The end of teacher sameness and solidarity

Terry Moe and John Chubb say…

[I]n American education, policy making is not guided by what is best for children or the larger public. It is a political process driven by power. And the most powerful groups in that process are special interests, led by the teachers unions, with a stake in keeping the system as it is. . . . Reforms of real consequence are vigorously resisted and watered down. (p. 149)

Traditionally, teachers have taught students face-to-face in classrooms. This is the standard role, common across virtually all teachers, and has allowed for a pervasive sense of occupational sameness that has long been a very good thing for the unions. It encourages teachers to see themselves as having a common set of work interests, as being equally deserving, and as sinking or swimming together. And all of this promotes solidarity, which is critical to the unions’ ability to attract members, gain their financial and emotional support, and mobilize them for economic and political ends. (p. 158)

[T]eachers unions are steadfast in demanding sameness . . . [t]he idea is to minimize all sources of differentiation, because they undermine the common interests and solidarity that so contribute to union success. . . . [H]owever, technology gives rise to a differentiation of roles among teachers. Some may still work face-to-face with students in classroom settings. . . . Some may work with students in computer labs, handling much larger classes than today’s teachers do (because the computers are taking over much of the actual teaching). Some may work with students online but still do it in real time. Some may engage in distance learning but do it asynchronously . . . Some may work mainly with parents, monitoring student progress and assuring proper student oversight. Some may oversee or serve as mentors to the front-line teachers themselves. And more. These and other jobs . . . require different skills and backgrounds, may call for varying levels of pay, . . . offer teachers a vast array of occupational opportunities they didn’t have before, encourage a level of entrepeneurialism and individualism among them . . . The profession of the future will be a much more differentiated and entrepeneurial one, and such a profession spells trouble for the unions . . . it is destined to be a profession that will no longer concentrate teachers in common geographic locations and monopoly employers – and the resulting dispersion of teachers to new locations, combined with the diversity of employers that goes along with it, cannot help but create additional layers of differentiation that affect how teachers see their own interests. (p. 159–160)

[T]he pervasive sameness that the unions have always counted on will slowly fall apart. As the years go by, they will have a harder time generating the solidarity they need to motivate teachers to join, to keep them as members, to mobilize supportive action - and to do the things successful unions need to do if they are to wield power in politics. As sameness and solidarity decline, so too will their political power. (p. 160)

[Liberating Learning: Technology, Politics, and the Future of American Education]

Previous posts in this series

  1. Education’s resistance to technology will be overcome

  2. It would be impossible for the information revolution to unfold and NOT have transformative implications for how children can be educated

  3. Technology will free learning from the dead hand of the past

  4. Technological change is destined to be resisted by the teachers unions

  5. Correlation or causation? Teacher resistance to state technology initiatives

  6. Greater use of technology allows for decreased numbers, but improved quality, of teachers?

14 Responses to “The end of teacher sameness and solidarity”

  1. I agree that school policy is driven by power, not what’s best for kids, but – in Maine, at least – I see local and very personal school board and committee agendas dominating the decisions, not unions. Maine’s teachers can not bargain about school-day matters like curriculum, etc, so their collective voice is not particularly powerful on the issues that matter most for kids.

  2. I’m with NancyEH.
    School boards, administration and the parents that influence them are more powerful in this system than the teachers and their union here as well.

    I think that some (not all) of the “sameness” is driven by these other groups. No one wants their kids to be a lab rat in a failed experiment, so kids frequently get conservatively taught the education their parents had.

    We need to shift the focus toward the future, or at least out of the previous generation..

  3. The influence of teacher’s unions in this country vary wildly by setting. In more remote areas they tend to be weak and not very influential, while in places like New York City they are incredibly strong and very political. I’ve worked in Kansas and in NYC and have seen both sides. The political climate (how individuals view and react these organizations) seems to dictate how strong the union is allowed to be.

    There is still a lot of pressure put on teachers and other community members to deliver the same education to students that their parents received. A lot of times it is a double-standard- a demand for better schools and reform while still holding schools back from trying new, innovative ideas. I agree that we need to be looking forward to a new model for education.

    People are trying to place blame on someone or something for low performance and lack of progress. That’s what we’ve always done and probably always will do, but those who want real reform are going to look for ways to solve the multitude of problems in the system, not just point fingers.

  4. My experience has been to feel pressure for sameness from school board and administration, not union.

  5. I think the union contracts are an effect and not a cause of a desire for sameness. Union power grew with the effort to make the education ‘delivered’ the same for all groups within a political entity. Another name for sameness is equality. As we move to differentiating for all we will risk being inequitable. That might not be bad, but it is a very real and potentially huge risk.

  6. I’m now completely convinced that this book would not be worth reading.

    It is not because the passage above attributes change resistance to unions, but because it fails to demonstrate any understanding on the authors’ part of the total complexity of why schools are the way they are today, and why change is resisted.

    Yes, unions have a part, but so do hundreds of other interconnected and related “systems” which push and pull on one another. Attributing the resistance to any one group or a small number of groups is like doing 10% of the work of understanding the complexity of public education. It is inadequate.

    I’ve not read the book, and perhaps the authors do go on to examine all of the other systems which are related and interconnected, but maybe not.

