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How Slash-and-Burn Promotes Unionism


Dear Deborah,

We got some good comments from readers who went to the trouble of reading the U.S. Department of Education document on how to turn around chronically low-performing schools. They, too, thought it bizarre that the government would publish a set of recommendations for which there was admittedly no evidence. A few astutely pointed out that the gist of the recommendations was “fire the principal” and “fire the teachers.”

Now there may be very extreme cases where it is wise to fire the school leader and bring in someone with a fresh perspective. There may be even more extreme circumstances where it is necessary to oust the entire staff. But these should be recognized as extreme conditions.

It seems to me that this approach—“off with their heads"—is symptomatic of the slash-and-burn approach to school governance that we have seen in New York City, Washington, D.C., and yes, in Chicago. I acknowledge that there are times when a school is in such terrible shape that nothing will help and the best course of action is to wipe the slate clean.

What troubles me, however, is that such tactics might be considered to be a usual and customary part of the strategies available to improve schools. First of all, it is profoundly demoralizing to schools to know that they operate with an axe over everyone’s heads. Second, this tactic treats schools as disposable institutions that can be opened and closed at will. Third, it assumes that any new school will be better than the one it replaced and that the source of the school’s low performance was its staff.

From what I know, and from what I have seen, schools are not shoe stores or hamburger joints, which can be opened and closed at the owner’s whim. They should be durable institutions with deep roots in the local community. If they are low-performing, every effort should be made to help them. And, further, I have seen many terrible new schools created in the past few years, some of them regular public schools, some of them charter schools. Contrary to the new popular wisdom, it is not easy to create a good school from scratch. There is not an army of great principals and teachers who are waiting in the wings, ready for the call to start a new school.

These thoughts relate to the recent announcement that the teachers at two KIPP schools in New York City are joining the United Federation of Teachers. This means that three out of the city’s four KIPP schools will be unionized, since one of them was a conversion school and already had a union. This news came as a shock to the anti-union supporters of charter schools who were convinced that the success of charter schools depends on keeping the teachers’ union out. Of course, I wonder if KIPP schools with unions will be able to maintain their 50+-hour work week.

These topics—the urge to fire teachers and principals and the union inroads into KIPP territory—are related. The people who are making decisions want the schools to have a transient workforce, one that can be hired, fired, and transferred at will; the people working in the schools sense the changed climate and they want to be part of an organization that will protect them from arbitrary bosses.

These are two colliding forces, and it will be fascinating to see how this plays out in the years to come.




I agree, a slash and burn strategy defintely promotes unionism. It's inevitable. If you back someone into a corner they're going to attempt to defend themselves in whatever manner they have at their disposal. It's human nature.

Off with their heads is a drastic strategy but it is sometimes necessary, especially in schools with a history of poor student performance. It should only be used as a last resort.

As long as due process is employed I don't have much of a problem with the strategy. Teachers in question should be aprised of their deficiencies and given ample opportunity to remediate their practice. They should also be afforded adequate counselling/mentoring and professional development to aid them in these efforts.

If, at the end of an agreed upon prescribed time, they have not improved their practice they should be encouraged to seek alternative employment.

The protection of their due process rights can be appropriately monitored by the attending administrator in conjunction with the LOCAL UNION. The only condition under which the state union should interevene is if, in the opinion of the local union representative, the administrator unfairly judged the teacher in question or the administrator did not live up to their part of the remediation. The national union almost never need be involved.


Yes, schools indeed should be "durable institutions." Why have we let ourselves fall to transience?

Transient staff, transient leadership, transient fads, transient mandates, transient jargon, transient values, transient tests, transient impossibilities, even a transient sense of purpose--what is here to stay, except for rehashings of the same transient things?

Ed school and professional development trainings are often dominated by buzzwords and false premises. (I enjoy Brian Rude's writings on this subject.) What if you care deeply about education but disagree with that stuff? What do you do? You go read and write; you go in search of something that makes sense. Why can't that sort of meaning prevail in the schools themselves?

We have to insist on a measure of stability along with change. We have to look at what education is for and uphold that no matter what. We have to defend the right to question, investigate, qualify, develop, transform what is handed to us. If a teacher is facing "discipline," we must ask: is this a question really of poor teaching, or of failure to follow absurd or excessive mandates?

A teacher can be written up for failing to post any of myriad required items on the wall. A teacher can be written up for having the desks facing the front of the room. A teacher can be written up for failing to take notes on student reading behavior during class time. Some of these reprimanded teachers do excellent work, but their methods do not coincide with the latest trends.

