “Maria,” the child of Mexican-Americans (legal citizens) who work as gardener and domestic in my neighborhood. The child became known to me because her mother attended the parenting classes held by the social worker who lives next door to me.

    Maria is eight years old and attends third grade at the school across the street from me, one of the best in an award-winning urban school district. Her parents found out about open enrollment and got on line early in the spring to enroll her there. They are very pleased with Maria’s teachers.

    So Maria has a loving family and a good school but she is what many of us would describe as “disadvantaged.” Her parents, on a very tight budget, can not afford many of the experiences for her that her classmates enjoy. When she gets home each day she watches TV with the older brother who stays with her until her mother gets home. There are few books in the home and Maria does not do much during the summer. Last year she missed two months of school when her mother took her to Mexico to visit an ailing grandparent. The teacher gave Maria a packet of work to complete while she was there but her family was unable to help her so the work was not completed. Spanish is spoken in Maria’s home and the family enjoys watching TV in their native language in the evenings. Other than her trips to Mexico, Maria has never been outside the city in which she resides.

    Maria’s teacher told her parents that she is very much behind in school. Her test scores are extremely low compared to the other children in her class. They are below the 20th percentile in almost all subjects. However, both the social worker and I believe that she is a child blessed with good intelligence. She is bright, cheerful and eager and enjoys good health.

    The mother has asked my neighbor and me for advice on how to help Maria. Should we mention the teachers’ union? Can you see how ridiculous that would be?

    If you are interested in breaking the power of teachers to protect themselves against unfair treatment and to bargain for their salaries and benefits, then you would definitely want to destroy or weaken the union. However, if you are interested in helping children like Maria, the conversation needs to go elsewhere.

    How would YOU improve the education and life chances of this child? I have ideas of my own but I’d be interested in hearing from others.

  12. Chris Smyr Says:

    I don’t need help understanding his arguments, Linda. What he’s given are just more instances of very common debate tactics that have been previously responded to on this blog no less than a handful of times.

    Not surprisingly, what you’ve offered are more straw men. In your example, mentioning to the parent that the union is the reason Maria is failing would have been as useful as saying she’s failing because they’re poor. No one is arguing the union is a direct obstacle for an individual student’s poor school performance, but rather that the union is defending inept policies that are insulating some schools from reform. Despite your perpetual refrain that discussing the unions means reformers aren’t interested in helping children, it needs to happen to do just that.

  13. Linda/RetiredTeacher Says:

    I asked for readers for ideas on how to help Maria but was not surprised when none was forthcoming. Therefore I’ll share my own. It’s important to know that my only interest is in advocating for the least advantaged of our children and the teachers who educate them. I’m a retired teacher who doesn’t make any kind of money whatsoever from my advocacy or my involvement in education. By now I know that some of you just want to help too, and have no ulterior motives, so you might be interested in my ideas for Maria and her infant sister:

    For the sister:

    High quality daycare and preschool: This will help get Maria’s sister totally bilingual and ready for kindergarten;

    Easily available medical care. This will enable the baby to be carefully checked for developmental milestones and alert the parents to problems that interfere with learning, such as hearing deficits;

    Parent education. Maria’s parents would probably attend evening school if they received a stipend and babysitting;

    For Maria:

    A private school with fifteen or fewer in each room. This is something a rich individual or corporation might want to provide for her because she would benefit from the individualized instruction;

    A community center that is open after school until 8:00 at night. This would provide Maria and her older brother with many of the enrichment activities that advantaged children enjoy: soccer, music lessons, art, read-aloud, trips to local museums, games, discussions and debates, high-quality TV programs and videos, help with homework. Parents would be encouraged to come also;

    Summer camp. Maria needs to keep learning over the summer.

    Mentor: Is there someone who would offer to be Maria’s mentor? This person could have Maria come to their home after school so she can be included in the activities enjoyed by her privileged counterparts. Yes, my neighbor and I have offered to do this for Maria. Will you consider helping another child?

