EdWeek Series Beyond Rhetoric: Should Teachers Unions Reform?

I was recently accused by a “school choice” cheerleader website of being owned/influenced/bought by teacher unions (no link here on purpose). Honestly, I meant to reply to them much earlier (as noted in the post Help!, Vote for Post: Who Should be Responded to First!?). I mentioned that a “school choice” cheerleader website had accused me of being a union shill to a colleague at NEA in DC a few weeks ago and she told me, “They must not know you Julian.” Despite many peoples’ feelings to the contrary in our society (including many that are very powerful and influential), I do have some very strong positive feelings for teacher unions. Why you may ask?
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I am now concluding my guest appearance for the EdWeek column K-12 Schools Beyond the Rhetoric with Jack Schneider. We covered a bevy of important topics in education policy such as Teach For America, Charters, Vouchers, High-stakes testing, and standards. See our conversation about charters schools in the post Is the Impact of Charters Schools on Achievement a Big Lie?, high-stakes testing in the post EdWeek Series Beyond Rhetoric: If Not a Bunch of Tests… Then What Instead?, Teach For America in the post EdWeek Series Beyond Rhetoric: @TeachForAmerica You are my Obsession and vouchers in the post EdWeek Series Beyond Rhetoric: Voucher supporters roll the eyes. In our our most recent Beyond the Rhetoric column, we discussed the importance of teacher unions in K-12 education, focusing particularly on what role such organizations should play in the future. In the past, I have excerpted just my own writing, but I think to understand the context of the conversation, for this one post I have included Jack’s commentary so that the logic underlying the conversation makes sense.

Schneider: Both of us agree that unions play a critical role in public education. So let’s begin by talking about where we think unions can adapt or improve their work over the next decade

Heilig: Well, before I dive into reform, I want to share my personal context on unions. I grew up in a blue collar union family. My maternal grandfather was a farm worker and later a United Auto Worker. My paternal great grandfather was a United Mine Worker and my paternal grandfather was also a United Auto Worker. My mother was an active member of the Michigan Nurses Association through her career. So as you can imagine, the conversations around the dinner table in my family were not about how unions were the root of all evil in every profession. Instead the conversation focused on safety, a living wage, and other quality of life issues for workers.

I believe teachers’ unions working collaboratively with local communities are perhaps our last hope to oppose the agenda of partial or wholesale privatization of education in the US. There are many empirically-based alternative approaches to reform that are being led by teachers’ unions in a community-based fashion (i.e. charters, local accountability, teacher evaluation). As our nation’s first responders to poverty, I believe that teachers’ unions are now seeing the natural evolution of their mission beyond solely focusing on working conditions to now also include an agenda that more extensively addresses poverty, resource inequality and other important social conditions.

Schneider: Unions do a lot of important work. They aggregate teacher voices so that educators—those inside classrooms, who know students best—can push back against policies that might undermine effective instruction. And they ensure that working conditions are appealing enough to attract and retain high-quality personnel who might otherwise look to other professions. Without the unions, we’d be facing even more of the unintended consequences resulting from highly interventionist top-down reform.

Yet the unions can work against the best interests of the system; it does happen. Rather than acting as gatekeepers exercising an important level of discretion, they can function as iron curtains precluding even reasonable change efforts from being implemented. Look at teacher dismissal as an example. The unions have been right to question the use of test scores in determining teacher effectiveness. Without question. Yet in some districts they have also made it far more challenging than it should be for a principal to control his or her own staffing; the result is that many schools are carrying dying-on-the-vine teachers. It doesn’t happen everywhere; but it does happen. And it gives unions a black eye in the process.

Efforts to break the unions through the courts, like that being pursued by Campbell Brown’s group, are misguided. But can we agree that the unions need to more consistently employ a more nuanced approach that fosters the wellbeing of the teaching profession and not just of its current members? This seems to be an absolute prerequisite if they are going to move beyond working conditions to focus on issues like poverty and resource inequality.

Heilig: The oft-repeated idea that unions stand in the way of teacher quality and student achievement is absolutely ludicrous. For a control group, look to the South, where “right to work” policies dominate the landscape and each of these issues exists in spades despite the absence of collective bargaining.

