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The Impact of Teacher Unionization Upon the Education of Students

Introduction

Teacher unions were formed basically to give teachers a collective bargaining power and a way to air their views. According to statistics by the NEA and AFT by the year 2004 an estimated 45% of the teachers in public schools are members of one union or another1. Teacher loyalists have argued that there is a definite connection between empowering teachers and the level of students’ achievement. They tend to draw a conclusion that if teachers are empowered to the level that they are comfortable with the remuneration and adequate control of their day to day activities without sticking to regulations put in place by government.

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Background on Teacher Unions

Founded in 1916 the American Federation of Teachers was meant to stand for teachers’ interests that include professional, social and economic interests and operated as an affiliate of the AFL-CIO which is internationally recognized. The main mission of this union was to help improve the lives of those in the teaching profession, by voicing their concerns and visions. In addition, it was also meant to help improve the general standards of the schools in which the teachers work in through quality management. The AFT was also meant to support its members’ rights, democracy and freedom in the U.S. and eventually throughout the world.

AFT has always been governed by elected officials since its formation. It also hosts the QUEST conference which is meant to address quality issues within the teaching profession. The union fights for the maintenance of high standards in teaching and policy implementation in public schools. It also stands for setting of high standards and professionalism in the staff in schools in order to improve on education standards in public schools to make them more competitive.

The NEA (National Education Association) was founded in 1857 by a group of teachers to create a voice for the public educators. In 1966 the NEA combined with the ATA in order to streamline their values and objectives. The union has currently expanded to over three million members making it the biggest teacher union in the US. NEA has always been keeping up with the dynamism in the education sector and voicing the concerns of teachers and students. The NEA views itself as the voice of the professionals in the education sector. They advocate for the improvement of public school facilities for all students; the unity of all the professionals in the education sector and improve students’ performance; in addition they fight for equal opportunities, promoting justice in the society, promoting democracy, professionalism, partnership within the various stakeholders, and collective action2.

The NEA has a set of core set of principles which make up their core values, mission and vision. These set of principles include: An outstanding public school system that should be made available to all students; To represent the views of professionals in the education system and promote unity in its members in order to make their students especially those in public schools be able to be successful in a range of professional fields; Provision of equal opportunity and promotion of democracy through the public school system; To work hand in hand with the communities and other concerned parties in the areas they operate in to improve the quality of education in relation to the expectations of these parties; And to improve the quality of teaching, the general performance of their students, improve the security in public schools all in an aim to make public schools better facilities to learn in3.

The NYSUT (New York State United Teacher) was founded in 1953 through the efforts of Emanuel Kafka. During the beginning periods of its formation the NYSUT was lead by school administrators making the organization less effective as it did not represent the views of classroom teachers in New York as it was earlier required. Currently, the union boasts a membership of more than half a million members. These members consist of teachers, faculty from universities and colleges, and other non teaching staff in schools. The union draws substantial influence from its affiliation to the AFT, NEA and the AFL-CIO4.

The NYSUT is also composed of 1200 unions in the New York state; each of these local unions represents their own people. The local unions are roughly made up of unions which have as many as UFT’s 140,000 members in the state to smaller unions of about 10 members. Currently, their main dedications are on improving the teachers’ working conditions, the quality of education, and the healthcare for the citizens of New York. The NYSUT elects its representatives from the grassroots who are drawn from the local unions and the national unions. These representatives are elected by the Assembly of Representatives to manage the staff that manages the union’s affairs.

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The UFT is also a New York based teacher union with a member base of close to a quarter of a million. This union is known to be the largest single representatives for New York’s non-supervisory educators from public schools. It also represents educators from charter schools and other staff from schools such as secretaries, counselors, and laboratory technicians5. The UFT founded on the view of representing teachers with the aim of making the education of students better as the needs of students and teachers should be addressed hand in hand6. Like the other smaller unions the UFT is also affiliated to the AFT, NYSUT and registered by the New York City Central Labor Council and the globally recognized AFL-CIO.

Unionization and Students’ Education

Monitoring and evaluating student progress using the grades being earned, and the gradual achievement from middle to high school is a good way of knowing whether students will actually graduate. Statistics released by the NCES (National Center for Education Statistics) in 2002 on the accumulation of grades and dropout rate depended on students’ characteristics. This report showed that: the dropout rates in high school were higher with time, while the level of grades that were acquired had an increased disparity. In addition the findings also showed that the dropout rates were the same regardless of race, economic status, or sex of the students7.

Some of the researches conducted have tried to show the connection between the performance of students and affiliation of school to unions. In addition, they have also tried to explain why the affiliation affects students’ achievement. It can be said that unions can be a factor that improves the performance of students together with other factors put in play e.g. the use of smaller classes8. The most promising explanations to date for unionization’s positive effects are: firstly, standardization of the school environment, and secondly, more tightly-coupled schools.

