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The ability to implement meaningful reform in education will require alternative approaches. One potential barrier are teacher unions and their contracts that impact a District's ability to implement change. For example, The New Teacher Project (TNTP) has released a report showing how seniority staffing rules mandated by urban teachers' union contracts override the staffing needs of schools and the educational needs of students. Here is the executive summary.

A 2007 study shows that the teacher union leader are struggling with its members who want reform and those who want tradition bread butter issues protected.

Source:Hoover Digest

Taking on the Unions

There is no way around it: reforming our schools means reforming the teachers’ unions.

Terry M. Moe

Anyone who wants to improve our nation’s schools would be wise to ponder a basic fact: the teachers’ unions have more influence on the public schools than any other group in American society.

The unions shape the schools from the bottom up, through collective bargaining. These activities are so broad in scope, and lead to contract rules so numerous and restrictive, that virtually everything about the organization of schools is affected. The unions also shape the schools from the top down, through political action. Their massive memberships and awesome resources give them unrivaled power in the politics of education, allowing them to affect which policies are imposed on the schools by government—and to block reforms they don’t like.

Despite their importance, the unions have not been on the radar screens of reformers. In the hundreds of official reports on school reform published over the last few decades, they have almost always been ignored, as though they are irrelevant to an assessment of problems and solutions.

This is an unfortunate state of affairs. It is especially troubling because union interests are often in conflict with the public interest. The unions are fundamentally concerned with promoting the job security and material well-being of their members, and with increasing the size, financial strength, and power of their own organizations—and these interests can lead them to exercise power in ways that are not good for kids and schools.

The unions push for rules that make it impossible to get rid of bad or mediocre teachers. They push for salary, promotion, and transfer policies that rely heavily on seniority and have nothing to do with teacher quality. They resist efforts to evaluate teacher performance, and they even oppose testing current teachers to see if they are competent enough to be in the classroom.

These examples are just the tip of a large and threatening iceberg. Because of the unions, schools have grown bureaucratic and inflexible. And because of the unions, efforts to create a more dynamic and responsive system—mainly through proposals for school choice—have been sabotaged in politics, despite their popularity with parents.

If real reform is ever to come to American education, our leaders must face up to the teachers’ unions and do what is best for kids and schools. The catch is that many leaders are unwilling to do this—for the unions’ power is very real. Indeed, they have colonized the Democratic Party, whose officeholders and candidates almost never take positions on education that conflict with union interests.

So Americans who want better schools shouldn’t hold their breath. In the near term, the teachers’ unions will remain firmly in the driver’s seat—making sure that we don’t actually go anywhere.

Progress will not come easy. But the more Americans are aware of what the teachers’ unions are doing, the more likely the unions and their political allies will be held to account. And the more likely things will finally change.

Terry M. Moe is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and a professor of political science at Stanford University.

Source:The New Teach Project Report

Unintended Consequences

The New Teacher Project, November, 2005


Nearly everyone involved in the enterprise of schooling understands the profound importance of building and sustaining a high-quality team of teachers. Moreover, the research is clear: the single most important school-based determinant of student achievement is the quality of the teacher in the classroom. Yet, urban schools must often staff their classrooms with little or no attention to quality or fit because of the staffing rules in their teachers union contracts.

This report focuses on the contractual staffing rules governing “voluntary transfers” and “excessed teachers.” Voluntary transfers are incumbent teachers who want to move between schools in a district, while excessed teachers are those cut from a specific school, often in response to declines in budget or student enrollment.

To better understand the impact of the voluntary transfer and excess rules on urban schools, The New Teacher Project studied five representative urban districts (we identify them as the Eastern, Mid-Atlantic, Midwestern, Southern, and Western districts). Within each district, we extensively analyzed data for internal teacher movements and new teacher hires. We complemented our data analyses with principal surveys in the Eastern and Western districts, and interviews of school and central staff in all districts. Our findings demonstrate the extent to which these rules undermine the ability of urban schools to hire and keep the best possible teachers for the job.

In focusing our report on the adverse effects of the current transfer and excess rules, we are not minimizing the unfair practices that led to their adoption or the other staffing barriers urban schools face, in such areas as school leadership, human resources, and budgeting. We will argue, however, that without significant change to these staffing rules, another generation of urban students will bear the cost of well-intentioned, but ultimately inadequate, school improvement efforts.


