The Role Of Teachers' Unions In Education

Critics complain teachers' unions stand in the way of education reform, and protect underperforming educators. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, argues that teachers must play a key role in shaping education reform, and that administrators must share responsibility for student performance.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

The debate over fixing our public schools focuses more and more on teachers: How to keep the good ones and get rid of the bad ones, how to evaluate their work, how to reward it, how to engage teachers and their unions in the effort to make the sometimes radical changes many reformers believe are badly overdue, including important changes to the collective bargaining agreements that define wages and conditions, establish tenure in many places, and they establish when teachers can be fired and when they can't.

As president of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten has embraced some of the reform agenda. She agreed to a seismic new contract in Washington, D.C., that pays better teachers more, and she joins us in just a moment.

Later in the program, Julie Rovner reviews "Secretariat," the new movie about a great racehorse and a great racehorse owner. But first, parents, teachers, principals, tell us your story. How does the union help or hurt good teachers? Our phone number: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Randi Weingarten joins us from our bureau in New York. Nice to have you with us today.

Ms. RANDI WEINGARTEN (President, American Federation of Teachers): It's great to be here, Neal, thank you.

CONAN: Does collective bargaining as we know it need to be changed?

Ms. WEINGARTEN: Look, everything as we know it needs to be changed these days. But the vehicle of collective bargaining is a huge catalyst to actually creating the transformation that we need in America's public schools.

I was listening to your introduction, and as I was listening to it, I started thinking about what happens in Finland or in Singapore, where the schools actually do far better than our schools. And they're virtually 100 percent unionized.

When I look at the states in our nation that do much better than the other states, they are 100 percent unionized. When I think about school districts in the nation, only about 53 percent of them actually have collective bargaining contracts.

So the bottom line is we have a bad economy at the very same time as we need to have transformative change in our schools to help all kids become the problem-solvers and the thinkers of the future.

But collective bargaining and what unions do to actually help teachers get the tools and conditions to do their jobs can be a vehicle to do this, as opposed to, frankly, almost any other vehicle I've ever seen.

CONAN: So the collective bargaining agreement, then, that process of collective bargaining, can be the vehicle for change?

Ms. WEINGARTEN: Absolutely. In fact, you look at what we're doing in New Haven, Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Hillsboro, Philadelphia, all of these processes, collective bargaining has become the vehicle to create this kind of transformation because at the end of the day, transformation happens when you actually work with the people that have to do the work.

And even though I think it's an oversimplification of the so-called reformers who, you know, basically want to shift all responsibility onto the backs of individual teachers, at the end of the day, teachers are really important in this process, the relationships that teachers and kids have are really important.

But it's a little overrated to say that we, ourselves, as individual teachers, are going to be able to overcome every single in-school and out-of-school factor that happens to kids.

It's an easy thing for management to say because it means that you don't have to manage if you actually shift all the burden on to individual teachers. Having said that, we all need to do things a lot better than we've done before.

CONAN: Is the Washington contract, which provided the schools' chancellor, Michelle Rhee, the opportunity to well, a whole bunch of teachers lost their jobs after that, but also to institute merit pay, which has been a sore subject for many years in many locals.

Ms. WEINGARTEN: Actually, you know, again I don't think, and I'm proud that we did the Washington contract, the Washington contract went up by 80 to 20 percent. A lot of it was also because there was a 20 percent in the, in, you know, negotiated in a very, very tough economic time.

What the Washington contract did was it actually clarified everybody's roles. You would not have known by the rhetoric around the Washington contract that the chancellor actually had a lot of those powers beforehand, and in fact, the last chancellor, Cliff Janey, had actually fired a whole bunch more teachers than Michelle Rhee ever fired.

But it was done in a way where people understood why they were being fired, and there was an attempt to help people beforehand and ultimately do what the union has called for, which is everybody's not cut out to be a teacher.

And so we try to help people do the best they can be the best they can be, and if we can't, then there's a way humanely to separate people out from the profession.

But what the current chancellor or the soon-to-be-departing chancellor did was she made firing, rather than teacher development, the most important piece of the human capital equation.

CONAN: There is a contract that is up for ratification in Baltimore, modeled at least in some respects on the Washington contract. That was just voted down by the teachers there.

Ms. WEINGARTEN: Actually, the Washington contract and the Baltimore contract are quite different.

CONAN: Okay.

Ms. WEINGARTEN: What they do and ultimately, we didn't do a good job in terms of the Baltimore contract not in terms of the negotiation of it, and there's a bunch of different conversations now between the members and our leaders in Baltimore. But because it was so new, we didn't give the members the time that they needed to really think about this and ask their questions and see if and really move forward on it.

