Teachers Unions

How Unions Infantilize Teachers

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

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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.

NEXT: 'I Am Not an Isolationist,' Says Rand Paul

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

    Surprisingly, teachers have less a problem with this the more years they put in.

    1. Forget the teachers. Imagine what this does to the students who are subjected to these teachers.

    2. “Surprisingly, teachers have less a problem with this the more years they put in.”
      I don’t recall finding one disturbed over this, regardless of the time they’ve been on the job.

  2. Our nation’s educators are treated like “interchangeable blue-collar workers doing blue-collar work,”

    That’s exactly how teachers wanted to be treated by unionizing. If they want a union like the MLBPA, fine. But then that means they’re fired when the paying customers don’t like them.

  3. “Teaching is every bit as difficult and intellectually challenging as being a lawyer surgeon, engineer, or architect,”

    No it isn’t.

    1. lawyers, surgeon, engineers, and architects are paid based on supply and demand. Somehow though teachers can’t intellectually comprehend being paid on the same economic principle.

    2. Well, then, let’s require licensing, malpractice liability and insurance, and create an oversight agency with the power to remove people from the profession.

      Because that’s the way it is with every single one of those professions.

      You know the other thing about those professions? Practically none of their members belong to a union.

      1. Only the low paid and unskilled required a union. Unions went too far.

        1. Or specific monopolies in some cases, which is where you get player’s unions in professional sports.

    3. I’ve had some brilliant teachers and professors, but they didn’t have to be that way to do their job. Most are mediocre intellects.

  4. i wish NYC would just get rid of the board of Education, sell te public schools to private industry, and establish a common core standard per grade. Milton Freedman pushed for thi many years ago.

  5. Yeah, it’s really not – I respect the teaching field, and think that people who have a gift for that are in fact talented, and deserve a lot of credit – however teaching is not a brainiac field. At any level.

    Teachers love that aura of academia, but in my first-hand eperience – teachers are not doing work that is as difficult as doctor/lawyer/etc. And part of the reason those jobs pay a lot os because they require people willing to put in the hours. Teachers want the same pay reward without the same work hours put in.

    1. teaching is not a brainiac field

      Not in the US anyway. In some countries it is.

      1. Really? Where? I’d like to hear more about this mythical country.

    2. “Anyone who doesn’t understand the problems in the American education system never dated an el-ed major in college.”
      -PJ O’Rourke

  6. I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!

    /teacher

  7. 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.”

    Do you mean like Healthgrades?

    That point aside, all of the other professions being talked about here operate in the context of a market. That market provides a meaningful feedback mechanism to provide accountability. Absent the market to provide this accountability, we have to work off of something other than the judgement of your fellow cartel members.

  8. Sounds like a very good plan to me, I like it.

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  9. To be fair, too many of them act like children.

    1. My mother was a second grade teacher for 30 years and she would say the same thing. She had a handful of other teachers at her school that she respected, the rest she had no use for. She hated the union and the top heavy administration.

  10. “Teaching is every bit as difficult and intellectually challenging as being a lawyer surgeon, engineer, or architect,”

    I beg to differ, especially with regard to the last two. In those, one must be reasonably educated and also labor in competitive industries.

    1. Yeah, I had to teach my fourth grade teacher how to do our math problems. She was an imbecile and probably still is.

    2. Teaching is every bit as difficult and intellectually challenging as being a lawyer surgeon, engineer, or architect,”

      I beg to differ, especially with regard to the last two. In those, one must be reasonably educated and also labor in competitive industries.

      And a surgeon would not need to be reasonably well educated nor labor in a competitive industry?

      You may want to check on how difficult it is to get into medical school, but on top of that, how much more difficult and very competitive it is to get a surgery residency when graduating med school. It’s not uncommon for medical student hoping to become a surgeon having to “settle” for a different medical specialty.

      1. That’s not what I was saying at all. But, thanks for reading too much into it. I left out med. profession because it is not cutthroat in the sense of businesses competing with each other.

        1. But, thanks for reading too much into it.

          You are more than welcome, anytime 😉

    3. check your local book store. How many books are there telling people how to be better lawyers or doctors?

      Now check how many books there are for teachers. If teaching was so easy why aren’t all teachers successful?

  11. There are states that have no collective bargaining for teachers. So if teachers unions and collective bargaining is the problem, why not compare the states with collective bargaining and the states without?
    The states are mostly in the South, where there are also conservative legislatures.

    If unions are the problem, then educational rules, creativity, and results should be better in places like Georgia, the Carolina, Texas, etc. Are they? I suspect this comparison would show that unions per se are not the problem.

    1. You might also compare gov’t schools (with unions) and charter schools (without) in the same town.
      I think you WILL find a correlation.

      1. Yeah, selection bias is fun.

        1. People looked at the hypothesis that charter schools are better because they cherry-pick students; it’s not true. Charter schools simply do a better job.

