Teacher Unions

Commentary by Glenn Detrick –

I have two cartoons on my refrigerator. Cartoons often seem to hit the nail directly on the head in a way which leads one to say, “Ouch! That certainly is true!” The first cartoon is a B.C. which shows a little school house classroom with a student saying, “Wake up, teech!” In the second frame the student continues, “I don’t believe you fell asleep!” In the third frame the teacher responds, “It’s okay. I’ve got tenure.” The second cartoon is a one frame Mallard Fillmore: “So… under this restaurant’s ‘mandatory gratuity’ policy, the best servers and the worst servers all get the same 20% tip?” The respondent indicates, “Absolutely. I think they got the idea from the teachers’ union.”

Unfortunately, there seems to be more truth to these vignettes than we would like to believe. In any and all multinational comparisons of knowledge acquisition and academic performance, American students rate anywhere from ‘average’ to ‘poor’ next to their international peers. But rather than being at the forefront of educational reform the teachers’ union has always seemed significantly more interested in “protecting teacher rights” than in improving classroom performance.

In my own suburban school district there are a number of outstanding teachers who engage and educate students to a very high level. They are dedicated, hard working, conscientious people who make a valued contribution to the educational process and to their students. They are certainly underpaid for the value that they create. But might it be possible, as in the rest of our society where strong performance is differentially rewarded, to provide these outstanding teachers with incremental funds for personal or professional development or – heavens! – a higher salary? The unfortunate answer is “no”; not as long as the teachers’ union has anything to say about it.

The position of the teachers’ union is that everyone – regardless of contribution – must be treated the same. As it now stands, teacher’s salary is based on the amount of education the teacher has completed plus their years of service, with no room for any consideration of the quality or outcome of the teaching effort. As such a policy makes no sense in the restaurant service cartoon (or anywhere else in American society), it makes even less sense in our schools.

Let me suggest that the teacher’s union consider an alternate model. How about if the goal for the union become to represent their constituency so that all teachers are treated “fairly”, rather than “the same”? Treating everyone “the same” is, inherently, unfair – because not everyone makes the same level of contribution. “Oh”, the union people say, “you can’t do that! If you did, then judgments would have to be made – and that wouldn’t (might not) be fair.” Am I missing something here? Hasn’t the engine that drives our society and economy – business – figured out how to reward people differentially based on performance evaluation? In mandating that educational administrators treat all of their members “the same”, via a salary schedule only based on level of education and years of service, the teachers’ union does a tremendous disservice to their higher performing constituents. And we all suffer, because many of the outstanding people who enter the teaching profession leave for positions in other fields that are willing to recognize the contribution they are making.

Glenn Detrick 7/17/06