And there's a lot of in this environment, there's a lot of trepidation about change because there's a lot of fear and anxiety in the world. Having said that, the big difference between Baltimore and Washington is that the Baltimore contract is about creating the building blocks to change schools so that people will be paid in different ways.

But if there's tutoring that they're engaged with with kids, they're going to be paid additional funding. If there's career-ladder roles, meaning if they want to do mentoring or other kinds of things, there would be an expedited salary schedule, whereas in Washington, the extra pay went for whatever the test score results were.

So it didn't go to the kind of building a profession and building a community of learners that the Baltimore contract went for.

CONAN: Here's an email we have from Sara(ph) in Elk Grove, California: As a teaching student, I was actively recruited by my professors to make sure I joined the teachers' union as soon as I was a first-year teacher. Any teacher who didn't was seen as against her peers. I didn't want to join because I saw tenure protecting bad teachers. What sort of hope is there for a young teacher who wants to be recognized on the merits of her teaching, which might be better than those of her tenured peers?

Ms. WEINGARTEN: See, this is and I would love to talk to this lady because this is why tenure is such a red herring. Tenure is simply due process. It is essentially but it has acted as the evaluation system because we haven't had real evaluation systems in place in terms of education.

So what we've tried to do is say look, let's have a real evaluation system that does a couple of things: that creates a path for continuous improvement and ultimately is also a snapshot for whether somebody is doing a good job or could do a better job.

And if you align due process with a real evaluation system, then this issue about whether tenure is a job for life is moot because it isn't. It's just due process. It's just: Did you do the job that the evaluation system said you were doing?

CONAN: Yet the when we talk to teachers, a lot of them say there is no evaluation system that fairly...

Ms. WEINGARTEN: Exactly right.

CONAN: ...fairly describes what they do.

Ms. WEINGARTEN: But that's part of the reason why the AFT, in January, unveiled an overhauled framework for evaluation in teacher development that - you are exactly right. We've had so those of us who taught I taught for six years in New York, at Clara Barton High School in Crown Heights. And even though I had a fantastic principal, we basically had what I call drive-by evaluations. So my principal and my assistant principal would come into my classroom for five or 10 minutes, and I would have, or you know, if I had an official evaluation, it would be 40 minutes.

But it would be a checklist. It's not the kind of evaluation that starts saying this is what you can do to improve, this is how we can do things better. And that's what we have proposed and about 50 districts are now, and districts and their unions are now using it.

That's a centerpiece of the new Pittsburgh contract, the centerpiece of the new Hillsboro contract, of the new Philadelphia contract, of the new New Haven contract. But it's much more than got you. It's about what can we do to improve our practice, and what can we do to ensure that kids are learning.

It's not simply what are we teaching kids, but it's what are kids learning. And even though we can't control all the factors in kids' lives, there is a certain, you know, there is a certain piece of it that we can control, and that's what we have proposed in this new evaluation framework.

CONAN: And one more question, and then we'll take a break, and we'll get calls on. The phone lines are full, believe me: 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org.

There is a system that was instituted in Toledo, where union members took the role of evaluating their peers, and by all accounts, it does very well. Why isn't that system used more widely?

Ms. WEINGARTEN: And that's part of what we have that's one of the things that we have proposed, again, in this new evaluation framework we proposed in January.

I think why it's not is because sometimes you have, you know, supervisors talking out of both sides of their mouth. At one point, they talk about how teachers are so important, and then at the other times, they don't really want to give teachers the voice that they want.

And teachers want that voice, and we want to have more authority over our profession. So you have this in Toledo. You have this in Cincinnati. You had this in New York City with the peer intervention program.

But at one point or another, you know, supervisors and can't have it both ways. Teachers want to have a role in the work that we do. And in fact, what we've asked supervisors for is to help support us more and more and more.

I mean, what you have is that half the teachers leave the profession within five years.

CONAN: We're coming up on the break, but aren't teachers sometimes reluctant to or locals reluctant to have teachers basically evaluating their peers?

Ms. WEINGARTEN: You know, we've proposed, two years ago, not in our last convention, but two years ago, there was a resolution on the AFT convention floor that asked all of our locals to look at peer review as a way of helping to better inform an evaluation process. And we passed that resolution.

Now, is it sometimes, you know, a little concerning to people? Yes, but at the end of the day, we want teachers to be the best they can be, and a peer process is a good process in that role.

