Teacher’s Unions and Race to the Top: Demonized or Too Demanding?

Corresponding quite nicely with a discussion led by a student in my Enhancing Youth Literacy course this week, a steady flow articles has recently been emerging about teacher’s unions as barriers to state applications for Race to the Top funding.  Here is a sampling:

Looking at the language of these titles alone is enough to get a sense of what the authors of these articles think about the union’s decision not to support district applications for this federal funding.  Schools in Las Vegas “miss out” because their unions “won’t sign,” Los Angeles schools “fail,” and our local Portland schools “give up.”

This negative language surrounding teachers unions is nothing new, but it feels like the negativity is building and that teacher’s unions and their reluctance to sign documents using student test scores as part of teacher evaluations is one of the dominating conversations about education today.  While there is much scholarly reporting that indicates that teacher’s unions may actually improve student learning in the end (see Carini, Powell and Steelman in their Harvard Educational Review article titled “Do Teacher Unions Hinder Educational Performance,” for example), mass media continues to paint unions in an unfavorable light.

Why is this?  And are unions shortsighted and narrowly focused enough to turn their backs on additional school funding for no reason?  Or is Race to the Top offering something that some districts and states question for other reasons as well?  Is this issue of merit pay and evaluating teachers based on student test scores a red herring that distracts us from talking about the real barriers to better education for all? Is the Race to the Top model something that teachers support?  Will this competitive framework leave us with a better public school system for all?  Is the money offered even substantial enough for us to know if a program like Race to the Top could lead to bigger success?

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts, dear readers!

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6 thoughts on “Teacher’s Unions and Race to the Top: Demonized or Too Demanding?

  1. Zapoura,

    I think part of the reason that there’s the resentment against teachers and teacher’s unions is the public special awareness toward general student failure in public schools from K-12 and possibly beyond, and the situation is intensified by the dramatic school budget cuts. Students not performing well in schools is not today’s thing; it has been there for whoever knows how long, and certainly, the rates varied through out the years, but possibly due to current bad economy and insidious political fights,
    somehow the target for public outcry has transferred itself to education, mocking teachers and teacher’s unions, because the public needs a pathway to release its anger, frustration, emotion, dissatisfaction, and grievance, etc., particular those from the parents. However, I was shocked to know in class that someone was actually calling the unions “terrorist organizations”, how can he/she ever have the audacity to publish such “big mouth” description? Was he/she not educated by teachers? I think that teachers do deserve more respect than what they are receiving now, because not all are bad teachers, and most “certified” teachers were graduated from accredited teaching programs in universities; thus that’s why we call them “teachers” right? On the other hand, there’s always the opposite voice of saying how unions protected incompetent teachers from “releasing” from schools, and thereby the continuous failure of our innocent students. This is true in some circumstances, and I think it’s not fair to the students either. Anyway, I just want to ask how we can balance the dilemma between promoting good learning skills to students in schools while not down talking about teachers’ efforts and their adequate protections from the unions, because they are doing work! Thanks!

  2. The whole Race to the Top competition bothers me in general: contests should be done for vacation give aways or a new car, not funding the education of the next generation. Schools need money – more money than they have right now – and we shouldn’t be putting together a limited number of packages and awarding them to whoever can beat out the other schools.

    Yes, other schools that are struggling can look at the winners and see what may be working for them, but implementing those changes can be hard or useless, depending on how those changes relate to the situation that the struggling schools have, e.g. local economy, local politics, social expectations (even in things that aren’t immediately obvious, like whether or not abstinence only is supported in that area), minority group size, and so on. What might seem like a great plan for one school district might be awful in another, but look better than that second district’s plan on paper.

    And then who is blamed for our failure to Race to the Top? The teachers. Of course! The people who are there, working with the kids, who have to implement those changes, who would know if that is something that would work. It’s so frustrating that it’s exhausting to think about, and part of the reason why I gave up my dreams of being a teacher.

  3. The language used in the L.A. articles certainly is striking, even as the teacher’s union provided a more detailed rationale for opposing Race To The Top than the school districts did for supporting it. One of the reasons unions cite for opposing Race To The Top is the issue of merit pay for teachers. On the surface, it could seem like a good idea to base teacher’s pay on how well they teach, but using test scores to decide who is a good teacher is setting up some teachers to fail no matter how hard they try. Without addressing all of the other factors that lead to poor test scores (poverty, minority status, test bias, etc.), there is no way that teachers are going to miraculously start making their student’s scores rise, no matter how “good” of a teacher they are. Basing teachers pay on such standards pretty much guarantees that teachers who teach at-risk students will be paid less, which makes absolutely no sense.
    Despite this, unions are still being made to seem like the enemy. The average person probably has no idea how much money goes (or should go) into the education system every year, so when they hear that the teacher’s unions are causing the school district to “miss out” on $20 million in funding, it seems like a big deal, yet in fact that amount barely scratches the surface of what schools really need to thrive.