What is actually standing in the way of our successful schools is not unions, but a society that is largely disinterested in public policy that structurally addresses the poverty of children. The reason why we know that our nation has accepted the status quo is that, for any city, you can envision the lovely schools and the not so desirable schools—regardless of the city, the poor primarily attend the not so desirable schools. Teachers’ unions are a common political target in these times; but the bigger problem is our national lack of interest in poverty instead of persistently vilifying our educators.

Schneider: Sure. Although it’s important to note that even Michelle Rhee doesn’t believe that we should dissolve collective bargaining. Outside of radical free-market ideologues and thegenerally uninformed, very few observers actually think that American schools would be better off without unions. Instead, the criticism tends to be that unions could play a stronger and more productive role if they worked more cooperatively with state and district leaders—as we recently saw in New York City. I think that’s hard to deny.

Personally, I’d like to see the unions take up teacher professional development as their raison d’etre. I think it would do a great deal to shift them in the direction they need to go—focusing on issues of professionalism and moving us past this silly debate over tenure.

We spend so much time these days fighting over the ability to fire ineffective teachers. But even if reformers were able to adequately define “effectiveness,” accurately measure teacher quality, and then fairly dismiss ineffective teachers, we would still be faced with a major problem: you can’t fire your way to staffing every classroom with a great teacher.  We need three million teachers; where are all of the great ones going to come from? Are they currently hiding someplace waiting for a merit pay package?

The answer, as I see it, is to invest heavily in PD—helping struggling teachers improve, and helping the vast majority of teachers who are effective become even more effective.

I think the unions can play a key role here. Because they represent the most thorough national network we have in education. Through two umbrella organizations—the AFT and the NEA—they are connected through state associations and district chapters. It’s a very powerful design. And it could allow teachers to gain greater control of their own destiny. It would infuse the occupation with a higher level of professionalism. It would ease the burden on districts, which can’t currently handle the task. And it might even bring about some common ground for teachers and reformers to begin new conversations. Because right now the unions are too often in a position where they are saying “no” rather than offering a way forward. That isn’t entirely their fault; but it is a problem.

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A photo of Lily from my seat at MSNBC’s Education Nation

Heilig: I do agree that teachers’ unions should and could have a larger role in professional development. Perhaps they could be the certifying organizations that would allot credit state-by-state, similar to the Continuing Legal Education (CLE) system. In sum, I tend agree with Lily Eskelson’s proposition that the best school-reform ideas come from educators. In fact, the potential impact of unions to lead empirically-based reform alternatives could potentially encompass all of our discussions from the past month—social justice, professional development, charter schools, accountability, school finance, standards, teacher quality, teacher evaluation, and testing.

Educators and their organizations should be at the forefront of our national debate rather than the current power brokers and other squeaky wheels (i.e. random millionaires and billionaires, politicians, and former journalists) who are vociferously seeking to minimize and scapegoat educators.

Schneider: I agree that teachers should have much more of a voice in shaping the national agenda in education. And I think that the unions can play a central role in that. But it will require a shift away from the activities characteristic of trade unionism and toward the territory of professional associations—less like the UAW and more like the American Medical Association. Not entirely. That’s unrealistic to imagine. But movement in that direction is critical not only in terms of maximizing the impact that unions can make, but also in terms of ensuring their long-term survival.

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  • Excellent article: “The teachers’ voice: teacher unions at the heart of a new democratic professionalism” above. Coupled with this is the burnout of Principals and turnover. An expose’ on NPR yesterday described the average tenure for Principals in parts of CA as being two years. Principals find it impossible to support teachers, support a continuous flow of new “reforms” and in a climate described above of diminishing resources. Teachers complain about having to work in an environment of continuous turnover of administrators.


  • The teachers’ voice: teacher unions at the heart of a new democratic professionalism

    Howard Stevenson (University of Nottingham, UK)
    Alison Gilliland (Irish National Teachers’ Organisation, personal capacity)


    Teachers across the world are under pressure. It seems that everywhere the demands on teachers are increasing whilst at best the growth of resources fails to keep pace. In very many parts of the world, and especially following the global economic crisis, resources devoted to education are diminishing. The pressure is on to get ‘more for less’ from public education systems, and those who work in them.

