For People Who Haven’t Been In School For A While: Teachers’ Unions

Teachers’ Unions, the argument:

Teachers formed unions so they wouldn’t have to work so much, and they’d get paid more for doing less.  They get lavish pensions and benefits (even summers off!), while people in the private sector are seeing their salaries and benefits cut.  Because of unions, teachers can get tenured, which means they don’t have to worry about being fired.  No other profession demands more money and more benefits without being accountable for achieving results.

The complication:

Tenure has never meant that you can’t be fired.  Not at the college level, and not for K-12 teachers.  Tenure for most K-12 teachers means that the employer must go through a formal process before being fired, like a hearing with the school board.  Tenured teachers can be, and are, fired.  Teachers formed unions for money and benefits, but also so they wouldn’t be fired for getting married, or giving detention to the principal’s son, or going to the wrong church.  Tenure for K-12 teachers is sort of like academic freedom,  and sort of like malpractice insurance.  Classrooms are isolated, volatile places.

Also tricky:

Summers off may seem lavish, but even with that perk, about half of beginning teachers quit within the first five years.   Schools invest lots of money in professional development for all those teachers, and it doesn’t pay off very well when half of them leave the profession.

Tenure for college professors protects academic freedom, and may well have contributed to the prestige that American universities enjoy around the world.  Creativity and debate are protected.  Are teachers of younger students less worthy of academic freedom?  (Unfortunately, more and more college teachers are adjuncts without tenure or benefits– but that’s another story.)

Finally, many professions are judged by standards more subtle and delicate than a simple numbers-count of productivity: medicine, for one.  Education is a lot more like medicine than it is like working on an assembly line.  Different cases.  Different results.  Sometimes as a result of the interventions attempted, sometimes not.  Peer review, peer research, and state licensing provide the necessary checks and balances.

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