Trees & Forests

It’s easy to see this latest debate in New York City (about the teachers’ union filing a grievance because plans to require teachers to set goals for each student constitute an increase in the workday) as just another example of teachers’ unions run amok.   Or, as another example of fighting over trees, like three minutes in the school day, while losing sight of the forest.    If it gets more media traction that’s likely how it will be played.  

But this episode is really an example of a deeper, more far-reaching, and more destructive problem in public education:  The almost complete absence in too many places of collegiality, professional decision- making and ability of professionals to solve day to day work challenges without resorting to fights over contractual rules.   Rhetorically the mantra is that teachers should be treated like professionals, and it’s true they certainly should as it’s professional work.   But this sort of thing is the very antithesis of how professionals conduct business and handle relations.   And that’s a problem that goes far beyond one grievance in NYC, it’s cultural.   And it’s going to take a new approach to contracts and organizing schools to get past it that meaningfully empowers teachers as professionals and establishes new norms for how a professional workplace operates.   There are some promising models in places like MN, Colorado, and some charter schools but a long way to go.

Update:   A related but different angle on this here.

22 Replies to “Trees & Forests”

  1. “The almost complete absence in too many places of collegiality, professional decision- making and ability of professionals to solve day to day work challenges without resorting to fights over contractual rules.”

    In my opinion, the absence of collegiality is the result of school systems prioritizing ease of scheduling over providing time to plan collaboratively. Also, the absence of professionalism and professional decision making is the result of a school day that leaves out any time think critically (35 students, bell, 35 students, bell, 35 students, bell, ad infinitum). Is it any wonder that education associations fight for every second they can get? And that the problems of the world get solved on Records Day when the children are gone and the teachers can talk to one another uninterrupted?

    It becomes cultural when even think tankers like Andy Rotherham believe that teachers know of no other way than to whine and complain about minutes and then generalize to the profession. How can a teacher behave professionally when every where one looks (including at Berstein) and sees an enemy looking to bite a chunk out of you. Good teachers are reasonable, outstanding professionals. Build schools that reasonable, outstanding professionals would enjoy working at.

    “It’s going to take a new approach to contracts and organizing schools to get past it that meaningfully empowers teachers as professionals and establishes new norms for how a professional workplace operates.”


  2. As a former teacher, I agree with Tyler’s post (above). It’s not unreasonable for teachers to be concerned about additional duties that lengthen their workdays for no additional compensation, or that cut into their already limited time for planning and collaboration with other teachers, parents, and students.

    In fact, my disgust over the contractual abuses at my former school in California impelled me to learn more about labor and employment law, and, eventually, was a factor in my decision to leave education for a career in the law. As a practicing attorney, my time is never devalued and underappreciated to the extent that it was when I taught (especially in public schools).

  3. I think you make a good point, Andy, but I think the cultural problems you identify goes way beyond teachers. My wife works at a charter school on the South Side of Chicago. The teachers are expected to pick up extra duties as they arise. But they are also consulted on many major decisions regarding the school, have ample time to plan and are supported by an administration that reinforces the discipline they mete out in the classroom. It is this sense of respect and loyalty that makes them comfortable with having to work extra hours or stay late for additional PD.

    The hard part about changing culture is that there are a lot of actors involved, and everyone has to change at once or no one will change. If teachers feel like administrators are incompetent and out to get them, they won’t be willing to make the sort of changes that you (rightly) say are needed.

  4. @Jesse: I don’t think it has to change all at once. If administrators schedule the day and are consistently raising expectations towards collegial, professional work environment that is what they will get. I dare say administrators might even ask how effective teachers might set the tone in a school the way they set the tone in class of twenty-five different personalities five times a day.

  5. Professionals do not whine, they do not punch time cards and they do not belong to unions. Hourly laborers tally minutes and join unions. Teachers and administrators united with unions are not professionals. Schools with strong unions are districts where the needs of the card carrying members supersede educational goals. Student needs are only considered to the extent that they benefit the union agenda.

