|"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.)