|"Struggling for Legitimacy"|
Original artwork by Tavet Rubel, created for Dewey to Delpit
Two weeks ago, Andrew Rotherham posted a piece about teachers’ unions on Eduwonk. The inspiration for the piece was a Times story about a collaboration between GM and the United Auto Workers union on the development of a new, domestically-produced sub-compact car. Rotherham acknowledges that there are some examples of similar union-management collaboration in education, but he thinks that conditions in the public sector do not create the same incentives for collaboration:
I don’t want to imply that teachers’ union leaders are not committed to the success of public education. But… the incentives around success are different because private firms can go out of business while public sector ones generally do not (especially public education, which is an essential service).He’s right, of course—it’s clear from the Times article that the UAW’s involvement in the collaboration was driven by concerns about the future of American domestic automobile manufacturing, concerns that have no parallel in education—but I think Rotherham is looking for the wrong kind of explanation.
Whichever side you’re listening to, and whomever you blame for the problem, it’s hard to deny that relations between teachers’ unions and the state and local governments with whom they are in contract are uncommonly ugly these days. It’s worth asking why that’s happening; and it’s hard to argue with a conclusion as reasonable and open-ended as Rotherham’s:
...there are real differences between public sector and private sector unions and their various incentives and… we had better pay attention to them in our industry and think about how to navigate the various challenges public education faces with that in mind.But whatever the complexities of public-sector incentives, I don’t think incentives are the heart of the problem. Economic incentives have never been primary motivators for teachers, and despite all the talk about merit-based pay and strategic firings, I suspect they never will. (I’m not arguing that financial interests don’t play a role in union decision-making; I’m just arguing that it’s a secondary role.)
I don’t think anyone out there—or hardly anyone—actually thinks teachers are in it for the money. So, why are we so quick to assume that their unions are in it for the money—or at least for the self-interest: the salary, the job security, the long vacations, etc.? Well, because that’s what labor unions do: they look out for the financial interests of their constituents; and teachers unions don’t seem to act any differently. At the same time, there’s something weird about it: why would a coalition of people most of whom are deeply committed to their students base its decisions on the self-interests of its members? More to the point, why does a professional group whose primary motivation is an intrinsic concern for the products of its labor even need a union?
What I want to suggest is that teachers’ unions’ primary purpose today is the same for which the unions were created a hundred years ago: to legitimize teaching as a profession. That goal has never been obtained, and despite many apparent improvements in the status and cultural image of teachers, we are, in the most important senses, no closer to being professionals today than we were a hundred years ago.
A labor union is an odd way to try to legitimize a profession, of course. After all, labor is what you are if you’re not a professional. Indeed, the teachers’ unions are often faulted on the grounds that they bargain for policies that are more labor-like than professional, e.g. regulations limiting teachers’ working hours: labor leaves at the end of the day; professionals leave when the job is done.
The contradiction in that position—protecting labor rights through collective bargaining while fighting for professional status—is indicative of the strange and uncomfortable position in which teachers find themselves: they’re professionals without a profession, experts without an identifiable expertise. Society does not put stock in teachers’ knowledge: it accords them no authority and does not seek their advice on matters relating to their field. When politicians want to improve schools, they hire outside consultants.
It’s never worth faulting society; society is the amoral aggregate. There are compelling reasons why teachers’ expertise is not widely valued. In my next post two posts, I will explore the nature and causes of teachers’ ambiguous professional status and argue that it is a powerful lens for understanding the state of education in America.