Saturday, February 7, 2009

KIPP School Teachers Unionize

Today, while I was putting off going to the gym by trolling the interweb, I came across this NYTimes article about the teachers at a KIPP charter school in Brooklyn. The article essentially describes the unionization efforts of the teachers at KIPP AMP, and the response that the school's administrators have had.

For those of you not familiar with KIPP, it is a nation-wide network of Charter Schools that operates in some of our nations most dysfunctional education systems (including DC), and generally gets some pretty great results. It was founded by former Teach for America corps members, and usually hires TFA alums.

Charter Schools are sometimes able to achieve better results than regular public schools because they are able to circumvent the grossly inefficient bureaucracy that surrounds public education (that bureaucracy, in my opinion, is caused by two equal and yet opposite forces of failure: 1) policy makers, who are more interested in pleasing their political base than doing good things for kids, and 2) teachers unions who are more interested in pleasing the vocal minority of teachers than doing good things for kids). Given the traditionally bad relationship between unions and Charter Schools, it is surprising that KIPP teachers are trying to unionize.

This article leaves me with two questions:

First, if teachers say that there were no problems with administrators before (which they do in the article) then why unionize? If you don't have problems with management, if your school has only 22 teachers, if your administrators are available and open, why do you need a collective voice? I'm not criticizing (yet), I just don't understand.

Second, if administrators were happy with the teachers' performance before the unionizing efforts (as administrators say they were), then why freak out about it? Why haul students in to bad-mouth their teachers? It seems that doing so only creates an environment of hostility, which of course will be damaging to the students. For a system of schools that is generally well-regarded, it seems like a bizarre step.

It seems like people get a little stupid whenever unions come up. Some get stupid in their freakish support of all things union (even the bad things), while others get stupid in their angry tirades against all things union (even the good things). So my question is this: are the people at KIPP (teachers and administrators) catching this disease of stupid, or are there other reasons for their actions?


Glenn Watson said...

The Constitution give Americans the right to peacefully assemble. Unions are nothing more than assemblies of Americans. If KIPP or TFA or anyone opposes unions the are essentially against people exercising their Constitutional rights.

Anonymous said...

Glenn, you're missing the point, which is not, "Do they have the right?" It is, "Why are they doing it?"

lodesterre said...

I agree with you that people seem to go frothing at the mouth either one way or another about unions. I support the idea of unions but not the bad ideas of unions. If you look at the history of organized labor and of labor in general then you will see a history of two forces - management/ownership and the workforce - struggling for a balance in which each side feels they are getting their due. We owe the weekend to unions. We owe the 8 hour workday (for most professions) to unions. We owe child labor laws to unions. Sometimes an organization shows such prescience in their treatment of labor that unions are seen to be unnecessary. But that is rare. Far more common are the abuses, large and small, that management inflict upon their labor, making unions seem necessary. When you throw into this mix the natures of certain types of people - the greedy, the power hungry, the manipulative, the political climber - on both sides of the fence, you might see that there is a need for some kind of balancing instrument that negotiations between union and management provide.

I am not surprised that a KIPP school is making noise about unionizing. I won't be surprised if others follow suit. I honestly believe that if our ridiculously inept union crumbles under Rhee that people will be talking about unionizing within 5 years. Why? Because there will be abuses under management, plain and simple. If Rhee is successful in implementing a KIPP like system in DCPS - year round school, longer days - along with a fire-at-will power given to principals you can bet that there will be accusations of abuse, of wrongful treatment, of wrongful firings that will not be remedied by the city council or a private lawyer.

Here is the quote from the NYTimes article that justify their reasons: "They say their main goals in forming a union are to establish clearer expectations for teacher performance and official procedures for how and why teachers are dismissed." Obviously they feel that there are inequities in their system that are not being addressed by the administrator.

The blog Gotham Schools, and also Teach the Moment, , have some interesting things to say about this.

Anonymous said...

I'm a DCPS teacher and would occasionally sub at a nearby charter school that had evening classes for adult learners. One night, I found myself working as a sub for a teacher who had been fired, until they could find her replacement. The students, foreign adults learning English, were surprised that the lady was no longer there. I was specifically told by the evening school principal not to answer any questions about "Ms. Jones" and to refer all questions about her to him. It seems as if Ms. Jones had written a textbook and needed a few days off to sign her book contract, was not granted the time off by the charter school, despite the fact that I was a competent sub holding her class, and she was promptly fired. If this had been a DCPS, she would not have been fired. Maybe repremanded, marked AWOL, or just allowed to go as a sub was in place. Charter schools have much more leeway in firing people; teachers have fewer rights and can easily be fired. I have heard of other firings at this same charter school and at others. The pendulum really swings too far in the wrong direction at charter schools in terms of protecting teachers.

Mr. Potter said...

Lodesterre and Anon #3,

I totally understand why unions are valuable to have. My question here is why do these teachers specifically want a union. The quote from the article about them wanting to establish clearer performance targets is completely understandable. What I have a hard time understanding is why, if "before the unionization drive, [teachers] had not had any major conflicts with administrators" and emails were almost always returned by administrators, then why form a union to address this issue? I'm wondering if anyone went to the principal and said, "Hey, do you know what would be nice? If we had some clearer guidelines on expectations." If the teachers had a good relationship with administrators, this wouldn't have been a problem.

