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Reforming and/or Busting Unions?


Dear Diane,

Given how patently absurd all these old-fangled reforms are, even if we accept the premises they define for success, how do we explain the staying power of this newly defined “reform?” It doesn’t take a super-genius to recognize that the four recommendations you site, Diane, on their behalf are nonsense. It may even be a conspiracy, but it surely appeals to people neither you nor I can imagine joining such a cabal. What is the attraction?

I always suggest everyone start off by reading, and then rereading "The Way Things Were?" by Richard Rothstein. It provides a perspective about the educational crisis that goes back more than a century. But is it merely a pendulum? I’m not convinced.

“To set Standards and enforce Standards, and raise Standards, and raise them ever more was nearly the whole duty of teachers and principals…It was a real and salutary gospel in its day.. Then came the Nineties, a variegated hodgepodge of uncoordinated practices. Then came The Age of Standards….which brought order out of that chaos.”

The above was written in 1936, and I found it on a 5x8 card in the stacks of stuff I’m going through in preparation for organizing my papers. If anyone knows the source, pass it on.

I was 5 years old then. Will it be ever so? I’d so like to change the discussion, start all over again perhaps? But that’s not possible since I can find quotes like the above going back to Socrates’ time. (Ted Sizer, when asked in 1984 what he hoped his work would accomplish said: “change the conversation.” People chided him for his modesty; he and I knew it was far from a modest wish.)

There is something good to be said about the recurrence of the same debates—a kind of reassurance about our humanity? We’ve alternately blamed almost every potential sector of society. This time it’s teachers and public enterprise. I’m glad it’s not the kids, although both they and their parents don’t lag far beyond, especially poor people. It’s their “attitudes,” not their poverty that is bemoaned. And standing for them all is an old bogey-man: “the union.”

There are even two “camps,” we’re told. Those who say it’s all the schools' fault and those who say it’s only partly the schools' fault—the latter including the unions. It’s hard to take this seriously—no one could possibly claim that poverty doesn’t matter.

The much-hyped villainy of organized working people has a long history, too. There was a short period—from the mid-40s to the mid-70s—when trade unionism and collective bargaining were considered not only okay, but actually one of the hallmarks of capitalist democracy. One sure-fire sign of Communism’s evil nature was that it had to smash trade unions to succeed, and made them powerless, if not illegal. But organized labor is hard to kill permanently. So it was rather nice to read that the latest panacea for school reform—the KIPP schools—have been bitten by the bug; two of its schools have signed on with the American Federation of Teachers in New York City.

Of course, there are some young teachers who imagine that they have nothing to fear from “management” as long as they’re good at what they do. By the time I began to teach (in my mid-30s) I knew better, and it was easy for me to imagine I’d be just the kind some principals might love to fire. Luckily, the only two I worked “for” were allies and so, unlike many other strong-minded colleagues, I was never endangered. In New York City, many of the Catholic schools were part of the UFT, too. But my support for teachers’ unions is in part support for their “voice” in public affairs. We all must speak up for ourselves, but in the absence of leisure time we all also need an organized voice. (The Kleins and Bloombergs rely on organization, too.)

One of my wishes for the new year is that the union voice will get louder, not softer, on issues of reform, extending to the concept of teacher voice as part and parcel of each and every school’s life. There has been growing recognition for this kind of bargaining “power” written into school “constitutions,” and a number of locations nationwide where this kind of collaboration is taking place. The Pilot school I founded and led for nine years in Boston was the product of such an agreement between the Boston teachers’ union and Boston’s management. It gave us formally what we had informally exercised in NYC under a benign union and management agreement. It was great to work somewhere that such power was acknowledged. Although under new management it’s at risk these days.

By the way, I got some interesting letters about the whys and wherefores of college that I enjoyed and briefly responded to in last week’s “comments.” I hope to go back to it and other “what ifs” worth exploring.



Deb, Good morning!
And this is where I feel you are living on Mars somewhere. ( Of course, NYC is culturally further from here. :-) )

Why should teachers not act and organize like other professions?

There are two problems with the current school labor model. The first is that it treats teachers like a mass. One mass within the school district. A collective mass at the state level. And a further collective mass at the national level.

Contrast this with the engineers and designers who minds are valued as individuals at Apple, Boeing, Google, IBM and many companies small and large.

The second problem is that the NEA especially does not behave and appear as a professional organization. It is more of a lobbying organization.

In other professions, the bias of the national organization is toward professional development and cooperation. In these, lobbying and public policy plays a minor role.

To make things worse, the teachers unions and organizations are blatantly partisan. Real professional organizations would be humiliated to be perceived as perennially siding with one party.

And, the evidence is that teachers would like their unions and organizations to spend less of their money lobbying.

The larger problem is there are six million teachers and 36 million students. Nothing we can say applies to even a majority of either group.

All of our efforts then, should be at empowering people close to each student. One tool we gave them was a crude test to say, hey, my kids can't read at a 20th percentile. Yet we should give them so many, many more tools.