    Teachers experience these developments in many forms, but perhaps most sharply in the form of labour intensification – put simply, the relentless drive to work teachers harder and harder, sometimes until they simply burnout. Many school systems now operate on a high turnover-low cost model of teaching which cycles through an endless process of ‘bring in-burnout-replace’. However a parallel but arguably more significant development is the drive to assert ever greater control over the content of teachers’ work – what teachers do, how they do it and teachers’ ability to decide for themselves what is the most appropriate way to perform their job. Hence the trend to scrutinise teachers’ work forensically, and to convert key elements of the educational process to a number that can be easily measured, compared and ranked. Where this is happening teachers experience their work as being stripped of its pedagogical richness and complexity, to be a replaced by a process of management by numbers.

    In this chapter we set out to show how teachers can reclaim their teaching. We do so by making the case for a new democratic professionalism based on the fundamental values of social justice and democracy and with teachers’ professional agency at its core. In the chapter we identify three domains of professional agency as areas of teachers’ work where it is vital that teachers are able to make and shape decisions. However, our view is that teachers must understand their agency as both individual and collective and we argue that if teachers are to genuinely ‘flip the system’ then this can only be achieved if teachers organise collectively. Teacher unions therefore, as the independent and democratic organisations that represent teachers’ collective voice, are not only at the heart of a new democratic professionalism, but must be central to both making the case for it and mobilising teachers to achieve it. We conclude the chapter by setting out the steps that unions must consider in order to mobilise teachers around a much more optimistic and hopeful vision of teaching.

    Teacher professionalism and teachers’ voice

    The concept of professionalism has always been problematic when applied to teachers as an occupational group. Traditional notions of professionalism were grounded in identifying the traits associated with ‘classic professions’, such as law and medicine. They emphasised a professional knowledge base and associated levels of expertise, professional autonomy, a commitment to public service and professional self-regulation. In most jurisdictions these are not characteristics that can be readily applied to teachers. There is little evidence of consensus about the role and status of pedagogical knowledge as it applies to the practices of teachers, whilst notions of professional autonomy have always been complex. Finally, professional self-regulation has seldom existed in the ways in which it is evident in many other professions. For these reasons, teaching has often been identified as a ‘semi-profession’ (Etzioni, 1969).

    Given these debates some have suggested the concept of professionalism when applied to teachers is ‘beset with conceptual difficulties and ambiguities’ (McCulloch et al., 2000, p14) to the point that they question whether it has any meaningful intellectual value. Whilst we have sympathy with such an approach we also argue that notions of teacher professionalism cannot be ignored because conceptions of ‘professionalism’ cannot be disconnected from much wider questions about how society perceives teaching, and what it means to be a ‘good teacher’. Notions of the ‘good teacher’ are not fixed (Connell, 2009) and are in turn bound up with the on-going discourse and disputes about the nature and purposes of education. This approach was recognised by Ozga and Lawn (1981) when they argued that the concept of professionalism, and the struggles over its meaning, are best understood as a construct mobilised by competing groups in society to legitimate different, and oftentimes quite contradictory, approaches to teaching as work. Hence the state might refer to teacher professionalism in terms of responsibility and respect (the teacher as ‘model citizen’), whilst teachers might emphasise a professionalism based on expertise and pedagogical knowledge in order to make the case for greater autonomy.

    This struggle over the meaning of professionalism is at the heart of many of the current debates about teaching and the role of teachers. Neoliberal education reformers have always been deeply sceptical of the concept of professionalism, seeing it as a device used by ‘producers’ to protect their vested interests at the expense of ‘consumers’. Such an analysis is grounded in the concept of ‘producer capture’ articulated by many New Right theorists (Demaine, 1993). Within education the New Right are particularly cautious as they see producer interest groups (such as teacher unions and educational researchers) asserting a dangerous ideological influence on schooling, and hence young people. Here the concept of teacher professionalism is seen as reinforcing the interests of what is often presented as the ‘education establishment’. Hence the argument that such producer interests must be curbed, in particular when organised in the form of unions, and that this is most effectively achieved by introducing the ‘discipline’ of market forces into public services. Many have argued that it is these pressures that have driven a form of ‘managerial professionalism’ whereby teachers’ professionalism is recast in terms of an ability to achieve specified performance targets in a competitive (quasi-) market environment (Stevenson et al., 2007).

