The following article appeared in the 26 February 1996 edition of US News & World Report. Unfortunately, it is not easily available on-line. It is reproduced here only as a temporary measure for educational discussion.
Why Teachers Don't Teach
by Thomas Toch with Robin M. Bennefield, Dana Hawkins and Penny Loeb
The nation's future lies in its classrooms. But teachers' unions are driving out good teachers, coddling bad ones and putting bureaucracy in the way of quality education
Call it a little morality play about America's schools. In Act I, a dedicated Los Angeles math teacher named Jaime Escalante becomes a national hero for his work with barrio kids at Garfield High School, a saga chronicled in the 1988 film Stand and Deliver. In Act II, Escalante flees the Los Angeles school system for Sacramento, taking his devotion and his brilliant teaching skills with him. Why did he leave? Teacher union officials contend the fame went to his head. Escalante fires back that a major reason was that Los Angeles union leaders objected to his zeal. One problem: He says they chastised him for having too many students in his calculus class. "If you looked into what is going on in this school in the name of the union, I think you ... would be appalled", the teacher wrote in 1990 to his union president, a year before he resigned and moved.
Escalante's experience is hardly unique. In the 34 years since the signing of the first teacher collective-bargaining contract in New York City, teacher unions have become the single most influential force in public education, their impact felt in classrooms across the country. Union policies that work against quality teaching are driving many top teachers out of public schools, making it tougher for good teachers who stay to do their best work and leaving incompetents entrenched in many classrooms. And at a time when corporate leaders and others are calling on schools to hold students to significantly higher standards, the intransigence of the unions has slowed the pace of school reforms, eroding public confidence in the schools and spurring an unprecedented wave of tuition-voucher plans and similarly targeted initiatives. The crisis is so great that Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), plans to propose a radically new model of teacher unionism to his membership (inset article, below).
Unions entered the teaching profession for a reason: The vast majority of teachers were poorly paid and subject to patronage hiring and other inequities. Organizing made sense. In the past 30 years, laws granting teachers the right to bargain collectively have entered the books in 37 states, and nearly 90 percent of the nation's 2.5 million teachers now belong to either the National Education Association, the nation's largest union, or its smaller, more reform-minded twin, the AFT. (Leaders say that they expect the two unions to begin merging within the next four or five years.)
Many teachers happily pay union dues because they believe the unions have fought for improved pay and working conditions and gave them a professional voice. Unions also offer members a host of attractive benefits, ranging from liability insurance to low-interest credit cards. "The union gives you a sense of professionalism; there's support from people with experience", says Betty Lewis, a veteran reading teacher at the Hopewell Crest School and member of the Hopewell Educators Association in Bridgeton, N.J.
But the nation's schools have paid a large price for the marriage of classroom and bargaining table. By embracing old-style industrial-labor tactics, the unionism of traditional auto plants and steel mills, the AFT and the NEA have given teaching the feel of classic blue-collar work, where winning workers big checks for the shortest possible hours has been the aim and the quality of the product is considered to be management's worry. Under this ethic, good teaching is often punished, poor teaching rewarded and bureaucracy placed squarely in the way of common sense, a tangled system played out in schools from New York to California. U.S. News looked into some of the most troubling problems:
Excellence is no guarantee
In 1990, Cathy Nelson, a Ph.D. history teacher at Fridley High School just outside Minneapolis, was named Minnesota's Teacher of the Year. But Fridley's students weren't enjoying the fruits of Nelson's outstanding teaching: She had been laid off months earlier, under a union-bargained "last-hired, first-fired" policy. A 15-year veteran and third-generation teacher, Nelson was the least senior of Fridley's five social-studies teachers. Ironically, she had been laid off under the same policy three other times. Her love of kids kept her coming back. But in 1990, she finally abandoned the classroom, fed up with being treated like a "yo-yo".
