Unions and Student Learning

21 Apr

I went over to the document linked by John over at the AFT NCLBlog, and started reading it.  John was being enormously kind in posting some of the relatively tame suggestions and the less controversial language and proposals.

It’s useful to put my reading of this document in perspective.  While John is a member of the AFT, which is considered the more militant of the two major teacher unions in the country, I’m note a member of any of the unions.  The Council for Exceptional Children is not a union, although some of the same functions are performed, such as offering liability insurance and its own political lobbying.  In the state of
Georgia, I can join the Georgia Association of Educators (GAE), which is the state branch of the NEA.  Or I can join PAGE (Professional Association of Georgia Educators), which is actually a larger force in the state.  However, neither of these is a very strong union at all, as unions go.  There really is no proper collective bargaining, as you folks in other states know it.  If I have a problem with an administrator, my union representative is not going to be able to do much for me, aside from maybe giving me a referral to a competent attorney.  In the state of
Georgia, unions outside of the pilots at Delta, are notoriously anemic.  They call it having “the right to work.” 

I do agree that much of the way unions do business seems to be outmoded.  Back when I worked in a factory, I wasn’t written up by management.  I was written up for breaking union rules!  That’s just what the union gave management (tougher rules) in exchange for the $0.25 raise.  Unions seem to become as inflexible or more so than the management on some issues.  There are troublesome policies that seem to rule school cultures.  For instance, if I were a school principal, I’d like to be able to hire and fire employees based on their performance.  I’d like to have the best instructional team I could put together.  But unions seem to protect those with the most seniority, which is not always the same as having the best.

Mr. Pyle is a case-in-point.  The man has at least a decade of seniority over me, which means he is getting paid substantially more than me.  He does not attend conferences or classes to extend his knowledge.  He is not interested in learning how to be a better teacher.  He is interested in getting by long enough to retire.  He has said that he wants to stay in the classroom with me, so that I can continue to carry his load in addition to mine.  My paras are sharper than he is, when it comes to student instruction and behavior management.  He’s interviewed at two middle schools and neither of them has called him back.  And I’m thinking that our own administration is reluctant to give him a class of his own.  Which means I’ll be stuck with him.

I started writing this with an intention of panning the Hess and West Article as not having much of an effect on student learning.  But when I look at my own classroom and the reluctance of an administration to do much about a person who at least shows up everyday, on time, I’m thinking…  The fact is, Mr. Pyle’s students are not getting the same education as the ones on my caseload.  Mr. Pyle and his paras feed their students during breakfast and lunch.  Me and my paras teach our students to feed themselves.  Mr. Pyle and his paras change the diapers of their students.  We do too, but we are also trying to trip train them to use the toilet.  We change the position of our wheelchair-bound students, standing them and stretching them and making them work their muscles.  Mr. Pyle might take them out of a chair and lay them on the floor…and leave them there for a couple of hours.  My team works on communication and I’ve designed intensive programs for the paras to carry out with individual students.  Mr. Pyle rarely does any communication work with his students.

Here’s the problem with anything coming from a government think tank, foundation, institute or whatever: there is no state test in existence that measures any of these things.  My students are not taking a state test.  Any merit-based pay scheme will not cover what we do or even what our kids are learning.  Or what an art teacher does.  Or what the vocational agriculture teacher does. 
Reading and math are important for 99% of the students in school.  But not to my kids and their parents.  Being able to eat, use the bathroom independently, communicate or just move around are much bigger issues.  If you can’t move, communicate, use the toilet or eat, math and reading are not going to mean much.

This does not mean I am against a differing pay structure.  Compensation based on scarcity might have some effect, at least for those subjects in higher demand.  True, teaching 4th grade might be every bit as daunting as teaching physical science.  I know lots of jobs that are tougher than teaching physical science where the pay isn’t as good.  Like the temp job I had moving furniture.  Or the hot summers spent on the farm.  Or the summers spent training in the Army Reserve.  But there is more of a shortage of science teachers than elementary teachers or furniture movers.  Even the military offers differential bonuses based on specialty supply and demand, even though pay and benefit is the same within rank..