    Destroying teacher unions, privatizing schools and reducing the salaries and benefits of teachers will not help Maria or others like her, but there are things that can. Please help teachers and other advocates provide her with an even chance, both inside and outside of school. Thank you.

  14. Chris Smyr Says:

    Linda, to summarize: you brought up an irrelevant hypothetical, expressed disapproval when I pointed this out to you, suggested “some of us” just don’t care enough to want to help students succeed, and then proceeded to respond to your own irrelevant question– seemingly in all seriousness– with advice for Maria including “private school” and “easily available medical care”. Excuse me while I facepalm until school begins.

    Attorney DC, I’d still like to read your response to my comment upthread.

  15. Linda/RetiredTeacher Says:

    Thanks for supporting my point of view, Chris, which is:

    Helping disadvantaged children to get a better education is “irrelevant” to many people in the educational “reform” movement. The “reform” movement seems to have another agenda.

    Do you even know what you are saying?

  16. Chris Smyr Says:

    Linda:

    Please try to understand: your hypothetical is irrelevant to understanding why Attorney’s argument was poor, and to whether or not it’s useful to discuss school policy when discussing reform. It’s irrelevant for several reasons, as I already said above, one being because no one here suggested that the unions were a direct cause for the educational outcomes of any particular student, nor would the simple answer to your example be to blame any one factor. Very simply, it was a straw man. About every third sentence you write is a fallacy, which is why I’m not laboring the point or humoring your example further.

    Your advice was also incredibly useless. It’s yet another demand that we focus on wishlists instead of actually talking about school policy, and that’s not particularly helpful. Try as hard as you’d like to spin this reality into one that better suits your arguments. In the meantime, I’m hoping Attorney DC will give a more worthwhile response.

  17. Linda/RetiredTeacher Says:

    Got you!

  18. Attorney DC Says:

    Chris & Linda: Sorry I’m late joining the discussion; I was on vacation! In any event, having read over your comments, I have to say that I believe Chris continues to miss my point (which is echoed by Linda): Teachers unions simply have little to do with the quality of instruction in our schools. They just don’t.

    I’ve worked in public schools (unionized and non-unionized) and private schools, on both the East Coast and the West Coast of the United States. In my experience, which appears to be corroborrated by what I’ve seen in educational research, there is simply NO correlation between the absence of teachers unions and higher student test scores.

    It’s not that teachers unions are uniformly great, or awful, or mean, or helpful or anything in between. It’s simply that the unions have little or no impact on the key variables that affect student achievement. They have no say as to a school’s instructional content, teacher credentialing requirements, course curriculum, teacher placement, hiring and evaluation, student income levels, discipline policies or almost anything else that affects educational achievement.

    A union’s role is basically limited to negotiating over small variations in the teacher’s contracts (COLA adjustments, minor changes in the pay scale, exact number of days worked per school year, etc.) and the protection of teachers against arbitrary dismissals and other advserse actions in violation of their teaching contracts.

  19. Chris Smyr Says:

    Attorney, you again ignored all of what I wrote above. Also, I already answered these latest iterations of your arguments:

    ***”Teachers unions simply have little to do with the quality of instruction in our schools. They just don’t. ”

    And I said this: “it is relevant to discuss organizational and bureaucratic obstacles to enacting reform”,

    and then later I said this,

    “no one is arguing the union is a direct obstacle for an individual student’s poor school performance, but rather that the union is defending inept policies that are insulating some schools from reform.”

    Are you going to respond to that?

    ***”there is simply NO correlation between the absence of teachers unions and higher student test scores.”

    I teased you about this up thread, but I guess you didn’t catch the reason why: correlation does not imply causation. That you’ve seen no correlation between these variables does not imply anything about causal factors. I anticipate an appeal to ignorance in response to this, so I’ll preemptively address it: the absence of evidence of causal factors does not imply there is evidence of an absence of causal factors.