Good teaching is what education is about. But in most school systems, seniority counts more than competence. Seniority-based hiring and firing rules are universal in public education, and the unions defend them. NEA President Keith Geiger says critics of that system are really trying "to get rid of experienced, expensive teachers". But seniority systems, in often rendering a teacher's classroom skills irrelevant in staffing decisions, are less than fair to students, critics say. "It cheats kids of the most effective faculty. It's a system that puts the needs of adults first", says Joe Nathan, director of the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute and a teacher for nearly a decade.
Seniority rules leave many principals with little control over who teaches in their schools. "If principals can't hire and fire, they can't shape a team with a shared sense of mission, something that all good schools have", says Carolyn Kelley, a professor of education at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
More frustrating, when jobs are at stake, unions often urge that veteran teachers be assigned to subjects in which they have no training. The NEA vows to fight "any attempts to diminish the quality of learning or services through ... the involuntary assignment [of teachers] out of [their] field [of licensure]". But voluntary out-of-field assignments are another matter, and there are lots of them. The U.S. Department of Education reports that a third of high school math teachers, nearly a quarter of high school English teachers and nearly a fifth of high school science teachers are teaching without a college major or minor in their subjects. Says Michael Levin, a Willow Grove, Pa., labor lawyer who represents school systems: "The seniority system may work well in a factory where you're just connecting widgets, but it makes no sense in public schools."
Problem teachers stay in class
Students began complaining about Juliet Ellery's English classes in 1981. The veteran teacher at El Cajon Valley High School outside San Diego refused to answer questions, they said. Her assignments made no sense. Her speech was unintelligible. Ellery was dismissed in 1986 but fought her termination. After years of hearings and court proceedings -- she tried unsuccessfully to get the Supreme Court to hear her case -- her teacher's license was suspended for one year in 1994. The school district's cost in legal fees: $300,000. Ellery claims she was victimized by students who couldn't meet her standards.
If quality teaching goes unrewarded in the nation's schools, bad teaching is not only tolerated but often safeguarded to an extent that leaves principals gnashing their teeth and parents in despair. Union contracts grant a myriad of due-process protections against dismissal after teachers have spent two or three years in the classroom, making it tremendously difficult to fire even the most incompetent instructors. And even when a school system does succeed in firing a teacher, the cost is high: In New York State, for example, the average cost to fire a teacher is $200,000. In one celebrated New York case, a special-education teacher collected his salary behind bars for several years after he was sent to prison in 1990 for selling cocaine to undercover police, while school officials battled unsuccessfully to get him fired.
Unions argue that tenure safeguards against capricious firings. "The union only has one goal in this type of a situation", says John Logsdon, the union representative in Ellery's case, "and that is to see that the teacher gets a fair and complete hearing. It is not our goal to perpetuate poor teaching." But Mary Jo McGrath, a California school board lawyer, says it's so tough to fight the tenure system that administrators usually don't bother. Instead, they often cut deals with unions, giving bad teachers satisfactory ratings in return for union help in getting them transferred to other schools -- a cynical practice known as "the dance of the lemons" or "passing the trash". "The whole system is corrupt", says Joseph Viteritti, a professor of public administration at New York University. "It says to hard-working teachers that there are no standards, that it doesn't matter."
Red tape repels bright minds
Tracy Seckler graduated magna cum laude from Harvard in 1992. Two years later, she decided to become an urban teacher and enrolled in the master's program at Teachers College, Columbia University. While working on her degree, Seckler wanted to substitute teach and set out to obtain a license. She called the New York City licensing office four times to find out what papers she needed to bring in and was given four different answers. When she arrived in person, she told the clerk who reviewed her application that she wanted to teach English. But the clerk said that was impossible: On Seckler's Harvard transcript, her course codes began with "hist," the abbreviation for an interdisciplinary honors program called History and Literature. Even though Seckler wrote her thesis on American literature, she was told she could substitute teach only in history classes because she lacked sufficient credits to teach English. Today, Seckler is teaching in suburban Scarsdale.
