In Defense of Teachers and Teachers’ Unions

Contrary to what you'd think watching the new documentary Waiting for Superman, teachers and teachers' unions are not the spawn of the devil.

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In the 1973 Woody Allen movie Sleeper, the protagonist wakes up 200 years in the future, where he is told that the old world was destroyed when “a man named Albert Shanker got hold of a nuclear warhead.” It was just five years after a bitter, racially divisive teachers’ strike in New York City, and the union leader was being portrayed as a terrorist in popular culture. 

Shanker may have been a “tough liberal,” as the title of a biography described him, but he forcefully injected himself into the national education debate. When teachers vilified the “A Nation at Risk” report in 1983, Shanker disagreed with his members and agreed that our education system was in crisis. Both loved and reviled, he became a national voice for his style of education reform.

President Bill Clinton spoke at Shanker’s memorial service in 1997:

Al Shanker’s life fully reflected the wisdom of the words of Herman Melville … “We cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow men. And among those fibers, as sympathetic threads, our actions run as causes, and they come back to us as effects.”

Al Shanker’s cause was education. And through his lifelong devotion to it, he lifted up our children, our schools, our teachers and others who work in our schools, our nation and our world. He was truly our master teacher.

Not many of us can have on impact on the lives of presidents.

But once again, teachers’ unions (under the umbrella of the American Federation of Teachers) and their leadership are being vilified in a film, Waiting for Superman. The filmmaker, Davis Guggenheim, chooses a hero — Geoffrey Canada, the CEO of Harlem Children’s Zone — and a heroine — Michelle Rhee, the chancellor of the Washington, D.C., school district — and traces five families’ efforts to get their kids into charter schools. The Darth Vader character is AFT President Randi Weingarten, portrayed as defending the inept. The film has been widely praised, and occasionally criticized.

Are teachers’ unions stifling change? Standing in the way of reform that will revitalize our school systems? Or are they critics of bad ideas that are turning us away from the core problems confronting schools?

In a cash-strapped era, the president has dangled billions of dollars if states agree to support the creation of more charter schools (publicly funded, privately run schools that are free of school district and union regulations); evaluate teachers based on student test scores, thereby easing teacher-dismissal rules (tenure); consider paying teachers based on pupil performance; agree to common standards (a national curriculum wherein every student across the nation would have to meet the same standards on every grade and in every course; right now all standards are established by states and vary significantly); and create data systems (test students regularly and use the test data for pupil and staffing decisions).

Teachers and teachers’ unions are skeptical. With good reason.

Half of All Teachers Leave Teaching Within Five Years

Teaching is a really, really hard job. Despite the early enthusiasm, the dedication and the endless hours of preparation, half of all new teachers fall by the wayside. Instead of concentrating the debate on “bad teachers” — and there are bad teachers — we should be training prospective teachers more effectively and supporting them on the job.

Only 3 percent of teachers are African-American males. Why are so few black males entering teaching, and why isn’t the administration focusing on that crucial failing? After all, unions don’t hire teachers, although perhaps veteran teachers should play a role in hiring new teachers.