Fixing the Least Professional Profession-How Charters Can Be a Solution for Teachers and Unions

Teaching is becoming harder and harder, and more miserable as a vocation, particularly in cash strapped schools and districts, where commands from the top aren’t met with resources and support to the bottom.  Teachers are increasingly asked to do more with less, and it’s not working.  It’s time we take seriously teacher empowerment, question many of our faulty assumptions, and think of new ways to organize schools around staff and student needs.

A new model of unionized, teacher powered charter school may be the answer.  And as I show below, there is good research to back up new models that professionalize teaching, as well as strong public support.

Professionalizing teaching and moving from the industrial model

Union nerds, which I am marginally one, will talk about the need for teachers’ unions to move from an industrial model to a professional one.  Where they aren’t bargaining so much around working conditions but really what the work is and how it should best be done.  Ed Week had an interesting commentary this week, “Why Don’t more Unions Perform Like This” digging in on partnerships that empowered teachers and looking at the un implemented vision of Albert Shanker, and his

series of case studies about districts where labor relations had evolved into what we called “professional unionism.”  The American Federation of Teachers was to take the title of that book, A Union of Professionals, as its tag line.

In those days we thought that teacher unions were on a path from industrial union assumptions to professional unionism, where organized teachers would greatly influence the content of teaching work, not just the conditions under which it took place.  They would also take responsibility for enforcing quality standards in teaching through such practices as peer review, and they would heavily influence professional development.  In those heady days, pioneering locals—some profiled in our book—formed the Teacher Union Reform Network as a laboratory and support for spreading union reform across the nation.

But it didn’t spread.

And now teaching is the most unprofessional profession you can imagine in most situations.  Seriously, almost every minute of a teacher’s workday is prescribed, they are told where to be, what to teach, at what pace to do it, and when they get their 15 or 50 minute break.  Sometimes the lessons are even scripted detailing what a teacher should say.  There is no “profession” that is less professional.  And the mechanism that enforces this status is the collective bargaining contract, a remnant from a different time, that does not answer today’s questions.

What is a “profession?”

The society of professionals cites some of the leading theorists in defining a profession,

Greenwood1 claimed that a profession must have the following elements:

  • A systematic body of theory or knowledge
  • Authority and credibility
  • Community sanction, or regulation and control of its members
  • Code of ethics
  • Professional culture, or a culture of values, norms and symbols.

Others, such as Freidson2, prefer singular assumptions. They argue that the key feature for distinguishing professions from other occupations is their independence and “position of legitimate control over work”.

Teachers in most situations have almost no authority or control of the content of their work, they are told what to teach, when, and how.  And these structures are basically the same as they were 50 years ago, with a striking uniformity in practice.  The work of teaching has been incredibly resistant to change.

Almost every teacher in the US start teaching within between 6:30 and 8 am, they will teach a class of roughly 25-30 students who are grouped by age, in a predictable sequence, for older children, the 50 minute periods, or Carnegie unit rules the day.  These structures are all pervasive, and also not related to student achievement or school success.  They are industrial leftovers that become girders in labor contracts.

Teacher powered schools and student achievement

Teachers know what’s up in schools, they usually know what needs to be done, who is doing it, and who isn’t, they know what rules work and which ones don’t.  They should be the trusted professionals, but they aren’t in most cases.  And that’s bad for kids and adults.

The good news is that there is an emerging research base showing that professionalized teaching environments or teacher powered schools are making a difference.  According to the research in Ed Week (which you can view there)

McCarthy’s research into union-management partnerships spans six states, 19 districts, and 372 schools. There are huge payoffs, particularly in schools with low income and minority students.   Test scores are higher, teacher attachment to their jobs is higher, and teachers retention skyrockets.  The effects are particularly strong in schools with low-income students.

And this an education reform the public believes in according to a recent article

Education Evolving released a study [PDF]  in partnership with Center for Teaching Quality, which indicates that 91 percent of Americans believe teachers should have greater influence over decisions that affect student learning. What’s more, 81 percent of Americans indicate they trust teachers to make “schools run better.”

So if a reform is widely supported, seems to work, and is presumably revenue neutral, why don’t’ we see more of it?

The power of precedent and the enduring soul of the industrial model

The biggest barrier to real reform is the fact that everyone is an expert on schools, we all went to school and have ingrained senses of what a “real school” is and fall back on that.  Same with school design and labor relations.  Every contract discussion starts with the existing contract, and is grounded in it.