Most teachers enter the classroom through state and local licensing systems, which generally demand only that applicants take the right college courses. Teachers don't have to show in any serious way that they know the subject they are teaching or that they can teach it -- a far cry from standards in professions like medicine. It's a system many unions support but one that repels bright minds and produces many teachers who are licensed but not truly qualified. "By and large, we are getting people who wouldn't be admitted to college in other countries", concedes the AFT's Shanker.
Astonishing numbers of education graduates fail basic literacy tests introduced in many states in recent years to shore up standards. California administered 65,000 such exams in 1994-95 and gave failing grades to about 20 percent of those tested. But unions haven't made tough standards a priority. To the contrary, the NEA fought basic skills testing in teacher licensing for years, shifting its stance only after a majority of states introduced the tests.
Last summer, the Mount Clemens, Mich., school system opened the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Academy, a new school with a new curriculum. The Mount Clemens Education Association, the local union, insisted that the school's teachers be paid for several weeks of training in the new curriculum. But a group of younger teachers wanted extra training in math. The school couldn't afford it, so the teachers volunteered to take the training without pay. Veteran teachers rejected the idea, pointing out that unpaid work was forbidden by the union contract. The training never took place.
The drive of a Jaime Escalante is rare in any field, but many public-school teachers want to do the best possible job for their students. Union work rules frequently get in their way. "They tell you what you can't do", says NYU's Viteritti.
Teachers who want to "go the extra mile" often find themselves unappreciated by their colleagues. Patricia Simonds, a 26-year veteran at Truman Elementary in Vancouver, Wash., last year was among the first teachers in the nation to earn an advanced license from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards -- a program started in the late 1980s to reward outstanding teachers by creating a system akin to board certification in medicine. President Clinton invited Simonds and other winners to the White House. And the national leaders of both the NEA and the AFT back the NBPTS. But, in contrast to the ceremony at the nation's capital, there wasn't much fanfare at Truman Elementary to celebrate Simonds's national award.
Ultimately, it is students who pay the biggest price. Teachers in two affluent suburban Maryland high schools protested budget cuts several years ago by "working to the rule" -- refusing to do any tasks not required of them in their contract. They refused to write college letters of recommendation for seniors in the class of 1992 unless students "first presented addressed and stamped letters to a council member or state legislator urging the passing of taxes necessary to fund salary increases, school programs, etc.", according to a letter to union members. The NEA's Geiger insists that work rules were essential to counter big differences in teachers' workloads and other abuses. But he acknowledges that many contracts today are "too rigid".
Mediocrity gets the gold
Gil Troutman was raised in western Pennsylvania and went to a local liberal arts college, where he graduated with honors in history. At 23, he joined the social studies department at General McLane High School in nearby Edinboro. Troutman loved his work. He taught history and economics, coached wrestling and, in time, won awards for his teaching. But in the early 1990s, at 37 and in the prime of his career, he quit teaching to open an insurance business. The main reason: After 14 years, his paycheck wasn't any bigger than that of other teachers in the school at his level of experience, despite his award-winning teaching. Says Troutman: "I wanted to be in a profession that recognizes the level of work you put forth."
Teaching generally doesn't. Unions have barred teachers from being paid on the basis of their performance. They have negotiated so-called single salary schedules that reward teachers strictly on the basis of years of experience and the number of college courses completed. Pushed by unions to equalize pay scales that traditionally favored men over women, whites over blacks and high school teachers over elementary teachers, the single salary schedule has become a huge barrier to teaching excellence in public education, robbing many teachers of the motivation to excel and driving many of the best out of the profession. "Teachers who do better in college and are rated higher by their principals leave [the profession] at higher rates", says Ann Weaver Hart, dean of the graduate school at the University of Utah and an expert on teacher rewards. "The single salary schedule is a major factor."
