Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Are teachers professionals or auto workers?

Last night I saw a great talk by Geoffrey Canada, who is an educator who has spent his career trying to change the culture in Harlem to one where education is valued and where kids realize they have opportunities beyond the streets. It was a good talk, with something of a church revival feel (lots of people in the audience obviously were already true believers).

He had a few choice things to say about teachers, though. First was the obligatory point that if we want success in education, we need to treat them like the professionals that they are, and that it's hard to attract talented professionals if you don't pay them like professionals.

But then he made a number of points that I suspect would make many teachers - particularly unionized teachers - uncomfortable. For example, that they need to work really hard (i.e., he makes no apologies for the fact that his schools run from labor day to the first week in August). Or that they need to be open to change, to experimentation, to measurement. He decried how difficult it is to make change, and called out the unions as one (but by no means the only) source of this resistance.

It got me thinking: teachers need to make a decision. Are they professionals or are they blue-collar workers? While there are certainly some professional unions, most of them - and in particular the ones which tend to impose the most innovation-resisting work rules - tend to be the domain of the blue-collar space.

If they want to be treated as professionals, who must live and die by their merits, then perhaps unionized teachers should think about how to act like professionals.

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