Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Obama's Shield's Up for Unions

Seeing that President Barack Obama will likely soon have angry teachers hanging from his ears and lips by their teeth, I admire his bearding of the lion. His follow-through on his promises to improve public education seems certainly to infuriate the powerful teachers' unions.

I see comments on public newspaper boards, aggregators and blogs whenever anyone suggests that teachers could be better or be held to the kind of standards their students are. Invariably cries of "union buster" arise. The teachers and unions are supposed to police themselves, not be graded, rewarded or punished by anyone else.

As a strong union supporter, I understand the protective reasoning. However, a lot of public education in Boston and elsewhere sucks.

Obama's initial call is to reward proven effective teachers, seemingly as an inspiration to other teachers and to school systems. The responses were predictable — Teachers’ unions say merit pay causes teachers to compete against each other, rather than collaborate, and is unfair to those who work in disadvantaged areas where it can be harder to boost student performance.

Parents and the non-teacher public see it differently. Repeatedly and consistently, they poll as in favor of such policies.

I may well idealize my own education, although early boomer, Sputnik era public ed had its virtues. My own high school (Plainfield, NJ) had numerous Ph.D. teachers and I lucked out by ending up in the smart-kids' classes with the best teachers and curricula. Having put two, nearly three, sons through public schools here, I judge what they get by my experience.

In many ways, they got less. Our home with demanding parents, as well as loads of books and other resources, kind of compensated. Yet, their inspirational teachers were far between.

The hands-off and make-nice-to-the-unions approach has not helped produce top flight public education. Our kids test out well below those in many industrialized nations. This is despite the past couple decades of allegedly teaching to test.

This surely is not the climate for teachers' unions to dig in and play the drama queens. Our new President seems to be both patient and insistent. We have every reason to suppose that his drive will be for partnership with unions and school administrations.

Unions will have to give something as well. That has not been their M.O. for decades, but they don't have the track record to call the shots. Yet even now, if they want to help determine workable education policies, their union members as well as the students are sure to win. Plus, the teachers and unions will have meaningful control.

Here's another area where I'm glad Obama and his folk have to fight this battle. We'll see whether he can keep that smile on his face.

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Mike G said...

Good post.

Teachers unions have not always been monolithic, and we could see some healthy debates in the coming years within labor.

Might be interesting if a splinter effort emerges, similar to Andy Stern and SEIU breaking away.

massmarrier said...

True enough. I can get beyond the punchline in Woody Allen's Sleeper when American Federation of Teachers head Albert Shanker was the catalyst for the end of civilization.

There are many teachers who want to be in best-practices schools.