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Towards Truly Progressive Education Unions

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For reasons that I couldn't at first identify, I struggled to take a side on last month's battles over collective bargaining in Wisconsin. It wasn't clear what a truly progressive position on the firestorm would be. I found myself pulled in both directions. Then I read a post by Whitney Tilson that helped me clarify my thoughts on the situation:

I have mixed feelings about what's happening in WI. On the one hand, I think that the public sector unions in many states became so politically powerful that they were, in effect, negotiating with themselves and were thus able to get pay and, more importantly, long term pension and healthcare benefits that will bankrupt many states and municipalities. These deals will have to be renegotiated... That said, I think what Gov. Walker is trying to do in WI is going way too far -- to the point where it's mostly politically motivated union busting... If Gov. Scott's motives are so pure and high-minded -- he claims that he's just trying to address a budget crisis -- then why did he give a $140 million tax cut to his corporate supporters?

I knew that I wasn't particularly fired up about the situation in Wisconsin for a reason, and Tilson helped me understand that reticence. Like most American progressives, I'm reflexively pro-union. I know that workers need a voice to advocate for their interests when negotiating with their employers (public or private). I also believe that teachers are criminally underpaid (on the order of two or three times too little). I find the Republican Party's strategy -- cut taxes and then declare that we have no money for the lower and middle classes -- both logically and politically insane.

But I also know that teachers unions, in their current iteration, have lost their way. While teaching first grade in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, I saw the local union repeatedly step in to prevent the dismissal of incompetent, unqualified teachers. As a progressive, as a teacher whose students averaged more than two years of reading growth during my first year in the classroom, this made me apoplectic. This is particularly unjust because our schools are deeply segregated along socioeconomic lines. Our nation's worst teachers are clustered in our poorest neighborhoods, serving our neediest students -- and they have the same tenure protections as our best teachers (I'll bet you can guess which communities they're clustered in...). Until teachers unions show themselves willing to work on serious reforms to address this national injustice, many progressives will struggle to get fired up to defend them. In George Parker's (the former president of the Washington Teachers Union) words, "to improve education in this country, union presidents are going to have to get in front of reform."

(I should note that these aren't casually developed, armchair quarterback positions. I hold graduate degrees in government and education, and I've published arguments for all of these positions in a variety of venues.)

This tension has been dormant on the Left for a long time. John Dewey, one of American progressivism's guiding intellects, was an early advocate (and founder) of several unions for educators (e.g. the AFT and AAUP). This is why union leaders proudly tout Dewey as a fellow traveler. In a 1933 speech titled "The Crisis in Education," he worried that teachers would be victimized in an era of "increasing responsibilities" and "decreasing resources." Here, and elsewhere, Dewey argued that teachers work warranted more resources and better working conditions. From his mouth to my ears.

Of course, it's not quite that simple. Dewey also believed that the United States was in desperate need of a unified national educational program to build a "Great" American community. In Liberalism and Social Action, "Toward a National System of Education," and The Public and Its Problems, Dewey argued that educational centralization would help to level the playing field between wealthy and impoverished school districts. This meant more standardization of expectations (if not curriculum), and it prioritized educational outcomes instead of sanctifying specific means for pursuing them. It goes without saying that this is considerably less congenial to unions who decry government intrusion into classrooms.

Dewey believed that this latter process could be (and should be) driven by teachers own expertise. Still, he made it clear that education was, above all, a means for making our country more just. Teachers should be agents for change, particularly in America's underserved communities. In an essay titled "Nationalizing Education," he wrote:

Since our democracy means the substitution of equal opportunity for all the old-world ideal of unequal opportunity for different classes and the limitation of the individual by the class to which he belongs, to nationalize our education is to make the public school an energetic and willing instrument in developing initiative, courage, power and personal ability in each individual. So I appeal to teachers in the face of every hysterical wave of emotion, and of every subtle appeal of sinister class interest, to remember that they above all others are the consecrated servants of the democratic ideas in which alone this country is truly a distinctive nation.

As one of the original American pragmatists, Dewey spent his career reflecting on his political positions and adjusting them when necessary to better serve democratic ideals. In that spirit, then, it's time for a reevaluation of our education policies. If most teachers unions are unwilling to accept even basic accountability programs for the nation's teachers, are they living up to America's highest ideals? Are they providing all children with an equal chance to succeed? Meanwhile, we should also ask if we are paying teachers enough to demand that they demonstrate excellence as instructors? Are we giving them enough day-to-day support? If not, Dewey's words should weigh heavy on our shoulders -- progressives and conservatives alike.