Saturday, April 17, 2010

Crippling American Education: (Un)blessed Union of Souls

"We're an organization. We here down south don't like to use the 'U' word..."

Thus began my first encounter into the world of organized labor in the education profession. From the very get-go, I had a chance to see a manipulative organization at its finest. The aforementioned speaker was the local union representative at the first school district I started in. He painted a picture of a magical bureaucratic machine that catered to a teacher's every need. Higher salary? You got it! Representation in the state capitol? You got it! The room of newcomers to the school district unfortunately bought it hook, link and sinker and immediately signed up to join this union (yes, I said union because that's what it is). The next day a gentleman from another union came and several of the people who had signed up for the other union had no idea that our district even had a second union. Thus, even those that joined were manipulated from the onset.

I never felt the need to join this union. The main reason is I didn't feel it was worth paying dues to an organization that did nothing for me. As my mentor teacher told me, as long as you keep your door open when you are working with a student, there is no need to join the union. (He felt the only quasi-benefit was the union's lawyer, but that he was needed only in extreme circumstances). The last year I worked for the district the union and all its members protested teacher salary cuts AFTER the cuts had already been made. The assistant principal, who shared my skepticism of the union, and I had a good larf about that one. All union members at my school wore red clothing one day to protest and then took a group photo in the cafeteria at the end of the school day. Despite this brilliant display of solidarity through color, the union members were unable to reacquire their lost salary.

This experience solidified my long, upstanding belief: Teacher's unions are an antiquated notion. I know, I know, I can hear the dissension now. "Without unions, we would be teaching in near prison conditions!" Um, hello? Thanks to the resegreation of America's schools, many inner city locations HAVE become like this. And these are teachers who ARE part of the union. Teachers are underpaid not because of their union or non-union status but rather because we as a nation have gone away from valuing the education profession. Inner city schools have become difficult environments not because of a lack of laws or conditions, but rather because the students there have been segregated and told repeatedly that they are no good.

The fact remains that unions serve no purpose in education today and have done more harm than good. The fact that teachers are one of the few professions that still have tenure boggles my mind. I am a good (not great) teacher. I WANT to be evaluated every year. If I'm not doing an adequate job then I deserve to be removed. If I can improve, I want to know how. This has caused teacher's today to become complacent. Students today learn differently than they did 5, 10, 20 years ago. We need new blood, a new infusion of teachers who grew up in similar fashion to our students. We need teachers who can relate to students on a personal level, who know how tempting it is to text in the middle of class, who get bored when a teacher lectures for an hour straight. Odds are that a complacent veteran teacher who has tenure does not want or care to change the way she or he teaches because in all honesty, why should they?

Unions also have thwarted any attempt to have student scores used as an assessment for teachers. Now, don't get me wrong I do not think these scores should be the sole measure of a teacher's effectiveness. But it should be a component. If I taught language arts for an entire year and my class didn't improve on the state test, then what was the purpose of me teaching for 180 days? We could have gotten a cardboard cutout of me and student scores would have been the same. If you are an effective teacher then your students' scores will improve. I'm not saying they will pass due to various socioeconomic reasons. Yet, at the very least they should improve and this should be a part of your year-end evaluation along with several other measures.

However, the major problem remains that teacher's unions are here to promote the status quo. That's why they are fighting tooth and nail in places like Washington, DC where Chancellor Rhee is removing inefficient principals and teachers. "How dare you make changes based on consistent failure!" the union cries. The problem is that Chancellor Rhee is going up against a powerful union. One whose hands are deep in the pockets of Washington lobbyists. This is a union that would lose a tremendous amount if the status quo was upturned. Think of how lucrative education is. Building contracts, food contracts, contracts with publishing companies, and the list goes on and on. Education is a business folks, plain and simple. Major unions like the NEA and the AFT have a lot to gain and lose should a city like Washington, DC succeed in its reform efforts.

So where does that leave us? Honestly, the answer is up a creek without a paddle. Very few people outside of education think negatively when they hear the term "union." This works in the NEA's and AFT's favor because of all the benefits that various unions have provided our country over its history. To be anti-union is to be un-American! We've all heard that, and the teacher's unions take this mentality and run with it. For those of us that choose not to join unions, the problem is we are so small in number it is hard to overcome. The unions also have corporate backing and powerful lobbyists in DC. What they want is what is best for business and this in no way correlates as to what is best for children's education. Teachers unions are not part of the solution to fix education as they claim. The harsh reality is that they are and will continue to be a major part of the problem.