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Why Teachers Unions Are Needed


The growing number of mandates and non-educators enforcing them make teachers unions more critical than ever, according to professor Diane Ravitch. Unions need to ensure that teachers influence on curriculum and practices is not further eroded. Included: Issues teachers and unions should monitor.

Teachers unions are just as critical -- if not more so -- to protecting educators working conditions today than they were 100 years ago when teachers were fighting for living wages, according to Diane Ravitch, a research professor of education at New York University.

Increasingly, teachers are seeing their input into curriculum and teaching practices shrink as scripted programs designed to increase test scores dominate classrooms, Ravitch said. Too many education reformers also come from outside the teaching ranks, and lack the perspective and knowledge that experienced teachers have, she said.

Ravitch, who also is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the Brookings Institution, and was the assistant secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush, took on union critics in an article in the American Educator. She discussed her views with Education World.

Jennifer Stepanek
Diane Ravitch

Education World: The benefits of unions to teachers are clear. What are the benefits of teachers unions to the public?

Diane Ravitch: The public interest is served when teachers are able to do their jobs without fear of intimidation by uninformed, non-professional administrators. Teachers are the front-line workers of education; they are the ones who are in daily contact with children. It is they who must make minute-to-minute, on-the-spot decisions about the best interests of children. When their knowledge and wisdom are discounted and disregarded, we cannot expect education to improve.

These days, there are many superintendents who have no experience in education and many principals who went through quickie training programs. These inexperienced leaders demand higher test scores because their jobs are on the line. Many of these inexperienced leaders think that testing is synonymous with instruction, and they insist on constant testing. Wise teachers know better. They know that achievement growth is necessarily incremental for most children. Wise teachers know that they cannot produce overnight miracles. If teaching becomes a job (not a profession) where administrators are free to bully teachers and where teachers are not permitted to exercise their judgment and experience, then the turnover rate (and the quality) of classroom teachers will decline, and that is certainly not in the interest of children or the public.

EW: Why do you think teachers unions have been coming under so much fire recently?

"The unions will, I hope, become champions of sound educational principles.
Ravitch: As business leaders become more engaged in school reform, they tend to think that the unions are the cause of low achievement. In my view, they are extrapolating from their own private sector experience, where management considers the union a barrier to its plans and where the proportion of unionized workers has steadily declined.

In my view, the business leaders commit a fallacy, where they confuse cause and effect. They should do a comparison of achievement in the states that have strong teachers unions and the states that have weak or non-existent unions; the higher achievement will be found where teachers unions are strongest. They should also examine those nations in Asia and Europe with very high achievement; to my knowledge, these nations have strong teachers unions.

The causes of low achievement, in my view, are many, including a weak curriculum, meaning that no teacher really knows what he or she is expected to teach; poverty, which is implicated with health problems, lack of familial resources, and frequent moves; schools that are so hamstrung by litigation and mandates that they lack the authority to teach and to discipline students; inattentive parents, who do not insist that their children study, do their homework, go to school, and meet expectations of home and school.

We know from many studies that students learn best where there is a rich, sequential curriculum; where teachers are good instructors and know their subject; where there are adequate resources; and where there is strong community support for education. We know that children do best when adults enforce basic standards of behavior, including good conduct, sitting up straight, speaking correct English, and dressing appropriately for school. When these conditions are absent, it is simply absurd to blame low achievement on the unions.

EW: How has, or should, the role of teachers unions change in the era of accountability?

Ravitch: The unions will, I hope, become champions of sound educational principles (such as the conditions I listed above, including a rich, sequential curriculum and appropriate student conduct and dress). They must also become engaged in making sure that the accountability programs are valid, reliable and fair, and that accountability measures do not take the place of instruction. In some districts, the overwhelming emphasis is on test-preparation, endless test-prep. Hours on hours of test-prep may lead to higher scores, but not to a good education.

"The public interest is served when teachers are able to do their jobs without fear of intimidation by uninformed, non-professional administrators.
EW: What are the priorities of teachers unions today?

Ravitch: Teachers' unions have been focused on salaries and working conditions, which is good but not enough any more. They must see that part of the working conditions that must be improved are the ability of their members to teach, their right to have a sound curriculum, and their right to act as professionals rather than automatons who produce this odd combination of higher test scores but not educated students.

EW: Some state and municipal officials are citing clauses in teachers contracts, such as those pertaining to seniority and assignments, as hindrances to true education reform. How would you respond to that?

Ravitch: Every union will have to figure out for itself which managerial requests make sense. The most important principles must be to make sure that the schools have the teachers they need for the children they have. If the system is not able to hire enough teachers in certain areas, such as courses in science and mathematics, then it seems right to offer bonuses or extra compensation. If some schools have unusual challenges, then teachers should receive extra compensation for meeting those challenges. I don't think unions have a stake in resisting all managerial requests. Where management and unions have an overlapping interest is in making sure that children get the teachers they need.

This e-interview with Diane Ravitch is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.

Article by Ellen R. Delisio
Education World®
Copyright © 2007 Education World

Published 02/21/2007