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.





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