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Why Teacher Unions Are Good for Teachers—and the Public

They Protect Teachers' Rights, Support Teacher Professionalism, and Check Administrative Power

By Diane Ravitch

We live in an era when leaders in business and the media demand that schools function like businesses in a free market economy, competing for students and staff. Many such voices say that such corporate-style school reform is stymied by the teacher unions, which stand in the way of leaders who want unchecked power to assign, reward, punish, or remove their employees. Some academics blame the unions when student achievement remains stagnant. If scores are low, the critics say it must be because of the teachers' contract, not because the district has a weak curriculum or lacks resources or has mediocre leadership. If some teachers are incompetent, it must be because of the contract, not because the district has a flawed, bureaucratic hiring process or has failed to evaluate new teachers before awarding them tenure. These critics want to scrap the contract, throw away teachers' legal protections, and bring teacher unions to their collective knees.

It is worth recalling why teachers joined unions and why unions remain important today. Take tenure, for example. The teacher unions didn't invent tenure, despite widespread beliefs to the contrary. Tenure evolved in the 19th century as one of the few perks available to people who were paid low wages, had classes of 70 or 80 or more, and endured terrible working conditions. In late 19th century New York City, for example, there were no teacher unions, but there was already ironclad, de facto teacher tenure. Local school boards controlled the hiring of teachers, and the only way to get a job was to know someone on the local school board, preferably a relative. Once a teacher was hired, she had lifetime tenure in that school, but only in that school. In fact, she could teach in the same school until she retired—without a pension or health benefits—or died.

One problem with this kind of tenure was that it was not portable. If a teacher changed schools, even in the same district, she would lose her tenure in the school where she was first hired, and she would have to go to the end of the line at her new school.

Pay for teaching was meager, but it was one of the few professional jobs open to women, and most teachers were women. Pay scales were blatantly discriminatory. Teachers in the high schools were paid more than those in the elementary schools. Male teachers (regardless of where they taught, though almost all were in high schools) were paid more than female teachers, on the assumption that they had a family to support and women did not.

I would like to remember some of the forgotten heroes of the movement to establish fair and equitable treatment of teachers in New York City.

First, there was Mary Murphy. She started teaching in the Brooklyn schools in 1891. Ten years later, in 1901, she got married. That was a mistake. When she got married, the Board of Education charged her with gross misconduct and fired her. Teachers were not allowed to marry. She sued the Board. She lost in the lower court, but then won in the state court of appeals, which ruled that marriage "was not misconduct" and ordered the Board of Education to reinstate her.

Second, there was the Interborough Association of Women Teachers. They started a campaign in 1906 to wipe out the salary differentials between male and female teachers. Their slogan was "equal pay for equal work." When the state legislature passed the Association's bill for equal pay, it was vetoed by the governor. These stalwart female teachers finally won pay equity in 1912.

Then there was Bridget Pexitto, a veteran teacher of 18 years in the Bronx. She took advantage of the new right to get married without losing her job. But then she got pregnant. That was a mistake. The Board of Education fired her on charges of "gross negligence by being absent to have a baby." Not only that, the Board ordered the superintendent of schools to discover whether there were any other pregnant teachers in the city's schools. He somehow did a visual inspection of the city's teachers and found 14 of them, and they were promptly suspended from teaching. Bridget Pexitto fought the decision in state court and was eventually reinstated with back pay by the state commissioner of education.

The forerunner to the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) was the New York City Teachers' Union, which was founded in 1916. It was known as Local 2 of the American Federation of Teachers. Its purposes were to fight for improved salaries, to fight against "oppressive supervision," and to defend the rights of teachers like Mary Murphy and Bridget Pexitto.

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Today, the UFT and other teacher unions around the country continue to play important roles in protecting the rights of teachers, especially in the current climate of school reform. There's a common view among corporate-style reformers today that the way to fix low-performing schools is to install an autocratic principal who rules with an iron fist. Many new principals have been trained in quickie programs of a year or less, which try to teach them to think like corporate leaders. Many of the graduates of these new principal programs have little classroom experience, and some have none at all. Many of them lack the judgment and knowledge to make wise decisions about curriculum and instruction or to evaluate seasoned teachers.

When experienced teachers must work under the control of an inexperienced principal, they need the protection of their union against arbitrary and unwise decisions.

Furthermore, to the extent that New York City, where I live, is the wave of the future, then teachers will need their unions more than ever. In New York City, under mayoral control, the mayor—a businessman—and his chancellor—a lawyer—selected a new curriculum in reading and math. They also insisted that all teachers across this system of 1.1 million children adopt exactly the same pedagogical style (the "workshop model"), and they micromanaged teachers' compliance with tight, sometimes daily supervision.

Teachers found that they were in trouble if they did not teach exactly as the mayor and chancellor dictated, if they did not follow the scripted cookie-cutter format of mini-lessons, if their bulletin boards did not meet detailed specifications, or if their classroom furniture was not precisely as prescribed by regulation. In these past few years, I have often been confronted by teachers who asked what they could do when their supervisors and coaches insisted that they teach in ways they (the teachers) believed were wrong. I could only answer that they should be glad they belonged to a union with the power to protect them from "oppressive supervision," to use the term that was familiar to the founders of Local 2 of the AFT.

As it happened, in the contract negotiations of 2005, the UFT successfully added language to the contract that specifically protected teachers from being punished because of: "a) the format of bulletin boards; b) the arrangement of classroom furniture; and c) the exact duration of lesson units."

The union is thus necessary as a protection for teachers against the arbitrary exercise of power by heavy-handed administrators. In our school systems, as in our city, state, and federal governments, we need checks and balances. Just as the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government all act as checks on each other, we need checks and balances in our school systems. It is unwise to centralize all power in one person: the mayor. We need independent lay school boards to hire the superintendent and to hold open public discussions of administrative decisions, and we need independent teacher unions to assure that teachers' rights are protected, to sound the alarm against unwise policies, and to advocate on behalf of sound education policies, especially when administrators are non-educators.

In the current climate, when it is in vogue to select non-educators to administer school systems, it is vital that teachers have a voice. School reform cannot possibly succeed when teachers—who are on the frontlines of implementation—are left out of the decision-making process. If there is no "buy-in," if teachers do not willingly concur with the orders handed down from on high, then reform cannot succeed. If administrators operate by stealth and confrontation, then their plans for reform will founder. They cannot improve what happens in the classroom by humiliating and bossing around the teachers who are in daily contact with the children. Only in an atmosphere of mutual respect can administrators and teachers produce the kind of partnership that will benefit students. And administrators cannot achieve this collaborative atmosphere unless they are willing to talk with and listen to the leaders chosen by teachers to represent them.

The essentials of good education are the same everywhere: a rigorous curriculum, effective instruction, adequate resources, willing students, and a social and cultural climate in which education is encouraged and respected. Teacher unions today, as in the past, must work to make these essentials available in every district for every school and every student. They cannot do it alone. They must work with administrators and elected officials to advance these goals. The unions will continue to be important, vital, and needed so long as they speak on behalf of the rights and dignity of teachers and the essentials of good education.


Diane Ravitch is Research Professor of Education at New York University and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and the Brookings Institution. She was Assistant Secretary of Education under President George H.W. Bush. Her latest book is The English Reader: What Every Literate Person Needs to Know, which she edited with her son Michael, Oxford University Press.