This is probably the most levied charge against teacher unions- that they protect incompetence among their member ranks. Also often charged is that their interests lie not with the students their members teach, but with employee concerns.
To this second charge, I think the defense is in the definition. A labor union is not formed to protect a third party's interests or advocacy, it is formed to protect and advocate for a labor force. I'm not sure that more really needs to be said about that. You really can't get any more "American" than that.
To answer the charge of protecting incompetence among the ranks of teachers, let's take a closer look at some hypothetical situations. Teacher A begins teaching. She is evaluated by an administrator. The administrator may note shortcomings in that teacher's performance.
If there are shortcomings cited, the administrator may exercise his or her judgment that with time and support that this teacher will improve. It may be decided that the contract will not be renewed. There is no tenure, so there is nothing to stop that. It depends on the administrator's judgment. He or she may devise an improvement plan for Teacher A. Teacher A may very well improve with age and experience and mentor and administrative support. That's a great outcome for all.
So now let's take Teacher B. Teacher B begins her career. She is also evaluated with some shortcomings, but this time by an administrator who simply doesn't have the desire or the talent to develop and oversee an improvement plan. This administrator in fact, may be quite sure that his/her niece or his/her nephew should have the job, so he or she can fairly simply dispose of this non-tenured teacher without giving her a chance to improve. It may not be fair, but it can and does happen at times. The key being that the administrator in question must act before the teacher becomes tenured. There really isn't anything that a teacher's union can or should be able to do in this instance, even if the termination would be, in fact, unfair next to Teacher A's situation. But I'm not really sure the blame should be cast at the unions. The problem would seem to be with the caliber of administrator.
So, let's use another example- Teacher C. Teacher C has tenure. She's been teaching for 12 years when suddenly, simultaneously she inherits a particular class of students who have traditionally been low achievers (for whatever reason) and a new administrator comes to the helm of her school. In fact the reason that Teacher C has been assigned this particular group of individuals by the former administrator is because in the past she has shown strong performance in helping low achievers succeed. But this particular year, perhaps despite her best efforts, she isn't able to help her students raise their test scores. The new administrator may decide he just doesn't like her and he may decide on the basis of these scores that he'd like to bring someone new in.
It may be that one of her students happens to have a "Steve Jobs" for a parent and our Steve happens to have a child with an IQ of 70 and he's angry that his child is performing more like a PC than a MAC. So our Steve goes in to complain. Steve's a big important business guy so he WILL be listened to by the administrator and the school board. Without tenure, the teacher would have no recourse but to accept the terms of her reassignment or even her dismissal. Why shouldn't a labor union be able to protect teacher C?
Now, many people who are not in the teaching profession would say "Tough, we don't have that security in our professions." To that I would answer that perhaps there is no other profession where a worker's experience level meets up so squarely with the need for consistency. It's been my personal observation that most any teacher and even the really great ones will tell you that they made many and huge mistakes in their first years as teachers. This perhaps makes the case for better training and the need for more intensive "internships" or "mentorships " for new teachers, but I don't see that it makes the case for the dissolution of teachers unions or their powers.
In fact, to the contrary, I think it makes the case that we need our teacher unions to provide a cushion of protection for a teacher until she gets on her feet. I think the cushion protects the teacher from being unfairly judged by a specific populations' test scores or achievement or other even more arbitrary factors such as lousy administrators or poor mentoring.
It's different in Steve Job's world. If "MacBuddy ComputerBuilder" continually doesn't build computers with the quality of a Mac, Steve-o is within his rights to fire MacBuddy. However, I think we can assume that MacBuddy is presented with the exact same quality of raw materials and a set of specific directions for assembly and a protected "caseload." I do not believe that a teacher has that uniformity of raw materials or that specific of an assembly manual, or any control over how many students are placed in his or her care.
But ok, what about Teacher D? Teacher D is a disaster. How she ever made it into the ranks of teaching might only be explained by her bra size and that all her professors and administrators have been male. She has tenure. Year after year, her students score dismally low on the state standardized tests. Her new administrator cannot fire her because currently you can't fire on the basis of test scores.
That's what Steve Jobs is upset about. I can see that. Almost anyone could. But don't you think that Steve Jobs would be smart enough to see that the problem lies in the administrative failure of not canning a teacher when he or she did not yet have tenure and in the evaluation procedure itself? Can he not see that test scores are not necessarily the measure of teacher? Has it not occurred to him that it's not that simple to evaluate people in human service fields?
