Trade, profession, or entrepreneurs? The market faithful raise important questions about the future of teacher unions.
March 11, 2006, 04:00 AM
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American Journal of Education, Nov 2005 

By Heinz-Dieter Meyer

Above all, don't make teaching a career. (Jean-Jacques Rousseau)

Teacher unions—the only American trade unions that are still growing—are a key part of the American educational compact, and their future is at an interesting crossroads. While their current influence and power derive very much from their role as a trade union, many leading unionists agree that their future is not in bread, butter, and classroom size bargaining but in their ability to improve the quality of education and the status of teaching as a profession. While die-hard adversarialists continue to have a strong voice in the local districts where they often look back to a long history of acrimonious conflict, large parts of the leadership have signed on to the "new unionism," as it has been expounded by scholars like Charles Kerchner (coauthor of United Mind Workers: Unions and Teaching in the Knowledge Society [San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1997) and unionists like Adam Urbanski (president of the Rochester Teacher Association). The new unionists have two things going for them. One is realism: the new unionism seems to present a viable course of action even for those who are unhappy with teachers unions that oppose even the most basic forms of competition and choice, like performance-based pay and charter schools. Instead of calling for a general overhaul of teachers unions, new unionists bet on incremental changes along the lines of what has already taken place in districts like Rochester, Cincinnati, and Toledo. Second, their strategy, if successful, would lead to an upgrading of the professional qualifications and abilities of teachers and thus quite likely make an important contribution to an overall reform of American public education.

The logic underlying the professionalization strategy is appealing. Teaching in the United States has suffered from being treated as merely another form of industrial labor. By emancipating it from its industrial shackles, teachers may become the professionals they should have been all along (and are in many other countries). Judging from the recent pronouncements of leading union representatives like Bob Chase (who has spoken in favor of peer review—a key piece of professional self-government), the prospects for the new unionism would appear to be good.

Critique of Reform Unionism

Enter folks like Peter Brimelow, Myron Lieberman, Gregory Moo, and other radical critics of what they disparagingly refer to as the "NEA/AFT trust." While not opposed to more professionalism among teachers, these critics do not believe that the National Educational Association (NEA) or the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) are the vehicles to achieve that. In their view, the teacher unions are beyond reform, at least as long as their monopoly status—by which the 3 million American teachers are represented de facto by one organization that speaks, fights, and bargains on their behalf—remains untouched. (For comparison, the powerful United Auto Workers union has only 700,000 members.) Brimelow points out that the unions are able to maintain this bargaining monopoly in part because all public employment is exempt from the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). As a result they were able to gain legal recognition for closed-shop practice in 19 of the most populous states of the union.

The "teacher trust's" three commandments read: thou shalt have no other union besides me; thou shalt be paying dues even if you would rather not be a member; thou shalt not support any reform that would break the employment monopoly of government. The first commandment is maintained by virtue of unique legal privileges that guarantee the unions the right of exclusive representation. The second principle is maintained by virtue of closed-shop guarantees. And the third principle is the object of much of the unions' political activism and mobilization. A memorable example is the NEA's campaign against the provoucher Proposition 174 in California during which the association assessed its 230,000 members $57 (on top of their regular annual dues of $475) for a war chest that made the NEA the most powerful voucher opponent in 1992.

Peter Brimelow's The Worm in the Apple is based on the simple premise that the extraordinary powers that result from these three principal pillars of American teacher unionism will inevitably lead to extraordinary abuses. Brimelow is a journalist who writes for Forbes magazine, frequently on matters of education. The book he has produced is a cross between journalism and pamphlet, a piece of muckraking journalism, as he himself calls it. Brimelow reports and to some extent repeats the indictments of the teacher unions that we have heard before: poorly qualified teachers cannot be dismissed due to union protection, principals cannot effectively counteract declining test scores, and so on. But beyond documenting myriads of cases of abuse, Brimelow unpacks the legal institutes that enable the teacher trust. The latter maintains its hold over the public school system through unprecedented concessions from lawmakers in whose backyard the teachers as government employees operate. Essentially, it is government employees arguing with government employees. What is more, given their resources and time, the teachers have a great deal of say about who gets elected to government office. They have the time, money, and clout to block any reform pay for performance, tuition tax credits, charter schools, homeschooling—that would undermine the union's bargaining monopoly. By contrast, the NEA/AFT will support all reforms that will swell the ranks of its membership pool: smaller class size, bilingual education, any form of support staff. Indeed, Brimelow maintains that the rapid growth of all and sundry nonteaching staff positions in American schools cannot be explained without the unions' strategy of membership expansion. Thus, the key to the NEA/AFT's success is the associations' strategy of high membership and revenue basis, coupled with reciprocal arrangements with many levels of government.

