During the last few years, memberships in teachers’ unions have been declining. The Heartlander’s Ben Gerow recently reported the following about the decreasing membership:
• National Education Association (NEA) membership declined by 87,000 in 2011, a 3% decrease overall with about $11 million in lost revenues.
• Forty state affiliates have seen similar declines in membership.
• The curtailment of collective bargaining rights in some states has rendered unions less able to assist members; therefore, lessening the incentives for teachers to join.
• Questions about benefits of membership vs. cost have increasingly arisen, with the influence of some non-political, non-union teachers organizations gaining in popularity because they can provide similar benefits at a lower cost.
• Local and regional unions are preferred over national organizations that seem out of touch with local concerns and constituents.
• Employment attrition because of budget cuts [and dissatisfaction with the profession] is reflected in the lower membership numbers.
• Younger instructors tend to believe that unions only protect older, less competent faculty [therefore, lessening their own job opportunities]. (26 May, 2012)
Placed within the larger context of the current difficult economic situation and the war on education, the leaders of both union and non-union teachers organizations as well as faculty everywhere must regroup and refocus their efforts to support and strengthen our professional associations. These associations historically have had a positive influence on education and our society, but they can only continue to do so with our support. On the flip side, consider what may be lost if we do not support our union and non-union teachers’ organizations.
Here are three main reasons why both educators and non- educators must support teachers’ unions and other professional organizations if lasting education reform is to be achieved.
Providing a Voice
The calls for education reform in the United States are rampant and relentless. As Forbes contributor Erik Kain argued at the beginning of the last academic year, this faculty voice is the only hope of true education progress in the United States (“Why I Support the Teachers Unions,” 28 September, 2011).
Kain quite rightly points out that many people blame the teachers unions for resisting education reform in the U.S.; however, this is exactly why we need to support the unions. It’s not that they are always correct or perfect. Rather, the teachers unions formed by educators on the frontlines of learning (e.g., the NEA since 1857 and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) since 1916) have “had their hands deep in the dirt for much of the history of public education.” Whose voice should be a part of the reform discussion if not the educators themselves?
Furthermore, Kain states: “There are not many advocates for our public education system or for the welfare of children who have the organizational structure and commitment that America’s teachers have.” As I and others have written, educators tend to be individuals who are altruistically motivated to make a positive difference in the lives of others rather than a fast buck via a new for-profit education venture (see “When Education Is Under Attack, Why Become a Teacher?” 29 June, 2012).
As Kain explains, teachers are in this for the long haul; no other group—not political forces, for-profit institutions, charitable organizations, or even parents—have the depth of experience nor the seemingly eternal dedication to education that our teachers have. No other association can provide the existing structure or long-term stability for educational progress as teachers organizations can.
Therefore, we must support teachers unions and non-union organizations so that these experts may have a voice in the education of our nation.
Another criticism of teachers unions is that they allegedly protect incompetent, older faculty, even those who may be criminals. As Kain says, all large organizations have the occasional violators who should, of course, be dealt with appropriately. However, teachers organizations provide an exponentially larger “bastion” of protection within education and our society as a whole. As Kain states, these associations help protect us from:
• A total loss of workers’ rights and benefits in the U.S. because teachers “remain one of the best organized workforces in the country.”
• Education reform marked by “technocratic, anti-democratic leadership at the top, coupled with private contractors, high-stakes testing companies, and union-busting advocacy groups working from the ground up.”
• Reform movements “defined by a very specific, narrow set of ideas: choice and testing and tinkering with teacher compensation and benefits [with] very little attention [paid] to curriculum, infrastructure, or equitable school funding.”
• The false premise that education reform can succeed without teachers (e.g., replaced by technology).
• “An even lower-paid teaching force, with fewer benefits and less job security,” that would most likely spread to the workforce in general.
• The likely loss of our democratic approach to our educational system. (See also my post, “Education: Helper of the Disenfranchised,” 14 February, 2012).
Although they are not perfect, teachers unions and other organizations offer a lot of protection to education, its constituents, and society in general.
Engaging in Professional Development
Finally, if education reform is truly a priority in the U.S., teachers must have venues to get together to share ideas and best practices. The interaction of teaching and learning is a process, not an industrial product. Education involves people rather than parts. Teachers unions and other organizations play a vital role in providing opportunities for collegiality and professional development.
Teachers for a New Unionism, for instance, seeks to train K12 teachers to “take an active role in their unions and promote policies that work for students” (2011). The overall goal is to engage teachers in becoming part of the voice and the protection that unions provide for education. At the postsecondary level, the New Faculty Majority lists professional development as one of its seven goals for the much neglected and greatly utilized contingent faculty at our colleges and universities.
As a founding member and the first president of a faculty assembly within a large community college system, I can attest to the fact that one of our primary goals was to take professional development out of the hands of non-educators and place it firmly into the hands of instructors and other educators who know best how to share research and best practices as well as how to mentor and support the growth of future leaders within our profession.
If Americans truly want the best and the brightest teachers in our classrooms, we must support teachers unions and other professional organizations. They are the best option we have for the true voice, protection, and professional development needed for lasting education reform.
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