Despite good intentions, efforts to reform teachers unions and make them partners in education reform will not work.

Last week, the typically sane and sage Andrew Rotherham wrote a provocative article for Time Magazine entitled “Quiet Riot: Insurgents Take On Teachers Unions.” The main thrust of the piece is this:

“But perhaps the biggest strategic pressure for reform is starting to come from teachers themselves, many of whom are trying to change their unions and, by extension, their profession. These renegade groups, composed generally of younger teachers, are trying to accomplish what a generation of education reformers, activists and think tanks have not: forcing the unions to genuinely mend their ways.”

He spotlights three organizations he claims are leading a movement to reform teachers unions and make them partners in an attempt to improve the quality of public education — NewTLA, a dissident faction in the United Teachers of Los Angeles, Educators for Excellence, a reform group in New York started by two young Teach For America graduates, and Teach Plus, an organization that has gained traction in several states, whose goal is to “engage early career teachers in rebuilding their profession to better meet the needs of students and the incoming generation of teachers.”

In addition, Steven Brill (whose new book Class Warfare has received much acclaim) wrote “Super Teachers Alone Can’t Save Our Schools,” a provocative article in the Wall Street Journal this past Saturday. As the article’s title implies, teachers need help. But from whom? After describing the burnout of a young assistant principal at a charter school in Harlem, he says,

“The lesson that I draw from Ms. Reid’s dropping out of the race at the Harlem Success school is that the teachers’ unions have to be enlisted in the fight for reform.”

If only Rotherham and Brill were being realistic in their reform-the-union proposal.

Long time teacher union watchdog, Mike Antonucci, addresses the writers’ flawed prescriptions in “Let’s All See the Plan.” While praising NewTLA’s efforts, he says,

“The teacher union reform field is littered with the bodies of those who sought to alter the union’s primary mission – protecting teachers – and found themselves ousted in favor of challengers who promised to get tough with administrators.”

A day after Antonucci’s post, Terry Moe, another veteran teacher union critic, posted “Will Young People Reform Teachers Unions? Dream On.”

“There are well over 3 million active teachers in this country, and the groups Rotherham points to are a drop in the bucket. In unions all across the country, young teachers barely participate in union affairs–which are entirely dominated by their senior colleagues. In any event, if we look at young union members as a whole–not just those from TFA or insurgent groups, but all of them–the evidence suggests that their attitudes on basic issues are very similar to those of senior unionized teachers: they are highly satisfied with their union locals, they are highly supportive of collective bargaining, they believe that collective bargaining has benign effects for kids and schools, and they have similar positions on most matters of education policy….

“The argument that young teachers are going to transform the unions is just as fanciful, and just as wrong…. Unions are unions. They are in the business of protecting jobs: that is why their members join, that is what their members expect them to do, and that is what they actually do. If you expect them to do something else–to represent children or to represent the public interest–you will be wrong. Don’t expect a cat to bark.”

Over time, teachers tend to get very comfortable with all the perks that unions provide, even though they’re bad for kids – collective bargaining, seniority, tenure, a job that is virtually guaranteed for life, etc. (In Special Interest, Moe’s excellent new book about teachers unions, Chapter 3 and Appendix C deal with young teachers.)

Coincidentally, scholarly journal Education Next has just released its fifth annual survey in which teachers and the general public are interviewed about a variety of reform topics including the unions.

When the public was asked if teachers unions have a generally positive or negative effect on the nation’s public schools, 33 percent said “negative,” while 29 percent said “positive” and 38 percent were neutral – numbers almost identical to the 2009 and 2010 polls.

However, it’s a different story with teachers,

“Among teachers themselves, opinion is moving in precisely the opposite direction from that of the public at large. Only 17 percent now say that unions have a negative impact on the nation’s schools, down from 25 percent in 2010. Fifty-eight percent think they have a positive impact, up from 51 percent the previous year.”

As we see from these statistics, over the past year, teachers are becoming more in sync with their unions. Only one in six teachers thinks that the unions in their present state are harmful to education.

Assuming these numbers are accurate, the union reform crowd, no matter how noble their intentions and dogged their efforts, has little chance to accomplish much, if anything, meaningful. The traditional unionistas may give a bit here and there to seem fair-minded, but with a great majority of their members on board, their mission and game plan will remain essentially unchanged.

If meaningful change is going to happen, it will come from the citizenry via the ballot box. Within the past year, a shift in voting patterns has enabled reform-minded governors and legislatures to greatly restrict collective bargaining, increase school choice opportunities, modify tenure rules, etc. in Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio and elsewhere. One can only wonder what could be accomplished if a majority of the voting public would realize the pernicious effect that teachers unions have on education and act accordingly.

But in any event, change will not come by reforming the teachers unions. As Little Red Riding Hood learned, a wolf in granny’s clothing is still a wolf.

About the author: Larry Sand is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.

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