In defense of teachers’ unions

Teachers’ unions aren’t to blame for our schools’ problems, writes Diane Ravitch in American Educator, the magazine of the American Federation of Teachers. Unions serve as a check against incompetent administrators.

If scores are low, the critics say it must be because of the teachers’ contract, not because the district has a weak curriculum or lacks resources or has mediocre leadership. If some teachers are incompetent, it must be because of the contract, not because the district has a flawed, bureaucratic hiring process or has failed to evaluate new teachers before awarding them tenure.

Corporate-style reformers believe “the way to fix low-performing schools is to install an autocratic principal who rules with an iron fist,” Ravitch writes.

Many new principals have been trained in quickie programs of a year or less, which try to teach them to think like corporate leaders. Many of the graduates of these new principal programs have little classroom experience, and some have none at all. Many of them lack the judgment and knowledge to make wise decisions about curriculum and instruction or to evaluate seasoned teachers.

When experienced teachers must work under the control of an inexperienced principal, they need the protection of their union against arbitrary and unwise decisions.

Education Gadfly worries that Ravitch’s “checks and balances” approach could be all check and no balance, ending in paralysis.

To us, that’s part of the appeal of charter schools, where educators can coalesce around a shared educational vision, avoiding the us-versus-them mentality that permeates today’s debates. Would that their visions were always worth coalescing around!

I do wonder how many non-teachers can make good principals and superintendents — a retired admiral to run LA schools? — but complaints about incompetent administrators predate the reform era. I think they predate the Pleistocene Era.

Update: On This Week in Education — make sure you have the new URL — Alexander Russo observes that Ravitch seems to be moving left.

By the way, Ravitch is a professor and author of numerous books, including Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms and The Language Police. Her latest book is The English Reader. Though she was writing in a teachers’ union magazine, she is not a union member.

About Joanne


  1. Without reading Diane’s article, I’ll readily concede she has a point. As a monopsony, as well as a monopoly, the public school can be as abusive towards its employees as it is to its customers. The union evens the playing field of course, and takes some more chunks out of the the student’s and the public’s hide, leaving everybody disatisfied.

    In any case, I’m about to run my own little experiment on what type of administrator succeeds running a school program. As you probably know, Proposition 49 funds are now kicking in for California after school programs, and the courts have thankfully allowed the law to be implemented as written and said an outside administrator can be contracted. Enter non-profit Think Together, as well as others like YMCA. (Suggest Googling the name). From its pre Prop 49 base in Orange County of about 2 dozen sites, the organization will have quintupled in size to over 1000 employees and over 100 sites across Southern California in a matter of 2 months to administer the after school programs in various districts. So, with some sales and managerial experience and my college degree, as well as 5 weeks of training, but NO teaching experience or credential, I’m about to start my own 100 student program at a targeted school in little over a week. Should be fun! Let me know if you’d like me to keep you posted?

  2. Local unions usually aren’t bad, unless they’re behemoths like UTLA or the NYC teachers union. State and national unions, though–vampires.

  3. You will notice that Ravitch implicitly admits there are incompetent teachers in her union. She claims their continued existence is the fault of administrators who didn’t weed them out before hiring or awarding tenure.

    Since she has made in her own arguments these fundamental concessions to reality, there is no way for her to disavow the union’s complicity – really penchant – for keeping those incompetents on the payroll. She just wants to redirect the well deserved blame.

  4. wayne martin says:

    I wish I had read more of Ms. Ravitch’s work to better understand her point-of-view, as I am a little surprised by this piece. Since it seems to be focused only on New York City Schools, perhaps the article’s title is a little misleading.

    Her points about low pay for school teachers at the time that the unions were formed needs clarification by reminding ourselves that everyone at that time received low salaries. For instance, in 1900, the Seattle City Government paid following monthly salaries:

    Council Clerk and Deputy Comptroller $95
    Clerk $75
    Stenographer $70
    City Attorney $115
    Stenographer $75
    Secretary of Board $100
    Timekeeper and Clerk $80
    Blacksmith $80
    Stable Boss $85
    Janitor City Hall $70
    Watchman $40
    Chief Engineer $100
    Assistant Engineers $95
    Firemen $70
    Wood Passers $65

    In Middletown NY, in 1888, the salary for as policeman was $58 a month.

    Ms. Ravich does not specify teachers’ salaries in her article, but it’s difficult to believe that teachers would be paid much less than those other people were receiving at the time.