We must ask: what is truly important for a teacher to do? What is less important or unimportant? We must sort out our priorities so that schools are sane, grounded, lasting places and so that we're not all going into tizzies over trivia.

Is it the union's role to sort out the school's priorities and values? I am not sure. But the union can definitely help us fight the culture of transience, from firings to fads. That in itself makes it worthwhile. We need specific changes, yes. But as a god, change is as false as they come.

Diana Senechal

Thank you for a fascinating analysis. I've been trying to contextualize KIPP unionization into a larger trend. I think the colliding forces you talk about, and the effort to make schools and educators dispensable, is probably at least a key trend if not the key trend.

These are all interesting thoughts. I think that after going back and forth with John in the previous post, I would agree that any away-with-the-unions position I may have assumed just doesn't make sense.

However, I also said that things simply MUST MUST MUST change within the unions if they are to stay around without handcuffing poor urban youth to some criminally ineffective teachers. I disagree with absolutely nothing you and Deb have posted about why unions are important. The thing is, that as someone where the rubber hits the road right now, there is just too much disconnect between what the union is supposed to do and what it is actually doing here in DC.

In my opinion, unions are there to protect effective teachers from administrators who are simply asking teachers for more than they can reasonably give (more than they signed up for), and from administrators that are simply poor at what they do.

From what I've seen, there is too often a protection of ineffective teachers. Principals, whether good at their job or not, are unable to accurately evaluate the teachers under the weight of all of their other responsibilities. And if a school does get a great principal, it can be very difficult to cultivate change if there are entrenched, ineffective, dead-weight teachers around. It puts the whole purpose of schools on its head--there to serve the teachers instead of the students.

From the point of view of someone who works for KIPP DC (and isn't privy to the way each different KIPP entity runs itself), to say that KIPP wants the ability to have a transient workforce is simply ridiculous.

KIPP is a very VERY young experiment. As with anything that is starting anew, there is a TON of heavy lifting on the front-end. Usually that demands long hours, for everyone involved. In my organization, principals are constantly tinkering with ways to allow the teaching workforce to age. They fully realize the importance of continuity within an effective workforce. Alternate schedules are formed. Some teachers are given the full summer break. Others simply cut their hours and reduce responsibilities to accommodate a family.

I worry that in much the same way that people unfairly have a picture in their mind of the ineffective city teacher (I, I will admit, adhere to this vision from time to time), so too do people have a vision of KIPP being a simply militaristic, rote, drain-the-teachers-until-they-are-done type school. I highly, highly suggest you take a trip down to the original KIPP school in Houston, and then give me your thoughts. They, in many ways, are at where all KIPP schools strive to be once they are over 20 years old. I would have no problem getting more into what I've seen in my trips down there, but that's for another time.

To finish, I just want to offer another perspective. We keep talking about how the union will change KIPP. I wonder how KIPP could possibly help make the union more accountable, maybe change the bargaining standards. Maybe the one-year contracts that even veteran KIPP teachers sign is too far. But so too, I would have to say, is the life-long contract that is given out to teachers once they obtain tenure. Why not something in between? Why not get away with seniority (God knows that the number of years experience one has is an advantage in and of itself. If a 30 y.o is a better teacher than a 45 y.o., I think we can all agree on who we'd want our child to have as a teacher).


The absurd or excessive mandates you refer to in your post are insulting. Why any teacher or local union would tolerate this type of administrative dictatorship defies logic. What's posted on a classroom bulletin board (within reason, of course) or the way a teacher decides to arrange the desks in their classroom are essentially inconsequential to learning.

Didn’t Diane refer to it somewhere in her writing as "oppressive supervision?" It was my understanding that New York City schools did away with this type of nonsense several years ago.

It's a classic example of administrative minutia and should simply not be tolerated by teachers anywhere.

Paul Hoss


The "administrative walkthrough" is common practice in NYC public schools. An administrator walks into the room with a checklist and spends a few minutes checking off items, which include wall materials, seating arrangements, and more.

Some schools and regions may be more rigid than others; it may also vary by grade. Some teachers will receive letters in their file for the least omission; others may skate by for years with only verbal warnings and reminders. But across the city, those in charge assume that the more print you have on the wall, the better. They do not consider that (a) the teacher should exercise judgment in this matter, and (b) too much print is distracting and dizzying. They call it a "print-rich" environment--but take that too far, and it becomes "sense-bereft."