It seems like these teachers may have made a decision based on fear, and not on common sense. And then, of course, the administrators responded with a little bit o' crazy -- obviously making things worse. But if teachers reported no major problems, then why couldn't their issues have been worked out internally?

Glenn Watson said...

I am not missing the point. The reason people organize is to protect themselves. Why else would anyone organize and pay dues to a union? The other question is why does the admin want to prevent the formation of a union? The answer is obvious. They want to maintain control. Its an old story.

Glenn Watson said...

The bottom line is its not the business of the admin as to why teachers want to form a union. They have the right. End of story.

If an American wants to exercise any of his rights it is not the place of the government to ask him why.

lodesterre said...

Mr. Potter,

I ask this with all due respect: what was your experience before teaching?

I ask this because when I read the reason that they wanted a union, when I read the two NYC blogs that talked about this situation, I made certain assumptions. For instance, relationships with those in charge are always good when those in power like the way things are going and when no questions are asked. But I have found that when people ask questions, when people simply ask to be part of the process - well, some administrators like that and some find it intrusive.

The quote for me sums up a lot. That they "want to set clear expectations" to me means that they have been asked to jump through hoops - different expectations for different teachers, etc. The same goes for wanting to set procedures for how and why someone is dismissed. For me it means that they have felt that decisions made towards others may have been arbitrary.

In my experience questioning those in charge, no matter how tactfully put, is rarely successful. It doesn't mean that I don't think you shouldn't go to your administrator or ask the questions that need asking, I just don't expect much to come from it and am always pleased when it does. I once led a small revolt at a school where I worked that resulted in the transfer of an administrator who was unprofessional in her behavior. But more often than not, as a worker, I have been told that "we know best" no matter what the situation. My assumptions therefor are colored by such experiences.

The Washington Teacher said...

In response to your question:" if teachers say that there were no problems with administrators before (which they do in the article) then why unionize?" - I would like to provide some responses that you and others may not have considered.

Establishing a union even when there are currently no problems is forward thinking. A union can give these teachers a 'voice' in decisions that affect their careers. It allows them to bargain for what is in the best interests of their students (i.e. like class size ratio's, etc.), their wages, health benefits, working conditions and retirement plan. In some charter schools the benefits are not the greatest even though the owners make large profits. They could even negotiate to have teachers become certified meeting higher level of standards than they currently meet.

If these teachers disagree with the way they are treated either now or in the future- it affords them 'due processs' through a grievance process. This allows them to settle differences by a third neutral party and would protect them from unfair terminations. It also would require that management would have to implement disciplinary actions against employees for 'just cause' and not arbitrarily or for capricious reasons like personal reasons.In situations like some of these charter schools- there are no real checks and balances.

Unions have been the backbone of our middle class. Because of unions, workers now have sick leave, retirement benefits, better working conditions as well as input into decisions that impact their occupational futures.

Mr. Potter said...

It's great to remember all of the good things that unions have done -- sick leave, 8 hour workday, etc. -- but let's not also forget that unions have added thick layers of bureaucracy, embezzled millions, and hired goons to muscle those who disagreed with them. Unions are not inherently good. It's the people who matter.

Before I was a teacher, I worked as an accountant in small-ish company (about 80 people in our office). I was an at-will employee, and had no "due process" rights. I didn't get fired because I did what my employer asked, and I did it well. When I had a problem, I talked to my boss like a grown up and everything worked out fine. We like to celebrate the proletarian nature of unions, but teachers aren't huddled masses and we aren't from lower socio-economic classes than our bosses. There's no Marxist class warfare between teachers and administrators the way there frequently is between management and labor in industry. Why can't teachers work like all other professionals? I simply don't get it.

It's no secret that the AFT has been courting charter school teachers and seeking to get them unionized. Did the teachers unionize because they were concerned with unfair practices of their administrators, or did they unionize because they bought into the "union = good" mantra? Did they try working through problems in a professional manner? If not, why not? I think it's worth analyzing, even if it turns out that I'm full of crap.

Glenn Watson said...

Why can't teachers work like all other professionals? I simply don't get it.>>

Teachers have made a trade off. They get paid less than other professionals but in return they get a better level of job security. If management in some schools systems want to take away the job security because accountants don't have it then teachers will need more money to make up for the lost benifit.

ms. mindless said...

i am somewhat on the fence about unions. i see the good and the bad...but, mr. potter, your performance as an accountant probably didn't hinge on as many outside factors as your performance does in the classroom. so, for that reason, i see why teachers need a bit more job security. i agree that there needs to be more meaningful accountability, but, without unions, i do think that teachers could be fired arbitrarily or for unjust reasons. you have posted before about some of the failings and flaws of teachers and administrators at your school. do you really want those kinds of people given power to fire at will? i know i would not be comfortable with that.

Bren said...

Why do teachers unionize but accountants don't? Because the labor market for accountants is quite competative, but for teachers there is typically a local public school system that dominates the labor market, in the way that a big factory in a small town might dominate the local labor market for unskilled/semi-skilled labor. Hence, you often find unions in both cases. Even if you don't buy the argument that local school systems are a labor monopoly, a large organization like a school system is easier to unionize a large number of small accouting firms.