    Ms. Ravitch does not speak about the success of the NYC schools, based on the activities of the teachers and of their Union. Such data is not easily obtained in a concise format, but does exist in piecemeal fashion on the WEB. For instance, in early January, 2007 the NYT ran an article on school performance that stated: “Because some failing schools closed, and the poverty status of others changed, the statewide total of failing Title I schools dropped to 506 from 511 based on 2004-5 test results. New York City now has 335 such schools, up from 332. “ In NYC there are approximately 1000 distinct school buildings and more than 1150 schools. So, roughly 30% of the schools in NYC are failing. This seems like a very high number, given the more than $6B budget of the NYC schools. One source calculates that: “New York City averaged $15,025 in expenditures per pupil in FY, just under the statewide average of $15,035.” Given that 85% of all school expenditures go to salaries and benefits, most of this money is being paid to teachers and staff.

    The issues about difficulties women had in the work place were not likely only encountered by teachers. Ms. Ravich would have been a bit more intellectually honest had she cast her gaze on all workers, not just teachers.

    Her focus on “teacher’s rights’ is curious. What “rights” do teachers have that the rest of us do not? Certainly there are negotiated points in labor contracts, but these last only as long as the contract lasts. Ms. Ravisch sounds as if there are other, deeper rights, that teachers enjoy. Her use of tenure issues may well be the main point here.

    The later part of her article seems to be more bashing of shifts in the NYC school system (she calls “reform”), which attempts to move away from a system where 30% of the schools are failing. Given her previous writings about how poor school performance in America has been, it’s a little difficult understanding her seeming dismissal of attempts to correct school failures, by whatever means.

    This piece is very one-sided, but it does appear on a Union WEB-site.

  5. Here’s the thing: go into any disfunctional school and walk around. Go back a few times when they don’t know you are coming. Talk to students, teachers, and administrators at each visit.

    I think you will find, on average, far more teachers doing a good job at their jobs than you will find administrators doing theirs, and let’s not even get into the number of student “customers” who seem to feel no duty to the people paying for their education to even try.

    Ravich seems to recognize that teachers need a way of not being completely at the mercy of administrators and parent and student “customers.” (If you’re not paying property taxes, are you a customer?)

    As far as incompetent teachers, what standards could a union use to get rid of them when the unions don’t really have control over hiring and firing. Are you suggesting that the union simply kick people that it deems incompetent out of the union? What standard of competence would you have them use that would supercede the standards of the school district?

  6. ucladavid516 says:

    In LAUSD, $60 each month is taken out of my paycheck whether I like it or not. If I don’t sign up, the money is still taken out. The only reason why I am a member is for the just in case scenerio where I do need the union. Keep in mind, I hate 95% of the things my union does especially when it comes to the political issues. I am a good teacher and have gotten rave reviews in my first 3 years of teaching and have been complimented by administrators and fellow teachers. Only once has a parent complained about me; that was because the student and parent thought I was picking on her due to me sending her up several times due to dress code violations. The administrator backed me up 100% because I was right in sending her up.

    2 years ago in California, there was a prop. where tenure would be given after 5 years and a teacher could be removed after 2 unsatisfactory reviews. It lost like 53%-47%. However, the unions fought hard against it.

    Good teachers don’t need tenure and if the just in case scenerio happens, fellow teachers and administrators would back them up. As teachers and administators, we all know who are the good and not-so-good teachers at any school would be through word of mouth, parent complaints, observations, and what they do in the classroom. If teachers do a good job and follow the rules, they don’t need tenure.

  7. ucladavid516:

    I couldn’t disagree with you more.

    At all.

    Good teachers do need tenure. Just because you’re a good teacher according to your current administration doesn’t mean you won’t upset or step on the shoes of the next administration. Teachers in schools are permanent, administrators are temporary– they are the ones that are shuffled around at a moment’s notice, and it is the teachers that grow roots in their schools and into their community.

    Back to my original point:

    What happens when you upset the new administration, through no fault of your own and now they’re out to “get you”. There are great administrators and there are bad ones; unfortunately you only have three years teaching and seem a bit naive in your post. Tenure was something that was fought for by your union, not given. Respect tenure and respect the job your union does, regardless of your political views.

  8. ucladavid wrote:
    Keep in mind, I hate 95% of the things my union does especially when it comes to the political issues.

    I’m not sure, but I believe there’s a law in California(or maybe nationally?) that permits you to demand a refund of that portion of dues which go toward political activity. It might not make much of a difference, but every little bit helps.

  9. ucladavid,

    Sincerely, I’m glad you are having such a good experience, but I think you are wrong that good teachers don’t need unions. Some administrators don’t back teachers even when the teachers ARE right.

