With Mark Simon’s thoughtful dismantling of Fordham Institute’s recent “analysis” of teacher labor agreements, there’s little need to spill more ink on the report’s specifics. Yet stepping back from the paper’s repeated call for managerial “flexibility” reveals a confusion of concepts that merits some discussion.
In the report’s rush to stereotype teacher contracts as “old-fashioned, industrial-style” agreements that “treat teachers like industrial-era auto workers,” the authors skip over a key historical and contemporary fact: thanks to the progressive reforms initiated in the late 19th century (and long before teachers won the right to bargain collectively), school districts were established along industrial principles. As a result, when teachers unionized in the1960’s, the first contracts reflected existing structures and procedures including a philosophical divide separating management from labor, delineating principals as leaders and teachers as workers. If, as Fordham provocatively suggests, “an Age of Teacher Professionalism could be at hand,” might it not make better sense to challenge the top-down industrial arrangements that continue to define school district governance and operation?
Instead, the paper does just the opposite. In seeking to strengthen the hand of superintendents and principals at every turn, particularly in the areas of compensation, personnel decisions and work “rules,” the report legitimizes the very industrial structure that is an implicit object of its critique. Ironically, it’s not the current structure that is problematic but rather the arrangement of power within this structure.
In the same vein, the report is premised on a narrow definition of leadership—reserved exclusively for superintendents and principals. This bias becomes clear in recommendations for “leader-friendly agreements” that place more authority in the hands of “administrators.” Yet it’s unlikely that concentrating authority in a top-down structure will engender the broad sense of ownership and accountability that is a pre-requisite for an effective and mission-driven organization.
Seemingly, Fordham’s “Age of Teacher Professionalism” looks quite unlike the basic arrangement of ownership in other professions. Lawyers, doctors and entrepreneurs often aspire to own their enterprise, typically as a partner in their firm, practice or business. Such ownership encourages and rewards personal enterprise and is appropriate on mastery of a craft.
Why not imagine, articulate, and seek a similar level of ownership for teachers and in the process welcome a true age of professionalism? In the context of standards and accountability, why not trust a school’s team of educators to use their resources wisely, cultivate a world-class faculty, and arrange their work in a way that meets the clear goals against which they are regularly measured? And why not use the scale and reach of district structures to network good practices and build capacity from the bottom-up?
While some might dismiss these as “just words,” the UFT is putting such ideas into action. We’ve supported the City’s efforts to decentralize authority directly to schools and continue to expose instances when power is grabbed by a principal and not shared throughout a school community. The recently adopted policy for school-based bonuses first asks teachers to opt-into the plan and then for a committee of educators to decide how to distribute funds. The school-based teacher contracts in place at Amber Charter School in East Harlem and to be negotiated at Merrick Charter School and the high school the UFT is founding with Green Dot are particularly pure forms of teacher ownership, with educators commanding a greater say in the specific direction of their own school.
Frankly, these kinds of policies are more in keeping with Fordham’s long history of support for school autonomy than their report’s district-enhancing recommendations. Why the contradiction? Perhaps when the radical consequences of teacher professionalism are articulated, the power currently reserved by management through old-school industrial relations is too great to give up.