How Teachers Unions Lead the Way to Better Schools
Diane Ravitch upends the "bad teachers" narrative.
By Amy Dean
I have a concern: Teachers are getting pummeled. Too often,
they are being demonized in the media and blamed by
politicians for being the cause of bad schools. Right-wing
governors, power-hungry mayors and corporate "reformers" -
all ignoring root issues such as poverty and inequality -
have scapegoated the people who have devoted their lives to
educating our children. Moreover, these forces are seeking
to destroy the collective organizations formed by educators:
The stakes for our country could not be more profound. The
labor movement and the public education system are two
critical institutions of American democracy. And they are
two that go hand in hand. Teachers unions have played a
critical role in advocating for public education, but you'd
never know it from mainstream media coverage. Therefore,
there is a great need to lift up this tradition and
highlight the efforts of teachers to collectively push for
top-notch public schools.
To figure out how we can push forward on this issue, I
talked with Diane Ravitch, one of the country's leading
education historians and public school advocates. A
professor at New York University, Ravitch is a former
Assistant Secretary of Education and the author of several
books, including 2010's The Death and Life of the Great
American School System: How Testing and Choice Are
What do you see as the role of teachers unions in preserving
For many years, there has been an effort to diminish
teachers unions and to blame them for all the problems of
public education. I believe the reason, first of all, is
that some people just hate unions. But there's also a
political reason that's very specific. That is that if you
silence the union, then there's nobody at the table when the
legislature or the governor wants to cut the budget, so they
can hack away at will. That's happening in states across the
country. I was in Texas a few weeks ago, and there the
legislature cut over $5 billion dollars from the education
budget, but they did manage to squeeze out $500 million
dollars for more testing. They have a weak union. They had
no one at the table to say, "You can't do this." And no one
cared what the teachers thought anyway.
This past summer, you championed the Chicago teachers strike
as an example of teachers publicly transcending self-
interest and pushing for better conditions in the schools.
Can you speak about some of the victories have shown a
different style of advocacy from teachers?
Well, the teachers' union had a problem in that most of the
things they were concerned about they're not allowed to
collectively bargain. The law says they're not allowed to
collectively bargain the teaching and learning conditions,
but that was the essence of the strike. They had to say that
they were striking over something that was legal and not
over something that the law didn't allow. I think that one
of the things that they were able to accomplish - and it's
a small accomplishment but an important one - is that the
mayor wanted the [teachers' performance] evaluations to be
based, I think, 40 or 50 percent on [student] test scores.
They got it down to what was the legally required minimum.
My own view is that the test scores should account for zero
in teacher evaluation.
One of the historical roles of the labor movement is that
unions have been a symbol of high standards of quality. If
you have your electrical wiring done by a union electrician,
for instance, you don't have to worry about fires in your
home. In the same way, teachers' unions played a role in
forming teaching as a profession with high standards for its
practitioners. Can you point to examples where teachers are
taking the lead on issues of accountability and evaluation?
The nature of being a professional involves self-regulation.
Professions are supposed to set [their own] standards. That
involves a certain amount of autonomy, but it also means
that you meet professional standards. Lawyers set standards
for lawyers, and doctors set standards of good practice for
doctors. Then there's a certain amount of self-policing.
I think that if there's any way in which unions could be
faulted, it's that they have ceded that to management. So
over the years, unions have come to see their role as
defending their members and not setting the standards of
practice, and so that's management's job. They have ceded
that role. And I think that now they find themselves in a
bind because there's been this mass of publicity campaigns
to make unions seem evil.
What I've seen in state after state is that the teachers are
losing their collective bargaining rights. I'm not sure that
anything they could have done as a union would've changed
that because in so many of these states, the governors,
whether it's Ohio or Indiana or Texas, the governors are
just very, very right-wing and don't want unions, period.
Nothing they could've done would've changed the governors'
and the legislatures' desire to strip the unions.
I agree. But in Democratic states and some strongly pro-
union areas, we still hear a trope about teachers not
stepping up on issues of accountability and evaluation. Do
you see some hesitation here?
I think that this is where peer review comes in, and I think
that in places where there are peer review systems, then the
union does step up.
Part of what I object to about in this whole line of
discussion, not from you but nationally, is the assumption
that somehow the problems in American education are all tied
up with teachers. The teachers are causing low performance,
and if we could just find the ideal teacher evaluation
system, we would be the highest performing nation in the
world. I think that's a false narrative that's been promoted
by a combination of Bill Gates and Arne Duncan and lots of
right- wing groups who want to say we don't need to spend
anything more on poor kids, we don't need to do a thing
about poverty, we just need to weed out those bad teachers.
I also agree that poverty and inequality are core issues
that are not being addressed, and that teachers cannot be
held accountable for these. Can you identify some of things
that are within teachers' field of control, around which
unions could help create just systems of evaluation?
Knowing your subject, being able to communicate your subject
to the students, giving assignments that students
understand, that are thought-provoking, encourage and enable
students to produce good work - and reviewing the quality
of that work so it shows that the students are really
engaged and are really learning. The metrics would not be
hard metrics like a test score, but they would be meaningful
metrics. These would be professional judgments.
We have very high-performing schools both in the US and
overseas in places where there are strong teachers' unions.
In these schools, union strength and quality of education
are going hand-in-hand. How are these examples relevant to
Everybody likes to point to Finland. Finland is a great
country, and they have a wonderful school system there. It's
100 percent union, and the principals and the teachers all
belong to the same union.
You find the same thing in the US. The highest performing
schools in the US are in union states. What are the three
highest performing states? Massachusetts, New Jersey and
Connecticut. they're all union. The lowest performing states
are either right-to-work states or nonunion states, places
with weak teachers unions.
If you look at the highest performing districts, public
schools districts in the US, they're all union - and
they're in suburbs. It's because the relevant factor is not
union or non-union but wealth and poverty.
Politicians often refer to the high pay of teachers and
imply that somehow it's not a good investment. How, in your
opinion, taxpayers should view teacher pay, and what role
should unions play in trying to influence public perception?
The national media is so anti-union and anti-teacher and
anti- public education that you will see it frequently. That
the average teacher's salary in Chicago is around $75,000 is
supposed to be a big black eye for the union. Well, that's
ridiculous. Why shouldn't a professional be paid $75,000?
The people who are complaining about this are usually paid
many multiples of $75,000. I don't see that as something the
union should be embarrassed about. They should be proud of
Part of what unions have done has been to create a middle-
class. You don't become a teacher and go through four years
of college and then get a master's degree or even higher in
order to work for poverty wages. you're supposed to be a
professional. Why shouldn't professionals be paid as
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[Amy Dean is a fellow of The Century Foundation and
principal of ABD Ventures, LLC, an organizational
development consulting firm that works to develop new and
innovative organizing strategies for social change
organizations. Dean is co-author, with David Reynolds, of A
New New Deal: How Regional Activism Will Reshape the
American Labor Movement. Dean has worked for nearly two
decades at the cross section of labor and community based
organizations linking policy and research with action and
advocacy. You can follow Amy on twitter @amybdean, or she
can be reached via http://www.amybdean.com ]