Teachers Unions and America's Public Schools
By TERRY M. MOE
BROOKINGS INSTITUTION PRESS
Copyright © 2011 THE BROOKINGS INSTITUTION
All right reserved.
Chapter One The Problem of Union Power
Janet Archer painted watercolors. Gordon Russell planned trips to Alaska and Cape Cod. Others did crossword puzzles, read books, played chess, practiced ballet moves, argued with one another, and otherwise tried to fill up the time. The place was New York City. The year was 2009. And these were public school teachers passing a typical day in one of the city's Rubber RoomsTemporary Reassignment Centerswhere teachers were housed when they were considered so unsuited to teaching that they needed to be kept out of the classroom, away from the city's children.
There were more than 700 teachers in New York City's Rubber Rooms that year. Each school day they went to "work." They arrived in the morning at exactly the same hour as other city teachers, and they left at exactly the same hour in the afternoon. They got paid a full salary. They received full benefits, as well as all the usual vacation days, and they had their summers off. Just like real teachers. Except they didn't teach.
All of this cost the city between $35 million and $65 million a year for salary and benefits alone, depending on who was doing the estimating. And the total costs were even greater, for the district hired substitutes to teach their classes, rented space for the Rubber Rooms, and forked out half a million dollars annually for security guards to keep the teachers safe (mainly from one another, as tensions ran high in these places). At a time when New York City was desperate for money to fund its schools, it was spending a fortune every year for 700-plus teachers to stare at the walls.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein wanted to move bad teachers out of the system and off the payroll. But they couldn't. While most of their teachers were doing a good job in the classroom, the problem was that all teacherseven the incompetent and the dangerouswere protected by state tenure laws, by restrictive collective bargaining contracts, and by the local teachers union, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), which was the power behind the laws and the contracts and the legal defender of each and every teacher whose job was in trouble.
With such a big defensive line, teachers who were merely mediocre could not be touched. So Bloomberg and Klein chose to remove just the more egregious cases and send them to Rubber Rooms. But even these teachers stayed on the payrollfor a long time. They didn't leave; they didn't give up; and because the legal procedures were so thickly woven and offered union lawyers so much to work with, it took from two to five years just to resolve the typical case. To put this in perspective, these proceedings went on much longer than the O. J. Simpson trialjust to decide if a single teacher could be removed from the classroom.
Sometimes it seems that public education operates in a parallel universe, in which what is obviously perverse and debilitating for the organization of schools has become normal and expected. As Bloomberg and Klein struggled to improve the city's schools, Rubber Room teachers responded with outrage at being taken out of the classroom. Paula Hawkes, for instance, was undaunted by the "unsatisfactory" ratings she received while working. She continued to earn more than $100,000 a year for doing nothing and said she was "entitled to every penny of it." What's more, she complained, "Until Bloomberg and Klein took over, there was no such thing as incompetence.... We talk about human rights in China. What about human rights right here in the Rubber Room?" This, of course, was supposed to be an indictment of Bloomberg and Klein. They were the ones in the wrong.
The UFT agreed. It strongly supported its members in the Rubber Rooms, comparing them to prisoners at Guantanamo. And it strongly defended all the protections that make it virtually impossible to fire bad teachers, including those that required keeping teachers on the payroll for years while they did nothing. As UFT president Randi Weingarten artfully explained, "All we're looking for is due process." A New York City principal, acutely aware of the bad teachers that "due process" so completely protects, saw the same situation differently. "Randi Weingarten," he said, "would protect a dead body in the classroom. That's her job." And she did it well. Every teacher in New York City had more due process than O. J. Simpson. Because of itand because of the union power that lay behind itthe city's children were being denied tens of millions of dollars every year: money that should have been spent on them, but wasn't.
