Peer Review and the New Teacher Unionism: Mutual Support or Policing?

Joel Jordan

THIS SPRING, THE California state legislature passed a bill sponsored by the newly elected governor, Democrat Gray Davis, making California the first state to mandate peer review in every school district. Until then, the handful of established peer review programs scattered around the country had been the products of local teacher union and district bargaining.

Under peer review, a consulting teacher works with a new or veteran teacher needing assistance, and recommends to a joint union-management panel that the teacher be retained or fired. The panel then makes a similar recommendation to the school board.

Among teachers, peer review is very controversial. Two years ago, National Education Association (NEA) President Bob Chase prodded the NEA Representative Assembly to vote, narrowly, in support of peer review.

Proponents argue that peer review is one step toward school reform and professionalizing teaching. In their view, having teachers, and not just administrators, evaluate other teachers gives teachers more control by taking responsibility for the quality of work.

Opponents counter that peer review compromises the role of the union as a defender of teacher rights and that putting teachers in the position of recommending the firing of other teachers undermines union solidarity and promotes a pro-management outlook.

Peer Review in Context

It is no accident that Democratic Party politicians like Davis, along with a growing number of teacher union leaders, are promoting peer review programs at this particular time. At least since the early 1980s, public education has been under considerable pressure to improve. As high wage, unskilled and semi-skilled unionized jobs requiring little or no education have dramatically declined in the United States, good-paying jobs require an increased amount of training and/or education. With the labor market becoming increasingly stratified into low-wage, low-skill versus high-wage, high-education jobs, parents in working-class and poor communities, particularly those of color, have become increasingly concerned about their children’s education.

The poverty resulting from “deindustrialization” has also meant that more poor children than ever&#8212bringing with them special needs&#8212are enrolling in public schools. But the schools have not received additional funding to cope with these difficulties. Thus it is not surprising that criticism of public schools is rising.

This scenario has provided fertile ground for right-wing attacks on public education. As dissatisfaction grows, the right has heightened anti-government sentiments by promoting private schools through vouchers, with a special appeal to desperately poor parents. This pressure has forced politicians to want to appear to “do something.”

The problem is that the politicians are unwilling to do what is actually needed, namely, to provide the necessary resources to improve the conditions of teaching and learning. To achieve genuine school reform means addressing the root causes of low student achievement.

Common sense would tell you&#8212and research clearly shows&#8212that the most important determinants of school success are family income, family structure and the parents’ education, factors that are out of a school’s control.

Schools serving low-income communities can compensate, to an extent, if they have adequate resources to do so. A recent Tennessee study demonstrates that students, particularly poor students of color, benefit significantly from lower class size because of the individual attention they receive. The most successful schools give teachers more time to plan lessons, work together, and assist one another. They offer adequate counseling and other pupil services, and provide teachers with a rich variety of instructional materials.

Most public schools, particularly in urban areas, cannot compete with affluent private schools and the few specially funded public schools that enjoy these conditions. Moreover, the conservative political climate has encouraged austerity &#8212making do with less&#8212for the past two decades. Even such mild reforms as affirmative action have been rolled back, along with federal Title 1 compensatory funding for poor students.

To legislate massive education spending, especially for the inner cities, not to mention alleviating poverty and income inequality, is just too risky politically. As a result, the politicians have put the schools in an impossible position. Schools are expected to improve, but without improving the conditions of education that alone make that possible.

So blame is placed on the schools, the teachers, and the students . This usually takes the form of “getting tough” and demanding “accountability.” To do this, the politicians are attempting to wrest more control over curriculum and student evaluation from classroom teachers.

Over the past decade, we have seen many states get in the business of setting absurdly unrealistic academic “standards” and subjecting kids to a seemingly endless series of standardized tests. Students scoring too low can be retained, despite research clearly proving that retention actually increases the risk of students dropping out of school.

Throughout the country, schools with low aggregate test scores have been “reconstituted,” whereby entire faculties have been arbitrarily transferred out regardless of teaching competency. Under pressure to raise test scores, teachers are being forced to “teach to the test,” which invariably means narrowing the curriculum, rather than broadening students’ educational experiences.

Getting tough, however, ignores the conditions under which teachers teach and students learn in most public schools, particularly in urban school districts. Here in Los Angeles, inner-city schools are typically run down and overcrowded. Class sizes are among the largest in the nation, many with students of different ethnicities and language backgrounds.

