Teacher Unions: Positive Force for Education Quality

published 15 March 2016 updated 5 April 2016

EI General Secretary Fred van Leeuwen debated anti-union activists at the Global Education and Skills Forum in Dubai earlier this week, taking the ‘con’ side of a proposition stating “Teacher Unions are an Impediment to the Provision of Quality Education.”

Opening statement by Fred van Leeuven, General Secretary of Education International:

First, we need to deal with a fundamental misunderstanding – the idea that on the one hand you have teachers and on the other hand you have teachers unions and their leaders. Some governments enjoy making that distinction as if to say that teacher unions are not representative of the profession. The other day an education minister told me that he did not need to talk to the local teacher union. He was in contact with his teachers on a daily basis – on Twitter.

In many countries most teachers belong to independent and democratic professional unions with a dual mission. One, to defend the interests of their members and the profession at large, and two, to promote education quality and equality. These two missions are not in conflict. They are complementary.

It is quite simple: Quality education requires quality teaching which requires a well trained and highly motivated teaching force, which require fair terms and employment conditions. The idea that teacher organizations impede education quality is ludicrous. The opposite is true.

Throughout history teacher organisations have been the main driver of improvingeducation quality and educational opportunities. Is it a coincidence that the 23 best performing nations on the Pisa scale, have strong education unions? Of course not. Manysuccessful education reforms in the industrial economies wereinitiated by teacher unions, while the most effective professional development programs are organized by teacher unions.

In Detroit, Michigan in the US, dilapidated schools are all too familiar. But some posed a real threat: black mold in hallways, broken toilets, exposed electrical wires. Individual teachers and parents spoke to school leaders to no avail. Our affiliate went out on strike demanding repairs and the mayor finally visited the sites and declared the buildings hazardous areas. Teacher unions impediment to quality? Of course not, they are often the leading voice of accountability for public officials.

In the Netherlands, our affiliates declared a one-day strike in primary education against severe budget cuts in special education…not for salaries or pensions but for better education quality. The public authorities withdrew the cuts.Teacher unionsstanding in the way ofquality? On the contrary, they engage if need be in political battle to get politicians to make the right choices.

In Lebanon, despite the failure of the public authorities to honour a ten-year-old collective agreement, our affiliates decided to work double shifts to accommodate the hundreds of thousands of refugee teachersin their public schools.Teacher unions an obstacle to better schools? No. Instead, teacher unions helping open a path to the very access to education.

In Africa, teachers in multiple countries – all of them members of their unions – worked without pay for months on end during times of severe financial crisis. They stayed in their classrooms, working with their students, because they decided together that the students should not suffer during the crisis.

One more example: California. When governor Arnold Schwarzenegger cut funding to schools in deprived areas,our affiliate took him to court and won millions. Did they put those millions towards their salaries or union coffers, no they re-invested the amounts in the poorest schools.

Nobody goes into teaching for the money. Teachers care about kids, they want their students to have a fair chance to succeed. Teacher unions have the same ambition.

And what about these weak teachers we protect? We protect all teachers, the innovative teacher from her conservative school board, the traditional teacher from her progressive principals, and, yes, also the“weak, underperforming teacher” who deserves leadership with accountability under any political regime. It’s called due process and strong schools, leaders and unions work under it every day in the best school systems in the world.

For those among my opponents who fear education unions, you must feel comfortable here in our host country where teachers are still denied the right to organize in independent unions, or not far from here, across the peninsula in Bahrain, where members of our affiliate are severely suppressed and their leader serves a jail sentence for speaking up in defense of students and teachers.

I mention this because apart from the important role education unions have in improving professional standards and education quality, they are also an essential element of democratic society, both as the representative of a profession expected to impart democratic values to future generation, and as a pressure group enforcing social justice and democratic rights.

To conclude, if teachers’ unions are impediment to education quality then I wonder whether my opponents can explain why in the highly unionized Northern and Western part of the US, teacher salaries, per-pupil spending and student achievement are so much higher than in the southern right to work states. The numbers are not a coincidence.

I rest my case.