    For many years these ideas have been challenged by those who have made a case for a more optimistic and hopeful vision of professionalism and in this chapter we draw on two of these sources in particular. Firstly we are indebted to Judyth Sachs (2003) and her work relating to ‘The activist teaching profession’. Sachs’ book made a major contribution to thinking about teacher professionalism in new and more optimistic ways, but in particular it emphasised that professionalism must be both collective and active. Professionalism is more than passive membership of a club, but teachers must be active in creating and re-creating their collective professional identities. We also draw on Geoff Whitty’s (2008) case for ‘democratic professionalism’ which he emphasises the need for teachers to work ‘beyond the profession’ in order to draw broader constituencies into the educational process. According to Whitty such a democratic professionalism

    ‘ . . . seeks to demystify professional work and forge alliances between teachers and excluded constituencies of students, parents and members of the wider community with a view to building a more democratic education system and ultimately a more open society.’ (p44)

    Teachers’ voice and teacher unions

    Ambiguities relating to the nature of teacher professionalism as a concept are also evident in relation to the role and purpose of teachers’ unions as the organisations that articulate teachers’ collective and professional voice. The use of the term ‘union’ clearly associates such organisations with the labour movement, and the notion of the teacher as a worker. This is an important statement of an objective position. The vast majority of teachers are employees, in an employment relationship in which their labour power (the ability to work) is traded in an exchange relationship with an employer (whether that is in the public or the private sector). Teaching is work and teacher unions therefore might rightly be expected to have a clear role in relation to defending and extending the pay and working conditions of their members. However, within the teaching profession, the role of teacher unions has always been much more complex with unions often claiming to be both labour union and professional association. Teacher unions therefore represent teachers’ collective voice across a very broad range of issues.

    Our argument is that the ‘industrial vs professional’ debate within teacher unionism will always be an underlying tension that can never be completely resolved, but that to frame discourses about teacher unions solely in these terms is unhelpful and unproductive. The issues facing teachers, and the contexts in which teachers teach will always be determined by a mix of so-called professional, industrial and policy issues. For example, a policy to reduce class sizes has both a pedagogical dimension (professional) and a workload implication (industrial). Similarly, we believe it is not possible to challenge the spread of the managerialism that blights many teachers’ lives without having a wider political analysis of the global education reform movement (GERM) that has spawned it and drives it. Questions of politics and professionalism can never be artificially separated from more fundamental questions about the role of teacher unions in protecting basic pay and conditions.

    Our view is these diverse issues need to be fused together to define a new vision of a democratic professionalism and that teacher unions have a central role in both articulating what this might look like, and crucially, mobilising teacher support to campaign for it. At one level teacher unions are at the heart of teacher professionalism because of their ability to represent the collective voice of teachers. However, teacher unions also represent the means by which a new democratic professionalism can be achieved. A new democratic professionalism will always need to be argued for, (re-)defined and fought for. Mobilising teachers around these aims will be a key challenge for teacher unions as they resist the spread of the GERM.

    In the following section we develop our ideas about what a new democratic professionalism might look like and subsequent to this we set out the role of teachers’ unions in mobilising teachers in pursuit of these aims.

    Re-asserting teachers’ voice: making the case for a new democratic professionalism

    Underpinning our argument in this chapter, and the analysis in this book, is that there is a currently a global struggle for the heart of education as a publicly provided democratic service. Inevitably this looks different around the world, but the threat has assumed the form of a global movement, and hence the response must be similarly global in form. Our conviction is that teachers must challenge the managerial view of professionalism that underscores the global education reform movement, and in its place articulate a much more optimistic vision of what education can look like, and what it can meant to be a teachers. Here we outline a framework that might underpin a new democratic professionalism, and in the final section we set out the organising strategies that teachers, working through their unions, will need to adopt in order make the prospect of a democratic professionalism a genuine possibility.

    Our vision of a new democratic professionalism is based on three core principles:

    • That teaching is a process of social transformation and that it should be underpinned, above all else, by values of social justice and democracy.

    • That teaching is a technically complex process in which teachers need to draw on professional knowledge, pedagogical theory and personal experience in order to exercise professional judgement. Professional judgement requires agency by which teachers are able to make meaningful decisions based on assessments of context. The concept of teachers’ professional agency must be at the heart of a democratic professionalism.

