Educational Reform can come through many different groups and strategies. However, there is much debate on which groups and strategies provide the greatest educational reform and which weaken it’s progress. Since their founding in 1916, Teachers’ Unions have attempted to provide teachers with benefits and improved wages, but also to promote conditions that benefit the students and their schools. They have allowed teachers to have more of a voice in professional matters, and have grown their influence in politics. Although, at their root, teacher unions truly did benefit educational reform through students achievement, some would argue that over time unions have become more of a political power than a reformer of education.
Organized Labor Unions began to form even at the beginning of the formation of the United States. Their purpose, to protect the rights of the working population and provide safe working conditions. When our country was first formed there were no federal laws in place to protect the working population from getting taken advantage of by their employers. As Teachers’ Unions formed they sought to gain collective bargaining power so that teachers could negotiate contracts with their employers to receive better pay and improve their working conditions.
Teachers’ Unions gained collective bargaining rights in the 1960’s and 1970’s, and teacher strikes became a common occurrence. The two most prominent teaching unions are the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), formed in 1969, and the National Education Association (NEA), founded in 1857. However, there are teachers’ unions at the national, state, and local levels. As Teachers’ Unions grew in popularity, so did the plethora of topics that they took to collective bargaining. Teachers’ Unions fought for salaries, benefits, hours, working conditions, student discipline, class size, layoffs/dismissal and teacher evaluation.
Although, as our country has grown, we have established laws that protect our workers and their rights, so that becoming a part of a union is not always necessary to flourish. The percent of workers in labor unions hit its peak in 1945, when 33.4% of the working population was a part of a union, but since then membership has been on a steady decline. In his essay, about the history of unions, Mark P. Cussen stated that, “As additional laws were passed outlawing child labor and mandating equal pay for equal work regardless of race or gender, unions became less important to workers who were able to rely on federal laws to protect them” (Cussen, 2019). This means although unions once played a major role in the success of the working population, that same need is no longer present. At one point, employees had no say in matters such as safety and benefits but instead it was all in the hands of their employers.
However, today the Department of Labor enacts laws such as minimum wage, health coverage, and workplace safety in order to defend workers. In an article about federal laws that have been made in order to protect the working population, Daniel Kurt says that, “Today, American employees enjoy numerous legal protections designed to provide a minimal level of income and shield them from danger in the workplace, among other safeguards” (Kurt, 2019). Early on, teachers’ unions were actually anti-reform. Due to much opposition from critics and conservative politicians, in the 1970’s and 1980’s, their stance on reform began to change.
Critics of unions claimed that unions had too much political power and that teacher strikes harmed children because they lost instructional time. Teachers’ unions started to embrace the concept of quality teaching and quality education and became advocates for professionalism in the educational system. Those in support of teachers’ unions claim that, teachers’ unions bring about reform by producing better teacher quality and promoting teacher leadership. But, even as teacher unions have become more prominent in our society, people have begun to question if they are actually accomplishing reform in education.
The intended outcome of educational reform is that it would change public education for the better. Since the 1980’s, educational reformers have been focused on the advancement of student achievement, bringing into question weather unions bring about this type of change. The roles that teachers’ unions play, according to a paper written by Joshua Cowen and Katharine O. Stunk, are outlined when they say, “Teachers’ unions’ first critical function lies in a union’s role as its members’ legal representative in bargaining with their school districts… Teachers’ unions’ second important role – as a political organization – has them act as an interest group… A third role—that of a professional organization that provides support to individual teachers”(Cowen & Strunk, 2014).
Out of all of these roles, not a single one is focused on student achievement but instead focused on the teachers themselves.Those who support teachers’ unions would claim that having legal representation for teachers is a necessary thing. However, those opposed would say that teachers’ unions often take legal representation too far, to the point where they end up protecting teachers that are ineffective. Teachers’ unions also claim that even though they are involved with politics, they are acting in interest of the group. Those against unions would ask, if unions are meant to bring about reform in the classroom, shouldn’t their focus be more on the students and their schools rather than the government and politics?
Those who are pro unions claim that unions are necessary to provide teachers with protection and a support group to back them up. In his paper on unions influence on public, Andrew J. Coulson wrote, “It is a system that only makes sense if the goal of public education is to create a protected class of government employees”(Coulson 2012). Although, this concept seems to make sense but there are counters to this concept that make even more sense. Those against teachers’ unions argue that the protection of teachers provided by unions can become dangerous for the students because unions can prevent bad teachers from getting fired. They claim that although there was once a place for teacher unions in our country there is no longer that same need, leaving unions as simply a self-protecting political power.
One writer stated, “The problem is that the structure they impose makes it almost impossible (though not quite!) to innovate, and to spread the innovations that work. The cushy job protections and strict work rules are great for the teachers. But the schools aren’t there for the benefit of the teachers” (McArdle, 2010). She points out that teacher unions set the precedence that schools are meant to benefit the teachers, when in reality they are in place to benefit the students. Those who oppose teachers’ unions will be quick to point out that this kind of behavior does not benefit reform and student achievement but instead places all of the attention on the teachers.
Those who are pro union, argue that in places where many teachers are involved in unions there is a greater level of student achievement. My Beliefs I believe that although teachers’ unions, claim that they bring about reform in the educational system, their actions will often weaken educational opportunities for students. Teachers’ unions often block meaningful reform by creating a culture of entitlement. Through teachers’ unions, teachers begin to focus on themselves, taking the focus off the students. There can also be a lack of union presence in the school system, proving the little amount of reform that they bring about. At one point, unions were necessary for teachers to thrive, but this same need is not present today. I also believe that teachers’ unions hold too much political power.
They have about as much money in politics as almost anyone. This means that unions may financially support causes that individual teachers do not support. Recent studies show large amounts of money funneled to democratic candidates and their campaigns from teachers’ unions, with hardly any being given to republicans candidates. During the election cycle in 2016, teachers’ unions raised a total of $35,991,822. Out of that money, $5,699,431 of it went to help support Democratic candidates, while only $409,957 went to support Republican candidates. This means that out of all the money that was raised, 93% went to Democrats and only 7% went to Republicans.
This proves that instead of teachers’ unions placing all of their focus on educational reform and student’s achievement they place too much emphasis on matters of state and government policy. In his article, Sol Stern writes, “Schools can’t improve until reformers confront the deadly consequences of the power that teachers’ unions wield over a monopolistic industry, not only through contracts but also through the unions’ influence on the elected officials who regulate the education industry” (Stern, 1997).
Due to this type of management, teachers’ unions have become more like advocacy groups than unions. Teachers’ Unions will also do everything in their power to help a teacher in their union, keep their job, because it can be costly to remove an ineffective teacher. This can be a good thing when it helps to protect the teachers that are doing their jobs well, but it can also backfire by allowing ineffective teachers to keep their jobs. When ineffective teachers are present in school systems it ends up punishing the students by taking away from their learning experience, instead of providing them a pathway to success.
While talking about teachers and unions, Sol Stern also writes that, “These contracts structure the individual teacher’s job in ways that offer him or her no incentives for excellence in the classroom—indeed, that perversely reward failure.” This type of system does not make effective educators, rather it allows for mediocrity in the classroom. This is not to say that all teachers in unions are ineffective, some of the most effective teachers I know are part of unions, however it does allow for some teachers to get by with ineffective teaching because their job is protected by their union.
In conclusion, there are many different ideas about the effectiveness and ineffectiveness of teachers’ unions and if they strengthen educational reform or weaken it. But as more information and statistics are put forth, we get the opportunity to decide for ourselves. We can decide whether we believe that unions are an important factor in educational reform or whether they are a negative influence.