  20. Attorney DC Says:

    Chris: I wrote that there’s no correlation between unionization and low student test scores, which (to me) indicates that unionization is exceedingly unlikely to be the cause of low test scores. You wrote: “the absence of evidence of causal factors does not imply there is evidence of an absence of causal factors.” To which I reply: “What?”

    To your other points, I do not agree with your idea that teachers unions are “defending inept policies that are insulating some schools from reform.” What policies are the unions defending? Seniority rights? Tenure? Those exist in most (if not all) public schools, unionized or not. And, as I noted above, these issues have little if anything to do with the actual instruction and learning taking place in the schools.

    If you’re arguing that unions make it harder for principals to arbitrarily fire teachers on a whim, then, yes, you’re probably right. But principals shouldn’t be firing teachers on a whim; they should only fire teachers who can be shown through evaluations to be poor teachers. Otherwise (as Linda noted) you’re simply back at administrators firing teachers for a host of non-educational reasons (from political issues, like writing letters to the editor, to religious issues, to personal spats).

    To reiterate: Unions have almost NO impact whatsoever on the major variables that affect student achievement, such as socioeconomic status, IQ, parental education levels, and cultural attitudes. Unions also have NO impact on most in-school issues, from teacher placement to licensing to hiring policies to curriculum decisions.

    Virginia is not unionized. Maryland is unionized. Please go into an assortment of classrooms in both states and tell me what, exactly, is different between a Virginia classroom and a Maryland classroom based on the union (or lack thereof). Really. I’m serious. What’s the difference?

  21. Chris Smyr Says:

    Attorney,

    ***”I wrote that there’s no correlation between unionization and low student test scores, which (to me) indicates that unionization is exceedingly unlikely to be the cause of low test scores.”

    A correlation does not indicate anything about possible causal factors approaching “exceedingly unlikely”. You can’t just compare numbers without bothering to look at other variables at play. You even asked later in your comment about these other variables, which again suggests you’re in no position to make these sweeping claims.

    ***”What policies are the unions defending? Seniority rights? Tenure? ”

    Perhaps a reread of the blog post you are commenting on is in order, or perhaps a reread of most of the past debates had here. You answered part of your own question, so I know you have an inkling as to what we’re talking about.

    ***”And, as I noted above, these issues have little if anything to do with the actual instruction and learning taking place in the schools. ”

    You noted before that unions directly aren’t responsible for instruction, which I addressed, but now you claim that the policies themselves do not affect instruction. Accountability, teacher support, career advancement, retention, school choice… none of these will affect student outcomes? Really?

    ***”If you’re arguing that unions make it harder for principals to arbitrarily fire teachers on a whim, then, yes, you’re probably right. ”

    No, actually, didn’t argue that. Admin should have more power to make staffing decisions and should be required to use teacher effectiveness as evidence for those decisions, is part of what is being argued. Much like how it works for other professional careers.

    ***”To reiterate: Unions have almost NO impact whatsoever on the major variables that affect student achievement, such as socioeconomic status, IQ, parental education levels, and cultural attitudes. ”

    And to reiterate, “it’s utter nonsense to imply this topic is a distraction because of issues such as “poverty, cultural barriers to academics, English fluency, motivation, lack of parental support, crime, gangs, etc…”. Yours is just another shade of the futile straw man that is continually leveled here, along the lines of accusing reformers for not fixing poverty because they’re too “distracted” by school policy reform. As soon as folks like you can offer a tenable solution to addressing poverty, maybe then we can talk specifics. Regardless of whether this day ever comes, expect heated debate regarding what school policies are best for children.”

  22. Attorney DC Says:

    Well, this debate can go on and on… Having worked and/or volunteered in many different schools, I will continue to believe that unionization has little if anything to do with the quality of education obtained by most students. Your argument seems to be that I can’t PROVE unions have no impact on test scores… so they likely do impact test scores. That doesn’t make sense. I leave it to you to offer any empirical evidence that unionized districts provide inferior education than non-unionized districts, because I certainly haven’t seen any evidence proving that connection.

