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On Unions and Education

Posted: 2004-03-01

Meier reports that in her experience it's Central Office that runs from innovation, not unions.

NOTE: This commentary is from the Winter 2004 Dissent


Despite popular impressions and dinner-table gossip, the problems of our schools, and above all of "school reform," are not the result of unions. I speak in part from personal experience over the past thirty-five years in New York City and Boston. The last big project I was involved with in New York, which required real courage on the part of all the major institutional powers, came to a screeching halt because everyone backed down except the teacher's union. We had asked for a "free zone"-constituting no more than 5 percent of New York's student population as an experiment in non-regulation (or at least vastly decreased regulation). The state, the city, and the Board of Education ended up backing away, but at no point did the United Federation of Teachers. Perhaps they would have if and when we really began to operate (except on matters of wages and working conditions) outside of the union contract. They weren't always enthusiastic supporters; they were skeptical from first to last and might have become more so if the idea had caught on. But that's speculation; in fact they never flinched. They saw the project, they said, as an experiment in providing a form of schooling that would produce better results for kids while also empowering classroom teachers.

My experience over the past five years in Boston is similar. The Pilot Schools project-involving at the start no more than 5 percent of Boston's students-was based on an agreement between the Boston Teachers Union and the Boston Public Schools to suspend all the regular contractual agreements as they applied to a dozen or so schools, provide a flexible per capita budget to each school, and allow freedom from other city-mandated requirements with regard to curriculum, scheduling, and staffing. Both the BTU and BPS soon lost their initial enthusiasm for the project-which they probably first saw as an answer to charter schools. But the BTU never went back on the original agreement. Small-scale quarrels between the pilots and the BPS, however, were and are constant as we negotiate each provision anew every year: Which budget item do we have control over and which do they? What voice do we have over state-provided "coaches"? Given the constraints of busing, what freedom do we actually have over scheduling? And so on. Because most of the daily issues relate to freedom from city, not union, rules it is hardly surprising that our frustration is usually focused on the "system." The major worry we hear from the union is whether these less constrained schools actually offer more power to classroom teachers rather than school principals. Both parties also worry that, under the label of autonomy, the Pilot Schools are choosier about which students they accept. Do they, for example, accept fewer troubled students? And both worry about what the consequences would be if the idea really spread-in terms of the impact on system-wide seniority, accountability, and so on.

These are legitimate issues. In a climate of high-stakes testing and increasing competition, many good reforms can turn into monsters. I'm disinclined of late even to call myself a school reformer. Too often it feels like deforming.

When I visited Houston, Texas, recently, I was alarmed at how many teachers came up to me to say that they couldn't speak out as I was doing and hold their jobs in Houston. There was a rule against speaking or writing against district policies. Georgia teachers, meeting with me at a summer institute in Massachusetts, literally whispered about their problems with testing. "Why are you whispering," I asked? "Because we could lose our jobs."

What do these two states have in common? Weak unions with no legal bargaining rights. So there is an eerie internal silence about issues of importance. Of course, the silence is not confined to Georgia and Texas. Even in a union stronghold like New York, much is not discussed that ought to be.

For example, there is no doubt that (some) small and more autonomous schools in New York have become choosier in whom they take, in a setting in which "ability" (and social class and race) tracking has returned with a vengeance. Small schools of choice have often become a kind of parallel "private school-like" network, with the same kind of rank order between the most elite and the least. This was true long before "choice" existed, as neighborhood schools that reflected social class and ethnic differences performed the same function as ability tracking. Similar tendencies could soon affect Boston's citywide schools of choice movement (which originally was instituted as a court-approved response to racial segregation)-especially now that all racial and ethnic categories have been eliminated in the current anti-affirmative action climate.

And the focus on "results"-setting standards as the basis of graduation rather than piling up credits or seat time, presented so powerfully by Ted Sizer in Horace's Compromise and pioneered by schools such as the Central Park East Secondary School that I helped found in 1985-has taken an odd turn. It has too often been used to increase the power of centralized authorities, of both superintendents and principals, and even more ominously of state politicians, with "standards" turning into standardized tests. And then the tests are enforced by state and federal mandates with detailed rewards and punishments for those dotting and not dotting their "i"s appropriately. Indeed, it is often assumed that reform means allowing those at the top of the hierarchy to act decisively-that is, outside of formally bargained rules-in order to get better results. Or it means abandoning the public system entirely for that alternate system of decision making: the free-well, sort of free-market.