There have been attempts to fight silly and time-consuming mandates like these. But until we deal with the causes, we may not get very far. One mandate may disappear, but another will take its place. What are the causes? First, disagreement about what education means and what makes it work. Second, the domination of the schools by several organizations that have long-term contracts with the DoE. Third, the mistaken idea that for the sake of "accountability" we must spell out every single thing we do (and put it in large print on the wall).

Diana Senechal

P.S. And I'd add a fourth cause, the obvious one: DoE top leadership approving and creating these mandates.


That’s terrible. I feel sorry for NYC teachers after hearing this. It sounds like the DOE is treating their teachers more like underlings than professionals. Talk about control freaks. Has all this been new since Klein/Bloomberg or was it standard practice before them as well?

I was never big on bulletin board presentation although they were always filled. I would let the kids in my room take care of most of it during recess. Whenever questioned by a supervisor or administrator regarding the boards my response was standard. "It's not what's on the walls when they leave this room in June it's what's in their heads." I also told them the room essentially belonged to the kids and it was more important to have student work on the board than mine. I wanted the kids to have a feeling of ownership and belonging and to be proud of their work.

If anyone ever persisted I then contentiously maintained that I was more than willing to match the academic progress of the kids in my room to any other class at that grade level in the school, the district, or the state. That pretty much put an end to that discussion.

The most formal administrative concern for bulletin boards in my district came during MCAS testing. The DOE and the building principal sent a memo to every teacher involved to remind them that nothing could be left hanging in the room that could possibly aid students on the tests. This was understandable and (to the best of my knowledge) complied with universally.

As a brief aside; for me, this is one of the great things about this and other education blogs (Core Knowledge, etc.). You get a real flavor for what’s going on in schools around the country. Particularly with Bridging Differences people are able to get insights from two giants in the profession like Diane and Deborah. Regular contributors like you, Robert, John, Margo, Ed, Kim, Brian, Reason, Gov’t. B., etc., are also both extremely knowledgeable and very informative. We’re really quite fortunate. I only wish more people had the time and opportunity to participate.

Good morning all, and hope most of you have electric and clean roads!

Diane, I wonder if phrases like "slash and burn" really add depth to the discussion? Similarly, what of suggesting that typical non-school workers are hamburger flippers and shoe clerks instead of pharmaceutical research staff, data center technicians, workforce trainers?

Brian, I'd hope you hold back just a bit before getting to excited that the mandatory collective bargaining agents across Ohio and PA are going to remake themselves somehow. Why should they?

There was published recently an excellent analysis of why teachers' best interests are at odds with union leaders' best interests. I can neither find it, nor do it justice, but the gist is...

Without a rigid step system of pay and seniority, union leaders have no reason to exist. Once that inflexible albatross is gone, teachers in effect can negotiate as individuals. On not just pay, but on whether the classroom must have a copy of The Hollow Men hanging on the wall or whether desks 1 and 15 can face 30deg off perpendicular.

Everyone, then, when you look at these antiquated and petty things that administrators can do, do you ask why these are more prevalent in schools than in other professional organizations? Are they?

If they are so much more prevalent, is it possible that the reason is the workplace culture as a whole is behind the times?

I last eve added more about this to the tail of Deb's post; about why perhaps teachers focus overly on fears from inside the walls while missing out on good practices from knowledge workers in the broader spectrum.

Whatever the reasons, it remains that all these fears and scenarios have been hashed out in many a workplace and many a profession. The consensus is, where we can measure results, both employer and employee are happier where the two work as a team, the same team, rather than as agents of two adversarial groups.

And if that is true within each workplace, how much more true is it when we zoom out and look at how the profession as a whole moves forward?


It may be true that both "employer" and "employee" are happier where they work together as a "team," but "adversary" does not preclude "team," in my view (forgive the quotations, but these words are so laden with assumptions).

In the other sectors of the economy that you mention, where there is not a union, the appearance of "team" may be strictly hierarchical and draconian, with all of the power in the hands of the "employer."

Of course, there are places for such relationships. The military, for example, would perhaps not be more effective with democratic deliberation.

But schools are a different kind of organism, I think...I hope. However imperfectly, schools are meant to teach democratic citizenship to students, and are themselves the subjects of democratic deliberation. It is a shared institution, run by multiple "stakeholders." The voices of teachers are often lost in this however, and cannot educate for citizenship if they are not party to decision-making themselves.

Teachers unions arose to counter some of the incredible conditions teachers faced--unimaginable by today's standards (huge class sizes, very little pay, patriarchal/paternalistic relationships, very little resources, etc.) Largely because of unions teachers have been able to gain more of a foothold, although egregious conditions continue to exist in some places.