    (I know of an excellent teacher who when the parent complained about the teacher sending her daughter to the office for dress code violations, was told just to ignore the child’s dress. It wasn’t that the administrator thought the parent was right; he just thought that doing the right thing was too much trouble. I also know of a school where when they wanted to bring in a new football coach, approached all of the social studies teacher to see who might be talked into leaving. Had the teachers not had tenure, I think they just would have fired someone.)

    Especially at the worst schools, incompetent, crazy, or good ol’ boy administrators are more common than any of us want to think.

    Additionally, because I work in a “right to work” state, I’m aware of some things that you may be taking for granted that your union is doing for you.

    In a non-collective bargaining situation, the expectation of additional duties you can be compelled to take to take on is essentually endless. Additional work, duties, and expectations that couldn’t reasonably be completed during the contract day get added all the time. Unless there’s a hard and fast state law, there are no restriction on the number of students you might have to teach or the classes within your certification area you could be asked to teach (which is really only a problem when desirable classes are given to less able teachers at the whim of administrators). When a colleague is absent, you can be pulled from planning to cover for them without any compensation (which again isn’t a problem once in a while, but when the school can’t get subs because the working conditions stink, becomes a problem. Unless you are willing to personally go in and quote state laws about planning time to the administrator who evaluates you, there’s not much an individual can do.)

    Sorry for the rant. I hate the political positions that the unions take, and I wouldn’t like be forced to work in a closed shop. Some of the protections about additional duties that unions demand seem to keep people from offering innovative programs that they would choose to do for free. It’s not that I think unions are great.

    It’s just that I think it’s a mistake to say that good teachers don’t need unions. Being a good teacher if you have bad administrator isn’t going to help.

  10. Random question: I know that when I posted, the two posts between mine and UCLA guy’s weren’t there.

    How did that happen? The times indicated they were there earlier than mine, but they weren’t.

  11. ucladavid516 says:

    Some of the posters who responded missed one key point of my previous statement: “The only reason why I am a member is for the just in case scenerio where I do need the union.”

    I understand that there are times when I need the union. Last year at my school, a teacher was threatened with a lawsuit by a parent. If the administrators threatened to (or will) get rid of me, I understand that is when I need the union. I also understand that I need the union to keep my pay sufficient and my benefits. I never said that there was no point to a union.

    However, the problem with tenure is that when you have a bad teacher, why should it take years to get rid of that teacher? 2 years ago, a bad teacher at my school finally retired and fellow teachers complained about him for 20 years and at 2 schools. Students complained about him; teachers complained about him; parents complained him; he even was asleep when an administrator came in. Why did it case of retirement to finally get rid of the guy?

    If a school suddenly got rid of a good teacher, you would hear complaints from parents and fellow teachers to back that teacher up. I think 2 unsatisfactory reviews in a row should be enough to get rid of a teacher with cause. Of course, if the administration is out to get that teacher, the union should of course fight it.

    Finally, at most important, the big issue is putting kids in a classroom with a good teacher. With the current tenure process, you have kids in a classroom with horrible teachers who aren’t learning a thing.

  12. NDC, in answer to your question about the order of posts, posts from new commenters are delayed in the moderation queue till I see them and OK them. But they keep the original time stamp, so they appear as if they were posted immediately. That’s why the order can change after the fact.

  13. Joanne, thanks for the explanation about the order. I just hate to be the person who didn’t seem to read the other comments and repeats what was already said.

    UCLAdavid, I’m not sure tenure and unions are as closely related as you make them out to be. As I said, I live in a “right to work” state, and we have tenure.

    If we could be sure that we all had good administrators all the time, then good teachers wouldn’t need tenure or unions. But we don’t.
    We need those things to have some protection from being dismissed without cause or mistreated during employment.

    Even with what “tenure” grants, you can still be fired for incompetence or failure to perform your job duties. Adminstrators like to pretend their hands are tie by tenure and unions, but really often, they are just don’t want to do the work that would be involved with terminating a bad teachers. They don’t want to do the kind documentation that would be required.

  14. Andy Freeman says:

    > Good teachers do need tenure.

    Why do teachers “need” tenure while no professional has tenure?

    (Teachers aren’t professionals. Professionals are personally liable for acts and omissions.)

  15. I’m not sure what definition of professional you are using, and you are clearly wrong in your implication that teachers are somehow exempt from the the consequences of their acts or omissions.

    Teachers need tenure because without the assurance of a due process hearing before termination, they would be at the mercy of far too many competing interests.

  16. You’ve been added to the union bouquet!