Reform: The Trojan Horse Wheeling into Schools

The attempts to crush teacher unions legislatively in Wisconsin, Indiana, and elsewhere have so far had only limited success. The enemies of teacher unions have been much more effective at weakening unions discreetly, through “education reform.”

Reforms that limit tenure, due process, or seniority protections also squelch dissent, union participation, and even advocacy for students, by making it easier to fire teachers for any reason, regardless of their skill in the classroom. Charter schools weaken union power because they are exempt from districts’ closed shop policies and are almost always non-union.

But education reform has also been undermining union strength in a more subtle way, by deskilling teachers. Deskilling is the Trojan horse that weakens unions, and schools, from the inside out.

The Original Deskiller

History shows how deskilling weakens unions. Before the Homestead Steel strike of 1892, in Pittsburgh, the steelworkers were highly skilled, with specialized training (much like teachers and nurses today). When their union made a demand and backed it with the threat of a strike, Homestead’s owner, Andrew Carnegie, had little choice but to concede.

The union virtually ran the mill, using workers’ power to control the speed of production.

In 1889, Carnegie attempted to abolish collective bargaining but workers fought off strikebreakers and the private police hired to protect the scabs. Sympathy strikes broke out at other Carnegie mills. Carnegie had to back down, accept collective bargaining, and sign a three-year contract.

Management tried again when that contract expired, laying off the entire Homestead workforce. Workers organized themselves and essentially took over the town, but Carnegie brought in scabs, some of whom were able to keep production going.

The strike lasted four months, until winter cold and literal starvation set in.

Perhaps most significant, though, was the fact that in a few short years, Carnegie had been able to automate much of production, allowing untrained and semi-skilled scabs to do the work that had previously been possible only with highly skilled laborers.

Mechanization led to a 25 percent decline in employees, but a doubling of productivity.

Carnegie taught capitalists then and education reformers today that they could weaken workers’ power by attacking their working conditions and making them superfluous through automation. Speeding up work forces workers to toil harder and faster, increasing their exhaustion and decreasing their time and energy for organizing or commiserating with their peers.

Through mechanization, worker skill and expertise become less important and workers become interchangeable, thus making it easier to replace them when they protest.

Then They Came for the Teachers

While the right has not yet succeeded in destroying the public sector unions, it has undermined worker solidarity by convincing non-union and private sector workers that public sector workers are somehow responsible for their problems.

Public sector workers like teachers, nurses, and social workers are often portrayed as caregivers rather than workers, as if their labor was easier, less dangerous, or done entirely out of love, and therefore not worthy of generous compensation or job protections.

In addition, public sector unions tend to represent highly skilled workers whose jobs require specialized college and professional training. As a result, they cannot be easily replaced by unemployed and underemployed workers who lack this training. Skilled members help keep public sector unions relatively strong.

The deskilling of teaching could change all that. Teach For America places recent college graduates with virtually no education training or student teaching experience directly into the classroom. Billionaires like Eli Broad have been big financial backers of TFA, supporting the irrational and discredited notion that we must do away with seniority to protect eager young teachers who are presumed to be better than their senior colleagues despite their lack of experience.

Even the ACLU has jumped on this bandwagon, successfully suing the Los Angeles school district to undermine contractual seniority rights at low-income schools by exempting novice teachers from layoffs.

The idea is to protect these students from losing their teachers each year, but this plan will likely backfire due to the high attrition rates of inexperienced teachers: 50 percent of all teachers quit within their first five years.

The problem is, of course, exacerbated at low-income schools, where teachers are expected to make their students transcend the myriad lifetime disadvantages of growing up in poverty. Indeed, attrition at low-income schools is 50 percent higher than at more affluent schools.

The Testing Regime

Educators are being deskilled through increasingly rigid and punitive accountability and testing schemes that pressure schools and teachers to teach to the test and engage in “drill and kill” activities at the expense of inquiry-based learning, critical thinking, and reading for depth and curiosity.

