In my conversations about education reform around the country, I'm often asked how I think we can get teachers unions to embrace the changes necessary to improve our schools. My answer has been surprising to some, but this is how I see it: I don't think convincing the teachers unions to do what we want them to do should be our focus. Of course, I'd love it if union leaders would call for the kind of policies I'm advocating for, such as tenure reform and ending seniority-based layoffs, but I don't expect them to do that.
The job of a teachers union is to protect the pay and privileges of its members. They are doing exactly what's expected of them. The problem, though, is that the unions have such an excessive influence over our schools. In contrast, the voices of kids and families are sometimes barely audible. Think about it -- a lot of the policies and practices that govern our educational system are there because teachers unions secured them to benefit the adults in our school system, not the kids. I believe there has to be another voice advocating just as hard for the rights and needs of children.
I recently shared my views on this topic with the former head of the Washington Teachers Union, George Parker, and the conversation that followed was interesting. George said he thought the unions had to become more reform-minded. He said it was in their interest to embrace changes that would lead to better student outcomes, not just those that shore up teacher rights. He even said teachers and their unions have to do much more to weed out those among them who aren't doing their jobs well. "Huh," I thought. "That doesn't sound like the standard union line."
As I thought about what George said, I still wasn't convinced union leaders would shift their views, but I was intrigued. I wanted to hear more, and I thought the topic merited a dialogue. So, I asked George if he'd consider becoming a senior fellow at StudentsFirst for a year. I was very glad when he said yes. I hope our fellows will provide us with different viewpoints and challenge our thinking on issues related to education. I know George will do that.
We clearly don't see eye-to-eye on everything. But we worked together when I was the D.C. schools chancellor and he was the head of the local teachers union, and I'm looking forward to working with him again in this new role. Together, he and I came up with a teachers' contract that dramatically changed how D.C. public schools operate. I hope, working together again, we can come up with ideas for improving how schools serve children nationally.
I don't have all the solutions for how to fix our schools, but I know that what we're doing now isn't good enough. Our students score in the middle of the pack or worse on international tests, and our minority and low-income students lag far behind their white, wealthier peers. We can and must do better. I look forward to working with George and others with diverse viewpoints as we try to tackle these problems and build the kind of educational system we want for our kids.
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