In 1857 America, blacks were slaves and women could not vote. And in 1857, the National Teachers Association was born, with just under 100 members. Although women were barred from joining until 1866, the Association later emerged as a leader in the women’s rights movement. During the next 50 years, the NTA became the National Educators Association, which championed civil rights, lobbied for child labor laws, and worked to establish national standards for American public education. The teachers union played an important role in ensuring educational freedom for marginalized populations in 19th and 20th century America and basic workers’ rights for teachers.
But that was then.
The demands of the education system in today’s globalized world are critically different than they were in 19th and 20th century America. The teachers unions have failed to adapt to the rapidly shifting needs of 21st century students. The mission of the NEA, as stated on their website, is to “advocate for education professionals and to unite our members and the nation to fulfill the promise of public education to prepare every student to succeed in a diverse and interdependent world.” Unity and conformity are close cousins, and the unions’ recent actions seem to lean towards the latter.
Same standards. Same hours. Same pay. The only problem is that high achievers are not attracted to sameness. They are, by their very definition, achievement seekers. Difference-makers. Shaker-uppers. The United States has established global recognition and economic prowess through innovation and excellence. The opposite of excellence is conformity, and it has no place in America’s classrooms. The unions’ efforts to unite teachers in collective action strips them of their individuality as professionals and robs them of the potential for excellence.
By dictating a teacher’s monetary worth with arbitrary standards like the number of years in the system or educational credits, the union’s collective bargaining imposes inauthentic metrics on teachers’ careers and discourages innovation, experimentation, and achievement. By entitling teachers to career tenure after two or three years, unions delegitimize the value and presence of great teachers.
In 2012, teachers must be granted autonomy over their classrooms and careers. Teachers must be empowered to make decisions about which curricular content, curricular resources, and technology best meet the needs of their students. Teachers deserve the respect to pursue their own professional development. The best teachers must have the opportunity to demand incentives equivalent to the value they add to their schools and students, and the worst teachers should be encouraged to seek new professions.
The union could adapt to the needs of students and teachers in the 21st century and hold true to their vision and mission. A 21st century union could lobby for school funding models that do not disadvantage veteran teachers. The union could advocate for better classroom technology resources. They could conduct or fund serious research related to teacher quality and evaluation. They could support experimentation in teaching through innovation grants. They could ensure that the curriculum of teacher education programs are aligned with the demand’s of modern teaching. They could ensure that the the curriculum of today’s classrooms are aligned with the demands of tomorrow’s workforce.
Teachers, and the education system at large, have outgrown the 19th century union model. American public schools need extraordinary teachers at the helm of classrooms, and there is no room for extraordinary teachers in a union that commands conformity. Excellence must be earned, not bargained for.