What’s the Difference Between Teachers and Unions?

Matthew Di Carlo of Shanker Blog talks about a quote from the "Waiting for Superman documentary" in whichj Newsweek reporter Jonathan Alter declares that teachers are a ‘national treasure' whereas their unions are the reform-blocking menace.

Di Carlo seeks to rise above the usual partisan division on the issue of teachers unions and education reforms by acknowledging that both sides tend to play the rhetoric card — and can be guilty of cheap tactics and obfuscating accusations. He concedes that the majority of teachers agree with their union's stance on issues:

So, you can "love teachers and disagree with their unions," but don't kid yourself – in the majority of cases, disagreeing with unions' education policy positions represents disagreeing with most teachers. In other words, opposing unions certainly doesn't mean you're "bashing" teachers, but it does, on average, mean you hold different views than they do.

The problem comes when the debate on the issues can't take place at all because any criticism of current union policy is considered an ‘attack on teachers'.

The reason why so many locals tend to oppose things like bonuses based on test scores, and support measures such as class size reduction, is because their members tend to oppose and support them. If you disagree with these stances, you can – and should – speak out. And if you think that teachers shouldn't have a right to collective bargaining, you are of course entitled to that opinion as well. These are policy disagreements, not "teacher bashing."

Mike Antonucci applauds Di Carlo for trying to get the debate back on track with sensible analysis. Di Carlo is right that politics gets in the way of a serious policy debate; however, Antonucci does have an important note on Di Carlo's statement that union members tend to hold the same opinions that the union espouses:

He is right on that count. There is little to no evidence that the majority of teachers hold any significant education views in opposition to their own union, but there can be large differences between the rank-and-file's priorities and those of the union, especially as you move up the union's chain of command.

So even if we accept, as we should, that union leaders aren't espousing views contradictory to the general beliefs of their membership, this once again leaves us with a significant demarcation between teacher and union.

Antonucci goes into this difference in more depth in The NEA Pyramid and notes that the border between teacher's priorities and opinions, and those of their union reps, is fluid depending upon the teacher and level of union rep concerned.

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