The resignation of Washington, D.C., Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee concludes the latest chapter in the ongoing war between free-market education reformers and teachers’ unions. Many Rhee supporters blame union opposition for the electoral defeat of Rhee’s boss, Mayor Adrian Fenty, and see unions as the biggest problem in education. In the much-discussed documentary, Waiting for Superman, in which Rhee is painted as a heroine, Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter declares, "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 dichotomy (teachers good, unions bad), which has been a staple of conservative rhetoric for years, has taken hold among the center-left as well. Like Alter, the director of Superman, Davis Guggenheim, is a self-described liberal who nevertheless paints unions as the central problem in urban education and nonunion charter schools as the solution. They're part of a broader movement: Democrats for Education Reform, financed by hedge-fund managers, was created to represent voices within the Democratic Party that think teachers' unions play a destructive role -- voices like those of President Barack Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan, both strong advocates of nonunion charter schools.
Indeed, it is fair to say that teachers' unions are today facing the strongest critique from the left and center-left since the 1968 New York City teachers' strike in Ocean Hill-Brownsville, which pitted the United Federation of Teachers' Albert Shanker against liberal Mayor John Lindsay, the Ford Foundation's McGeorge Bundy, black-power advocates, and many civil-rights leaders over teacher quality and control of the schools.
Is it possible, though, to praise teachers and oppose teachers' unions? Shanker questioned the logic when Sen. Bob Dole tried to drive the same wedge between teachers and their unions in a speech at the 1996 Republican National Convention. "Who started teacher unions? Who pays the dues that keep them going? Who elects the officers and determines union policies?" he asked. Moreover, polls find that teachers are generally supportive of their unions. For example, a 2003 Public Agenda poll, financed in part by the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, found that 81 percent of teachers strongly or somewhat agreed that "without the union, teachers would be vulnerable to school politics or administrators who abuse their power." Likewise, 81 percent strongly or somewhat agreed that "without collective bargaining, the working conditions and salaries of teachers would be much worse."
Even so, might it still be true that teachers' unions are "a menace and an impediment to reform"? They don't seem to be stopping the Finns. As Guggenheim notes, Finland ranks the highest in the world in K-12 math and reading achievement, yet he fails to mention that almost all teachers in the country are unionized. Plus, some of the reforms to which teachers' unions are an impediment, such as nonunionized charter schools, don't seem to be working very well. Superman mentions in passing that only one in five charter schools produces "amazing" results, but in fact their track record is even worse than that: According to a large Stanford University study funded by pro-charter school foundations, only 17 percent outperform regular public schools to any degree; 37 percent underperform; and 46 percent have no impact. Even conservative supporters of charter schools like Michael Petrilli of the Fordham Institute and Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute have chided Guggenheim for saying that certain charter schools have "cracked the code" and know how to close the achievement gap. This sounds more like "ed reformers on crack," Petrilli wrote .
It is true that in the past, unions have protected incompetent teachers and opposed merit pay, but that's changing. Superman takes New York City's "rubber rooms," where teachers were paid to sit idly all day while they appealed their terminations, and the refusal of the Washington Teachers' Union to put Rhee's performance-pay plan to a member vote as exhibits A and B of unions' resistance to reform. But these are odd examples; the rubber rooms are now gone and Rhee's performance-pay program has been voted on and approved by members. Similar performance-pay plans have been adopted with union support in Baltimore, New Haven, Pittsburgh, and Denver.
Teachers' unions have also been at the forefront of efforts to root out incompetent teachers, though they often object to punitive evaluation systems that don't seek to help teachers improve and only rely on student test scores. The American Federation of Teachers supports a plan known as "peer review," in which outside expert teachers work with struggling educators to improve their performance, and recommend the termination of those who don't get better. In Montgomery County, Maryland, a National Education Association district, 177 teachers were dismissed, not renewed, or resigned under a peer-review program within the first four years of its implementation, compared with just one teacher who was dismissed due to performance issues in the preceding five years. Bad teachers are weeded out, but in a way that enhances the status of teachers by making education more like law and medicine, professions that police themselves.
Moreover, teachers' unions support a number of student-oriented reforms like stronger pre-K programs and common core academic standards, both of which have been shown to improve educational outcomes. Ben Jealous, president of the NAACP, remarked recently that teachers' unions are often allies for very positive education programs, such as the effort to maintain socioeconomically integrated schools in Wake County (Raleigh), North Carolina. Studies show that charter schools, on the other hand, have led to a re-segregation of schools.
As teachers' unions weather the storm of political attacks from Hollywood directors and Democrats associated with Wall Street, the silver lining is that the hallowed political coalition between civil-rights groups and teachers' unions -- which was ruptured during the 1968 strikes -- is today rock solid. Unions and civil-rights groups are the most important players in the coalition for genuinely progressive education reform. If we could only convince the upper-middle-class armchair pundits and filmmakers of the evidence, we might get real education reform after all.