Steve Jobs seems to be a pretty bright individual. You have to wonder why his judgment seems to fail him here. You have to wonder why he doesn't have anything else to suggest in terms of creating better teachers or in better ways of evaluating what is an effective teacher. You have to wonder also why he and his buddies in the business world and in the legislative world really never stop to ask the experts in the education field what their thoughts are in coming up with a better way. Instead they just get up on their "tree stumps" and criticize and profess to know the answers.
This brings up the subject of merit pay. My guess is that Steve and his buddies are upset that teachers unions are almost uniformly against this. They are upset that teachers unions hold the right of collective bargaining.
But let's examine this nightmare for a moment. Without collective bargaining, teachers would each individually go in and bargain for their own contracts. What a nightmare of administrative time and effort would go into such a process! What a nightmare of nepotism and job-jumping a system like this would create! Even while it might make some individual situations better, on the whole, I don't think it's hard to see the chaos that it would create in an organization.
I once had a friend who was the CEO of a medical device company. In the region where his company was located, he had competition for labor from one other company. His company and the other company continually competed back and forth for the workers. It was playing havoc with production. Finally, his solution to this was to go meet with the other CEO and say "Hey, we are cutting our own throats here all the time, let's agree to keep wages roughly the same so the labor force won't continually jump back and forth between our ships." Essentially I believe that if we cut out collective bargaining we create a nightmare not just for teachers but also for the administration and the field of education in general.
There are other problems I see with merit or even "need-based" pay. I'll use an example to illustrate one of them. Say there is a truly outstanding chemistry teacher at a high school who wins all kinds of teaching awards, some based on his students' performances and there is a huge shortage of science teachers at the secondary level. It might seem logical to award him more money based on his subject area and also because he's so outstanding. Maybe that teacher does need to be recognized in some way, but if you think about it, how can you give this person credit and not also recognize that more than likely farther back down the line in those students' school careers, they had a really great first grade teacher or a really great middle school teacher? How is it fair to compensate this teacher but not the other? Don't those teachers who provide the foundation deserve a lot of credit for having those students well prepared for the high school class? This is one issue that teacher's unions must contemplate that merit pay does not address.
What's the answer then? Could it be that it lies within the realm of raising teacher pay in general and making the education degree a more rigorous and more competitive area of study? Would that perhaps raise the caliber of teacher applicants? My guess is that it would. Why doesn't a bright guy like Steve Jobs get that? In his own business, my guess is that he recognizes the need to pay pretty highly for critical positions, in order to attract superior candidates. So why doesn't he see that here?
Robert Scoble seems to get it. Listen to what he has to say.. "If you want better schools, pay teachers $80,000 a year or more, AND give the staff power to get rid of bad apples and you'll see school quality turn around in an instant."
Scoble seems to get the principle of offering more to get quality, even though the second part of his statement "give staff the power to get rid of bad apples" conveys a little bit of short-sightedness or maybe impatience or naievity. I say this because if there aren't teacher unions to advocate for higher pay and to guarantee fairness for all of the labor force they represent, then who exactly is going to advocate for it? Would an individual teacher without the clout of an Apple executive have much power?
It's all good and fine for people to say "Well if we give teacher's more pay, then the unions should give us more control," but can't anyone see the shortsightedness of this? If that happens, then what is there, or who is there to guarantee that after raising the pay, that the pay will stay at competitive levels to other fields? There wouldn't be much incentive for a cash strapped school district to keep pay competitive, would there? It would more than likely escalate into the case of one "CEO" calling up another to say "hey, let's keep wages the same so no one has incentive to jump ship." There also wouldn't be much incentive to assure that all evaluations and dismissals are handled fairly. Nepotism could easily become the order of the day.
I maintain that if you keep collective bargaining and the protection of teachers' rights in place and raised teacher pay all around to a more competitive level, then maybe not within an instant, but I bet within a generation, we'd see that school turn-around that Scoble envisions. Yes, you might lose some individual students while waiting, but on the other hand, I'm not sure some rich computer geek's criticism of teachers unions is going to get us "there" any faster, or at all. What it does is create more distraction from very real problems by misidentifying the cause. You can't pretend that an orange is an apple.
I'm a personal admirer of Mr. Jobs. I admire him for building computers with operating systems that probably outperform this Pc that I'm typing on. However, my respect for him stops at his ability to manage a computer business. If he wants to help create a stronger workforce, he needs to see that that teacher unions are not really his enemy.