  12. I’ll give a quick example of why a charter can do a better job: experimentation. My wife teaches at a charter school and she has a very high classroom attendance, higher test scores on the STAAR test than public schools (and other teachers in her grade), and a high parent satisfaction.

    So how does she do it? 3 rules 1. make sure the lesson is fun 2. randomly calls on kids to answer questions 3. uses a ticket system to encourage work and discourage bad behavior.

    Ok so the ticket system was modeled after what you see in arcades. If you do your homework, get a 90% on a test, act good all week you get a predetermined amount of tickets. These tickets can be used to buy random happy meal toys and snacks. She also does a weekly auction in which larger or rare prizes can be bid on. The kids love the idea of earning their money and buying their own things. So how does this keep them in line? Simple ticket fines. If you do something wrong like talk in class, not turn in homework, not do well on a test ect… She’ll asses a fine that is higher than the reward.

    This whole ticket fine system is like hitting them with a psychological wet noodle. It is truly a lame punishment compared to what other teachers do. But the kicker is that it is far more effective. Since humans are loss averse, they tend to feel remorse over losing something that they had. These kids effectively get treated like adults, make value judgments, and become disciplined due to their desire not to lose tickets.

    1. wow, you know nothing about the teaching profession

  13. Teachers have the most powerful logical fallacy weapon in their arsenal: The appeal to emotion. As in, the children.

    I don’t understand how they can accept the hideous reality that although some teachers are superior to others, their compensation remains equal with little or no chance for the good ones to be rewarded monetarily. I understand they chose job security, nonetheless, they live in a dream world and yet they still talk as if they’re equal to other professionals.

    Until you change things up a little, it will be hard for the public to consider them true professionals. Personally, as a tax payers, the fact I know there are terrible teachers the system won’t purge is enough for me to view them as civil servants.

    And my wife is a teacher. She readily admits there are teachers who should not be in the field but near impossible to fire.

    1. Sadly fire fighters and cops are awarded with the same appeal. Tis the season for the inevitable campaign adds with the cop endorsing a prop that has nothing to do with his profession!

  14. The NYC school system and any other state run school system is horrid. If you went to purchase a refrigerator, and it failed to do its job, even after getting a new one from the factory, would you purchase the same refrigerator again? Would you reward the company for failure, and tell your family and friends to do the same?

    Many would abandon the company, and would never reward them, or invest in said company. The company would wind up broke. With “public” schools, folks are forced to pay for it no matter the schools or teachers performance. Bad teachers are rewarded. If an individual refused to pay their taxes based upon the institutions horrid performance, they would be threatened, or face violence from the state.

    How would someone feel if the refrigerator company used violence to force them to keep buying those refrigerators. The company would find their salespeople getting beat up, or worse when homeowners defend their property. Free markets would solve these problems and breed competition. Good teachers get rewarded, and bad ones will be out of the market. There will be more innovation, expanded satellite classrooms for many more than the 30 or 40 kids per room, and a great teacher could reach millions and be rewarded with their media of exchange.

  15. What so many people seem to forget when they’re decrying the low pay of our nation’s teachers is that salary is only one part of total compensation. If you only look at salary and neglect benefits such as healthcare, pension, and tenure, you’re missing a substantial piece of the picture. If you truly want to have an apples to apples comparison, you’d need to adjust for these and other in-kind benefits. If you wanted to get even more precise, you’d need to account for differences in cost of living, total hours worked, and factor in the value of certain intangibles like having a known, fixed work schedule with 10-weeks off in the Summer, week long breaks in the Winter and Spring, and so on. Doing less is lazy at best, deceitful at worst.

  16. this is still one of the most generous contracts in entire country!

    in South Florida, a starting teacher is making about $35K. Two teachers with two kids would be living below the poverty line.

    Steps were frozen for so long that a 10 year teacher is making the same as a 5 year teacher, plus they took more money away for pensions.

    Teacher pay is slowly dropping yet the demands and accountability are increasing.

    School reform should begin with the very people who work in the trenches everyday.

    1. This word reform gets thrown around so much. Who do you expect to reform things? The bureaucrats and central planners? They can not reform anything, as their very being, and involvement destroys education. The voices of individuals in the market are non existent. Individuals can not reward good service, or punish bad service through their media of exchange. How would you feel if someone forced you to buy savealoafers instead of Nike, Fox, DC or even…new balance sneakers?

      The savealoafers don’t last long, and cause joint problems, while the other brands offer superior sneakers. The government comes in and subsidizes the savealoafers co., and then they force everyone to pay for those sneakers. There is no incentive for savealoafers to improve as they have been showered with subsidies even for their horrid performance. The artificial capital alters market competition, and others are driven out of the market, not because of individuals in the market, but by govt force. So now everyone is stuck with shitty savealoafers, while it is extremely difficult to acquire any other sneaker because of bans and various regulations.

      So if one still wanted a private sneaker, they are still forced to pay for the other garbage no matter what, which means less capital to reward good economic actors. If they refuse to pay their extortion rate (aka taxes) they will be subjected to violence.

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