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Drive for education reform has teachers unions on the defensive

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Yes, the recession has been a factor in the clamor against unions. But the attacks are unfair or oversimplified, say many education experts and teachers, and the reality is far more complex. For one thing, teachers unions and their attitudes vary drastically from district to district and state to state.

Still, the attacks have put teachers unions overall in a defensive position, and soul-searching has ensued as they consider how to best shape their vision and priorities going forward. Increasingly, unions are breaking with tradition and endorsing new laws and policies that they would have considered anathema a decade ago.

"The unions are suddenly finding themselves scrambling to establish their position," says Eric Hanushek, a frequent union critic and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University in California. "Their traditional role as strong labor union is running into the opinions of parents and policymakers about the need to fix our schools."

The anti-union story line, among other things, says that unions refuse to allow student test scores to be a factor in major teacher evaluations. It also says that unions make the process of firing so onerous – even for the worst teachers – that few districts see it through.

In fact, however, unions don't always have control over all the pieces for which they're attacked.

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