First Person

Voices: Do unions benefit education?

Teacher Mark Sass believes teachers’ unions can and should play a vital role in school reform if the focus is on working collaboratively and not on individual teachers.

I’ve been on strike twice in my life, both times when I was a truck mechanic and a member of the International Association of Machinist and Aerospace Workers. Each time I hit the picket lines, I knew what we were fighting for – wages and working conditions.

A Denver Public Schools teacher works with students in this EdNews file photo.

The union gave a collective voice to the workers against the power of the business owners. I had no problem defending the role of the union for the profession and for the betterment of our society.  History holds that the unions filled both roles well.

As much as I’ve supported unions from my vantage point as a mechanic, I have always struggled with the role of unions in education.  I have been a member of our local since I became a teacher, and I served on the union’s executive committee. Despite this, I’ve struggled with the purpose of teachers’ unions.

In my mind, the question comes down to this simple one: Do teachers’ unions benefit our education system? In other words, can unions represent teachers while at the same time maintain or improve the overall quality of education in our country?  Unlike what the media says, teachers’ unions aren’t just looking at the almighty dollar as the point of discussion. We are looking at the education of our children – and I think this is an important distinction.

In most school districts, 70 to 80 percent of the budget is dedicated to labor costs.  Teachers, administrators, paraprofessionals, bus drivers, building maintenance personnel and myriad other professionals all work toward educating our children and they need to be supplied with salaries, benefits and positive working conditions.

As a member of the mechanics’ union, we addressed issues such as building maintenance, the quality of shared equipment and personnel issues (such as when supervisors played favorites with some mechanics by giving them plum jobs). Some of these unfavorable conditions lead to poor performance and unsatisfied workers, all of which lead to a drop in worker output and eventually a drop in revenue.

Teachers face similar issues – lack of heating and air conditioning, decrepit and outdated technology, and principals who take care of their favorite teachers by giving them cushy class schedules.  These conditions result in unsatisfied teachers, which either lead to quality teachers leaving the profession or unhappy teachers staying – both of which negatively affect student learning.

In fact, according to the recent MetLife survey of teachers, working conditions and a drop in job satisfaction are some of the major reasons teachers are leaving the profession. Teachers are a long-term investment and, as such, every time a teacher leaves the profession it costs money to hire and train new teachers.

Why teachers – collectively – must play a role in reform

Society’s long-term investment in education isn’t just about individual teachers, though. It’s about teachers working together, collaboratively, to bring about sustained and institutional change. Here again is where teachers’ unions play a key role.

Education is a labor-intensive “industry.” It’s an industry that relies on the same capital many businesses do – individual and social capital.  Andy Hargreaves and Michael Fullan have written a wonderful book on the symbiotic relationship between individual teachers and the collective group.  The book, Professional Capital: Transforming Teaching in Every School, makes the compelling argument that if we continue to focus on individual teacher quality, we will never make the changes necessary to improve the education for all students.

Using data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) highly respected international tests of student achievement, Hargreaves and Fullan identify four countries – Singapore, South Korea, Finland and Canada – whose unions and education systems we can learn from.  These countries use fresh approaches to reforming education and professional effectiveness that don’t include bashing teachers or unions. All four of these countries have strong unions.

If we recognize that individual teachers as a collective have the greatest impact on education outcomes, unions become necessary. Our largest investment in education is in our educators, the personnel necessary to educate our children. Unions are one of the keys to bringing about permanent change to our educational landscape by ensuring productive working conditions for teachers.

So if teachers’ unions are necessary, how do they best work for students and education? There is a need for a collective voice when it comes to some basic union responsibilities: working conditions, wages, and other bread-and-butter issues. But as Hargreaves and Fullan write:

It [also] means recasting teacher unions not only to become sources of outraged opposition to negative, imposed changes that narrow learning, harm students, and create burnout among classroom teaches, but also to become active and inspirational agents of change that serve students, especially the most disadvantaged, improve quality among the teaching force, and to put teachers in the vanguard of large-scale change.

For teachers’ unions, the main struggle should be about the profession and not self-interest or power. There are unions around the country that are beginning to take on this role.  The teachers union in Toledo, Ohio, started Peer Assistance and Review or PAR programs, which call for teachers evaluating other teachers.  In Colorado, the Jefferson County Education Association is piloting an evaluation system in which master teachers evaluate other teachers. PAR programs identify teachers’ strengths and deficiencies, which helps to ensure high-quality teachers.  Both of these approaches exemplify the role of the unions as change agents for the profession.

When I was a member of our teachers’ union executive committee, we researched and put together a proposal for a PAR program in our district.  I knew that this proposal was not going to come from a disparate group of teachers without understanding their power as a collective group of professionals. This is what the union can and should do – tap into the collective power of teachers to transform teaching.

To profoundly change the way we do the “business” of education in this country, we need to focus on direct group action versus isolated attempts at reform. Teachers’ unions, through their local, state and national organizations, can and should play a role in this transformation.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.