Teaching Profession Opinion

How Slash-and-Burn Promotes Unionism

By Diane Ravitch — January 27, 2009 2 min read

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.


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