In Praise of Teachers's Unions

Over at Talking Philosophy, Mike LaBossiere offers a defense of teachers's unions. He is a bit too tame for my taste, and he is far too respectful towards anti-union arguments that have far more to do with general hostility to public education than they do with measured criticism, but in the end he arrives at the right place:

In general, it would be rather odd if unions did not cause some problems. If they did not, they would be truly unique. However, it seems more sensible to address these problems rather than simply condemning unions. Given the fervor with which these unions are being attacked, it might be suspected that some folks stand to make a profit by getting rid of these unions. But perhaps that is merely cynicism on my part. After all, I am sure that the people funding the attacks on unions and the politicians who will attack them are merely driven by a love of the public good and are doing it for the children.

The simple fact is that as a society we do everything in our power to make teaching as unappealing a profession as possible. In most districts the pay and benefits are laughable compared to other professions. Even worse, there is a deep lack of respect for the work that teachers do. People who haven't set foot in a classroom since their own, typically undistinguished, academic careers, and who wouldn't last five minutes if they ever did enter a classroom, seem perfectly happy to give lectures on how easy teachers have it, what with their nine-month school year and workday that ends at 3:05. Teachers are the only one's blamed for poor student performance. It is never the fault of spineless, unsupportive administrators, or lazy, shiftless students and their irresponsible, enabling parents. The only forces working against all this are the unions, and bless their hearts for doing so.

I teach at a state university, and my course load is three per semester. My heavy teaching days are those on which all three of them meet. I have essentially no discipline problems to deal with, since at the college level students inclined to act up just don't show up for class. It is rare that I have more than 30 students in a class.

On those heavy days I leave my last class thoroughly exhausted and mostly glad I won't have to do it again for another two days. And I don't have to deal with a tenth of the bureaucratic crap that public school teachers deal with, or any of the numerous responsibilities outside the classroom with which they are burdened. Anyone who declares teaching to be an easy job instantly places himself outside the realm of reasonable conversation.

I would go on, but as it happens I wrote at length about this in a post from 2007. That post was entitled, “Teachers's Unions Are an Unambiguous Force For Good.” And since I see no reason to revise even one single word of what I wrote then, I will simply quote it at length:

It's time for a quick reality check. Teachers are the absolute bottom rung of the American educational system. They are given virtually nothing in the way of resources or institutional support, and yet they are usually the only ones held accountable when students underperform. Their salaries and benefits are laughable compared with those of any other profession, and, even worse, they live in a society that has only contempt for the work that they do. Precisely because they are so powerless, they are a conveninet scapegoat in explaining the inadequacies of American education.

And against this relentless onslaught of criticism from politicians, school administrators, and arrogant and irresponsible parents, there is exactly one force that has the interests of teachers at heart. The unions. The only reason teachers get the few crumbs that they do is because the unions fight tooth and nail to get them. As badly as teachers get screwed now, the situation would be orders of magnitude worse without the unions.

In opposition to the unions we hear only that they are against "reform," which usually refers to some combination of vouchers, eliminating tenure, some condescending and Orwellian notion of "merit pay" or making it easier to fire teachers with very little in the way of due process. Bascially, "reform" is a euphemism. Depending on the context, it means either (a) Screwing teachers by reducing their salaries and benefits while expecting them to take on more responsibility outside of the classroom or (b) Screwing teachers by making it easier to punish them when their arrogant, undisciplined students underperform on standardized tests or (c) Screwing teachers by eliminating their job security and leaving them subject to the whims of irate parents and craven principals, or (d) Screwing public education generally by diverting money away from them and into the hands of private and parochial schools. God bless the unions for opposing such things.

There is no secret to running good public schools. Wealthy districts all over the country manage to do it year after year. And we have the examples of all those other countries we keep hearing about that score higher than us on various exams. Those countries don't starve their schools for resources, treat their teachers contemptuously, or force public schools to compete with private concerns for funding. Such ideas are the exclusive province of anti-government, anti-intellectual right-wingers, and cowardly, quisling liberals who inexplicably desire the praise of the right-wingers.


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There was an editorial in Science issue before last making basically the same point. Though I LOL'd at one point: the author states that in the most successful secondary education countries, teachers get paid average white collar it's 'not about the money.'


