Sunday, August 19, 2012

Unions, Teachers' Unions and the New Movie 'Won't Back Down'

Unions are Outmoded

My view of unions is that they are unnecessary, and that they are harmful to employees, employers and communities as well. To wit, their forced membership dues are expensive and used in large part to pay salaries to unnecessary union officials.

Membership dues are also used to support the political campaigns of union allies in the Democratic Party. There is nothing bipartisan or voluntary about how the dues are spent. And if the member doesn't want any of his money to be spent on political activities, well, that's too bad. He has no choice. His sole role is to pay up and shut up.

In fact, there's nothing voluntary about unions, and rewarding better than average individual performance isn't even an afterthought. Unions encourage mediocrity and represent the tyranny of the majority, where the most powerful and influential make decisions for the rest of the membership. To me that's plain wrong, at least in America.

That point of view undoubtedly won't win me many elections in union territory, of course, but I'm not running for any office. And it won't win me many new friends among union enthusiasts either, but I have enough genuine friends already.

And besides, isn't it long past time for some good old fashioned candor and truth telling? Don't we already have more than enough sound bite platitudes all around us this election season?

Teachers and Teachers' Unions

That same general opinion about unions is especially true with respect to teachers' unions. Not individual teachers but teachers' unions. Think of big cities such as Chicago and New York, for examples.

Teachers on the Defensive is a well written and reasonably objective assessment of the current problems facing public education. It's worth taking the time to read and consider what it has to say about this most important issue. Other than the position it takes on unions and their appropriateness, the editorial makes a lot of sense. Admittedly, it's probably a whole lot more practical than my "extreme" view, too. But, hey, freedom of speech means freedom to say what we believe. Right?

The Movie

In any event, here are some excerpts from the editorial:

"The new movie “Won’t Back Down” tells the David-versus-Goliath story of a single mother, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, who leads a rebellion to wrest control of her daughter’s persistently abysmal public elementary school from local officials. It’s scheduled for release next month . . . .      

And it actually takes pains to portray many teachers as impassioned do-gooders who are as exasperated as parents are by the education system’s failures — and by uncaring colleagues in their midst. . . . The union that represents one of those do-gooders (Viola Davis) has lost its way, resisting change, resorting to smear tactics and alienating the idealists in its ranks. . . . “Won’t Back Down” is emerging as the latest front in the continuing war between (teachers') unions and their legions of critics, and it has become yet another example of how negatively those unions are viewed. . . . 

Nothing — nothing — is more important than the education of our children, and while various interests will make competing claims about whether it’s improving or slipping and how best to measure that, education certainly isn’t at the level we want or need it to be. Public education, that is.

All around me I see parents of means going the private route and dipping as far into their bank accounts as necessary to purchase every last advantage a kid can have. But most families don’t have that option, and some 90 percent of children go to public schools, which remain our best engine for social mobility, our best bet for global competitiveness and the key to our country’s future. And lately, they’ve been a dispirited and dispiriting battleground.

Perhaps most striking are the rifts that have opened between teachers’ unions and Democrats, who had long been their allies. President Obama’s appointment of Arne Duncan as education secretary and the administration’s subsequent Race to the Top initiative weren’t exactly music to the unions’ ears.

In Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and other cities, Democratic mayors have feuded bitterly with teachers’ unions and at times come to see them as enemies. And at a meeting of the United States Conference of Mayors in June, Democratic mayors joined Republican ones in a unanimous endorsement of so-called parent trigger legislation, about which unions have serious reservations.

These laws, recently passed in only a few states but being considered in more, abet parent takeovers of underperforming schools, which may then be replaced with charter schools run by private entities. Parent trigger hasn’t yet led to a new school, so no one can really know the sense or efficacy of the scenario. But it informs “Won’t Back Down,” which envisions Gyllenhaal’s trigger-pulling parent as an Erin Brockovich of education.

“It gives parents an opportunity to weigh in,” said Antonio Villaraigosa, the Los Angeles mayor, who supports it, in an interview here on Thursday. He believes that new approaches are vital and that teachers’ unions are “the most powerful defenders of a broken system.” That’s coming from a politician who, in his early career, worked as a labor organizer for teachers.

He said he revered the profession of teaching, considered most teachers heroes and believed in unions, but, “The notion that seniority drives every decision — assignments, promotions, layoffs — is unsustainable.” He explained that it took performance out of the equation and was discordant with the experience of most other professionals. “Imagine if I ran for a third term and said, ‘Vote for me, I’ve been here the longest.’ ”

"Over the years, the teachers’ unions have indeed guarded tenure protections and last-in-first-out layoff practices to a zealous degree that could at times seem indifferent to the welfare of schoolchildren. . . .      

The unions have also run afoul of the grim economic times. “In the private sector, nobody’s got any security about anything,” said Charles Taylor Kerchner, a professor of education at Claremont Graduate University. So the unions’ fights over pay raises and pensions, he said, made previously routine negotiations “look like pigs at the trough.” . . . 

Better teachers, better teachers, better teachers. That’s the mantra of the moment, and implicit in it is the notion that the ones we’ve got aren’t nearly good enough. “It’s a historic high point for demoralization,” said Diane Ravitch, an education historian at New York University.

We have to find a way out of this. Weingarten noted that most public school children are taught by teachers with a union affiliation, if not necessarily a union contract. That won’t change anytime soon.

So a constructive dialogue with those unions is essential.

But so is real flexibility from unions, along with their genuine, full-throated awareness that parents are too frustrated, kids too important and public resources too finite for any reflexive, defensive attachments to the old ways of doing things.

“Our very best teachers ought to be treated much, much better than they are today,” said Joe Williams, the executive director of Democrats for Education Reform. “But in order to get there, we need to be able to say out loud that some teachers are better than others.”

That’s precisely what “Won’t Back Down” says. Although the movie is bound, in this politically charged climate, to be analyzed solely in terms of the position it seems to take on parent trigger or its qualms with union behavior, it’s ultimately about the impact of superior teaching, the need to foster more of it and the importance of school accountability. Who could quibble with any of that?"

Summing Up

In answering the question, "Who could quibble with any of that?" I can think of only one appropriate response. But it's a biggie.

Teachers' unions and less than adequate teachers, along with other union supporters. And lest we forget the politics of all this, the Democratic Party, too.

Here's the simple truth. Unions have no legitimate role other than representing the best interests of their members.

And average and better than average performing teachers have no need for such union representation.

Accordingly, it's the subpar performers that are the unions' main beneficiaries, along with the Democratic Party, of course.

Our many well intentioned, highly trained and high performing teachers must be given new tools and the freedom to introduce new teaching methods through technology to better teach our students.

By so doing, pay for performance can finally become a reality in our public schools. As a result, both teacher performance and student achievement will improve dramatically. Incentives matter.

Higher productivity in and out of the classroom (more for less) will help create a better and more prosperous society for all Americans.

The basic idea of the movie "Won't Back Down" is a winner.

Thanks. Bob.

No comments:

Post a Comment