    I am a parent of four children, two of whom have special needs. My experience dealing with NY State unionized teachers is vast and spans more than twenty years. I have witnessed a dramatic decline in the valuation of student needs. Teachers treat parents and students with much less respect and civility. The demands from union members now drive public education policy. Within the last ten years, some teachers have become so bold as to tell parents and students, “If it’s not in my contract, I don’t have to do it.” Yet, where is their shop steward? Oh, that’s right, they don’t have one. They are “professionals.”

    Unions now run school districts in NY State and they are killing the quality of public school education. Unions have turned most public school teachers into chronic complainers who appreciate nothing, cannot stop demanding more and have lost the ability to distinguish want from need. These workers behave like spoiled teenagers, not like responsible public servants.

    Fortunately, some real educators still exist. To you, roses, I offer my support and condolences for having to work among the thorns. As for the garden as a whole, the “new approach” that is necessary is called, “Kick the Union Thugs Out!” We, the tax payers, must take back our schools.

  6. @ddmeyers: I am sorry to hear about your experience in NY. Did you ever try to take your special needs children to a private school, different school system or a different state? Your experience is true for you, but is it true for everyone? I think the tide is turning towards children anyway. How can teachers continue to pretend they are helping children learn when every metric is saying that they are not? Data is your friend. Did the students learn?

    I don’t want to side with “union thugs”, but the only power teachers have in their profession is collective bargaining. Other professions have the power to disbar members, revoke licenses, drive debate within the profession, and effect policy changes. Teachers are put in front of children underprepared and underpaid.

    The issue brought to the fore by arotheram was professionalism. Won’t school systems get what they pay for? When preparation, collegiality, and collaboration (professionalism) are paid for, don’t school systems get it?

  7. What’s irks me the most about the initial post is that it assumes the administration started out treating the teachers as professionals. Any time there’s some kind of dispute between administrations and teachers, it always falls on the teachers to act like professionals – irrespective of how the administration is acting. When an administration unilaterally imposes rules without consulting the professionals involved (and in this case, their union), why is it that the teachers are supposed to be the professionals? Also, it’s the union’s JOB to file grievances when management violated the contract. Doesn’t matter how many minutes or hours we’re talking about here, we’re talking about enforcing the contract that management signed.

    ddmeyers, based on your post I’m assuming you think that all those professors out there that are members of AAUP are not professionals. Or all those unionized nurses? What exactly is your definition of “professional.” I too agree with Tyler in that I’m sorry your experience with teachers has been so negative. But I would add that just because your experience was negative, that doesn’t making teaching a non-professional profession. There are plenty of horrible lawyers and doctors out there, but no one is saying we should stop calling them professionals (oh, and did I forget to mention there are some unions out there for doctors?).

    It’s all too easy to blame poor education on teachers (and their unions). It’s also all to easy to blame unions for just about anything else. They were definitely seen as the scape goat for the fall of the auto industry. Unless, of course, you spend some time understanding the entire situation, and fully understand the role of management in the decisions that brought GM to its knees.

    Long and short, the fact that a union filed a grievance shouldn’t be seen as a lack of professionalism. When a contract is violated, it’s their responsibility to file a grievance (and yes, I’ve been in a union that didn’t do that and it shows). The underlying purpose in life for any union is to maintain the contract. We can disagree about what’s IN the contract. But in this age of so-called accountability, shouldn’t we be cheering when an entity in this mix actually does what they’re supposed to do?

    Back to ddmeyers: I agree that teachers who fall back on their contract to avoid any additional responsibilities need to take a look at their chose profession. But I think what Andy’s post was about was pointing out that a union is doing what they’re supposed to do – even though that wasn’t his point. But I would emphasis one thing point he made: “this sort of thing is the very antithesis of how professionals conduct business and handle relations.” I agree – insofar as it appears that management has unilaterally violated the contract. I think you also see the bias in how the author of the linked article frames the story. When talking about management, he calls them “education officials.” And when talking about Mulgrew, he calls him president of the “powerful teachers’ union.”

    Do you have to be part of the city’s Department of Education to be considered an “education official”? Wouldn’t the president of the “powerful” union be considered an education official? And if the union is so powerful, how is it that they didn’t get the raises they were expecting by backing Bloomberg?

