KNEA, the Kansas teachers union, open to reform?

Do the teachers unions in Kansas, particularly Kansas National Education Association (KNEA), have the best interests of schoolchildren as their primary goal? Are teachers unions open to change and reform?

An op-ed written by Claudette Johns, who is executive director for KNEA, claims that the union is open to new ideas, and that the goal of the union is “to make public schools great for every child.” But when we look at what teachers unions in Kansas actually do, we see that the unions are a roadblock to better schools.

There are many ways that teachers unions work against the interests of children. For example, the contract for teachers in USD 259, the Wichita public school district, provides for two ways for teachers to earn a higher salary (besides taking on extra duties like coaching): they can teach more years, and they can gain additional education credentials.

There are several problems with this approach to teacher pay. First, there is compelling research that indicates that beyond the first few years, additional years of experience contribute nothing to teacher effectiveness in the classroom, with one exception.

As to gaining extra education: “The evidence is conclusive that master’s degrees do not make teachers more effective,” according to a summary of research prepared by the National Council on Teacher Quality. Amazingly, some studies have found that as teachers gained more credentials, their effectiveness in the classroom declined. Yet, the contract negotiated by the Wichita teachers union — and most unions across the country — requires that districts pay teachers more as they gain these credentials which do nothing to increase effectiveness.

Even if you discount these studies, are we to believe that all teachers increase in effectiveness in lockstep as they advance in seniority and gaining additional training? Of course not. But the teachers union contract says this is the way teachers are to be paid. Effectiveness in the classroom — which is what children need — is not a consideration.

The teachers unions have created a system where teaching effectiveness — how well someone does their job — means nothing as to how much teachers will be paid. That’s important, as we are becoming aware that there is a very large difference in the learning experiences of students based on teacher effectiveness. Even President Obama recognizes the absurdity of this situation, and he and Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan have advocated merit pay. This is a system where teachers are evaluated on their effectiveness and paid accordingly, just like almost all private sector workers are paid and rewarded.

But the teachers union will vigorously oppose any efforts to implement anything that smells like merit pay. It’s one of the union’s most important reasons for existing, and it perpetuates a system that drives motivated teachers out of the schools.

Another important goal of teachers unions is to protect the policy of granting tenure, after which it is virtually impossible to fire a teacher for poor effectiveness. This is another teachers union policy that works against teacher effectiveness and student learning. In Kansas, the teachers union strongly opposes changing the probationary period before the granting of tenure from three to five years.

The teachers union, when it promotes these policies, has an argument on their side that has some validity. It is said that school administrators — in a system without tenure and rigid salary schedules — would practice “crony” hiring and promotion practices. They would reward their friends and family and punish their enemies or those they simply don’t like.

These things happen in a system insulated from market competition, and institutions don’t suffer when they do. In the private sector, when a manager makes staffing decisions based on cronyism — rather than hiring and retaining the best possible employees — the profitability of the company suffers. If managers’ compensation is tied to profitability, they suffer when making staffing decisions based on cronyism rather than merit. The company could perform so poorly that it goes out of business.

A system of market competition, however, forces each institution — schools, too — to be the best they can possibly be. When schools compete for students and funding, principals might learn to like, promote, and reward their very best teachers.

School administrators also might learn how to evaluate and recognize the best teachers. This is vitally important, because of the factors under the control of schools, teacher quality is by far the most important factor in student success. It’s much more important than class size, which is another thing teachers unions constantly advocate for.

The merits of this argument don’t mean that we should have teachers unions that operate more like industrial unions than a group representing workers that seek to be treated as professionals. Instead, it means we need more ways to hold school administrators accountable for the actions, and in turn, teachers. The best way to do this is to introduce market competition through various forms of school choice. Charter schools in Kansas would be a good start. But school choice and market competition is another reform the teachers unions oppose — again putting their own interests first.


7 thoughts on “KNEA, the Kansas teachers union, open to reform?”

  1. If you had a choice (vouchers) to send your children to the school with the best teachers or to a school with mediocre teachers, where would you send them? Why not let market forces create schools with the best teachers? After all, it really is about the quality of education our children receive. Or is it, KNEA?

  2. You are right, David. But I think there are ways to use the magic powers of competition by decentralizing the control over personnel and pay to the school itself.

    For instance, if we were to distribute per capita funds to individual schools with which they may use their budgets as the in-house administration of that school sees fit.

    If unions want to be involved, they may negotiate contracts with individual schools who may decide how best to attract enough of the best teachers. The principal and parents and teachers of their children should organize at the school level, and organize to address the 259 school board and administration.

    Let’s relinquish the gross centralization of 259 and give the natural competitiveness between our schools serve to boost performance and excellence all around. Let the PTA award bonuses and the principals recruit the best talent to teach in their schools.

  3. Hi Both my parents are retired teachers (Illinois), so I speak from at least some knowledge. Personally, I believe that we should try having a separate school board / district for each High School and its feeder schools. I believe that in Wichita, this would require some redrawing of Junior High feeders. In this way, the local parents could get more say in their local schools. The county could run the special schools for the delinquents etc. This SEEMS to be a cost increase, but if this is enacted, we could also work to have fewer overhead jobs (i.e. anyone who isn’t in a classroom).

    The voucher system is a good idea, but I’m betting that there will be a problem. All of the parents want their kid to go to the best school, but each voucher is only worth one share, so if all of the students want to go to East High, where will all 10,000 of them park? Won’t an increase in class size from 25 to 150 be a detriment to ANY teacher?

    Just my $0.02

  4. Excellent ideas gentlemen! We must rapidly decentralize USD 259! I love what is going on in Wisconsin! Thanks to the late Bob Love of Love Box Company, Kansas is and will hopefully always be a right to work state. You are correct Mr. Losey, right now it is about the KNEA and NOT about education!

  5. There has to be a change in Our tteachers College training especially Grade school training, In order to go to college they need a different High School with a math up to and including Trig. Psychology and Socialogy is not teachers training. Instead of poor baby approach may Have a test every 6 weeks and that would be the Report Card grade. Just punching keys is not the answer. Kids need to go home and struggle to learn and some responsibility for their learning. Grade school learning should Penmanship along with honest levels in english, Math. etch. Kids are smart enough if only the Educationists in Grades sclhools would give these young students a chance. Band instruction should be reintroduced in Grade school. Remember Band requires a playor to honestly learn the music peice and that could be carried over into other subjects.

  6. Private schools do better on standard success measures because their students come from families that place a high priority on education. Every teacher knows that students with parents to take an interest in the education of their children do better in school than students who come from families that do not or cannot participate in the education process. And, every study of educational data on this point confirms what teachers know. Since teacher compensation and job security are worse at private schools, it is unlikely that that private-school teachers are better at their jobs than teachers at public schools. Their success must be attributed to working in an environment that favors success in education.

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