The single salary schedule also has led to a huge waste of taxpayers' money. In most places, pay raises are linked directly to the number of college credits teachers earn, usually without any requirement that those credits be earned in courses related to what teachers do in their classrooms. The system -- constructed with teachers, not students, in mind -- has led to teachers taking the easiest courses they can find, and a disproportionate number of school-administration courses, since teachers can earn higher salaries by leaving the classroom to do administrative work.
Indeed, most union leaders are loath to have teachers paid strictly on the basis of their performance. "Salary is not what attracts people to teaching and keeps them there", argues Barbara Kelley, a Bangor, Maine, teacher official who is vice chair of the NBPTS. But Kelley's own story seems to disprove her point. A veteran gym teacher, she raised her salary by several thousand dollars a couple of years ago by earning a master's degree in business. She says she is thinking about leaving teaching and that the degree might help her in another career. The average U.S. teacher salary is $36,874.
Bucking the call for reform
Any number of blue-ribbon panels since the early 1980s have called for reforms in teaching. The latest, the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future, chaired by Gov. Jim Hunt of North Carolina, is discussing tougher teacher licensing standards, performance pay, stronger dismissal systems and other reforms that might be included in a report to be released next September.
But teacher unions have used their resources to fight reform -- and their resources are vast. Such is their influence in state capitals that in many states, the unions are by far the largest contributors to statewide elections. The NEA also spends $39 million a year to keep 1,500 organizers in the field helping the union's 13,250 affiliates lobby school boards, file grievances and do many other things to promote unionism. The union's palatial Washington, D.C., headquarters, renovated in 1991 at a cost of at least $52 million, is a testament to its power in national politics, where the NEA has wedded itself to the Democratic Party. The union handed out $8.9 million to congressional candidates between 1989 and 1995, only a fraction of it to Republicans. And the Clinton White House is banking on the NEA playing a big role in this year's presidential campaign. In a 1995 report to the NEA, for example, Clinton pollster Stanley Greenberg attempts to refine the union's message on behalf of the president's re-election. His advice: Hammer home the theme that education is a key to reversing "civic decay".
Politics is not the only arena in which the unions fight off threats to the old system. The AFT and the NEA have waged recent court battles against laws in several states, including a Michigan statute limiting collective bargaining and an Ohio law giving parents tuition vouchers for private schools. And the unions spend huge sums on public relations: The NEA has budgeted nearly $14 million to defend schools and unions in fiscal 1996.
But, in response to growing public discontent and recent union defeats at the hands of Republican-led legislatures, unions are gradually softening their opposition to teacher reforms. Adding to the incentives for change are recent membership studies, which reveal that the unions are out of step with a majority of their younger members, who reject the unions' commitment to industrial unionism and partisan politics. Now some union leaders seem anxious to jump on the reform platform: NEA President Geiger, for example, says his union is "moving away from hard-nosed collective bargaining". And Geiger says he has joined Shanker in discussing new teacher pay systems with experts and is pushing the NEA to take a larger role in policing its membership.
But many union watchers remain skeptical. The education landscape, they say, is littered with token NEA reform projects designed to give the appearance of reform-mindedness. And local unions mostly lag far behind national union leaders in calling for reform. Still, a handful of meaningful union-backed teacher reforms exist around the nation: the suspension of staffing by seniority in a group of New York City schools; the opening of new Boston schools free of school-board regulations and union work rules; performance-based pay in Cincinnati, and policing of the teaching ranks by peers in Columbus, Ohio.
Teacher unions aren't going to disappear from public education; they are part of its permanent landscape. But as the public's confidence in public education steadily ebbs, and a rising chorus clamors for change, pressure is mounting for teacher unions to merge their goals with the goals of good teaching. "We're losing the public battle", says Ed Doherty, the reform-minded president of the Boston Teachers' Union. "The survival of public education is at stake." To Doherty, the unions' political problem is clear -- and so is the solution. The question is whether other union leaders will get the message before it's too late.
