Can teachers unions adapt to the changing public education landscape?

In June, Ron Matus introduced a short series of entries responding to his question, “Can teachers unions adapt?” Responses came from anti-union writers Gary Beckner and Terry Moe, from DFER staff member and former journalist Joe Williams, and from former Pinellas County Teachers Association head and current SUFS president Doug Tuthill.

Sherman Dorn
Sherman Dorn

I am a current member and former officer in the United Faculty of Florida (Florida’s college and university faculty union), but I think the most useful approach I can suggest comes from my role as an education historian. The reality is that teachers unions (or any organizations tied to schooling) have a long record of varied change in response to circumstances.

Despite occasional crass claims about an educational status quo and “industry-era education,” rough stability is a more useful concept for education history than absolute fixedness. As David Tyack and Larry Cuban argue in their wonderful history of school reform, Tinkering toward Utopia, change often happens through long-term trends rather than through the more visible and cyclical rhetoric of the reform du jour.

More importantly, the sources of relative stability derive more from shared values and long-term social dilemmas than come from either self-interest (as Joe Williams claims) or from bureaucracy. Bureaucracy has its influences and people include material self-interest as part of their identity and their role in organizations like unions. But schools have social scripts for all sorts of reasons, including our country’s bundling of education with citizenship and the common experiences adults remember from their time in schools.

Understanding that mix of change and stability requires that we give up slogans about both schools and teachers. For example, rural schools both face concrete difficulties in managing their workforce because of local labor markets and also have changed in significant ways despite the stability of some conditions. The Hendry County Education Association is not the main reason why it would almost always be difficult to hire and retain physics teachers in that rural Florida county, or the reasons why a principal of Clewiston High School (or any rural high school) might be unable to offer physics or be hesitant to fire a poor science teacher. Hiring and keeping good science teachers would be a challenge even if the Hendry schools paid science teachers more than other teachers: fewer than 10% of Hendry County adults have a bachelors degree, let alone one in science or science education.

Yet rural high schools still change across years and decades, and pretending they do not is not accurate history. For example, Clewiston High School serves around 1,000 students, not only much larger than rural high schools 50 years ago but a larger population than many suburban high schools today or in the past. Despite its rural nature, Hendry County’s school system parallels other county schools in Florida as much as it can, including schools larger than one would have found in the vast majority of Florida’s school districts 50 or 60 years ago. That parallel structure has helped Hendry County address the shortage of teachers in general, if not making principals’ hiring or retention decisions easy in a rural area.

So too with teachers unions: Change in many areas, stability in others. While some individual locals may be remarkably stable in character and priorities, many state affiliates and both national teachers unions (the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers) have changed significantly over the long term, and they change in response to both external conditions and internal debates. The existence of public school choice and private-school voucher policies change the external conditions but not the fact that national unions respond to them. The interesting question for an historian is what factors shape changes in unions, not whether they change.

Williams is wrong to identify material self-interest as the primary factor tying teachers to unions. Material self-interest is part of what teachers find valuable in unions, in the same way that Williams appreciates being paid for his work in DFER. But I know Williams works for DFER not just for money but for the values he is persuaded he shares with other staff and donors. Similarly, teachers and other works join unions for much more than bread-and-butter issues. As Doug Tuthill’s story of his early activism points out, teachers join and stay in unions as much for dignity and respect as for salaries and benefits. Teachers generally see recent attacks on collective bargaining as at least partly motivated by disrespect for teachers and publicly-employed women. To ignore either the perceived disrespect or the gender issues involved in recent attacks on teachers unions is to misunderstand unions and their members.

How the common values of union members play out will shift by local conditions and by the politics of state and national affiliates. Both national affiliates have a concrete interest in organizing more teachers into collective-bargaining units, but they differ in terms of organizing charter-school teachers. While the NEA has locals that organize charter-school teachers into bargaining units, the NEA has been less aggressive in organizing charter-school teachers than the AFT. Part of that difference derives from the AFT’s historical concentration in major cities (where charter schools are more prominent than in suburbs) and also from the fact that the AFT has some history of organizing in private industry, primarily hospital nurses but more recently including day care workers in New York City.

In addition, both national teachers unions will in general support the organizing and bargaining decisions taken by leaders at the local level. For example, Toledo’s local union pushed the school system to create a peer evaluation/review policy long before it was considered in other districts. In other cases, local unions may have resisted the urging of state or national leaders to consider changes in teacher evaluation procedures, but that tension is generally not public. That tension arises because there is a legal obligation of a local union to consult with and work with members in its bargaining unit, and contracts will generally reflect local priorities even if the majority of union members in the state or national affiliate feel differently. Thus, how local leaders respond to changing external conditions will also depend on internal debates about union values and strategic priorities. And even within a local union or state affiliate, responses can exist in multiple tracks, addressing some issues through bargaining while addressing others through ordinary direct action or through the courts.

