Administrators Attempt to Halt Shift Of Responsibilities

By Blake Rodman — March 25, 1987 6 min read

In a new conflict over the proper lines of authority in schools, a national union of administrators is seeking to halt efforts by the American Federation of Teachers to turn over to teachers responsibilities traditionally held by principals.

Arguing that those efforts pose “a serious threat’’ to school leaders, the executive board of the 10,000-member American Federation of School Administrators voted last month to file a grievance against the teachers’ union with the A.F.L.-C.I.O., with which both unions are affiliated.

In advocating the transfer of responsibilities from members of one affiliate to those of another, the A.F.T. is violating the constitution of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., said Ted Elsberg, executive vice president of the administrators’ group.

Although the dispute is in some ways a classic inter-union struggle, the complaint raised by AFSA underscores a mounting tension among some administrators over reforms that are giving teachers new status in a number of districts, according to informed observers.

“Some administrators feel that if teachers are going to get more power, that means they are going to have less power themselves,’' said Marc S. Tucker, executive director of the Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy. “They feel threatened.’'

AFSA has no complaints with the National Education Association, Mr. Elsberg said, because the position of the nation’s largest teachers’ union “is that schools should have strong principals.’' As an independent union, the N.E.A. is not affiliated with the national labor federation.

Follows Rochester Suit

The complaint by AFSA, which has 93 locals nationwide, is not the first from an administrators’ group on the issue of supervisory authority.

Administrators in Rochester, N.Y., last December filed suit in state court seeking to dismantle a local “mentor teacher’’ program that they say “encroaches’’ on their positions.

The plan was put in place through a collective-bargaining agreement between the school district and the Rochester Teachers Association, an A.F.T. affiliate. (See Education Week, Jan. 14, 1987.)

In the suit, the Association of Supervisors and Administrators of Rochester, which is not affiliated with AFSA, contends that the district’s 22 mentor teachers perform only supervisory and administrative tasks without the proper credentials to do so.

A judge has heard the case, but as of last week had not issued a ruling.

Instructional Leaders

In recent years, the A.F.T., the second-largest teachers’ union, and its president, Albert Shanker, have been strong advocates of giving classroom teachers greater autonomy and a greater voice in school decisionmaking.

Last summer, the group released a report, “The Revolution That Is Overdue,’' which among other proposals suggests that teachers become the “instructional leaders’’ of schools.

“Schools should operate in a collegial and participatory fashion under the leadership of the teaching faculty,’' the report states. “Teachers should assume the appropriate instructional and curricular functions currently exercised by those who do not teach.’'

In a number of districts, A.F.T. affiliates have put in place, or are seeking support for, master- or mentor-teacher programs similar to the one in Rochester. Under those programs, experienced practicing teachers train and assist beginning teachers.

Although some principals believe such programs tend to infringe on their traditional prerogatives, others see the development as an important step toward professionalizing teaching.

In the current dispute involving AFSA, the administrators’ formal complaint against the A.F.T. is centered on a provision in Article XX of the A.F.L.-C.I.O. constitution. That rule stipulates that “each affiliate shall respect the established work relationship of every other affiliate.’'

Such a relationship, it states, is any kind of work that “the members of an organization have customarily performed at a particular plant or worksite.’'

Next month, AFSA’s executive board will send a letter of complaint to Lane Kirkland, president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., asking him to appoint a mediator in the case, Mr. Elsberg said. If no agreement can be reached through mediation, he added, an arbitrator will be called in.

The letter has been drafted, but has not yet been sent, Mr. Elsberg said last week, adding that the union needed more time to prepare its case.

The two unions have local affiliates in a number of the same school districts, including New York City, Detroit, St. Louis, and Chicago. The letter drafted by the administrators, however, does not mention any specific district, or complain about any specific A.F.T. program or action.

It states that “the A.F.T. through negotiations, legislative lobbying, and political pressure is advocating the transfer ... of work responsibilities from AFSA’s supervisors and administrators to A.F.T.'s teachers.’'

In question, the draft notes, are administrators’ responsibilities for training, supervising, evaluating, and rating classroom teachers.

“Use of teachers as lead teachers, master teachers, and teacher mentors, and attempts to have schools run by teacher committees without principals or assistant principals,’' it maintains, “is merely a guise for the realignment of the established work relationship between AFSA and A.F.T.’'

In short, Mr. Elsberg said, the teachers’ union poses “a serious threat to to the working conditions and job responsibilities of the nation’s [school] supervisors.’'

“We are not trying to be obstructionists or hold people down,’' he said. “We just don’t want people to come in and do the job that we have been certified and licensed to do.’'

If teachers are going to perform administrative functions, then they should be called supervisors and “should become members of the American Federation of School Administrators,’' he said.

“The A.F.T. wants it both ways,’' he added. “It wants its members to take our jobs and responsibilities, but it also wants to retain those individuals in the teachers’ union.’'

A.F.T. Response

Bella Rosenberg, assistant to Mr. Shanker, said last week that the A.F.T. had not heard of the grievance.

She said, however, that for AFSA to “complain that experimenting with new ideas and structures for schools at a time when public education is in deep trouble is to make an argument that only the status quo is acceptable.’'

“And that,’' she said, “is simply not the case.’'

Adam Urbanski, a vice president of the A.F.T., said, “The only way to read such a complaint as legitimate is to interpret the A.F.L.-C.I.O. constitutional provision as mandating that time must stand still and that improvement in an industry is out of order.’'

“Realities change,’' argued Mr. Urbanski, who is also president of the A.F.T.'s Rochester affiliate. “Schools that were structured for the realities of the previous century cannot meet the needs of today’s students.’'

“What we are trying to do,’' Mr. Urbanski continued, “is restructure schools, not only for greater productivity, but also for greater collegiality among teachers and administrators.’'

“These administrators,’' he asserted, “are wrong to miss joining in on the opportunity for improving schools by chosing to protect turf instead.’'

‘A Fine Irony’

In order to attract talented people to teaching and fully utilize their skills and experience, “we must work out ways in which teachers will have much more to say about how schools operate than they do now,’' said Mr. Tucker of the Carnegie Forum, which last year issued a major report calling for professionalization of teaching.

“That is going to require some risk-taking on the part of principals, superintendents, and other school administrators in this country,’' he said. “If they can respond constructively to that challenge, I believe that school leadership will be more, not less, important.’'

“It would be a fine irony,’' he added, “if, in order to use our experienced teachers to bring along a neophyte, we had to remove them from the classroom and call them administrators.’'

A version of this article appeared in the March 25, 1987 edition of Education Week as Administrators Attempt to Halt Shift Of Responsibilities