1) Urban schools are forced to hire large numbers of teachers they do not want and who may not be a good fit for the job and their school

The most detrimental impact of the transfer and excess rules is the widespread forcing of incumbent teachers on schools regardless of students’ needs. Voluntary transfer rules often give senior teachers the right to interview for and fill jobs in other schools even if those schools do not consider them a good fit. In addition, schools generally are required to hire excessed teachers without any selection process at all. As a result, across the five districts, in one hiring season:

  • 40 percent of school-level vacancies, on average, were filled by voluntary transfers or excessed teachers over whom schools had either no choice at all or limited choice.

Moreover, principals report that they do not want to hire many of these teachers. For example, 47 percent of Western district principals said they have attempted to hide their vacancies from central staff to avoid hiring voluntary transfers and excessed teachers; and 64 percent of those who hired such teachers in 2004–05 said that they did not wish to have one or more of them in their school.

2) Poor performers are passed around from school to school instead of being terminated

While the quality of voluntary transfers and excessed teachers spans the continuum, it is clear these processes are often functioning as a mechanism for teacher removal. In fact, almost two in five principals in the Eastern district and one in four in the Western district admitted to encouraging a poorly performing teacher to transfer or to placing one on an excess list. While passing poor performers to other schools seems like a terrible management practice, teacher termination data suggest this may be the only rational course of action at the individual school level. Labor relations staff in each district reported that only one or two tenured teachers are formally terminated for poor performance every year.5 Principals are often blamed for failing to initiate dismissal proceedings, but even when they try to formally terminate a teacher, the data show they face a very limited likelihood of success.

3) New teacher applicants, including the best, are lost to late hiring

Only after the forced placements of voluntary transfers and excessed teachers occur are schools typically allowed, by contract, to place new hires, including seasoned veterans from other districts. By then, however, it is too late to compete with neighboring districts for the best new teacher talent. Significantly, with only one month to go before the start of school, the studied districts still had to hire and place between 67 and 93 percent of their new teachers. Our previous research showed that urban districts that hire teachers after May 1 lose large numbers of applicants, including the best, to districts that hire earlier.

4) Novice teachers are treated as expendable regardless of their contribution to their school

Even once schools manage to hire new teachers, the transfer and excess rules place their jobs in constant jeopardy. Novice teachers are, by default, the first to be excessed and, in many districts, can be “bumped” from their positions if a more senior teacher needs or just wants their job. For example, in three of the districts, anywhere from 10 to 50 percent of novice teachers, often with a full year of experience at their school, were at risk of losing their jobs if other more senior teachers simply wanted to transfer into them. Almost one quarter (23 percent) of Eastern district principals reported having at least one new hire or novice teacher bumped from their school the prior year. We recognize that the talent of most new and novice teachers is either unknown or not fully developed, but these rules treat all novice teachers as expendable, including those who are capable or show promise.


Taken together, these four effects significantly impede the efforts of urban schools to staff their classrooms effectively and sustain meaningful schoolwide improvements. Forced to take teachers who may either be poor performers or ill suited to the specific school context and culture, prevented from hiring many of the best new teacher applicants, and unable to adequately protect teachers they hope to keep, urban schools cannot exert sufficient control over the most important school-based factor that influences student learning.

The damage, however, extends beyond individual schools; the overall operation of entire urban districts suffers. The transfer and excess processes require excessive centralization of hiring decisions. These staffing rules also hold every school hostage to staffing changes in other schools and ensure that one school’s gain is often another’s loss— providing, we believe, at least a partial explanation for the persistent difficulty in taking pockets of excellence to scale in urban school systems.

Ultimately, it is the students who lose the most as the transfer and excess rules place hundreds, and sometimes even thousands, of teachers in urban classrooms each year with little regard for the appropriateness of the match, the quality of the teacher, or the overall impact on schools. Perhaps most important, our data show that in the five studied districts, these rules negatively affect all schools regardless of poverty level, indicating the need for a systemic solution to this systemic problem.


The recommendations we present in the final chapter of this report are designed to provide a substantive road map for reforming the transfer and excess rules in urban contracts to address the above problems. They strive to maintain key protections for more senior teachers while also enabling the best match of teacher to school and classroom. Toward this end, we recommend that voluntary transfers and excessed teachers receive an early preferential review for available positions and numerous opportunities to receive satisfactory placements. At the same time, our proposed transfer and excess reforms are designed to:

  • Ensure that the placements of voluntary transfers and excessed teachers are based on the mutual consent of the teacher and receiving school
  • Permit the timely hiring of new teachers
  • Better protect novice teachers who are contributing to their current school

We recognize that the reforms we propose will not magically resolve all of the barriers urban schools face in filling their classroom vacancies effectively and with high-quality teachers. Nevertheless, without the ability to build and maintain as strong a team as possible, there is little hope of closing the achievement gap, the remedy for which rests so squarely on the ability of the teacher in front of students.

