If Nothing Ever Changes, Then the Teaching Profession Will Never Change

When I heard that President Obama had proposed for $30 billion dollars to be directed toward teachers, I got excited at what this money could do to help develop quality evaluation systems or create innovative pay structures to encourage talented teachers to stay in the classroom. I thought of how it could be used to start fulfilling the declarations made by Secretary Arne Duncan to pay great teachers the six-figure salaries they deserve. I thought of how it might be used to help recruit more talented college students to the teaching profession. Then I heard that the plan was the same old, union-encouraged scheme to simply hire more teachers. While I understand that this will create more dues-paying members for the union, I really don’t see how it is going to have any positive impact on getting the highest quality teachers into classrooms to benefit students.

For over forty years the unions have been the stewards of the teaching profession. I recently attended an event sponsored by the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce that included Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of Washington D.C. schools. When the issue of teachers unions was brought up, Rhee said something to the effect of, “We have to remember that the union’s job is to create better policies for teachers, and they do a great job of that.” I hear some form of this statement quite often; and it bothers me every time. I respectfully disagree with Rhee and others who believe unions are doing a good job for teachers. As a former teacher and former National Education Association (NEA) member, I believe the unions support policies that are good for the unions, not for teachers or for the profession.

Let’s take a quick look at what union stewardship has done for the teaching profession:


While a recent PDK/Gallup poll indicated that 3 out 4 American’s believe that the brightest Americans should be recruited to the teaching profession, this belief has not led to such recruitment. According to a McKinsey report, only 23% of teachers are graduates from the top third of their college class; in high-poverty schools that number sinks to 14%. As stewards of the profession, have the unions used their political power to make teaching an attractive profession for the nation’s brightest college students, or do they just to try and get more money to hire more teachers, no matter the quality?


A report released recently by the U.S. Department of Education found that ten percent of teachers leave the profession in the first year. A recent article in Forbes magazine cites studies finding that 46% of teachers leave the profession in the first five years. Not only does this turnover rate cost the nation over $7 billion in hiring and training costs, it also leads one to wonder why these teachers are leaving and what union policies have done to keep young talent in the classroom?

The Union’s solution is more money and more hiring

U.S. Department of Education statistics show that the student-teacher ratio has dropped from 18:1 in 1960 to 8:1 today, causing union membership to increase six-fold. The unions clamor for more money to hire more teachers, while nary a word is said about using this money to promote teacher quality. Doesn’t it make more sense to use money to create innovative reforms that will improve the teaching profession, even if it doesn’t result in more dues-paying members?

Instead of embracing multi-faceted evaluations (which consider more than just test scores) or 21st century pay structures, the unions have embraced inflexible policies that force districts to spend money on unproductive teachers they don’t want. This inflexibility depletes the resources available to pay higher salaries to those productive teachers the districts do want. This drags the profession down. Education funding has doubled in real dollars over the last thirty years, yet according to the NEA’s own figures, teacher salaries have not even grown at the rate of inflation. While quantity over quality policies have been good for the union’s bottom line, have they been good for the profession?

Something has to change

Because of the urgency of this issue, I have chosen to leave the classroom to encourage teachers to push for a new way forward for the profession. As a leader for the non-union Association of American Educators (AAE) in Colorado I am finding that many teachers already understand the need for a new strategy to elevate the teaching profession in a way that the unions have failed to do. We are proving that teachers do support innovations that will promote teacher quality, and not just quantity.

While the unions are busy passing resolutions to oppose Teach for America (the organization that recruited me to the world of education), AAE wants to help find new ways to attract talent to classrooms. While the unions blame education failures on parents, in Colorado, AAE is developing a program to connect teachers to parents to ensure they have the tools they need to help their children succeed. While the unions are busy opposing innovative pay structures that will give teachers the salaries they deserve, AAE wants to help spread excellent programs that benefit great teachers.

Teaching is in need of dramatic reform to become a competitive profession that will attract America’s best and brightest, yet the union is clinging to the past and supporting the same old, tired policies that only benefit unions and their political allies. For this reason I think it is time that teachers choose to view themselves as academic professionals like doctors and lawyers, not laborers, and choose to shed the unions and embrace professional associations. The unions don’t want change, and if nothing ever changes, then the underpaid and under-respected teaching profession will never change.

AAE is a non-union professional association committed to building a better profession. Because AAE does not make political contributions, it is able to give teachers membership in a great organization that provides $2,000,000 in liability insurance, as well as legal insurance for a host of other issues a teach might encounter, for $15 a month, which is about ¼ of what unions usually charge in dues. AAE realizes that innovation is the key to creating a better profession, and that improving the profession will ensure the best teachers are in every classroom across the country, impacting the lives of our nation’s students.

I encourage you to learn more at www.aaeteachers.org

Tim Farmer is a Teach for America alumnus and current membership director for the AAE-affiliated Professional Association of Colorado Educators (PACE).

Last Updated


Notify Me When Education Next

Posts a Big Story

Business + Editorial Office

Program on Education Policy and Governance
Harvard Kennedy School
79 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Phone (617) 496-5488
Fax (617) 496-4428
Email Education_Next@hks.harvard.edu

For subscription service to the printed journal
Phone (617) 496-5488
Email subscriptions@educationnext.org

Copyright © 2024 President & Fellows of Harvard College