In April of 2010, Michael Bloomberg reached an agreement with the UFT to close down the Rubber Rooms. Teachers unsuited to teach would henceforth be assigned to administrative work or other nonclassroom duties while their cases were pending, more arbitrators would be hired, and decisions would be made more quickly (in theory). But the teachers would still be paid full salaries and benefits, and, as the New York Times noted, "The union did not appear to sacrifice much in the deal. While the agreement speeds hearings, it does little to change the arduous process of firing teachers, particularly ineffective ones. Administrators still must spend months or even years documenting poor performance before the department can begin hearings, which will still last up to two months." Observed Dan Weisberg, former labor chief of the city schools and now with the New Teacher Project, "The problem we should be trying to solve is that there are huge barriers that still exist to terminate chronically ineffective teachers. This agreement doesn't appear to address that at all."
The purpose of the American public school system is to educate children. And because this is so, everything about the public schoolshow they are staffed, how they are funded, and more generally how they are organized to do their workshould be decided with the best interests of children in mind.
But this isn't what happens. Not even remotely. The New York City school district is not organized to provide the best possible education to its children. As things now stand, it can't be. Why? If we could view the district's entire organization, we would doubtless find many reasons. But when it comes to bad teachers alone, the district is wasting millions of dollars because the rules it is required to follow in operating the schoolsrules that are embedded in the local collective bargaining contract and state lawprevent it from quickly, easily, and inexpensively removing these teachers from the classroom. Getting bad teachers out of the classroom is essential if kids are to be educated effectively. Yet the formal rules prevent it.
These formal rules are part of the organization of New York City's schools. In fact, they are central to it. The district is literally organized to protect bad teachers and to undermine the efforts of leaders to ensure teacher quality. It is also organized to require that huge amounts of money be wasted on endless, unnecessary procedures. These undesirable outcomes do not happen by accident. They are structured into the system. They happen by design.
New York City may seem unusual. After all, it enrolls more than a million students in some 1,600 public schools, and over the years it has erected a gigantic administrative apparatus to govern it all. So its dimensions dwarf those of the typical American school district, and its organizational perversities may be extreme as well. Whether they are or not, however, the kind of problem I've been discussing here is quite common. Almost everywhere, in districts throughout the nation, America's public schools are typically not organized to provide the nation's children with the highest quality education. It is virtually impossible to get rid of bad teachers in New York City, but it's also virtually impossible in other districts too, regardless of where they are.
The public schools are hobbled by many other aspects of their organization as well. One example: salary schedules that pay teachers based on their seniority and formal credits and that have nothing whatever to do with whether their students are learning anything. Another example: rules that give senior teachers their choice of jobs and make it impossible for districts to allocate teachers where they can do the greatest good for kids. Another example: rules that require districts to lay off teachers (in times of reduced revenues or enrollments, say) in reverse order of seniority, thus ensuring that excellent teachers will be automatically fired if they happen to have little seniority and that lousy teachers will be automatically retained if they happen to have lots of seniority.
These sorts of rules are not unusual. They are common. But who in their right mind, if they were organizing the schools for the benefit of children, would organize them in this way? No one would. Yet the schools do get organized in this way. Indeed, the examples I've given are the tip of a very large and perverse iceberg.
As a result, even the most obvious steps toward better education are difficult, if not impossible, to take. Researchers have long known, for example, that when a student is fortunate enough to have a teacher near the high end of the quality distribution rather than a teacher near the low end, the impact amounts to an entire year's worth of additional learning. Teacher quality makes an enormous difference. Indeed, even if the quality variation across teachers is less stark, the consequences for kids can still be profound. As researchers Eric Hanushek and Steven Rivkin report, if students had good teachers rather than merely average teachers for four or five years in a row, "the increased learning would be sufficient to close entirely the average gap between a typical low-income student receiving a free or reduced-price lunch and the average student who is not receiving free or reduced-price lunches." In other words, it would eliminate the achievement gap that this nation has struggled to overcome for decades.
Boosting teacher quality would also have much broader effects on students generally, and on the whole of American society. As Hanushek notes, summarizing the research, "The typical teacher is both hard working and effective. But if we could replace the bottom 510 percent of teachers with an average teacher not a superstarwe could dramatically improve student achievement. The U.S. could move from below average in international comparisons to near the top." These educational effects, in turn, would generate "astounding improvements in the well being of U.S. citizens. The present value of future increments to GDP in the U.S. would amount to $102 trillion."