This is true in charter school collective bargaining too, and that’s a problem.  I have been involved in a few charter school union discussions, and it always starts with the same basic contract, it may be a “skinny” version, 30 -40 rather than hundreds of pages.  But it’s still the same.  It’s a negotiation over detailed working hours, breaks, pay, benefits, terms of time off, hiring, discipline and firing.

There is some room on the margins, but nothing revolutionary.  Teachers can tinker around how they do their jobs but not what the content of that job is.  That isn’t even on the table.

Honestly the most innovative contract innovation I have seen is the “professional day” at Green Dot’s International High in NYC.  There, teachers don’t have to be on site if they don’t have an assignment, so you can sleep in a day a week—which is huge if you are a teacher, but should it be?  Is that really so revolutionary—yeah in schools it is.

Change the game

We ain’t never gonna change the game by starting with the same rules.  We need to start over, and I want to start with those closest to our kids.  And while charters have largely not lived up to their role as labs of innovation for the traditional public schools, maybe they can help rewrite the book here, with instructional staff finding new ways to organize and new ways to organize schools, becoming labs of labor innovation.

Charters can break this mold.  In one of my day jobs I help folks start community based charters, and most of them are teachers, many want to have a union school, and many more would want the right type of union school.  This is a missed opportunity.

We need to start over.  Forget designing schools around a contract, start with a set of principles; around serving students, participation, transparency, equity, collegiality, and professionalism.  We will not meet today’s challenge with the last century’s solution.  And there is strong evidence that a new professionalized approach to teaching can work and is broadly supported.

Why we don’t see more of this is the question.





Life, Death, Trauma, and Rebirth-My “Nook” in Life

By Mya Medley

My relationship with death started with Nook Nook, my family’s beloved goldfish, when I was five years old, but that was only the start. Since 2016 I have been experiencing trauma. My overprotective brother Kionta Murphy was killed in August of 2016.   My world had been taken away from me and I wanted to know why.  A birth brought it back.

 A 5-year olds first brush with death

It started with Nook Nook.  It was a cloudy, cold Saturday morning when my mom came home to see that her fat, little goldfish, Nook Nook, was not in the fishbowl. Of course I didn’t know what happened to the fish. However, everybody in the house blamed me.

My older siblings would often get away with breaking mom and dad’s house rules, then blaming everything on me. So today was no different.
“Ouuu Mya, you killed Nook Nook!!” yelled my ten year old brother, Kionta.

“Momma gone get youuuuuuuuu!” laughed my eleven year old sister, Mickey.

I could hear the crispy, peppered bacon popping in the pan.  I could see and taste the fluffy and sweet smelling pancakes being cooked by my sister, Mickey as she continued to blame me. Even my dad emerged from his room claiming that I picked up Nook Nook out of the fish bowl, threw him in the toilet and flushed him.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t even think about eating breakfast because I was afraid of my mom coming home to see her Nook Nook gone. As a five year old, I was so terrified that I couldn’t concentrate on anything else. So many disappointing thoughts:  No TV… no going outside… can’t go nowhere, is she going to spank me? I was in trouble for something out of my control and I wouldn’t be able to hang out with Kionta.

Losing Kionta     

I remember everything that happened. On the 26th I woke up at 7:00am to get ready for school. Normally my big brother Kionta would take me to school, but that day he didn’t. I just knew something was wrong. I got home from school at around 4:30pm and noticed that Kionta was not there.

He would sometimes go out on a run or just get some air. So I wasn’t too concerned until I heard the gunshots.

Pow, Pow, Pow, Pow!!

My frustrated heart immediately started pumping rapidly. My confused body begin to tremble. I just knew it had to be Kionta.

When my mom came in my room I instantly knew it had to be him. I cried and I cried for the whole night. My sore throat was aching due to me screaming all night. I wanted this all to be a dream. My world had been taken away from me and I wanted to know why. Why me?

I didn’t deserve this; Kionta didn’t deserve this. I felt as if I lost myself. Hurting, painful flashbacks of disappointment made me feel disgusted. I could taste desolate tears falling from my eyes as I cried myself to sleep every night after Kionta’s perplexing death, yet I heard him whispering, “Keep going, Mya! It’s not your time.”

