Rick Hess: Why Don't Unions Stand Up for Effective Principals, Ed School Reform?

Time is of the essence today, so one of my Education Policy Center friends will simply take a quick moment and point you to a very insightful blog passage about the dynamics of education reform. Take it away, Dr. Rick Hess:

…it strikes me as ludicrous for the unions to sit quietly by and share the blame for timid, tepid leadership, or when unions passively take the blame for weak teachers when teacher preparation programs produce graduates of dubious merit. In doing so, teachers and unions become complicit. The problem, I think, is a variation on Ted Sizer’s famed “Horace’s Compromise.” Teacher unions, superintendent and principal associations, schools of education, and school boards avoid calling each other out on such things, while focusing their energies on presenting a united front demanding more money and deference from taxpayers and policymakers. By the way, this phenomenon is part of what drives “reformers” to distraction. They can’t understand why so many supes and school boards seem to placidly accept onerous collective bargaining requirements, or why quality-conscious teachers don’t do more to call out feckless leadership.

Read it once, let it sink in, and then go back and read it again. Hess’s observations touch on some of the larger, more intractable problems in K-12 education reform and explain the behavior of key interest groups. Why don’t teachers unions strongly support more effective school-level leadership? Why don’t they make calls to reform the nation’s inefficient teacher preparation system? On one hand it is ludicrous, but on the other hand they obviously don’t see a compelling reason to call out their allies. Union leaders must believe they can continue to take most of the lumps.

I agree that the desire to maintain a unified front in support of feeding the establishment with more tax dollars certainly provides a large part of the explanation for union behavior. (There’s something to be said for shared cultural sympathies, too.) With school districts and other K-12 agencies facing tightened revenues for the first time in a generation or more, how will the dynamics of the relationship change? What does it mean for education reform? I’m sure more than a few smart people are pondering questions like these.

While you’re chewing on Wednesday’s food for thought, might I suggest that those who want to dig much deeper on the union topic find a copy of Dr. Terry Moe’s new book Special Interest: Teachers Unions and America’s Public Schools? You won’t be disappointed.