Teachers And Their Unions: A Conceptual Border Dispute
One of the segments from “Waiting for Superman” that stuck in my head is the following statement by Newsweek reporter Jonathan Alter:
It’s very, very important to hold two contradictory ideas in your head at the same time. Teachers are great, a national treasure. Teachers’ unions are, generally speaking, a menace and an impediment to reform.The distinction between teachers and their unions (as well as those of other workers) has been a matter of political and conceptual contention for long time. On one “side," the common viewpoint, as characterized by Alter's slightly hyperbolic line, is “love teachers, don’t like their unions." On the other “side," criticism of teachers’ unions is often called “teacher bashing."
So, is there any distinction between teachers and teachers’ unions? Of course there is.
People who disagree with policies traditionally supported by teachers’ unions, or support policies that unions tend to oppose, are not "anti-teacher." That’s kind of like arguing that fighting against environmental regulations is tantamount to hating members of the National Wildlife Federation. It’s certainly true that the rhetoric in education can cross the line (on both “sides”), and extreme, motive-ascribing, anti-union statements are understandably interpreted as “bashing” by the teachers that comprise those unions. Some of the discourse involving unions and policy is, however, from my (admittedly non-teacher) perspective, more or less substantive.
So, you can “love teachers and disagree with their unions," but don’t kid yourself – in the majority of cases, disagreeing with unions’ education policy positions represents disagreeing with most teachers. In other words, opposing unions certainly doesn’t mean you're "bashing" teachers, but it does, on average, mean you hold different views than they do.
Of course, it’s very important to note that neither the teaching profession nor teachers’ unions is a monolith. Teachers’ views on policy, like those among incumbents of any occupation, are nuanced and diverse. For example, teachers support some forms of compensation reform and not others. Opinions also vary by context and teacher/school characteristics, and they are subject to change over time.
Moreover, it goes without saying that not all teachers agree with the stances taken by their unions (though the overwhelming majority of them, including new teachers, believe their unions are important). Many educators, unfortunately but inevitably, don’t participate much in their union’s affairs. Similarly, there are thousands of teacher locals around the nation, with their own officers, members and priorities. There are some policies on which most are in strong agreement, while there is more variation in views about others; these positions can and do change over time. Such is the nature of democratic organizations.
That said, teachers’ unions are comprised of members who are teachers, they’re led by teachers (many still in the classroom) who are elected by teachers, and union policy positions and collective bargaining agreements are voted on and approved by teachers.
The reason why so many locals tend to oppose things like bonuses based on test scores, and support measures such as class size reduction, is because their members tend to oppose and support them. If you disagree with these stances, you can – and should – speak out. And if you think that teachers shouldn’t have a right to collective bargaining, you are of course entitled to that opinion as well. These are policy disagreements, not “teacher bashing."
Nevertheless, while I acknowledge that this is a generalization (and far from an original thought), vociferous opposition to teachers’ unions is too often a shield behind which advocates hide, thus precluding their having to acknowledge and address their disagreement with most of the teachers who make up those unions.
To be sure, such tactics are common on all “sides” of the debate (e.g., accusations of "profiteering"), and I'm not quite so naive as to believe that you can remove the politics from policy debates. But, when you hear “teachers’ unions," at least some part of you should think “teachers." It would, in my view, improve the tone and quality of our debate if we all recognized that there is a distinction, but, when it comes to views on education policy, usually not much of a difference.
- Matt Di Carlo