But the evidence is pretty clear that although unions are a force to be reckoned with, and by nature conservative, especially in defense of basic teacher protections, they have not been a powerful force in preventing school reforms sought by mayors, governors, and local business coalitions-even those that undermine traditional teacher rights. Yes, of course, opposition or foot-dragging by the American Federation of Teachers or National Education Association makes such reforms harder to enact in states where unions are strong. But it's unlikely that serious reforms can be effective if they are enacted from the top down, without the enthusiastic support of those who must implement them. This is hardly an idea requiring complicated sociological theories. When I was a member of my local school board twenty years ago, we received a petition from 99 percent of the staff of a local junior high expressing their lack of confidence in the principal. I told my colleagues on the board that we really had only two choices if our focus was on teaching and learning: we had to get rid of most of the staff or remove the principal. The case is similar when top-down reforms are resisted by teachers: you can get rid of the teachers or learn to negotiate the reforms.

Yes, most unions-including teachers' unions with their highly educated membership-have a tendency to take on some of the qualities of the management they are counterpoised to. They get caught in their own power plays; they over-react, become rigid, and more. This is especially true when the local union serves a large district in which personal ties are difficult to maintain. And then teachers begin to see their union much as they see the rest of the system-impersonal, capricious, and inflexible, another hurdle to get around. They appreciate the union when they are dealing with a particularly vexatious principal or even with vexatious colleagues; they value it when it comes time to negotiate wages and benefits and to fight back against changes made without due process. But on a day-to-day basis, the union is just one more bureaucracy that has little to do with their working lives. A call to the union office is often just as frustrating as a call "downtown."

In schools where collegiality is high, and principal and teachers work easily together, many teachers feel even more estranged from their union. Teachers in small, successful communal schools often don't make their voices heard within the union; the voices of those who need the protection of rules and regulations are loudest and most powerful-as they should be! But this natural tendency sways the union into a more hostile or skeptical stance toward innovative schools where teachers appear not to need its protection-or where the protection they need may be from city hall, state legislators, the federal government, or from the union itself.

These are issues that won't easily be solved; and reformers-especially those who believe real reform must bring working teachers into greater positions of power over their schools-cannot ignore them. The imposition of greater authoritarian and bureaucratic controls over teachers, in the name of even the best curriculum and pedagogy, won't begin to tackle the decisive intellectual failings of our schools. In fact, it will exacerbate them on every front. It will make teaching less and less attractive to those considering a career-above all where they are most needed, in urban and rural schools serving low-income children, but also in many other places where creative work is taking place that could excite a new generation of teachers. The new authoritarianism is defended in the name of the "underprivileged," in the name of "ordinary" kids, on the theory that truly creative, high quality teaching cannot be brought to scale-so that the vast majority of the least well-off American kids cannot hope for that. At best they must thrive on highly bureaucratized, centralized, scripted mediocrity.

This repeats an old, old story. Democracy is only for the affluent. Indeed, it's partially true, and unions need to acknowledge the partial truth. But it's not the whole truth. You cannot take ordinary underpaid teachers and ordinary underfunded schools and turn them around in the face of only grudging compliance from the staff. Maybe you can't do it even with generous funding. Teachers will resist reforms and will only "comply" under duress, unless they own the reforms and believe in them. Of course, they resist; it is an honorable response to arbitrary power. If teachers didn't resist each new fad, they'd be lobotomized.

The intellectual need of the young, to become "critical thinkers," requires schools that dare tackle stuff worth being critical about; it requires teachers who have the authority and respect to model the critical stance in the company of their peers and to present truly controversial stuff to the young. But at present only the rich can afford such schools-largely in the private sector or in the more affluent suburbs.

Good thinking cannot be passed on to the young by uncritical and compliant teachers. But, some would argue, such qualities are a luxury for the poor-and open to abuse. Let the regular schools first prove themselves on the ABCs and then, someday, they too can get to "critical thinking." There's a certain logic to this, but it will not and cannot lead to high standards (although one can call any score on any test "high standard" or "proficient" if one has the power to do so).

The kind of workplace collaboration required by the graduates of our schools cannot be taught in schools focused only on rote learning or test prep or remediation. It cannot be learned where young people do not see adults serving as models of higher order thinking, but instead only experience adults struggling to follow the script or high-powered test preppers who zero in on what's really important: test scores, test scores, and test scores. We cannot tell kids that what counts is the quality of their language, their ability to think on their feet, to be reliable and responsible, to care about their community, to stand up and be counted, and to work well with others, if none of these in fact "count." In this setting, it is unlikely that children will learn what it takes-or even what it means-to be an effective member of a thoughtful adult society. And surely such schools cannot teach what collaboration, solidarity, and community mean when adults are mostly busy complying.

So, both union and management need to figure out how reform might be enacted with the collaboration of teachers, in a way that provides them with appropriate power over major and minor decisions. It may take longer to see such reforms take hold, but going faster in the wrong direction is no advantage at all! Here is what unions are best at doing-giving those closest to the action a voice, giving them respect and dignity. This is at the heart not only of teacher unions but of all unions everywhere.

