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After 35 years in public education as a high school English teacher and university administrator, I began my second life as a freelance writer, winning San Diego Society of Professional Journalist awards for my opinion columns in the former San Diego daily North County Times and the San Diego Free Press.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Teacher Unions Don't Cause Schools to Fail

For San Diego's North County Times

The steady drumbeat of criticism leveled at public employee unions has become both tiresome and troubling. Tiresome because of the mindless cliches: Public worker jobs are "cushy," their paychecks "fat," their pensions "bloated," and their bonuses "hefty." Teachers are said to be greedy and self-serving, caring more about their own job security, pay and benefits than student learning. It's troubling because the overblown rhetoric makes it harder for people of good will to work together on common problems.

We can't blame unions for the greed, stupidity and shortsightedness that led to our financial woes. Mortgage industry executives, government regulators and our elected leaders had the power to prevent the meltdown.
Comparing North County city budgets and school test scores, it's hard to understand why unions get such a bad rap.

Carlsbad prospers, while Oceanside, Vista and Escondido face cuts to public services. All have strong public employee unions that are now under assault by city officials, either for threatening future prosperity, in Carlsbad's case, or for not bailing out the budgets of the other three. If unions are the problem, you have to wonder why Carlsbad has been left unscathed.

While several schools in Vista and Escondido are threatened with state sanctions because of low test scores, Carlsbad, San Dieguito and Poway schools face none. If unions are spreading an epidemic of failing schools, why are some schools immune?

Unions are blamed for denying administrators the right to lay off teachers based on merit rather than seniority. Good teaching is assumed to be easily recognized, and that experience cannot be trusted as a reliable measure.

Teaching success, like student learning, can be assessed in multiple ways. It's not possible to rank teachers precisely on their effectiveness. When budget shortfalls require layoffs, administrators could take into account the cost of retaining experienced, highly paid teachers, regardless of their effectiveness. Speaking from personal experience, I know I was a far better teacher in my fifth year than my first.

My beef with administrators arises when they hire and award tenure to ineffective teachers, removing students from their classrooms when parents complain. That's an administrative failure, not a matter of union obstruction.

I've never been a union member, but having worked with unions as a state university administrator, I learned that complaints about their obstructiveness were often related to a manager's failure to treat staff members fairly and openly when making tough personnel decisions.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently convened a meeting of school officials and union leaders from across the country to consider how management and labor can develop strong partnerships to improve student learning.

A good start would be to stop the name-calling.

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