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Which side are you on? -- Florence Reece, Harlan County, 1931

There seemed to be a lot of handwringing in some circles with the resignation this week of Michelle Rhee, the chancellor of the DC Schools and one of the stars of the documentary Waiting for Superman. It's hard for me to muster much remorse for the end of her tenure, as despite being seen as one of the most outspoken advocates for education reform in this country, I don't really see that she's done that much to turn around a struggling school system. But more damning, I think, is that as someone who has been positioned by the media and the powerful as an "education pioneer," Rhee's rhetoric has been, in my mind, vehemently anti-teacher union.

And despite the excuses I always hear -- "Oh, I'm anti-union, but I'm not anti-teacher" -- I have a hard time believing that you can so easily separate the two.

Let me pause here to say, I realize that unions are far from perfect. I have a lot of conflicted feelings about unions as I think that, in this country at least, that many unions have dropped the ball when it comes to being a radical voice for political, cultural and economic transformation. Rather than challenging the system, some unions have established a bureaucracy of complacency. I tend to hold a grudge, and I remember being on the streets of Seattle on November 30, 1999 getting tear-gassed and pepper-sprayed by the police during the WTO protests, while many of the 40,000 union workers participating in their rally were actively discouraged by their union leaders from being part of the street demonstrations. But I digress...

And I don't want to contribute more to the myths about bad unions and bad union workers. Because while many other countries recognize the importance of unions and labor, the U.S. in particular feeds people full of all sorts of misinformation on this subject. (I blame the media. And yes, I blame the textbooks.)

Myth: Teachers' unions prevent bad teachers from being fired.

False. While different school districts have different contracts, most stipulate that during the first few years on the job - even if the teacher has lengthy experience teaching elsewhere - a teacher can be fired for any reason. And while budget cuts often mean these teachers are the first (the easiest) to let go, this doesn't mean that struggling teachers always lose their jobs. And if they do (or don't), this isn't really something the unions dictate. Rather, it's administrators who make the decisions to retain, guide, or let go new teachers.

And even if a teacher survives this probationary period, it still does not mean that they have a job until the day they retire. It just means that there has to be due process in order to let them go. Due process. How unamerican, amirite?

Myth: Teachers' unions oppose education reform.

False. Do teachers' unions question more standardized testing? Do they question political posturing? Do they balk at claims that reform equals union busting. Well, yes. Yes they do. And while yes, there are bad teachers - just as there are bad janitors, bad lawyers, bad waitresses, lousy airline pilots, and mediocre plastic surgeons - I have yet to meet a teacher who says that they are opposed to improving students' educational experience.

Using standardized tests to evaluate student and teacher performance is not education reform.

Myth: Teachers' unions oppose merit pay.

Sorta true, which also means sorta false. Teachers' unions do balk at many merit pay proposals, in part because the assessments used to measure performance are often based on standardized tests, which really only measure students' abilities to take tests and teachers' abilities to force-feed them the answers. I have yet to see a merit pay system that recognizes the work that teachers do as mentors, the efforts they make to device creative and innovative projects, the role they take in making the school and surrounding community stronger. And how would merit pay work for special education teachers or ESL teachers? Would these teachers earn less if their students failed to pass mandated exams?

If unions oppose merit pay, it isn't because they want to just reward long-time teachers with higher pay, quality of instruction be-damned. It's because what counts as "merit" in these proposals is not the same as being a good teacher.

What Unions Teach: Solidarity

Teaching is not a respected profession in this country, despite lip-service we often give about the importance of education. It has often struck me that politicians and pundits think that American schools could be the best in the world - if we would only just get rid of the teachers and students.

Many of the teachers I know willingly and openly share their knowledge with one another. They work to help each other solve problems -- curriculum ideas, behavioral issues, administrative challenges, technical problems. And they work hard. If you have never been in front of the classroom, if you have never spent your nights and weekends grading papers and preparing lesson plans, if you have never struggled to explain a concept to a large group of kids whose interest, attention-span and intellects vary wildly -- from those who utterly do not give a shit to those who are utterly bored to those who are utterly entranced -- then I suggest you worry less about listening to pundits and politicians about what needs to happen to fix education.

I suggest you listen to teachers.

There are a lot of things wrong with the education system in this country. But to lay the blame for that at the foot of teachers and teachers' unions seems divisive, and just plain wrong. Despite some of my doubts about unions, I do believe in solidarity. And I am skeptical any time an industry faces crisis when those in power are quick to blame the workers and pretend as though management hasn't played a part in creating the problems.

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Audrey Watters


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