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The JLOA – Superman Needed His Union Too

Written on:June 7, 2011
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The Justice League of America - Superman Needed His Union Too

Evaluating “Waiting for Superman” from a union organizer’s perspective

I guess every story about Superman needs villains and some of the most prominent villains in “Waiting for Superman” are the teachers’ unions. Let me begin by saying that I have no interest in discrediting this documentary as a whole. My father was an educator. My mother is an educator and education reform activist. I understand the magnitude of the crises that we face in our public education system, and I believe that it is absolutely critical that we draw more attention to this epidemic. Therefore, I applaud the filmmakers for the exposure that they have given to this issue and for the money they have raised to help American children get a better education. I don’t doubt the sincerity of their examination of the education system and I believe that they did a good job of pointing out a lot of its systemic problems. That being said, I believe that the filmmaker’s portrayal of the teachers’ unions was devoid of research, purposely slanted, and divisive. In a film, which seemingly has the goal of bringing people together to solve one of America’s biggest challenges, I find this portrayal highly irresponsible.

Part of the premise of “Waiting for Superman” is that America needs more great teachers. The film also suggests that in order to recruit and retain more great teachers in public schools, we need to pay great teachers better. Okay, I think that the majority of Americans agree in theory that we need more great teachers and we need to pay them better for their important contribution to our society. Whether the majority of Americans vote this way in the ballot box is another issue, but lets set that aside for the time being. Let me take this premise about recruiting better teachers at higher pay one step further and say that we need an army of professional educators in America’s public schools. We need an army of highly trained, highly compensated professional educators who can make careers out of teaching our children in America’s public schools. In my opinion, in order to achieve this we need a majority of all classroom teachers in America to belong to a union. I believe that the goal of creating an army of professional educators is unachievable without a robust presence of organized teachers throughout the American public education system.

The film portrays the teachers’ unions as the protector of bad teachers and therefore an obstacle in the way of America’s public schools recruiting and obtaining more great teachers. I could not disagree with this notion more. The teachers’ union is the primary force pushing the pay and benefits package for public school teachers forward. Organized labor is the number one factor determining the quality of compensation for public servants in America. This is not my opinion as a union organizer, but an irrefutable fact that is validated year after year by the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics Annual Report. Take any profession from the public sector and compare the pay to the level of unionization, state by state. The more organized the workers, the better the compensation. Therefore, I would argue that our society has the teachers’ unions to thank for most of the great teachers that are currently working in America’s public schools. Sure, some teachers are idealistically committed to public education to the extent that they would teach in the public school system for minimum wage. But a vast majority of the professional educators currently working in public education do not have the luxury of choosing a career path based exclusively on idealism. Most would have been unable to have realistically considered teaching in public schools as a viable career option had teachers not organized and fought for fair pay and benefits and continue to do so year after year.

“Waiting for Superman” makes no acknowledgement of this essential role that the teachers’ unions have played in sustaining generation after generation of great teachers. The film paints a picture of the rank and file union member as a bad teacher who joins the union for job security as if a great teacher is somehow a separate entity from a teachers’ union member. Not once did the film make a correlation between being a great teacher as well as a teachers’ union member. I acknowledge that exploring the role that the teachers’ unions play in protecting bad teachers is a fair consideration and I will discuss it in further detail later. But “Waiting for Superman” loses credibility by failing to explore the real reason that most teachers join the union today. They join because they are still fighting for fair pay and benefits. Sure, the film makes brief mention of the early struggles of teachers’ integration into the labor movement but it clearly makes the widely propagated suggestion that the union has outlasted its usefulness. One cannot reasonably simultaneously argue that teachers’ need better pay and teachers’ unions have outlasted their usefulness. The statistical data will not allow it when unionization is the top determinant of the competitiveness of wages and benefits. Without the fair pay and benefits that the teachers’ unions have spent the last one hundred years striving towards, there would not be very many professional educators, very many great teachers in public schools in America today. Thus, the presence of the teachers’ union has actually sustained a higher quality workforce. Without the union, we would have an exacerbated crisis of a workforce devoid of great teachers, therefore our already massive crises in public education would be drastically worse. The omission of this fundamental reality from the film is either a terrible oversight by the filmmakers or a reckless misunderstanding of the American workforce. Either way, “Waiting for Superman” has whiffed on its exploration of how to get more great teachers in America’s public schools and pay them better. The answer is stronger teachers’ unions, not weaker ones.