At the school level the unions maintain their position by presenting themselves as trigger-happy grievance writers. Two minutes extra work unpaid? File a grievance! Teacher training without coffee and doughnuts? File a grievance!

Occasionally Brimelow's zeal leads him to dismiss ideas and concepts on most superficial inspection. For example, the notion that elementary math students should use, among other things, a "guess-and-check multiplication strategy" is, for Brimelow, "education speak" for anything goes.

The list of minor and major outrages that the NEA commits in the name of teachers seems almost inexhaustible, and Brimelow does his best to keep the presentation interesting. Still, by piling outrage upon outrage and rarely wavering from his "I have a union official for breakfast every morning" tone, Brimelow makes the reading tedious and monotonous and does not aid the reader's ability to reflect on the matter. What might make interesting reading in a feature article in Forbes becomes a chore when repeated 13 times in 13 chapters of a book. Having put the book's ideas in the early and late chapters, you, the reader, are supposed to sustain yourself during the bulk of the book mostly on righteous indignation. Needless to say, the book does not touch on the extensive research literature on union effects on educational productivity.

Alternative Visions for Teacher Preparation

So where does Brimelow want to take us? Seeing unions as a labor monopoly (69), he believes that any attempt to expand the compass of the teacher unions, to give them more influence—even under the label of "professionalism" or "new unionism"—is misguided. This would merely enable the unions to expand their influence over public education without any guarantees that they would really change from trade union to professional association. More likely, the new unions would take their act to new, heretofore untouched aspects of schoolwork, as in this quote from a California NEA official: "If we are going to be held accountable, we should bargain curriculum, rather than have it forced down our throats by some curriculum deputy superintendent that doesn't have a clue. If we are to be held accountable, we should bargain textbook selection. We should bargain lesson plans, portfolios, etc. We should bargain grading students. We should bargain everything that relates to the classroom and teaching" (38). Possibilities like this are sufficient reason for Brimelow to call not for union reform but for radical change. The teacher unions' stranglehold on public education must be broken, and the master strategy for accomplishing that is to introduce competition among unions and among schools. Competition among unions can be achieved by imposing the requirements that apply to private sector unions under the NLRA to the teacher unions under state bargaining statutes. It would give teachers the choice to join or not to join, or to join a different union. Competition among schools would create a market for teacher talent and allow differentiation among teachers according to performance and results. Brimelow's reforms would also strengthen the individual bargaining power of teachers by making their pension and benefits portable.

For Brimelow, exposing the unions to the more rigorous conditions of the NLRA and giving teachers some of the agency that all other employees enjoy are the first steps toward a grander reform agenda. The next, more drastic, change aims at redefining teaching itself. For Brimelow, increasing the professional qualification standards of teachers the goal of the new unionists—is wrongheaded because it would make teachers, their unions, and schools of education (who would have to certify teachers' qualifications) even more powerful. More importantly, however, it treats teaching as something it is not: as a profession on the model of law and medicine. For Brimelow, teaching is more like journalism than like medicine or law. "Journalism," says Brimelow (the journalist), "is not a 'profession.' It's a trade. Anyone can start writing, there is no code of conduct or particularly vital common body of skills that anyone—apart from journalism schools can see. But generally, reward depends on individual effort, and some individuals do very well" (233).