These findings are not so surprising. Good teachers matter, and they matter a lot. Yet despite the enormous benefits associated with teacher quality, our school system is organized to make it virtually impossible to get bad teachers out of the classroom, bases key personnel decisions on seniority rather than expertise, and in countless other ways erects obstacles to providing children with the best possible teachers.
So why does it happen? Why are the public schools burdened by ineffective organization? This is a question of profound significance, and the nation desperately needs an answer. The broad consensus among our policymakersDemocrat and Republican, liberal and conservative, from all corners of the country is that the public schools are not delivering the goods and that something should be done about it. This consensus began to emerge in the wake of perhaps the most famous educational report ever issued, A Nation at Risk, which warned in 1983 of a "rising tide of mediocrity" in America's public schools and led to a frenzied period of nonstop reforms that, it was hoped, would bring dramatic improvement. As I finish this book, however, the era of education reform continues unabated: the dramatic improvement hasn't happened, and bold reforms are still needed to turn the schools around. The most intensive period of school reform in the nation's history has largely been a failure.
We now have two questions to ponder. To the first, which asks why the public schools are burdened by ineffective organization, we can add a second: why has the reform movement, which for a quarter century has been dedicated to bringing effective organization to the nation's schools, failed to do that? The answer to both questions, I will argue, is much the same: these problems are largely due to the power of the teachers unions. That is what this book is about.
Before I fill in the blanks, a few observations are in order about what I'm trying to do here. And what I'm not trying to do. Countless forces somehow affect the way schools are organized, as well as the politics of their reform; and any attempt to provide a complete account of these forcesto identify all the myriad, interrelated factors that might possibly have some causal influencewould inevitably conclude with something like "it's complicated." But this isn't very enlightening, and it doesn't really help us understand what's happening. In my view, as a social scientist, the way to understand the organization and reform of schoolingand most aspects of the social and political world, for that matteris to focus on those aspects of the situation that appear to be especially important. The task is not to capture everything of any relevance. It is to get to the heart of the matter.
That is my approach here. I'm writing this book because I think that, to understand why the schools are not organized effectively and why reformers have been unable to do much about it, we need to pay close attention to the teachers unions, whose profound effects on both the organization of schooling and the politics of reform have a lot to do with why the nation is having such a difficult time with its public schools. I am not sayingand do not thinkthat the teachers unions are solely responsible for the nation's education problems. I am saying that the teachers unions are at the heart of these problems and, therefore, that the unions themselves and the various roles they play in collective bargaining and politics need to be much better studied and understood.
This book is an attempt to do that. It pulls together a great deal of information on the teachers unionson their historical rise to power, the organizational foundations of that power, the ways they have exercised it in collective bargaining and politics, and what the consequences appear to be for American education. It also attempts to make sense of it all by offering a simple, coherent way of thinking about all thisan approach that, although as basic as they come, helps to explain why the organization and reform of schooling have both become such serious problems in this country, and what can (and cannot) be done to bring about real improvement.
Union Power and America's Schools
On the surface, it might seem that the teachers unions would play a limited role in public education: fighting for better pay and working conditions for their members, but otherwise having little impact on the structure and performance of the public schools more generally. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. The teachers unions have more influence on the public schools than any other group in American society.
Their influence takes two forms. They shape the schools from the bottom up, through collective bargaining activities so broad in scope that virtually every aspect of school organization bears the distinctive imprint of union design. They also shape the schools from the top down, through political activities that give them unrivaled influence over the laws and regulations imposed on public education by government, and that allow them to block or weaken governmental reforms they find threatening. In combining bottom-up and top-down influence, and in combining them as potently as they do, the teachers unions are unique among all actors in the educational arena. It is difficult to overstate how extensive a role they play in making America's schools what they areand in preventing them from being something different.
Excerpted from Special Interest by TERRY M. MOE Copyright © 2011 by THE BROOKINGS INSTITUTION. Excerpted by permission of BROOKINGS INSTITUTION PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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