Okay, so now that we have established that “Waiting for Superman” has inappropriately represented the purpose of teachers’ unions and failed to acknowledge the linkage between unionization and quality of compensation, let’s evaluate the core argument that the film makes in regards to unions. The film argues that teachers’ unions have created one of the systemic flaws in our public education system because they are responsible for establishing and maintaining teacher tenure through collective bargaining contracts. In other words, teachers’ unions have made it extremely difficult for school administrators to fire bad teachers. Of course in black and white, this is wrong. Providing quality education to students is the most important duty of public educators and if a teacher cannot perform that duty, he or she should not be afforded the privilege of teaching our children. However, teacher tenure is not a black and white issue. In fact, it is hardly an issue about bad teachers at all.

The film argues that teachers’ unions have fought and won teacher tenure to afford public school teachers the same guarantee of lifetime employment that is granted to tenured university faculty. It argues that teachers’ unions have wielded their power to implement institutionalized complacency through universal job security. This is an elemental misunderstanding of what teacher tenure is. Teacher tenure is an on-the-job worker protection issue for teachers’ unions and should not have been compared to faculty tenure for university professors. Teacher tenure is not about giving bad teachers undeserved job security, it is about affording all teachers due process and a formal review before termination. It is about on-the-job justice, which is a steadfast value of the American labor movement. Teacher tenure was fought for and won to protect good teachers from being arbitrarily fired. Its purpose is to protect good teachers from discriminatory action by employers or false allegations by students. It is about making sure that justice prevails over expediency in a situation where a student allegation or conflict with an administrator could end a teacher’s career.

I contend that it is better than the alternative of an at will system where teachers can be fired without cause. Eliminating on-the-job worker protection for teachers would destabilize the workforce and increase the number of bad teachers in our public schools, not decrease it. Sure an administrator could more easily terminate an underperforming teacher but he or she could also more easily terminate a performing teacher because a parent objects to the teacher’s methods or a student makes a false allegation. The point is that at will employment creates uncertainty. Uncertainty creates turnover in the workforce. Turnover decreases productivity. Teacher tenure is essential to giving teachers the assurance that they have the freedom to strive to be great. Instead of walking on pins and needles worried about arbitrarily losing their jobs, knowing that they are protected by due process allows teachers to focus better on helping our children learn.

Do the unions put too much red tape in the way of an administrator firing a lazy or bad teacher? Perhaps in some cases, and that is definitely a bad thing for students. I think that the teachers’ unions could be more flexible about working with administrators to streamline the review process so that it works more efficiently. I believe that moving teachers through grievance proceedings with expediency is an aspect of teacher tenure that the unions should be more willing to work with administrators on, but I understand their hesitancy. It is a fine line between making concessions on this issue and all out losing due process rights for teachers.

Furthermore, “Waiting for Superman” does not provide any evidence that teachers in districts without tenure contracts perform better than districts with tenure. Nor does the film provide any evidence that non-tenured teachers are actually terminated for poor performance at a significantly higher rate than tenured teachers. Based on my own research I found absolutely no evidence to warrant the film’s argument that teacher tenure brings down performance or protects bad teachers. In fact, according to a Washington Post article by Perry Zirkel (Professor of Education and Law at LeHigh University), the National Center for Education Statistics’ 2007-2008 School and Staffing Survey determined that more tenured teachers were terminated for poor performance (1.4%) than non-tenured teachers (.7%).

