What is the primary objective of a teachers’ union? Is it to represent the adults in the system with the ultimate zealousness, or is it to improve student learning and outcomes?
In the 1980s, the great Al Shanker, long-time head of the American Federation of Teachers, was quoted as saying “When schoolchildren start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of schoolchildren.” And while some believe he may not have said those words, it is easy to see where such sentiment comes from.
For example, let’s take a look at the Connecticut Education Association. In reading “About CEA” on the labor union’s own website, the CEA defines its role as, “advances and protects the rights of teachers at the bargaining table, and works with state policymakers to continue to elevate the teaching profession.”
On that same page, we see the list of accomplishments the “state’s largest public employees union” can tout, including creating the State Teachers’ Retirement System, written notice on contract non-renewals, collective bargaining, fair dismissal laws, binding arbitration, pension benefits, indoor air quality programs, and increased state aid.
But something important is missing from CEA and many teachers’ unions like it. In its nearly 700-word “CEA: The Advocate for Teachers and Public Education,” the word “students” only appears twice. Once in saying CEA represents college students looking to become classroom teachers. The second noting that students also benefit from the clean air rules that CEA fought for for its educators.
Let’s be clear here. There is nothing wrong with CEA and other teachers’ unions advocating, lobbying, and acting on behalf of its members. That is the point of a labor union. It is fighting for the salaries, rights, and benefits of those who pay it dues. In the case of public education, it is fighting for the adults in the room, ensuring those teachers and other educators are protected and don’t lose what is “theirs.”
But it begs the question, who is fighting for the students in the system? Who is speaking for those kids who are slated to go to an historically failing school? Who is speaking for the kids predestined to attend a drop-out factory? Who is speaking for the kids on the short end of the achievement gap? Who is advocating, lobbying, and acting on behalf of those kids?
In reform fights like those we are having in Connecticut, many school teachers will get up and say they are speaking for their kids (and we’ll try to overlook those scenes of ugliness when, at public hearings, teachers have been telling parents and kids to “sit down and shut up,” saying they had no business participating in the education reform discussion). And in their heart of hearts, I believe that to be true.
But when a discussion that began by focusing on student achievement, opportunity, and college readiness has devolved into one of tenure, property rights, termination procedures, and what is “owed” teachers who have put their time in the system, one has to wonder. Can one represent both the educators and the students in the same fight? Can you have it both ways when we know the benefits, to students, of excellent teachers yet we have union leaders saying “the last thing I’d want to do is get someone fired?”
There is no question that the rights of the adults in the room are important. But at some point, we need to shift our attention to the students, the very reason why public education exists. Over the weekend, Eduflack wrote about this needed shift in the Connecticut Post, in a piece entitled Conversation Needs to Focus on Children, Not the Adults.
In it, I wrote:
We’ve spent the past two months hearing the Connecticut Education Association and its local union heads focus exclusively on what is owed the adults in the room. We have heard teachers shout down parents in public forums, hurling insults and indicating that families are to blame for the failures of our school system. We have seen the CEA ads and publications spreading lies and misleading half-truths about the content and meaning behind proposed reforms, and personally attacking supporters of those reforms. No wonder the statewide conversation about reform has focused so much on fear and punishment and so little on what’s best for kids.
If we are going to have a serious conversation about improving our public schools, we need to bring all parties to the table — educators and advocates, parents and policymakers — and leave the vitriol at the door. The stakes are too high for us not to focus on what matters the most … real, measurable student learning.