Whose Classroom Is It Anyway?

As school reform accelerates, a huge majority of teachers turn to their unions for support -- sometimes with divergent interests.

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In a new survey, teachers say they rely on their unions to protect them from school politics and abuses of administrative power, but they also want the labor groups to do more about ineffective educators, either by guiding them to improve -- or guiding them out the door.

For "Trending Toward Reform," the Washington, D.C.-based think tank Education Sector surveyed more than 1,100 K-12 public schoolteachers from across the country, and asked them about key issues including the state of their labor unions and revisions to evaluation systems and tenure.

Just over 80 percent of the teachers said they believed their union protected them from campus politics, and from abuses of power at the administrative level. And the percentage of teachers who said they were involved in local union activities jumped to 38 percent in 2011, from 24 percent in 2007.

(It's worth noting here that the National Education Association, the country's largest teachers' union, has seen its membership drop by an unprecedented 16 percent since 2010.)

That teachers are looking for union protection isn't surprising given how much is changing in the education landscape, and how quickly new accountability measures and expectations are taking effect. The Ed Sector results are also in line with findings in the latest Met Life Survey of the American Teacher. In 2006, just 8 percent of teachers said they didn't feel their jobs were secure. On the 2011 Met Life survey, that percentage had more than quadrupled to 34 percent.

Teachers want their unions "at the table fighting for their interests, and making sure reforms are implemented in a way that's fair to teachers and ensures teachers can do their best work," said Sarah Rosenberg, a policy analyst at Ed Sector and the report's co-author.

Here's just one indication of how fast the school reform train is moving: Two years ago, only 15 states and the District of Columbia required all teachers to take part in annual evaluations of any kind. As of this month, 28 states now require teacher evaluations to be tied in some way to student performance, according to the National Council on Teacher Quality.

The Ed Sector survey also seems to reinforce some conventional wisdom, specifically the notion that newer teachers might be more worried about their individual careers and less concerned about what happens to the larger employee pool in the long term. That's probably understandable, given that about half of all new teachers are likely to quit the profession within their first five years.

On the issue of workforce recruiting, the percentage of veteran teachers (those with more than 20 years experience) who said they were likely to support easing state certification requirements dropped from 45 percent in 2007 to 34 percent in 2011. "It wouldn't be a big leap to say that veterans are trying to save their jobs from new teachers who might be coming in," Rosenberg said.

But perhaps even more important than the areas of dissent are where the two groups agree, Rosenberg noted. Both newcomers (teachers with less than five years experience) and veterans are resistant to using student test scores as a measure of teacher effectiveness. At the same time, the two groups showed similar support for initiatives aimed at attracting and retaining teachers, including providing more paid preparation time, and making it easier for people to leave and return to the profession without losing retirement benefits.

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Emily Richmond is the public editor for the National Education Writers Association. She was previously the education reporter for the Las Vegas Sun.

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