Friday, October 22, 2010

Rotten Unions Protecting Rotten Apples

Most teachers are not bad, but the constant harping about bad teachers has created a mass hysteria that our schools are filled with incompetent teachers who are crushing our children’s enthusiasm and causing them to fail or drop out. It has become so pervasive that I’m even hearing teachers echo it now.

The delusion that unions protect bad teachers is based on a gross mischaracterization and misunderstanding of tenure. While tenure does provide some job security, it does not guarantee job protection for life, especially not for really rotten teachers. The worst, of course, are the teachers who abuse children. Thankfully, these are rare and they are easily fired. Teachers who are lazy, incompetent, or who simply don’t care, are also relatively uncommon. The pay just isn’t that good and the demands are too high for most self-respecting shirkers. The job is so demanding, in fact, that most young teachers don’t last more than five years.

Tenured teachers can be fired for a number of reasons. Many districts are firing tenured teachers because of budget cuts and NCLB allows schools to fire their entire staffs if they fail to make Adequate Yearly Progress for four years in a row.

The main purpose of tenure is not to guarantee a job, but to protect academic freedom and free speech. Good schools foster ongoing collaboration between teachers, staff and administrators. True collaboration only works when people feel comfortable speaking freely and honestly. Tenure makes it much more difficult for administrators to fire teachers arbitrarily, vindictively, or because they disagree with them. Without this protection, teachers would be less likely to speak openly at faculty meetings and during collaboration.

What about teachers who are well-meaning, but just aren’t that good? Aren’t they a dead weight holding back schools that are trying to improve?

The short answer is that bad teachers can be fired, but it is the job of their bosses, the administrators, to collect the evidence and make a compelling case through the evaluation process, like in most jobs. Like other unionized jobs, the union provides legal and grievance support for members who believe they are being wrongly punished. Not surprisingly, in the highly contentious arena of education, there are often disagreements between teachers and administrators, personality conflicts, prejudices and power struggles. Occasionally an administrator attempts to subvert the evaluation process to get rid of teachers who are good at their jobs, but who annoy the administrator. Having union support under these circumstances is not only good for the teacher, but for students, too, as it helps keep a good teacher at the school. A bigger problem is that administrators rarely have the time to adequately observe and evaluate teachers. Thus, a teacher who truly isn’t doing a good job can easily slip through the cracks.

A more nuanced answer should take into account that a well-meaning teacher might benefit from and desire professional development opportunities to help him improve. With shrinking budgets and growing demands on administrators and teachers, this is seldom happening. One should also ask what we mean by “bad” teacher. I have worked with teachers who were unreliable, disorganized and annoying as colleagues, and not particularly effective with their classroom instruction, but who were fantastic mentors and advocates for their students. I would argue that a teacher like this should not be tossed away like a broken appliance, but respected for the good they bring to the school and supported in the development of those skills they are lacking.


  1. I think unions are a great service to teachers. I can't say that about all unions, but I can say that about teacher's unions. However, having worked in one for over five years, I have witnessed that it is actually difficult to get rid of a "bad" teacher who is tenured. By "bad," I mean a teacher that has consistently gotten poor and terrible reviews by their students, a teacher who is burned out and has come to show contempt for his students as evidenced by student reviews over several terms/years. I'm speaking about higher ed. By and large, however, the teachers I saw needing representation were good/adequate teachers who were getting screwed over as part-timers, so the idea that unions are terrorist organizations is crazy beyond belief. But it also works both ways, a bad teacher also gets representation. In the case of our union negotiator, an excellent negotiator in fact, this person was as dedicated to representing a terrible teacher as much as a very good teacher.

    I also checked out Waiting for Superman. The fact that it is getting so much attention speaks volumes to the distribution cash they have to promote this. Films about schools just isn't a "sexy" subject as they say in film circles. They just don't get the eyeballs, so this film is doing something unprecedented. It is also too bad that films like Speaking in Tongues aren't getting the same press. By showing how successful students are in these bilingual programs, Speaking in Tongues shows effective enthusiastic teachers who care about their students.

  2. Thanks for the comments, Joyce. I would make a distinction between k-12 and higher ed in that professors are seldom trained how to teach. Many are excellent lecturers, but this is only one of many ways to instruct.

    Also, worker protections like tenure only work when universal. Like constitutional protections, they can't apply just to some teachers. That being said, it is the administrator's job to fire a bad teacher and they must do the work to prove it is justified. Few take the time to make sufficient observations too make a strong case. In many ways, the system does favor the worker, and for the most part this is preferable: better to have a few rotten apples than no protections for the majority who are doing a fine job.