An Ode to Anti-Union YouTube Videos

Is it silly to respond to an anti-union YouTube video that was probably released by right-wing, Tea Party-backed morons? Yes, it probably is. Nonetheless, I will waste my time in an effort to correct some of the wrongs involved in this video.

1. Protecting Bad Teachers – The first argument anti-union supporters make is that unions protect bad teachers. Meaning, once a teacher is tenured, it becomes very difficult to fire that individual. In some cases, this is true. New York City’s “Rubber Room” is often cited a prime example of this egregious protection. However, what many people don’t know is that the reason teachers were placed in the rubber room in the first place was because they were awaiting NYC Department of Education hearings. The fact that it sometimes takes three years for the accused teacher to get a hearing is not primarily the fault of the unions, but also of a bureaucratic government system taking its time in completing its work. Additionally, unions have worked actively with NYC government officials and Mayor Bloomberg to shut down the rubber rooms and fix the broken “punishment system.” The union understands that some of these protective measures have gone too far and need to be revised, and many union leaders are in on the ground floor of making these improvements so that teachers deemed “poor” are not earning taxpayer money for doing a bad job.

Even though we’re wont to look only at the negative, we should also look at the other side. Unions protect GOOD employees, too, and they also protect their members from unfair firings. Unions are important in this way because the grounds for firing a teacher due to job performance are often vague and tenuous. It is difficult to prove that the teacher, in and of him/herself, is the reason for students’ or schools’ poor academic performance. Therefore, unless the teacher does something completely egregious or unethical in a classroom, it’s hard to just fire someone over performance, unlike in other fields where performance can be evaluated more directly (i.e. how many clients you bring in, how much money you made for your company, how many cases you won/lost).

Additionally, teaching is a field dominated by women, who, more often than men, face challenges to their rights as workers (see the most recent case against WalMart). Tenure itself was, in part, instituted to protect women from being fired when they got pregnant. Therefore, the union is essential to protecting the rights of its workers from unlawful and discriminatory firings.

2. The Teacher Evaluation System – Another argument often made against teachers’ unions is that they oppose performance evaluations and close inspection of teachers’ work. While it is sometimes true (depending on the state) that once a teacher earns tenure, evaluations become more infrequent and, in some cases, disappear entirely, often the frequency and rigor of evaluation methods lie more in the hands of the state and education administrators (many of whom are not teachers) than with teachers or unions. For example, in Colorado, the state legislature determines evaluation criteria, and then teachers and union members add to the evaluation procedures in their collective bargaining meetings. Therefore, evaluation criteria are set first by non-teachers, people who have no experience or knowledge of what goes on in a classroom. This often accounts for the evaluation system being vague or flawed altogether, which winds up affecting the validity of the feedback given to instructors. How can a teacher improve if he/she is not being given adequate and substantial feedback from experts (as opposed to legislators or administrators)?

According to The National Council on Teacher Quality, a nonpartisan research and advocacy group, “only 15 states require yearly evaluations and only 30 require principals to observe teachers in the classroom. Until the past few months, only 16 states even took into account whether students were actually learning.”  Here again, we can see that it is the legislature that often affects the evaluation process, or lack thereof, more than unions or teachers themselves. We’re also seeing that the evaluations seem to focus more on the instructor than on student learning when both should be evaluated.

Additionally, proper teacher evaluations, especially for novice teachers, should happen multiple times per year and include both observations and one-on-one meetings with principals after these observations. However, many administrators are saying that they do not have the time or budget to do these observations or follow-up meetings with their instructors. Therefore, many teachers, who may be longing for guidance in their careers, are not getting the mentoring, support, and feedback required to improve their skills.

Many beginning teachers not only complain that these evaluations are typically vague and unhelpful, but that administrators allow their personal feelings to affect the evaluation itself. For example, in Colorado, it was found that many administrators were doing this very thing: “In a survey of more than 100 DPS [Denver Public School] principals and assistant principals, 17 percent admitted they had given a lower rating to a teacher than was warranted. The top reason for doing so was ‘interpersonal interactions with the teacher.’”

