A recent eSchool News headline: Are unions blocking school reform? A provocative title - but I think the wrong question.
We always look for silver bullets and scapegoats - movies like the one referenced in the article (Waiting for Superman) can be the worst offenders - it's very easy to present one side of an argument. Superman names unions and teachers as the scapegoats, and evaluating (and paying) teachers based on student test scores as the silver bullet.
We are also cause-fiends, as with Michael Moore films, people jump on the bandwagon, believing that in a mere 102 minutes a film-maker can objectively and thoroughly explain education in America, clearly show who's good and who's bad, and in this case, lay the blame on unions and teachers. Seems naïve and inflammatory to me.
Unions do have problems - they've been around for decades, but working conditions, salaries, etc. for teachers haven't substantively improved. In fact, one might argue that teachers are worse off today than they were three or four (maybe less?) decades ago. Worse, the quality of graduating students (the work product of schools) has also declined. Change is needed, but is it all the teachers' and unions' fault? I don't think so.
If I were Randi Weingarten (president of the American Federation of Teachers), I'd consider an altogether different strategy. I would admit that unions are part of the problem, but they're not the whole problem. I'd start every speech with "AFT's mission is to work ourselves out of existence within ten years. Unions exist because management didn't care enough for the workers - we want to work with governments and administrators in this country to create schools where teachers no longer need the protection of their union, where there is joy and learning in schools, and all students graduate prepared for their next step in life. We aspire to work ourselves out of existence."
She can change the basis of her union from one that opposes management to one that enables it. To get management to put their sacred cows (moronic standards, standardized testing, 13,000+ districts, poor pay, etc.) on the table, she must put everything (tenure, open to change, quality teachers, etc.) on the table as well. She could quell the issue of ulterior motives (prevent innovation, expand membership dues, increase political power) by taking the high road - her goal should genuinely be to admit that we (including unions and teachers) have problems, that our previous approach hasn't worked, and if we work together on specific change that leads to sustainably improving student outcomes at scale, good things will come (for students, schools, teachers and yes, even the union).
I am convinced that there is no such thing as a public school teacher in America that chose this profession for the money. They all came because they were called - it is/was in their hearts and their stomachs. It may have waned over time, but the intention was good. I believe we vilify teachers because they're an easy and convenient target, and because as with anything, it's easy to find bad teachers among the more than three million teachers in America.
Going back to the opening paragraph, the right question is - do we really want better? If yes, (and I'm not sure I believe we really do), then let's stop spending tons of money NOT changing things. Let's start spending less money more effectively to create something worthy of our children and their future.
Unlike the vaunted but ultimately limp recent healthcare summit, Secretary Duncan's would-be education summit should include unions, administrators, superintendents, teachers, students, politicians, etc., and it should only have one objective (one they can't leave the room without accomplishing - a cage match as it were) - unanimous agreement on the goal [note singular] for education in America. Subsequent summits will decide how we get there, but the first step is knowing what success looks like, and that all stakeholders have unequivocally signed up.
We can then challenge the administrators and unions to take a clean slate approach to design great school system(s) that meet that goal. There are many exemplars - High Tech High and Seattle Girls' School come to mind right away, but there are others. There is no disputing the quality of their graduates, but what strikes me is how exacting both are about hiring, ensuring flexibility, trust and open-mindedness (of the students and teachers alike). Note that despite public school salaries, they have hundreds of applicants for each open position. Hmmm...
It begins with a great leader who has the fortitude to remain true to his and her (respectively) convictions. I wrote about how "he" creates a public a week ago. But how do we do this at scale? We know it is rare (if not impossible) to have a great organization remain great with a poor leader.
Sadly, the public school principals that I've met are little more than operations bitches for the district. Unlike Larry and Marja, they have zero latitude to be real leaders. This means that as much as they might have innovative ideas, creative approaches to management, a desire to give their teachers the room to be great, etc., they're shackled. Going back to Weingarten, I imagine her teachers would be much happier and more effective if their bosses (principals) were leaders like Larry and Marja, and all of them shared a common goal and were empowered to achieve it. Why is it not possible to trust well-vetted and qualified leaders to do what's right?
Education is a system - it has many components, including districts, administrators, teachers, students, parents, unions, publishers, sates, the feds, etc. Today there is way too much overlap among the players, too much oversight over mundane issues, and enough internal mistrust to create an impossible situation. The approach I suggested for the AFT could easily apply to all the other stakeholders. But until there is a common definition of success, and until every part of the system is held accountable for achieving it, we won't get anywhere.
In the end, we should not vilify any one part of the system - we should instead agree to a clear goal for education, and admit that the system as its currently defined doesn't work for broad public school education. Admissions are the first step..