Reflections on Joel Klein’s ‘Lessons of Hope’ #1: On Educators’ Professional Organization

Last week I promised to spend a few posts reflecting on selected points from former NYC schools chancellor Joel Klein’s recent and valuable Lessons of Hope: How to Fix Our Schools.

Though I said it there, I’ll say it again: Lessons of Hope is a must-read for anyone wanting to better understand American education’s current and complicated crossroads. Thousands of great pages have been produced by many able thinkers over the past decade or so on the subject, but Mr. Klein’s is rare for its fairness and action-orientation. This is in itself remarkable because a perspective like Mr. Klein’s (i.e., that of a non-career-educator), when applied to an infamously reform-proof system like NYC’s, is one that too often slippery-slopes into piles of reductionist judgments and over-generalized, over-simplified practitioner-bashing. And though Klein doesn’t exactly go easy on ed’s practitioners, his takes about the enterprise’s prevailing attitudes, restrictions, and bureaucracy read as more incredulous than demeaning. (And let’s face it, people: it can be pretty ridiculous out here in Ed-ville. We should expect, at minimum, to have a few cocked eyebrows thrown our way by those who visit us.)

In full, Lessons of Hope recounts a study-worthy term of educational leadership. It does so not because it ends neatly with all of the NYC schools’ burning issues solved (far from it, actually), but because it shows a leader making real efforts to understand the complexities of his schools’ struggles and, accordingly, to apply a range of appropriate solutions. However you may feel about Mr. Klein’s always-onward decisiveness or about the solutions he set in motion (I couldn’t get behind all of them, for sure), his leadership — both as NYC’s chancellor and as a reform voice moving ahead — is anything but one-dimensional or ignorant of various stakeholders’ realities, and that can be hard to find in the current climate.

If you’ve read about the book and have, swayed by the swelling chorus of anti-Klein voices, made up  your mind that the author is just the latest in a line of teacher-belittling ed-accountability hawks, I urge you to pick it up for yourself. You may be surprised.

On those notes (and to stop belaboring the setup here), a few of the solutions enacted and/or envisioned by Mr. Klein in Lessons of Hope are what I’d like to explore a bit further here at A Total Ed Case over the next few weeks.

Some of Klein’s solutions resonate with me because they intersect with some of the most important ideas out there for improving instruction and for improving more students’ chances at long-term success. As these types of ideas are rarely championed by district- or school-level leaders in the U.S., it was incredibly refreshing to see them expressed and justified so visibly in Lessons of Hope.

The point of Klein’s I’d like to reflect further on in this entry, however, is not a directly instructional one, but rather a long-term priority expressed multiple times throughout Lessons of Hope: elevating the teaching profession’s societal status first through raising educators’ professional standards of performance and next turning practitioners’ basic accountability matters over to professional organizations (like the bar for attorneys, the AMA for physicians, etc.). As it’s a concept that doesn’t get enough airtime, either by reformers or teacher-labor advocates, I was thankful to see someone of Klein’s influence making the space to endorse it.

Here’s the basic background: Klein doesn’t believe in the order of operations preferred/envisioned by many teacher labor and advocacy groups to increase teaching performance and eventually raise the teaching profession’s societal standing (i.e., pay teachers more/protect teachers’ job-security/protect teachers’ time, then watch their performance improve; or ensure that teachers’ voices are heard at the policy-making making level, then watch the overall quality of the enterprise improve). Rather, directly inspired by the ideas of the most important teacher-labor leader of the past century, the late Albert Shanker, Klein maintains that higher professional standards must come first to touch off a snowballing cycle that looks like this:

  1. High and clear professional standards/expectations, monitored and upheld by professionals themselves, lead to
  2. Better professional practices, spread more widely and more consistently, which lead to
  3. Better student outcomes, which lead to
  4. Valid performance incentives, which lead to
  5. Higher-qualified individuals electing to enter education’s ranks, then
  6. Repeat, this time with the new stronger-on-average overall workforce.

If this cycle can run as designed over a generation or so, the thinking goes, the U.S. will ultimately have a teaching profession with the practical strength and level of societal respect necessary to (1) achieve the results we all want for our kids, (2) perpetually attract greater numbers of more highly qualified people to its ranks, and (3) apply meaningful torque to changing teacher pay, benefits, and/or decision-making structures.

In Lessons of Hope, Klein recounts NYC’s 2005 contract negotiations with UFT (then led by current American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten) to elaborate on this argument:

Profession was the key word here. Teachers are professionals, with real individual talents, who require discretion in their work, and not assembly-line workers performing identical repetitive tasks. They didn’t need a union that would require management to pay them all the same and enforce rigid, micromanaging work rules. They needed a professional association, or union, that would help them develop new abilities to meet every-changing student needs and devise ways for them to earn new rewards, including greater public esteem for their accomplishments with our students. Nothing would have done more to change the public schools, I told Randi, than to move teachers from a trade union model to a professional group model. (p.138-9)

In other words: as long as teachers organize like laborers, they’re inviting themselves to be viewed and treated as laborers. And this of course is not all bad. Will they be valued? Yes. Secure? Sure. Viewed as essential, however, or financially comfortable as opposed to stable? Not a chance. And as long as that’s true, there’s only so ‘professional’ an ed professional will ever appear to society. Worse, there’s only so far we’re going to get on improving this education thing in big ways. Until kids look at teachers and give them the automatic respect they give doctors or clergy, say (when’s the last time you heard outright backtalk from a child in a doctor’s offices or church?), and until more of the brightest kids in the school look at their teachers and think, ‘I want to be like her when I grow up’, it’s unreasonable to expect the huge, lasting improvements we all want to see.