What should those tools be? How do we speed up the process of identifying and obtaining them?

By making the entire education community more agile.

Empowering teachers to step out beyond the hierarchy of step-based contracts and into a form of working together enjoyed by other professionals...this seems something you, Deb, would jump on with unfettered excitement.

Hello Deborah,

Here is the source of that wonderful quotation, "To set Standards...":

McConn, Max. (1936). The U.S.es and abuses of examinations. In H.E. Hawkes, E.F. Lindquist & C.R. Mann, (Eds.), The construction and us.e of achievement examinations. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

It is referenced here:


Do I get a star by my name?


Talk about a twenty-first century hot button issue in education; unions are perhaps numero-unno. I will make every effort to keep this brief and civil.

I often resent global evaluations on most subjects but at the risk of saving time, here goes. I am all for local teacher unions. They are clearly germane and serve an obvious purpose.

I have not a great deal to say in favor of state unions and am even less enamored with the national sects, especially the NEA. In short I believe the state and national groups have lost their way and, in effect, have outlived their usefulness. To be more precise; the NEA is not only contributing little to the education reform effort nationwide, they have become the major obstacle to meaningful education reform in twenty-first century America.

I have read Diane's defense of unions and noted yours as well Deborah.

"We all must speak up for ourselves, but in the absence of leisure time we all also need an organized voice." An organized voice spewing what? Under no circumstances do I, now or ever, want the NEA to attempt to dictate to me who (or what) I should or should not vote for in any election. I especially take exception to them using money from my "dues" to force their opinions down my throat. Example: Dukakis or Carter for president? Talk about a couple of buffoons the NEA knew they could have their way with, on anything. They constructed the “party’s” platform on education in exchange for the NEA’s financial support during these (and other) campaigns. It was refreshing to see Obama did not subject himself to this line of blackmail.

In no way do I resent opinion to the opposite. Thank goodness we live in a time and a place where it’s acceptable – the free exchange of ideas in a democratic society. I am sure others will express a counter argument but after three and a half decades I believe I have heard most of this propaganda before.

It seems as though teacher's unions are a different sort of animal from industrial unions. Organization of labor afforded workers protection from unjust treatment caused by the ownership of the "means of production." The workers needed the raw materials, or the looms or the machinery or the ability to ship and distribute or the farm, or some such entity owned by others in order to be able to ply their trade. Selling their labor individually, and with a surplus of labor easily available, allowed owners to take advantage (and sometimes horrendously so), either by witholding the availability of work until workers were desparate, or other inducements. The value end product, sold by the owner, did not necessarily translate into the value of wages for the worker. Organizing workers to bargain for minimum acceptable standards and wages tended to equalize the power-balance.

Education, as a function of government, operates somewhat differently. The history of the NEA is somewhat different, which may account for the confusion it experiences. A labor union tends to be pretty clear that it's primary function is to ensure fair working conditions. The UAW is concerned with health insurance, life insurance, working hours. It does not demand a seat at the table in designing next year's automobile. There may be professional organizations of engineers or designers who contribute to the craft of their members (who may also be union members) and their ability to contribute to design. But that is not the job of the union--so far as I understand.

But teacher's unions, in addition to taking on the industrial model (absent a class of owners with whom to divide the profits from production), attempt to function as professional organizations--believing themselves to be the defenders of the quality of education--even when the protection of working conditions, or jobs, may be in conflict.

I fervently believe in unions, as I fervently believe in lawyers. But, just as a lawyer cannot represent two parties with different interests, so can a union not be the protector of worker's rights and the protector of student's rights to quality education. Can't be done. Oughtn't be attempted. This doesn't necessarily specify an adversarial relationship (as in, reform need not require union-busting)--but it does require clarity about the role of unions, and reformers.

I am really glad that Margo/Mom and Paul got a chance to respond before I did. I think that they were able to strike what I feel in a much more intelligent vein. Though it may seem that I read only when KIPP is mentioned, that's certainly not the case. Rather, it's the only subject on which I think I can confidently contribute to this group.

My only union experience (as far as teachers’ unions go) is in my now-home town of Washington DC, and I have been fervently against them from the get-go. However, with the recent opposition to Michelle Rhee from voices that I respect (like Deb and Diane's), I've been forced to look beyond the surface level into why I am so anti-union. Even now, when I read Deb write that by the time she was in her mid-30s she knew better than to believe if she was just good at what she did, then she was ok--it causes me to pause. Clearly, having a principal that you believe in, that knows what good teaching looks like, and that knows how to manage adults is the X-factor in this all.

When I read about the KIPP AMP teachers unionizing, I think over the short-term, it definitely has the potential to create positive changes for both the teachers and the students. This is just as I think teachers unions all over have most likely had a positive effect in their initial stages--when the reason for such unionization in the first case was clear in the minds of those involved.

What I fear...dread...is when the day comes that the union is there because it has become entrenched. I believe that I have seen all too well what happens here in DC when this happens.

