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The Teachers Union and Quality Teaching

February 8, 2012
Brown, Heins

Shannan Brown (SJTA President) and Eric Heins (CTA Vice-President) are union leaders who promote quality teaching. (Photo: Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education; 1/20/12)


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.


10 Comments leave one →
  1. February 9, 2012 7:56 pm

    I’m a union building rep for my local, and we’ve casually talked about what is sometimes the PR challenge of unions. I think a critical role of the union is to protect the professionality of our profession, if that makes sense, by also focusing on cultivating our membership.

    This can mean creating means of support for new teacher induction programming, helping teachers become better practitioners when they encounter struggles, and perhaps most troubling to swallow (but in my opinion most critical), the union ought to be the leader in remediating and proactively removing teachers who are not upholding high professional standards and practices.

    This means uncomfortable conversations, but as I’ve posted elsewhere, what a powerful statement it would send to administrators and the public if the teachers unions were to take the lead in culling out ineffective teachers while focusing on cultivating the strengths of the rest. It’s not just about promoting NBPTS certification (though that is a huge plus), it must also be about cleaning our ranks of poor teachers rather than waiting around for administrators to do so. How to do this? I don’t know, but we ought to consider it our obligation to make sure that every student has the very best teacher we can hire…and facilitate the removal of those who don’t clear that bar. It’s not just an administrator’s job.

    • David B. Cohen permalink*
      February 9, 2012 9:54 pm

      Thanks for this comment, Mark (and the other one you posted regarding Jim Meadows and WEA). On this topic, I agree with you that I’d like to see the union take up responsibility for the profession overall and for the quality of work produced by members at a given site. It’s a significant shift. Teachers who might be “culled” deserve some advocacy, some representation. It’s difficult to put one organization in both roles. Can it be done? Yes – there are examples of teacher review panels made up of union members/leaders and administrators; they review evidence from the teacher, administrators and from peer evaluators who are also part of the union. These panels exist in Poway and San Juan Unified here in California, and in some Ohio districts – maybe elsewhere but I don’t know. There’s documentation and research showing that these panels remove more teachers than similar panels without teacher/union participation (assuming that might count as evidence that they can be at least as rigorous and stringent). I heard one researcher presenting a few weeks ago, describing how the panel heard conflicting evidence from a teacher evaluator who wanted to dismiss a teacher and an administrator who wanted to keep the teacher. The panel sided with the teacher evaluator because this evaluator brought stronger evidence to the meeting.

      But how to get from “here” to “there” in cases where such an approach isn’t even on the radar and would send members down the warpath… that’s the question. I think it starts with more of us raising these questions and searching out working models, then making the case for our profession and ultimately for our students, that we can do better.

      • February 10, 2012 4:17 am

        I think a logical first step is not to think in terms of removal, but in terms of support. The NBPTS movements have helped cultivate leadership from within, helping strong teachers grow stronger…but there are many teachers who do not have the skills or intuition that more accomplished teachers do. In these situations, the union ought to be about strengthening these struggling teachers as practitioners, proactively, so they are not even considered for firing (this is the kind of proactive advocacy I’d like to see, rather than reactive advocacy once a teacher is in the crosshairs of admin). This would give the union power to both advocate properly (with evidence) for the teacher if he/she merits it, as well as coax that teacher toward a new profession if he/she is not cut out for the job. I’m not thinking of union as hit-man. I think it was our friend Tom (who reads here and hopefully might chime in) who has called for our union to be more akin to a professional guild, whose charge is not only to serve the members but also to protect the integrity of the profession.

  2. David B. Cohen permalink*
    February 11, 2012 10:13 pm

    You’re right, of course, Mark. My slip into talking about removal reflects how these discussions are too often framed but shouldn’t be, and I slipped into that mode. If you have any blog posts that delve into the complexities of moving your association in that direction, I’d love to have you post a link!

    • February 12, 2012 12:39 pm

      Thus far, it has only been casual conversation, and not everyone agrees with me. I’m trying to find some kind of concrete protocol that we as a local could use without violating our own contract.

