A Valuable Primer for Education Reporters

Published October 1, 2007

From Contracts to Classrooms: Covering Teachers Unions
New York: Hechinger Institute, April 2007
36 pages, paperback
download available at http://cms.ceoi.summitqwest.com/assets/hechinger/pdfs/Hechinger_Union_Primer.pdf.

From Contracts to Classrooms: Covering Teachers Unions is written by seasoned reporters who urge their less-experienced colleagues who are just beginning to stomp around the education beat to connect what’s occurring at the collective-bargaining table with what’s happening–or not happening–in the classroom.

Joe Williams, who covered Milwaukee’s private school voucher program for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel from 1997 to 2000, wrote 11 of the 16 chapters. He masterfully shows unions’ effects on teachers–going from “collective begging” to “collective bargaining”–and students, who are suffering.

Williams fairly portrays unions’ sparse attempts to become more reform-minded, but he also never lets readers forget that unions primarily exist not for students’ benefit, but to protect teachers.

As the late and colorful American Federation of Teachers President Albert Shanker once said, “When students start paying union dues, I’ll start representing students.”

Verbal Clash

In his chapter, “How Contract Coverage Fails to See the Big Picture,” Richard Lee Colvin, one of the book’s six authors, analyzes coverage of teachers unions in major newspapers. He found “terms such as ‘academic standards,’ ‘test scores,’ ‘teacher quality,’ ‘literacy’ or other words that might convey the idea of education quality are largely missing from collective bargaining stories.”

My favorite chapter is “The Education of a Reporter on the Teacher Contract Beat,” by Dale Mezzacappa, whose 35-year reporting career included being goaded “only once” into a shouting match, which I can appreciate, having spent more than 17 years reporting on obnoxious people doing similarly obnoxious things.

The culprit in this case was a Philadelphia teachers union attorney upset that Mezzacappa’s story about a contract settlement following contentious talks between union and district did not explicitly state the union “won.”

During the talks, the union “furiously fought” attempts by the superintendent to reward or sanction schools based on students’ progress. That sinner Mezzacappa let both sides spin and claim victory, as usually occurs.

“He got nothing,” the lawyer bellowed about the superintendent.

But Mezzacappa just couldn’t help herself. After watching thousands of teachers on the previous night’s news broadcast cheering “wildly at the news that … they’d still get automatic raises even if none of their kids met achievement goals,” she retorted, “If teachers don’t improve kids’ learning, what are they there for? What should they be judged on? What are they getting paid to do?”

Selfish Goals

What, indeed?

“Contracts vary some, but all get back to the same thing,” Mezzacappa writes. “[I]t’s about hours worked, not results achieved; it’s about treating everyone the same, not rewarding excellence; it’s about fighting against management, not about working together as colleagues to improve education.”

Still, this book is not just a large gob of union-bashing. Included is a chapter by David Sherman, who for 14 years was vice president of New York City’s United Federation of Teachers. This wolf in sheep’s clothing manages to keep the wool mostly on as he offers 10 suggestions new reporters will find helpful in covering teachers unions.

While the suggestions are mostly genuinely helpful, I see part of an uncovered fang when Sherman tries to convince readers that unions are the ones facing resistance from districts regarding education reforms. He claims, “districts are conservative in negotiations because of control issues, and they are reluctant to share decision-making with teachers and parents,” but he offers no examples.

Ruthless Persistence

The book includes examples of an increasingly dogged determination by education reporters to get beyond the usual blubber.

Scott Reeder, an Illinois reporter, filed 1,500 Freedom of Information Act requests with 876 school districts after a union leader challenged him to find statistics to counter the union’s claim that “their underperforming teachers were routinely fired.”

What Reeder found was that 93 percent of Illinois school districts have not given any tenured teacher an “unsatisfactory” job evaluation in the past decade, and that 50 percent of tenured teachers receiving substandard marks are still teaching.

What other explosive information is available–and how much could public education feel the proper pressure to improve–if all education reporters read this book and then fused Mezzacappa’s passion with Reeder’s persistence?

Jim Waters ([email protected]) is director of policy and communications at the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions in Bowling Green, Kentucky.