  8. @Tyler Says:In NY State I have used public, private, & parochial schools with the majority of years spent in the public system. We lived in a financially privileged suburban district. We are now in Ohio with one child in a private special needs school and another in a public school in a financially privileged suburban district. The children are thriving, they love their classes, teacher & schools, respectively. The special needs school is not unionized. Every Friday is 1/2 day for students, so teachers can meet to discuss each child’s progress and tweak their programs, accordingly. It is a fluid system designed to meet the needs of each student. The teachers in this school are the most dedicated professionals I have ever encountered, in any profession. They encourage sincere communication between all parents, students, teachers, & administrators. They listen, respectfully, to all ideas, comments, concerns, etc and constantly work to improve their system. They meet every challenge of their day with zeal and enthusiasm which ignites the students dedication to learning. Every school should follow this model.

    My other child’s public school is unionizes but NOT LIKE NY state. The union is much weaker here and it shows. Student needs remain primary, as do American values verses the socialist union doctrine that has come to permeate NY State schools.

    I wish I found the greatness of Ohio and these schools years ago! My oldest special need’s child would not have endured years of emotional abuse and damage from the arrogant, ignorant union thug culture of education. If we had been in Ohio, he would have received the early diagnosis and remediation that he needed because in Ohio, student needs still held above union contract demands.

    BTW: If you think I’m exaggerating about the socialism/anti-Americanism raging in NY State schools; a 5th grade teacher marked a test answer wrong when one of my children cited Casto’s Cuba as an example of a country without freedom. When I asked the teacher about the mark she said that the answer was wrong because there is freedom in Cuba. I said, What are you talking about? Castro is a vicious communist dictator. Casto is the only person who has freedom in Cuba. She then listed Cuba’s socialized medical system as an example of freedom. She refused to change the grade. This was completely unacceptable so I took the matter to the principal and the grade was changed. Although principals usually never support parents over union teachers, I suspect the principal thought it politically wiser do so in this case.

    Everything in Ohio is superior to New York!

  9. ddmeyers: I was actually trying to give you the benefit of the doubt early. Your unadulterated hatred of unions is crystal clear. I don’t think there’s any way you can get past that (please, prove me wrong, as I hope I am). Apart from all the unionism=communism rhetoric, the fact that you simply equate weak unions with American values speaks volumes (at least to me).

    Of course your little ditty about the pro-Castro teacher just seals the deal for you. As far as I can tell, you won’t be happy until there are no unions at all in this country (at the very least, no unions representing teachers).

    I’m still tripping over some of your rhetoric:
    “ignorant union thug culture”
    “Castro is a vicious communist dictator. Casto is the only person who has freedom in Cuba.”

    So you really believe that the reason the teachers (the one’s you like) are so good because they’re NOT part of a union? Never mind, rhetorical question.

  10. ddmeyers: I understand that you do have a strong dislike for unions, however, they do serve for the common good of the teacher work force. I work in a charter school in Arizona and I have to admit that there are times I wish I had a union. As Jesse stated that his wife is part of the decision making process and they have to take on more task as they arise, is completely true. As a professional, I am happy to give everything that I have to ensure that the children in my class are successful, but there is so much other “stuff” that goes on that some days it is not worth it. My school states that teachers have the main decision making power, so in a sense we are similar to a union. We do not have the security of a job though. My school offers at will employment. Yes the school does a take a chance that you may leave part way through the year, but the school does not do anything to make sure that you are completely happy and want to stay.
    As a part of my graduate course study we are reading the book “On being a Teacher: The Human Dimension” by Kottler, Kottler and Zehm and I feel that this book is extremely accurate. More and more we are losing what makes us teachers, the human characteristic. We are so focused on what we get out of the deal that Unions may hinder us at times. The teachers that still hold this belief of teaching with the human dimension are the ones that don’t fight with the union or against it. They spend their time on making their students successful.

  11. Marktropolis: You make very good point. To ddmeyers, I have two comments. One, as a former special education teacher, I understand that the experience of parents with children with special needs is unique. Parents often have to aggressively fight the school system to get the accommodations they think their child deserves. Most parents don’t have such an antagonistic relationship with their schools (union or not).