  3. Wendy Gallimore permalink
    February 12, 2012 7:05 am

    Our union is US! We need to remember that. In order to support ourselves and our colleagues, we need to find ways to support each other. Thought National Board Certification, teacher driven change or other professional work- we- as teachers hold the key to real support and growth in our profession.

  4. Lynne Formigli permalink
    February 14, 2012 12:40 pm

    What a great blog. I’m really happy to see all the great things our union is doing for the teaching profession highlighted. At our rep council last night, several of our teachers told us how helpful the Good Teaching Conference was. The following Monday they were trying new things in their classrooms.
    I’ve also really enjoyed reading the comments. They bring up 2 separate thoughts for me
    1. I love the idea of the union providing support for new and struggling teachers. If anyone has ideas of what that would look like/how it could be implemented, please share. I especially like how the comments refocused on this area. Most times it comes down to people complaining that the union keeps bad teachers from being fired. What they don’t understand is the concept of “duty to represent” Any teacher that pays dues has the right to representation by the union. If the union said we’re not going to help you because we believe you shouldn’t be a teacher, they would be wide open to a lawsuit. Unions are required by law to represent teachers in lay-offs and dismissals. that brings up a conflict of interest. David brought up a couple of examples where they have worked through these issues, but I think it’s an area where caution is advised.
    2. Love the idea of our union promoting the professionalism of teaching. David’s blog clearly outlines many examples where this is already happening. That doesn’t mean we can’t do more of this. There is a group of teachers who are state council members who are even now working to create a new caucus to push CTA more in this direction. We are just starting up, sharing by e-mail ideas we want to promote. I plan to steal Mark’s ideas and share them with the group. As Wendy says, we are our union. If we want our union to take a different direction, it’s our job to enact the necessary change.

  5. Hope permalink
    September 20, 2012 10:51 am

    HI, I’m a parent (but a de-facto teacher as such) and I am heartened to read the dialogue happening here among professionals. Providing meaningful, targeted professional development for individuals who have potential and simply lack broad experience (or for whatever reason are not as inspiring or effective with some groups of students) is very important. Supplying the money to do this for every ‘struggling’ teacher rather than letting the market work it out more quickly and efficiently might do better service to students. It’s certainly a difficult and complex issue but I hope that any objective person can agree that a system strictly dictated by LIFO (tenure as the overriding criteria for lay-offs) does not yield the best results for children and when budgets are very tight (that’s putting it nicely in CA), teachers owe it to the children they serve to make certain that every dollar is having its highest impact for reaching and teaching children (and I’m not just referring to test scores). The LIFO-only system has to be revised swiftly or the Teachers Union will continue to be analogous to the Catholic Church– covering for and protecting the [very few but very damaging] molesting priests. I think the LIFO-system accounts for much of the Teachers’ Union’s PR problem.

    • David B. Cohen permalink*
      September 21, 2012 3:28 pm

      Hello Hope, sorry it took a while to moderate your comment and get it online. I see your point, but I have to say the comparison to a church covering for child molesters is going too far. Any member of a teachers union is a mandated reporter with a legal obligation to report child abuse, and I believe we all take this seriously. The union’s role after an allegation or investigation begins is to make sure that it’s done properly according to the terms of the contract and the laws governing such situations. The union does not have the prerogatives and powers that the church has in terms of personnel management It can’t fire anyone, transfer anyone. It functions more like a judge or a public defender to prevent overzealous or inappropriate prosecution. LIFO is actually another issue, and I would argue that there are some considerations that should be revisited, providing more stability for individual schools and making some modifications to consider the teacher’s training/certification. However, schools thrive on cooperation, teamwork, openness. The whole layoff issue is coming to a head because governments and voters are making terrible choices in trying to cut budgets too much on the backs of children, but if we are going to have layoffs, pitting teachers against each other to save their jobs will not improve schools or learning.


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