Still, I felt powerless. While my heart became heavy like lead, he urged me, “Don’t trip off me. I’ll be good just keep doing you and stay focused. I Love You.”

 Finding Laylah and refinding myself

Death is usually considered a horrible situation. However, this bitter death played an unforgettable part in making me the person I am today. Even though I was angry, aggravated, and furious about my brother’s passing, I didn’t have time to be resentful because my first cousin gave birth to Laylah, a beautiful, chocolate, seven pound newborn baby girl.

I immediately became overjoyed. Disappointing tears of sorrow turned to glowing tears of joy. God took my brother and replaced him with my flawless, new cousin Laylah. She’s the reason I didn’t break down. Because of Laylah, I remained strong for my family, especially my mom.

Relieved, I began expressing my heartfelt emotions in song.

Hello, it’s been so long since you left. This is love calling.

I put all my pain and misery into this song. It exhausted all my fury. From that moment on, I began taking care of Laylah. I became her surrogate mom. Alone in my room, I eventually got through the shaky stages of grieving.

All of this made me the person I am today, and it all started with Nook Nook’s death. Nook Nook, Kionta, and Laylah shaped me into the person I will forever be – a strong, open-minded, loving, and blossoming young woman.


From the Author-My Name is Mya and I’m an 11th grader at Lighthouse Community Charter School. I’m talented, determined and strong. Right now I’m determined to graduate high school and study science. My dream is to go to college in Atlanta so I can explore the world beyond the West Coast. I would love to be a forensic science technician so I can discover more of the human body, solve cases, and get justice for families that have suffered like mine.

Beyond Anger—Working Together to End “Colonial Day”, Slap @ss Fridays, and Colonial Mentalities in Oakland

Schools bear much of the accumulated sludge of history and culture and are often tasked with addressing them.  Racism, classism, patriarchy, homophobia–pretty much all the isms, archys, and phobias will find their way into the classroom.

And while I get angry when I hear stories where students or families are disrespected, I am very hopeful for Oakland when I see the actual community responses.  This was highlighted in the really impressive work that young women and their allies did in creating a responsive OUSD sexual harassment policy, and also the responses of school communities to “colonial day” and colonial mentalities.

Even in the bad, if we can move past our own anger, trauma and baggage, we can come together to create good, and in the end that’s what keeps me going.  So let’s talk about a few recent examples of the good in The Town.

Ending “slap ass Fridays”

Yeah “slap ass Fridays” (SAF) is a thing in some Oakland schools.  It’s a weekly ritual, where “boys will be boys” and at least some staff turn the other way.  I wrote about this when I first read the Alliance for Girls report describing the challenges our young women face.

Our youth and some allies did more than write, they did something concrete.  They asked young women about their experiences and developed a new, responsive, sexual harassment policy that was just passed by the Board.

It is a restorative policy that better identifies the nature and harm of sexual harassment and clarifies the role of the school in investigating and addressing it.  And also creates a climate where students can safely bring complaints.

A policy by itself won’t make the change we need, but an approach that starts with students will, if we adults can learn from them.  And SAF has been a thing for a long time, adults who work in the district now, remember it, and have similar stories, and we adults have allowed it to continue to exist.   Ending it starts with students but can’t end with them.

A hard look at “Colonial Day”

I wrote about an Oakland school’s “colonial day” last week.   I have my own “colonial day” story.   As the only Black kid in my elementary class, I was asked to sit colonial day out in the corner because I didn’t have a place or would presumably be a slave.

That was upstate NY 100 years ago, so I was shocked to hear that this was still a thing in Oakland.  And that it took place for the last 8 years in at least one school and likely more.  Mind you this is an approved curricular unit, complete with a “slave’s quarters station.”  And I bet its happening in a lot of places.  This is not an argument about studying the colonial period, its one about celebrating it, or not providing critical context.

And I am pretty sure I would not want my kid to be one of the few darkies, circulating through the “slave quarters” station in 5th grade.   You would have to be a really great teacher who laid a whole lot of context that these young minds absorbed, for that not to be an alienating experience.

When I posted about “colonial day” another school reported its own colonial day.  But the thing that I loved was how people reacted, Jaquin Miller re-appropriated the lessons and teachers created their own curricula (which I would love to see btw).