On my PD days, I visit other schools in my city and my neighborhood. I walk into classrooms and am absolutely appalled at the level of teaching I see happening in some (CERTAINLY not all) classrooms. I know that there is probably a lot more going on that I’m not seeing—lack of support from administration, family issues, etc. But even taking this into account, the low standards that some teachers have for their students is so low that it seems implicitly criminal. This belief is only pushed further when I walk down the hall and realize that high standards ARE possible in that same school: a teacher conducting a class that clearly values mutual respect between teacher and student, high-level thinking activities, and a general shift towards intellectual independence. The reason the former group of teachers aren’t fired or effectively prodded in the direction of such change, I am told over and over again, is the because of the strength of the union. And with that strength, lack of motivation towards change.

To be clear, I’m not sure if the way Rhee is going about this is the most effective route. However, at some point in time, somewhere along the line, if teachers’ unions survive in their current format, there needs to be serious reform from within. We can easily talk for years about how there are plenty of ways that poverty accounts for a portion of the achievement gap. Regardless of how that debate turns out, the fact still remains that the single most effective and plausible way that we (teachers and the public) can improve the chances of underserved youth is by putting an effective (note, not the same as “highly qualified”) teacher in the classroom with them. Teachers’ unions necessarily put the interests of teachers ahead of the interests of students. The NEA or UFT may say otherwise, but it’s systematically impossible the way things are right now. If we are protecting the ones who go into education as a last resort, or, for whatever reason, are simply ineffective, we are sacrificing ANY chance many of these youth have at asserting a choice in their future at the expense of the comfort of ineffective teachers.

Paul and Margo, great comments! Let me try to further distill it a bit. Two issues here:

First, No man, and certainly no organization, can serve two masters. Thus union leaders cannot both serve students and teachers.

Second, and more importantly, Unions by nature are good at two things:
- they can create abrupt and significant change, via the strike or threat of strike
- they can sustain the status quo, by virtue of the contract, the law, and the lawyers the dues provide.

The first function everyone should have a right to. The laws that provide for this are a critical part of the Republic, and of the love-thy-neighbor, greater good, Rerum Novarum responsibilities we have as Judeo-Christians if you'll pardon the historic phrase.

The sustainment of the status quo, however, is where we get into trouble over longer periods of time.

An agile work organization just is at odds with a a labor setup designed to maintain the status quo, to treat all workers the same, regardless of ability or effort.

There are many ways, over time, that a labor contract and collective mass treatment of teachers gets the school, and the profession, into being behind where they could be. We saw this in the steel industry, and we see it in the automotive industry, just at the skilled worker level.

Isn't this far more true of professionals who are tasked, not with designing, engineering, architecting, programming, analyzing, auditing, evolving inanimate systems, but with designing and delivering the education of a human child?

Out of the mouths of babes - Brain Stoffel your posting was superb. Keep up the great work down in DC. The country is watching.

Ed Jones also poignantly examines the situation from a parallel professional universe - engineering, architecture, programming, etc. His points are clearly relevant.

One additional plea to the NEA: If unions in Rochester, New York, Denver, Colorado, New York City, etc., can compromise with their local authorities to improve the chances of their students, why can't you? When are you going to come down off your high horse and engage in contemporary collective bargaining that can protect the rights of your teachers while simultaneously advancing the interests of your students?

Are the leaders of these other national unions more intelligent or skillful than you to incorporate these meaningful changes or are the leaders of the NEA simply too stubborn to admit they could be wrong and too stubborn to change?

Transparency in the world has arrived and it’s not going to disappear anytime soon. Because of these technological advances your actions/inactions are being scrutinized at an unprecedented level. Today, your behavior and your image are available for all to see literally at the push of a button. And it’s not a pretty picture.

Get your public relations people to pull their heads out of the sand to create a better image for your union and its members. If the culture of our country of three hundred million can be improved at home and around the world by changing an individual (Bush to Obama), then surely the culture of the NEA with its 3.2 million members can also be altered for the better. DO SOMETHING!


I was probably your source for that index card, and the quote was one I was citing in an article when we were doing the study on The New Accountability. It's a wonderful chapter, and the irony of the similarities a century later is striking. the cite is:

To set Standards, and enforce Standards, and raise Standards, and raise them ever more, was nearly the whole duty of teachers principals, and presidents….
It was a real and salutary gospel in its day. For American education in the Nineties was a variegated hodgepodge of uncoordinated practices, which had never undergone any scrutiny from anyone, and many of which were shoddy, futile, and absurd …

and the Age of Standards, as the period from 1890 to 1915 may come to be called … brought some order out of that chaos (McConn, 1936, p. 447)


McConn, M. (1936). The uses and abuses of examinations. In H. E. Hawkes, E. F. Lindquist, & C. R. Mann (Eds.), The construction and
use of achievement examinations(pp. 443–478). Boston: Houghton Mifflin.


It was a tremendously interesting time in the lives of women as well. During that time the Mothers Congress (fore-runner to the PTA) was launched. Child study led to the notion that development had norms that could be tracked and it was discovered that the children of the poor and immigrants lagged behind. Social work and public health nursing emerged from the efforts of women to respond to discoveries of this nature to ensure that children had access to adequate nutrition and health care.


