26 March 2008

Are Teachers' Unions Bad for Schools?

Two Op-Ed pieces recently caught my eye: Teaching Change in the New York Times and Teachers' Unions Are Ruining Our Kids' Schools in the National Examiner. Both make the argument that the current practice of collective bargaining (and therefore a one-size-fits all contract for teachers) is stifling the educational process.

Most contracts are throwbacks to when nascent teacher unionism modeled itself on industrial unionism. Then, that approach made sense and resulted in better pay, working conditions and an organized voice. Yet schools are not factories. The work is not interchangeable and it takes more than one kind of school to meet all students’ needs. If teachers’ unions want to stay relevant, they must embrace more than one kind of contract. ---from Teaching Change

Teachers unions derive their money from the fact that, no matter how badly they function, public schools don't shut down. That's why they bitterly oppose any attempt to introduce competition into education.

It's why the Detroit teachers union organized a walk-out that sabotaged a $200 million private offer to fund charter schools in that troubled city. (The new schools would not have been unionized and would have competed with Detroit's decrepit public education system.)

But competition between schools isn't the only kind that teachers unions can't accept. Competition among individual teachers, with incentives for the best performers, also undermines the unions' chief selling point, collective bargaining.

If teachers are paid on their individual merits - like every other kind of professional, from accountants to dentists to engineers - why would they want to negotiate their salaries through a system that collectively lumps innovative, energetic educators together with slackers doing the bare minimum? ---from Unions are Ruining...

We tend to talk about merit pay in the form of bonuses, but what if it wasn't set up that way? What if it was simply different salary scales for different teachers to be contracted for? The "trick" in all of this (as well as in merit pay scenarios) is determining what is most valuable about classroom work as well as its monetary value. Can the threads of student achievement be untangled enough to identify exactly what each teacher contributes to the educational process of the student?

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