The process of setting up minimum standards of schools, evidence from researches such as those carried out by Randall et al have shown that the standardization of publics schools might have a direct impact on the students in the schools. Another study by Eberts showed that unionism may help to improve the standards in subjects used in the study such as math in the areas of instructional and program based exams for the set of students used in the studies9. In particular, this might be a reason based on the fact that students may be spending very little time with tutors, independent study programs and tutors in most unionized schools. In classrooms standardization improves the performance of the average students. It may also lead to the channeling of funds and resources from specialized plans and practices that would have been beneficial to the top cream and the poorest performing students. This shows that while standardization makes students in the average performing ranges do even better, it also leads to the deprivation of that quality to the best students and the poorest performers in schools. With this disadvantage unionization may end up leading to inequality and harmful effects to the type of students mentioned to be disadvantaged by this system.

Some researchers have distinguished schools organizational formation as loosely coupled organizations. Basically, interactions between principals and teachers are infrequent on a day-to-day basis. This is in comparison to the other types of employees working for other business organizations; teachers tend to have the independence to carry out their business as they wish in the classrooms using their own judgments. The rates at which their practices are supervised and evaluated are far spaced out. This might be a major communication barrier in the institutions of learning. The communication of factors such as goals, changes in some basic methods of operation and the following up of goals and some formal organizational ties may suffer as a result. This makes interdependency highly reduced in the given organizational setup, making the fate of the students squarely lie on the teachers. Therefore when the teachers are not well motivated and lack of someone to take care of their rights, it may factor a great deal in the performance of the students.

For these reasons, unions such as the NEA have made it a priority to support programs that will reduce student dropout rates. These investments have been planned by the union in the tune of ten billion dollars which had been spread in the period of ten years with the first installment being done in 2008. This is all in an effort to reduce the rate of dropouts which is prevalent in high schools which have effects such as wastage of the tax payers’ money, reduction in the employment rate due to under qualification, and increased crime rates. The programs that the union invested in meant to make school programs more practical and relevant to the real world experiences and giving more attention to students who are struggling.

Unions have influenced education of students in the following ways: Influencing the quality of teaching; modernizing and improving the education system; finding ways to make higher education affordable; and coming up with ways to improve performance of students.

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Effects on Teaching Quality

Unions have greatly influenced the teaching quality through many ways from licensing to peer reviews. Researchers such as Randall Elbert have found out that quality has a huge effect on the performance of students. Therefore, it is paramount that the standards of teachers be kept high and the inflow of well trained, highly qualified, correctly selected teachers maintained at all costs. The AFT works in collaboration with universities to maintain a high level of teachers through training, licensing, and strict recruitment processes.

As a belief of AFT the best ways of maintaining a stable influx of high quality teachers is by making teacher education available at the college levels and strengthening it to keep the qualities high. This would enable them to create a pool of professionals who are knowledgeable in their fields and are comfortable in teaching whichever subjects they are teaching. However, the union also supports other methods of certifying teachers such as the state teacher-testing exams in the relevant fields. Further, the union also provides support for monitoring teacher performance in classrooms, providing the necessary coursework, and necessary support services to develop the best teaching skills out of a teacher.

Most licenses are given out by states in which the teachers are registered to teach in and many of them require that the candidate covers to completion a specified teacher education program which the candidate has to score a minimum of 2.5. Majority of the state exams are meant to cover the following set of quality issues: to evaluate the level of skill and knowledge of the applicant and not the knowledge of the college course work; use of a diverse methods of testing for issuance of licenses; and the removal of bottlenecks where there is a shortfall of the required quantity of teachers.

Another aspect of improving the quality of the teachers in the classrooms is the provision of students with high quality instruction. As a result of inflation it has been difficult to maintain competitive pay packages that will attract high quality instructors. The AFT works in partnership with committed members of the public and other organizations to improve the standards of the schools that are more difficult to staff by creating more opportunities, housing, providing opportunities for career growth, enabling group transfers on request, pension plans and improving the security in the areas to enable teachers to come to the areas.

In an effort to improve the attract professionals, most unions such as the NEA and the AFT have a step further to provide paths for career growth in some public schools in some states. This is done by implementing a system in the schools such that teachers are provided with opportunities for further studies and promotions. This process is continuous and it makes teachers want to come to these schools and stay there probably for the long-term. In return it’s the students who benefit through these programs as they tend to get the best teachers.

