[I originally posted this on the MaDemsForum. One reader kindly suggested that I also post it here, so that's what I'm doing.]
I’d like to say a few words about unions, particularly teachers unions. I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding of the role they play and of their importance.
First I should say that I taught public school for 16 years — 13 years teaching junior high, and the last 3 years teaching high school. For the last 6 of those years I was the president of the local teachers union (a Massachusetts Teachers Association local). In 1985 I left teaching and have since worked as a software engineer and researcher at various small and large corporations, but I still teach one course a term in the Computer Science department at UMass/Boston.
Many people believe that the main function of teachers unions is to protect those teachers that are minimally competent or outright incompetent. In my experience, this just isn’t the case. When I started out teaching, I was surprised to find that the very best teachers in the school — the ones I hoped my kids (not yet born at the time) would have — were also the strongest union members.
I find that the engineers I now work with are astonished when I tell them this. But there’s a reason for it, as I eventually found out. The best teachers care passionately about their teaching and about their students. They are not inclined to follow blindly the latest half-thought-out educational edict of a new principal or superintendent who may well be around for only a few years, who may only be looking to put something on his or her resume. (“I completely overhauled the reading program.”) Who may be responding to pressure from a well-connected parent with a problem child. And who in most cases probably knows a lot less about what goes on day to day in classrooms, and knows a lot less about the subject matter, than these teachers do. So good teachers are often not in fact very well liked by administrators. And minimally competent teachers, on the other hand, often get by — not to put too fine a point on it — by sucking up. Unions, by putting a brake on favoritism, enable good teachers to do their job without always looking behind their back. That’s why typically the best teachers are the most supportive of the union.
Another widely held belief is that there is a conflict of interest between teachers and their students, and that teachers unions, because they work for the interests of teachers, are fundamentally detrimental to education.
This is really a big question, but let me simply point out one thing: in contrast to some other occupations, no one goes into teaching to become rich. A major motivation of teachers is the joy and satisfaction we all get out of seeing our students learn and grow. If anything, this works to the disadvantage of teachers, who are grossly underpaid in comparison with the importance of the work they do. In a very real sense, there is no fundamental conflict of interest between teachers and students, and without seeing that, I don’t think anyone can really understand the dynamics of what goes on in a school and a school system.
So now let me say a word about merit pay. The first thing to realize is that it has been tried in many cities and towns across the country, for many years, and it has never worked. Every place that has tried it has abandoned it within a few years. There are a number of reasons for this. Here’s one: I once heard a man who had been an assistant principal in a large elementary school. The school system had implemented merit pay, and of the three third grade teachers in this school, one was getting merit pay. This poor guy spent all summer on the phone fielding calls from parents who wanted to know why their child wasn’t getting “the teacher with merit pay”.
A more fundamental reason is that it is extremely difficult to evaluate teachers in a way that would justify merit pay. Honest administrators (and there *are* honest administrators) know this, and find the whole process uncomfortable. And teachers generally have no confidence in administrator evaluations, partly for the reasons I gave above. It’s the sort of situation that’s just open to abuse.
But the idea keeps coming back. It’s pushed notably by business leaders who think that this works in business, and so it ought to work everywhere. Well, it does work in motivating sales forces — there’s no doubt about that. But I’ve never been convinced that differential pay motivated software engineers one bit — in fact, engineers are always very quiet about what they get paid. And teachers are much more like engineers than they are like a sales force. So when Chris Gabrieli says, as he did in one of the pre-primary debates (I don’t have the exact words, but I believe it was pretty close to this): “It’s really simple — just like in business. You measure the kids at the beginning of the year, and you measure them at the end. And that’s how you pay teachers.” — well, this completely overlooks what motivates teachers; it completely overlooks the destructive effects this would have on curriculum; it completely overlooks the wildly diverse ways that children grow and develop; and I’m sure that most teachers would find it insulting. I know I would.
In light of all this, I was really taken aback to see the composition of the pre-K-12 Transition Committee working group for the Deval Patrick administration. Here’s what it consists of:
2 superintendents of schools
1 college president
1 law firm director
1 director of an education research foundation
4 heads of organizations partly or solely
concerned with education. One of these
(Chris Gabrieli) is fundamentally a business person.
Not one teacher. And even more significantly, not one teachers union leader. These are the people who day in and day out have to give serious thought to the conditions under which teachers work and the conditions under which education takes place. These are the people who articulate every day the need for support for good teachers, and who have to patiently explain every day why cheap and simplistic solutions to educational problems are doomed to failure.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I actually don’t know any of these people. And I’m not saying that any of them are vicious or evil. But I am saying that to form a working group in this way, without including the authentic voice of teachers, is just outrageous.
How could this have happened? Well, I saw Deval Patrick several times during the campaign was asked if he was prepared to “stand up” to the teachers unions. And I’ve seen comments in the press that various pundits are looking to see if he will “pander” to the unions — presumably by providing more money for teacher salaries. And I’m guessing that this is why the composition of this task force is so awfully skewed.
I’m really disappointed. And I can only hope that this kind of distorted planning process will change, and change soon.