In case you didn’t get a chance to follow this exchange about teacher union’s influence on reform and successful practice I thought I would share this link.
I follow Flypaper, a blog written by a team from the Thomas Fordham Institute though I often find myself in disagreement with their beliefs and thoughts. I found this exchange, however, interesting because we live in what would be called a pro-labor state and because of what I believe is important for successful educational reform.
The exchange started with a comment made by Diane Ravitch, who can be followed here. The discussion is around unions and how strong unions at the state level get in the way of reform that results in superb schools. I agree with Petrilli when he says that the comments to the posts are important and encourage you to not only read the posts, but the comments as well. Massachusetts gets a lot of space in this discussion because of their reform efforts that have resulted in the highest scores in three out of four of the 2007 NAEP assessments and they tied for first in the fourth assessment. They have also shown significant progress in reducing the achievement gap. The question is was this possible because of or in spite of the state teachers’ association? Most comments and authors believe that the teacher unions are at the heart of the problem with public education in our country. Not the only issue, but certainly one of the stumbling blocks to successful reform.
My experience does not necessarily support the belief that unions are the major obstacle to successful reform. I have seen WEA have a powerful influence such as early in this session when they did not support basic education legislation, but revised legislation did emerge and passed that contains components WEA does not support. For me, what is more important is the relationship at the local level between the district and the association. Certainly there are times when we disagree and make a decision to do or not do things that can influence our change initiatives, but I believe that if there is a union we must work collaboratively if we are to experience success that sustains over time.
I prefer to work with a group where leadership is representative of their members, where belief, language and behavior are aligned, and where there is a willingness by both parties to be influenced. I see these as critical keys to successful collaboration. If the group is splintered, it makes it more difficult to initiate system change. If the group, especially the leadership, is not aligned and their behavior is not consistent with their words, it makes it difficult to establish and maintain the trust that is necessary to make and sustain significant alterations to a traditional management/union working relationship. For example, we have made significant movement in our contract such as our leave provisions to demonstrate respect for our teachers as professionals. When leadership or teachers at the same time push for traditional time constraints it places us in a position of questioning what professional means. Concerns like these can be overcome, however, if all parties are open to being influenced and share a common focus on the needs of students. For the most part, we have achieved this, but I realize it is not the norm in other places.
If I were going to point fingers at what at times has a negative influence on our efforts to change practice and influence the quality of learning in every classroom they would be pointed at some of the statutes that were put in place many years ago to drive revenue and mandate practices and to protect the rights of teachers. First and foremost would be those that define basic education and those that require significant expenditures of time and resources to remove teachers from classrooms in those situations where even their colleagues question why they continue. But, that would be for a different post. If you have some time to follow the string of posts it will be interesting to hear your thoughts.