I agree with your statement that: "The larger problem is there are six million teachers and 36 million students. Nothing we can say applies to even a majority of either group.

All of our efforts then, should be at empowering people close to each student."

But Margo/mom and others, I'm taken aback by the assertion that you can't serve two masters. I serve multiple masters every day. My #1 loyalty is to students. Where I place my loyalties in regard to my fellow teachers, the parents, my educational values etc. is determined by the situation. But then again, every day I make consequential decisions and rarely will I ever know if I was right or wrong. If you want certainty, I'd say, find a different field than education.

And its not only in school where I live in a world of contradictions. After all, its the ability to balance two (or more) contradictory propositions that is the mark of wisdom.

If you mean that you can not serve two completely different masters at the same time, then we don't disagree. That is why I will never allow test scores for accountability purposes into my consciousness, and I won't allow NCLB's values into my classroom. But then again, I have the tenure to defend my students from educational malpractice and younger teachers do not yet have that leverage.
Brian, I appreciate the tone of your comments and I want to respond in kind. You may have a good principal. But there are six million teachers, and I doubt that there are many of us who have principals who are qualified to evaluate teaching effectiveness. Even fewer have the time to do so. And we're not close to the point where data can supplant the need for evaluations by personal observations. We need to get to work on a Marshall Plan for principals as well as teachers.

Think systematically and ask whether you can help students across the country with the attitude that I know I won't get screwed by my principal so I'll let other teachers fend for themselves. That's why I think you have the long-term situation backwards. In the long run, unchecked power corrupts.

And that goes for policy too. There will always be outliers who welcome all news - good and bad. In the long run, without unions, there would be no possibility in most systems for honest information to go up the chain of command.

And Brian, I'd like to come back to your own words. You, like many people with limited knowledge of neighborhood schools, see that some teachers are effective while others fail. Take some more time to observe and consider this. Firstly, if we want sustainable improvements, that is irrelevant. If we continue to say that the majority of teachers would be effective if they were superstars, we'll continue to drive good, effective teachers out of the profession.

Secondly, most of those outliers aren't really outliers. The most effective teachers often face challenges that are much easier. There is no comparison, for instance, between teaching Algebra II and Algebra I which is one of the toughest jobs in education. By the time kids in inner city neighborhood schools get to Algebra II, around 1/2th of the Algebra I students have already dropped out. The survivors are just that - exceptionally resilient kids who have endured the worst and who are now on track to success. The difficulty of my challenge, teaching sophomore World History which is a subject that is easy to make interesting, is in the middle.

My job is so much easier than 8th or 9th grade social studies. And having proven myself, I can demand disciplinary backing. Its the teachers who have the toughest challenges who have the most need for disciplinary backing, and they are completely on their own. I love playing basketball with middle schoolers, but when I walk the hall and see the "thousand yard stare" in the eyes of EXCELLENT middle school teachers I'm reminded of how much more difficult their job is. Teaching in high poverty neighborhood middle schools is one of the toughest jobs in America, and we should all be reluctant to second guess them. For many schools, for as long as anyone can remember, the challenge during those terrible years is to minimize the damage done.

And Paul, we do agree more than I've realized. I've taken you out of context a little but I completely agree with your statement that:

"unions in Rochester, New York, Denver, Colorado, New York City, etc., can compromise with their local authorities to improve the chances of their students"

I don't know enough about the NEA to comment, but I'm sure happy that they've invested campaign contributions in congressmen who might help us rectify the scourge of NCLB.

John, Thanks for lots of good comments.

Wanted to look a bit more at the 'two masters' thing.

In A Better Bargain: Overhauling Teacher Collective Bargaining for the 21st Century the authors look at this.

“In exchange for the right to exclusively represent their members, unions are required to represent and advocate for all members, even the bad actors.”12 Common sense suggests—and experience confirms—that union leaders who fail to pay adequate attention to their members’ interests can expect to be replaced by someone who will. [See Sidebar 1]

Sidebar 1 is titled "Collaborative Union Leaders Get Lauded, and Unseated".

There's further:

As Robert Barkley, former executive director of the Ohio Education Association, has succinctly explained, “The fundamental and legitimate purposes of unions [are] to protect the employment interests of their members.
It is the primary function of management to represent the basic interests of the enterprise: teaching and learning.”11

Nothing wrong there. Except in the long run, where the union sides become too vested in the status quo.

When we talk of agile organizations, we're not talking about simple day-to-day, as-we-know-it schooling. We're talking about the real, transformative change that most of us are seeking, the kind that makes school much more compelling for all students, that leaves far fewer behind, that excites and empowers many more teachers and students.

Remember again that I support a) unions for dealing with egregious local circumstances and b) true, independent professional organizations for moving the profession forward faster.

What would a world with those two look like?

