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.
Charter Schools Across the Nation Do About the Same as Public Schools: Some Do Well, Others Poorly
There is an irony: The idea of charter schools began in 1988 with Shanker. He had a vision of a system in which small groups of teachers and parents would submit research-based proposals outlining new ways to educate kids.
As Shanker envisioned it, charter schools would become laboratories for innovation, a place to test new ideas that, if successful, would be adopted in public schools.
The reality hasn't lived up to his hopes. Charter schools, some run by not-for-profits, others by for-profits, offer educational programs that are closely geared to the standardized tests. Few offer anything innovative, and most require parent involvement as a prerequisite for acceptance. A small number are unionized, and the unionized schools are quite successful. The Green Dot Charter Schools in Los Angeles is one success story.
But why the emphasis on charter schools? Teachers are suspicious. Again, for good reason.
Merit-Pay Plans — Pay for Performance — Have Simply Not Worked
The drumbeat from the critics of unions is that teachers should be paid according to the performance of their students as measured by a standardized exam. (As they stand now, teacher pay scales are incremental; you receive annual raises and additional raises for additional graduate degrees.) Teachers' unions object to individual pay for performance, asking, where has it been tried and it worked? The most recent study, at the National Center on Performance Incentives at Vanderbilt University's Peabody College of Education, concludes that pay for performance is not "the magic bullet that so often the policy world is looking for."
The study's conclusion: "It doesn't work." Are unions wrong to oppose unproven ideas?
In many school districts, including New York City, unions have negotiated plans that give schools, not individual teachers, bonuses for meeting achievement targets; the bonuses are distributed collaboratively by the staff.
Tenure Means Due Process, Not a "Job for Life"
Why do unions defend "bad teachers"? Why do lawyers defend "bad" defendants?
In most states, teachers serve a three-year probationary period, during which time they can discharged "at will." After that time period, they obtain "tenure," which hardly guarantees the teacher a cushy job for life. Tenure does, however, guarantee the teacher a due-process hearing regarding disciplinary charges or issues of incompetence. In some instances, this has caused problems. In New York City, teachers accused of malfeasance sat for months, sometimes years, because management chose not to expedite the cases for political reasons. After years of dispute, the law now requires all cases to begin within 60 days and to be concluded within six months.
Unions, under the law, have a duty of fair representation. Members pay dues, unions represent them — and an impartial party determines innocence or guilt. "Jobs for life" is nonsense.
Not every teacher accused of incompetence is guilty. Each one is entitled to a vigorous defense, and that is the job of the union.
Testing Narrows What Is Taught: "If We Don't Test It, We Don't Teach or Learn It"
Teachers worry that this narrow emphasis on "the test," which purportedly determines the success or failure of the pupil and the school — which determines the evaluation and perhaps the salary of the teacher — will turn schools into test-prep mills. What happens to music? Art? Physical education? The highest-achieving school systems in the world — Finland, South Korea and Singapore — don't use standardized tests. Are we making better schools or enriching testing companies?
Why Are We Ignoring the Impact of Poverty?
The Schott Foundation's "Black Boys Report" shows staggering disparities in the number of black males graduating from high schools. For example, in New York City, only 28 percent of black males graduate with the college-ready Regents diploma.
NYU professor Pedro Noguera reminds us:
Studies on literacy development in small children show that middle-class children arrive in kindergarten literally knowing hundreds more words than poor children.
And schools alone — not even the very best schools — cannot erase the effects of poverty.
Teachers' unions are in the forefront, warning us that teachers and schools alone cannot eradicate poverty. Unions are campaigning for the creation of Community Schools, which utilize partnerships between the school and other community resources, focusing not just on academics but also on health and social services. The schools are open to the community 24-7.
Unfortunately, Washington has paid scant attention to Community Schools and continues to ignore the impact of poverty.
Teachers and their unions are under attack and fighting back. Criticizing bad ideas, offering other policies and campaigning in the political sphere are the essence of our democracy. As Washington, D.C., Mayor Adrian Fenty found out in this past election, top-down policies frequently do not resonate with the voters. The teachers and parents defeated him at the polls.
Teachers' unions played a major role in electing President Obama, and now, in spite of the attacks, are expressing themselves; they have serious doubts in regard to his education policies.
Rather than see teachers' unions as an obstacle to progress, we must understand that it is teachers and parents who should be partners in creating schools that address the needs of all students. Teachers plus parents equals kryptonite to bad education.
Peter Goodman has taught in a Brooklyn, N.Y., high school, served on his union's executive board and taught education at the New School University. He now works as a consultant in the design and support of new high schools and writes a blog, Ed in the Apple: The Intersection of Education and Politics.