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Unions and the State of Education

The following column is from Lloyd Miller, the AN Contributing Editor for the Society for Anthropology in Community Colleges (SACC). This column appears in the May 2011 AN (p 35-36) and we’re pleased to share it here.

Though Iowa is a right-to-work state and teachers cannot strike, we have collectively bargained at Des Moines Area Community College since the law was enacted in 1974. The question has often been asked, “Why doesn’t the faculty union bargain for improvement in educational quality? Why are teachers only looking out for their own economic well-being?”

Our responses were always that the purposes of unions are just that: to maintain and advance the contract bargained with the administration as it pertains to salaries, benefits and safety issues, and to protect members from their bosses’ arbitrary and capricious behavior when it occurs. I was always surprised at how many faculty colleagues weren’t comfortable with that. Even in hard times, our membership was only about 50% of those eligible.

Somehow, teacher unions never succeeded in convincing some people that we were an honorable organization. Increasingly, our public image became that of obstructionists protecting incompetence and impeding educational improvement. Administrators complained that teacher unions made it impossible to fire incompetents, often to avoid the hassle of providing appropriate evidence. Newspapers ran frequent op-ed essays blaming public school teachers for the decline in student academic performance and lauding charter schools, vouchers and other forms of privatization. Political conservatives lionized former Washington, DC school superintendent Michelle Rhee for criticizing teacher unions while firing 241 teachers and placing another 737 on a year’s notice to improve their proficiency (Washington Post, July 24, 2010).

And now that Wisconsin’s governor and Republican-dominated legislature have gutted public employee unions, the movement is in full swing. Other states with Republican majorities are following suit. Unions and their supporters are fighting back, and I am confident that when the nation regains its sanity from some of the extreme measures that have been taken, teachers unions will survive, with some changes.

However, while the battle rages, the subject of education sits on the shelf. It is not being discussed. To find out some of the important issues in community college education, Mark Lewine, community college representative on the AAA Education Task Force, queried SACC-L listserv members and unleashed a wellspring of responses: 

  • Many students can neither read nor write. Almost as many are in developmental programs as in college-level classes.
  • Federal, state and local pressures are on students completing STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) programs to enter the work force. Liberal Arts subjects like anthropology, philosophy, literature and the fine arts are de-emphasized.
  • Waning state support for public education in general causes deans and faculty to spend much of their time writing grant proposals.
  • Math instructors complain that students’ poor reading skills hamper their abilities to work through and comprehend homework, especially word problems.
  • Too many students are incompetent in simple arithmetic and don’t even understand percentages.

Furthermore, a report on a five-year study of 26 community colleges designed to identify learning problems and develop strategies to improve student academic achievement stated that student outcomes remained largely unchanged (Jennifer González, “‘Achieving the Dream’ Produces Little Change in Community Colleges,” Chronicle of Higher Education, February 9, 2011).

Perhaps more than four-year colleges or universities, public community colleges are top-down institutions. Educational leadership must come from the chief executives themselves. However, if community college presidents are exhorting their faculties to uphold educational standards and require their students to really learn in order to be retained, I have yet to hear of it. The public wants improved education, yes, but it relies on educators to make it happen. At some point, increased retention rates, more degrees granted and more “cost-effective” budgeting (read: higher ratio of adjunct to full-time faculty) won’t cut it if students aren’t really learning.

I think it’s an opportune time for faculty unions to come out publicly for improved learning. Without capitulating to the myths of private enterprise solutions, they could take the moral high road and, with the aid of the still-considerable power of the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers, nudge their presidents to confront the elephant in the room. As anthropologists, we know that real educational improvement is complicated and requires cultural adjustments throughout society, not just in the classrooms. Who better than teachers to lead the charge?

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