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About That Union

No discussion of education reform in Los Angeles gets very far without the United Teachers Los Angeles coming up. The union, headed by A. J. Duffy, represents "48,000 public school teachers and health and human services professionals in the Los Angeles area," and - fairly or no - many of L.A.'s schooling woes accuse the union of obstruction and foot-dragging at best, out-and-out malfeasance at worst. As unions from the UTLA to the UAW increasingly take the blame for the failures of their respective industries, we thought we'd take to the web to see what union members and teachers had to say.

UTLA chief A.J. Duffy, on Green Dot and Locke:

"I wish Green Dot success because they are educating L.A. students. I would love to see them be able to take that student community that has been forgotten for decades and instill and invigorate a new spirit. I will continue to seek avenues of commonality where we can work together. ...

“I draw a distinction between non-unionized charter schools and Green Dot. Green Dot, although a charter, is committed to teacher-union participation because of a certain core belief that the union represents a positive force in the education paradigm--whereas most charter schools have the opposite view. But the Green Dot union is not UTLA, and that’s a problem for us. ...

“It’s no secret we have an internal charter committee” with the goal of organizing unions at charter schools.

“One problem for teachers with charter schools is that the turnover is pretty high. You are in essence de-professionalizing the profession. You have people there for the short term. Green Dot offsets that somewhat. In some of [Green Dot CEO Steve Barr’s] schools there is a cultural paradigm shift, in that teachers are at center of decision-making in the life of the school. That’s attractive to teachers. ...

United Teachers Los Angeles member Randy Childs writes in the International Socialist Review that charter schools are in the main an attack on union power.

This argument is based on myths about public school teachers: students are suffering because teachers just don’t work hard enough and union seniority rules only protect “bad teachers” and hurt students.

The reality is that public school teachers are massively overworked, which is why UTLA has fought to defend contractual language freeing teachers from supervisory duties during meal breaks and after school. (Sooner or later, everyone has to pee.) If the LAUSD bureaucrats or the Times editors truly cared about “safer campuses,” they would push for money to hire more campus supervision aides at our overcrowded schools.

And attacks on teacher seniority are less about serving “student needs” and more about giving administrators power to squeeze out experienced teachers and replace them with new teachers who are cheaper and easier to intimidate. Students are actually hurt by the fact that terrible school conditions and hostile administrators drive quality, experienced teachers out of our schools in droves.

During this summer's budget crisis, Southeast Middle School teacher Tim Schlosser wrote in the L.A. Times of both supporting and mistrusting his union:

I consider myself a socially conscious, politically active young teacher, so it may seem strange that I wasn’t looking forward to protesting the governor’s budget cuts last Friday. I drove to school that morning in my red United Teachers of Los Angeles T-shirt, ready to do my union duty but feeling like a hypocrite.

I think UTLA has a necessary role to play in our schools. However, I also think that it is partly responsible for the poor quality of education endured by many of LAUSD’s 694,000-plus pupils. It’s a problem for schools nationwide: Because of the union’s strength, it is almost impossible to fire teachers for incompetence. LAUSD teachers are paid primarily according to the number of years they have been with the district, and veteran teachers at some schools are free to belittle and ignore their students without repercussions. Many veteran teachers are wonderful, of course, but the union sometimes acts as an enabler for the exceptions.

While UTLA theoretically supports a system of peer review for evaluating teacher performance, the general feeling among teachers where I work is that anyone who has been with the district for more than five years is “untouchable.”[...]

Such were my cynical musings — before I actually arrived at school. [...] Because even though UTLA is partly responsible for our schools’ persistent problems, the fact remains that these cuts will hurt kids. The district may have to increase class sizes and reduce funding for field trips, electives and professional development. Our students deserve to be a top fiscal priority, not one of the first items on the chopping block. The union stood up and said so, and this case I’m glad I stood with them.

For education blogger La Maestra, the biggest problem our school's face isn't greedy teacher' unions but unqualified administrators:

In the four years I have been with my district, we have gone through seven principals/assistant principals. This is, in my way of thinking, a ridiculously large turnover which benefits no one--staff, faculty, students, or community. Some never wanted the job in the first place--they were transferred in at the whim of district office. Some looked at the job as a stepping stone to a better job elsewhere in county or state educational administration. Some quit to go back into the classroom or to an administrative position at an elementary school, where the demands of the job were less. And some, thankfully, were released by the district for failure to perform. [...]

So what can be done to combat this high turnover rate and give all schools and teachers the stable, strong leadership they need? [...] I like the idea of having an experienced teacher as my primary evaluator. I'm going into my fifth year of teaching, which means, according to the state of California, that I already have one more year of teaching than the minimum required to become an administrator, which also is more classroom experience than three of the seven administrators I've had in the past four years.

I spent my first three years teaching just trying to get my head above water (although, to be fair, I had other duties within the school outside of my classroom that made that a much more difficult process), and it wasn't until last year that I felt like I wasn't struggling on a daily basis with basic planning and management. I can't imagine only spending three years in the classroom and then going into administration, and I don't blame teachers for resenting being evaluated by administrators with less classroom experience than their own. In my (admittedly narrow) view, this is one of the main causes of friction between teachers and administrators--the perceived lack of understanding by administrators regarding classroom management and individual instructional styles of teachers.

What are your thoughts? has the union been scapgoated? Or is the union the only thing standing between school failure and success?

The image associated with this post was taken by Flickr user Old Sarge.It was used under Creative Commons license.

LEAVE A COMMENT Leave Comment  

Excellent review- thanks.

I find it both tragic and ironic that the union bureaucracy itself has allowed the charter movement, originally a union idea, to slip away from them.

Charters can effectively bypass bureaucracy and allow teachers to be, in Duffy's own words, "at the center of decision-making." Today, State and Federal regulations are so detailed, it is a wonder why any school led by experienced teachers, educators and parents would want or need additional mandates.

The paradigm has indeed shifted. In the past, the district was effectively the only employer, with much more discretionary, and negotiable, control than it has today. Now, it's more the state and federal government that regulates schools and school funding, and that is where the union and other reform efforts should focus.

To answer the question- no, the union is not the only thing standing between school failure and success. However, as long as it continues to focus its battle on the old enemy and not the new one, it risks becoming part of the problem rather than part of the solution.


Louis Pugliese
www.LAUSD2009.com

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