The Plight of Teacher’s Unions

The Plight of Teacher’s Unions

From the article:

Industrial societies focus on common processes, epitomized by the assembly line. Our schools—products of the industrial age—rely on such processes: Schools enroll children at age 5, sort them into classes, teach them specified subjects for uniform lengths of time determined by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in 1906, and require attendance 180 days annually for 13 years. The focus is on teaching.

In contrast, information economies focus on common outcomes. Process is variable. With regard to schools, the emphasis is on learning; the question is whether students have mastered knowledge and skills, regardless of where, when, or how.

In the industrial-era school, the currency of education is time—how long students are taught. The assumption is that all students can learn the same things in the same period of time. In the information-era school, the currency is student achievement, and time is variable.

Herein lies the cause of current conflicts with teachers’ unions. They, like schools, are products of the industrial era. They embrace the focus on teaching and advocate time-based rewards to teachers. Salary increases and pensions are based on longevity. Tenure is granted most commonly after three years. Pensions balloon for teachers who spend full careers teaching. Teachers with greater seniority can take the jobs of teachers with less seniority. The last hired teacher must be the first fired in a retrenchment. Given previous expectations for schools and teachers, these were logical practices, and unions have continued to support them.

“Increasingly, policymakers and unions have fundamentally different visions of the work of schools and teachers. This is not to say unions have done something wrong. It’s that the world changed around them.”

Many policymakers, however, have adopted the information economy’s focus on learning. Accordingly, they seek to overthrow the hegemony of time, recognizing that not all students learn the same amount in fixed time periods. Instead, they propose policies tied to educational outcomes: state standards for what students must learn; testing that assesses student progress toward the standards; test-score-based evaluation of teacher performance in advancing student learning; and salary structures that link teachers’ compensation to success in promoting student achievement. This agenda flies in the face of historic union policies and is diametrically opposed to an education system in which the currency is time and teaching.


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