Meanwhile, families at the original “colonial day” school are looking hard at making changes.  I didn’t have one annoying peep about how we should keep “colonial day”, or rants against curricular political correctness.

“Colonial day” is wack, and people get that.

Again, “colonial days” have been happening forever in the U.S.  For many of us, colonialism is nothing to celebrate.  This is the Wikipedia definition which is kinder than others,

Colonialism is the establishment of a colony in one territory by a political power from another territory, and the subsequent maintenance, expansion, and exploitation of that colony. Colonialism involves unequal relationships between the colonial power and the colony and often between the colonists and the indigenous peoples.

If “colonial day” is treated critically, maybe.  But this pictures history through the colonizer’s eyes, which is an uncomfortable lens for some of us, and certainly not the only one to view it through.  The good news—we turned over a rock, it was kind of gross, and rather than just putting it back down, the community is coming together around making a change.

The Need for Community Action and Community Healing

I also got a great note from a parent who (among many others) had been struggling with her school administration; the families and staff organized.   And from OUSD Board members to high level staff at OUSD, to the NAACP and community based organizations, they made their voice heard, and action came.  “I never knew parents could be so powerful” she ended her note.  These small victories count.

All of this is hard work, and requires us to come together to do it.  I know I am not always the most diplomatic guy, but a wiser Brother kind of talked me down on some of these issues recently.  And I really appreciate that Oakland’s diverse communities have come together to build community and do the hard work of shedding some of our historical legacies.

We have a lot of accumulated baggage, long practiced habits and patterns of oppression, and a lot of restorative work to do.  I think we also have a powerful vision of a more equitable future, bridging that is the work of the community, and given how I have seen students, staff, families and allies come together thus far, I am hopeful.

The Debate We Need is not about School Choice, It’s about Access and Quality

As a long time education reformer, I couldn’t care less about “school choice.” And focusing on “choice” by itself, doesn’t necessarily help kids or increase equity.  Most importantly, that’s not how I hear families describe what they want, which should be our focus.

Sadly though, parents and families are more often positioned as props than listened to, or engaged as deciders—and that’s a problem for both charter and district sectors.  It’s time we listen, and reframe the debate to one about access and quality—that’s what families I talk to talk about, and that is what actually matters.

The vacuous meaning of choice

“Choice” has served as a banner that a range of reformers could stand underneath and not engage in the civil war that would erupt if we talked values or endgame.  Who isn’t for choice?

But in reality it is an empty banner—that has no values and is subject to being co-opted.  Health care is a choice…  And choice for choice’s sake has really gotten us nowhere.  Remember the right to choose a better school for children in “failing” ones under No Child Left Behind—only thing, there were no spots open at higher quality schools.

I heard the same comments from families in the years after Katrina in New Orleans.  Sure, there are all these hypothetical choices, but in reality there often is not a spot for your kid.  It feels the same as having no choices, maybe worse, since you were promised something better.

Or, Oakland is an open enrollment district, technically everyone can choose their school—how is that working out—is equity and quality increased by that—not sure?  I would bet you dollars to donuts that the choosers will tend to have more resources and better neighborhood schools, than the non-choosers.  And choice in Oakland often requires transportation, which again is inequitably distributed.  This is a charter issue too.

Listen to Families and the Message is Clear

Most Importantly, I almost never hear the “real families” of Oakland—those who really need quality schools and struggle to find them—voice arguments about “school choice.”  That is not on the list of demands.

They want access to a quality school where they are treated with concern and respect.  It’s about quality and access, and being treated fairly.  And the further we move our eye from that ball, the weaker our standing in the community and the lower our likelihood of success.

If we want real reform that sticks, it needs to be rooted in the experiences and desires of families, not some neo-classical economist’s notebook.  And in this age, where language is increasingly debased and a certain double speak prevails alongside alternative facts.  We need to be really clear about what and who we stand for.

Choice is an empty banner, that has outlived its usefulness.  It may be a means to an end, but it is not an end in itself, and needs to be judged by results.  So let’s jettison this increasingly meaningless reform jargon and listen to families for a change.

They want access to quality schools, they don’t need unlimited choices, they don’t need charter schools, they don’t need vouchers.  They need authentic access to quality schools, and if we focus our eye on them and in supporting that, in whatever form those accessible quality schools come, I think we will be OK.

While, if we keep parroting this rhetoric around choice, I worry reformers will be seen as even further out of touch, and real reform that matters to families, even further out of reach.