NEA at a glance
The National Education Association is the nation's largest union.
President. Keith Geiger
Founded. 1857 in Philadelphia
Membership. 2.1 million
1995 budget: $185.7 million
Campaign contributions: $8.9 million from 1989 to mid-1995. From 1993 to 1994, $3.5 million has been given to Democrats; $37,300 to Republicans
Top 1995 recipients -- these lawmakers got the most:
Rep. Lynn Rivers, D-Mich. ($5,000)
Rep. Dale Kildee, D-Mich. ($5,000)
Rep. David Bonior, D-Mich. ($5,000)
Rep. Tim Johnson, D-S.D. ($4,000)
Rep. Richard Gephardt, D-Mo. ($3,500)
Dues: $1 in 1857; $104 now
AFT at a glance
The American Federation of Teachers was founded in Illinois in 1916.
President: Albert Shanker
Membership: 885,000, largest membership in New York
1996 budget: $78 million
Campaign contributions: $5 million from 1989 to mid-1995
Top 1995 recipients -- these lawmakers got the most:
Rep. Gary Ackerman, D-N.Y. ($5,000)
Rep. David Bonior, D-Mich. ($5,000)
Rep. Richard Gephardt, D-Mo. ($5,000)
Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn. ($5,000)
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich. ($5,000)
First strike: 1946 by St. Paul, Minn., local
Famous members: Albert Einstein, Elie Wiesel, Hubert Humphrey
America's 'Most Militant Teacher' Calls for Reform
By Thomas Toch with Robin M. Bennefield, Dana Hawkins and Penny Loeb
Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers , was once the most militant teacher in America: Three decades ago, he led the drive to introduce hard-edged unionism into public school teaching. Today, he's still a radical. But he has a very different mission: He's trying to lead his union away from many of the same demands and tactics that he championed in the past.
Teacher unions' survival is at stake, he says. Unless they show they're working to improve public schools by improving classroom teaching, the unions will wither. "It's like being a strong man on a sinking ship", he says. "Being strong doesn't do you much good." So Shanker, 67, is shaping a new vision of teacher unionism, one that safeguards union members but also invests unions with far more responsibility for the quality of the teaching profession. "In the future, teacher unions should be about teacher standards", Shanker says.
To that end, he is drafting a variety of "teacher quality" reforms he hopes his membership will endorse at the AFT's convention this summer. He wants high entrance standards, performanc pay, a "streamlining" of due-process protections and other measures that break sharply with industrial union practices now embraced by teacher groups. He wants unions to play a far larger role in training and retraining of teachers. In his dramatic break with the past, he says he has lost confidence in a first principle of trade unionism -- going on strike. "Strikes are political statements. And today, people aren't as sympathetic toward teachers as they were in the past."
Reluctant buyers. Such views put the bookish union leader, who grew up speaking only Yiddish on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, at odds with much of the teacher establishment. National education groups are uneasy with Shanker's candor about the state of the public schools and his calls for reform. He knows his ideas won't be simple to sell to his membership: He pushed a similar reform agenda a decade ago but abandoned most of it in the early 1990s. "Convincing people to change has been a damn difficult thing to do", he says. "I would go into a state, talk up reform and as soon as I left, the union attorney would come in and say, 'We've got a great tenure law, let's keep it.'" Seeking reform means new roles and new attitudes for veteran teachers, Shanker notes. "The union guy in Oshkosh isn't comfortable in the role of teacher retrainer", he says. "He knows how to handle grievances."
But Shaker says he's taking up the reform banner once again because the stakes have risen dramatically in recent years. "Unless we restore the public's faith in what we do, public education is going to collapse", he warns.
If there's hope in getting unions to focus on teacher quality issues, Shanker says, it's the fact that a growing number of union leaders share his anxiety about the future of public schools: "A lot of our leaders believe that we're close to the end of public education. They never did before."