A Union of Professionals – Why Teacher Unions Are Good for Teachers and the Public

Diane Ravitch says they Protect Teachers’ Rights, Support Teacher Professionalism, and Check Administrative Power

Diane Ravitch: A Union of Professionals – Why Teacher Unions Are Good for Teachers and the Public
They Protect Teachers’ Rights, Support Teacher Professionalism, and Check Administrative Power
We live in an era when leaders in business and the media demand that schools function like businesses in a free market economy, competing for students and staff. Many such voices say that such corporate-style school reform is stymied by the teacher unions, which stand in the way of leaders who want unchecked power to assign, reward, punish, or remove their employees. Some academics blame the unions when student achievement remains stagnant. If scores are low, the critics say it must be because of the teachers’ contract, not because the district has a weak curriculum or lacks resources or has mediocre leadership. If some teachers are incompetent, it must be because of the contract, not because the district has a flawed, bureaucratic hiring process or has failed to evaluate new teachers before awarding them tenure. These critics want to scrap the contract, throw away teachers’ legal protections, and bring teacher unions to their collective knees.


It is worth recalling why teachers joined unions and why unions
remain important today. Take tenure, for example. The teacher unions
didn’t invent tenure, despite widespread beliefs to the contrary.
Tenure evolved in the 19th century as one of the few perks available
to people who were paid low wages, had classes of 70 or 80 or more,
and endured terrible working conditions. In late 19th century New
York City, for example, there were no teacher unions, but there was
already ironclad, de facto teacher tenure. Local school boards
controlled the hiring of teachers, and the only way to get a job was
to know someone on the local school board, preferably a relative.
Once a teacher was hired, she had lifetime tenure in that school,
but only in that school. In fact, she could teach in the same school
until she retired–without a pension or health benefits–or died.
One problem with this kind of tenure was that it was not portable.
If a teacher changed schools, even in the same district, she would
lose her tenure in the school where she was first hired, and she
would have to go to the end of the line at her new school.
Pay for teaching was meager, but it was one of the few professional
jobs open to women, and most teachers were women. Pay scales were
blatantly discriminatory. Teachers in the high schools were paid
more than those in the elementary schools. Male teachers (regardless
of where they taught, though almost all were in high schools) were
paid more than female teachers, on the assumption that they had a
family to support and women did not.
I would like to remember some of the forgotten heroes of the
movement to establish fair and equitable treatment of teachers in
New York City.
First, there was Mary Murphy. She started teaching in the Brooklyn
schools in 1891. Ten years later, in 1901, she got married. That was
a mistake. When she got married, the Board of Education charged her
with gross misconduct and fired her. Teachers were not allowed to
marry. She sued the Board. She lost in the lower court, but then won
in the state court of appeals, which ruled that marriage “was not
misconduct” and ordered the Board of Education to reinstate her.
Second, there was the Interborough Association of Women Teachers.
They started a campaign in 1906 to wipe out the salary differentials
between male and female teachers. Their slogan was “equal pay for
equal work.” When the state legislature passed the Association’s
bill for equal pay, it was vetoed by the governor. These stalwart
female teachers finally won pay equity in 1912.
Then there was Bridget Pexitto, a veteran teacher of 18 years in the
Bronx. She took advantage of the new right to get married without
losing her job. But then she got pregnant. That was a mistake. The
Board of Education fired her on charges of “gross negligence by
being absent to have a baby.” Not only that, the Board ordered the
superintendent of schools to discover whether there were any other
pregnant teachers in the city’s schools. He somehow did a visual
inspection of the city’s teachers and found 14 of them, and they
were promptly suspended from teaching. Bridget Pexitto fought the
decision in state court and was eventually reinstated with back pay
by the state commissioner of education.
The forerunner to the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) was the
New York City Teachers’ Union, which was founded in 1916. It was
known as Local 2 of the American Federation of Teachers. Its
purposes were to fight for improved salaries, to fight against
“oppressive supervision,” and to defend the rights of teachers like
Mary Murphy and Bridget Pexitto.
* * *
Today, the UFT and other teacher unions around the country continue
to play important roles in protecting the rights of teachers,