Well, without large state and national education associations funded by confiscated dues, we'd have a lot less resistance to experiments. Experiments are critical to change in any endeavor.

Take charter schools, which are supported by both the new and the old President, and by both education secretaries, and increasingly by civil rights leaders. For twenty years state and national ed associations have vehemently opposed these wherever and whenever they could. The have spent countless millions of member dollars (dollars that could have been spent on research, curriculum development, teacher training, professional standards development, software funding, etc.) on lawyers opposing, restricting, thwarting, and belittling the few charter school experiments which have popped up in the very worst educational situations around the country.

To what positive end?

NBA star and now Sacrimento mayor Kevin Johnson escaped Sacrimento's worst public schools via his athletic abilities, eventually playing for the Phoenx Suns. He came back to Oak Park, where his high school was about to be taken over by the state. At this point, 20% of 9th graders were reading at grade level.

There Johnson persuaded the superintendent to allow the school to to be converted to a charter school. He called an assembly and laid out the plan for teachers.

The plan received a standing ovation.

...For one day. In the end, a certain union spent $750,000 to oppose reform. They hired the best of lawyers to try their best to thwart the good works, supported by teachers, of an individual to bring in new outside money and help turn around a school where 80% of the students could not read.

In the world I envisioned above, that $750,000, plus the money spent by the district, Johnson, and others in fighting back, could have been used to benefit students.

Now, multiply that situation by the entire USofA, and spread it across twenty years. What positive things could have been done with all the sweat and treasure expended by teachers representatives in opposing charter and voucher experiments all across the land?

And what of the money and effort spent on campaiging for partisan candidates?

What if instead, all those funds and efforts were spent on research and on development?

What if they expended all these resources not politically, but professionally?

What if the teachers organizations spent their money the way the I.E.E.E spends theirs?


You are probably a great teacher- which is par for this blog. However, your unionism means that the kids can only hope that the teacher does their best for them. Structurally, unionized institutions favor the unions. It is that simple.

As a rule, unions live at the expense of non-unionized labor, positive incentives, productive output and accountability.

The history of union Ludditism, protectionism (impoverishing third world competitors), complicity in the state's horrific warfare machine, snuffing of diversity, propagandist distortions of history, and dynamic corruption have been well told-- outside the system.

The public school situation is confounded because any institution that makes its living off of tax farming, compulsory attendance and majority rule already has a one-up on society and can transfer the deleterious effects of the union and bureaucracy onto the taxpayer.

I'll take up the union issue in upcoming weeks, but just want to remind folks that there is absolutely no more innovative practice in states without collective bargaining than with--and in fact the ones without collective bargaining rights generally have less successful schools, test scores, and more teacher shortages and more conventional practice. There is NO evidence that the absence of unions produces more experimentalism.

If folks weren't trying to use charter to de-unionize the union probably would be supportive--as they were in the case of the idea of Pilots in Boston and similar schools in NYC that saw their work as pat of the larger public domain. In fact, the union in Boston initiated the idea of schools in which the only rules were wages and benefits, as long as the school collectively developed the rules of operating together.

Opposition to unions in the public sphere is matched by opposition in the private sphere, which leads me to be suspicious about what's really at stake. More later.

Thanks for the lively conversation on this issue.



Your comment, though sobering, is well taken. In education, we are all like the blind men touching different parts of the elephant. If I read the policies of “reformers” correctly, they tend to touch a few successes and remain blind to the evidence that is more sobering. You did a thorough, and needed, job of bringing up problems.

I reread the report you cited, which has a great analysis of many problems, but I think its recommendations would make conditions worse. I don’t want to debate them now, but let me give one example. When the report cited superintendents who were “victims” of union opposition, I wanted to hear the other side. Those superintendents were advocating policies that I see as disastrous. I saw first hand how a superintendent from the Broad school wrecked a district and was fired in six months because he didn’t take the time to learn enough before acting. (It was doubly sad because he was very smart and committed and a good sport when I taught him how to throw “buffalo chips,” but the Broad school specializes in the “Fire, Ready, Aim” school of change.)

But as I indicated, I don’t want to dwell on differences. I was struck by the report as it quoted Joel Klein on the destructiveness of union contracts “after his FIRST YEAR as chancellor.” (Emphasis mine)

Another passage discussing the difficulty in terminating ineffective teachers said, “critics of teachers unions assert that ... (unions) have specialized expertise (that) give them a clear advantage.”

The report correctly asserts that contracts are full of idiosyncratic clauses, that I attribute to the weirdness of human nature. It also notes that reformist union leaders face great challenges in bringing along their own membership. The report complained that Denver’s contract took years of struggle. But how could it be otherwise? We’re in a people business. At this point I could argue that NCLB supporters wasted billions and often caused avoidable damage because they pushed to quickly.

But I don’t want to go there. Why can’t we agree to disagree on data-driven accountability, and build on other approaches? As much as I want my union to compromise on many issues, that is how much I want it to fight, by virtually any legal and nonviolent means necessary, against many of the recommendations of the report you cite.