CONAN: Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. So parents, teachers, principals, tell us your story. How does the union help or hurt good teachers? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

The American Federation of Teachers represents about a million and a half teachers and other workers around the country. Since 2008, Randi Weingarten has served as the union's president, during some of the most contentious debates over education reform.

She's our guest today and she'll take your calls. Parents, teachers, principals, tell us your story: How does the union help or hurt good teachers? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And we'll start with Lindsay(ph), Lindsay calling us from Denver.

LINDSAY (Caller): Hi, thanks for taking my call. I was a teacher for about two years in a school that had a very low-performing population. And I only worked there for two years. And my question that I haven't heard addressed, and I'd love to hear Secretary Duncan address, as well, is: What do you do for those early-year teachers?

And what do you do in the schools that have a heavy, heavy second-language-learner population? Because it makes me extremely nervous to go back to a job where I had kids not necessarily showing growth right away, in a couple years when I'm ready to go back to that.

I just don't know if I can do it, and Denver has recently passed legislation that I believe 50 percent of the evaluation will be based on student performance. It makes me really nervous.

Ms. WEINGARTEN: So the new Colorado law, which we supported, basically has a very broad definition of what constitutes student learning. It's not limited to the current generation of student test scores. It's lots of the different things that teachers believe are within the ambit of what kids should be able to do.

But I think your question is a really important one. It goes to the heart of this debate. What the unions are trying to do - my union - in particular but the NEA, as well, and Denver is an NEA district, is we're trying to help give teachers the tools and conditions they need to help kids, and we're also trying to get schools and kids the kind of conditions that they need.

So if we have a very if we have a lot of kids with limited English proficiency, we need to have the resources that help them. It can't be an excuse to not help kids, but we need to have the resources like bilingual teachers, like smaller class sizes, those kinds of things, so that we can level the playing field for kids - the same in terms of parental engagement, the same in terms of ensuring that schools are safe. So that's what the unions attempt to do to fight to help get those resources.

Separate and apart from that, you have to help new teachers. Half the new teachers in this country leave within the first five years. They need a lot more support. We have to stop this process of just throwing people the keys and just saying do it. It may work for Nike; it doesn't work for education.

LINDSAY: So in terms of merit pay, though, how do you keep people in the low-performing schools?

Ms. WEINGARTEN: One of the things that we've proposed, and one of the things I did when I was the New York City president of its union, was we actually paid people more who went and stayed in the hard-to-staff schools.

And so you differentiate pay based upon the things that you need. Some people call that merit pay. I call that being smart about compensation, meaning you have competitive pay, and then you also try to create some kind of incentives aligned with what a school system and kids need.

CONAN: Lindsay, why did you leave after two years?

LINDSAY: I actually left because I have a couple of little kids on my own. But I've since completed my masters, but I really question whether I'll go back to it because the school where I was working, I received positive feedback and worked harder than I've ever worked in any job I ever had, but I would still have times where my kids didn't show growth. And so that just, those two things, they concern me.

CONAN: Well, thanks very much for the call, good luck.

LINDSAY: Thank you.

Ms. WEINGARTEN: Thank you, Lindsay.

CONAN: Let's go next to this is Justin, Justin with us from Jacksonville.

JUSTIN (Caller): Yes, thank you very much. First, I want to say Lindsay, stick it out, come back, we need you. Secondly, I'm a teacher, a second-year teacher in Florida, and on the topic, first of all, of evaluations, it's totally a system that's needed, and it goes along with merit pay.

I'm not opposed to merit pay. I'm definitely for non (unintelligible) and ending the unions. But I feel how do you establish a system of merit pay that's going to be acceptable almost nationwide, something that we can use along the ranks?

Because I teach advanced placement, and my kids in Florida are studying for the same tests that kids in Oregon and Washington and all states are taking. So is there a way to, you know, get a common evaluator for everybody?

Ms. WEINGARTEN: Well, we need to well, first, I agree with you about Lindsay, and I hope she does come back to our profession. Ultimately, we need to have things that are common throughout the country. That's part of the reason that some of us have been supporting common standards because then you'll have some notion of we're teaching the same things in Jacksonville as we may be in Bayside, Queens.

But then we also have to understand that schooling is particular to communities. Communities love having control over their schooling, which is part of the reason why we have all these local, independently elected school boards through the country.

Having said that, if you have an evaluation system which is in some ways where the same frameworks are operative, where we're looking at teacher practice, and is practice as great as it can be, are we differentiating instruction to the needs of our kids, are we do we understand our curriculum well enough, and can we teach it in a way that kids understand it, and then are kids learning.

But are we controlling that which we can control and others responsible for that which they have to be responsible for.

