Education and education reform are hot topics in today’s headlines. Movies like Waiting for “Superman” have put the problems with American education center stage. Everyone seems to be aware that the crisis in public education is growing. Despite record level spending, students from 16 countries are outperforming their American counterparts. To top it all off, 50 percent of teachers in the classroom today will be retiring in the next ten years. This is not the recipe for a well-educated public.
Unfortunately, teachers largely have been pushed aside as education reformers determine how to help America’s students catch up with the rest of the world. Teachers can thank the teacher union leadership for being excluded from the education reform decisions. While American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten claims that teachers are being “scapegoated” for the nationwide lack of student achievement, administrators, parents, policymakers, and business leaders are working together to develop innovative strategies to help America’s students catch up with countries like Finland and South Korea.
Ms. Weingarten and her allies at the National Education Association have an arsenal of sound bites that are nothing more than double talk. It’s as if they are saying “we are part of the solution but only if you do it our way.” So who can blame policy makers for tuning out the unions when their prescription for improving public education is more money and less accountability?
The unions have done a masterful job at branding teachers and their unions as essentially the same. This could not be further from the truth. The fact is that there are hundreds of thousands of teachers who are not members of the teacher unions and do not support the unions or their positions.
There is hope for teachers, however. An alternative to the teachers unions called the Association of American Educators is a non-partisan, non-union professional association for educators. This summer the organization randomly surveyed its members from all fifty states to understand the changing sentiments of teachers relating to education reform. The findings show that teachers are indeed warming to reforms - a shocking blow to union-held stances relating to accountability, tenure and compensation.
For instance, the unions generally oppose using student test scores for teacher evaluations even when using a value-added system, which takes into account important student characteristics like special education services, free and reduced lunch status, and other factors out of a teacher’s control. Although our survey finds teachers do not want to be evaluated solely on student test scores, 80 percent of those surveyed supported using a value-added assessment when student test scores are part of teacher evaluation. In fact, AAE members believed that student test scores ranked near the top in evaluating teacher effectiveness, second to only administrative/ faculty review. Notably, years in the system ranked dead last among quantifiers of teacher effectiveness.
With regard to tenure, teachers unions promote it as a crucial means of protection for teachers to be able to perform their jobs. However, AAE’s survey shows that teachers have a different opinion. Eighty-one percent of those surveyed responded that tenure is not necessary for an educator to properly perform his or her job effectively, and the vast majority of respondents – 80 percent – asserted that achieving tenure does not indicate an effective teacher.
Also debunked in the survey is the myth that all teachers believe that they should have a job for life. Seventy-three percent supported a Colorado policy that strips tenure if a teacher is deemed ineffective for two consecutive years. Further, seventy percent disagreed with the statement “Last hired, first fired.”
When it comes to compensation, unions hold the line for a rigid, structured pay scale. AAE teachers showed that 79 percent of them supported educators being paid more to teach in high-needs schools and 80 percent agreed with paying teachers for taking on more responsibilities and additional roles at their schools.
It is this kind of data that demonstrates that teachers unions are out of step with their membership base. In fact, those teachers who think their unions are properly handling their interests have a false sense of security. Thousands of teachers have already left the union and have joined non-union, professional associations that offer many of the benefits they need without the union baggage. The growth of these organizations is the greatest hope that one day the unions will be forced to listen to their members rather than the other way around.