Unions often win battles that we don’t want to win. Just as the guilty deserve due process, even ineffective teachers have rights that must be defended. In my experience, unions as much as possible try to help administrators learn the ropes but those administrators face their own constraints (and control issues). Many times I have heard BR’s ask “what does it take to fire someone in this district? I ‘won,’ but ...” I hear the same things from criminal defense lawtyers also, but do we want to repeal the 4th amendment? And, precedents are important too.

So, we need to get down to the long and difficult process of renegotiating. How that can be done without national unions would be a mystery too me.

Similarly, how we can help students without the honest flow of information is a mystery to me also.

I understand why reformers would be in a hurry and would want to be freed of many checks on their ability to speed changes. But they would be more constructive if they slowed down, learned from our practical experience, and took the time to renegotiate better mechanisms.


Thank you for the response. After reading your post, I thought there might be a couple of misunderstandings about what I do. I am a middle school teacher in the Anacostia neighborhood of DC. Ninety-three percent of kids at my school qualify for free/reduced lunches and 100% are minority. When students join the school I teach at in fifth grade, they test in the 15th percentile and 17th percentile nationally in math and reading, respectively. I am intimately involved with the neighborhood my students come from, and twice a year participate in professional development with other neighborhood schools. I'm not sure if any of this changes your response from earlier, but it seemed like a little clarification could help us understand where each other are coming from.

Secondly, I would genuinely appreciate clarification on your stance on effective teaching. To be clear, I don't think anyone can reasonably ask for anything more than an effective teacher who is always looking to improve, whether that teacher be in their first year or their twenty-first year. I'm not sure I exactly know what a "superstar" teacher is, but I agree with you that whatever we do, we need to make sure that we are keeping effective teachers in the classroom and not leaving the profession.

Finally, I agree whole-heartedly with you when you say I need to sit back and observe more if I want to delve deeper to support/change my opinions regarding unions. Sadly, I don't have too much time to do that now, with teaching, but then again, my opinion is only being voiced on this blog and surely won't be forming policy any time soon (at all ;)

Also, I feel bad about this, but only now after going over your post did I read what you said about a Marshall Plan for principals. I couldn't agree more. I am very lucky to work in a system that puts most of its emphasis on choosing good school leaders.

At KIPP, there is an arduous process one has to go through to open up a school, which includes a year at the NYU coupled with fellowships at high achieving schools throughout the country. I've often thought about how such a process could be applied to traditional schools, and have yet to come up with any good ideas.

Again, apologies for the oversight.


I also should clarify. I wasn't questioning your teaching (and the way you write reflects well on your teaching.) I was questioning your political arguments. Similarly, I never judge the teaching of KIPP or TFA teachers. I just want those teachers who judge neighborhood schools to slow down and recognize that our challenge is fundamentally different.

And if you are a middle school teacher you may have some tips on how to get those kids to take their picks, hit the open man, and not lose their minds and run around the basketball court and then throw up crazy three pointers. I can hang with the highschoolers but my middle school teamates make me feel old.

Regarding principals, that is just another example of why the blame game can't help. I've worked with some great ones, but I've never seen a principal with the authority to live up with his/her commitments to teachers and to collaboratively take steps toward a KIPP-like culture. But the problem isn't the central office or the Board either. They all face comparable restraints.

I'm thrilled to see that some high-poverty schools are being giving the power and the capacity that is necessary. I just get frustrated by people that believe that educators in neighborhood schools would endure the absurdities that we face, and continue to fail our students, if we had a choice. We need a situation where giving some kids choices does mean that schools for other kids have their choices contrained even more.


Interesting piece in this morning's WaPo. What do you think of Chancellor Rhee's new discipline proposal?

John and Deb:

You might want to take a look (if you are not already familiar with it) at Julia Koppich's examination of Reform Unionism: http://www.crpe.org/cs/crpe/download/csr_files/wp_sfrp18_koppich_may07.pdf

While I think that she may be a bit rosier than is warranted in describing the progress of states/districts that she describes as reform, I think that she has the issues right with regard to the shortcomings of industrial unionism as it applies to the teaching profession. In her summation she alludes to the difficulties of "reform" union situations of changing the mindset of (some of us) older folks with regard to maintaining a strict division between teachers and administration, which I think is a more honest summation of some of the districts that she cites as "reform" in their orientation.

She also includes an examination of non-union states, where many of the rights typically accorded teachers in a contract are accorded in state law.

All those apologists for unionism ought to respond to the condemning analyses of Robert F. Kennedy and/or Sylvester Petro. These men, of very different political outlooks, based their respective works on the US Senate's 40 volume factual exposure of union and mob corruption during the late 1950's, the McClellan Record.





McClellan Report (quick and dirty):


I want to know how educated people could possibly come to any summation other than, in a word, thuggery, when exposed to union history.


I read Koppich's piece awhile back and found it very informative.

Readers might also want to try this Wall Street Journal piece by Terry Moe from this past November. It also sheds light on teacher unions.



