Sunday, December 4, 2016

How Charter Students Would Benefit from Teacher Unions

As part of the general "Please don't leave us" hubbub arising from the nominally-Democratic-neo-liberal fear that a bunch of Trump-hating lefties are about to bolt out of the reformster tent, Peter Cunningham over at Education Post ran a big discussion about how unions and charters should maybe be BFFs (you can read my take on the discussion here, here and here).

Arguments included that unions would be great if they didn't act like unions, charters would start implementing policies they've always avoided like the plague, unions would make charters look better, and it would be innovative, somehow. But these all involved supposed benefits for the unions and charter operators. Can the marriage of unions and charters be a happy one?  Later on twitter, Cunningham tweaked the focus--

Would there be a benefit to charter students if charters welcomed a teachers union? Would this be the kind of marriage that would benefit the children, even if it's a little rocky?

Benefits for the Kids

Well, actually he used the term "student achievement" which is a euphemism for "standardized test scores." If the question is "Would having a teachers union raise student scores on the Big Standardized Test," I have three responses.

1) We already know that there is a positive relationship between unions and test scores. We've known this for a while. It's a fuzzy correlation-causation connection, but we've done the research and while it may say a number of things, it clearly does not say that the getting rid of unions gets you better test scores.

2) If we really want to raise test scores, we don't need a teachers union. We don't need teachers. We can just stop spending any time at all on anything that isn't on the test, strap students to computer drill-and-kill programs, and test scores will be awesome.

3) Who cares? Big Standardized Test scores remain a terrible proxy for student achievement. Find me more than a handful of parents who say, "Look, I don't care what else happens with my child in school as long as she gets a really good standardized test score." Or find me an adult who says, "I came from such a rough background, but that high score on the PARCC just opened up all kinds of doors for me."

So I'm going to answer the question that Cunningham almost asked-- how would a teachers union benefit students at a charter school?

First, let me unpack my own biases. My feelings about my union on the state and national level are hugely mixed. I have been a local union president, and I have been a union critic. You will never ever see me jump on a bandwagon just because the union is conducting; they have gotten so many things so spectacularly wrong (guess we can put that chair at Hillary's table in the attic next to the box of Common Core love notes) and they do sometimes have interests in mind that don't match local concerns. On the other hand, anyone who believes that  unions are unnecessary because you can just count on management to do the right thing out of the goodness of their heart-- that person deserves every bit of nothing that management is going to give him.

And we're going to maintain focus here. There are any number of moral and ethical arguments that can be deployed in union-management discussion, and there are many ways in which charter operation would benefit from a teacher union, but we are going to focus on just one thing--

How would a teachers union benefit charter school students? Would it be a good idea to put this marriage together for the children's sake?

Students would have adult advocates in the building. Having a union means teachers have job protections, which means that teachers can stick their necks out for the students. There are plenty of stories of charter teachers who tried to stand up for students, or even offer educational enrichment, and they were summarily fired. We don't know how many teachers have said, "I'd love to help ya, kid, but it would mean my job" or just turned a scared, blind eye, but I feel dead certain that there are more than a few. Students need the security of knowing that there are adults in the school who can stand up for them, and they certainly don't need the guilt of thinking that Mr. McGuts lost his job over them.

Students would be more certain to have trained, experienced teachers. With a union, teachers may be more inclined to stick around, giving the students a sense of stability as they work with a staff that has had time to grow into that particular school community. A union could also help insure that students will have teachers who have some sort of actual education training.

Students would have teachers' full attention. A unionized school is more likely to have decent pay and hours for their teachers, reducing the number of times that little Chris is going to hear, "I haven't graded your tests yet because my shift at Piggly Wiggly ran long last night."

Students would work with fully-functioning adults with real lives. Part of a teacher's job is to model the life of a fully-functioning adult. As with the previous point, his is easier to pull off by people whose union has put actual limits on their workload, hours and pay. I know some charter managers hate the idea of anyone telling them when and where and how and how many hours their teachers can work, but here's the thing-- if nobody ever drew a line, all teachers would work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and it still wouldn't be enough. A teacher who is exhausted is not the best teacher. A teacher who never climbs out of the teaching bubble to see the rest of the world is not the best teacher. You cannot prepare students to take their place in a world you've never seen.

Students would have a broader, richer experience. Teachers who have job protections can also take chances in the classroom, giving students an opportunity to have the greater variety, creativity and experimentation that charters are supposed to be known for, instead of the cookie-cutter top-down proscribed curriculum that is too common. Teachers with job protection can stand up to a "visionary" charter leader to explain why his vision is wrong, bad, or just plain not working. Beyond that, union teachers have ready access to a network of fellow professionals who can help with pedagogical puzzles; if they're stuck on a lesson, they have people to consult besides Dr. Google.