Textbooks and other materials are in short supply. Authentic student counseling is practically non-existent, as counselors are given impossibly large student loads. Teachers have little time to prepare and virtually no time to confer with their colleagues.

School Administrators and the Follies of Teacher Professionalism

Peer review must be seen as a component of this “get tough” policy. Imposing peer review is so important to Governor Davis that it will be foisted on every district in the state, penalizing with a loss of funding any district that refuses. The punitive intent behind the legislation is clear in its provisions.

California has recently hired thousands of new teachers, many without teaching credentials, to take advantage of legislation establishing a twenty-to-one student/teacher ratio for most primary grades. Yet, the new peer review law actually phases out the already underfunded mentor teaching program that could help those teachers and puts in its place peer review for veteran teachers only. New teachers, who most need assistance if they are to survive the first few years in the classroom, get none, while all the money goes to weeding out a few veteran teachers, with the help of the teacher unions.

Under the dictates of their employers&#8212who in the public sector are the politicians&#8212school administrators act as classic middle management. As bureaucrats, they have no interest in standing up to the politicians, because they are not as directly affected by their policies as are teachers. As bureaucrats, too, they have no power to stand up to the politicians in the way that teachers organized collectively into unions do. So, regardless of their personal feelings, administrators have no other choice but to carry out orders from above and get whatever improvements they can by putting more pressure on teachers to work harder.

Because these policies put the burden of improving education on the schools and the teachers, without providing more resources, they come at the expense of the teachers.

Teachers are thus, in effect, asked to do even more, and are held responsible for results. This obviously goes against the interests of education, but also against the interests of teachers in particular.

The result is that peer review and other austerity programs to “improve” education actually put school administrators even more at odds with teachers in an era when imposing austerity has been the norm. Administrators are under pressure to discipline and supervise teachers to improve their performance, including getting rid of poorly performing teachers. To accomplish this, the union must be removed as an adversary that protects those teachers.

In this context, unions become even more important to teachers to defend them. By the same token, administrators need more than ever to neutralize the teacher unions and bring them into cooperation by imposing these programs against the interests of their members.

Despite the argument that peer review programs “professionalize” teachers, the truth is just the opposite. Teachers would be happy if they really did have the status of professionals, such as doctors and lawyers, who have been more than willing to be self-regulating because they are, to a great extent, actually in charge of defining the standards of quality, entrance to the profession, and so forth.

Teachers have no such power. They are employees in bureaucratic hierarchies. As such, they do not determine the curriculum, teaching standards, entry qualifications, or training. Nor do they control class size, pay, or vacations, all of which have to be negotiated with a school district from a position of weakness.

The “New Unionism” Disaster

Since teachers do not control the conditions of their jobs, they should not want to collaborate with management to get other teachers fired. This is co-optation, not professionalization. Ironically, doctors are increasingly turning to unions for protection against HMOs, even though they still have considerably more control over their conditions.

Here we can see how peer review fits into a much broader offensive in which co-management, whereby teacher unions and administration collaborate to administer schools and school districts, becomes a perfect tool to enforce teacher compliance with anti-teacher policies.

Unfortunately, teacher union leaders throughout the country are buying into co-management strategies that accept these policies. NEA President Bob Chase is a recent convert, joining American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Sandra Feldman, Rochester Teachers Association President Adam Urbanski, and other teacher union leaders.

Laying out his case for a “new unionism,” Chase calls for “. . . recreating NEA as the champion of quality teaching and quality public schools in the United States.” To do this, Chase rejects the traditional, confrontational, adversarial relationship of teacher unions to school boards and management, including bargaining table confrontations and strikes, which he describes as “.. . industrial-style, adversarial tactics [which] simply are not suited to the next stage of school reform.”

What is the next stage? Chase tells us: “In school districts where employees have attained . . . decent salaries, benefits, and conditions, it’s time to reinvent collective bargaining as a collaborative, non-adversarial process&#8212as a professional negotiation focusing less on pay and benefits and more on issues of employee involvement and school quality.” (NEA Today, Feb. 1997)

The key for Chase is enlisting “teachers as full partners, indeed, as co-managers of their schools,” giving teachers more say over academic and discipline standards, professional development, and other traditional administrative prerogatives. Arguing that while many administrators are uncollaborative, “the vast majority in fact . . . are potential partners, because they want what we want: they want improved student learning.” For Chase, Urbanski and others, peer review is just one element of this approach.

It cannot be stressed enough what a disaster this “new unionism” is. It implicitly accepts management’s premise that the basic problem with education today is with the teachers and with the way the school is operating.

