Union’s a partner for success
Earlier this week, the Vail Symposium scheduled a sort of “celebrity death match” on education unions. In one corner, Randi Weingarten (president of the American Federation of Teachers, the second largest teachers union in the country) was to make the case for unions. Opposing her, Hannah Skandera (New Mexico’s state education chief and a prominent member of the hard-charging reform group Chiefs for Change) was to take the anti-union view.
The quality of these speakers is above question and a testament to the kind of programming the Vail Symposium regularly brings to our community.
Regrettably, both Weingarten and Skandera canceled. While the great folks at the Symposium were kind enough to let me pinch hit for the evening to talk about education policy, the subject of unions and education is an important one to consider.
War on unions
Importantly, the national discussion points on unions are vastly different than our local reality. Los Angeles, New York City, Detroit and other large city realities end up driving, and skewing, the discourse on the topic. It is a fallacy to conclude that what happens on a national stage also happens here. We are fortunate to live in a unique valley. Still, the national debate does shape how everyone perceives unions and the quality of American public education.
Unions have become a common target of those claiming that the American public education system is an abject failure. According to this narrative, unions are defenders of mediocrity, put self-interest above students and are obstacles to meaningful reform. As a result, we’ve seen focused efforts to demonize, disenfranchise or outright decertify unions across the country, including right here in Colorado.
In Eagle County, we use a strategy called “international benchmarking” to chart our course for success. In this practice borrowed from the business world, we are carefully observing the strategies used in the best-performing educational organizations or systems in the world, and then adapting those strategies to our local context.
The benchmarking approach allows us to evaluate how top-performing systems relate with teacher unions. Notably, nearly all of the highest-performing education systems in the world, including those in the United States, are highly unionized. The only real exceptions are places with more command economies, such as Shanghai.
However, we should not to infer that unionization has a causal relationship with quality. There are certainly several heavily unionized education systems that are not high performing. Yet when we look to systems that regularly top international and interstate performance league tables, nearly all of them have strong unions.
This calls into serious question the wisdom of a war on unions as a reform strategy if our goal is to be a top-performing system. As we review the outcomes and approaches used in the best-performing education systems in the world, union busting just isn’t in the playbook.
The best-performing education systems relentlessly focus on improving the quality of instruction and mitigating the effects of poverty on learning. As such, open warfare with the union becomes an unnecessary, politically costly and ultimately unproductive distraction.
On the other hand, we do see a transformation in unions of high-performing education systems.
Unions move away from an industrial model focused squarely on compensation, working conditions and job protections. Instead, they adopt a professional model in which the union becomes a guardian of the quality in the teaching profession, asserts a strong role in career development and becomes an important partner organization in meaningful education reform.
This aligns unions with the goals of educational outcomes: The best way to improve outcomes for students is by having the best possible teacher leading them.
School district administration, the traditional foe of unions, also undergoes a transformation in high-performing systems. Rather than seeing the union as an impediment and opponent, administrations see the union as an important partner and a group to implement educational improvements “with” instead of “to.”
The relationship with unions in high-performing education systems is collaborative, open and respectful. This is in stark contrast with the politically motivated and adversarial relationship of the American political landscape today. They don’t blame all of education’s woes on unions, nor do they call for the criminalization of union activity.
Locally, our administration and union work toward that vision of a collaborative, open and respectful relationship. We use an interest-based bargaining approach that focuses on common goals and shared responsibility instead of the traditional adversarial approach to bargaining.
The president of the Eagle County Education Association, Todd Huck, and I have a positive and respectful relationship in which we purposefully work to keep lines of communication open and help each other in our shared work of building great schools for Eagle County.
The tenets and tenor of the national political debate on unions simply don’t exist here.
The vilification of unions is yet another politically motivated silver-bullet reform that is disconnected from the real work of improving instruction and ensuring equity. In our work of becoming a high-performing education system, we are far better served to work toward collaboration and respect with a focus on those things that are proven to make a meaningful difference to teaching and learning.
Jason E. Glass is the superintendent of Eagle County Schools. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.