    In the meantime, all the focus by the current crop of education “reformers” on firing teachers and busting their unions hasn’t been shown to have any positive effect that I know of regarding improving the actual educational experiences of our students.

    Instead of focusing on factors that have not been shown to have any significant effect on educational outcomes of our nation’s students, I think (as a former teacher) that it would make MORE sense for reformers to focus on things that would actually help these students.

    In my experience, the #1 problem impacting the achievement of low-income, minority students is the students’ own behavior and attitudes toward education (and those of their classmates). Policy reformers should focus on these issues (much like Jaime Escalante and his principal did, as documented in their book Standing and Delivering) rather than pretending that the problem stems from the presence of teacher unions.

  23. Chris Smyr Says:

    Attorney DC:

    ***”I leave it to you to offer any empirical evidence that unionized districts provide inferior education than non-unionized districts, because I certainly haven’t seen any evidence proving that connection.”

    You want me to prove what you’re saying is wrong, otherwise you will continue to assume that you’re right. Why does this sound so familiar… oh, that’s right, I expected another fallacy in reply and so addressed it a few posts up: “I anticipate an appeal to ignorance in response to this, so I’ll preemptively address it: the absence of evidence of causal factors does not imply there is evidence of an absence of causal factors.” It’s beyond naive to assume that you can easily just compare unionized and non-unionized districts and assume any correlation you find implies causation.

    There’s a lot of reasons why a school struggles. I’m not about to assume that the unions are the only reason, or even the largest reason. What can and is being argued, though, is that union intransigence on key issues in education and reform– key issues that, yes, by definition will impact the effectiveness of a school, such as accountability, teacher support, career advancement, retention, school choice — is not going to help any student one bit.

    ***”In the meantime, all the focus by the current crop of education “reformers” on firing teachers and busting their unions hasn’t been shown to have any positive effect that I know of regarding improving the actual educational experiences of our students.”

    In how many places, for how long, and to what extent has “firing teachers and busting their unions” actually happened thus far? I don’t know if you’d find enough data to suggest very much about the actual effects of accountability reform right now. There is convincing rationale, however, that these changes will lead to improvements in student outcomes and in bettering the teaching profession.

    Ed reform encompasses much more than just accountability, and even on other issues that are well-documented, like the successes of some alternative pathways into education (TFA is one), there’s still a ton of union opposition and rhetoric.

    ***”Instead of focusing on factors that have not been shown to have any significant effect on educational outcomes of our nation’s students, I think (as a former teacher) that it would make MORE sense for reformers to focus on things that would actually help these students.”

    Weasel words. You continue to ignore criticism that you have NO sound, tenable policy solutions for factors you continue to reference, such as poverty. You also continue to ignore every chance made available to you to actually give alternative policy directions for reformers beyond wish lists. Instead, it’s this vague “things that would actually help these students” rhetoric.

    You then, again, reference Standing and Delivering as a guide toward real reform. Whether or not you read the book, you must have at least read when I explained this to you several times in the other thread– doing what we can to ensure effective teachers stick around is a key principle of the successes highlighted there:

    eduwonk.com/2011/07/if-dogs-became-kings-and-the-pope-chewed-gum.html#comment-223316

    And since it’s always fun to have to point back to dropped arguments, I again will remind you of the irony of your latest comment, also from the thread linked above:

    “[Y]ou *still* haven’t offered any sound policy alternatives that would more strongly focus on student behavior. Instead, you give examples of what has happened in your schools in the past. Those are not examples of policy, however, and I find it ironic that reformers are being criticized here for not imposing *more* regulations and rules on schools when this past weekend SOS supporters marched/freestyle rapped for exactly the opposite.”

    (eduwonk.com/2011/07/if-dogs-became-kings-and-the-pope-chewed-gum.html#comment-223438)

  24. Chris Smyr Says:

    It’s so great that we can have such productive online debates, where both parties are willing to admit faults and own up to poor logic

  25. phillipmarowe Says:

    Chris’s attempt at mock sarcasm falls flat.
    Again.

Leave a Reply


+ 6 = eleven