It assumes that significant improvement is possible without changing the conditions, rather than taking for granted that education can only be improved by devoting more resources to schools, teachers, and to the students themselves by improving material conditions in their homes and their communities. If put into effect, it will mean that the teachers’ burden will be even greater than before.

On the other hand, it conveniently ignores the fact that teachers do not have the power to set the conditions of education, or even the curriculum. In short, it takes the opposite path to what is necessary: fighting to improve both education and teachers’ conditions at the same time, as part of the same struggle.

In the absence of adequate resources, co-management has in fact proven to be ineffective. In Los Angeles, after ten years of shared decision-making and school-based management, there is no evidence that these efforts have had any significant impact on student performance, despite the Herculean (and usually unpaid) efforts of teacher activists.

Furthermore, by allying the union and the teachers with management, which is really the state and its legislature and governor, as well as local school boards, the “new unionism” undermines the potential for the union to fight for what is needed. The assumption that teachers’ pay, benefits, and improvements in working conditions are sufficient to forgo contract fights and strikes is clearly out of touch with large urban districts. In Los Angeles, teacher salaries are still below that of 1991, medical benefits have been cut, and working conditions are generally deplorable.

Despite the obvious need, teacher union leaders espousing the “new unionism” are clearly not prepared to fight for increased funding for public education. This would require the kind of rank-and-file mobilization on the local, state and national levels that would pit them against the mostly Democratic Party politicians they generally support, not to mention the corporations standing behind them.

Most importantly, it would also involve utilizing militant tactics that could endanger the union apparatus, especially the treasury. As full-time officials who have been out of the classroom, usually for years, they no longer have to work under the contracts they negotiate. Their self-interest has become more closely bound up with preserving the union as an institution.

For all these reasons, it is convenient for these union officials to develop an ideology that serves as a substitute for a fighting strategy. Instead, they concoct the myth that teachers have already won great conditions and that the battle is to win administrators over to cooperating with the union to “improve education” without material improvements and without teachers having any real power.

Of course, the fundamental assumption behind this collaborative alliance with management is that the interests of administrators and teachers are the same, that we all want “improved student learning.” But as we have seen, the interests of administrators and teachers are becoming even more opposed, as the politicians refuse to grant the schools the necessary resources, but at the same time demand “better results.”

Not surprisingly, the advocates of the “new unionism” look to other models of union-management cooperation in U.S. industry, most notably the highly touted Saturn Corporation/ United Automobile Workers (UAW) “partnership. Both the NEA and the AFT have created the “NEA-UAW/Saturn Partnership Award,” rewarding local affiliates that form partnerships with local school districts with a trip to the Saturn plant in Tennessee.

That the NEA and AFT look to the Saturn operation as a model is in itself an ominous sign for teachers and public education. Since its inception in 1986, the “team” effort at Saturn has resulted in the wholesale destruction of working conditions for its employees, including no overtime for Saturday work, rotating shifts, few paid holidays, and less than an hour break (including lunch) for a ten- hour shift.

Team leaders are almost all pro-management and an army of between 500 and 800 union appointees, jointly approved by management, dominate union meetings. Such an association with Saturn must now be very embarrassing, as the entire UAW leadership team there was recently voted out of office.

Since the administrators will not fight for real reform, only the teachers can do it, through their unions. Where local unions have been most effective, at least in California, it has been when bread-and-butter issues were wedded to school quality issues. This is certainly true for the victorious San Diego and Oakland strikes, which raised the demand of lowering class size and reduction of district bureaucracy.

These strikes demonstrate that the most successful means of improving the schools are precisely through massive, militant pressure on school boards and the district bureaucracy, not reliance on a “collaborative, non-adversarial process.”

Changing the schools and society is first and foremost a struggle&#8212against powerful, entrenched interests who are unalterably opposed to providing adequate funds for public education, not to mention creating a full employment, high-wage economy. As such, the struggle must become a movement in which teachers and their unions unite with their natural allies, including parents, the labor movement, and the community. And that movement, like the labor and civil rights movements of the `30s and the `60s, must utilize methods of direct action and mass mobilization to force concessions from reluctant employers and politicians.

Up to now, the debate within the teacher unions about peer review has been limited to the “new” unionists and the traditional unionists, who have restricted themselves to defending teachers conditions without advancing corresponding demands to improve education. As weary foot soldiers in the front lines of urban education, we have every reason to enter into the debate with a real alternative.

ATC 82, September-October 1999