Improvements and Modernization

Large amounts of funds from unions have been channeled into reconstruction, modernization and general improvements of public schooling facilities. Statistics from the NEA and AFT expenditures show that a third of the public schools and campuses are in urgent need of reconstructions and improvements on others to keep up with the changing times. Of this figure, about two-thirds are due to extreme and hardship environments. Majority of the public schools cannot pocket the huge costs needed for infrastructural developments and technological innovation which come with provision of access to computers and computerized system and the internet.

Effects on Higher Education Affordability

The teacher unions through the AFC-CIO founded scholarships in 1986 which would enable needy and bright students to pursue post secondary education. For this reason union activists have for a longtime been lobbying for policymakers to provide continued support for public tertiary institutions. From AFT’s records, since 1992 the scholarship has awarded more than two-million dollars to students coming from working families in the U.S. to support them in university education. The selection criteria is basically by merit of which deserving students who are already enrolled in university or planning to enroll get scholarships worth a maximum of $4000 and a minimum of $500. The program is very competitive as more than 5000 applicant’s contests for the few places per year. The rigorous selection process is carried out by representatives from the public colleges taking the students in.

Teacher Unions’ Positions on Educational Reforms and Merit Pays

Merit pay became a policy consideration in the United States public schools in the early nineteen eighties, when the political arena was forced to bear the issue of student’s performance and teacher’s productivity. However, conventional merit pay strategies have not been effective because of being poorly designed and it has not fully involved the teacher’s participation in the process. In addition, merit plans don’t acknowledge the unionism and other teachers’ work. “The togetherness culture of the teaching fraternity is vital for the success of school reformation, and the merit pay plans seems to be a barrier to these goal”10. It is also believed that the merit pay plans has the potential of making it had for other educational reforms to happen which solely depend on the teachers full participation and enthusiasm.

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Presidents Obama is proposing a system where teachers’ pay is tied to performance of their students and extent of expansion of innovation. The idea of merit pay had in the past been met with hostility from Teacher unions and their members. In addition he is also proposing for an increase in the school days and years in order to increase the competitiveness of American Children globally.

Obama’s solutions which were inclusive of charter schools and teacher pay has been received with some resistance by an important section of the Democratic Party which is largely constituted by Union loyalists. He acknowledged this conflict stating that even though this proposal might have made a difference in the way students are taught, a lot of his party supporters have met it resistance. However, despite the history behind Unions and this proposal, Union leaders have welcomed the proposal acknowledging it publicly as a decision that will be made through their involvement which President Bush’s administration did not do.

Commenting on this proposal, AFE’s president Randi Weingarten said that there finally is a president who cares about education. He added that as Union they embrace the idea that the president talked of ensuring that there is a voice for teachers and a sense of collective responsibility which the former president did not consider. While in another interview Dennis van Roekel the NEA president acknowledged that they will support the proposal from the fact that Obama was going to work with them in its implementation. He added that,” it was a wonderful thing for the president of the U.S. to acknowledge and consider professional knowledge and expert skills that the educators carry with them in the jobs they carry out.”11

Teacher Unions’ Positions on School Choices

Majority of teacher Unions are opposed to the idea of letting parents choose schools for their children. For example the NEA spent around 3 million dollars to wage a campaign in Utah during a referendum against a proposal by Governor Jon Huntsman to sign the proposition meant to allow parents to choose schools for their children into law. NEA won the referendum, as the Utah voters rejected the proposal. In a similar referendum in California and Michigan voters also rejected the proposals under the umbrella-ship of the NEA in 2000. The NEA president then Bob Chase described this as a final blow to a bad idea.

Tom (pg 224), said that, “unions have vital importance in the education sector. He went on to say that NEA’s has established fundamental position as depicted by its leadership regime point of view’12. Tom then concludes that the possibility of NEA campaigning for school choice is slight, although NEA has an urge to continue to push its will in the political debate. Even though most the moves to enact school choice regulation have been beaten at the ballot, other activists have used other means to win. These losses at the ballot just seemed to be huddles slowing the anti-school-vouchers down. In states such as Florida and Pennsylvania scholarship programs were introduced which were used to serve a good population of about 50000 students majority of them from financially needy families. Despite moves like these the Unions still stand behind their voucher system and allocate schools to students.

Conclusion

The failure of the NCLB Act (No Child Left Behind)13 has lead to unions especially the NEA to come up with other proposals to tackle educational matters for the good of the students. The NEA has submitted the ESEA Act (Elementary and Secondary Education Act) to congress for authorization in place of the current NCLB Act. With the six years experience with the former Act, its negative effects for parents, students and teachers, and its subsequent failure, has been enough reason to overhaul the whole Act14.

The NEA’s proposed Act is supposed to; make the government work with the unions in the sector of transforming public schools. This partnership is required more so at all levels of the government; local, federal, and state to enable the equitable distribution of educational resources to all parts of the country. In addition this Act is meant to improve and support innovation in students to enable them to cope with life after their high school education.