especially in the current climate of school reform. There’s a common
view among corporate-style reformers today that the way to fix
low-performing schools is to install an autocratic principal who
rules with an iron fist. Many new principals have been trained in
quickie programs of a year or less, which try to teach them to think
like corporate leaders. Many of the graduates of these new principal
programs have little classroom experience, and some have none at
all. Many of them lack the judgment and knowledge to make wise
decisions about curriculum and instruction or to evaluate seasoned
When experienced teachers must work under the control of an
inexperienced principal, they need the protection of their union
against arbitrary and unwise decisions.
Furthermore, to the extent that New York City, where I live, is the
wave of the future, then teachers will need their unions more than
ever. In New York City, under mayoral control, the mayor–a
businessman–and his chancellor–a lawyer–selected a new curriculum
in reading and math. They also insisted that all teachers across
this system of 1.1 million children adopt exactly the same
pedagogical style (the “workshop model”), and they micromanaged
teachers’ compliance with tight, sometimes daily supervision.
Teachers found that they were in trouble if they did not teach
exactly as the mayor and chancellor dictated, if they did not follow
the scripted cookie-cutter format of mini-lessons, if their bulletin
boards did not meet detailed specifications, or if their classroom
furniture was not precisely as prescribed by regulation. In these
past few years, I have often been confronted by teachers who asked
what they could do when their supervisors and coaches insisted that
they teach in ways they (the teachers) believed were wrong. I could
only answer that they should be glad they belonged to a union with
the power to protect them from “oppressive supervision,” to use the
term that was familiar to the founders of Local 2 of the AFT.
As it happened, in the contract negotiations of 2005, the UFT
successfully added language to the contract that specifically
protected teachers from being punished because of: “a) the format of
bulletin boards; b) the arrangement of classroom furniture; and c)
the exact duration of lesson units.”
The union is thus necessary as a protection for teachers against the
arbitrary exercise of power by heavy-handed administrators. In our
school systems, as in our city, state, and federal governments, we
need checks and balances. Just as the executive, legislative, and
judicial branches of government all act as checks on each other, we
need checks and balances in our school systems. It is unwise to
centralize all power in one person: the mayor. We need independent
lay school boards to hire the superintendent and to hold open public
discussions of administrative decisions, and we need independent
teacher unions to assure that teachers’ rights are protected, to
sound the alarm against unwise policies, and to advocate on behalf
of sound education policies, especially when administrators are
In the current climate, when it is in vogue to select non-educators
to administer school systems, it is vital that teachers have a
voice. School reform cannot possibly succeed when teachers–who are
on the frontlines of implementation–are left out of the
decision-making process. If there is no “buy-in,” if teachers do not
willingly concur with the orders handed down from on high, then
reform cannot succeed. If administrators operate by stealth and
confrontation, then their plans for reform will founder. They cannot
improve what happens in the classroom by humiliating and bossing
around the teachers who are in daily contact with the children. Only
in an atmosphere of mutual respect can administrators and teachers
produce the kind of partnership that will benefit students. And
administrators cannot achieve this collaborative atmosphere unless
they are willing to talk with and listen to the leaders chosen by
teachers to represent them.
The essentials of good education are the same everywhere: a rigorous
curriculum, effective instruction, adequate resources, willing
students, and a social and cultural climate in which education is
encouraged and respected. Teacher unions today, as in the past, must
work to make these essentials available in every district for every
school and every student. They cannot do it alone. They must work
with administrators and elected officials to advance these goals.
The unions will continue to be important, vital, and needed so long
as they speak on behalf of the rights and dignity of teachers and
the essentials of good education.
Diane Ravitch is Research Professor of Education at New York
University and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford
University and the Brookings Institution. She was Assistant
Secretary of Education under President George H.W. Bush. Her latest
book is The English Reader: What Every Literate Person Needs to
Know, which she edited with her son Michael, Oxford University

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