Collectively, Not a Bargain for America

Are teachers unions and collective bargaining bad for STEM education? One technology expert shares his opinion.

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One impact collective bargaining does have is to drive up the cost of public education. The latest data (2008) from the National Center for Education Statistics, the research arm for the U.S. Department of Education, claims that 89 percent of the $600 billion annually spent on K-12 public education in America goes into two buckets: teacher/administrative salaries (67 percent) and employee benefits (22 percent). Bottom line: expenditures per pupil skyrocketed 140 percent during the analyzed period while there was literally no improvement in math and reading scores, and science scores actually dropped.

Randi Weingarten, the current president of the American Federation of Teachers, the country's second largest teacher union, joined Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates for a discussion on how to improve public education in America. In the article, which ran in a December 2010 issue of Newsweek, Weingarten makes an amazing admission when she says, "The United States, instead of moving ahead, is actually stagnating. We're basically in the same place we've been. Our schools have to fundamentally be different today than they were 100 years ago, 50 years ago. And yet our schools are still organized for the industrial age rather than the knowledge economy."

Frederick M. Hess, of the American Enterprise Institute, and Martin R. West from The Brookings Institute, who collaborated to write a Harvard University funded report entitled "A Better Bargain: Overhauling Teacher Collective Bargaining for the 21st Century," would agree with Weingarten's observation about 20th century schools. Hess and West claim, "Today's teacher collective bargaining agreements are vestiges of the industrial economic model that prevailed in the 1950s, when assembly-line workers and low-level managers were valued less for their knowledge or technical skills than for their longevity and willingness to serve loyally as a cog-in-a-top-down enterprise. Collective bargaining contracts are especially problematic on three fronts: 1) they restrict efforts to use compensation as a tool to recruit, reward and retain the most essential and effective teachers, 2) they impede attempts to assign or remove teachers on the basis of fit or performance and 3) they over-regulate school life with work rules that stifle creative problem solving without demonstrably improving teachers' ability to serve students."

I recently took a walk on a Cape Cod beach with a friend who had just retired from teaching Latin for 30 years in a public school system in northern New Jersey. I asked him what the biggest challenge in public education was, including STEM subjects. His reply: "Retention of teachers is the biggest issue by far. How schools assign new teachers is byzantine. In public education the newest, least-experienced teacher is often given the most difficult teaching assignment in the school. Why? Because collective bargaining agreements give the best and most desirable teaching assignments to current staff in the spring of the prior school year."

Page 26 of the New York City teacher contract clearly defines how teachers pick assignments for the coming school year. (You can read it for yourself here). The contract language underscores my friend's point of view when it explicitly states: "Early in the spring, time should be devoted at a faculty conference to a discussion of the procedures to be used in making assignments for the coming year. At that time, teachers should be given the opportunity to fill out preference sheets indicating three preferences in order of priority of grade level and type of class."

Seems benign, doesn't it? But it is not. The new recruits, hired after that meeting, are assigned the classes -- usually the most difficult ones -- that the current staff doesn't want. And that one arcane work rule is a primary reason why 46 percent of new teachers leave the profession after five years -- many of them young, enthusiastic teachers who just couldn't put up with the system any longer. I met recently with a former teacher who fits this profile. Five years into her career as a high school physics teacher, this graduate of the California Institute of Technology just up and quit with no job in hand. I asked her why she resigned and she replied, "I became disillusioned with the lack of interest by school administrators, my fellow teachers, and my professors in graduate school, in how to continually improve as a teacher. I am a goal-driven person. And utter disinterest in striving for goals within the system created an environment that was toxic for me."

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