    • That teachers’ professional agency must be considered as both individual and collective. At times teachers will be able to assert their agency as individuals, quite appropriately. However, in order to secure meaningful influence in relation to the fundamental elements of teachers’ working lives then teachers will need to assert their influence collectively.

    We are clear that any vision of a new democratic professionalism must be grounded in values that recognise the role and responsibility of public education, and hence the role and responsibilities of those who work as educators. Clearly there will be a wide range of views about what those values should be, and how these might be expressed. However, our view is that education is a public good and therefore the core values informing the service should reflect a commitment to social justice and democracy. If education is a citizenship entitlement then it must be underpinned by a commitment to equality. Similarly a commitment to democracy recognises the central role education plays creating an active, participatory citizenship. It also recognises that if schools have a role in preparing young people to be active citizens in a democracy, then schools themselves must be models of democratic practice.

    In addition to this we argue that democratic professionalism is underpinned by a strong sense of teacher agency whereby teachers can exercise meaningful levels of control and influence in relation to three key areas of their work – we identify these as three domains of professional agency.

    The first domain of professional agency is in relation to teachers’ ability to shape learning and working conditions. Learning and working conditions can be considered to include all those factors that frame the environment within which teachers’ work, and in which students’ learn. Such a list of factors is inevitably very broad. It would include issues such as the size of the class, the way classes are formed, the use of technology to support learning, the amount of preparation time a teacher receives and pay and reward determination. These are all aspects of teachers’ working lives in which a democratic professionalism would ensure that teachers were involved in meaningful decision-making. The precise form of this will inevitably vary but could include a range of possibilities from the freedom of teachers to make individual decisions their own classroom through to national collective bargaining processes. The list of issues presented here also highlights the unhelpful divisiveness that flows from distinguishing between so-called ‘industrial’ and ‘professional’ issues and instead recognises that all these factors have the ability to shape the learning experience.

    The second domain of professional agency pertains to the development and enactment of policy. In this context we identify policy as the operational statements of values that frame the contexts in within which teachers’ work. Policy is often perceived as the preserve of upper case ‘P’ politicians, and ‘what governments do’. This is clearly a decisive factor in framing the contexts of teachers’ work, however, our notion of democratic professionalism sees teacher agency in relation to policy operating at many different levels with institutional policy making having a very significant impact on teachers and their work. Meaningful teacher agency in relation to the development and enactment of policy would ensure that teachers’ voices were heard not only in relation to national issues, such as the development of national curricula, but also, crucially, at school level also.

    The third domain of professional agency we identify relates to teachers’ ability to develop their professional knowledge and professional learning, and teachers’ agency in this regard emphasises the ability of teachers to assert control over their own professional development. One feature of a managerial professionalism relates to the ways in which teachers’ professional knowledge has often been ignored as particular pedagogical practices have been imposed on teachers, whilst in other cases professional development has been used crudely to promote national initiatives or organisational objectives. These initiatives are often geared to meeting externally imposed targets, rather than being driven by the professional needs of the teacher. In a democratic professionalism teachers could expect to assert much more control over their own professional development, with correspondingly lower levels of imposition.

    We argue here therefore that a democratic professionalism, based on fundamental values of social justice and democracy, emphasises teacher control and influence in relation to three domains of professional agency – shaping learning and teaching conditions, developing and enacting policy and enhancing pedagogical knowledge and professional learning. In making this case we also assert the need to consider agency as working at many different levels – from the individual classroom, through intermediate tiers (the school, local or regional government) to national government, and indeed to supra-national institutions. However, we also wish to highlight the need to see agency as both individual and collective.

    Many aspects of teacher agency that we have referred to should quite appropriately be a matter for individual teachers. A feature of any form of professionalism should be the scope for individual autonomy, and for those with high levels of skill and expertise to be able to exercise professional judgement without the need for micro-management from above. However, in relation to many of the issues raised in this chapter, agency cannot be exercised at the level of the individual. This may reasonably be applied to the level of government, where the capacity of individuals to make a difference is understandably limited. However, such an argument can be applied elsewhere in the system, when we recognise that there are many occasions when teachers must organise collectively if they are to be able to assert their influence. This is why teachers’ unions are at the heart of a democratic professionalism. Partly, and most obviously, because they promote collective agency by combining together and asserting the amplified voice of organised teachers. However teacher unions also have a central role to play in challenging managerialism more generally and thereby creating the spaces in which teachers can exercise their individual agency.

