Union Teachers Stand, Divided Schools Fall

Warren Lee Culpepper

Recently, I heard from an accomplished educator, a math teacher at an excellent charter school in Scottsdale, Arizona; his name is Thomas. Thomas agrees with many problems I address concerning education, but we don’t agree completely on teachers’ unions.

I assert that teachers’ unions inflict more harm than good, and Thomas concedes that unions are a problem, but he proposes the following: “While I agree with most of your argument, your portrayal of the unions is not entirely correct. Remember, this country was founded on the fledgling concept of ‘united we stand, divided we fall.’ Since management holds most of the power, labor needs to unite. Teacher pay is abysmal yet is much higher due to the unions. So, I think you are over simplifying the union’s conscious contribution to the problems you discuss.”

I thought Thomas was drilling into my teeth without Novocain by alluding to the Eighteenth-Century motto in context to teachers’ unions. While the motto pertains to the American colonists’ banding together to survive Great Britain’s oppression, teacher’s unions have made teachers virtually immortal. How effective would America have been if its average colonists refused to humble themselves and to follow directives from military leaders? A rebellion within a rebellion would not have helped America’s cause. I argue that public schools would benefit greatly by implementing a meaningful and respected chain of leadership modeled after our military’s chain of command.

Unions have inverted the roles of power when it comes to education. Thomas is right – teachers’ unions defuse management’s power – and consequently education has no one in charge. Unions have neutered competent leadership. Unions play the oppressors’ role in education. They have succeeded in stripping authority from leaders. They have also eliminated incentives for top teachers. Why are we surprised when schools are besieged and chaotic? Teachers and administrators frequently oppose one another, and this division undermines success. Furthermore, without exhaustive and meticulous documentation, principals lack the power to fire or even influence inept teachers. Their students’ not knowing anything seems like sufficient evidence to me, but unions disagree. Teaching for nine years, I don’t know one teacher who was fired. I do, however, know more than a few who have taught for years despite principals, parents, and colleagues’ dissatisfaction.

Bottom line, strong teachers do not need unions. Do you think Bill Gates would abuse and hassle his top executives? No, so, why would a competent principal fire or harass talented teachers? Furthermore, why would a competent teacher put up with an incompetent principal who abuses power, especially in this market when talented teachers are sorely needed? On the other hand, what do inept teachers have to fear from any principal? Teachers’ unions and tenure have handcuffed principals’ authority. Ineffective teachers remain pretty much untouchable.

What education could learn from the military is how a clear-cut chain of command ensures objectives are met and how wayward personnel are properly developed or dismissed. As I make that assertion, I must note that the politically correct (PC) sludge bogging down education’s productivity is seeping into the military’s streamlined efficiency, too. Facts concerning real consequences seem less important to PC supporters. That our military needs clear-cut authority within its ranks, generally opposes PC theories about equality. PC promotes the untruth that leadership is about issuing orders and abusing power. But in reality, the military teaches leaders to issue orders sparingly. True leadership accomplishes an assigned mission and ensures accountability by supporting and developing subordinates.

Another misperception involves the adage that “you fire the generals, not the sergeants.” In education this is true, but only because firing a teacher (the sergeant) is nearly impossible. In the military though, a general’s firing makes great headlines, but the actions of lower ranking personnel are often the cause of a general’s dismissal. The military holds everyone in a chain of command accountable. Simply put, the lowest ranking personnel’s mistakes can lead to their own dismissals and to the firings of their senior officers. This structure defines accountability, which is a concept resisted by teachers’ unions.

For example, consider the incident in Haditha. I digress by stating I struggle to believe the Marines there did anything wrong — how the military is supposed to succeed when politicians chain our forces and then throw them into the streets with a bunch of barbarians remains a mystery. Nevertheless, my point concerning accountability relates to the Corps prosecuting the four enlisted Marines accused of murdering thirteen civilians. These Marines identified the men as military-age males inside a vehicle near a roadside bomb that blew up and killed a fellow Marine. Instead of obeying orders to lie down, the suspicious men ran away. Now they are dead. Instead of appreciating these Marines for performing as they’re trained to do, certain politicians – outside the Marines’ immediate chain of command – demand the Marines be prosecuted. Additionally, four officers are also charged for improperly investigating the shootings – essentially for not investigating what Marines carry the grisly burden to do — kill America’s enemies. Fair or not, the military cleans house from top to bottom for leadership that fails to uphold incredibly high standards. Regrettably, politically correct agendas appear to be poisoning the effectiveness of military order as the agendas have poisoned public education’s effectiveness.

As proof, juxtapose the Haditha situation to public education’s accountability model. What happens to a teacher who is derelict of duty? Nothing. Why would any sane person want to be a principal when unions and tenure make firing or even disciplining incompetent teachers next to impossible? It’s an agenda of no competition, level playing fields, and other nonsense, where a hierarchy has no meaning, except for when it’s defined as exploitation.

I know Thomas doesn’t advocate such agendas – he acknowledged unions are problematic, plus he works in a charter school. But still he warned me: “The unions represent the workers. When you attack the unions you attack the workers. You must be careful.” I understand his caution, but my point is that competent teachers do not need unions. I know plenty of hard-charging teachers who would relish the opportunity to negotiate their own contracts — which could be structured with challenging incentive clauses for every teacher and every academic class. Higher expectations and incentives produce achievement, but unions strive for mediocrity, no competition, and watered-down standards.

Competition forces others to improve. It works in combat. It works in business, and it works in sports. It also works in those places that permit it in education. Education must clean up unions’ sludge and then find the leaders who can inspire teams of competitive teachers to some big wins in education. When that happens, the motto will actually be true in education because it will describe “united teachers,” not “union teachers.”
Warren Lee Culpepper is currently writing his first book, Alone and Unafraid: One Marine’s Counterattack Inside the Walls of Public Education. Additionally, he is a contributing columnist for The Publius’ Forum, The North Carolina Conservative, and The Hinzsight Report.

A 1991 graduate of Virginia Tech, Culpepper majored in both English and Communication. He was also a varsity wrestler. He attended the United States Marine Corps Officer Candidates School in Quantico, Virginia, and received his commission in 1993. He served four years on active duty before settling in southern California to begin his teaching career. He taught high school English in both California and Texas. He recently moved to eastern North Carolina with his wife, Heather, and their bulldog, Shrek.

Lee can be reached at drcoolpepper@yahoo.com.

Visit Lee’s blog at http://wlculpepper.townhall.com/

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