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Teachers’ Unions Don’t Empower Teachers

American public education may be in crisis, but teachers are fairly happy with their lives, according to a new Gallup poll:

The nation’s teachers score higher than almost all occupational groups on life evaluations plus four of the other five areas of wellbeing—including emotional health, healthy behaviors, basic access, and physical health. In life evaluations, emotional health, and basic access specifically, teachers come in second—trailing only physicians, who typically earn a much higher salary.

Teachers, however, were considerably less happy in their evaluations of their work environments. While they were the most likely to “say they smiled or laughed a lot yesterday,” their stress levels were second only to physicians, placing them in the bottom half for workplace well-being across 14 occupation groups:

Teacher’s low workplace wellbeing, relative to other professional occupations, indicates school and community leaders have important issues to address in the school workplace in order for teachers and students to reach their full potential. It is absolutely critical to raise teachers’ workplace engagement, because their engagement is the No. 1 predictor and driver of student engagement, which Gallup research shows impacts student wellbeing and academic success.

We couldn’t agree more. One problem that a lot of education reform efforts have is that they come across as anti-teacher. You can’t have great schools without great teachers, and the goal is to give good teachers more freedom to do what they do best.

Our idea of education reform isn’t to take teacher union membership away and leave teachers exposed to the power of uncaring, rigid bureaucracies. Instead, we want to use concepts like charter schools and school vouchers to give good teachers the chance to build cooperative and community schools where a reputation for excellence ensures a stream of students.

By acting like teachers are the problem or the enemy, education reformers often make their goals harder than they need to be. We don’t like teachers’ unions, but it’s not because we hate teachers and want them to suffer. It’s because the unions are part of what’s wrong with the system: They are the biggest defenders of the bureaucratized, by-the-book system that has stifled many teachers and made it difficult for them to do their jobs as they see fit.

We understand the appeal of unions to teachers. We understand why people under the rule of bureaucrats, who are ultimately responsive to big city political machines, would want to have their own representatives as the table. But we think there are ways to decentralize the whole system, to give teachers more autonomy and ground their evaluations more deeply in the views of their peers and local communities, while also giving parents more choice.

It’s not the teachers we want to disempower but the bureaucratic machines that seek to control them. Sadly, teachers’ unions have become a key cog in that machine. Pointing this out isn’t anti-teacher, it’s pro-teacher, and that is an important distinction for education reformers to make.

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  • John Burke

    I have to disagree that, before the AFT and NEA organized virtually every school district in the country, teachers were at the mercy of uncaring bureaucratic machines. In the typical Connecticut school system where I went K-12 in the 1950s — a district with about 8,000 students at the time — teachers were well respected in the schools and the community, administration was flat with few “bureaucrats,” and every teacher I knew lived in a very nice middle class home, thank you. Around the same time and into the 60s, even as the UFT was battling to win contracts in NYC, the city’s public schools were among the best run and most successful public schools anywhere in the world.

  • Anthony

    Teaching can be an exacting profession at all levels; most importantly, K-12 (reform or not) quality instruction via teacher transmission remains essential to post secondary success – equally important distinction.

  • foobarista

    I disagree as well; the purpose of schools isn’t to employ teachers, but to teach kids. If teachers or bureaucrats are impeding this effort, they should be fired (and not simply reassigned to yet another group of kids).

    If you can’t be fired, you can’t be trusted. This applies to individual positions as well as whole organizations (ie, if a school isn’t functioning, it should be shut down or completely reorganized with completely new leadership).

  • Corlyss Drinkard

    20+ years ago, occupational surveys found that lawyers were the second most unhappy with their employment. No.1? Teachers. For 30 years they have been doing a poor job and their students’ test results have shown that for decades, despite exploding costs/pupil. I’ll get concerned about teachers’ poor little self-esteem issues when they start showing they are doing more with less, not nothing with less.

  • Clayton Holbrook

    Is reform that includes more accountability initially more stressful for teachers b/c years of bureaucratic layers are removed and their differing skill levels are finally exposed? Initial shock and growing pains?

    And I personally think that how teachers and administrators are treated by the bureaucratic system, from conditions and control to pay, has scared talented individuals from the profession. Young talented individuals these days want to work in dynamic environments where they’re free to deploy their own ideas to get results. They don’t want slow incremental and arbitrary career ladders with a little extra job security. They want to work hard and get highly compensated based on their performance, not tenure. Improving the work environment for teachers and students should consider how to get more talented young people into the teaching profession.

    • bannedforselfcensorship

      Exactly. Once we have tax credit vouchers, the schools will improve. Even the public schools, because of competition. This is what happened in Sweden. They have vouchers and found that all schools improved. Much of the improvement did not come from whipping teachers but from entirely new ideas to improve education, like a 5 minute face to face meetings between individual students and the teacher every week.

  • Brian Rourke

    When I married a teacher, i was fascinated to see schools from the inside. My wife worked in a very good suburban district with a lot of great teachers. She was a resource specialist (taught learning disabled) the position always had more paperwork than a regular teacher, but when the paperwork got to 3+ days per week she moved on from teaching and the kids lost a great teacher. It fascinated me that there were administrators in Sacramento and Washington that would critique her reports or demand further explanations/revisions when they had very little expertise in her field and had never met any of the kids. This beaureacratic obsession with paperwork is horrendously expensive and does nothing to actually teach children. How can an administrator possibly know whether a teacher 4,000 miles away is doing a good job by looking at paperwork? It is a fool’s errand that is taking away from actual teaching.

    • Mark Michael

      A truth that it seems every generation has to learn: You can’t substitute evaluations, forms, paperwork for real competition. When the customers, parents/children in this case, have other suppliers to which they can go – and both parties know that – then evaluations can work as they should. But you cannot correct for a monopoly by stringent bureaucratic evaluations, controls, paperwork. It just becomes tedious overhead.

  • Brian Rourke

    My wife had a difficult pregnancy and an administrator decided to give her a hard time. The union was useless, there was an election 8 months away and they were “very busy” making sure democrats won “for our own good.” one letter from a lawyer and she never heard from the administrator again. The union wouldn’t pay the
    Lawyer so I did, but with the money that would have gone to her union dues. All of her teacher friends were afraid of what would happen, they told her that she would probably get fired and wouldn’t have the union’s help. I told them the union didn’t do anything when she needed it, so why pay them for the work someone else did? Nothing happened – nothing. The union kept doing nothing and the other teachers kept paying their dues.

  • Susan Pope

    A teacher’s thoughts: although workplace stress is high, most of us are happy because working with kids is a rewarding experience. Most teachers I know (in a non-union state) think the unions are part of the beauracracy. The reforms that have taken place so far, meant to make it easier to fire bad teachers & reward good teachers, have simply added to the already heavy burden of non-teaching related paperwork that we do. Want to improve education? Cut the beauracracy by at least 50%, get parents to work with teachers, improve discipline across the board, cut the amount of testing we do (we lose about 3 weeks each school year to standardized testing – not a bad concept, we just overload the students with it), empower principals to fire bad teachers, and let teachers spend the majority of our time on our students.

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