Teachers Unions: Friend Or Foe?

“Union power… imposes ineffective organization on the schools through collective bargaining, organizations that nobody would design if they had a free hand and really cared about kids, and… [it] blocks real reform.” – Terry Moe

AEI held an event last week with Terry Moe, Stanford professor and Hoover Institution fellow, to discuss his new book about the impact of teachers unions on education.

The crux of Moe’s argument is that teachers unions are, by their very definition, advocates for the job interests of teachers. While individual teachers and union leaders may care passionately about providing students with an excellent education, when acting as union members, this concern is secondary to their primary goal of improving teachers’ work conditions.

Thus teachers unions, one of the most powerful forces shaping our education system, do not always take positions that lead to the best educational outcomes for students. Tenure and seniority-based preferences, for example, reduce the ability of principals to hold teachers responsible for poor performance and to maintain the best possible workforce.

Why do the unions have so much power? As Moe explains, collective bargaining in the public sector is very different than in the private sector. The representatives of management sitting across the table are elected, and teachers unions hold enormous sway over these elections. As Manhattan Institute Fellow Marcus A. Winters writes in a review of the book, the unions are essentially electing their negotiating partners”.

Moe outlines some important structural issues that shape union influence on education policy, but I think he goes too far in concluding that organized teacher involvement in the process is inherently negative. Heather Harding of Teacher for America was on the panel (her talk starts around the 49 minute mark) and she gives teachers much more credit as a potential force for reform, given the right channels.

Harding insightfully articulates the dilemma facing teachers: their dual concerns as workers looking out for their own interests and as professionals seeking to provide the best education possible. In framing the problem around, “the conflicted nature of teacher voice and teacher advocacy,” Harding suggests we need more avenues for teachers to exert their collective influence as professional educators, rather than just as workers.

This idea has been around for at least a decade, since the “new unionism” concept was promoted by the president of the NEA, one of the largest teachers unions in the country. But I think it bears much more exploration before we give up on encouraging teacher involvement in education policy, even when it takes the form of unions.

“Special Interest? Teachers Unions and American Education” (video)
AEI // Panel // June 8, 2011

Special Interest: Teachers Unions and America’s Public Schools (book)
Terry Moe // Brookings Institution Press // 2011

You can find another review of the event by Frederick M. Hess, the moderator, here.

(Image Credit: Flickr user bonnie-brown under a Creative Commons license)