The film hammers home its case against teacher tenure through the example of former Washington DC public school chancellor Michelle Rhee’s negotiation with the Washington Teachers’ Union. Her contract proposal to allow teachers to choose between higher merit pay or teacher tenure was portrayed in the film as a grand idea to fix the system. In my opinion, it really was an attempt to bust the union. The film did not present the issue of merit pay fairly because it did not allow union leaders an equal opportunity to present a case against merit pay. It is generally agreed upon throughout the American labor movement that merit pay is a terrible idea for recruiting and retaining quality workers. Merit pay creates divisions and animosity in the workplace. Implementing legitimately fair evaluation benchmarks to award merit pay for teachers would be extremely problematic, especially for districts that endorse progressive and holistic teaching techniques. In my experience dealing with merit pay issues as a union organizer, I’ve found that merit pay is rarely awarded based on merit but usually because of favoritism. Nonetheless, I think that the union negotiated merit pay in good faith. This is evidenced in the fact that the sides came to a similar contract agreement with slightly fewer concessions this year to the one proposed by Rhee in the film. “Waiting for Superman” makes no mention of this and leads its audience to view Rhee as a hero and the Washington Teachers’ Union as a villain. Had the sides been given equal time, I think the union might have argued that merit pay could potentially create more bad teachers. It can be reasonably argued that teachers would be more worried about reaching performance benchmarks to receive bonuses than the needs of their students.

Therefore, casting the teachers’ unions as villains in “Waiting for Superman” was not merely an irresponsible evaluation of how to deal with the systemic problem of bad teachers. It was using the unions as scapegoats. This was not only disappointing but also extremely reckless. Espousing misinformation about unions that engenders a negative emotional response from the audience is counterproductive to the film’s mission of bringing people together to work towards solutions. For so many reasons, it is imperative that the public understands that strengthening teachers’ unions is a key component to reforming public education in America. Not only are the unions the best vehicle through which to improve teacher pay, but organized teachers are also a powerful voice in making sure that effective teaching methods prevail over ineffective ones. The film makes no mention of the advocacy that teachers’ unions do every day to implement curriculum and teaching methods that work into our public schools. They are also a powerful voice in making sure that our elected officials make spending on public education a priority. Earlier I alluded to the fact that most Americans agree in theory that we need better teachers who are well paid, but whether they vote that way in the ballot box is another issue. The reality is that we get what we pay for. In an era where government spending is regularly demonized as “socialism” and a large percentage of our elected officials are more concerned with appeasing American taxpayers by shrinking government, privatizing public programs, and cutting funding for public education, there is no stronger voice pushing back than organized labor. For anyone who believes in fighting to create quality, affordable public education in this country, there is not a more powerful and committed partner to enlist in the cause than the teachers’ unions. It is simply a shame that this film has failed to recognize this.

“Waiting for Superman” derives its title from an interview it did with education reform advocate Geoffrey Canada. Canada recalls his childhood and hoping for Superman to come and save him from destitution. This imagery serves as a metaphor suggesting that Superman is not coming to save the children affected by the problems in the American education system. The film seems to suggest that perhaps the problem is just too great for one man, even Superman to solve. It seems the film would have benefited from having a deeper historical understanding of the comic book character that it references in its title. Often, Superman faced challenges that were too great for one man, even Superman to solve. Sometimes these challenges even presented the potential destruction of the human race. How did Superman respond to these challenges? He did not respond by randomly choosing some of the humans and flying them to safety on another planet that wasn’t facing destruction. Furthermore, he did not respond by demonizing other superheroes also trying to solve these challenges because he didn’t agree with their strategy. He certainly never tried to blame another superhero for the problem by casting them as the villain. Instead, what Superman did was organize with the other superheroes to work together to solve these problems. Superman was a proud member of the Justice League of America, the world’s first superhero union because he knew that some challenges required collective action to overcome. This is the idea of the American labor movement. This is the continued mission of our teachers’ unions. And sadly, “Waiting for Superman” misses an opportunity to unite more people in its cause by identifying some of its fellow heroes as some of the villains.

Written November 2010

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