Then you start having a template that you can use nationwide. Now, that's separate and apart from paying people more for test scores or things like that.

Now, some districts think that that's a good thing to do. Other districts say if we have a really great teacher, like in Hillsboro, Florida, let's actually pay them more for mentoring other people. And that also, people sometimes say, is merit pay, but that's the kind of differentiation that I think teachers would accept.

JUSTIN: I agree, and that leads me into my second point, if hopefully Mark Zuckerberg is out there listening, establishing a website where I can share lesson plans with the people in Oregon and Washington and Hillsboro.

And the difference with that, to make that possible, is I need to be compensated for the extra time it takes me to share. So who's going to front the money. I know that Zuckerberg's got money for education and website skills.

CONAN: Justin, good luck with that.

JUSTIN: Thank you.

CONAN: All right, bye-bye.

Ms. WEINGARTEN: An entrepreneur in the making.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to Dirk(ph), and Dirk's with us from Wenatchee in Washington.

DIRK (Caller): That's Wenatchee, Washington. How are you?

CONAN: I'm well, thank you.

DIRK: Listen, my main concern about a lot of this energy is that it will only do fine-tuning. It's my feeling that my major problems with the unions has been that they have not defined the problems and defined them in such a way that there are solutions that the adults inside the school can make and can do and that this is really my experience is that this is going to really require, you know, restructuring our schools, especially secondary, in such a way that they're based, they seem to be, are fit with the basic assumptions that are made about kids.

I believe right now our secondary system is based on a series of assumptions that are not true, and I think major structural change should be made, and it needs to be led by teachers.

CONAN: And Dirk, what's your experience?

DIRK: Thirty-five years I've taught, I've been a principal, a superintendent, 35 years of teaching - all overseas or 15 years, 20 years overseas, to Jakarta, Manila, Taipei, Singapore, Guatemala and Colombia.

And my basic job at the end of my career was to restructure schools to be more effective. And I think it's the adults. The unions don't seem to be they're talking about evaluating teachers. I think there's a more productive approach by putting - by making sure that the professionals are defining the problems that need to be solved and defining them in such a way that they can solve them.

Very typically, what you say it's the parents' fault, the kids' fault and so on, we can't define the problems that way.

CONAN: Randi Weingarten, I wonder what you think about that.

Ms. WEINGARTEN: Well, so look, I agree with your last caller. And, you know, but often I find that people put words in our mouths a lot, in terms of thinking of the union as a caricature, rather than what the reality is.

I think you're right. We have to actually we have a major challenge on our hands in that the world has changed a lot, even in the last five years, in a way that our schools never have.

Our schools basically, as your last caller said, are pretty much reposed in the industrial era - not in the agrarian era, but the industrial era. And if you look at a secondary school, you basically have lots of classes that are about 40 minutes each, and then there's a three-minute passing period and then another 40-minute class, and it was aligned to help, you know, the kids who would excel go to college, and then the rest of the kids, you know, go and work in the factories. And we have to change that.

And so the problem that we're solving for is, how do we help kids become critical thinkers and problem solvers? So we need to have great teachers, we need great curriculum, we need to then also ensure that the kids who are at risk have the wraparound services and the other kinds of services that deal with socio-emotional economic needs. So that's the problem we're solving for. And you see lots of good models across the country, and so our goal is what do we see that works, how do you sustain it, and how do you scale it up.

CONAN: Derrick, thanks very much.

DERRICK: Can I make one more comment?

CONAN: If you make it very quick. There's a lot of people who want to get in.

DERRICK: I want to say that it's essential that the problems be defined in such a way that they can be solved by the adults in the school, and that is an essential piece. And I also will say that the current time structuring of schools, okay, the way schools are time-structured and organized, can't work.

Ms. WEINGARTEN: Right. So Derrick, did I define it in a different kind of way so that we can try to solve the problems that we need to solve to help all kids?

DERRICK: Well, I'll tell you what. One way is - one way, only, is to mobilize technology in such a way, okay, that it leverages teachers. And I don't hear anybody talking about that. I hear them talking about good - you know, there are good programs. There are good this. But I have yet to hear someone articulate if we can leverage teachers with technology. We don't replace them. And...

Ms. WEINGARTEN: Well, I think that - I think one of the problems...

DERRICK: And I don't see it happening.

CONAN: Derrick...

Ms. WEINGARTEN: I think one of the problems is, and no less than David Brooks said this a few weeks ago in a column, at the end of the day, technology is really important in terms of doing some of the things like one of the previous callers said about how you share lesson plans, how you can help in terms of some of the remedial work we need to do. But at the end of the day, the relationship between teacher and student is key, and that's a personal relationship.

