Teachers’ unions go on the defensive

Teachers’ unions are on the defensive, writes New York Times columnist Frank Bruni. Hollywood’s upcoming Won’t Back Down — heroic mother teams with idealistic teacher to take over a low-performing school — shows how negatively teachers unions are viewed, he writes.

“When did Norma Rae get to be the bad guy?” asks a union leader (Holly Hunter) in the movie. I don’t know, but that’s indeed the state of play when it comes to teachers’ unions, and it’s a dangerous one.

The parents Bruni knows are draining their bank accounts to pay private school tuition, but most families can’t afford it. Ninety percent of children attend public schools.

The teachers’ unions are unhappy with President Obama’s education secretary, Arne Duncan, writes Bruni. They don’t like the policies promoted by Race to the Top. At the local level, top Democrats are bucking the unions.

In Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and other cities, Democratic mayors have feuded bitterly with teachers’ unions and at times come to see them as enemies. And at a meeting of the United States Conference of Mayors in June, Democratic mayors joined Republican ones in a unanimous endorsement of so-called parent trigger legislation, about which unions have serious reservations. These laws, recently passed in only a few states but being considered in more, abet parent takeovers of underperforming schools, which may then be replaced with charter schools run by private entities.

Teachers’ unions have hurt their reputations by defending teachers’ tenure and seniority rights without regard to the welfare of their students, writes Bruni. “We were focused — as unions are — on fairness and not as much on quality,” American Federation of Teachers chief  Randi Weingarten conceded in a phone interview.

 The unions have also run afoul of the grim economic times. “In the private sector, nobody’s got any security about anything,” said Charles Taylor Kerchner, a professor of education at Claremont Graduate University. So the unions’ fights over pay raises and pensions, he said, made previously routine negotiations “look like pigs at the trough.”

When Hollywood steps in, it means the intellectual debate is over, writes Jay Greene.

. . .  the teacher unions are finally being treated as the special interest group they are rather than as credible players in the discussion over the merits of various education policies. When Campbell Brown takes on the unions the game is over.

The unions are still quite powerful and policy battles will continue to rage, Greene writes. But a big political and cultural shift has occurred.

Norma Rae is the bad guy.

About Joanne


  1. I predict that many public school teachers will retire, if they can, others will hold on with all their might (may be over 50 and within 5-10 years of retirement) – this is an opportunity for the youngest teachers – IF schools can manage to get the older, less effective teachers out.

    Good luck on that, however. The least effective teachers are those that hang on like zebra mussels – you’ll have to completely re-structure the school to get them out. Even then, if unions allow them to collect their full salary for subbing, I suspect they’ll stick around.

    It’s not just the teachers – it’s also God-awful principals – those whose schools are chaotic and dangerous.

    It’s simple – if the school isn’t orderly, it won’t matter WHAT the teachers do – quality instruction will lag behind. Some teachers, by heroic measures (virtually doing without a personal life) will manage to bring their students up to an impressive level. Most of them, however, will shortly burn out, and go on to do something else.

    Job # 1 for principals – clear the halls, stop the drug sales in the bathrooms, kick the hoods out if they won’t conform. MAKE the students behave, show respect for teachers, staff, and themselves. Oh, and BTW, don’t accept non-teaching staff not doing their job – janitors that won’t clean the floor, maintenance that takes 3 weeks to change a light bulb, clerical staff that spends more time talking than doing their job, guidance that takes weeks to get a schedule change.

  2. Florida resident says:

    I tried yesterday to watch (in pieces) the show by Juan Williams (fromer NPR guy) on Fox News, about reforming American schools.

    He gave not a hint, that something may depend on the students at the “input” of the system. No, “let us reform the system, and everything will be hunky-dory.”

    Here is the statistics of the studnts of Mooresville High School, which was chosen as shining example of the well-reformed “system”;


    Two of my kids graduated from a high School here in Florida wis a similar statistics of students. It was OK experience.

    Compare to Robert Weissberg’s book
    “Bad Students, not Bad Schools”,


    With greetings to Joanne Jacobs,
    Respectfully, F.r.

  3. Florida resident says:

    Sorry for the typos.
    “studnts” should be “students”,
    “wis” should be “with”.
    Mooresville High School is actually in North Carolina.

  4. Naturally I have a few issues here.

    Frank Bruni is one of those superstar journalists who pontificate with no background or understanding — we know who they are. (The right hates many of them too, so some of my critics have to admit you agree with me.) They’re also known as part of the “village” — that clique of centrist insiders who rule in politics and mainstream journalism.

    Bruni’s commentary is based on the assumption that the “reform” li(n)e attributing school success or failure to “good” or “bad” teachers is valid.

