The Teachers Union and Quality Teaching
Some people would say that “the union” and “quality teaching” don’t belong in the same sentence, or blog post title.
My bet is that those people don’t know about the two Quality Teaching Conferences run by the California Teachers Association (CTA) each year. The Northern California conference took place in San Jose last weekend, and the Southern California conference is coming up next month.
I don’t mean to suggest that because CTA has conferences about quality teaching that they are therefore immune to criticism – but I would expect any fair-minded critic to consider whether or not their image of the union is informed by experience and a full awareness of CTA activities.
Like most public school teachers in the state, I am a member of CTA, and as I’ve written here before, I’m proud to say so. For most of my career, I was aware of my local union’s activities but less aware of the association’s work at the state level. In the past couple of years, my awareness has changed as I’ve come into contact with more of CTA’s state initiatives and the people involved in much of this good work. I also think CTA leadership has embraced an expanded role in the professional lives of teachers. At a recent policy summit in Sacramento (organized in part by Accomplished California Teachers), CTA Vice-President Eric Heins was right there talking about the association’s work in the area of teacher evaluation, trying to expand effective evaluation practices that promote excellence rather than generating check marks and a simplistic sorting of satisfactory and unsatisfactory teaching. San Juan Teachers Association President Shannan Brown was there representing a district where union-administration collaboration has produced a highly effective evaluation and support program (an assessment supported by recent research from SRI International – follow link above).
Union-led reform efforts in California (QEIA) and around the country (Priority Schools Campaign) have given the lie to the claim that unions are obstacles to reform. But beyond these school-based efforts, CTA is supporting good teaching practices through projects sponsored by the association’s Institute for Teaching, and through these conferences mentioned above.
At the Quality Teaching Conference in Northern California last week, I attended a day-long session focused on CTA and its support for National Board Certification as a quality teaching initiative. We’re playing catch-up a bit here, as we heard from Jim Meadows about the ways in which the Washington Educators Association has demonstrated union leadership in promoting quality teaching through National Board certification. But there’s no shame in recognizing excellence and trying to emulate it, so I’m glad that CTA invited Jim, and pleased with the direction that CTA is going in relation to National Board Certification.
There are a number of reasons that CTA is getting behind certification, and should commit to a sustained partnership. The following list came from CTA staff at the event.
School improvement and equity - teachers associations must share in the responsibility to provide educational excellence for all students in public schools. National Board certification improves the ability of teachers to work together to focus on student needs and specific teaching strategies to address them. Promoting certification in all schools will help spread quality teaching, especially in schools that experience a variety of funding and staffing inequities. We are not only calling attention to the problems, but providing solutions.
Strengthening the profession - Association leaders have expertise on issues of teaching and learning, and should be recognized for the professional knowledge they employ for students every day. National Board Certified Teachers (NBCTs) have met the highest available professional standards for teaching; their perspective can inform union work, and help the union speak with authority about quality teaching and improved learning.
Public relations - Unions are too often presented as the problem, rather than the solution in improving public schools. We are experiencing a backlash of unwarranted criticism for a variety of problems in public education, and need to take further steps to highlight union involvement in promoting excellence in classrooms and schools.
Leadership - in issues of education policy and practice, teachers must be prepared to take up the challenge of leadership in schools, associations, districts and communities. Leadership cannot be left to those who lack teaching experience and expertise. NBCTs have not only met or exceeded standards for excellent instruction, but have also submitted convincing evidence of their ability to work with peers, parents, and the community at large, and are well-suited to take on leadership roles as effective advocates for good policies. We’ve seen the disastrous outcomes of uninformed education policies and decision-making, and must be proactive to ensure teacher voice is heard and valued in policy discussions.
Borrowing again from Jim Meadows, I’d agree that teachers and unions should view this kind of work with a sense of urgency. Unions are under attack – both organizationally and conceptually. For years, teachers have been losing professional control, and to allow that trend to continue will have disastrous results in our ability to attract and retain teachers, to innovate in our field and provide the quality teaching our students need. We must dramatically amplify our voices to counter what’s coming at us from uninformed politicians and pundits, even within the school system in some cases. But being loud won’t suffice – our ideas must be sound and our implementation must be successful. Without the union leading, our capacity for improved growth and leadership is too dependent on districts and states. We cannot rely on persuasion and time to bring others to our side; we must show what we are already doing, and deliver on what we claim we can do to improve teaching and learning.
Our professional interests are, despite what you may hear, entirely aligned with the interests of our students. We will build a stronger teaching profession by delivering the best possible education for our students. We must hold ourselves accountable for all that is within our control. Such an approach strengthens our ability to demand mutual accountability from the policy makers who too often have been allowed to deny their responsibility for failures in a system they govern, and neglect. They have deflected criticism onto the teaching force, but our best defense is a strong union, grounded in strong professionalism.