    If not, my concern is that the problem is oversimplified, and that often leads us to absurd beliefs about simple solutions.

  7. Living in Dayton, I am very familiar with Terry Moe & John Chubb. They are not exactly impartial observers; Terry Moe is a Fellow of the Hoover & Brookings conservative think tanks; John Chubb is the founder & Senior Executive VP of Edison Schools, a for-profit alternative schools group. They have used their significant political connections (largely Republican) to make Dayton, Ohio the home of an exceptional number of alternative schools, many of whom use the same financial officer– one who is now under investigation for not paying the bills. These schools frequently fail to deliver education that is “better” by almost any measure. (Not just the pitiful Ohio Achievement tests.)

    I think the unions are a straw man in this conversation. I am a technology teacher in an independent school & currently have no connection with the teachers’ unions, but I have been a member in other states and I agree with previous posters: the most powerful forces against change– which in my case meant adopting a number of new technologies for my students, who were considered gifted– was the administration and some school board members. They wanted “what has proved itself over time.”

    We are also facing a really serious budget crunch, and that includes state aid for education. So “just using what we have” begins to sound very appealing– even to administrators who want different results!

  8. I would add that often times I feel that we (teachers) recieve competing ideology. On one hand, we are told to get all students to standard by differentiating, allowing students to learn at their own pace, and meeting the needs of the individual child while at the same time making sure we are keeping pace on the pacing guide and curriculum maps and with other teachers of the same content. Which is it? Certainly these are not the result of union ideologies. On one hand I like the idea of allowing teachers to be innovative, but it’s incredibly frustrating that “innovation and entrepreneurship” is the future of education, when what most teachers want is the autonomy to BE innovative. The past ten years in public education has been all about standardization for teachers and students, but that’s hardly the profession or union’s fault.

  9. Terry Moe and John Chubb make it sound like “what’s best for children” is always easily quantified, perhaps even obvious. I don’t know how education could be a government budget item and NOT be a political issue. They also seem to believe that special interest is always the same thing as self-interest. I don’t always agree with my union, but the characterization in this book of the unions as the problem is pretty offensive. To be honest, I’m getting tired of being spoon fed the tripe these guys are pedaling…

  10. Colleen Krakauskas Reply October 10, 2009 at 12:23 am

    This is just another “educated” argument to propagate the anti-union propaganda that has permeated the public-political discourse in our country for quite awhile. Especially in any public industry that the “for profit” advocates have seen the money in reforming.

    I’m sorry but this is just another “educated” way to blame the teachers for the issues that reflect our society. The teachers have a union because obviously, they were tired of being blamed for the deficiencies of society by those who only see it on the sidelines.

    The public school is expected to teach much more than academic skills it is also expected to teach public behavior skills online and offline. The unions are not solely to blame for the lack of progress, there are many other characters in this story.

    It is hard to advocate a “for-profit” reform if you acknowledge the “non-profit” solution.

  11. By the way– After reading these comments, I’d actually like to hear Scott’s response. I hope that it would be thoughtful, not reflexive: I think it’s clear that the teachers do not feel respected or heard in this conversation. Scott, so you really feel that I– or many or your other readers– are the sole or main reason schools are not what you envision them as being? And do you really feel that a for-profit corporation which pays its teachers wages below the 50th-65th percentile of local norms are a better solution? Because that’s John Chubb and Terry Moe’s answer. I can drive less than 10 miles to see the examples. DECA (Dayton Early Childhood Academy), which meets in the building where my husband works at the University of Dayton, has been an exceptional success in large part because of UD’s sponsorship. This year it is desperately seekign funding. The easy answers mostly aren’t, actually.

  12. In a recent study US Department of education indicates that the students who use online learning in addition to the classroom are more productive. This is definitely a move forward towards the use of online learning in mainstream education. Online learning is fun and interactive, the students who experience this are encouraged to use it more often. The ability to share and learn from other students anywhere in the world is a definite plus point. Technology is constantly changing. The www has now evolved into “Web 2.0” and is the second wave of the World Wide Web.Most of us still follow the textbook type of teaching, where the students are made to by-heart, recite and write what is taught by us. In an era of global connectivity teachers should be actively involved to make the students aware of the digital tools available and how effectively they can be used for learning purposes. There are many online platforms to make learning a group activity, where students interact with each other and learn to create flash cards,videos, photos and flash cards online effectively for learning purposes. We could make studying a sporting event so children are actively involved and learn faster. Though class room education cannot literally be replaced by e-learning online education has its own advantages. Today’s net generation like to discover new things and learn from hands on experience. when they look for information online,not only will they try different search engines, they will also search for interactive materials. The goal should always be to enhance child’s learning abilities and confidence while at the same time preserving the relationship with your child. Such learning methodologies creates a sense of “self directed” learning and problem solving attitude among students.A balanced combination of online education and proper guidance of class room education can get the best out of students.

  13. tribal self-preservation

    Our DNA prioritizes self-preservation (fight/flight, procreation, etc.) – this is human-nature. “Self” goes pretty far – we see this behavior extend to the family unit, or even the community, and in the case of larger threats, to entire nations (witnes…


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