Dec 13, 2013
Taking Back Our Schools—and Fixing Them
Posted on Apr 25, 2006
Frustration and suspicion about who might emerge from the shadows to sabotage their plans often lead superintendents to jealously guard their power. In 2002, Day Higuchi, then president of United Teachers Los Angeles, the Los Angeles teacher union, had high hopes for working with the school district’s new “can-do” superintendent, Roy Romer. Higuchi hoped that Romer would endorse a new union initiative called Lesson Study, a plan to help teachers work collectively to improve classroom lessons. At a breakfast meeting that I attended, Higuchi presented Romer with an invitation to work with the union to develop and spread Lesson Study across the district. When Higuchi finished, Romer flipped over his paper placemat and with a red felt pen drew a box with an S in it. “That’s me,” he said. Beneath he drew 11 boxes with smaller s’s in them, representing the 11 local superintendents, and below that, a number of small boxes with roofs, representing schools and teachers. Then, pulling his face near to Higuchi’s, he drew bold red arrows pointing downward from the top. Romer jabbed his pen in the air to accentuate each word: “You cannot usurp my authority to manage this district!” It was a dumbfounding moment, one that revealed the true underside of the use of power. Here was a chance for a new superintendent to forge a small but significant step with the union, but Romer, who recently announced his resignation, explained that he was “in a hurry.” He clearly had little time for ideas that were at odds with his own. In the end his refusal to work with the union undermined the possibility of creating a broader base of power that could transcend self-interest.
Nor are the unions exempt from self-interest. A few years ago I helped establish a national group of union presidents called TURN (Teacher Union Reform Network) who were dedicated to remaking their unions as forces to improve education. One way was to cooperate with administrators and encourage teachers to use their classroom know-how to redesign teaching at the schoolhouse. But hostility and mistrust run deep. The union leaders became nervous, fearing that fellow unionists would attack them for “collaborating” with the enemy and that if the effort to collaborate failed they would share the blame. Don Watley, president of the New Mexico Federation of Educational Employees, commented: “It’s like the Normandy landing. We’ve got the best troops in the world. We’ve got the best officers in the world. And we’ve got the best equipment in the world. But at 0800 when we hit the beach half of us are going to get killed!” Sadly, in the years to come, the ingrained mistrust, and the unpredictable dance of union politics, prevented these unionists from becoming a positive force in educational reform. Instead, they have been reduced to stockpiling power, much as the Soviets and Americans stockpiled nuclear weapons during the Cold War, to oppose any hostile moves the other side might make.
So what can be done to break the standoff between teacher unions and districts? How can teachers’ professional authority be restored? How can parents be awakened and brought back into the fold? Experience shows that it can be done. Schools such as Harlem’s Central Park East Secondary, Los Angeles’ Foshay Learning Center, those in Ocean Hill-Brownsville, and many others attest to the fact that schools can be made into safe places where children learn. Sustaining them is the hard part.
There is little doubt that trying to build good schools with command-and-control management doesn’t work. School boards, superintendents and union officials need to clear the obstacles—unnecessary bureaucratic requirements and outmoded work rules—to make innovation at the schoolhouse possible. These top-level educational leaders also must make resources available to support new ways of teaching. Jonathan Kozol has it right. Teaching is the only reform that counts and it can be done only at the schoolhouse by teachers, principals, parents and students working together.
In the next essay I am going to examine what mayors can do. Waiting for the schools to be saved by someone else is nonsense. Only concerted local action offers a chance. Doubters should recall Margaret Mead’s observation: “Never doubt that a small group of concerned people can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
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