The question reads like one featured on a standardized test: What is the solution to fixing America’s education system?
People on all sides of the debate favor various solutions — increased funding, smaller class sizes, longer school days — but increasingly one group of people is at the center of the debate: teachers.
Some say educators are the solution to many problems with the nation’s schools. But whether it’s the recent Chicago Teachers Union strike, which resulted in students missing seven days of class, or Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s attempt to balance the budget through restricting public employees’ collective bargaining rights, others say teachers — more specifically, their unions — is a problem that needs to be solved.
“I don’t view unions as blockers,” said Sue Clapp, president of the Cedar Rapids Education Association. “I view them as collaborators.”
The Cedar Rapids Education Association is part of the larger Iowa State Education Association, which a recent Thomas B. Fordham Institute study named the 27th strongest teachers’ union in the nation.
Dara Zeehandelaar, a self-described former “frustrated teacher” and research manager at the Ohio-based institution committed to educational reform, co-authored the study, “How Strong Are U.S. Teacher Unions? A State-By-State Comparison,” and said the industrial model teachers unions operate in is “woefully out of date.”
“We’re not making cars here. We’re educating kids,” she said. “There’s no profit and there’s no product. It’s about a standard of work and a standard of professionalism.”
ISSUES THEN AND NOW
The Iowa State Education Association is an affiliate of the National Education Association, which began in 1857. In the last 155 years members have worked to end child labor, to ensure salary parity between genders and to create suitable working environments for all teachers.
“You have to ask yourself, should (teachers unions) still be pressing along these lines of an industrial union?,” Zeehandelaar said.
Matt Glasson, a labor educator at the University of Iowa’s Labor Center, answered with a resounding “yes.”
Many “highly skilled” government employees like lawyers, engineers and auditors are in unions, as are “white collar” professionals like nurses and accountants, he noted. In his six years at the center and 26 years as a labor lawyer, Glasson has seen unions effectively represent and serve workers from across the spectrum.
“When it comes down to it, everybody has the same kinds of problems at work, it’s just the specifics are different,” he said. “Everybody wants to be treated with dignity at work and they want their work to be respected … People want to be paid commensurate to the skills that they have and that’s the same pretty much everywhere.” (story continues after report)
Though she laughed off the Fordham Institute’s findings, Iowa State Education Association President Tammy Wawro agreed that the union is strong and said that positively impacts students.
“When you have a safe working environment, where you have people who are working on issues such as bullying and who are leading the profession in (English language learners) … then you are helping with student improvement,” she said.
The Fordham Institute states on its website that “school systems are too often held hostage by adult interest groups, including but not limited to teacher unions.” Researchers used five characteristics to determine union strength: resources and membership, involvement in politics, scope of bargaining, state policies and perceived influence.
Zeehandelaar said the relationship between union strength and education quality relies on association goals.
“If you have a strong union that is pushing for teacher job security at the expense of high quality education, then you see students in schools with teachers who are not giving them an adequate education,” she said. “When you have a union that takes both teacher and student interests into account, then you have education that serves students better.”
Both union supporters and detractors agreed that increased student achievement is a goal, but they don’t agree around how to reach it.
“I don’t believe a total overhaul of our education system is necessary,” said Clapp, the Cedar Rapids Education Association president.
Regardless of whether Clapp’s assessment is correct, at least one local union has benefitted from changing with the times.
“We knew we had to do something different,” said Al Hartl, Jr., president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union Local 110 in Cedar Rapids. “It took a massive paradigm shift.”
In the early ‘90s the union decided to work with its employer, Quaker Oats, in order to improve employee output in response to increasing global competition.
“That was very difficult because the union leaders at the time were old, traditional union leaders,” Hartl said. “It was very challenging because the union leadership and the union members who had 20 plus years of experience didn’t know what the end outcome would be.”
Over the course of about 18 months, union members and Quaker Oats managers took a course at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. The result of the parties working together was a transition from traditional top-down leadership to employee self governance, Hartl said. It took about five years and the loss of some key union heads for those changes to take place.
“The abuse we took from the members was unbelievable,” Hartl said.
Hartl said the new system worked for seven years. Productivity and union membership increased. He said the changes were worth the effort, although he disagrees with changes new ownership implemented
Reform may be on the horizon for Iowa’s educators, with Department of Education Task Force recommendations ready for discussion during the legislative session that starts Jan. 14.
“Are locals getting the seats at the table that they should? I can’t say that they are in all instances,” Wawro said. “I feel like at the state level we have had that impact … but I do wish we could say that across the board.”
To Eric Lerum, vice president of national policy for StudentsFirst, that’s a flaw in the conversation.
StudentsFirst, which supports reforms that remove ineffective teachers from classrooms, is an organization devoted to improving the American education system into “one that puts students’ needs before those of special interests or wasteful bureaucracies,” according to its website.
“(The union) doesn’t allow for any conversation for the greater teacher voice,” Lerum said. “If you’re a teacher and you disagree with your union’s position on teacher evaluation, where do you go? Who do you talk to? … I think it’s very hard to figure out where to plug in.”
Teacher and association member Janette Schroeder feels that the Cedar Rapids Education Association represents her well, but her experience also gave credence to Wawro’s view on the difficulty of including individual local dissent into state conversations.
“I certainly think that the governor has reached out to the (Cedar Rapids) Education Association and (the Iowa State Education Association) has had a seat at the table,” she said. “I think it’s more difficult to get voices heard from a classroom level, at a statewide level.”
Moving to a system that prizes the individual above the group, something beyond majority rule, would be a fundamental structural change for education associations.
Shifts of that magnitude are more difficult to make, Clapp said, because it takes “finding the right people to take on those new challenges.”
“There’s always been room for growth and being open to new ideas and new strategy should always be explored,” she continued. “I don’t think we’re blocking things. We’re saying, ‘Is this the best way?’”