Rick Kahlenberg’s excellent book Tough Liberal has generated something of an Al Shanker craze. At various talks, events and in print, many are invoking Shanker’s broad-ranging, hard-to-categorize, and visionary ideas for public education. Even the National Charter School Research Project seems possessed by the zeitgeist, spending some time in their 2007 Report (pdf) on Shanker’s “original vision of charters.”
Perhaps this is an encouraging sign that the charter movement is re-connecting to its progressive roots. (Or it could just be political calculation; the Report’s other notable name-dropping includes three mentions of Bill Clinton and his support of charters.) But just because it has the Shanker label doesn’t mean it’s union made.
The unstated theme of this year’s Report is capacity. One chapter focuses on challenges to charter school growth, mentioning the difficulty of “locating high-quality leaders or teachers” and charters’ employment of “younger teachers without traditional teaching credentials.” The authors openly wonder if “charter schools can continue to grow and experiment or whether their growth has already peaked.” Chapter Three takes on the issue of “finding, training, and keeping” principals, featuring New Leaders for New Schools’ efforts to develop “school leadership teams” and provide “support and encouragement” to avoid “burnout.” Another article states that “developing human capital” is critical to “move student achievement forward,” but the authors concede that “as long as charter schools face severe resource constraints” it’s unlikely that they will take full advantage of their autonomy to develop innovative compensation practices and “attract and retain the highest quality teachers.” The concluding chapter argues for more nuanced policies around charter creation and state charter caps, given that “the capacity of those seeking to open charters may be limited” and the “uneven capacity among charter school authorizers.”
The need for greater capacity is by no means unique to the charter movement. Shanker, for one, spent his career fighting for ways to increase capacity, but called it by another name: professionalism. His call for a “second revolution” in education (the first being collective bargaining) aimed to make teaching a true profession, marked by rigorous academic and practical training, greater discretion in one’s practice and higher pay. Policies that emerged from Shanker’s call included peer review, career ladders and the creation of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. Shanker’s charter school proposal came from the same context, as he advocated for a structure that would stimulate bottom-up, teacher-led, and accountable innovation. All in, he believed that a more professional enterprise would attract the more capable workforce needed to meet the growing demands on public schools.
The National Charter School Research Project’s Report mistakenly puts form over substance when its authors present a narrow concept of “what Shanker had in mind.” No doubt, the 28 teacher-cooperatives throughout the Midwest are a particularly pure model of educator-owned schools. Minnesota’s requirement that teachers constitute a majority of a charter school’s board of trustees is another model for professionals to govern their practice. But the guiding principle behind Shanker’s thinking was professionalism, which can exist in a variety of structures.
Many charter advocates wholly agree with the need for greater professionalism, and the Report points to data suggesting that charter teachers have greater influence “on curriculum, school practice, and policy” than their district colleagues. But agreement typically ends on the question of power. As the Report also states, “in most charter schools it is more common for teachers to be treated as school employees … [despite] decades of research on various types of site-based managed schools … suggest[ing] that, in the long run, charters that value teachers and involve them in decisions will probably do better than schools that keep a sharp line between labor and management.”
Without a seat at the proverbial table, practitioners do not have a meaningful say in the larger direction of their practice and are treated more as workers than professionals. As a result, the distinction between management and labor could not be more pronounced. By comparison, doctors, lawyers and entrepreneurs aspire to become “partners” in their practice or firm. What comparable level of ownership — and associated responsibility — is afforded to educators in non-union charters?
Teacher empowerment is not an absence of management and doesn’t assume teacher input into all day-to-day decision-making. But it does envision that educators will have the right to influence the major issues and decisions facing a school. In the charter context, a key mechanism for this can be school-based collective bargaining, premised on the school’s autonomy and supportive of its ability to innovate. Unlike the stereotype of “traditional industrial-style” unionism in which “educators and school boards [are] separate entities pitted against each other,” site-based bargaining formalizes a process for charter boards to involve teachers in decision-making, share power, and broaden ownership. By blurring the line separating labor and management, unionized charters can lay a foundation for collaboration, capacity-building, and achievement.
Shanker’s charter school idea was built on these fundamental beliefs regarding arrangements of power, a faith in the good judgment of educators, and the need for deliberative democratic processes. When many of the most outspoken leaders of the charter movement rejected these progressive ideals, Shanker ultimately repudiated a reform he helped launch. Fortunately, the values he aimed to cultivate still exist in a number of progressive, pro-teacher charter schools and we believe their voice is growing. But for those charter advocates seeking to lay claim to Shanker, they should look for the union label first.