My apologies for the previous referral. Here's last November's WSJ piece I had originally intended to cite. It has a similar, albeit more civilized, tone to the above message.


John and Deb and all: a lovely discussion!!

Two points, which come down to one. Innovation means having the ability to be wrong sometimes.

John, I get fired regularly. As an independent contractor, every assignment I get could be the last one that particular boss lets me do. What are my "rights"? None. The flip side is that both my employers and I have incredible flexibility.

Schools,however, need go nowhere near that extreme to have highly increased agility. They merely need to be able to occasionally fire or send away the wrong person.

Let me put this another way: if the school errs and fires the wrong person, that person is hurt. If the school errs and doesn't get rid of that teacher, 150 or so kids are hurt each year. Which is more unfair?

Then again, if you happen to be the burned out or uninspired teacher who gets tossed out on their can, is that really, always, a bad thing for you? Often as not, the boot is a blessing.

The most successful people will usually so attest.


Deb, comparing non-unionized states to unionized states doesn't really apply to my main argument.

Rather, the profession nationwide is hurt by the NEA, OEA, etc spending their sweat, political capital, and members' professional dues on lobbying and partisan politics.

Meanwhile, few states which are not unionized cannot largely influence the nationwide effort.

The right mix is probably more like:
- for every state to allow voluntary union membership, (a right programmers, engineers and such have)
- with secret balloting.
- Further, members should be able to opt out of contributing to the lobbying and PAC activities, (is the law, but poorly enforced) and
- Mandatory collective bargaining should be ruled as unconstitutional.

With some adjustments, of course, these changes would lead to a less partisan and more professional teaching profession,...and to the agility and transformative change we want for all the kids.


I'm a bit sensitive to turning the agility argument into a one that focuses on getting rid of bad teachers. I think we probably can deal with "bad" teachers in multiple ways--and the process always (except for the really illegal things) ought to start with building an awareness of things that a teacher needs to change in order to improve, and supporting those changes.

But there are lots of other brittle points in the school system that need attention--the ability to move manpower where it is needed, and to better match teaching ability with student need. When the most seasoned and proficient teachers all end up standing in the line to teach AP classes and the fresh recruits are looking at each other like deer in the headlights in the lowest performing most beset with problems schools--we have a problem.

Every placement issue is surrounded by structures that build teacher rights based on longevity. Our local union supported the right of a non-French speaking teacher to be placed in a French immersion school, based on seniority. Now that's just silly and I don't know how they did it with a straight face.

The hours of the school day (not how long, but when it starts and ends) are based on teacher preference, as are the hours of parent conferences. I just watched a district sponsored charter for drop-out recovery shoot itself in the foot because they over-rode the student-friendly scheduling with one that conformed to the one that the union had won for teachers in the other schools (that the kids had "dropped out" of in the first place).

Summer school assignments cannot go to the teachers who might enjoy it and be good at it--because it is an opportunity to pick up some extra bucks and so it has to be offered according the established pecking order. Of course this takes time, so assignments are never made until the last minute, planning can't occur, so it the cadre of folks selected are handed some canned curriculum that they bought from a (non-union, I'm sure) publishing house.

I think we get distracted from the mission on creating agility if we put the focus on getting rid of teachers we don't want. There are so many other things to look at first.

This is a very interesting discussion. One thing that seems to be lost, or at least not emphasized enough, is that just 50% of teachers stay in the profession for more than 5 years. The number is higher in urban areas.

Today's teachers are different from a generation ago, when teachers stayed in the profession their entire careers.

My question is how do we keep good teachers around? The answer is not to eliminate job security. Teachers have a tough job, as John said, and are often under "attack" from multiple actors. They must have a union to ensure that they are not dismissed with little or no cause. That isn't just good for teachers, it's good for schools and students.

People like Michelle Rhee, and others, will want maximum flexibility to fire whomever they want. Perhaps based on test scores, perhaps based on teachers' attitudes or likeability. But who is to say that Michelle Rhee is going to be around next year? She taught for 3 years herself. Who is to say her favorite teachers are going to be around next year?

We need to support teachers who stick around, and offer better professional development opportunities so teachers can continue to learn and get better. The unions reward years in the profession, and listening to the concerns of teachers and pushing for those concern (however imperfectly), that is a start. I would venture to say that a very good teacher who gives 20 years is far better for schools and students than a crackerjack teacher who puts in 70 hrs. a week but only lasts two years.

Teachers and schools could use a lot more help and resources to do their jobs better, but getting rid of job security is not helpful.

ear one and all,

1. Getting "fired" in many if not most teaching jobs ends your career--unless you can move to another jurisdiction. That distinguishes it from being fired as a contractor.

2. But I always wonder as I read these concerns who it is that folks imagine will be making these decisions if we don't have "contracts"--tate laws or union agreements? Principals? Often (of late) these are not the most experienced teachers, and are placed in schools in many urban centers at the whim of superintendents. And the latter increasingly are the least education-knowledgable people around.
It creates schools in which the focus is on "pleasing" the boss--hardly my ideal working environment for mature adults. In England--in the old days at least--headmasters were literally head teachers, not head managers.
What we need are other ways to imagine "running" schools.