I think a more robust evaluation system would have a far greater benefit to student learning than any pay scheme.  The evaluation would have to be more in-depth and occur more often and it should be done by people who know what they are doing.  Administrators can know good instruction in the broad sense, but I think a peer review should also be involved somehow.  Test scores could be one indicator, but how about student and parent ratings and reviews?  The point being is that there should be several sources of feedback for a teacher and any decision as to merit should be based on more than one single assessment or observation.  Just as one test does not sufficiently measure student learning, one observation or test score does not measure a teacher’s ability.


The best teachers who have the most powerful impact on their students are the ones who are introspective, reflective and are always looking to improve and fine-tune themselves.  This is why I like peer-review as an indicator.  We all know those teachers who are really with it.  And we also know those that are just putting in the time.  I have not seen a merit-based pay scheme that has a lot of merit.  I'm open for suggestions, though.







4 Responses to “Unions and Student Learning”

  1. john April 21, 2006 at 7:53 pm #

    Your blog is thoughtful and thought-provoking, as usual, Mr. Dalton. Here are a few of the thoughts you provoked in me.

    First, you have no collective bargaining and weak unions, but somehow they manage to protect Mr. Pyle and reward him for his seniority. Maybe it’s simply that your district officials lack the imagination or will or knowledge to create a better pay schedule.

    Second, AFT’s Toledo local has a peer review system for evaluating teachers. They even counsel people out of the profession from time to time. (It’s described briefly here: http://www.aft.org/pubs-reports/american_teacher/feb02/news&trends.html#Toledo.)

    Third, I’ve read about how you handle the language in an IEP. I’m thinking if you were a principal in a school with a union, you’d know the contract as well as the building reps. And that means you’d probably be able to figure out how to hire the teachers and other staff you wanted to hire.

  2. Dick April 21, 2006 at 8:44 pm #

    Mr. Pyle is protected by two things. One is what you all have through collective bargaining, only in Georgia it is done through the state legislature. Several congressional leaders are married to/related to teachers. The reason why Georgia doesn’t require seat belts in pickups is because the former speaker of the house drove a pickup and didn’t like seat belts. That’s the way it works down here! Secondly, the scarcity of special ed. teachers drives administrators into inordinate modes of desperation. Some are more desperate than others.

    The Toledo Aft chapter was given an award in 2001. Indeed, a Google search reveals that the AFT has been a leader of this Peer-review movement. “Movement” being relative, since it hasn’t moved much in the last 4 years. I actually participated in one such process in Iowa…20 years ago while student teaching.

    The Hess and West article does cite some examples of how some shrewd administrators avoid the so-called “lemon dance.” In my district I wonder how it keeps going on. The only thing that I can figure is that the people who keep getting moved around have something on the director of personnel!

  3. catherine May 2, 2006 at 4:26 am #

    You do realize that not everyone has what it takes to work with chilldren (and/or adults) with emotional/mental/physical disabilities, no? I was under the impression that it’s a requirement for anyone entering the field of education as a teacher to spend at least *some* time working with special needs children. So how exactly can you presume to pass judgement on someone who didn’t intend to continue in this particular field to begin with?

  4. Dick May 2, 2006 at 11:58 am #

    Catherine, I presume you are talking about Mr. Pyle who has been in the program with me for the past 5 years, and has been in special education for the past 23 years. He has been drawing his salary, hoping to last till retirement for as long as I’ve known him.

    And no, regular education teachers are not required to spend any time in special education, at least in Georgia. They are required to take a class giving an overview of special education.

    I am harsh on him and there is some condemnation in my tone towards Mr. Pyle. But I lament more for the students he teaches…or rather does not teach. While not everyone is cut out for this business, why would someone stick around while hating it for over 20 years? And complain about it?

    But hey, if that’s the sort of person you want teaching your kids, I’m okay with that, too. Without mediocrity, where would exceptionality be? Without such low expectations, how would a person exceed them?


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