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.