Whose Classroom Is It Anyway?

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

[optional image description]Franck Boston/Shutterstock

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.

In keeping with the Met Life survey, Ed Sector's analysts saw indications that "teachers are anxious about their jobs and want to secure them but they also want to ensure the best teachers are in the classrooms," Rosenberg said. "Those are reasonable expectations to have at the same time."

For Dan Goldhaber, director of the Center for Education Data & Research and a professor at the University of Washington, the teachers' answers on questions related to their job evaluations provided some of the most compelling details of the Ed Sector survey. More than three-fourths of the teachers surveyed said their most recent performance evaluation had been taken seriously by their administrators, and had been fair and relevant. But a significantly lower percentage, just 38 percent of newcomers and 29 percent of veterans, said the evaluation had also been useful and effective at helping them improve their performance.

"We know from empirical evidence that teachers have very different impacts on students and we know those differences are not reflected in their evaluations," said Goldhaber. "It will be interesting to look at how teachers feel about the rigor and usefulness of their evaluations when it actually reflects the differences we know exist among teachers."

Another striking set of statistics: The teachers interviewed for the survey were also in strong support of unions getting more involved in identifying weak teachers and either helping them to improve or guiding them out of the profession. Only about 10 percent of teachers said their unions are already doing it. Of the teachers whose unions aren't involved in such efforts, nearly 70 percent said they would favor it.

In a written statement, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said that Ed Sector's findings echo the voices of union members who have long said that "what teachers want most and get least are the tools, time and trust to be better teachers and help their students learn and grow. Teachers also believe in accountability as long as the measures are fair, they have a voice in the process, and they receive the support they need to succeed."

The report "also makes clear that both new and veteran teachers believe unions can play a key role in education reform and ensuring teacher quality - a responsibility that AFT takes seriously," Weingarten said.

Both sides - the teachers and the district administration - share the same goal of wanting to help students learn better. But it's still a tricky hill for a teachers' union to climb.

"Are there times when what is best for the union membership is not best for student achievement?" Goldhaber asked. "And if so, what does the union do in those cases?"

This post also appears at The Educated Reporter, an Atlantic partner site.