    In this analysis teacher unions are central to the development of a new democratic professionalism. However if teacher unions are to be successful in setting this agenda they will need to work differently in order to draw a broader range of members into participation in the union. As such mobilising for a new democratic professionalism both requires union to renew themselves, but also offers the possibility of creating the conditions for renewal itself.

    Renewing teacher unionism: the importance of organising for a new democratic professionalism

    We have argued thus far that public education systems globally face a major threat, and that teacher unions represent a powerful bulwark against the attacks of the global education reform movement. However, teacher unions cannot afford to only be defensive in the face of this threat, but rather they need to assert a much more hopeful and optimistic vision of what it means to be a teacher. In this chapter we have sought to map out the broad features of what a new democratic professionalism might look like. Our argument is that this cannot be a vision that unions articulate for teachers, or on behalf of teachers – but that teachers must see themselves as integral to the union. This is the essence of collective agency and the notion of an activist professionalism.

    Our argument is that if teacher unions are to successfully articulate a new democratic professionalism then this must form part of a wider process of renewal in which the unions themselves develop as active, vibrant and engaging organisations. In summary, teacher unions as organisations must become models of the new democratic professionalism they seek to promote. In practical terms this involves the development of an organising culture in teacher unionism. We believe such an organising culture is predicated on three different elements:

    Organising around ideas – we have already argued that the ‘industrial vs professional’ debate within teacher unionism has been unhelpful. So-called industrial and professional issues cannot be readily separated, and the bifurcation serves to divide. Our view is that teacher unions must develop a much more holistic analysis of the teachers’ role, in which working conditions, professional issues and policy are all linked. This necessarily requires teacher unions to make explicit the political dimensions of policy that are often only implicit. The global education reform movement is a politically driven movement grounded in a globalised neoliberalism. A pedagogical issue such as assessment and testing cannot be separated from the wider questions of the purposes of assessment and testing. Who is driving the demand for more testing? For what purpose? Who gains as a result? These are ideological arguments and they need to be challenged ideologically. This is why teacher unions must not retreat from engaging in ‘professional’ issues, but they must also locate these issues in a much wider political context. Organising around ideas requires teacher unions to engage in the battle of ideas that must be won if the neoliberal dismantling of public education is to be successfully challenged. This is not a battle to be waged amongst the policy elites and disconnected intellectuals, but one in which teachers are actively engaged as ‘organisers of ideas’ (Stevenson, 2008).

    Organising from the base – a common feature of labour unionism is a desire to centralise, as this is perceived as an effective means of securing equity. National collective bargaining for example has been seen as pivotal to securing national pay scales, and therefore equal pay within particular national contexts. One consequence of this has been the centralisation of union structures as union organisation mimics the bargaining structures within which unions function. Such structures can have many merits, especially in contexts where national bargaining has been maintained. However, there is always a danger that over time the grassroots membership becomes disconnected and passive. Collective agency is asserted, but in a largely transactional manner. Members pay their subscription and then expect the union to represent them. Teachers are part of the union, but they do not expect, and often are not expected, to be active participants. The danger is that union a dependency culture on local ‘hero leaders’ can develop and in the longer-term grassroots organisation atrophies. Organising from the bottom-up directly challenges this approach by ensuring that teachers recognise they are the union. This then requires the active development of the union at its base by engaging members in union activity. This may be quite traditional in form, such as organising around a local grievance, but our argument is that traditional notions of ‘activism’ are no longer sufficient and a much more inclusive approach to ‘activism’ needs to be considered. Participating in union organised professional development for example is an important way in which teachers experience and connect with their union, and through which the battle of ideas discussed above is advanced.

    In summary, we believe that teacher unions need to focus attention on building the base in their organisations. Teachers need to experience their union as a key part of the their identity and ‘live’ the union whether it be through traditional workplace activity, union organised professional development or union sponsored social and cultural initiatives. None of this is easy – it can be costly in resources and requires a long-term perspective. It is however unavoidable if teacher unions are to build a strong organisation capable of halting, and then reversing, the forward march of neoliberalism in public education.

