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The Troubling Teacher Union Strategy

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America's teacher unions are embracing a strategy that could diminish their profession and, over time, undermine education. By engineering a no-confidence vote in New York State Education Commissioner John King and retreating from prior commitments to high standards and accountability, the union risks losing public support for schools.

The New York State Teachers Union (NYSUT) signed on to New York's successful Race to the Top application, which required New York to develop a system of evaluating and supporting teachers and to adopt higher standards, calling it, "Good for students and fair to teachers." New York has been a national leader in driving these reforms and is also the first state to administer a test aligned with higher standards. The results show that too many New York students are not on track to college or work. New York's unions, teachers and administrators deserve credit for being in the vanguard and facing the truth.

Systemic change is hard, however, and the transition has not been smooth. Some teachers are calling for more training on the new standards. Some parents are shocked by the test results. Some students feel pressure. And many local administrators are just nodding in agreement and hoping for relief.

But rather than rolling up their sleeves, coming together and making the current school year more successful, NYSUT has walked off the field and demanded a change in the rules -- a three-year moratorium on accountability. Both national teacher unions have loudly supported this demand.

This comes at a time when educators and elected officials, including New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and President Obama, are seeking more money for early learning. Meanwhile, many education advocates want an expanded safety net and smaller class sizes. Still others, including Education Secretary Arne Duncan, support higher teacher salaries.

How can anyone expect more money for schools while unions are pushing for a moratorium on accountability? Worse yet, the retreat from accountability will fuel the voucher movement and efforts to defund education -- the real agenda of some Tea Party backers. The pushback in New York helps make their case that teacher unions are unwilling to be partners in efforts to improve schools.

Beyond that, there is a credibility issue. No one believes that after a three-year moratorium, teacher unions will suddenly embrace accountability and evaluation. Some of their allies are already arguing we should drop these reforms altogether.

It is also hard to sympathize with the anti-accountability effort when, under most state teacher evaluation systems the percentage of ineffective teachers is in the low single digits. In New York this year it is just one percent. Ironically, teacher surveys from Chicago and Tennessee suggest they increasingly appreciate their evaluations. As for school-based accountability, under No Child Left Behind and the Obama administration's waiver policy, the overwhelming majority of interventions require no staffing changes beyond replacing principals. Wholesale dismissal of teachers is the exception not the rule, not to mention the fact that many dismissed teachers eventually get rehired.

Despite these reasonable and flexible policies, anti-accountability voices scream hysterically about "teacher-bashing," "privatization" and "test-obsessed, corporate reformers." They are like parents who keep telling their children horror stories before bed and then they complain when the kids wake up with nightmares.

National surveys affirm that the public supports accountability and strongly suggest they won't support more funding without it. In some places, like Hillsborough County, Florida and New Haven, Connecticut, unions are embracing reform and leading the changes that will strengthen their profession and improve student learning. NYSUT should follow suit, both for the kids and for the union movement.

Union membership in America has been declining for more than 50 years. In a world of increasing income inequality, we need unions to create counter-pressure for higher wages. We need unions to hold corporations accountable and fight for the middle class. When teachers with masters degrees and adjunct college professors with PHD'S are struggling to make ends meet, something is awry. When companies like Caterpillar can simultaneously announce record profits and a six-year wage freeze, something is really out of whack.

But unions have to change. In addition to fighting for their members, they need to be partners in the bottom line. For auto workers it means they are also in the business of selling cars; for government workers, it means they are also in the business of delivering public services efficiently; and for teachers, it means they are also in the business of improving schools and helping kids learn -- which is what drew most teachers to the field in the first place.

Children have only one chance for an education. Taking a pass on accountability for one year, let alone three, is an abdication of our collective responsibility. Teachers have legitimate concerns about the transition to higher standards and they should be addressed, but a moratorium will only undermine kids, schools and unions. Let's find another way forward together.