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Many districts, as a direct result of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) mandates and punishments, have forced teachers to be in lockstep with their curricula or have imposed scripted reading. A national effort to compel all states to adopt identical content standards is taking away the independence of local school districts and states to determine content standards and handing this responsibility to textbook publishers.

“Value-added” and merit pay schemes use compensation and tenure as carrots and sticks to push teachers ever deeper into the mindset that test scores trump all else. “Value-added” purports to measure teachers based on student gains each year, but produces unreliable false-positive and false-negative results.

When job security and income are dependent on student test scores, it stands to reason that many will sacrifice good pedagogy for increased test practice and rote memorization. (And some will engage in systematic cheating, as recent scandals in D.C. and Atlanta have shown.)

The threat of NCLB punishments has led many schools to implement scripted test preparation that not only undermines teacher creativity but also drives a stake into children’s curiosity and excitement about learning.

Many teachers find themselves compelled to participate in school-wide vocabulary activities written by an administrator and broadcast over the schools’ PA or video system.

Teachers find weeks of instructional time replaced by standardized exams, further deskilling the profession, as exam proctoring entails little more than passing out answer sheets and reading scripted instructions from a handbook.

A similar dynamic is taking place at the university level, as schools replace professors with taped lectures purchased through online subscriptions, or hire professors as temporary part-time lecturers. Without tenure or a commitment by the university to support them, they must spend so much time writing grant proposals to pay their own salaries or fighting to defend their positions that they have little time for original research or designing innovative curriculum.

Attacking Teachers, Attacking Children

Education reform not only harms students directly by killing their enthusiasm and curiosity, turning schools into testing mills, and transferring resources from the classroom to the pockets of corporate education profiteers but also by deskilling their teachers, destroying their love and passion, and driving many out of education.

When teachers become easily replaceable with semi-skilled workers, like Teach For America candidates, substitute teachers, and proctors, the unions will find it much more difficult to win strikes, as administrators or politicians will be able to simply fire them all or lock them out.

Unions need to address deskilling before workers become too overwhelmed or exhausted to fight. Education reforms require teachers to perform tasks over and beyond what they are already required to do, generally without any extra compensation.

Consequently, teachers are already feeling more stressed and less able to participate in union meetings or activities, not to mention meet with each other and their students outside of class time for collaboration, tutoring, and mentoring.

As the profession becomes more deskilled, teachers feel greater alienation and hopelessness, leading many to give up on their unions or the profession entirely. Many start their careers with a disdain for their unions, because the unions have done little to defend temporary and probationary teachers, despite the fact that they are dues-paying members.

One Big Union

Evidence that management can easily go after less-skilled workers is evident in the treatment of clerical and custodial staffs currently. These workers have been decimated, more than teachers, in order to accommodate shriveling budgets.

But teacher unions have largely remained silent during this downsizing. As a result, classrooms and bathrooms are dirtier, repairs are not made, schools are less safe, and teachers are taking time to clean, fix, and photocopy that could be used for teaching, lesson planning, and meeting with students. They are doing more work for less pay.

Perhaps the most tragic consequence of this lack of solidarity is that many teachers look down on their colleagues and treat them as second-class citizens on campus, rather than appreciating the necessary contributions they make toward the wellbeing of students and teachers.

It is a weakness of unions in the schools that they tend to be organized by craft, rather than by industry. All education workers belong in one big union.

As in any workplace, the relative strength of the more highly skilled needs to be used to protect the less skilled—not just as an act in solidarity, but because their own status depends on it. Teachers need the support of their non-teaching colleagues to successfully resist deskilling. Consider how much more quickly an education strike could be won if bus drivers refused to pick up students, cafeteria workers refused to prepare meals, secretaries refused to do the administrators’ paperwork, and custodians refused to clean.

The deskilling of the teaching profession is accelerating and it is happening largely without notice. The attack is leveled at all working people, however, not only because it threatens the quality of education for their children, but because it weakens the power of one of the few professions that is still highly unionized.


Mike Dunn is a 15-year science teacher in the San Francisco Bay Area, and an organizer for his union. He blogs at Modern School and runs the Education for the People Facebook page.