    Organising for unity – the term union reminds us that the role of labour unions is to unite the disparate interests of individuals so the fractured power of isolated employees is combined and magnified through collective organisation. Unity is perhaps the most basic principle of trade unionism. It is however a principle that has not always been replicated within teacher trade unionism. For reasons too complicated to elaborate on here it is important to note that in many different jurisdictions teachers as an occupational group have failed to organise into a single union. As a consequence, so-called ‘multi-unionism’ in teaching is a common phenomenon. It can differ in form (different unions organising different groups of teachers for example) but in several instances it includes different unions competing for the same teachers as members. It is difficult to see how this defiance of the basic principle of trade unionism can serve the bests interests of teachers. Our argument is that such divisions are now dangerously complacent in the face of an unprecedented attack on public education systems and the teachers who work in them. A key feature of the market-driven GERM is its intent to break-up and fragment, as a deliberate attempt to undermine the influence of producer interests within public education systems. Teacher unions cannot compound these divisions in the system by being further divided themselves. In order to facilitate renewal it will be important for unions to organise for greater co-operation, ideally in the form of union mergers.

    However, organising for unity cannot be seen as being purely about working for union amalgamations, which always carries the attendant risk of being a largely bureaucratic process. An activist professionalism must also develop unity in much more organic ways within and beyond the teaching profession. Within the teaching profession, in very many different contexts, there is a trend to greater diversity within the profession. Routes into teaching are becoming more diverse, and the teaching workforce can look correspondingly different. In many respects, although not in all, increasing diversity is to be welcomed. There are however dangers that an increasingly heterogenous profession becomes correspondingly more fragmented. The challenge for teacher unions, will be to seek to unify the profession, when very many tendencies push in contrary directions. Organising for unity will require teacher unions to find the common interests between teachers, in a world where employer interests will be emphasising difference and division.

    However, the search for unity cannot be confined to within the profession, but if it is to be successful as a movement for progressive change must extend beyond the profession. By this we mean that an activist democratic professionalism must involve an active engagement with students, parents and the wider community and that organising for unity must seek to develop common interests across diverse groups in the community. We see the forming of such alliances as central to building a broad movement capable of challenging the GERM, and turning the tide against it. Once again, we do not underestimate the difficulties of doing this. Indeed research we have been involved in, has highlighted precisely how difficult this can be to achieve in practice. Teachers and parents are not always ‘natural allies’ and forging coalitions with community interests is complex and challenging. However, we see the development of popular alliances as not only central to developing the broad movement required for progressive change, but as fundamental to making any claim for democratic professionalism to indeed be genuinely democratic.


    Teachers are not simply at the heart of public education – they are its heart. The centrality of teachers, and teacher quality in education systems, is now widely acknowledged (OECD, 2005). However, very different visions of teaching are emerging (Hargreaves and Fullan, 2012). One approach uses the language of teacher quality whilst at the same time seeking to drive down the costs of teaching and de-skilling the work of teachers. It is based on a business model of education that seeks to maximise return on investment.

    Teachers need to reclaim their teaching and assert a much more positive and optimistic vision of what teaching is, and what it means to be a teacher. It is not enough for teachers to be against managerialism and centralised imposition (although this can be an important springboard for activism). Teaching is intrinsically a hopeful endeavour and teachers need to be positive in their intent.

    We believe this involves mobilising teachers, globally, around a much more positive vision of teaching that we set out in this chapter as a new democratic professionalism. This is not a model or a blueprint, but rather it offers a framework to think about teaching and the role of teachers. It is necessarily flexible and needs to be the subject of much more discussion and debate.

    A new democratic professionalism recognises the complexity of teaching and the sophisticated skills involved in the teaching process. Crucially it highlights the need for teachers to be able to assert their professional voice in relation to all the fundamental elements that frame their work – learning and teaching conditions, pedagogical knowledge and professional development and education policy broadly defined from institutional to national and supra-national level. We identify these elements as the three domains of teacher professional agency. However, in making the case for professional agency we are also arguing that this need to be located in a much deeper vision of democratic education.

    Such a vision of a new democratic professionalism goes against the grain of current policy in many parts of the world. It therefore requires teachers to challenge current orthodoxy and ‘flip the system’. Our argument is that this is simply not possible unless teachers recognise the need to act collectively, and organise accordingly. Individual teacher agency is important in a new democratic professionalism, but it is insufficient. Teachers must assert their agency collectively.