Students would have a safer, more nurturing, more stable environment. A union provides a clear open method of communicating with school management. That means that issues noticed and raised by students or classroom teachers can be quickly brought to the attention of the right people. Physical hazards or failing procedures don't go unaddressed because nobody knows who to tell or how to tell them. This is also one of the benefits of a stable workforce; when you burn and churn staff every year then you never build an institutional memory and nobody really knows How We Take Care of X Around Here. A union can facilitate connectivity within a school, both by providing a network for in-house communication and also by holding onto staff with work conditions and job security. Put another way, it is not helpful for an eight-year-old to realize that she knows more about how her school works than her teacher does. Charters often market themselves as a safer alternative-- a union could help charter operators make that PR pitch actually true.

To the contrarians--

The immediate response to some or all of these points will be, "I can name a bunch of public schools with teachers unions that suck in some or all of these aspects." You probably can. Those would be mis-managed schools where administration doesn't know how to properly work with the union. Some married people make each other miserable and then get divorced; this does not mean that marriage is a terrible idea, only that some people are not very good at it.

The real problem here

As I've noted elsewhere, the central irony here is that even though I'm arguing for a union presence, there's virtually nothing on this list that couldn't be accomplished by good school management and without any union at all-- if the school operators wanted to do it.

But mostly they don't. The whole point of the modern charter movement is to set up schools where the People In Charge don't have to answer to anyone else and most definitely don't have to deal with a bunch of uppity employees who don't know their place. The movement is also about the Bottom Line, the deliverables, the metrics, and right now, the only metric anyone has is the stupid BS Test scores. Some reformsters are going to look at my list and say, "Yeah, that's very nice, but I can't measure any of this, and so I can manage it or pitch it or grow it. It's not actionable data. It's not a deliverable."

Let me say with absolute, heartfelt sincerity that if this is your thinking and your approach to education, you should go do something else, because you have absolutely no business working in education.

But if you're going to insist on sticking around, let me point out that deliverables and test scores are not what growing young humans is about, and you already know that. You don't measure your own child in with data and deliverables-- you look to see if your child is happy, healthy, excited, and learning stuff as measured by her ability to talk about that stuff. Charters know it, too-- that's why a cyber-charter in PA spent an entire year pitching the idea that dropping out of public school to cyber-educate would make the child happier.

If a charter operator dismisses all of the above benefits as unimportant because they aren't on the test, or not nearly as valuable as management autonomy and the power to be a Tiny God in your personal school system, then of course none of this is going to happen. But if your position is, "Look, I just want to run a school the way I think it should run, make some money from it, and generate enough data points to look like it's working," then we're working toward entirely different goals, and this marriage between a teachers union and your charter school is never going to work. A teachers union would bring a world of benefits to students in any school, but that only matters if benefiting students is your primary concern. Unions are often accused of putting adult concerns ahead of student concerns, but I can't think of anything that more typifies that problem than an adult sitting in his big office declaring, "This school is going to run the way I say it's going to run, and nobody is going to tell me differently."


  1. If I may offer another point, a union could demand audited financial information from the school and would serve as a check against the fraud being perpetrated by politically connected con artists.

    1. Oh, I think there are numerous ways that a union could help charter management manage better, but the task here was to try to talk direct benefits to students. But you're correct-- keeping an eye out so that the school doesn't close out from under the students during the year is definitely a benefit

  2. I am very much in favor of teachers unions, but I would ask why, if the unions protect teachers, are more teachers not "sticking their necks out for students"? Why are they not saying "I won't do this (focus on nothing but test prep) any more because it is NOT in the best interest of students." From what I've seen, unionized or not, most teachers are afraid to speak out. How can unions change this?

    1. Not all unions are created equal, sadly. When I was still in public school, my union rep actually threw gasoline on the fire of a principal with an axe to grind, making an already-uncomfortable situation downright aggressively vindictive on the principal's part. The rest of that school year was....uncomfortable, shall we say - especially given that this happened in early September. :-(

      Not all contracts provide equal protection, either. And an administrator with a big-enough axe to grind will still find a way to make your life miserable.

      There may be a simpler explanation, though: for new and new-ish teachers new to unions and their protections, they may not feel comfortable testing those protections - or perhaps feel that their administrators would run roughshod over them anyway. :-(

  3. If I did that, I would lose my job. Wish I could, but I need to support my family. I think parents could be a big help in this area. As a parent I have opted my child out of testing the last 3 years and have spoken to other parents about doing the same. I have written to the regents, assembly, and senate. I have attended rallies. I am able to do much more in my role as a parent than as a teacher.