Brimelow may have a point here. The majority of journalists are not graduates of journalism school. Rather, they are individuals with a general education and a passion to write. The skills and standards that successful writers need are mostly acquired on the job. Other characteristics of journalism are talent-based selection and reward, continuous innovation, and plurality of excellence. The prestige of journalism as a profession is shaky, ranging from paparazzi to Pulitzer Prize winners. The actual status of a journalist derives more from the prestige of the newspaper with which they are affiliated than from an educational certificate or degree.

Teachers as Entrepreneurs

Analogizing teaching on journalism has several implications. The quality of teaching would not be improved by higher graduation standards of schools of education but rather by giving teachers better opportunities to learn on the job—in the form of mentoring or teaching apprenticeships (the latter being the model followed in many other countries). It would also be improved by providing teachers with incentives to stretch themselves, to shoot for recruitment by the most prestigious schools. Excellent teachers will become associated with excellent schools, their status and professional prestige a function of the status and prestige of the school where they work. Competition among schools would lead to competition between pedagogies and eventually make all boats rise.

From this perspective one might argue that teaching in America is, if anything, overrationalized. Pretending to know what makes a good teacher, we make them work through a two-year curriculum of education courses when they could be honing their skills on the job under the guidance of a master teacher.

There is one flaw to this argument. It overlooks the fact that there is a degree of quality control in journalism that does not exist in medicine, law, or—for that matter—teaching. By its very nature, a journalist's work is subject to expert scrutiny on a daily basis. The journalist's "clients"—the reading public—will be able to tell before long if a writer is concocting stories or otherwise misleading her readers. To quality-control physicians, lawyers, or—for that matter—teachers is, by contrast, far more difficult. The clients of physicians, lawyers, and teachers for the most part do not have the competence to monitor the performance of these professionals—hence the quality-controlling role of the American Bar Association and the American Medical Association. To curb the potential for abuse that lies in this asymmetry, we have invented the institution of certification and licensing—a combination of professional peer control and government control. If teaching were to emulate the medical and legal profession on this count, the profession would have to guarantee a minimum quality of service. Schools of education, for which Brimelow has no particular use, would play a role equivalent to the medical and law school, certifying that its graduates satisfy certain basic quality requirements.

Brimelow says he wrote the book because many activities of the teacher unions are, in his view, little known and understood by the general public. I am not sure that it will do much lifting of that cloud of ignorance. Most readers of the book will have heard anecdotes about extortion and union support for mediocrity and worse. Adding more stories of outrage and abuse to the ledger does not necessarily lead the reader to greater heights of clarity on the issue. Amassing data is not a substitute for a sound conceptual argument. And here, I'm afraid, Brimelow falls way short. The essence of his position that unions are rent-seeking monopolies, restraints on trade is stated only perfunctorily in the first chapter. And the important ideas about teaching as a profession are stated equally casually and hastily in the last chapter. That does not leave the reader with much to hang a hat on. In this respect Brimelow shares the shortcomings of his intellectual role model, Milton Friedman—namely, blind faith in the power of one key theoretical principle and impatience with even the most basic concessions to the institutional idiosyncrasies of a particular field. For example, while the parents and communities are not unaware of the selfish exploits of the teacher unions, they also see teachers working at the front lines of society's social ills, under conditions that are sufficiently demanding and even dangerous to excuse the occasional extortion of spoils.

For the market faithful, everything rides on the idea that some day education will be produced and monitored by the market. In that new world, schools will compete for quality teachers, teachers for quality schools, and parents for the best educational value. As long as the market has not garnered these powers, the government-union monopoly will continue to control education, and Brimelow and colleagues will not run out of reasons to continue their muckraking.

Peter Brimelow, The Worm in the Apple: How Teacher Unions Are Destroying American Education (New York: Harper Collins, 2003), xiii+275 pp.; index, notes; $24.95 (cloth).

Heinz-Dieter Meyer, State University of New Fork at Albany

HEINZ-DIETER MEYER is associate professor of education administration and policy at SUNY Albany. He is editor (with W. L. Boyd) of Education between Markets, Government, and Civil Society and (with Brian Rowan) of The New Institutionalism in Education (forthcoming).