    This is why teachers’ unions are central to the new democratic professionalism because they are the means by which collective agency can be asserted. They are by no means the only possibility for collective agency, and nor should they be. However, they are the organisations that provide teachers with a voice that is collective, independent and democratic. These three elements alone make teacher unions fundamental to a new democratic professionalism. However teachers cannot rely on a type of transactional collectivism (‘what is the union doing about . . . ?’) but teachers must recognise that they are the union. It is vital therefore that teachers understand that if they seek to change the system that it is their responsibility to be engaged in their union.

    Teachers will not ‘flip the system’ unless, and until, they organise collectively. In this chapter we have attempted to trace out a vision of a new democratic professionalism that teachers can organise around. It is obviously incomplete and imperfect and we invite others to critique and develop the ideas presented here. As such our vision of a new democratic professionalism is not an end in itself – but a means to an end. The ultimate end, which will always be just beyond our reach, is a much more inspiring and transformatory experience of education for young people in public schools. If that is a vision worth fighting for then it is one for which teachers will need to organise collectively to achieve.


    Connell, R. (2009) ‘Good teachers on dangerous ground: towards a new view of teacher quality and professionalism’ Critical Studies in Education, 50 (3), 213-229.

    Demaine, J. (1993) ‘The new right and the self-managing school’, in J. Smyth (ed) A socially critical view of the self-managing school, London: Falmer.

    Etzioni, A. (1969) The semi-professions and their organization, New York, Free Press.

    Hargreaves, A. & Fullan,M. (2012) Professional Capital: Transforming Teaching in Every School. London: Routledge.

    McCulloch, G., Helsby, G., & Knight, P. (2000) The politics of professionalism: teachers and the curriculum. London: Continuum.

    OECD (2005) Teachers matter: Attracting, developing and retaining effective teachers, Paris, OECD.

    Ozga, J., & Lawn, M. (1981). Teachers, professionalism and class: A study of organized teachers. London: Falmer Press.

    Sachs, J. (2003) The activist teaching profession. Buckingham: Open University Press.

    Stevenson, H. (2008) Challenging the orthodoxy: union learning representatives as organic intellectuals in Journal of In-Service Education, 35 (4) 455-466.

    Stevenson, H., Carter, B. and Passy, R. (2007) ‘New professionalism’, workforce remodelling and the restructuring of teachers’ work in International Journal of Leadership for Learning , volume 11 (15) available online at http://iejll.synergiesprairies.ca/iejll/index.php/iejll/issue/view/37 (accessed 1st October 2014).

    Whitty, G. (2008) Changing modes of teacher professionalism: traditional, managerial, collaborative and democratic, in B. Cunningham (ed) Exploring professionalism, Bedford Way Papers, London: Institute of Education.


  • Making Note of your Award- Honor at UCEA – Distinguished service award. Congrats.

    Toward the end of the 90s while still a grad student in Ed Leadership I had the honor of being accepted to the UCEA David L. Clark National Graduate Student Research Seminar at AERA. At the time, Stanford was working with UNO and other universities with the “Accelerated Schools Project” and I did some work with the project as it related to my research and practicum interests.

    In those days, prior to NCLB and the Bush v. Gore election, school-wide “equity” efforts were making headway … it seemed. Then came NCLB! After that, equity driven efforts toward community engagement with site based management and teacher innovation all seemed to go away.


  • Great, and timely discussion. This will be passed on to the leadership of CTA and MCTA (my unit) in the San Joaquin Valley region.

    FYI: When it comes to EQUITY (note) on every measure of Equity – the San Joaquin region of CA ranks at the bottom in the U.S.A. It ranks somewhere in line with the Southern States of Mississippi, Alabama and So. Carolina.

    On the positive side, however, we do have a Union. And, while under attack over management/labor (mentioned in this post) i.e., issues of control of staffing and dismissal of ineffective teachers, etc; the issues of Equity and Professional Development are very much on the minds of the (CTA) CA Teachers Association.

    It would be worthwhile for this discussion to be considered by CTA (teachers), Administrators and Superintendents and School Boards – ALL.


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