Newer Presidents See Role of Unions Changing, Study Finds

By Vaishali Honawar, Education Weekly, July, 2007

The term “teacher union leader” typically evokes a hard-charging labor activist who shares an adversarial relationship with the school district, is focused solely on protecting members’ bread-and-butter interests, and flees from phrases like “school reform.”

But a new report based largely on interviews with 30 local union presidents who each have spent less than eight years in office paints an evolved picture of leaders who are often involved in collaborative relationships with their school superintendents; who have to work constantly to balance the needs of a new generation of teachers with the needs of older members; and who see the importance of framing arguments for improved salaries and working conditions within the context of improved schools and building a better teaching force.

The report released by Education Sector, a Washington-based think tank, attributes the changes to “new realities” in public education that threaten the future of both teachers’ unions and public schools, including unprecedented demands for evidence of student success under state and federal accountability laws. In this new atmosphere, “industrial-style bargaining, which pits one side against the other, is of little use in solving different problems or developing new programs,” it says.

There are also challenges from within, the report points out. Today’s union leaders deal with two very different groups of members: veterans who want to preserve traditional approaches to pay and protections, and new teachers who demand strong support from unions in the first years of teaching, and ongoing training, as well as innovations in pay.

Susan Moore Johnson, a professor of education at Harvard University, who co-wrote the report, said it is often difficult for presidents to satisfy both groups and to present a clear and unified vision of the organization.

“We don’t have an answer about where this will end up, but it is a period of great change and opportunity for the unions,” she said.

Key Players

The authors say that although teachers’ unions are among the most powerful organizations in American education today, and local leaders hold the greatest sway over the educational lives of public school teachers, little is known of how these leaders see the role their organizations do and should play in public education and school reform.

Ms. Johnson said she was surprised to find that the agenda of most of the union leaders the authors studied was “very broad.”

“They recognize the challenges that school districts are facing and realize that they are key players in accountability, reform, performance, and development,” she said.

The report covers unions of all sizes in six states—California, Colorado, Florida, Maryland, Massachusetts, and Ohio. Those interviewed included A.J. Duffy of Los Angeles, Mark Chavez of Boulder, Colo., and Janice D. Brown of Glades County, Fla. Locals studied represent both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers.

Researchers deliberately picked some locals with a reputation for being reform-minded and others that were known for being more traditional in their approach, Ms. Johnson said.

“What we were trying to do was to get a good sense of the range of experiences and views of leaders in both the AFT and the NEA,” she said.

Ms. Johnson said the report shows that the unions of the future—locals that are involved in collaborative relationships with districts, offering professional development to members, and willing to work on school reform—are already present and active in many districts.

“We are operating with an image of the past,” she said, “but the reality has changed, and I suspect that in the next five or 10 years, as the teaching force changes, we are going to see local unions that look dramatically different from the ones that bargained contracts in the ’60s and ‘70s.”

Changing Perceptions

In their interviews, local leaders seek to shed light on some common criticisms. For instance, school officials and union critics have long argued that collective bargaining contracts stand in the way of school progress because senior teachers, who typically have greater transfer rights under union contracts than their junior colleagues do, tend to leave troubled schools. That leaves such schools with high numbers of inexperienced and less-qualified teachers. But in many districts, local presidents said that principals have substantial discretion in hiring and assigning teachers—a claim the report’s authors say was confirmed when they analyzed contracts.

Several districts also appeared to be moving away from the long-term, three-year contract model and were involved in “a kind of a perpetual bargaining,” in which they identified and dealt with issues as they arose. For instance, in Colorado Springs, Colo., the district has a joint council made up of members of two bargaining teams who meet monthly. In Montgomery County, Md., a labor-management collaboration committee meets monthly and can make changes to the contract.

The report also found that union leaders have serious concerns about performance-based pay. But many support paying additional stipends to teachers who hold specialized roles, such as curriculum specialist, literacy or math coach, or lead teacher.

Those close to the subject say it is inevitable that unions and their leaders will move toward a more collaborative, reform-based model.

“Teacher unions recognize that members will do well if students will do well, and no society will tolerate a disconnect between the two,” said Adam Urbanski, the president of the Rochester Teachers Association. He co-founded and now leads the Teacher Union Reform Network, a group of local leaders who support participation in school improvement.

The report’s finding on the changing face of unions and their leaders, Mr. Urbanski said, is encouraging because until now, most union change has occurred in an environment of crisis. “Now,” he said, “it seems it might be more widely accepted that change is acceptable, and unions will remain viable and will promote change and improvement even before they have to do so.”


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Last modified: July, 2007

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