Let Us Not Be Blamed: A Meditation on the State of Teacher Unionism, Corporate America, and Poverty

Summary: Unions are targeted by corporate based reformers as the bad guy, and do need to take better charge of the debate, but the real culprit at base is the political failure to impact poverty.

Maureen (we shall call her) was a well-organized young counselor, bright, who made good contact with the variety of kids on her case load. Hector, a talented scientific type, demonstrated unusual skill in working with kids with disabilities and other marginal academic types, and had a gift for making the mysteries of science accessible. The administration had shown acumen in hiring these recent college graduates. Both after their first year of teaching had become well-knit into the cultural fabric of our school, earned affection from their students, and had formed bonds which have endured with their colleagues.

But what seemed the onset of satisfying careers working with kids came to a proverbial screeching halt in the fall of their second year.

Common in school districts is a dysfunctional practice by which the number of certificated staff within schools is adjusted in the fall of each year, once the enrollment has stabilized, usually by the first or second week of October. The central district office in the previous spring projects enrollments and hence staffing for the fall. Invariably it seems, whether by the vagaries of demographic movement, or by a distant incompetence or emotional disengagement on the bean counting end of things, the projected enrollment school by school is off significantly. As a result, teachers get axed in one school, and moved to another. The younger, most recently hired, the lowest on the totem pole, are the ones moved.

The damage is considerable for students, who have finally settled in to routine by October. With a vanished teacher, or with a new teacher transfer from another school, sometimes massive movement between teachers, periods and classrooms is required. In one particularly egregious year, I remember at risk students, moved around, who never recovered their fragile mojo.

Yet the more vivid butchery for me was the loss of Maureen and Hector. Both were ripped out of their incipient professional home to another school where both were given fragmented responsibilities, and the following year, disillusioned with the rules of the game, left the public school teaching ranks. Schools cannot afford to hemorrhage such potential talent, but school districts do so each year. Those new teachers affected are in the vanguard of the 47% of teachers that leave the profession within the first five years of their experience.

How does this happen? Part of the answer is the overly precise penchant of school districts to balance student/teacher ratios in each school, and the apparently elusive skill set necessary to get those ratios right in the first place.

But the elephant in the room is the union contract guarantee to seniority within a district’s teacher clan, and the related practice of tenure, to which Maureen and Hector had also fallen victim.

Let me be clear about a couple of things. I am a partisan of unions, in my own profession and elsewhere. Unionism is under dire assault from globalization, technological changes, and ascendant corporate bottom line philosophies, all of which have widened income inequality in the nation. On the other side of the coin, as I have gained experience, I have understood better the complexity of change and have had better sympathy with roles other than my own, including the administrative type.

When we lose promising young professionals such as Maureen and Hector, however, in part due to the armor of the contract, then something is wrong in Denmark, though I am humbled by the task of figuring out how else to manage the imbalance. Immediately we are confronted with the gnarly contemporary issues – if Maureen and Hector are to go, then who? The more lowly rated? How does one rate teachers, fairly? Student test scores even used as one of a number of indicators in teacher evaluation is in its infancy, at best (as one of the fathers of the metrics himself acknowledges), and certainly cannot be used to predict a young teacher’s potential. If the lowly rated are to be moved to another school, how does that benefit the other school, which has in effect become a dumping ground? That is hardly reform.

Tenure is the practice, after an initial trial period of two or three years, of essentially guaranteeing employment to union contracted teachers, absent a disciplinary process so exhaustive that it is seldom acted upon by school administrators. Seniority is a related concept, which establishes a pecking order based upon years of experience for movement between schools or layoffs, with the newest teachers exposed, as were Maureen and Hector at the nether end of things.

Both tenure and seniority are anathema to many reformers, who see unions as the enemy, as protecting incompetent or lazy teachers, and allowing legions of others to coast within those protections. A certain amount of the contempt is black and white thinking on the part of absent critics too far from the action. Meanwhile, reports of charter teachers who seek union representation as a counterweight to administrative overreach in school reform’s charter back yard reinforce the importance of collective action in the long view.

