How Unions Infantilize Teachers

Unconditional job protections and lockstep raises deny teachers the dignity of earning their success.


New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) |||

As New York City's one million public school students head back to class today 88,576 teachers have a new contract for the first time since 2009. The United Federation of Teachers (UFT) avoided the bargaining table for several years, betting that former Mayor Michael Bloomberg's (I) successor would be more amenable to their demands.

That bet paid off. In May, Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) and UFT chief Michael Mulgrew settled on a nine-year agreement that awards teachers pay increases totaling 18 percent. While Bloomberg steadfastly fought to whittle away union work rules with every new contract, this deal maintains the status quo with the exception of a few Potemkin reforms. 

Our nation's educators are treated like "interchangeable blue-collar workers doing blue-collar work," writes Marc Tucker in a recent report titled, Fixing our National Accountability System, which was published last month and has been drawing attention in education reform circles. Tucker fingers our "test based accountability system" for reducing teachers' contributions to a letter or number grade. "Imagine what a good doctor would think," Tucker writes, if "publicly branded with an A, B or C grade by some external authority."

There's some merit to Tucker's case, but there's a far bigger culprit in the teaching profession's diminished status that he ignores: Collective bargaining agreements, such as New York City's new teachers contract, that treat educators like children.

Tucker would like to see teachers treated more like "doctors, accountants, attorneys, architects and other high status professionals"—but how many lawyers and physicians have labor contracts that sets their schedules? The new contract stipulates that "the school day shall be 6 hours and 20 minutes," but that an additional 30 minutes per day, which used to be spent on classroom instruction, be reallocated to "professional development" and "parent engagement activities."

The new emphasis on "parent engagement" is a priority of New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, who told an audience in April: "When parents are engaged at the school and district level, children and schools benefit." It's hard to quibble with common wisdom so blandly articulated, but blanket policies have no place in complex social institutions. Some schools undoubtedly could benefit from more parental involvement, while others already have engaged parent bodies and should devote more time to instruction. Professional teachers along with their principals should determine how their working hours are spent.

"Teaching is every bit as difficult and intellectually challenging as being a lawyer surgeon, engineer, or architect," says The New Teachers Project's Daniel Weisberg, who was the city's chief negotiator with the UFT during the Bloomberg years, and thinks the latest contract was a missed opportunity. "And yet we treat teachers like widgets."

Another reason teachers don't garner the same respect afforded other professions is that they aren't paid enough, or so goes the common wisdom. In fact, teachers do quite well compared to other white-collar professions. The real drag on their professional status is that they don't earn more when they work harder and show more talent.

Mayor Bloomberg fought to whittle away at union work rules with every new contract. |||

The new teachers contract gradually raises teacher compensation—starting salaries will rise from $46,445 this year to $56,709 in 2018. (The city also gives teachers phenomenal pension benefits.) But the contract maintains the lockstep pay structure that rewards educators based solely on two criteria: The number of school credits they've accumulated (even if they take courses only loosely related to their jobs), and the number of years they've served in the classroom. Principals have no say over what their employees get paid.

The new contract creates one new mechanism for paying educators more—the position of "master teacher"—but the perk expires after one year and the UFT carved out a major role for itself in the selection process. Master teachers will earn a $20,000 bonus in exchange for taking on various school leadership roles, but even those worthy of such an honorific title aren't entrusted to figure out how to manage their own time. The contract says that they must work "an additional three days during the summer" and "an additional four hours each month during the school year."

Who picks the master teachers? Principals get final say, but only after qualified applicants are screened by a selection committee "consisting of an equal number of members selected by the Chancellor and by the UFT President." The master teacher position "seems a lot more like patronage than it does merit pay," noted Jenny Sedlis of StudentsFirstNY, at a recent forum on the new teachers contract hosted by The Manhattan Institute.

Among the biggest achievements of former New York City Chancellor Joel Klein, who served under Mayor Bloomberg from 2002 to 2011, was convincing the UFT to give principals the authority to pick their own teachers. Prior to 2005, senior teachers could transfer into schools whether principals liked it or not.

There was an unintended consequence: Tenured teachers who couldn't find a principal to hire them ended up in what's known as the Absent Teacher Reserve (ATR) pool, meaning they still collect a paycheck but don't have to show up for work. Keeping ATR pool teachers on the payroll costs taxpayers about $100 million a year.

ATR pool members (no doubt a demoralizing fate) are in part victims of the union's lockstep pay schedule. Teachers who've been in the system for many years draw comparatively big salaries set by the contract, which makes principals—who manage their own budgets and need to make tradeoffs in staffing—more reluctant to hire them. If teachers in the ATR pool could freely negotiate their compensation, like professionals in every other industry, they'd have a better shot at getting a job.

The new contract offers only weak measures aimed at cutting the size of the ATR pool, such as offering buyout packages and pushing principals to interview members for vacancy slots. (Thankfully, it doesn't obligate principals to hire them.)

New York City's latest collective bargaining agreement may serve the UFT by reinforcing its relevance, but it's damaging to teachers. The bottom line: Unconditional job protections and lockstep raises deny educators the dignity of earning their own success.