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Teacher Unions

Influence On Instruction And Other Educational Practices

Schools cannot be significantly improved without improving the quality of teaching. Teacher unions significantly influence how teachers view their work. Not all teachers belong to teacher unions, but more than 90 percent of the 2.6 million public school teachers belong to either the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) or the larger National Education Association (NEA). While teachers do not blindly follow union leaders, it seems unlikely that substantial school improvement can occur without the support and resources of teacher unions.


Historically, many educational policymakers and researchers have viewed efforts of teacher unions as antithetical to school reform. Most teacher union activity has involved aggressive efforts to raise teacher salaries, improve teachers' working conditions, and protect teachers' rights, even if this entailed protests that limited or suspended teachers' work with students. Although school improvement has been on the agenda of the AFT and the NEA for decades, most observers, and union leaders themselves, have recognized that there has been a tension between fighting for rights that are most beneficial to its members and pressing for reform that is most beneficial for students.

In the 1990s both national unions substantially increased their engagement in direct efforts to increase student achievement by improving instructional strategies and school conditions that support good teaching and student learning. These initiatives–which have been dubbed the "new unionism"–have been motivated by demands of newer members, by the recognition that effective teaching requires new structures and relationships in schools, and by perceived needs to build public and political support for the unions. In spite of national resolutions and new alliances that promote union leadership in reform, some informed observers, such as Gregory Moo and Myron Lieberman, have expressed doubts about the viability of new unionism. Moreover, as federated organizations, both the NEA and AFT propose national stances that are loosely coupled with the practices of state and local affiliates that believe in the unions' more traditional mission of advocating teachers' rights and benefits.

Teacher unions influence instruction and other educational practices of interest to those who define themselves as school reformers in four general ways:(1) electoral politics and lobbying, (2) collective bargaining, (3) reform initiatives focused on their members, and (4) dissemination of information about best practice.

Electoral Politics and Lobbying

Teacher unions engage in direct political action at national, state, and local levels to secure the election of candidates who support their priorities and to promote or oppose the adoption of ballot issues–such as support for increases in education funding and opposition to school vouchers. Likewise, teacher unions seek to influence legislative initiatives and executive actions through the provision of information, promises of electoral support or opposition, and efforts to shape public opinion. As is the case for most political interest groups, teacher unions may be more effective in opposing policies than in getting policies adopted that they favor.

Collective Bargaining

Since the 1960s a hallmark of the traditionally adversarial relationships between union and school district leaders has been their engagement in industrial-style collective bargaining often characterized by divergent labor-management interests, standardized work rules, and equal treatment of teachers who have varying degrees of skill and marketability. Studies, such as Joe A. Stone's 2000 research, have generally found few connections between collective bargaining and improved student achievement. The "new unionism," however, calls for "interest-based bargaining" in which labor and management enter into discussions about what they see as important in efforts to find solutions to problems instead of focusing on prerogatives and issues of control. According to Charles Kerchner, unions can work to enhance teaching quality by promoting teacher leadership and collaboration in initiatives such as peer review, teacher induction, professional development, and performance rewards.

Peer Review

Peer Assistance and Review (PAR) is a union-initiated teacher evaluation system in which veteran teachers jointly selected by union and district representatives are released from their classroom duties to assist beginning teachers or improve the competence of poorly performing, tenured teachers. At the end of the year, the veteran teachers recommend renewal or nonrenewal of the beginning and tenured teachers' contracts. Union support of an evaluation system that could lead to the termination of tenured teachers who are not responsive to remediation attempts is a dramatic departure from a stance that has typically privileged the protection of teachers' jobs. The American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association both favor PAR and argue that it places teachers in charge of setting and enforcing the standards of the profession.


Although some union locals have not amassed enough support or funding for Peer Assistance and Review programs, a number have established peer assistance programs to provide mentoring to new or veteran teachers expressing a need for help. At the national level, unions provide grants to locals that form partnerships with their districts and local universities to provide intensive training and support for new teachers. On the other hand, contract provisions that give experienced teachers options to move to schools with vacant positions often result in new teachers being assigned to schools with underperforming students, and this contributes to teacher turnover and to low student achievement.

Professional Development

Beyond using the contract to provide time or compensation for teachers engaging in professional development, a growing number of local unions are using contracts to define characteristics of effective professional development, insisting that their districts provide teachers with "ongoing" opportunities for "job-embedded" professional development connected to school and district student achievement objectives. Union contracts can also have negative effects on professional development by reducing flexibility in the how time is used and how teachers are rewarded for their participation in learning new knowledge and skills.

