Guiding Principles and Core Values

The Role of Teacher Unions in Public Education Reform

Efforts to improve public education have the best chance to succeed when teacher unions are part of the solution. Where union leaders have boldly--and at some political risk-- promoted reforms aimed at improving the quality of teaching and learning, transformative improvements in public education have occurred. On the other hand, when even good ideas have been promoted by school districts without the ownership and advocacy of teachers’ organizations, they have been met with skepticism and faced uphill battles.

Too often, in district after district, education leaders discount and marginalize the teachers’ union, to the detriment of the work of educational improvement. Union leaders, too, fall into the trap of accepting the role of nay-sayers who were “never consulted.”  Union leaders, left to our own devices, admit that we often avoid climbing the steep learning curve to develop the skills and knowledge that would make us worthy partners in district reform. The education leadership community remains fragmented, full of unnecessary conflict. Or at best, the teacher’s voice is simply an echo at the policy table.

The Institute’s philosophy of unionism, consistent with the broad principles of the TURN mission statement, focuses on teacher unions and teacher unionists taking responsibility for improving the quality of teaching and learning.  It begins with the union’s

  • responsibility to students, to families, and to the broader society to improve public education so that all children learn and achieve at high levels, 
  • dedication to improving the quality of teaching, the terms and conditions of work in schools, and the learning and teaching climate in our schools,
  • commitment to promote democratic participation in the union and in union leadership;
  • championing a redefinition of school leadership that focuses on teacher leadership as being at the heart of instructional leadership in schools, and promoting teacher professional growth and development with the union as partner in the design and delivery of that growth system,
  • Efforts to expand the scope of collective bargaining to include instructional and professional issues, school governance and leadership, and for the union to become a constructive engine of reform.

We believe that bold ideas and innovative solutions to the problems that face public education are most likely to come from local union leaders. While the national teacher unions can and should continue to say “no” to bad reforms hatched by politicians, they must at the same time encourage local union leaders to provide the impetus for creative, workable reforms that are responsive to the practical local challenges.

If progressive local teacher union leaders are to take our rightful seat at the public education reform table, we will need to be creative and agile and possess a wide array of leadership skills. It means understanding the need for change based on data, research and a broader view of the politics of public education. Local leaders must be able to develop and advocate – with their own teacher membership – an agenda for progressive change that may not be the easiest or most obvious one.  It means being able to build the base for change within the ranks of teachers. It means building leadership skills and a visionary perspective in others, as well as sharing and distributing union leadership – thus making the role of union leadership a less lonely one and increasing our chances of success. It means being able to effectively advocate the perspectives of teachers with school district management to prevent the teacher perspective from being discounted. It means using power wisely and for good. It also means understanding educational needs from the perspective of the broad public-- students and their families.

Now, more than ever, union leadership that takes responsibility for quality in the teaching profession and for improved student learning is needed if quality public education is going to survive. Without teacher union leadership that can rise to the challenge, the legitimate frustration of low income and communities of color with their schools will continue to grow, public education will continue to weaken, and our ability to maintain the historic role of teacher unions will be compromised.  When we reposition our unions as active proponents of high quality teaching and improved student learning, we will increase our claim as partners in decision-making in public education and as the public’s best allies in defense of our students.

What difference do we expect the Institute to make in teacher union locals that participate?  From decades of experience attempting to navigate the politics of education reform and union leadership, we know that it is impossible for a teacher union local to succeed with an ambitious agenda focused on the quality of teaching and learning without support. The difficulty for union leaders is to get beyond being reactive. One of the objectives of the institute is to help equip local leaders to be able to differentiate among policy options and to better work with district and state policy makers to shape reforms to make them worthy of support and success.