Privileged Oakland Parents Need to Clean Their Own House Before They Meddle in the Deep East

It was a heartfelt moment recently when a member of the Alameda County school board asked the question that many of us were thinking, why are some Oakland families so opposed to charter schools in Deep East Oakland.

A question doubly important, because there are some serious hostile environment issues playing out at the Hills schools, resulting in protests and a teach in at one, and consternation over a misguided “colonial day” at another. So while Black, Brown and other underserved students are being disserved in your backyard you are going to Hayward to attempt to block a school in Deep East Oakland?

But back to the board meeting.

A group of East Oakland families had just shared their support for a charter school when a group of, I presume, non-East Oakland parents/adults opposed it. That’s when school board member Amber Childress asked plainly, “Why is it that families from the Hills are coming and speaking in such strong opposition against quality programs? It’s frustrating.”

It was particularly frustrating to me. I have spent a lot of time this month meeting with frustrated families. A diverse group of parents at one Oakland Hills school recently staged a teach in on the anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education to protest conditions. I also hear painful stories about another Hill school’s “colonial day,” where students played assigned roles, which from what I hear included slave. And it weren’t no White kids in that role. You can guess who it was.

Sticks and Stones and Glass Houses

So you are going to schlep to Hayward, protest a school in the Deep East that doesn’t even exist, while families in your own backyard are getting abused by the schools in your neighborhood. Probably the schools your kids went to. Many families are feeling the lash, while some deliver it, others serve as allies, and most stand by.

So I guess if you want to fight inequality, start at home.

And at the hearing, I never heard the Hills parents talk about improving district schools in the Deep East, or providing more quality options there. It was mostly esoteric talk about their interpretation of charter law, or signature requirements.

‘You Can’t Tell Me We Have Quality Options’

It’s just another salvo in the charter wars. There is nothing about actual access to quality schools in the neighborhood. And there doesn’t seem to be any critique of district schools that are not treating all students with equal concern and respect.

Nary a peep about a racist “colonial day,” or schools issuing “stay away” orders against parents, along with threats, retaliation and intimidation—stories that break your heart about children of color who are broken at Hills schools.

But back to the Deep East, and the hearing.

According to one sister who lives in East Oakland (but why should we listen to her?), she tried to enroll her child in the esteemed Parker Elementary School—the one school mentioned for its quality by the anti-charter folks—and was told she couldn’t.

Another brother said he had no access to public schools that were good enough for his child, and would have to send his child to private school. So he supported the public charter school, and was even going to serve on the board of it.

“If you live where I live, you can’t tell me we have quality options for our kids,” he said.

So how is it that the families with the most exclusive choices tend to show up and suck the air out of the room at the school board meetings, trying to deny access to parents with the fewest quality options?

It’s particularly ironic that they are most concerned with restricting access and opposing options for families in neighborhoods they likely never visit, and their kids haven’t even seen. Meanwhile a modern day “step ’n fetch it,” plays out at Hills schools annually, and it’s on us to complain, and potentially face retaliation.

If you don’t like charter schools, don’t send your kid to one. And if you want to help Flatlands families, why not volunteer in their community? Or here’s an idea, why not share some of that $500,000 pot of PTA money you’ve got at your school in the Hills? Or why not join as an ally at your neighborhood school and work to end backwards and racist events like “colonial day”?

When housing costs $1.6 million on average for Hillcrest families and your kids attend a very high-performing neighborhood school—yeah, who needs a charter? Private school, at middle or high school—probably. But you don’t need a charter.

Honor the Lived Experiences of the Community

Talk to the actual East Oakland families and I think they have a different answer.

And we heard directly from a child of Deep East Oakland, Trustee Childress, who shed tears and buried peers.

“I am from Deep East Oakland…We can’t give up on these Black and Brown students and poor families in East Oakland,” she stated.

I appreciate her calling out the elephant in the room, and those East Oakland parents and I are still waiting for a good answer to her original question: Why are parents from privilege so opposed to more public options in the Flatlands?

And how is “colonial day” still a thing in Oakland—no seriously…How is this still a thing here?

If live in privileged parts of Oakland, you don’t need to go to Hayward to fight a perceived injustice, you can fight very real ones, right in your backyard—you want to help underserved, Black, and Brown kids—please start at home.