There are a great variety of schools and settings in this large and diverse country; a characterization accurate in one setting has at best marginal validity in another.

In the good suburban high school I know best, most staff and teachers were competent, professional, and hard-working, yet all set practical limits on the amount of time they committed, for it is a job that can readily swamp one’s private life. It was only a very small minority that needed to shape up or ship out, in my view; the number was kept as low as it was by a perceptive hiring eye on the part of school administrators.

But the situation is likely strikingly different within the intractable demographics of our larger urban school districts, inhabited as they are by poverty far more dense than in the student body I knew. It is there, in the New Yorks, and the Washington, D.C.’s, and the Detroits where stories of incompetent teachers protected by union due process originate, and are perhaps conjured as a beast larger than they are by honest forces appalled at the palpable failure of the schools, and therefore tarnish also good teachers left without adequate resources to bear the full on brunt of the poverty that blunts their students’ start in life. That some teachers give up as they age and turn hopeless is not surprising; to put myself in their place leaves me to wonder how I myself would fare in similar circumstances.

You may see where I am going. While unions need to be partners with administrators in optimal scrutiny of teacher quality, and adjust the boundaries of fair due process, even stimulate more administrative and peer pressure on teachers to improve practices – we all need our butt kicked in a collegial fashion now and then — the major obstacle to academic success is poverty.

Of course, a real attack on poverty will require substantial and sustained funding, as well as leadership from around the political compass that can rally the nation’s soul, which in this fractured period is not forthcoming.

The crux of this balance of power, I have come to believe, lies in ascendant corporate America’s drive to maximize profits. It is what they do. From that point of view, unions and their upward pressure on wages create problems. The boardroom is aided and abetted by the downward pressure on wages wrought by global outsourcing and the steady gains in productivity made possible by technological change.

Corporations are rightly concerned about the quality of school graduates as employees, so enter the educational fray and follow their play book, which is in part to restrict the power of unions. The national dialogue appears to have bought in. Unions in my reading have too often given such rivals momentum by intransigence in the face of obvious need for reform. Adjust or become irrelevant; define the debate or be beaten by it.

There is a concomitant move to overlay schools with the corporate sense of measurement and accountability, which has borne us the testing culture, in turn become a vested interest of its own, well beyond the useful limits of assessment.

Perhaps we need to get outside the box and propose an alternative narrative.

For example, the optimal school culture and the optimal corporate culture may be different in fundamental ways. At times, I have tried to apply market principles to problems in schools, but usually have ended up stumped at some point in my logic. If profit is the measure of success in a corporate environment, what is the equivalent outcome in a school? Improved test scores may play some moderate portion of this role, but what of the student bonded to a teacher that remains in school rather than disappearing to the street, who limps along academically and may in fact drag down test scores? It will take years of nurture to reverse the handicap of his early experience. He is still a success story. Moreover, perhaps he is a success for the culture of the entire school, not just one teacher. Progress may be more complex, more organic, than dreamed of in linearly and corporately inspired test scores.

Perhaps we need a communitarian inspired metaphor; despite our individually oriented larger culture, perhaps schools in our ideal are more truly communal in nature, which spirit is closer to the village than the anonymously urban. In this vision, tenure is part of a bond to the group and enshrines experience, and recognizes masters and mistresses of the guild, its inhabitants like elders a repository of communal lore. Tenure is granted to the most respected, those recognized as particularly capable, and not to all, and attention is paid by the group to their learnedness.

At base it is a question of power, in this case the power to define in the way professors define academia, or doctors define the hospital. There is an argument we teacher types, via our unions, have ceased to be creative as a group, and so the interlopers, the corporate reformers of schools, have usurped power in the school setting we still know best. So far, we have not found sufficient voice; at least too few others hear us.

How this will solve the dilemma of Maureen and Hector, I do not know, but suspect our schools will be on firmer ground. So ends the meditation.

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