  4. Zapoura (and readers!), I interviewed a high school teacher this week from Franklin High School as a part of another course that I’m taking this term, and the conversation actually turned to both teacher’s unions and Race to the Top. My teacher (an English teacher who teaches 10th and 12th grade high school kids in a Title I school in the PPS district) was adamant with his dislike for both Race to the Top as well as teaching unions. He told me that he was furious with the contract that the union had recently obtained for PPS teachers, and felt that overall environment of teacher persecution has been a “slap to the face for teachers.” He told me that he takes much of these criticisms quite personally, and said that he felt that most of the public feels that teachers are over-paid, under-worked, and that they get too many benefits. I personally feel (and hope) that this is just a perception for him, and that most people don’t feel this way about teachers. When I asked about Race to the Top, he specifically pointed out merit pay as the determining factor in his dislike for the policy. He described for me the different schools that he has worked in, and the differing test scores that students received at each school, likely due to poverty and other outside contributing factors. He said, “Do I think that the quality of my teaching magically increased or decreased when I changed schools? No, of course not. The students were just different at each of the schools I’ve worked at.” Personally, I feel it important to consider that, while he seemed to disagree with both issues (teaching unions and Race to the Top), he has been teaching for 28 years, and seemed to be a little bitter in general. He seems to have a rather limited scope, and potentially hasn’t done as much research on the issues. Still, he reacted personally to both issues, saying that he didn’t feel like anyone trusted him as a teacher, and that he was constantly being disrespected and attacked on all fronts. I don’t see how a teacher could focus on being a good educator when they’re feeling such hostility from the surrounding world.

  5. Unless we, as a society, can develop the ability to look at our students as individuals and focus on individual success in whatever form it may take, be it a good job making gobs of money through technical skills learned through school or as a hermit happily living off the fat of the land with or without school, I think we’ll forever be obsessed with trying to find an “effective” way of evaluating the sheer number of students we have in our educational system, and that means standards. In the documentary “The Inconvenient Truth of Waiting for Superman” a New York City educator says “My school is under threat of closure because we haven’t met our annual yearly progress but that’s not because we’re not doing quality education and when people come from the state and talk to us and ask ‘Why, if you’re doing such great education, why are you not doing so well on the tests?’ and I say to them ‘You’re asking the wrong question, the right question is ‘If we’re doing such quality education what is wrong with your tests? Why aren’t your tests responsive to what real educators know is good for our children?’” Both sides of this debate, the administrators and legislators on one side, and the teachers and unions on the other side, want education to be a productive system and, generally speaking, do not want to hinder progress to such a system. We all affect each other; we wouldn’t want to argue against others who wish to improve our system without good reason, and even if our intentions are good, good intentions still have side effects and costs. In the LAUSD article “”Race to the Top costs more than it brings in,’ Fletcher said. ‘You’re essentially setting up a system with a lot of bureaucracy, and those pieces have to stay in place after the grant period.'” Having an issue with each other is not an issue, in my opinion; it becomes an issue when sides antagonize each other and not recognize the impasse they enter into. Given the sheer scale of our public schools and the gap of where we are and where we should be in our achievement levels, I feel like testing is a tool we have no major alternative of using for evaluating our progress. Both sides of the union debate are right — there are good and bad teachers and that is a reality in whichever profession you look at, good and bad doctors, good and bad lawyers, good and bad auto mechanics, for whatever reason due to the dynamics of their field. It’s a matter of asking the right questions and looking at the different factors that each individual teacher faces so we don’t make the mistake of lumping a teacher performing badly due to just being bad and a teacher performing badly because the students have a multitude of difficulties despite good skills and effort on the teacher’s part.

  6. The issue is that when it comes to education, one wants to reward success, but punishing failure does not solve the problem – especially when failure doesn’t mean poor teaching performance, but poor student performance. While good teaching is certainly correlated with higher test scores, it is not the case that higher test scores are caused by better teacher – or the contrapositive, that bad test scores are caused by bad teachers. I believe that test scores can be correlated with the amount of knowledge a student has learned, and thus is a decent metric for their relative level of education, but the level of education a student receives has more to do with how often they show up to school, how often they do homework, how much support they have at home, etc. It would be great if better teachers got better pay – but coming up with a valid metric to measure a teacher by is incredibly difficult, and student test scores is certainly not the correct way to do it.

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