DERRICK: But...

CONAN: Derrick, I'm...

DERRICK: I'm sorry. One other thing, 'cause...

CONAN: No, Derrick. Derrick, please. We said one more thing, and you had three more things. So we're going to give somebody else a chance, but thanks very much for your phone call. Appreciate it.

DERRICK: Okay.

CONAN: We're talking with Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And here's an email from Jennifer in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Would you support parent input in teacher evaluations? While I appreciate the difficulty of objectively evaluating the performance of teachers, we all know who the good teachers are and who the not-so-good teachers are. We can tell you who has high standards for student performance and who doesn't. We know who goes the extra mile for kids who struggle and who doesn't. We know who has good rapport with the kids and who the screamers are, et cetera. We also have enough sense to take our children's complaints about teachers with a grain of salt.

Given that, would you support parent input in teacher evaluations?

Ms. WEINGARTEN: Yes. What we're saying is a teacher's evaluation and a teacher and teacher development and evaluation should be a multifaceted instrument. And so we need to have the type of survey documents that they do in some places in terms of what parents' input is, what students' input is, and what teachers' input should be as well. Ultimately, just like we say that teachers need - when teachers say that they need tools and conditions, and we want administration to try to help teachers get those tools and conditions, we know parent input is very important as well. None of these should be dispositive, but they all should be part of a multifaceted evaluation system.

CONAN: Let's go to Tony, Tony with us from Charlotte.

TONY (Caller): Yeah, great discussion. Listen, I'm from a non-union state. All those people who want to see what a non-union state looks like, come to North Carolina. You'll get to see some great things. For example, teachers have absolutely no voice. So you know, all those complaining about unions, I mean, the last caller, Derrick, has wonderful ideas. But he reminds me so much of administrators who make wonderful policy suggestions but haven't been in the classroom for more than three years.

CONAN: It's interesting. We got an email on the same subject from Jim in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, which he says has no union for teachers. Recently, the state proposed to offer teachers retirement at age 60 to move high-cost insurance liabilities off the books. This is going to result in a brain drain, I predict. How would a union here make a difference on an issue of that nature?

TONY: Well, I mean, look at the top 10 states in education. What do they all have in common? They're unionized. Look at the bottom 10 states. What do they have in common? They're non-unionized. Now, tell me. Are unions good or bad?

Ms. WEINGARTEN: The - when you look at the high performing nations, when you look at the high performing states, the notion of teachers having a voice in a collective way, the notion of teachers fighting for equity for kids, the notion of teachers fighting for the tools and conditions that they need, is something that actually, long term, helps in education.

Is it inconvenient to management? Yes, it's inconvenient. When you have to actually answer somebody's question, just like in democracy, sometimes it's messy. But at the end of the day, all of us have to learn to look ourselves in the mirror to see what have we done right, what have we done wrong, change what has - is broken. But ultimately, a union voice, a voice for teachers, is indispensible in the process of public education.

TONY: Well, to close out my comment, I will say I think Michelle Rhee in Washington, D.C. has discovered, if you blame the very people who are part of the solution, you will find no solution. End of story. Teachers are a part of the solution. They're not the solution. It's like holding judges accountable for everybody that's in prison. Is that the judge's fault that someone goes out and commit several crimes, or is it the police's fault, or is the person's responsibility not to commit those crimes? Thanks for having me on.

CONAN: Tony, thanks very much for the call. We just have a few seconds left, Randi Weingarten. But I wanted to get back we mentioned the issue of tenure, which sticks in a lot of you said it's really about procedures and it's about due process.

Ms. WEINGARTEN: Right.

CONAN: Yet - are there specific proposals to reform that that you would endorse?

Ms. WEINGARTEN: What we've asked we've asked Ken Feinberg, who's been a bit busy trying to navigate...

CONAN: Yes, he has.

Ms. WEINGARTEN: ...through BP. But in January we asked Ken to actually help us with this because he is a real expert of how to try and make due process faster and fairer. We want to make sure that teachers are treated with respect and dignity. But we also want to make sure we fix what's broken. And we're trying to figure out how to fix the tenure process. Keep it, but fix it.

CONAN: Well, he ought to be finished with BP in a couple of weeks, so we'll have to see how that goes. He may be busy with that for some time. Randi Weingarten, thank you very much for your time today.

Ms. WEINGARTEN: Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, with us from our bureau in New York. When we come back, Julie Rovner on "Secretariat." It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.