An Interview with Frederick M. Hess: Let’s Talk Unions

Jun 22, 2011 by


Frederick Hess


Michael F. Shaughnessy
Eastern New Mexico University
Portales, New Mexico


1. What was this recent conference or meeting about unions all about?


A few weeks back, I hosted a lively panel at the American Enterprise Institute to discuss Stanford University political scientist Terry Moe’s new book, Special Interest: Teachers Unions and America’s Public Schools. If you haven’t seen Moe’s 500-page tome, it’s worth a careful look. The result of a decade’s worth of scholarship, it assembles a wealth of data on teacher attitudes, collective bargaining, union influence on school board elections, NEA and AFT political activity, and so on to argue that unions have an exaggerated and detrimental impact on American schooling. In addition to Moe, the panel featured TFA director of research and public policy Heather Harding and Central Park East impresario Deborah Meier. Speaking to a full house, the three powerfully elucidated and clarified some of the fault lines in the heated debates about teacher unions. You can watch the 90-minute conversation here.


2. What would you say were the main points that each of these individuals made?


To me, it looked like two key fault lines ran through the discussion. One was the notion of “reform unionism” and professional voice. The second was how to judge whether schools or teachers were doing well. Moe thinks “reform unionism” is a pipe dream and that the only effective way to drive school improvement is by getting the system incentives to emphasize performance–which requires measures of student learning. Meier argued that collaboration has repeatedly proven successful, in locales such as New York’s district four, and that it has been management and policymakers who have squelched it.


She rejected the notion that test scores measure learning in a useful fashion, and noted that Moe’s critiques of teacher evaluation or tenure all rest on the notion that test scores can usefully measure teacher performance. Harding praised Moe’s efforts to talk about union incentives and behavior, accepted the notion that test scores are useful measures of learning, and suggested we can all “put our heads in our hands over the state of [teacher] contracts.”


But she also confessed to a “soft spot” for collaboration, expressed faith that districts and unions could collaborate to drive achievement, and cautioned that reformers eager to reduce the role of unions need to “be careful” about finding ways to “replace important protections” for teachers.


3. What points did you find most intriguing during the discussion?


Perhaps Moe’s most thought-provoking assertion is that both union leaders and would-be reformers routinely mischaracterize union sentiment: union leaders when they say they’re seeking to protect students and would-be reformers when they charge that callous union bosses are ignoring the wishes of their membership.


Rather, Moe argued, “Members expect union leaders to protect their jobs [and perks]…and union leaders need to do these things if they are to stay union leaders.” He said, “Leaders are going to protect union member job interests come hell or high water, even if these lead them to do things that are bad for kids or for schools.” This isn’t because union leaders are foisting an agenda on teachers, but because they are responding to teachers’ common, fundamental concerns. He noted that none of this means that union members or union leaders are bad and that, as individuals, they likely want what’s best for kids. But, he argued, the logic of unionization trumps those individual concerns. While he sees great value in “teachers having voice,” the “dilemma” is that when teachers organize to make their voice heard, it becomes “about job interests and not just voice anymore.”


4. Deborah Meier seems to feel that management, not teachers is the problem or culprit regarding the lack of student performance. Do I have this correctly?


Yes, Meier argued that Moe credited teacher unions with far too much influence since schools have always been infused by rules that stifle sensible practice, and that that these rules were historically imposed by management. She observed that in St. Louis, in 1950, a married woman could not teach and that, in Chicago, she could not have taught if she looked pregnant. Unions, she argued, have tried to address “the shameful history of how teachers were treated” by management by giving more voice to teachers.


More broadly, Meier challenged Moe’s notion that others pay more attention than the union to the needs of the students. “Who puts the interests of the children first?” she asked. She said it’s not the nation, which “ranks at the bottom on child welfare.” She asked, “When we decided not to tax the rich the way they should have been, was that because they were thinking about American children?”


5. Was there any agreement among the panelists?


Ultimately, I think two clear patches of common ground emerged. One was agreement that schools have indeed been larded with destructive rules by politicians and management. Moe happily conceded the point, noting that schools occupy the bottom rung of “a democratic hierarchy,” reminding the audience why he has long advocated for choice-based reform. He agreed with Meier that management has long been inept and unproductive, but argued that this has been due to incentives–and that he thinks that’s entirely consistent with his assertion that teacher unions are having the biggest and most destructive impact on schools today.


Second, there was clear agreement about the value of teacher professionalism and voice, with Harding flagging the promise of new organizations intended to give teachers a voice in policy. The question was really about how that voice can and should be channeled.


6. Does the recent tumult over teachers unions at the state level constitute an assault on the profession, as many union supporters suggest?


American culture, going back to the colonial era, held teachers and teaching in relatively low regard.


Indeed, the current era, with Presidents Bush and Obama, and leaders like Bill Gates and Colin Powell, publicly heralding teaching as the nation’s most important work, is something of a historic anomaly. So, today’s debates about teacher tenure, evaluation, or benefits hardly constitute an anti-teacher assault.


Rather, public officials and union leaders have negotiated problematic policies that have dispensed benefits while hurting schools and creating unsustainable obligations. In response, some officials (most famously, Wisconsin’s governor, Scott Walker) have argued that modest concessions aren’t enough, and have sought to use this moment to address structural problems with public employee collective bargaining and teacher tenure. Yet, those accused of espousing anti-teacher sentiment keep taking pains to explain they’re focused on solving problems and to honor the importance of teaching.


When the president declares in the State of the Union, “If you want to make a difference in the life of our nation…become a teacher,” the profession is doing pretty well indeed. At such a time, it’s useful to keep in mind that policy debate is not the same thing as personal attack.

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