Doug Tuthill: Choice & customization will force teacher unions to adapt, someday


Editor’s note: This is the fourth and final post in a series on the future of teachers unions.

Over the last 20 years, the federal government and state governments have used standards, assessments and regulatory accountability to assert more top-down control over classroom teachers. As state-mandated teacher evaluation and merit pay systems have become ubiquitous, the level of teacher disempowerment and alienation has soared, and teacher unions have hunkered down and become even more defensive and conservative.

School choice is the way out – not only because it is breaking down public education’s 19th Century industrial management model, but because teacher unions are so economically tied to this model they are fighting to preserve it, even though it is bad for teachers and students. Ironically, teacher union dues today are used to perpetuate a dysfunctional management system, and to protect teachers from being abused by this same system. It’s crazy.

I say this as a former teacher union leader.

I started teaching in fall 1977. In January 1978, I sat at a table with other teachers and heard a divorced mother with two young children tearfully tell us she had rejected her boss’ sexual advances and now he was ending her employment contract. At the time, we didn’t have a union or a union contract.

I was 22 years old and became a union organizer while sitting at that table. We organized ourselves, collected cards and successfully petitioned the state to hold a collective bargaining election. We won a court case management had filed to block the election. Then we won the election and bargained and ratified a contract that included protections against arbitrarily firing employees.

In 1984, I joined a more mature union (and the school choice movement) when I moved to St. Petersburg, Fla. to help start one of the state’s first magnet schools. The Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association had been a professional association for several decades before turning into an industrial union in the late 1960s. By 1984, its collective bargaining agreement had been in place for more than a decade, and it had established a collaborative working relationship with management.

After the intensity of building a union from scratch, PCTA felt stagnant. The union was part of district management. It did a great job protecting teachers from the abuses of a politically-managed bureaucracy, but there was no energy or vision for progress. PCTA’s only internal and external message was, “We need more money.”

Pinellas teacher salaries increased by an average of 45 percent from 1981 to 1986, yet teachers were still miserable. More money was great, but they wanted greater job satisfaction. Individuals become teachers because they want to make a meaningful contribution to children’s lives, but that’s difficult – and often impossible – in a mass production bureaucracy that treats teachers like assembly line workers and students like identical widgets.

We attempted reform from within.

From 1985 to 1990, the PCTA helped the Pinellas school district become a national leader in teacher empowerment and school-based decision making. Our assumption was that returning more decision-making power to local schools and classrooms would empower teachers and give them the professional autonomy they needed to be more successful and satisfied. Our efforts generated many random acts of improvement, but failed to create systemic and sustained improvements.

In 1991, the year I was elected PCTA president, our local union joined with our state union to help pass state legislation establishing a rigorous set of academic standards, assessments and regulatory accountability measures. Our hope was that these measures, combined with more school-based decision making, would increase student achievement by enhancing teachers’ effectiveness and job satisfaction. At the same time, PCTA and the district collaboratively launched a Continuous Quality Improvement (CQI) initiative – also called Total Quality Management – that became a national model.  We provided extensive training for school-based CQI teams and ongoing support from a highly sophisticated set of CQI experts. A few schools generated extraordinary short-term results, but as I was leaving the presidency in 1994 it was clear, again, that systemic change wasn’t happening.

Over 10 years, then, all of PCTA’s efforts to overhaul teaching and learning had failed. The state’s regulatory accountability system did generate improvements in student achievement, especially for low-income and minority students, but at a cost of more centralized control and increased teacher alienation.

Now more external forces are bearing down on teacher unions. And they must change with the times.

Technological innovations in the mid-1800s led to the assembly-line system that school districts have employed for the last 150 years. Today’s innovations will enable and require public education to replace mass production with customization.

Customization means growing numbers of teachers will be working in nontraditional settings such as virtual schools, charter schools, private schools, libraries, museums, community centers and private homes.  As this diversity of learning environments expands, one-size-fits-all collective bargaining contracts will increasingly be inappropriate. And for unions, the costs of bargaining and servicing contracts that only cover a small number of teachers won’t be economically feasible. They will need to expand their business model to align to these new realities.

Fortunately, there are other successful organizing models for teacher unions to emulate.

The National Rifle Association is one our country’s most powerful membership organizations. It advocates for its members at the local, state and national levels, and provides a variety of membership services related to gun ownership independent of collective bargaining. Teacher unions could do the same for teachers in smaller, nontraditional settings.

The AARP provides a plethora of financial services for older adults, and advocates for members’ interests at the state and federal levels.  The American Medical Association does the same for medical professionals.  Again, these are business models teacher unions could adopt when collectively bargaining and supporting employment contracts isn’t feasible.

Many teachers working for small community nonprofits, charter schools or private schools might be willing to trade salary for job security. In these cases, teacher unions could function as leasing companies. They could hire teachers and then lease them to organizations and schools in exchange for a percentage of the teachers’ salaries. Teachers could get their insurance, retirement benefits and other financial services through the union, as well as professional development and job placement services.

The cultural and organizational changes being created by the Internet and other new digital technologies are not going away. I wish I had confidence that a new generation of teacher union leaders was emerging to help teachers benefit from these changes, but I see no evidence of it. I’m usually the eternal optimist, but I’m guessing both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers will need to lose 40 or 50 percent of their current membership before they’ll seriously consider expanding their business model and embracing new forms of teacher unionism.

In the meantime, lots of money, time and energy is going to be spent by teacher unions protecting a status quo that has no chance of surviving – nor should it.

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BY Doug Tuthill

A lifelong educator and former teacher union president, Tuthill has been president of Step Up For Students since August 2008.