Teacher's Unions: Still a Huge Obstacle to Reform

It's no secret that I am not fond of the teacher's unions.  I get into a lot of arguments about this, in which I am accused of being uninterested in any school reforms that don't involve breaking the power of the teacher's unions.  Of course, short of the not-very-successful class size reduction schemes, there aren't many proposed reforms that don't involve breaking the power of the teachers' unions.

Exhibit B is Steven Brill's new piece on the teacher's unions in New York, which illustrates just how far the unions are willing to go at the expense of the kids.  (Exhibit A is Brill's piece on the NYC rubber rooms; he's clearly assembling the material for a killer book.)  They cost the state a chance at millions because they were 100% completely opposed to things like performance pay, or allowing the district to transfer teachers where they are needed, rather than where they'd like to be.

But in a 403-page appendix to its 348-page application, New York included the M.O.U. that actually had been signed by all of its school districts. It was worded almost exactly as the federal government's M.O.U. -- except that after reciting everything that would be done to link student tests to teacher evaluations, and to compensate teachers and move them up on a career ladder according to those evaluations, the New York M.O.U. inserted this qualifier: "consistent with any applicable collective-bargaining requirements." The same phrase was also inserted after the promise to "ensure the equitable distribution of effective teachers" -- a reform aimed at allowing school systems to assign their best teachers to the schools most in need. Then for good measure at the end of the entire M.O.U. this sentence was added to cover everything: "Nothing in this M.O.U. shall be construed to override any applicable state or local collective-bargaining requirements."

Of course the U.F.T.'s collective-bargaining agreements in New York City, as well as union contracts in much of the rest of the state, explicitly prohibit exactly the reforms promised in the application. Changing that is the point of Duncan's contest. When I asked Tisch about this, she pointed to another added sentence, in which each school system and the union agree to negotiate any necessary contract changes in "good faith." That's the "way we solved that," she says.

"Right," Klein says. "That's like telling a woman you'll marry her in the morning."

Nor is it true, as one often hears, that teachers and principals have nothing to do with the problems, but are mere hostages of terrible conditions in their neighborhoods.  Brill points to a charter school that actually shares all of its resources with a public school in the same building--even, in some cases, the same families, as some send different kids to the different schools.

But while the public side spends more, it produces less. P.S. 149 is rated by the city as doing comparatively well in terms of student achievement and has improved since Mayor Michael Bloomberg took over the city's schools in 2002 and appointed Joel Klein as chancellor. Nonetheless, its students are performing significantly behind the charter kids on the other side of the wall. To take one representative example, 51 percent of the third-grade students in the public school last year were reading at grade level, 49 percent were reading below grade level and none were reading above. In the charter, 72 percent were at grade level, 5 percent were reading below level and 23 percent were reading above level. In math, the charter third graders tied for top performing school in the state, surpassing such high-end public school districts as Scarsdale.

Same building. Same community. Sometimes even the same parents. And the classrooms have almost exactly the same number of students. In fact, the charter school averages a student or two more per class. This calculus challenges the teachers unions' and Perkins's "resources" argument -- that hiring more teachers so that classrooms will be smaller makes the most difference. (That's also the bedrock of the union refrain that what's good for teachers -- hiring more of them -- is always what's good for the children.) Indeed, the core of the reformers' argument, and the essence of the Obama approach to the Race to the Top, is that a slew of research over the last decade has discovered that what makes the most difference is the quality of the teachers and the principals who supervise them. Dan Goldhaber, an education researcher at the University of Washington, reported, "The effect of increases in teacher quality swamps the impact of any other educational investment, such as reductions in class size."

This building on 118th Street could be Exhibit A for that conclusion.

It's not necessarily that the teachers on one side are worse teachers--but they operate in a very strict system of limits that, for example, keeps their workday to exactly 6 hours and 57 minutes, while the charter school classes run much longer.  Even terrific workers can underperform in that kind of environment.  It doesn't strike me that it is likely to be much of an accident that urban schools have gotten worse as the teachers' unions have grown more powerful (though I certainly wouldn't argue that it's the only contributing factor).

The issue with the teachers' unions is not the unions per se--agitating for higher pay wouldn't make much difference, and is indeed probably a great idea.  The problem is that the structure they impose makes it almost impossible (though not quite!) to innovate, and to spread the innovations that work. The cushy job protections and strict work rules are great for the teachers.  But the schools aren't there for the benefit of the teachers.