    I’d also like to speak as a former teacher who has taught in unionized schools (California), non-unionized schools (Virginia) and in private schools. In my experience, unions make very little difference when it comes to issues like class size, teacher pay, curriculum, teacher credentialing, and a host of other issues. In private schools, many FEWER teachers have credentials than in public schools, because they are not governed by the state (not union) credentialing laws. In addition, looking at public schools, the California (unionized) teachers have basically the same contract terms as the Virginia (non-unionized) teachers. The fact is the public school teachers are state and local government employees; their hiring, firing, pay scale and other decisions tend to follow the rules of other government organizations.

    DDMeyers: Your complaint seems to be more about the way that the school district handled special education services for your child, and the differences between the unionized NY schools and the unionized Ohio schools. Based on these facts, there’s no basis for your argument that unions are, at heart, the real problem or that the lack of unions would fix the problem.

  12. @Marktropolis: The article is honest, not bias. Teacher unions have run amok. Neither the author of this article nor I suggested that people who belong to unions are necessarily without mastery or are not conscientious. Some unions are monstrous thugs. Some are reasonable organizations that maintain quality. The best carpenters are usually union carpenters. The best electricians are usually union electricians. As for nurses being unionized, given the current construct within the medical industry I believe nurses are exploited by management and need a stronger bargaining force. As for doctors, no doctor needs a union. I am not anti-union in principle.

    You ask me what “professional” means. I ask you the same question. What does it mean to be professional? Are professionals rewarded for seniority over quality of performance? Do professionals end their work day when the bell rings or when the work is finished? Are professionals autonomous leaders or socialistic followers? Are professionals problem solvers or obstreperous obstructionists?

    Unions have corrupted teacher professionalism.

  13. @ddmeyers: I’m glad you found a situation that fit your family’s needs.

    Your quote: “Unions have corrupted teacher professionalism.” Unions arise out of situations where teachers are working conditions are unprofessional and where teachers have had no voice in changing those condtions; hence, collective bargaining. If administrations and unions would bargain better contracts, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. There is plenty of blame to share.

    Teachers, administrators, and parents all have difficulty seeing the “forest for the trees blocking their view.” Especially since children are involved.

  14. @Natasha: You stated, perfectly, the heart of the corrosive quality of union influence when you wrote, “More and more we are losing what makes us teachers, the human characteristic. We are so focused on what we get out of the deal that Unions may hinder us at times. The teachers that still hold this belief of teaching with the human dimension are the ones that don’t fight with the union or against it. They spend their time on making their students successful.” EXACTLY!!!!!

    @Martropolis: Why can’t you admit that teacher unions have run amok? Why must you twist my words into assuming I have hatred for all unions? Why can’t you acknowledge that some unions are bad? And I’ll take, “tripping over some of your rhetoric,” as a compliment. Thank you.

    @Attorney DC: From union teacher to DC lawyer…that’s an improvement? What’s next, organized crime boss? My conclusions about the deleterious effects unions have on education in NY State are based on over twenty years of experience educating four children, two without and two with special needs, within NY State & Ohio. To focus only on the “special needs” portion of my comments is a mistake. It is my experience that most NY State residents are extremely unhappy about the strangle hold unions have on public schools. As for having “an antagonistic relationship with my schools,” that is a pejorative remark that reflects your bias, not my sentiment.

    I have complex and genuine experience with many educational venues, in many capacities and the truth is, the better the school, the weaker the union connection. The worst schools have the strongest teacher union. The best schools have no unions.

    I’ve enjoyed the exchange of opinions. We may agree to disagree. Hope you’ve appreciated my moments of humor. It’s been fun. Thanks.

  15. ddmeyers: I’m glad you enjoyed the exchange of opinions. However, I find it insulting that you consider my career change to an attorney as one step removed from an “organized crime boss.” I work for a non-profit organization and try to assist our clients to the best of my ability every day. Perhaps you should think twice before blithely espousing negative stereotypes about others.

  16. ddmeyers, it appears that you’ll only be satisfied if unions are wiped off the face of the earth. I don’t disagree that there are some unions that are not acting in the best interests of their members. But to imply that it’s only unions that “run amok,” is disingenuous at best. We’ve got school boards that want to ban Anne Frank’s diary. Others that want to insist that evolution should not be taught in school. There’s plenty of blame to go around. But your haste in hanging this all around the neck of unions – writ large – indicates to me that you’re simply looking for a scapegoat and don’t really want to fully discuss the issue.