Maybe the tenure process and the unions’ roles in that process need some adjustment, but truly what really needs fixing is the amount of attention and feedback given to those teachers who are just beginning their teaching careers. It is at this time when schools need to either give failing teachers more support or fire them altogether. Once a teacher has been in the system for three or more years, it becomes increasingly harder to retrain teachers or fire teachers, so why not do a more thorough evaluation procedure in the first few years? Again, based in our current system, the responsibility to change the evaluation process would fall more to the legislature than the unions or teachers themselves since the state makes the laws about teacher certification, licensure, and evaluations.

Many people argue that other professions, such as doctors and lawyers, are under intense scrutiny in terms of proving successful job performance and are often more likely than teachers to be fired for poor job performance. While this may be true, a false comparison is being made.

When doctors and lawyers are being evaluated, it is easier to evaluate them on THEIR work isolated from outside factors. For example, if a doctor botches a surgery, it is obvious that she and possibly her staff are personally liable. If, however, if a patient dies because he drank a bottle of whiskey with a doctor-prescribed medication that clearly states “no drinking of alcoholic beverages,” then it is clear that is the patient’s, not the doctor’s fault, for this calamity. This can be measured because we can look specifically at records, prescriptions, treatments, and even autopsies to see what is going on with patients.

For teachers, so much of what is determined as “success” is outside of their control entirely. Performance on standardized tests, level of rigor in curriculum, time spent on homework and education outside of the classroom, students’ health and economic situations, learning disabilities, level of parental involvement, district budgets, etc. are all factors in determining how students are performing in school. So, to say that a teacher is a bad teacher because of how her class performs on a standardized test doesn’t really paint a full picture. While not all cases are so cut and dry, it is easier to look more directly at a doctor’s practices than it is to look at teaching practices.

Additionally, doctors and lawyers may lose their licenses if they commit an unethical act. Same with teachers. However, if a lawyer or doctor is just a bad lawyer or doctor (meaning, they lose a lot of cases or they don’t have great bedside manner), they won’t lose their license. They might get fired, but they will not be banned from the entire system. Same with teachers. If a teacher is a bad teacher, she may have to find work at another school, but she’s not banned from being a teacher because, just like in ANY profession, there are people who are good at their jobs and people who are bad at their jobs.

And, similar to doctors and lawyers, teachers also have to continue their education. They must earn professional development credits just like doctors and lawyers do. So, in terms of continuing education, teachers, doctors and lawyers are held to similar standards. As shown, these “professional” fields have many commonalities.

Except pay…

3.  Salary and Benefits – Another argument waged against teachers and unions is that they are always demanding more money and free benefits. The average salary for an American high school teacher is $43,557, not including benefits.  The average doctor’s salary is   $140, 978, and the average lawyer’s salary is $108, 800 at the highest end and $49,000 at the lowest end.

Now, it can be argued doctors’ and lawyers’ salaries are higher because of the hours they put in and the high-pressure nature of the jobs in general. This is true. Teachers also put in long hours and face pressure in their field as well.

Additionally, some might argue that salaries are higher for jobs that  require the most talent. This has been argued not only for doctors’ and lawyers’ salaries, but also for stockbrokers, mortgage brokers, and bankers. For example, according to an article in the New York Times, “In a letter to Mr. Geithner, Edward M. Liddy, the government-appointed chairman of A.I.G., said at least some bonuses were needed to keep the most skilled executives. ‘We cannot attract and retain the best and the brightest talent to lead and staff the A.I.G. businesses — which are now being operated principally on behalf of American taxpayers — if employees believe their compensation is subject to continued and arbitrary adjustment by the U.S. Treasury,’ he wrote Mr. Geithner on Saturday.” And, we all now know that many of these bankers and brokers are being paid large sums of money even when their “talent” is ripping off the American people.