So, what does it mean to work as a "team?" I think adversarial relationships are not always bad, in fact, are part of democratic deliberation. That doesn't mean compromises and shared views can't be reached. The salary schedule, however imperfect, largely did away with gender and race-based favoritism in teacher salaries. This is a major achievement, in my view.

But, the next step is less clear. Perhaps hashing out disagreements on blogs like this one can contribute to seeing other people's viewpoints. I agree that Julia Koppich (cited on this blog last week, I believe) and others have some good ideas about how to make labor relations in education more team-oriented, without losing the important gains that have been made. But having each teacher negotiate his or her own contract would be a disaster.

Matthew, thanks.
Perhaps the best way to start a reply here is to say that I firmly believe military units tend to function better as teams than teachers. By that, I don't mean "team" as in, 'do it my way or get off my team', but exactly as Deb described collaborative work in her schools.

Now, that situation isn't mostly the fault of teachers as individuals. While I do think that teachers have something of an independent streak by nature, it is more the way the job is structured which takes from their ability to operate as a team. For many the time simply isn't there.

There are schools, of course, where common planning periods, shared classes, etc. provide some time to look at kids as whole people. I doubt they are yet the majority.

Which is just another example of my larger point, as yet not well voiced I fear:

Teachers are far less powerful--as individuals, as a building-level group, and as a profession--than they would be if they organized like other professionals.

They have less voice because of the union structure.

Alas, even at the moment when the union seems most powerful - contract negotiations - teachers are alas left completely out of the conversation.

Inevitably at negotiation time, some high priced lawyers come in and haggle over petty things in exchange for some minuscule salary increase.

In other professions, the salary increases as well as all the other issues are determined day in and day out, one person at a time, occasionally through the formal review process, but also in how people gather together constantly to improve the organizations' processes.

This incremental process, for all its faults, gives the professionals who use it higher salaries and better conditions than that achieved for teachers by lawyers in high-stakes negotiations.

I appreciate that others are attempting to work the more subtle things out, but a certain popular strand of thinking is always in evidence which fixates on the teachers who work at low-performing schools and their unions. It seems to go like this:

It is perfectly reasonable to believe that the achievement of students is determined by the effectiveness of their teachers and is best measured by tests. Therefore, student test scores which are high have been produced by effective teachers. The presumption is that those teachers are hard working and highly skilled, and thus they may be labeled as “good.” It is also presumed that the higher the test scores, the better the teacher.

On the other hand, student test scores which are low have been produced by ineffective teachers. The presumption is that those teachers are lazy and poorly skilled, so it is reasonable to label them as “bad.” It is also presumed that the lower the test scores, the worse the teacher.

Often, this type of thinking also concludes that the teachers union is the exclusive entity/factor which constantly prevents districts from replacing its current crop of “bad” teachers with ones who are “good.” It presumes that there is a set of “good” teachers who are standing by, ready to be hired. This mindset seems to suggest that if only those “bad” teachers were finally eliminated and replaced, the force of “good” teachers would head for the classrooms of chronically low-performing schools and get to work, easily bringing up student test scores from low to high. Therefore, it is the existence of unions which is causing low test scores to be sustained.

So how can teachers qualify as “good” teachers if they have not already been working in a setting where high test scores have been produced? According to this logic, they can’t.

The only exception is for the new TFA-type teachers who are also granted the status of being “good,” even before any test scores have been produced. Their biographies (highly educated recent college graduates who desire to work with poor kids for two years) give them a special patina which protects them from being labeled as “bad.” However, the “good” label only lasts for a few years. If the young teacher happens to stay at a low-performing school for too long, the protective patina wears off and they are then lumped together with their other (presumed-to-be-“bad”) coworkers at that school.

Some teachers can not endure teaching over time at a low-performing school. I would like a long, honest conversation about this fact to be pursued. When those teachers transfer to a school which is high-performing (a suburban one, for instance), then it’s likely that they will soon be presumed to be “good.” Getting relief from being subjected to being viewed as “bad” by the masses would be just one more motivation for a (possibly "good") teacher to depart from a low-performing school.

For some people, it makes perfect sense that only “bad” teachers are the ones willing to stay for long in low-performing schools. To get to a point where they might consider the possibility that some of these teachers might actually be "good" would require them to adopt an alien thought process which disconnects test scores from the teacher. Alas, to scapegoat the teachers and their unions is much, much easier to do.

It’s easy for me to see why those experiencing such a caustic and hostile work climate would need to bond together more tightly and want the strength of their union to grow. They definitely have my sympathy.

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