I have to laugh when I hear politicians and teacher's unions talk about how underpaid our teachers are.

 Our District State Average
Beginning Teacher Salary $40,685 $41,284
Mid-Range Teacher Salary $60,770 $65,173
Highest Teacher Salary $85,490 $83,460

That's a lot of money for working 3/4 of a year with generous medical and retirement benefits. People in the real world work a lot harder for a lot less.

For some reason the only consistent thought I had when reading this was: if the unions are so great, then why do teachers have so little in terms of resources? Could it be that the administrative personnel are in place in response to unions? That the bargaining table isn't about the students but instead only about the teachers? Just a thought - not saying right, wrong, or indifferent.

"That's a lot of money for working 3/4 of a year "

That is an incredibly stupid statement. If you really think teachers work only 3/4 of a year, you are clueless.

There is no doubt there are jobs that require more difficult work: two simple points: the people in those positions are not entrusted with teaching children, and many of them do not have equivalent educational backgrounds.

As our governor (in MI) found out when he trotted out the old "everyone in government and schools is overpaid" line, that bit of flack is quickly shown to be garbage when you adjust for education level.

"generous medical and retirement benefits."
I don't know about what benefits are in your area (and I"m guessing you really don't know either), but again locally benefits have been whittled away significantly, for quite some time. But then I look at things a little differently: I don't see it as "they have benefits when others don't, so they shouldn't have them", I see it as "Why can't everyone have decent benefits?"

JScarry --

$40,000 was what I was making 12 years ago as a post-doc straight out of graduate school, with a work load far less time-consuming and stressful than what starting teachers go through. I think you made my point for me.

"People in the real world..."

Right, because teachers are not in the real world.

Hi Guys

Teachers have a difficult job to do everywhere,
education (for my son) is one of the reasons I turned down a green card 10 years ago.

Tenure - means you cannot be sacked without due process
In most of the industrialized world ALL workers have that.

By duncan cairncross (not verified) on 28 Jan 2012 #permalink

Even worse, there is a deep lack of respect for the work that teachers do.
I never understood why this was the case. Seems to be happening everywhere - even in places like India where it was once a noble profession (though poorly paid).

Teachers are the only one's blamed for poor student performance. It is never the fault of spineless, unsupportive administrators, or lazy, shiftless students and their irresponsible, enabling parents.

By Deepak Shetty (not verified) on 29 Jan 2012 #permalink

As someone who is clearly passionate about teaching, and takes it seriously, I understand your outrage. Nonetheless, education and education to educate do not equate. The system mimics the civil service, where incompetents are shuffled and promoted because of paperwork. Other industries dont benefit from this level of 'untouchableness', and ones that do are legendary for it. I think teachers who are dedicated and care (and for whom teaching is neither 9-3 nor 9 months) deserve far more than the 85000 that's been quoted. I do believe for every extraordinary teacher there is a terrible one. The damage done by the terrible teacher to many, can (conjecture) far exceed the value of a great teacher to a few. This is a problem the union should solve, but by its nature can never do so. (Im reminded of the psych professor who sat in front of the classroom reading out of a book, and still getting it wrong - and digging in when confronted). Surely as a dedicated teacher this should be a huge afront!?

By Moshe Silberman (not verified) on 30 Jan 2012 #permalink

Moshe Silberman @ 10:

Im reminded of the psych professor who sat in front of the classroom reading out of a book, and still getting it wrong - and digging in when confronted

[citation required]

Surely as a dedicated teacher this [bad teachers keeping their jobs...I think] should be a huge afront!?

I'm a believer in at-will work. I work under it now, I like working under it, and my experience has been far more positive than negative. However, I'm not gung-ho about implementing it everywhere. Why should everyone share my preference and why should every individual value work stability the same way I do? Answer: they shouldn't, and they won't.

Tenure is something that people value, and some value it more than others. Its a benefit, just like dental or health care. I'm perfectly fine with some professions offering it while others don't. And it would be madness to get rid of it in one fell swoop - many people chose the teaching profession in part because of the benefits it offers. Get rid of them suddenly, and you would have immense turnover even among the competent staff.