So, if salaries and large bonuses are tied to attracting the best of the best in the field and retaining those best people for years to avoid costly turnovers, then the teaching profession should be treated no differently. If we pay doctors, lawyers, bankers, and brokers more money because we want to give incentives for good work, then shouldn’t the same logic be applied to teachers? Don’t you want the best of the best educating your children?

4. Summer Vacation – Yet another issue always being thrown in the faces of teachers and unions is that while they’re bitching about salaries and benefits, they’re also getting paid summer vacations. Now, I, personally, am a proponent of year round education with smaller, shorter breaks occurring throughout the school year. The amount of knowledge that a student loses over the summer vacation is criminal. However, again, this rule is not up to the unions but, instead is up to the school boards. These boards are often are stacked with individuals who are not teachers. More problematic is that states don’t want to shell out the money it would cost to keep schools in session all year-long, so regardless if teachers or unions WANTED to work in the summer, the states wouldn’t want to pay for it anyway. Additionally, the legislators don’t want to piss off their constituents. When polled, 71% of American adults (both parents and non-parents) stood firmly against year round education. So, once again, it is not necessarily just the teachers and unions who advocate the summer vacation, but more so the American public and legislatures.

On the subject of vacation time, America, in general, should be ashamed of itself for being one of the lowest-ranked Western nations in terms of time off for its workers. The average American worker gets 14 paid vacation days. Workers in all of the European countries earn more vacation days than Americans, averaging between 26-31 days off per year.

However, that said, there are many professions within the American workforce, other than teachers, that have flexible schedules, livable salaries, and decent vacation time, such as software engineers, HR managers, and real estate agents . However, no career is criticized for its schedule more than teaching.

5. Contribution to the Community – Many argue that the unions themselves are bullies and do not directly contribute to the communities that they purport to protect, meaning schools and students. However, there is research to support that the lowest achieving students in the US are students from “right to work” (non-union) states. According to state-by-state breakdowns on collective bargaining policies conducted by  National Center for Education Statistics and Education Week — such as whether the state has a “right to work” law or allows strikes – strong union states like Maryland, Massachusetts and New York were among the highest ranked. Additionally, a study published in 2000 in the Harvard Educational Review showed that “Comparison of standardized test scores and degree of teacher unionization in states found a statistically significant and positive relationship between the presence of teacher unions and stronger state performance on tests. Taking into account the percentage of students taking the tests, states with greater percentages of teachers in unions reported higher test performance.”

According to Education Next, the Harvard report suggests that “unions are responsible for securing better pay and working conditions, which in turn attract better teachers. Unions also often press for smaller classes and lighter teaching loads, allowing teachers to teach more effectively. Unions also tend to raise the standards for teacher licensing, which ensures that only qualified candidates enter the profession. ‘Taken together,” the authors write, ‘these possible benefits of unions may enhance not only the status of teachers but also the educational climate to which students are exposed.’” Not to say that the study is definitive by any means, but it is a strong case against the idea that unions actually HINDER academic success.

Whew! That was a long response. I just hope that the people who make and watch these YouTube videos and who support the outrageous claims of Tea Party activists, Republicans, and anti-union loyalists have a little bit more knowledge to round out their limited points of view.

About moniacal @ X Rated

On a lifelong journey to be a person in a place...
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3 Responses to An Ode to Anti-Union YouTube Videos

  1. Marc Schuster says:

    With respect to vacations, I’d also add that most teachers I know spend a decent portion of their vacation time developing new approaches to teaching, rethinking and revising their curricula, and attending courses and workshops so that they can become better at what they do.

  2. Ben D'Antonio says:

    Teacher – just the sound of the word is comforting and inspiring. I said it 40 years ago and I say it today – it’s the noblest profession we have.

