May 29, 2009

Disappointing debate over teacher unions

I wish I could say I had learned something from the education globule's recent debate over the role of teacher unions, but I haven't. When the apparent tail end of the discussion ends with a claim that "unions... are tenacious and need to be defeated, over and over and over again if reform is to advance," I shake my head. Insert "Fordham Institute and other think tanks" where Mike Petrilli had written "unions," and you probably have Jerry Bracey's views on one of those days when the air conditioning breaks, the power goes out, and the roof begins leaking. It's more than a touch of demonization, or what's worse, facile reductionism (a more damning intellectual sin, in my book). 

Surprisingly, Andy Rotherham's rejoinder isn't much more substantive. Maybe there is a role in recapitulating the arguments for people who haven't heard them before, but this blog conversation has read to me much like Joan Scott's 1986 article Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis ($JSTOR), to which one of my fellow graduate students in the late 1980s accurately responded (and the following is a rough paraphrase), "Well, yes, this makes sense, but by now it's obvious rather than productive." 

One of the missing pieces in all this is some sense of the historical roles teachers unions have played over the past century, at times when they have been both powerful and not. Petrilli and others are focusing on three roles of teachers unions: collective-bargaining agents, public representatives for teachers (including lobbyists in legislatures), and scapegoats. The collective-bargaining role of teachers unions is relatively recent, dating from the 1960s and 1970s, and given the variation in legal authority (the "why is Mississippi so bad if it doesn't have collective bargaining?" question), the facile answer now is "because they lobby."

That's an interesting hypothesis, but I have yet to see a single study documenting evidence for the claim that the reason why many school structures in Mississippi are similar to those in Massachusetts is because of the tremendous lobbying power of the Mississippi Association of Educators (the NEA affiliate), or that those school structures are the primary reason why Mississippi's education is inferior. Which structures are the same? Ah, things like changing classes in high school. Bureaucratic rules. You want to throw away things like an academic curriculum? And teacher lobbying is responsible for all that? Maybe it has something to do with institutional isomorphism, or the authority of administrators at midcentury, when many of these structures were consolidated, or the inertia that Mary Metz calls the script of "real school" and Tyack and Cuban call the "grammar of schooling." Homework, folks: do your homework first.

I stick "scapegoat" in that list because teachers unions have been scapegoated in the past in matters entirely unrelated to the concerns of today's... I'm with Elizabeth Green here in needing a better descriptive than "reformer," "reformy person" (I think Alexander Russo gets credit for that), or "wannabe reformer" (and I don't know from whom I've heard that phrase). In Florida in the 1960s, teachers and their unions were accused of various things from communism to sheltering gay teachers. In the early 20th century, the Chicago Federation of Teachers was accused of ... being a union and consorting with unions. Now Petrilli blames "unions" writ large for not being reformy-ish enough for him. Been there, done that, bought the t-shirt, gave it to Goodwill.

Two other roles Petrilli (and many others) are ignoring. One is the role of unions in social movements that extend beyond them. An example of that is the type of innovative organizing drive that UFT had with day-care workers, which simultaneously addressed issues of social class, gender, race, and early childhood education, not to mention the historic focus of teachers unions with K-12 employees in bureaucratic systems. To put it bluntly, childcare workers are on the low end of the education totem pole, women who work for pittances given the huge responsibilities in caring for young children. Childcare is also one of the hidden underbellies of the changing gender dynamics of the American workplace, making possible hundreds of thousands of two-earner and two-professional-earner households, not to mention professional single-mother households. Organizing childcare workers is the type of thing you'd expect SEIU to do (such as in its janitorial organizing campaigns), not UFT, and there will be consequences down the road inside UFT in terms of policy and leadership, and interesting possibilities in other cities.

Reaching back further in time, teacher unions have been involved in a range of social movements from the Progressive Era (with the Chicago Federation of Teachers, Jane Addams, and other progressives suing to recover uncollected taxes from corporations to pay for city services) to the post-WW2 civil rights movements. Teachers unions often have struggled with these issues, but it has also bolstered them. Case in point: the 1968 teachers strike in Florida, where according to my colleague Barbara Shircliffe the public images of teachers was often explicitly multiracial, a message of cross-racial solidarity that's hard to miss as dramatic in the 1960s.

That relationship has not always been negotiated smoothly, as Daniel Perlstein describes in his history of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville controversy, and that touches on the fifth role of teachers unions historically, as organizers of teachers' social identities. Probably the best theorizer here is Ira Katznelson, who has argued in multiple palces that people construct their social identities and roles around different contexts. In the U.S., he argues that there is often a split between the identity at work and the identity in one's home, and the outcomes of political conflict often revolves around how and where those active in a controversy define themselves. Perlstein's book Justice Justice! is an uncomfortable reminder that workplace solidarity is not always synonymous with justice.

A more interesting and productive conversation could revolve around the last, largely ignored issue. How are teachers' social identities formed, and how do workplace politics (including unions) feed into that? To the extent that teachers see themselves as either technical test-preppers or astructural "facilitators," they're ignoring real needs of students, and the context of those tendencies are important. Even the reformy-ish-ist folks believe that, or they wouldn't argue so hard for "reconstitution," "reconstruction," and other proposals to disrupt local school culture. So we all agree with school culture. We all agree that teacher unions matter. Does anyone else see a huge research opportunity rather than a place for pat answers?

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Tags: teachers unions
Posted in Education policy on May 29, 2009 10:27 PM |