This Act is also meant to ensure that students and more so those from disadvantaged backgrounds are provided with access to educational facilities that will improve their competitiveness and enable them succeed after school. The government is required to shift its focus to improving the quality of education in the early stages of children’s life as well as child care programs. In addition, the programs should provide mentorship to parents or guardians to enable them make the right decisions for their children. Furthermore, healthcare services should be made available so that the poor should not be faced with situations that disrupt their educational progress.

There are challenges involved in the implementation of any new policy, for example the implementation of performance contracts by the teacher unions may have technical difficulties as well as political difficulties. Teachers Unions do have a considerable roles to play in schools especially on the academic performance of the students. It has been found out that teachers’ unions do not only affect the teachers’ welfare or labor market but also incredibly affects the students’ performance. An article written by Randall Elbert 1984 p 96 describes the examination of teacher unions and their bargaining power and their effect on student outcome and the present educational policies.

For the effects of unionization to be felt further, there ought to be a change in the way policy makers view unions. They should see unions as friends and not foes and partners in the same sector. In addition, policy makers should also reconsider the proposals put forward to them by unions as these are professionals who put the success of the education system at heart and if the above recommendations are taken into consideration then there will be a resultant improvement in the academic performance of the students in the schools.

Bibliography

  1. Dorothy, Callaci. “Data reports can’t be used to evaluate teachers.” NYSUT. 2008.
  2. Eberts, Randall and Stone, J. Teacher Unions and the Cost of Public Education; Economic Inquiry 24: 631-643, 1986.
  3. Grimes, Paul and Charles, A. Registered “Teachers’ Unions and Student Achievement in High School Economics.” Journal of Economic Education 21: 297-308, 1990.
  4. Tom, Loveless. Conflicting missions?: Teachers unions and educational reform. Brookings Institution Press, 2000.
  5. McGuinn, Patrick, J. Federal education policy of 1965-2005: No Child Left Behind. Kansas, University Press of Kansas, 2006.
  6. Murphy, M. Blackboard Unions: The AFT and the NEA, 1900-1980. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990.
  7. National Education Association “Issues and actions” 2002 – 2009.
  8. National Education Association Handbook 2000-2001(Washington, D.C.: National Education Association). American Federation of Teachers.
  9. New York State United Teachers. A Union of Professionals, 2009.
  10. Selden, C. The Teacher’s Rebellion, Washington: Harvard University Press, 1985.
  11. The United Federation of Teachers “A Union of Professionals”, 2008.
  12. United States Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 1970: User’s Manual for 1970 Census Fourth Count (Population): School District Data Tape [Computer File]. ICPSR Version (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics [producer], 1970. Ann Arbor, MI: Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research [distributor], 2004.
  13. Verania, H. and Nina, S. Classroom Connection: Excellence for All.” NEA press center, 2002.

Footnotes

  1. M. Murphy. Blackboard Unions: The AFT and the NEA, 1900-1980. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990.
  2. National Education Association: “Issues and actions.” 2002 – 2009.
  3. Paul, G. and Charles, A. Registered “Teachers’ Unions and Student Achievement in High School Economics.” Journal of Economic Education 21: 297-308, 1990.
  4. New York State United Teachers. A Union of Professionals, 2009.
  5. New York State United Teachers. A Union of Professionals, 2009.
  6. Selden, C. The Teacher’s Rebellion, Washington: Harvard University Press, 1985.
  7. United States Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 1970: User’s Manual for 1970 Census Fourth Count (Population): School District Data Tape [Computer File]. ICPSR Version (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics [producer], 1970. Ann Arbor, MI: Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research [distributor], 2004.
  8. H. Verania and Nina, S. Classroom Connection: Excellence for All.” NEA press center, 2002.
  9. Randall, Eberts and Stone, J. Teacher Unions and the Cost of Public Education; Economic Inquiry 24: 631-643, 1986.
  10. Loveless, Tom. Conflicting missions?: Teachers unions and educational reform (Brookings Institution Press, 2000), pp 228.
  11. Callaci, Dorothy. “Data reports can’t be used to evaluate teachers.” NYSUT. 2008.
  12.  Loveless, Tom. Conflicting missions?: Teachers unions and educational reform (Brookings Institution Press, 2000), pp 224.
  13. McGuinn, Patrick, J. Federal education policy of 1965-2005: No Child Left Behind. Kansas, University Press of Kansas, 2006.
  14. McGuinn, Patrick, J. Federal education policy of 1965-2005: No Child Left Behind. Kansas, University Press of Kansas, 2006.

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StudyCorgi. "The Impact of Teacher Unionization Upon the Education of Students." November 26, 2021. https://studycorgi.com/the-impact-of-teacher-unionization-upon-the-education-of-students/.

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