Teacher Unionism Must Evolve (Part I)

Teacher unionism has found itself under attack across much of the Midwest for most of the last year. The purpose of this post is not to debate the finer issues of the proposed policy changes affecting unions in states like Indiana and Ohio; rather, my intent here is to begin to articulate a vision for what teacher unionism could and I would argue should become.

I believe the conceptualization of teacher unions as labor unions, and thus teachers as labor, is an outdated one, and in some ways I would argue that it never truly fit. Teachers are not laborers. Teaching is a high skilled profession which requires considerable educational preparation and continued education and professional development for the rest of a teacher’s career. Good teachers devote an inordinate amount of time, effort, and resources to their own professional development and continued improvement. These realities make the professional association a much better fit for the form of an organization whose intent is to support teachers. But the shift from unions to professional associations is much more than just a shift in terminology. Along with the shift in name must come some rather substantive changes in how these organizations function.
  • First, teacher professional associations would need to a better job of holding their memberships to high professional standards. Put differently, teacher professional associations must do a much better job of policing the teaching profession. Gone is the day when these groups could pretend that all teachers are alike. Just like any other profession, teachers’ performance and abilities exist along a continuum, ranging from the high performing and very talented to those who should find another profession. It is very clear that performance accountability at the school, leader, and teacher levels are becoming and will remain a part of public education. I believe teachers’ professional associations have the opportunity to lead this charge and help inform important policy decisions about how to best hold teachers and schools accountable. But as a precursor to this, associations must recognize and openly admit that there are teachers that should be put out of teaching. Simply paying dues to the organization does not mean that a teacher is worth fighting for. Teacher professional associations must get to the place where they are more invested than administrators or policy makers in removing bad teachers from schools. That is the way it should be. It is teachers’ profession and teachers should be the ones most interested in protecting it.
I will continue to articulate my vision for teacher unionism in coming posts. For anyone who questions my intentions, let me say for the record that I am not one who believes organizations like the NEA or the AFT should go away. In fact, I believe quite the opposite. I am a past member of both organizations (United Teachers of New Orleans (UTNO) & North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE). I believe these organizations and their local affiliates can and should play a major role in education reform and improvement, but they must change.

2 thoughts on “Teacher Unionism Must Evolve (Part I)”

  1. Wayne, have you read School Reform from the Inside Out by Richard Elmore? If not, you’re going to like it a lot. Definitely one of the best education books I’ve ever read.

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