    I’m with Attorney DC, in that you appear to be quick with the rhetorical bashing, and your choice of words belies your so-called “moments of humor.” Tripping over your rhetoric wasn’t a compliment. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t twisting your words. I’m not the one who chose phrases like “anti-Americanism” or “organized crime boss.” I’m glad that in the case of nurses, you can see the value in a stronger bargaining force. That said, I’m not convinced (from what you’ve said so far) that if nurses’ unions got as strong as you say teachers unions are that you’d maintain that position. And doctors don’t need a union?

    Without going too far afield, I might ask the question of what a union’s role is or should be. In the case of nurses, you state that they are being exploited. Some would argue the same thing is happening to teachers. I suppose it all depends on your frame of reference.

  17. Marktropolis: Respectfully, you don’t like the message so you attack the messenger. Your position was lost once you started calling me names (ddmeyers is a union hater), rather than defending your position with logic and examples, as I have done. Whether you are able to admit it or not, unions are organizations chartered to represent the needs of their membership. Good for them! Teacher Unions are among the best run labor organizations in the US. Good for them! They focus with precise accuracy on achieving the goals of the members who employ them. Good for them! That is what they should be doing. It is their mandate. They fight to protect the needs and wants of their members. Good for them!

    So who protects the needs and wants of the children…teacher union reps? Who advocates for the rights of the students, making their educational requirements top priority…the president of the NEA or the NEO? Of course, not. Unions only benefit people outside their membership when those goals coincide with the interests of their card carriers. Logically and unemotionally, this is how the system works. Every union has only one master…their membership. It was constructed to be adversarial. Teacher unions are doing an excellent job for their members. I give them an A+.

    Let me be clear: This issue is not about liking or disliking unions. The problem is that teachers, using union representation, have forced the satisfaction of their requirements to take priority over student achievement. The mission of public school eduction is to achieve student success, not meet employee demands. Students first, parents/taxpayers second, employees third.

    DC Lawyer: You’re right, my lawyer joke was a cheap shot…it was too easy! Lighten up. You’re a lawyer, for goodness sake, and one who even works for a non-profit organization…like a labor union, perhaps? They are non-profits, you know.

    If anyone should be humorless about this issue it is we, students, parents and taxpayers, who stand alone against the force of unionized teachers gone mad with power. Perhaps the only way we can return to the mission of public education, where student need receives top priority, is if we unionize. It would be an extreme force of reckoning. We can call it: Taxpayers Rally Organization Of Parents & Students and then we can send in our TROOPS!

  18. Let me explain how explain what setting goals for each student actually entails. First, I run off five pages of forms for each general education student. For each student who is reading below grade level, I run off an additional 10 pages of forms. Fourteen of my 33 students fall into this category. I run off another five pages of forms for each student who is labeled as an English Language Learner. Nine of my students have this label, although five of them are actually fluent in English. My principal, in her wisdom, has declared that if any language other than English is spoken at home, then the child cannot be taken off ELL status regardless of how well they are performing. Then I am required to schedule a goal setting conference with each student. These conferences generally run 5 to 15 minutes in length. They must be held during class time because students cannot be required to stay after class. This translates to roughly six to seven hours of what should be instructional time. My principal has brightly suggested that teachers make time for all these goal setting meetings by having the rest of the class watch a video. This means that my students have to watch a video every day for a week. I am required to do this twice a year. With the time wasted on this silly project, I could give my students 15 hours of solid instruction in reading skills and phonics.

  19. Interesting exchange of ideas and rhetoric.

    I am a NYS parent of 3 students who have been in public schools, private schools and a taxpayer and… wait for it …a NYC high school math teacher (6yrs).

    Yes I belong to my union…you know the awful organization with the contract that limits the DOE to placing ONLY 34 students in each of my five classes. My union automatically grieves all classes with over subscribed class periods. This protects our children/students’ right to not only an appropriate but a quality education.

    Does anyone realize that on a daily basis special ed AND general ed teachers speak out, point out and advocate for special needs students even at the risk of letters to our file or other retaliatory actions.
    We all know that there are mediocre and bad members of any profession but that is not how we should define that organization. Does the union protect its membership, of course, and that protection enables me to advocate for my students without fear of losing my job.

