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Fordham’s Old-Fashioned Industrialism

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.

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5 Comments:

  • 1 Columbus Education Association » Blog Archive » Tom Mooney Institute: Fordham Findings A Flop
    · Feb 26, 2008 at 4:58 pm

    […] United Federation of Teachers’ Edwize blog has revived the spirit of Al Shanker and put up a thoughtful post on the inadequacies of the Fordham […]

  • 2 jd2718
    · Feb 28, 2008 at 6:21 am

    the UFT is putting such ideas into action … 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.

    True. And troubling.

    For years the UFT has supported shared decision making in various forms. And for years the Board of Ed (now Dept of Ed) has agreed, set up collaboration, and abused it.

    Do you know what a C-30 committee is? Administrators hired with teacher input. Except, its usually 0 input.

    School Leadership Teams? DoE instructs principals in a new Chancellor’s Reg to, essentially, ignore them. I think my union was supposed to join a law suit stopping this. Maybe we have.

    The schoolwide merit pay. We’ll see what happens, but I am nervous about sitting two teachers (and why did we say they didn’t have to be union members) across from their rating officer to decide how to divide up $$$.

    And the small schools of the last few years? Laboratories for collaboration, right? Hasn’t worked out that way in too many of these places. Our Small Schools Task force concluded that their effectiveness needs to examined before opening more. But here’s more missing collaboration – they just ignore us and open more and more.

    Related topic: the collaboration in those small schools? How about (with over 50% annual turnover). Or (just as bad). Awful exceptions? No, just the worst of a mostly bad lot.

    And the decentralization? Accompanied by the installation of rootless, experience-free puppet principals?

    Time after time our attempts to collaborate with the DoE have been accepted as signs of weakness, as invitations to abuse teachers.

    Theoretically, a few of the ideas are vaguely interesting. But teachers don’t teach theoretically.

    The monthly UFT consultation that the principal is required to attend, that’s different. That’s a form of “collaboration” if you will that comes from our (historic) strength. That’s a discussion where we are not at an automatic disadvantage, where we set the agenda.

    Jonathan

  • 3 jd2718
    · Feb 28, 2008 at 6:27 am

    I misformatted two links above. Corrected version:

    the UFT is putting such ideas into action … 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.

    True. And troubling.

    For years the UFT has supported shared decision making in various forms. And for years the Board of Ed (now Dept of Ed) has agreed, set up collaboration, and abused it.

    Do you know what a C-30 committee is? Administrators hired with teacher input. Except, its usually 0 input.

    School Leadership Teams? DoE instructs principals in a new Chancellor’s Reg to, essentially, ignore them. I think my union was supposed to join a law suit stopping this. Maybe we have.

    The schoolwide merit pay. We’ll see what happens, but I am nervous about sitting two teachers (and why did we say they didn’t have to be union members) across from their rating officer to decide how to divide up $$$.

    And the small schools of the last few years? Laboratories for collaboration, right? Hasn’t worked out that way in too many of these places. Our Small Schools Task force concluded that their effectiveness needs to examined before opening more. But here’s more missing collaboration – they just ignore us and open more and more.

    Related topic: the collaboration in those small schools? How about this one (with over 50% annual turnover). Or this one (just as bad). Awful exceptions? No, just the worst of a mostly bad lot.

    And the decentralization? Accompanied by the installation of rootless, experience-free puppet principals?

    Time after time our attempts to collaborate with the DoE have been accepted as signs of weakness, as invitations to abuse teachers.

    Theoretically, a few of the ideas are vaguely interesting. But teachers don’t teach theoretically.

    The monthly UFT consultation that the principal is required to attend, that’s different. That’s a form of “collaboration” if you will that comes from our (historic) strength. That’s a discussion where we are not at an automatic disadvantage, where we set the agenda.

    Jonathan

  • 4 woodlass
    · Mar 1, 2008 at 4:44 pm

    Jonathan, you say the consultation committee discussions are “where we are not at an automatic disadvantage, where we set the agenda.”

    We may do.
    And if we are strong and make the principal squirm, we are excessed. I speak from experience.

    There is nothing set up in this contract (and many of the former contracts as well) that protects union members with contrarian opinions in such collaborative sessions from punishment — even career-breaking punishment — when a principal or a superintendent perceives that member as unwilling to either bootlick or toe the line.

  • 5 jd2718
    · Mar 2, 2008 at 12:35 pm

    If that is so, Woodlass, (and I know that in some places it is) then it is doubly, triply, one-hundred times more true for merit pay distribution teams, where there cannot even be numbers at the table for moral support.

    Jonathan