Performance-Based Pay

Although most union-district contracts provide for salary increases to teachers that are based on their years of service or attainment of graduate credits, a number of union affiliates are pushing for pay-for-performance compensation structures that would provide higher compensation to teachers who are exemplary practitioners and who choose to engage in leadership and professional development. Some affiliates also propose to cut the pay of teachers failing to meet high standards. Whether or not student achievement as measured by standardized tests should be a part of the criteria used to determine teacher pay is controversial.

Programmatic Reform Initiatives

In the early twenty-first century, both national unions are engaged in numerous programs that seek to respond to member interests in school improvement and to influence both public policy and public opinion by demonstrating their commitment to student learning. The demand that these activities place on union resources has increased dramatically. In 2001, thousands of schools were involved in a broad array of NEA-supported programs dealing with a broad range of concerns that include changing school conditions that support effective teaching and organizational efficiency and accountability, jumpstarting reform in low-performing schools, teacher education, and the implementation of charter schools. The AFT has placed organizational priority on toughening curriculum standards and preschool education. Both national organizations have programmatic initiatives aimed at improving the teaching of reading and promoting school safety and both are actively involved in promoting teacher involvement in certification by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

Dissemination of Information about Best Practice

Both national unions have made efforts to make useful information about educational practice available to their members. Both publish professional journals and specialized newsletters focused on particular segments of their membership as well as books and reports on dozens of topics. The AFT supports the Educational Research and Dissemination program that helps teachers apply research findings to their classroom practice. These efforts to influence their members' actions have grown substantially and have become more prescriptive in the sense that explicit endorsement of particular strategies is now common. Both organizations, at the national level and in many states and districts, have elaborate websites that both provide information and allow members to engage in professional discussions. During elections and with respect to specific policies under consideration, teacher unions have sought to influence public opinion through press releases, media events, and political advertising. The effort to shape popular thinking about best practice transcends these overtly political actions. Teacher unions buy space in leading newspapers, support cable and public television programming that draws attention to the importance of good teaching, and form partnerships with other educational organizations to disseminate and advocate for research-based practices.

Effect on Educational Reform

There is little research that systematically examines the effects of union actions on improving instruction and on school reform more generally. It is clear however, that certain policies frequently advocated by would-be reformers would not be as far along as they are now without teacher union cooperation and leadership. These steps include peer review of teacher competence, more robust induction programs, job-embedded professional development, and performance-based pay. It is also clear that the greater emphasis on school improvement and student achievement that has characterized teacher union priorities in the late twentieth century is unlikely to be reversed. This redirection is being institutionalized in organizational structures and new staff positions in state and national units, in organizational initiatives such as the Teacher Union Reform Network, and in relationships at all levels with other professional educators, from principals and superintendents in local schools and districts to national partnerships, such as the Learning First Alliance.


AMERICAN FEDERATION OF TEACHERS AND THE NATIONAL EDUCATION ASSOCIATION. 1998. Peer Assistance and Peer Review: An AFT/NEA Handbook. Washington, DC: American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association.

JOHNSON, SUSAN MOORE, and KARDOS, SUSAN M. 2000. "Reform Bargaining and Its Promise for School Improvement." In Conflicting Missions? Teachers Unions and Educational Reform, ed. Thomas Loveless. Washington, DC: Brookings Institute.

KERCHNER, CHARLES. 2001. "Deindustrialization." Education Next (fall):46–50.

KERCHNER, CHARLES; KOPPICH, JULIA; and WEERES, JOSEPH G. 1997. United Mind Workers. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

LIEBERMAN, MYRON. 1998. Teachers Evaluating Teachers: Peer Review and the New Unionism. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.

MCDONNELL, LORRAINE. 1992. "Unions." In Encyclopedia of Educational Research, 6th edition, ed. Marvin C. Aiken. New York: Macmillan.

MCDONNELL, LORRAINE, and PASCAL, ANTHONY. 1988. Teacher Unions and Educational Reform. Santa Monica, CA: Rand Corporation and the Center for Policy Research in Education.

MOO, GREGORY. 1999. Power Grab. Washington, DC: Regency.

STONE, JOE A. 2000. "Collective Bargaining and Public Schools." In Conflicting Missions? Teachers Unions and Educational Reform, ed. Thomas Loveless. Washington, DC: Brookings Institute.

URBANSKI, ADAM, and JANEY, C. 2001. "A Better Bargain." Education Week 20 (37):53.



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