This keeps bad teachers in the system, and it keeps out new teachers who have the potential to be great. Indeed, many new teachers become frustrated and simply withdraw from the application process. Those new teachers who do get hired are more often sent to struggling schools in low-income areas, because they are less desirable to the experienced teachers. That is not to say that these new teachers cannot get the job done, but these schools would certainly benefit from having more experienced good teachers who could mentor these new teachers.
Unions also protect the status quo and disrupt meaningful reform through the firing process. President Obama said in the Today Show interview, “what is absolutely true is if we’ve got a bad teacher, we should be able to train them to get better, and if they can’t get better, they should be able to get fired.” But unions have made it nearly impossible to fire bad teachers! As the education reform film Waiting for ‘Superman’points out only 1 in 1000 teachers is fired for performance-related reasons because of tenure. Compare that to 1 in 57 doctors and 1 in 97 lawyers who lose their licenses.
It doesn’t take much to earn tenure as a K-12 teacher, and it is awarded only after a few years of teaching. As Geoffrey Canada, president and CEO of Harlem’s Children Zone says in the film, “if you breathe for two years, you can be granted tenure.” Tenure was originally intended to protect teachers from being fired for frivolous reasons, such as being replaced by a principal’s friends or family or speaking out on political issues. However, today tenure is no longer a matter of due process, but of securing a job for life.
Once a teacher has been granted tenure, there is an exceedingly long process to try and fire that teacher. And if a principal wants to fire a teacher based on continued poor performance, well forget about it. There are far too many hoops to jump through, including numerous evaluations that must be completed based on specific deadlines. These evaluations must be done by several individuals, so meeting the deadlines and completing the evaluations in the “proper” way poses quite a challenge. But if one deadline is missed, then the process must start over.
Even if a teacher should be fired for an egregious action, such as corporal punishment of a student, it is still incredibly difficult to fire that teacher if he/she has tenure. While teachers are going through the disciplinary process, some school districts remove these teachers from the classroom. They send them to places like the infamous “Rubber Room” in New York City, where they do nothing all day and thanks to their union contract they continue to receive full pay and benefits. Some teachers remain in this “absent teacher reserve” status for years, because the firing process is so absurd.
When reformers have tried to combat this problem by getting rid of tenure in exchange for large salary increases based on merit/performance, unions have continually rejected such proposals. This is exactly what former D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee attempted to do, offering to pay teachers salaries in the six figures based on performance. Predictably, the unions said “no” so long as tenure was taken off the table. Tenure effectively makes it impossible to weed out bad teachers by avoiding accountability, and providing students with good teachers one of the most important pieces of education reform.
The question for many may be, “why are unions so effective in pursuing these measures that block reform?” The answer is relatively simple; unions are big and rich, making them extremely powerful. There are two national teachers unions, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA), which control smaller local unions across the country. The NEA is actually the largest union in the country, education or otherwise. Unions get the majority of their money from member dues, which is why they often argue that more teachers are needed as it would guarantee them more paying members.
With all this money and size comes great power, particularly in politics. Unions donate great sums of money to politicians at all levels, mostly to Democrats, providing them with the ability to pressure legislators to remain favorable to the unions’ positions. This is why the Chicago Teachers Union strike put many democrats, particularly Mayor Rahm Emanuel, in a tough spot, making it difficult to support the strike and the union while simultaneously supporting education reform.
This is also why President Obama went on the defensive and labeled union criticism as “teacher-bashing.” But this is simply a tactic to make reformers, especially on the conservative side, appear as if they are against teachers and it distracts from the real issues. The President accused Mitt Romney of politicizing the problem, but it is really Mr. Obama who is playing politics here. Limiting the ability of unions to hinder reforms is an important issue, and must be addressed if we ever hope to make significant changes in education. Rhetoric like that of Mr. Obama only enables unions to continue to impede attempts for meaningful education reform by fighting to maintain the status quo that protects bad teachers and ultimately hurts students.