Moe v. Meier on Teacher Unions

Last week, at AEI, I hosted a lively panel to discuss Stanford University political scientist Terry Moe’s new book, Special Interest: Teachers Unions and America’s Public Schools. In addition to Moe, the panel featured TFA director of research Heather Harding and Central Park East impresario (and Ed Week blogger) Deborah Meier. You can watch the 90-minute conversation here. Speaking to a full house, the three powerfully elucidated and clarified some of the fault lines in the heated debates about teacher unions.

To me, it looked like two key fault lines ran through the discussion. One was the notion of “reform unionism” and professional voice. The second was how to judge whether schools or teachers were doing well. Moe, for reasons I’ll explain in a moment, thinks “reform unionism” is a pipe dream and that the only effective way to drive school improvement is by getting the system incentives to emphasize performance–which requires measures of student learning. Meier argued that collaboration has repeatedly proven successful, in locales such as New York’s district four, and that it has been management and policymakers who have squelched it. She rejected the notion that test scores measure learning in a useful fashion, and noted that Moe’s critiques of teacher evaluation or tenure all rest on the notion that test scores can usefully measure teacher performance. Harding praised Moe’s efforts to talk about union incentives and behavior, accepted the notion that test scores are useful measures of learning, and suggested we can all “put our heads in our hands over the state of [teacher] contracts.” But she also confessed to a “soft spot” for collaboration, expressed faith that districts and unions could collaborate to drive achievement, and cautioned that reformers eager to reduce the role of unions need to “be careful” about finding ways to “replace important protections” for teachers.

If you haven’t seen Moe’s 500-page tome, it’s worth a careful look. The result of a decade’s worth of scholarship, it assembles a wealth of data on teacher attitudes, collective bargaining, union influence on school board elections, NEA and AFT political activity, and so on. Yesterday, Moe sketched the book’s argument, saying, “Teacher unions are the most powerful force in American education…from the bottom up and the top down.” He said that fully understanding this dynamic is essential to making sense of why education policy “has been such a disappointment for a quarter century,” because schools are organized like they are largely due to the pressures exerted by teacher unions.

Perhaps Moe’s most intriguing assertion is that both union leaders and would-be reformers routinely mischaracterize union sentiment: union leaders when they say they’re seeking to protect students and would-be reformers when they charge that callous union bosses are ignoring the wishes of their membership. Rather, Moe argued, “Members expect union leaders to protect their jobs [and perks]…and union leaders need to do these things if they are to stay union leaders.” He said, “Leaders are going to protect union member job interests come hell or high water, even if these lead them to do things that are bad for kids or for schools.” This isn’t because union leaders are foisting an agenda on teachers, but because they are responding to teachers’ common, fundamental concerns. He noted that none of this means that union members or union leaders are bad and that, as individuals, they likely want what’s best for kids. But, he argued, the logic of unionization trumps those individual concerns. While he sees great value in “teachers having voice,” the “dilemma” is that when teachers organize to make their voice heard, it becomes “about job interests and not just voice anymore.”

Moe offered a bleak prognosis for “reform unionism,” deeming it wishful thinking. He said that those who put their faith in such reforms are “expecting cats to bark,” and argued that the logic of any collaboration is that union partners will try to “minimize departures from the norm.” He also argued that Republican efforts to curtail union power in the states are unlikely to make much headway. In the longer term, Moe sees two trends that will reduce union influence. One is the “ferment” in the Democratic party, with reformers like the Democrats for Education Reform “put[ting] unions on the defensive.” The second is technological change. Echoing a point that he and John Chubb argued in Liberating Learning, Moe said that technology will reduce the need for labor, that online learning will lead to teachers being more geographically dispersed, and that new tools will lead to a proliferation of new school options–all of which will cost unions members, dues, and influence.

Meier argued that Moe credited teacher unions with far too much influence. She argued that schools have always been infused by rules that stifle sensible practice, and that that these rules were historically imposed by management. She observed that in St. Louis, in 1950, a married woman could not teach and that, in Chicago, she could not have taught if she looked pregnant. She argued that unions have tried to address “the shameful history of how teachers were treated.” She argued that doctors are not regarded as a “special interest” but are listened to when they speak with professional consensus, and asked why the unions are treated any differently. Indeed, she said that “healthy civilizations respect seniority and age,” and argued that policies which advantage veteran teachers are defensible on those grounds.

She said she’s perplexed by efforts to cut teacher benefits. She said, “I’m a retired teacher, collecting two-thirds of my teaching salary [in a pension]. I run into people with 3.2 million dollar bonuses. To begrudge me my two-thirds of salary, that’s shameful. It’s what the middle class was supposed to be.” She also challenged Moe’s notion that others pay more attention than the union to the needs of the students. “Who puts the interests of the children first?” she asked. She said it’s not the nation, which “ranks at the bottom on child welfare.” She asked, “When we decided not to tax the rich the way they should have been, was that because they were thinking about American children?” And, she asked, what are we producing high schools graduates for, anyway? “There are no jobs,” she said. “Companies move locations, pick up a factory here and move over there without thinking about the children.”

There was plenty more, with Harding frequently occupying the ground between these two forceful voices. Ultimately, I think two clear patches of common ground emerged. One was agreement that schools have indeed been larded with destructive rules by pols and management. Moe happily conceded the point, noting that schools occupy the bottom rung of “a democratic hierarchy,” reminding the audience why he has long advocated for choice-based reform. He agreed with Meier that management has long been inept and unproductive, but argued that this has been due to incentives–and that he thinks that’s entirely consistent with his assertion that teacher unions are having the biggest and most destructive impact on schools today. Second, there was clear agreement about the value of teacher professionalism and voice, with Harding flagging the promise of new organizations intended to give teachers a voice in policy. The question was really about how that voice can and should be channeled.

Anyway, a lot was said, and space and time limit what I’ve been able to touch upon. If you’re curious, pop over here and check it out for yourself.

-Frederick Hess

(This post also appears on Rick Hess Straight Up.)

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