Monday, December 01, 2008

Do Unions Place Adult Needs Before Children in Education?


And they are supposed to. Unless school children are members of the teachers' unions, which unless I am woefully mistaken, they are not, then the union has to place their members' (adult) interests first. Corey Bunje Bower takes up the issue in a recent post. There are lots of parties making the argument that teachers' unions are bad for education, and I usually agree with them because I do think that teachers' unions are one of the biggest obstacles, second only to bureaucratic inertia/incompetence, to making our schools better than they have been. But that is not a result of their existence or even supposed mission, but rather of the acceptance by the public that unions know what is best about education and the rhetoric that unions care about kids. They may care about kids, but kids aren't their mission and that is a massively important distinction.

Bower wrote:
One could argue that the main goal of a teachers' union is to ensure that its members are treated fairly and paid well, and they would have a point; that's probably their main goal. But that doesn't necessarily mean that they do that at the expense of students. Ultimately, teachers care about their students . . . and a union of teachers, when you boil it down, is really just a large group of teachers.
I will agree wholeheartedly with the first segment of this quote. Teachers unions exist to protect their members. I don't believe they do it necessarily at the expense of students, at least not consciously. It may simply be a consequence of what happens with some workplace protections--like tenure.

However, there is a very distinct difference between a teacher, a group of teachers and a union. I would say that a teacher, indeed almost every teacher, really cares about what is educationally best for their students. And unless proven otherwise, even a small group of teachers can have that motivation, even on a school wide level.

But the minute you start talking about a union, you are talking about another entity all together. The union is supposed to exist to serve its members--fine--as far as it goes. But a union also exists to project power in the political arena (and union contract negotiations are political--make no mistake about that). Therein lies the dichotomy between a group of teachers and a teachers' union. Unions have a need to a) be relevant in political discussions involving teachers/education and b) to continue to exist, thus some of their actions actually run counter to the professional needs of their members (see my posts on the professionalization of teachers).

A union is a far different actor, because of its own corporate needs, than a group of teachers. Once you move beyond a school based local group of teachers into a union, which has paid (well paid), professional, full-time staff, you remove the entity into a realm in which union motivations may run counter to what is good for the students. The "at the expense of students" meme is injected at this point. I don't think unions are consciously and conspicuously aiming to injure the interests of students, it is often a by-product of aiming to get the most for their members. Education is a game of finite resources and to give some of those resources and decisions to teachers usually means that some other group doesn't get them--and sometimes that groups is the students.

But it is also important to delineate something about unions. When it comes to protecting teachers' rights/pay/standing, I have no quibble with unions trying to extract the best deal for their members from school management, that is their job and purpose. However, I make a big difference when unions proclaim that they do what they do because it benefits students. That is nothing but pure P.R. B.S. It is a lie that has become accepted by the public to the point that it is viewed almost as a accepted premise. But, the students are not the unions' concern and the sooner we in the general public accept this, the better we will understand the motivations behind union actions. When students start becoming the unions' priority, they are not longer serving their members needs and thus are a failure as an organization.

Again, unions are neither inherently evil nor inherently opposed to student interests. But it is important to realize that unions tend to dominate the educational dialogue when it comes to education particularly at the local level. They have an interest and the right to speak, but we mustn't delude ourselves into thinking that the union knows best for our children. The children are not supposed to be, and when push comes to shove won't be, their top priority. Just because an organization represents individual practitioners does not mean the individual practitioner motivations can be ascribed to the union. They may actually be diametrically opposed.

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