Sometimes Education Reform Fights Are Just Boring Labor vs. Management Disputes

There’s a tendency among the more ideologically-minded education policy writers to caricature their opponents as unprecedented extremists who are pushing ideas any sane person would reject. These framings are unhelpful, but they’re hard to directly refute because there generally aren’t good counterfactuals. It’s difficult to find situations that can illustrate how an allegedly inflammatory idea is actually relatively pedestrian and would probably be pushed even if a less extreme person were in charge.

That’s why this New Haven Independent story about High School in the Community (HSC) is so interesting. The school had been collectively run by teachers since 1970, but this year the local teachers union president took over and has begun curtailing their power. Because the union president is now in the conventional management role, he’s expressing views that are ideologically similar to views that unions normally find despicable. It’s a reminder that although the are many issues and personalities that make education policy wholly unique, sometimes disputes are based on nothing more than a boring old labor-management power struggle.

I recommend reading the whole article, but the tl:dr version is that for years teachers democratically elected other teachers to assume unofficial roles akin to principal or assistant principal. However, as a consequence of recent struggles, a turnaround policy has handed control of the school to the local teachers union. The heart of the dispute is that Dave Cicerella, the head of the union and the school’s new manager, had decided it’s silly to restrict the candidate pool for these important positions to the 30 or so teachers at the school. He believes the best way to get the best person for the job is for the job to be open to any teacher in the district.

As Cicerella attempts to defend his position over the course of the article you can almost see him channeling a milder version of the various figureheads unions hate. For example, here’s Ciceralla on whether teachers act in their own self-interest:

Cicarella argued the practice limits the applicant pool to the 30 teachers in the school and may equate to a popularity contest. He called for opening up the jobs to applicants outside the school and retaining his right to overrule teachers’ votes.


Cicarella contended the democratic process is flawed: Teachers say they would vote out a building leader who isn’t effective, but “how do we know that?” How do we know if teachers are “voting for them because they are best for kids” or “because they let them leave early and come late” to school?

Critics of teachers unions have long argued that even though the interests of students and teachers often align, there are times when they don’t, and thus it’s necessary to have some kind of external power as a check on teacher priorities. This argument tends to be distorted as mean-spirited teacher bashing — e.g. “teachers can’t be trusted” — but as you can see from Cicerella’s point it’s nothing of the sort. It’s simply a concern that people might not be able to avoid acting in their own self-interest. And it’s important to note that neither Cicerella nor others who make this argument are necessarily talking about teachers intentionally acting in their own self-interest. There are a host of cognitive biases (e.g. motivated reasoning, availability bias, etc.) that make it very difficult to be objective. So, is the head of a teachers union “teacher bashing,” or might it not be so crazy to suggest teachers could act in their own self-interest?

Another common protest against certain policies and their advocates is that people who haven’t been immersed in a school’s environment shouldn’t be setting policies. And yet here is Cicarella, defending himself from similar line of attack:

But he said he does feel the need to step in at times, in part because he feels he has relevant experience: Before becoming union president, he taught for 28 years at Fair Haven Middle School. He taught math and also headed the literacy department there. He also has his administrator’s certificate.

“I’m not some meddling bureaucrat,” Cicarella said. “I really do know a lot” about education.

A teacher for 28 years and head of the union, but to teachers at the school he could just be another know-nothing outsider trying to impose bad policy. And so here he is, pleading with the writer to believe that he knows enough to be taken seriously. People often criticize policy-setting TFA alumni for not knowing enough about what’s actually happening inside schools, but that attack is meaningless if it’s going to be used against anybody who tries to tell teachers what to do.

One final nugget in article relates to the powerlessness that many teachers feel because it seems that their opponents will do anything as long as it’s not technically illegal (e.g. closing 50 schools.) But, here’s what happened when Cicarella was asked about the takeover:

Cicarella noted that there is no legal document establishing HSC as a teacher-run school. It simply existed that way since 1970 by a handshake agreement with school superintendents.

I don’t mean to pass judgment on the validity of Cicarella’s arguments or whether teachers at the school are right or wrong to be upset. My point is that here is a situation where somebody whose intentions are clearly pure in the eyes of teachers is saying the same things and coming under similar scrutiny as those whose intentions are accused of being impure. When people talk about education policy they like to ascribe uniquely evil motives to their opponents, but sometimes the battle lines simply reflect the standard power struggle between labor and management (i.e. teachers don’t like to be told what to do), and the resulting disputes would be similar regardless of the personalities, funders, or bureaucrats who fill those roles.

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