First of all, I support creating more portable retirement funds and health insurance, and separating them from employment. People shouldn't feel forced to stay in teaching (or in any job) just for the benefits. Likewise, people should keep benefits even if they lose (to no fault of their own) their jobs. That being said, the benefits that teachers receive are not lavish, especially when you consider their lower salaries, nor are such pensions and benefits responsible for our precarious fiscal state.
Furthermore, I have a hard time when some edu-pundits hammer pensions, but remain silent when it comes to the unheard of sums of money some reformers spend on expensive and unnecessary systems, on their own salaries, and on consultants and central office employees who don't work directly with children. Why only go after pensions and compensation when there are so many more damaging budgeting practices occurring in the name of reform? Such inconsistencies lead me to believe that those who yell about slashing teachers' benefits while approving truly wasteful spending are interested more in advancing their ideology than in smart fiscal policy.
As for reforming unions, to be honest when I taught in DCPS it didn't sit well with me that deductions were automatically taken out of my paycheck whether I joined the union or not (and I did join the union). I'm just not convinced that's a good system. I don't share Modern School blogger Michael Dunn's perspectives on all matters, but I do agree with some of his criticisms of unions, for example, that automatic dues deductions should be abolished and that unions should use their money to help workers and to advocate directly to management rather than use it to make contributions to political campaigns. And this is a place where perhaps more conservative edu-folks would agree; however, they should also then advocate for ending corporations' financial influence in political campaigns. Again, this is where inconsistency can betray ideological rather than practical motives.
What does come up then? What should we be concerned with when talking about to how improve teaching and learning? Pedagogy and curriculum. How should I best engage and teach the students before me, and how should I advise my kids' teachers to best engage them? How can my co-workers and I help one another to best reach our shared students? More importantly, what should we teach our students? What as social studies and ESOL teachers do we want out students to know and be able to do? As a parent, what do I want my kids to know and be able to do? This is what good educators focus on and this is what any education reformer worth their salt should focus on. Same with teacher talent: where teachers went to college and their pedigree is much less important than what knowledge they have about pedagogy and about the content they teach--what they teach and how they practice. This is where evaluation needs to be much more rigorous and much more useful--as a means to improve teaching and learning, and not merely as an instrument to fire people.
If the existence of unions and fairly compensating teachers has not hurt the quality of teaching and learning, the high-stakes accountability and standardization movement has. It has severely limited what and how we teach and what and how students learn. I have not yet spoken to one parent or teacher in the liberal, moderate, and conservative communities where I've lived and taught who thought that high-stakes testing and standardization was improving teaching and learning, who wasn't concerned about its corrupting and harmful effects. I know many families in central Virginia who home school, not for religious reasons and not because they don't believe in public education, but because they abhor high-stakes testing and what it's doing to curriculum and pedagogy.
Meanwhile, leaders of education reform labs such as DCPS and NYCPS focus relentlessly on these relatively irrelevant criteria as well as on the pedigree of their practitioners, elite hiring (how about first focusing on making it a sane and stimulating place to work? On not driving good people out?) and draconian firing policies (accountability!), and student test scores. DC has had several years of education reform and they're just now (just now!) thinking about curriculum--and only in Language Arts for the moment. Meanwhile, DCPS is investing more in a expensive, large, and growing Office of Human Capital. What about investing more in quality instruction and rich and meaningful curriculum? There are eleven departments within the DCPS central administration and only one of them is focused on pedagogy and curriculum. What kind of an education system only focuses 9% of their efforts on pedagogy and curriculum, the heart of teaching and learning?
No work is entirely immune to the influences of ideology and politics. Furthermore, considerations of politics, economics, human resources, and management are important to any school or system. But if we truly want to improve education, we should do our best to check our ideology at the school house door. The craft of teaching and the quality of content we convey is where the real work of educating gets done. It's time we stopped wasting our precious resources and our students' time on petty and ideological matters, that we rolled up our sleeves and got down to educating.