Even industrial unions have found increased work-site voice important to the material success of auto plants (for example, the Saturn and Toyota plants), but the argument for its centrality when it comes to schools is far more powerful. It may not matter to the automobile whether it was produced by willing or unwilling workers (although the evidence suggests its users will notice the difference). But students are not automobiles, and the active intelligence of their teachers is central to the development of their own intelligence.

Oddly enough, quality control may matter more to auto-makers than to school-makers these days. Imagine if we were told that we can't afford to worry about whether the cars that come off the assembly line "work"-as we are told about the reforms we know are needed to make schools work. Small schools have proven effective, but they are too expensive, we're told. Not true if one counts the cost per graduate: in fact, they are cheaper if we count that way, at least in our urban communities.

Teachers can help Americans understand what works and doesn't work in our schools. Opinion polls confirm that they are still the most trusted group of public authorities in the country-ranking above mayors, governors, corporate CEOs, doctors, lawyers-and even principals! But when they join together to express their opinions, suddenly they turn into an "interest group" (unlike the Business Roundtable?). Yes, there have been occasions (rare, in fact) when teacher unions acted in ways that did not earn, or deserve, public trust-but compared to what and whom? To the corporate community?

When all is said and done, there's another reason why we need to worry about the public's perception of unions (and our own too). Not only are strong teacher unions critical to the success of teaching and learning, they are critical to the survival of the conditions needed to support teaching and learning. They are critical to the success of the mission of public schools in a democracy: to produce citizens who can effectively rule.

Although there are many folks out there who have a stake in good public schools, the only organized and experienced allies, committed over time and with the necessary expertise and resources, are the teachers' unions. Parents come and go, and given the incredibly busy lives of the women who once led parents' organizations (especially in those communities where the need is greatest), sustaining their political power is almost impossible. They have been effectively weakened-even more than teachers-and are rarely represented on state or national task forces, think tanks, or school boards.

Politically, the parents of the children who are least well served by our schools are precisely the ones who have the least political leverage. They are less likely to be citizens, let alone voters; they are rarely people with the time or skill to make themselves heard. The foundations that try to represent their views are also constrained when it comes to political lobbying, and those on the liberal end are less likely these days to be ideological allies of unions and teachers. So the weakening of union power quickly translates, locally and nationally, into less support for the least well-served students, above all, the urban or rural poor. There may be loud cries for higher test scores, but there will be little concern about the fairness of our school system so long as those most directly affected by its unfairness are politically impotent. It is easier to pass off half-truths to a politically active public that has no direct exposure to how the other half lives-that doesn't, in fact, include the other half!

But it is also important to say that the larger inequities that affect poor children-that depress their test scores and always have-are not directly related to schools. The achievement gap in schools is as nothing compared to the resources gap out of school.

And in correcting such inequities, strong unions-not just teacher unions-are the primary and steady vehicle; they are the only substantial counterpoint to the power of organized greed. In a society in which the income differential is steadily widening, the clamor about decreasing the academic gaps-even if the focus were not solely on standardized test scores-won't be serious until there is an organized and "interested" power bloc whose members stand to gain, in the here and now, from greater equity.

The balance of power in contemporary America is way off, and threatens to get worse, not better. Redressing this imbalance-with the social power of numbers versus resources-has been one of the central functions of trade unions since their inception. They have been the dependable ally of the least advantaged for a hundred years when it comes to issues of wages, safety, health care, retirement, subsidized housing, public transportation, and on and on. Even on issues of racial equality, the unions, although often mirroring the racism of the larger society, have been allies in political fights to expand civil rights for at least half a century. And on issues more removed from everyday working life-issues of civil liberties, prison reform, abortion rights-unions have historically been the allies of reformers. In the current climate, the tenuous and fragile balance that has existed since the New Deal has been decisively shifted, if not altogether shattered. Until it is restored, it isn't just good schooling, but the good life for vast numbers of our fellow citizens that is in jeopardy.

Thus, there are still many reasons why teachers and parents, and their friends and relatives, need to be the allies of their local teacher unions, even on those days when the unions make foolish mistakes, act with the same short-range self-interest as their opponents, and so on. The kind of support that is needed is not uncritical; it is not a matter of falling into line behind union leaders. But first and foremost, it means putting to rest the inaccurate idea that unions are to blame for the difficulties of school reform. Reforms are not always good, and change is not always in the interest of better learning. Healthy resistance is sometimes what we most need, side by side with thoughtful proposals for change-and this is what we will sorely miss if teachers' unions are defeated by the relentless hostility of their many opponents.

Deborah Meier founded the Central Park East schools in New York City and the Mission Hill School in Boston. She is author of The Power of Their Ideas, Will Standards Save Public Education?, and In Schools We Trust.

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