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The Union Gap

How teachers' unions hinder school improvement efforts.

No organization wields more influence over public school policy and practice than the National Education Association and its smaller cousin, the American Federation of Teachers. That's too bad, because these unions also represent the greatest obstacle to public school improvement and progress. Tough words, but mounting evidence suggests that teachers' unions are not pro student, not pro teacher, and not pro education-they're pro union.

The tagline on NEA's Web site reads, Making public schools great for every child. Yet the unions work aggressively to kill virtually every attempt at reform that requires real changes to the structure or organization of schooling. From non-graded class groupings to year-round schooling, renewable certification, and any kind of school choice, union leaders fight experimentation claiming such efforts have not been researched enough.

Unions represent
the greatest obstacle to
public school improvement
and progress.

Former NEA leader David Kirkpatrick says the call for research is a smoke screen. If they really meant it, Kirkpatrick says, "the NEA would have to oppose virtually everything schooling presently does. Where is the research that says students learn best in age-based classes; in rooms where the teacher talks 75 to 80 percent of the time; or that huge schools with thousands of students are better than small schools?"

Teachers' unions also bear responsibility for the alarming lag between research and practice. For example, the classroom curriculum has traditionally had all students moving in lockstep through a linear sequence of instructional activities. Yet, research supports alternate instructional sequences based on differences in students' learning styles, aptitude and prior achievement. So why isn't there more support for a differentiated curriculum? It might be good for students, but it's not palatable to the union because it implies a move away from whole-class instruction. That's too great a threat to the status quo.

Seniority over competence

Teachers' unions tend to short-shrift students in large part because they under serve the teachers they claim to represent. What started as an organized effort to improve teacher pay and address inequities, has become a universal set of seniority-based hiring, firing and tenure rules that are counter productive to fostering good teaching. These rules rob superintendents, principals and other district leaders of the staffing authority to shape a mission-driven faculty, and grant union leaders the power to short-circuit any reform efforts affecting teacher compensation or employment, including merit pay, differentiated staffing, alternative certification, career ladders and the like.

Interestingly, talented and successful teachers often find themselves on the wrong side of these rigid union rules. Consider Jaime Escalante, the famed L.A. math teacher whose teaching excellence was the basis for the 1988 film Stand and Deliver. His union complained that he accepted too many students into his calculus classes, engineered his ouster as department chair, and frustrated him to the point that he resigned in 1991 and went to another school district.

Or take Cathy Nelson, Minnesota's Teacher of the Year in 1990, who was laid off that same year because she lacked seniority. She's not alone. Even recipients of union-sponsored Teacher of the Year programs have faced the same fate. Such absurdities come from an addiction to industrial unionism, but education is a profession. Imagine a hospital that fired its best doctors in favor of those who worked there the longest.

Escalante said he "thought the union was going to focus on how to improve our skills. But they're more interested in politics than kids." He's right, and it's time to put the pro-education rhetoric of union leaders to the test.

One way to do this is to take two schools, putting one under the control of the union and one under a group of volunteer teachers and administrators. Give each the same number of students and fund them at a rate equal to your district's annual per pupil spending rate, with no other constraints and see which school does better.

Your union leaders are probably afraid to take that challenge. They'd rather play politics.

Daniel E. Kinnaman,, is publisher.