    Does he know that the states with no or very weak union protection consistently are the lowest academic achievers, and the states with the strongest unions consistently are the highest? This is called “check it and lose it” journalism — decide on the point you want to make and ask no tough questions lest you recognize that your own point is invalid and have to go dig up another column idea.

    And actually, Jay Greene’s giving Campbell Brown any credibility in the discussion in which she disgraced herself with a collapse of journalist ethics is pretty bizarre. Brown failed to disclose in a Wall Street Journal rant accusing teachers of being sex offenders that she was promoting the viewpoint of the organization on whose board her husband serves, StudentsFirstNY — and then claimed it was sexist to expect her to uphold journalistic ethics! (It’s richer still since StudentsFirst founder Michelle Rhee is married to a man accused of sexual offenses against minors — you’d think they’d want to avoid that topic.)

  5. Also, by the way, teachers’ unions have been the target of years of orchestrated attacks by the mighty PR machinery of the right-wing think tanks and the education “reform” sector — eagerly abetted by much of the mainstream press (for reasons I truly don’t get, despite having been part of the mainstream press for many years).

    So it’s a little rich for Bruni to now pop up with a movie funded by those same forces as “proof” of how negatively unions are viewed. Presumably that barrage of negative PR DOES have an impact, or its billionaire funders wouldn’t keep the funding flowing. Is he unclear on the concept or willfully malicious?

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      There are various other less conspiratorial explanations for why teachers unions get blamed. One might go like this:

      For years, teachers and ed schools have said, “We are professionals with special skills. We can teach anyone. Give us the tools and we’ll do the job.”

      Yet even though the amount spent on schooling went up way beyond the rate of inflation, performance didn’t seem to change much.

      What could be wrong? Most people like teachers in general so few people want to say that all, or most, teachers are to blame. Most people don’t want to put a lot of responsibility on the students because that would be “blaming the victim.” People don’t want to think that turning every teenager into a semi-academic is foolish and impossible. So what’s left? The union. The union seems to support policies that treat all teachers the same. “There is no reward for being a good teacher and no downside for being a bad one.” Unions fight dismissals, so they must not care about getting rid of bad teachers.

      It may be unfair but it’s hardly surprising. It also doesn’t help that teachers unions do things like supporting the bill in the California legislature that would almost certainly scuttle the Los Angeles’ attempt to use student test schools when they are evaluating teachers.

      • Actually, performance has improved greatly over the years, @Roger, especially for African-American and Latino students. See? You bought the lies from the ed-reform propaganda machinery yourself, and you’re obviously a smart and thoughtful person. I know that now I need to go dig up some backup. Try Yong Zhao, Gerald Bracey or Diane Ravitch if you’re eager for the backup before I get to it.

        Again, unionized states have the highest academic performance; non-union states have the lowest. The “blame the teachers/blame the unions” message is a malicious lie, and the facts prove it.

        It’s hardly surprising that people fall for it, because the lie machinery is SO very well funded, and the press is SO very unquestioning. (They don’t believe people dare lie to them — eye roll.)

  6. Roger Sweeny says:

    I try not to buy lies 🙂 I said “performance didn’t seem to change much.” I know that black and hispanic achievement has improved. I also know that it hasn’t “improved greatly.” I also know that all-ethnic achievement hasn’t improved greatly.

  7. dangermom says:

    In my own experience, parents get disillusioned (or not) by the teachers/unions they have to deal with. I have quite a few friends who enter into the school system excited and supportive of teachers. Those who meet teachers they can work with and respect stay that way, but a dismaying number of them wind up spending years fighting the system to get reasonable treatment for a child. A few bad teachers can have a lot of influence on how people view the educational system.

    One couple–the mother a teacher herself–finally pulled their child out of her school last year, after they spent a year trying to get the school administration to do something about a teacher who was outright abusive to the children in her class. There had been complaints for years, but all that ever happened was that the teacher was sent to anger management classes and then moved to a *younger* grade. The perception is that the unions will protect such a teacher at the expense of children’s education and well-being. That one teacher has now convinced a multitude of parents that the system is broken and needs reform, and that unions are bad.

    • I have to say that teachers’ unions are not great at doing outreach.

      I had a personal experience with a problem teacher (clearly having an emotional/substance abuse issue after a personal life crisis — the parents’ demands were to get her help but get her out of the classroom). The union was involved in first trying to defend her and then backed off — because it turned out that the union rep had no idea what the situation was. They had only the teacher’s version, because the principal had put nothing in her personnel file. All the rep knew was from the teacher herself: “Parents are trying to get me fired for no reason.” Even the most virulent union-hater can see how the rep was in an impossible situation. (I think, anyway.)

      But this was the first contact that many parents had ever had with the teachers’ union. So that probably put quite a few of them off, even though a couple of sentence of explanation clarifies the situation the union rep was in.