(Incidentally: according to Klein, Weingarten disagreed with his argument on grounds that her role “required that she protect tenure, seniority, and a lockstep pay schedule that rewarded longevity on the job…that’s what a union was supposed to do.”)

I agree heartily with Klein’s order of cart-and-horse on this score. It’s one reason why I spend so much space addressing the issue of ed schools — which serve as both the ‘guard at the entrance’ and ‘first escort through the grounds’ of the teaching profession — in Education Is Upside-Down. For simply: without high professional standards, which ed schools are charged with establishing, guarding, and teaching, the other pieces will never fall in.

Ten or so years ago, while working as a classroom teacher, a group of colleagues and I stumbled upon Shanker’s ideas about professional organizations for teachers and used them to power many angry, ‘let’s-start-a-revolution!’-type discussions. For a bunch like us — young, hungry for respect, probably a little too proud of our still-maturing classroom abilities, and genuinely frustrated with our building union reps — Shanker provided a Great Other Way. He gave us another profession-validating option when the one we had, the local teachers union, always seemed to let us down. We were let down by their persistent fascinations with what we considered our craft’s smallest, most unimportant matters. We were let down by how such a small group of vocal individuals could paralyze our entire school (not to mention how they could grate our nerves to shreds in faculty meetings), shutting down promising school-wide actions with their incessant minute-measuring; or how they could stall the actions to death using endless rounds of feedback-gathering. Plus: when it came to the protections these reps were supposed to win for us, they didn’t seem much like protections at all. Where was the pay I really deserved, for instance, for all the time I was putting in? And how could the colleague we loved so much — who coached two sports, who was a favorite among the kids, who started and advised an after-school club, and on and on — get let go to make room for a more senior teacher from another building who’d decided he’d like to make a change? None of this was raising our standing with our community or strengthening our professional cachet. Much to the contrary, it was all making us look difficult and entitled! And they take a chunk out of our paychecks to do all this?!

(Aside, for argument’s sake: in my work with schools from outside the classroom, this large, frustrated-with-union group vs much smaller, intensely-union group tension is one I’ve seen over and over.)

We decided the best way would be to respectfully withdraw from the union. Opt out, take our dues back, and forfeit all the so-called protections. We thought that if maybe we could get enough teachers to join us, we could force the union to re-think, for the good of all its members, its organizational mission and some of the sticks it was putting in the sand. I even talked to some more veteran teachers — not union reps, for fear of retribution — about the idea. They strongly, strongly advised me against it, saying it’d cost us; that though it sounded sensible enough, we were underestimating the ultimate effects.

Eventually, I and my fiery young colleagues got scared and cooled down. After all, we were also young in terms of what we had on the line: I’d just had my second daughter, another of us was newly married, etc. We pulled back on our great Shanker-inspired protest of the union because we got the message, loud and clear, that ‘unprotected’, even when you’re unhappy with the protections, is worth every penny of dues and worth enduring every annoying faculty-meeting throwdown between union nitpickers and school/district admin. Make no mistake, though: it was pure fear that made us not seek a professional-organizing option that better suited us, and I’d imagine that fear of not being protected — in contract negotiations, from possible attacks by parents, from unfair evaluations, etc. — is what stops us from organizing more professionally, even when we’re confident in our abilities.

Whether we’re talking about me and my one-time colleagues pulling up on our grassroots protest or Randi Weingarten not going long on the idea with Joel Klein, however, it’s soon going to become essential that the Great Other Way envisioned by Shanker exists, at least as an option. Though rigorous-professional-standards organizations (like the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards) do exist, they are somewhat moot here as they don’t offer anything close to the unions’ protective/representational teeth (which is likely why only about 110,000 of the U.S.’s 3.7 million teachers are members). Just as it ultimately was with me and my colleagues, this is a feature that must exist — and with some gusto — in any professional organization. It may be naive, but this certainly seems feasible. Who knows: perhaps in the short term and as a first step in the new organization, a network of on-retainer attorneys down with ed-reform could promise to work pro (or low) bono for the cause. (NOTE to Mr. Klein, with all the impressive law background & connections: there must be some way to secure at least this…right?)

In all, exploring the Great Other Way of Shanker would be healthy for the education enterprise in whole. I appreciate that Joel Klein brought it back into the open in Lessons of Hope, as it’s an idea that needs to be considered intensely once again.


One thought on “Reflections on Joel Klein’s ‘Lessons of Hope’ #1: On Educators’ Professional Organization

  1. Great post, Eric. I also find the concept of teacher professionalization really alluring—which makes it all the more infuriating how little traction it gets in actual policy.

    Have you read some of Richard Ingersoll’s stuff at Penn? Really interesting.

    I’ll be curious to hear about which parts of Klein’s book you *didn’t* like…

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