The last constraint on union behavior is in terms of where unions have authority: in relationships with school districts. In general, beliefs that private competition for students will directly push teachers unions in certain directions is magical thinking, not because the composition of schools in a city is irrelevant but because the primary legal relationship is between a union and that school district’s leadership. If the management of a district believes they need to respond to circumstances with changed negotiating priorities, it is in that bargaining context where the local union leaders must respond, both from legal and from political pressures. With the exception of organizing charter-school teachers, the effects of charter-school expansion and private-school voucher policies are indirect at most.

How will teachers unions respond to charter-school expansion or the creation of voucher programs? In many places, unions respond directly by selective organizing campaigns in charter schools, by continuing a regular bargaining relationship with the local district, and by arguing in public or in the courts against specific policies that union leaders judge to be the greatest threat to the shared values and long-term priorities of members. In other words, “it depends,” which is probably a frustrating answer for those who prefer to stick to preconceived ideas about unions. It just happens to be the truth.

Editor’s note: Sherman Dorn is the chair of the Department of Psychological and Social Foundations in the University of South Florida (Tampa) College of Education. He is the author of Accountability Frankenstein (2007) and coeditor of Education Reform in Florida (SUNY Press, 2006), among other works, and former USF chapter president of the United Faculty of Florida (the faculty union in Florida). Read his blog at:

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BY Special to NextSteps



I don’t agree about Williams and other so-called “reformers” who are doing it for the money. They aren’t analogous to teachers, and they profess to hold those values BECAUSE they are paid to do so. I think it’s necessary to shine a harsher light to be able to analyze clearly.

“I know Williams works for DFER not just for money but for the values he is persuaded he shares with other staff and donors.”

These people are not at all analogous to teachers for this reason: Their ENTIRE function — what they are paid to do — is to advocate for a certain set of policies. Teachers are not paid to advocate; they’re paid to teach in schools.

Lest people think I’m gratuitously insulting them, no, I’m not. That’s the nature of paid advocacy. One paid PR person worked for Hillary Clinton’s primary campaign in 2008 before Obama won the nomination, and then was hired to work for the Obama campaign — this is common in politics and PR — so that’s an ideal (and not unusual) example. Did that person change views about who would be the best president? No — as a paid professional, that person did the job for the paying employer. Same with Joe Williams and the other paid spokespeople for “reform” policies.

Just in terms of the PR/outreach/politics piece, I think that teachers’ unions have been very unable to adapt to the landscape.

The education “reform” sector has an aggressive and effective PR/outreach/propaganda operation going full blast at all times — it’s an outgrowth of the right-wing network of so-called “think tanks” (they are NOT research operations but propaganda shops, such as the Hoover Institution) that we know was carefully built starting after the 1964 presidential election.

The teachers’ unions have a traditional political lobbying operation working to influence legislators, but they have been absolutely unable to develop a counter to the “reform” sector’s propaganda operation. It would require concerted strategizing that they have apparently been unable to do.

I can see that in my own community, our local teachers’ union would be well advised to do networking and outreach with parents and the greater community to build support and blunt the constant attacks. There are some obvious avenues for doing that, and I’ve talked to teachers’ union officials about it, but they say they just don’t have the bandwidth. That’s a big mistake — they simply need to develop the bandwidth. On a state and national level, they need to develop strategies for countering the constant “reform” propaganda, and in my opinion a unified strategy for responding to pushes for “reform” policies (not accommodating them here and weakly fighting them there). It’s sad that this needs to be done, but it obviously does.

Caroline, if think tankers and lobbyists are paid to believe what they believe wouldn’t the same be true of teacher union employees?

And if teachers are paid to teach, not advocate, why do so many teachers advocate? You said they’re only paid to teach.

Maybe advocates are doing so out of passion, not money? Maybe its experience? Or maybe they’ve reviewed the empirical evidence?

Saying people are paid to believe something (because you disagree) is faulty logic. Weight and argue the facts. The reason ed reform movement is winning is because the facts weigh heavily in favor of reform.


Teachers advocate the reason anyone else does — because they believe in something and speak up for it. But they’re not PAID to advocate.

There’s an army of so-called “reformers” who profess to believe what they profess to believe BECAUSE they’re paid to do so.

Teachers’ unions do have paid lobbyists who advocate for legislation that benefits schools and teachers. But my point is that they have not adapted to a landscape in which they’re combating a mightily funded machine churning out attacks on teachers and public schools. There is no pro-public-education equivalent of the education “reform” propaganda machine.

That’s not faulty logic – it’s just a fact. If the so-called ed “reform” movement wins in its effort to destroy public education, that certainly will be because it has vast wealth behind it.

Patrick R. Gibbons

Thanks for the comments Caroline and Randy!

Hi Caroline,

How do you know people believe what they believe only because they are paid to do so? Couldn’t it be that they are paid for their expertise in a subject and that they believe what they believe because they’ve spent considerable time studying this subject? It could also be that these reformers have a passion for education, much in the same way teachers do.

unfortunately its the 1% of teacher that are vocal and i would assume are also the union “reps”. i know this because my wife’s sister is a teacher with tenure and she says most of the stuff the reps say are not what the teachers really believe…

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