3. At the schools I helped start these decisions were made by the faculty--including me--in ways we collectively thought would allow us to be both conpassionate and tough. The union supported our efforts in both NYC and Boston. The oversight body was a Board consisting of reps selected by our parents, staff, students and community/citywide people we co-opted. But most decisions were left to those who would have to implement them.

One of the most telling things about both my friends and "enemies" is that they basically do not respect K-12 teachers, and above all K-6. Virtually no other profession chooses leaders who have no special expertise or experience in their field.

Finally, we're probably clearer (not absolutely but reltively) about the goals of docors than educators--and that helps. It's the attraction of using tests. But, as in medicine, measures can corrupt. If we want to compare doctors on the health data of their patients we'll encourage doctors to go into dermatology not cancer treatment, and to treat only patients who are phase one, young, in good health otherwise, etc.

And on and on.



Hey, all, I've been through the ice storm (marking trees in a park) and survived.

I always imagine that when teachers talk about employee/boss relationships, they are thinking not of modern professional organizations, but of something more Dickensian. Not sure why.

Over the past fifty years, we have dramatically changed how people work together. This is true in factories as much as research labs and design shops.

All the things said here about school communities, about the ills of firing, and the need to work together, and the banes of bad bosses,...all these things apply equally to other organizations of professional and skilled workers - be they for-profit, non-profit, government, etc.

One of the realities of human nature is that doing and leading are two different skillsets. Sometimes a person is found who is both an excellent workerbee, and a fine queen bee. Yet those times aren't all that common. 'Tis true everywhere.

With the right training and systems, things work out anyway.

Educators, because so many have never worked in a regular professional hierarchy, have all these imagined fears.

For their fears to be true, the offices of principal and superintendent must have some magical power to transform otherwise normal human beings into ogres. I'm afraid I just can't see why that would be true.

Firing is such an ugly word. Margo is right - turning the agility issue into an argument about firing and job security isn't a recipe for success; I was sorry I mentioned it above. Still, it disturbs me to see Michelle Rhee made poster girl for heartless (and ill-informed) bosses everywhere. Her circumstances are, shall we say, unique.

Yet, every organization needs to be able to choose the people who fit with its culture. If you read the words of the Nucor Steel people, they explain it as good as anyone. They have a certain culture where the workers take pride in the product, their teammates, and the organization they work for. They try to hire by that ethic, and if someone comes in who doesn't have that sort of thoughts about the work, well,that person is soon told that they might better enjoy working somewhere else.

On a day to day basis, the collegial decision making process you describe, Deb, is something every boss should be employing. Hopefully, bosses of every stripe will get some training in this.
In an axle factory or the Red Cross or State Farm's claims organization, the need to pull together everyone's views remains as critical to success as in a school.

Few will do it as well as you, of course. In schools, or out. Alas, while we can’t design systems that assume 20,000 Deb Meyers, we also shouldn’t assume that the majority of education bosses can’t learn to include stakeholders in decision making.

As to measuring success, what of the companies who provide, as their final product, training in leadership, sales, technology, or diversity and other human resources topics? Do we measure them differently from schools?

Sixty years ago, perhaps schools were unique enough in the number of professional workers they employed that they were somehow more special than other organizations. Looking out over the 21st century landscape, its hard to see how that is true today.


In response to a March '07 blog - apparently some r4aders re still back there. It was about a paragraph purportedly based on Cambridge University research demonstrating that we don't read "phonetically". A reader questions it's authenticity. IShe may be right, but what amazes me is that even 8=9 year old razders whom I've tried this out with--maybe 40-50 of them--they have amazingly ease with it. (Only the first and last letter of most words are correctly paced, the others are jumbled up.) My theory? That relieved of trying to sound it out and then make sense of the sounds they do better--and go directly to making meaning. Try it out? I find most--kids and adults--have trouble with a word or two, but read aloud at pretty normal speed, neither stumbling nor re-reading with amazing accuracy.

I've been thinking some more about why firing a teacher has so many additional ramifications. It's not helped by the untrue claim that a tenured teachers "can't" be fired except for the most egregious crimes. In fact the penalty is so severe that faced with such a threat most teachers agree to resign or move on. It's not only almost impossible to get another teaching job--especially if one has taught for many years at the site they are being fired from and thus must include it as their primary reference!--and not too easy to get any decent job.

It's a dilemma that free-lancers (self-employed) don't face, as they can just get new customers. In teaching the public's perception is such that the first thought often goes to issues of child abuse, etc.

A good friend of mine after 30 years of stellar work in NYC, came out of retirement to help the system, and then got caught in an intra-system dispute and fired for vague charges of doctoring documents. It was never proved, but since she was now not covered by any contract they didn't even have to do so. But it meant she couldn't get a job inside or outside the system for years and had to try and rebut charges every time she went out to seek employment. .

Well, it's complex!


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