Friday, June 5, 2015

Power Concedes Nothing Without A Demand

"Power concedes nothing without a demand.  It never did and it never will."- Frederick Douglass

After my last post I started to think more about teachers/administration in comparison to a traditional worker/management “fight.”[1]  Workers have pretty much always been painted as the selfish ones, thinking only about themselves and not about the greater good.  In almost all cases this is a pretty insidious label but has been used with varying levels of success.   Of course if it can be used successfully against the organizing and support of the workers in a widget factory, then even whispers of it are bound to be successful against the teachers in our school system.

The only reason anyone wants widgets made is to make money, it’s equally true of the workers and management.  In the school system the “product” is the education of our children.  This gives management an overwhelming advantage in the messaging of any fight over teacher pay (or any other issue under debate with teacher contracts).  The result of ANY action taken by teachers in response to their treatment will easily be painted as having a detrimental effect on the kids. 

While I could make a compelling argument that the detrimental effect is a direct result of management treating their workers disrespectfully and not the response by the workers, the reality is everyone will connect the impact to the actions of the teachers.  Truth be told, teachers also make that connection which is why there is such poor participation numbers in actions like work-to-rule.  Paraphrasing from one teacher I heard from back at the last work-to-rule action “I refuse to tell a kid I have taught for four years that I will not write her recommendation because the administration is playing hardball with my salary.”

Very few teachers will ever choose their own self-interest over the support of their students and so they will ALWAYS lose these negotiation games.  Teachers therefore are always negotiating from a point of severe weakness.  The only avenue available to them in the past was pure politics.  Support politicians[2] with money, time, and elbow grease so they support the teachers when in office.  To some, including many teachers, this is crass and not “appropriate” for the educators of our children.  My reaction to that ranges from annoyance to outrage depending on who is making it and why.  As I said, it’s the only way to amass power for the teachers in their protection for themselves.

All this has had me thinking for some time.  What the teachers need is a way to show power over the administration, over the system, in a way that will not have a detrimental effect on individual students.  I came up with one idea that is so rough that it’s not even course sandpaper yet.  There is also a whole lot I don’t know as it relates to the inner workings of the school system so I will rely on others to fill me in.

What would happen if the teachers unified to “opt out” of administering sme specific or even all of the standardized tests?  Clearly it would have to be a unified position.  If Laurel Woods teachers opted out and Manor Woods teachers didn’t (or vice versa) the whole plan goes to hell.  However, even if the teachers could establish it as a credible threat (my language is intentionally provocative there) the system would be threatened to the (common) core.  I want to be clear here, this is not about me taking a position on the nature of these tests.  I have a slightly nuanced position but that’s NOT what this is about.  I would support this idea even if I were 100% behind the epic levels of standardized testing.  My point is that the results of these tests affect the school system but not the individual students (at least not directly).   This, to me, seems like the only place where teachers might have an avenue to exercise their power within the bounds of what’s morally acceptable to the teachers themselves.[3]

[1] Many of the teachers I talk to bristle at the concept of being categorized as workers.  All have Bachelor’s degrees, some have advanced degrees and many have told me they find the classification as “worker” to be demeaning to the profession.  I struggle with the term worker being demeaning but I certainly mean no offense.  For these purposes it simply means the bottom rung of a management flow chart.
[2] I of course very much include School Board members in this pool of “politicians”
[3] If you’ve studied organizing at all this should be reminiscent of of Alinsky’s threatened Fart-In at the Rochester Philharmonic.  Hit them where they breathe.  Pun intended for sure.


  1. I think this is a great idea, but the parents are the first step in making this happen and it hasn't caught on yet. HoCo is very diverse, ethnic and wealthy and these kind of parents value a good education. Our school system draws many into the county because of a reputation of having a good school system (all smoke and mirrors IMHO). These parents don't realize that their children aren't learning because of the "teach to the test" nature of the curriculum that the county develops.... off they go to tutoring after school to fill in the gaps. In HoCo....the curriculum is the test because high test scores lure more into the county for more tax money. I think many parents blame the teachers for the garbage that is being taught and the administration just lets the teachers take the blame. When more parents realize how much CONTROL the BoE has over the curriculum, they may start to take a stand. I hope that the PARCC test scores come back in Dec and that 60-70% of students fail (as projected by Pearson)....maybe the parents will be angry enough to unite and fight on behalf of the teachers and students. Teachers don't go into education for the love of money, they go into it for the love of imparting knowledge to children. There is so much wrong in education right now, but the parents have to take the first step to fix it. And my background.....I am a mother of 2 in HoCo public schools, both of my children attend tutoring, I do NOT blame teachers for the poor curriculum, I have "REFUSED" my children from PARCC/MSA assessments, I have a sister with 30+ yrs teaching in the classroom, I love teachers, I am NOT a teacher.

  2. Lisa,

    I appreciate what you are saying here but I want to clarify, I am not making any statement here about the curriculum or the tests. What I am saying is that using the administration of the tests as bargaining chip is a potential strategy for the teachers to gain leverage and power without having to threaten action that negatively impacts students.

    1. But the parents aren't unsatisfied with the tests it wouldn't work and would only make the teachers look bad. This all has to start at the parent level.