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  • Writer's pictureTL Zempel

2/19: Education vs. the Teachers' Unions

Updated: Mar 19

Today’s journal topic has been fomenting in my mind for the last few weeks. I mention it briefly in my book, at various points, and sometimes I wish I had pounded it more. The truth about teachers’ unions is a grim one, and it’s something we must address seriously before education can be improved.

That is because the unions control everything about the deployment of education: how teachers are hired, how children and teachers are assigned to classrooms, what can be expected of teachers, what is allowed in the oversight of teachers, and what protocols can be used to get rid of unfit teachers. This last one is actually a misnomer because the public schools cannot get rid of unfit teachers without a felony or misdemeanor attached.

But think about that list. I’ll address the first two items today, starting with how teachers are hired. It’s a farce. Any process where the job candidate is given the script of interview questions prior to the interview cannot be judged to have merit.

Yet this is what the NEA has directed all its district locals to require: candidates must be given the questions with enough time to prepare (read: research on the internet) – usually at least 15 minutes. So, there you have it: a candidate arriving a half hour prior to an interview, researching and jotting on a piece of paper as fast as she can great answers to the questions she has been given. That list itself has been approved by the union. The committee was given around 15 questions that are allowable and pulled maybe eight for their interviews.

Some sample questions from previous committees I have sat on: • What’s your philosophy of education? • What are the best reading (math, writing) programs you’re familiar with? • How do you see yourself fitting into a teaching team? • What culture do you value in a school setting? • What is your management style? (No teacher who tends to be authoritarian is going to admit that in an interview. Knowing this question would be asked, the candidate probably already has researched restorative justice and will parrot some response about that being empowering to kids, a current buzz phrase.) • What can you, personally, bring to our program? (This could be a valid question if follow-up questions were allowed. But they’re not. It could also net some insight to a candidate’s demeanor if she hadn’t been allowed to research responses on the internet beforehand.) • Is there anything else you want us to know about you?

The truth is that the candidate with the most cheerful personality is likely to get the job. She also has to have been able to parrot back her researched responses in a persuasive way. The principal cares about the second idea more than the colleagues of the teacher will. What colleagues care about is how easy and nice the person will be to work with. Is that really the best way to hire a quality teacher, however?

Teachers should be hired for a demonstrated ability to teach. This means watching them teach. Interviews are held in early spring for job openings the next fall. Teachers who are interviewing for a first-grade job should have that interview and then demonstrate a lesson on a different day, with a classroom of children that already exists in the school. Furthermore, once they are offered the job, they should have a 60-day trial period in the fall during which they are observed closely, nearly every day, by experts in teaching reading at the first-grade level. We’re talking about setting children up for life. This should be given prime importance in the education scheme.

But it’s not. Requiring teaching candidates to prove they can teach is a nonstarter with the unions. Why? Isn’t the ability to effectively instruct, using practices that are deemed to be ‘best’, the reason teaching exists as a profession?

Another reason unions damage education for students is that they also control how teachers and students are placed into classrooms. It’s not by the expertise or experience of the teacher, or by the needs of the students; it’s by a fairness quotient that spreads the first graders evenly among the four or so teachers who will work with them. This means that every teacher must have an equal number of English Language Learners (ELL’s), special ed students (IEP’s), advanced learners, behavior issues, and typical learners. This same teacher is charged with differentiating curriculum and instruction for all of them. It’s not doable, so teachers implement differentiation in a type-casting way that will reach those students most likely to respond positively.

Imagine if those needing special help (the IEP’s and ELL’s) were placed with a teacher who has expertise in those fields. That teacher would also be given fewer students to work with and extra help, because that’s what will benefit the students! But today’s classrooms are not about benefitting students; they’re about appeasing teachers who want everything to be fair for themselves!

What if the advanced students were placed with a teacher who specializes in gifted education; their reading level could blossom to third grade and beyond if their teacher weren’t also trying to teach a group of students who can’t quite get a handle on the idea of phonics. But separating the gifted students from those who will slow them down is even more of a nonstarter with the unions. It’s not fair to the other teachers. All too often in America’s classrooms, the entire class moves at the pace of the slowest members who are often lagging at least a year behind.

Homogeneous grouping of learners, the practice of assigning placements according to capacity for learning, is eschewed not only by the unions, but also by so-called experts who have research data that proves all students can learn when they are placed in mixed-ability groups. What these experts do not mention is that this research is conducted in controlled situations, not authentic classrooms.

We must meet the needs of our students. That should be the primary focus of anyone in education, and especially of our politicians. Until we can loosen the stranglehold the unions have on how teachers are hired and how personnel are deployed, we will not be able to do that.

My book, Chaos in Our Schools, proposes a plan for giving students what they need, both academically and in a social-emotional sense. Here’s a peek at it:

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