Teaching Profession Opinion

Reforming and/or Busting Unions?

By Deborah Meier — January 22, 2009 3 min read

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.


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