  3. S Tolbert says:

    1. There are significantly more bad teachers than are caught in the net of places like the “Rubber Room”. The more important issue is how to get rid of the “over the hill” teacher who absolutely sucks in the classroom but hasn’t done anything criminally or ethically wrong. I get it, the method of evaluating instruction is the moving target and we inevitably get into debates about how to determine whether or not a teacher can teach (asserting that someone is a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ teacher is baseless without a standard which is what unions fight establishing). That’s for customers (parents/taxpayers) to determine without interference by an ombudsman that has every incentive to take care of their charge, which IS NOT the customer. You don’t have to like the method of evaluation, but to assert that an intermediary has an entrenched role to play in determining whether or not an employee should be retained in a democratic model is to create a legal protection that places the worker in front of the voter. Additionally, last in/first out firing is an example of unions systematically getting rid of teachers without regard for competence. We already have anti-discrimination laws that protect women from being laid off as a result of being pregnant (so men really have no reason to receive tenure then, I guess). Also, that is a totally inaccurate comparison between public and private sector workers. There is no historic track record of systematic rights abuse of public workers; even the founders of private unions acknowledge that.

    2. Teachers work for the taxpayers who are represented by legislators. You are telling me that you don’t like the fact that teachers are evaluated by standards imposed by those who you don’t consider to be an “expert” and you are also telling me that you don’t like the lack of frequency of evaluating. You are then telling me how you think teachers should be evaluated. No need to make this into a multivariate equation. Easy fix, let parents decide where to send their kids. In medicine and law, you can shop around, ask questions, and if the CUSTOMER doesn’t like what they hear, they can select another option without paying a fixed cost for the first option. And the process of selecting a doctor or lawyer provides the patient/client with an opportunity to acquire knowledge which, in turn, may stimulate more involvement. Trying to fashion a system that is not centered on the consumer making the decisions and resources flowing accordingly is, without meaning to offend, a fool’s errand.

    3. Given a fixed demand, wages are a function of the supply of labor and you’d have to deflate by local cost of living and the individual situations at play in various communities. Some districts are obviously better than others and some compensation schemes are also probably better than others. That’s for voters to determine. But frankly, ignoring benefit schemes and implied value in things like tenure and job security makes this totally zany. If you have a defined benefit retirement, for instance, it is fairly easy to demonstrate that plenty of workers will trade for much lower salaries and that, at the margins, those who are relatively more risk averse tend to be the ones who are drawn to those types of jobs meaning that the value of a $44K/year job with good benefits is significantly greater than the dollar value for that worker-type. Additionally, you have to calculate pay relative to the explicit and implicit cost of education necessary to acquire said job. A doctor starts earning about 8-12 years in, she gave up at least 4-8 years of earning that a fourth grade teacher did not. And the doctor’s cost of education means that net take home is not represented in the aggregate statistic cited. If you gave up 4 years of earning $50K and have $200K in student loans, you are $400K in the hole from the word ‘go’. That person is probably NOT risk averse. And that person has to earn a considerable sum in order for the education investment to pay off. The argument that you have to pay more in order to attract talent is internally inconsistent unless you are arguing that teachers are currently being paid well (I generally hear unions saying that teachers should be paid much more than they are today). If you are arguing that we have to pay teachers more than we are today if you want to attract good teachers, then that means that we have a lot of bad teachers around right now b/c they are the only ones attracted by current salary offers. But talking about this relative to the bailout culture isn’t a rigorous defense of unions (straw man argument, if you are taking on the Tea Party they oppose the bailouts); two wrongs don’t make a right.

    4. Summer vacation stuff is interesting. I have no issue with vacation, to include time off in the summer. Kids should probably acquire some rounding experiences in the summer like getting a job, performing community service, or just playing outside. You could break it up a little and have more frequent breaks throughout the school year. Whatever. I DO have an issue with comparing vacation time to Europe. I don’t really care what they do in Europe and frankly, they are getting railed for their labor policies and you’ll see how that plays out. A teacher isn’t a software engineer or HR manager and, as private interests, I don’t care what they do.

    5. The HER article is actually a variant of the “Wisconsin is great and Texas sucks b/c of unions” argument, which is inaccurate on very basic empirical break outs (states are not homogeneous with respect to demography): http://iowahawk.typepad.com/iowahawk/2011/03/longhorns-17-badgers-1.html

    The video was funny…

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