    The original post states that teachers are against setting goals for their students. That is a disingenuous and downright ludicrous twisting of the underlying facts. We all set goals for AND WITH our students. We revise those goals as our students develop their scholarship. The union grievance is about the amount of paperwork the DOE is requiring per student to document the goal setting, the rigid, inflexible documents necessary to document the goal setting, the specific type of individual conferencing with 150-170 students (5 classes with up to 34 students each) during a 45 min. class period. Remember HS students have 7 classes a day and each teacher is required to over document these goals. If you really want to hear a grievance come talk to HS students after they’ve endured this 7 times.
    As professionals my colleagues and I talk in our weekly Small Learning Communitiy meetings and we set goals for ourselves and our students. When we have concerns about any students we compare notes and observations about that student and then develop a plan and strategy of support. We have usually already been in touch with the parents or guardians and then arrange a meeting at their convenience. This is our formal meeting, but we talk daily informally.
    A professional teacher will not turn the other cheek to be hit upside the head again. As professionals we will take a stand, we will speak out for ourselves and our students. We will use our union organization to protect ourselves from baseless retaliation, and mindless and redundant paperwork.

    As a parent and taxpayer my children and I have seen a multitude of “new and improved” programs, structures, etc. but the real difference always came down to the teacher in the room. This is the human being that taught and interacted with my child. In my 20 plus years as a parent I never heard a teacher bring their union up in any conversation relating to my children’s education. When we did on very rare occasions run up against a not so great teacher I checked myself to be sure it wasn’t just a personality issue and then my children and I would figure out a way to handle the situation. Only once did it require my going over a teacher’s head. My daughters who are in college, now have the tools necessary to deal with adults in an adult manner. The fact that our city had a teachers’ union didn’t interfere with my children’s education nor would it with any other child’s education.

    It amazes me that in some quarters the underlying premise to being a teaching professional is that we can be used, abused, fired and then should say thank you sir more.

    Try as you might; I will not let that happen…ever.

  20. If there were real union thugs around here, they would file a grievance against Eduwonk for allowing teabaggers like ddmeyers to comment so much.

  21. Lou Fleming: lol…Well said and spoken like a true union wonk…”Silence Dissenters!” You can’t even handle reading a blog without wanting to file a union grievance…Do you see the irony, here?

    The preceding personal attacks against someone who identifies the deleterious effect labor unions have on education, further proves the author’s position. You enact that which is described in “Trees & Forests.” You vilify everyone who does not goose step to your marching orders. You have proven yourselves intolerant of differing opinions and criticism. Rather than asking yourselves how the problem can be fixed, you attack, telling your detractors to sit down and shut up. You despise freedom of speech, hoping to squelch 1st amendment rights…how “Union” of you. When bullying fails, you resort to direct personal attacks by name calling, “tea-bagger, union hater,” or implied defamation, insinuating that it is only people with a “personality issue” who experience problems at “union run” pubic schools.

    You are not victimized. It is your “bully or be bullied” mentality that must change because it feeds your waring, unprofessional, non collegial behavior. Teachers, like the rest of us, should maintain employment based on quality of work, not tenure. No one is entitled to a job. As for “used and abused,” it is union brethren who slap down their colleagues when they dare go against union doctrine.

    Ray: I feel your pain and frustration! I have experienced exactly what you describe, i.e., nonsensical policies that are counterproductive to meaningful improvements. We are not adversaries. Your principal needs to hear you. We need to listen to each other with sincerity, identify our needs, speak to each other with honesty, hear each other with mutual respect and innovate solutions, together. My children are now in schools that model this philosophy and they are thriving. It is a grace I give thanks for, everyday! I hope either you find a better school or are able to effect change where you teach, currently. Good Luck.

  22. In my opinion, the absence of collegiality is the result of school systems prioritizing ease of scheduling over providing time to plan collaboratively. Also, the absence of professionalism and professional decision making is the result of a school day that leaves out any time think critically (35 students, bell, 35 students, bell, 35 students, bell, ad infinitum). Is it any wonder that education associations fight for every second they can get? And that the problems of the world get solved on Records Day when the children are gone and the teachers can talk to one another uninterrupted?

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