      Still, in my view, the teachers’ unions should be visible, communicating with parents and offering information about curriculum standards and so forth in community forums, so parents have a better view of the big picture.

      The teacher issue I’m describing had was clearly a management screwup. In hindsight I’m betting the principal thought she could gently prod the teacher into getting help without anything like threats, personnel file reports etc. It still gets blamed on the union.

      I’ve also seen a troubled teacher whom one principal “couldn’t fire,” who was quietly gone when a new principal arrived; and several teachers who some parents thought should be fired because they were stressing their kids out, while others thought they were excellent teachers because they were challenging their kids. In those cases we’re talking about tougher standards than the norm. For all I know, the principal is telling the complaining parents that nothing can be done because of the unions.

      So if you include those latter cases, it probably happens not infrequently. Do those examples offer more perspective?

      • dangermom says:

        They add to my bank of stories, certainly; I have lots more besides just the recent one I told you of. But you’ve put your finger on a related problem–the administration, and the fact that parents do not necessarily differentiate a lot between the factions. Administration and unions can both get blame, and it can be indiscriminate–either way, they’re bureaucracies that hold all the power, that cast blame around to anyone but themselves, and where the person you want to talk to is never available. They can both make parents feel frustrated and powerless.

        It’s entirely possible that the real problem in my story above was with a principal who didn’t take action and didn’t even try; but either way, the result is bitterness about the public school system, and several kids (not just the one I know) who are no longer in that system. The perception is that unions will protect bad teachers–even criminal teachers–at the expense of children. At the same time, administration is seen as bloated, uncaring, and immovable. Parents are perfectly happy to blame both, as well as teachers, when their children suffer.

        I have another friend whose frustration–through several children and lots of teachers–has been entirely with teachers’ behavior and administration that has to be hounded to do even the simplest thing. But that would take a long time–suffice to say that she spends an inordinate amount of time trying to find the right places for her kids and homeschooling them when necessary, even though she started off as a parent who was staunchly supportive of the PS system. She isn’t anymore.

  8. Richard Aubrey says:

    Looks as if there are two questions: How often does something like this happen?
    How many times does it have to happen to sour a great many parents and general public?
    Or, I suppose, question number three: Can it be put into perspective?

    • dangermom says:

      Often enough–in my white-bread small city–that most of the parents I know have had a bad experience of some kind. It seems to me that parents will tolerate a certain amount of difficulty, but one really bad situation will sour a LOT of people, because nothing is done; if action was taken, it would be a score instead of a disaster.

  9. The teachers unions protection of child molesters make Bernard Cardinal Law look like a piker.

    • Don’t forget that they crashed the economy and poisoned the Gulf of Mexico, too, @bandit.

      I just met a private school family this morning (at one of the more elite parochial schools in our city) who said the teacher turnover there is furious. So they have the opposite problem — whoops! There goes the math teacher for the second time this year.

      Teachers’ unions aren’t perfect (and nothing else is either), but then the fact that there’s a mighty propaganda campaign aimed at pulverizing them — and a complaint press willing to promote the view of whoever puts the most riches into its PR campaign — sends a toxic smog over all of this.

      And, again, because we know that the nonunion states do worse academically than the unionized states, we know conclusively that teachers’ unions are not the cause of low achievement.

      • “because we know that the nonunion states do worse academically than the unionized states, we know conclusively that teachers’ unions are not the cause of low achievement.”

        What data are you referring to that demonstrates that nonunion states (which are?) do worse academically than unionized states? And how do you know conclusively that there are not other factors that mask any effects (positive or negative) of the unions?

        • Richard Aubrey says:

          cliff. You may recall that, during the kerfuffle about teacher unions in WI last year, WI was compared with TX. WI looked better overall. However, a blogger named Iowahawk broke out the demographics. TX did better than WI in each of three separate demographics, white, hispanic, and black. However, WI, having proportionally more whites and fewer blacks and hispanics, had a better overall score.
          Result was, if you were in one of those groups and not an “overall”, you would do better in TX schools. If you were an “overall”, WI is the place for you.

          • Roger Sweeny says:

            Has anyone done a similar study of other union and non-union states? It would be fascinating to see the results.

        • J. Remarque says:

          Cliff, don’t bother. Caroline is a leader in a “parents” group that exists to support the unions. She can’t understand why some of us have honest philosophical disagreements with the unions. No, they’re “not great at doing outreach” and the victims of a “smear campaign.”

      • Roger Sweeny says:

        I just came upon this list of the fattest and least fat states. Eyeballing the lists, it looks like the fattest states are predominantly those without strong teachers unions, while the least fat states are predominantly those with strong teachers unions.

        I’m sure this means something. I’m just not sure what.