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  • The Role of Unions in Education Improvement

    What constitutes education improvement? How should improvement be measured? And who should decide what should be done? In this paper I submit that education unions and their members have a crucial contribution to make to real improvement in public education. One thing that is very clear is that everyone has an opinion about what works in education. Unfortunately, those opinions are based, more often than not, on the experiences that we, our children, our grandchildren, or somebody else had while attending school. They are rarely based on objective research, and many who are significant policy makers and shapers have little factual data upon which they base their opinions or make their decisions. Thus, too often, “education reform” is what someone’s personal experience tells them it is. A well-known example of this point is the issuance of hundreds of millions of dollars in grants by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to break up large high schools into smaller ones on the theory that smaller schools would improve student performance and lower dropout rates. While many of us (particularly those who went to small high schools) might have agreed that this “reform” made sense, as Bill Gates himself has publicly acknowledged the experiment was a failure and the funding for this purpose was discontinued by the Gates Foundation. In another example, students were given pay for scoring well on tests, on the theory that students would be incentivized to work harder and do better if they received a financial reward for their work. The "pay for performance” of students was a failure. On a similar theory, many in the business community, applying the principle of competition, believed and still do believe, that if we can create competition between regular public school districts by introducing experimental charter schools, the staff of the regular public schools will be motivated to do a better job of educating students, and all students, whether taught in charters or in regular public schools, will benefit. After twelve years of charter school authorizations in New York, it does not appear that competition is doing the trick either. Indeed, even with the significant differences in the student demographics between regular public schools and charter schools, a recent Stanford University study concluded that while seventeen percent of charter schools “outperform” regular public schools, thirty-seven percent underperform in comparison to regular public schools. There is also no clear data on whether a longer school day, a longer school year, year-round school with short breaks between segments, or some other method to give students more or different time is better for student learning.