Putting Union and Management Out of Business


The year is 2009. Picture the heads of AASA and the combined NEA-AFT meeting at a reception, toasting the end of their organizations as they had known them 10 years before and the success of an improved way of running schools that few reformers at that time could have imagined.

Back in 1999 they also had come together at a meeting where they shared their gripes about the daily plight of their members in their different worlds of work. The more they talked, though, the more they noticed how similar these supposedly different roles in supposedly different settings were.

Just a decade earlier, those at the top--superintendents in the "world" of the district, teachers in the "world" of the classroom--were told by theorists to empower those within their system (teachers, for the superintendents; students, for the teachers). They were asked to relinquish old, controlling ways of working before they had a full complement of alternative strategies in place for achieving the necessary results.

Both superintendents and teachers were driven by a personal need to make a difference and an organizational responsibility to produce tangible results. Each was controlling a system whose outcomes reflected on both their personal images and their organizational accountability.

To meet these commitments, educators were asked to trust that the newly empowered had the will, capacity and innate motivation to do a good, ever-improving job. But back in 1999, a solid foundation of experience to support that trust was missing. Past practices within the education community had not supported either teachers or students as co-producers of academic achievement. Opportunities to demonstrate trustworthiness were few.

Finally, they had noticed that teachers and administrators were hired for what they already knew and were expected to deliver it effectively to the unknowing. Learning from the job was not an expectation built into either of their roles. If it happened, it happened on their own time.

Meeting the New Paradigm
What was happening here, they wondered at the time? And why was it happening? Why were parents and policymakers similarly demanding of them: "Change it all (the whole school system and its parts), do it all at the same time ... and do it now."

Looking back a decade, with the luxury of hindsight, it was obvious that two new bodies of knowledge had become part of the public consciousness. One body of knowledge was about the nature of learning, the other about the nature of organizations that connect people to produce common results. One raised questions about accustomed roles, the other about accustomed relationships.

From the first, superintendents and teachers understood that a child developed his or her capacities to learn from the interactions adults built into the environment. The school’s product, they realized, comes to them as a bundle of capacities already partially assembled and with batteries included that drive an installed-at-the-factory learning engine with the capacity to run itself. The teacher’s job was to create those interactions that increasingly developed that capacity.

The second new body of knowledge was more challenging; it raised questions about their members’ relationships in support of that critical teaching-learning interaction. From research on how effective formal and informal organizations internally connect themselves to accomplish common purposes came the understanding that "relationships rule." Both organizational and personal success was determined by the extent to which relationships among the organization’s parts provided the interaction needed to support their continual learning and success.

Seeing What Exists
Then they had an epiphany. AASA and NEA-AFT leaders realized that effectiveness of the whole system and each of its parts was a function of the nature and quality of those relationships. The industrial era practice of thinking about management and labor as adversarial components had produced what, in living systems, would be called an "auto-immune disease." Parts of a body attack each other, and eventually contribute to the destruction of the whole.

But what could leaders of these educational associations do about it? They were confronting a belief embedded in the larger society, which seemingly threatened the self-interest of their paying members. It seemed impossible to build into the work of schools the time and support for a different relationship between those at the bottom and those at the top.

Their epiphany took final form as they noticed that the words "top" and "bottom" only referred to the pyramid-shaped organizational chart they thought had represented the actual school district. This useful map for determining how to allocate resources couldn’t portray the actual relationships required to connect those resources to results. For example:


  • If a school district organization were a pyramid with teachers at its bottom, then teachers would not be faced with the conflicting daily knowledge that it is their continual interaction with the individual student that most influences the quality of the entire system’s efforts. Much union organizing seemed to have been the consequence of others ignoring this continual teaching reality.



  • If a school district organization were a pyramid with superintendents at the top, superintendents would be able to control what they command. Their visions for creating quality learning opportunities for all children in their districts would be accepted and followed now, not someday in the future.


    But the system everyone thinks they’ve plotted on the district organization chart doesn’t respond the way it is supposed to--if in fact it were a pyramid. Those who sought top leadership jobs because of a commitment to making more of a difference in the learning of more children find they are just as powerless to control the quality of this pyramid’s results as when they were teachers.

    Clearly, the pyramid paradigm was masking the potential of each part of the school system to contribute maximally to success. But something had to serve as a frame for understanding and then acting on. Something had to frame the fundamental interactions necessary to support the work of learning and teaching that produces results. Back in 1999, it wasn’t even possible to find agreement among those who talked systemic change as to what that sustainable system was--the classroom, school building, district or state.

    Building upon what the two new bodies of knowledge told them about the nature of learning, teaching and leadership already in their school communities, it became apparent that the school district was only a sustainable "container" that could support most of the critical interactions necessary to develop a child’s individual capacities. And in 1999 most major reform efforts were designed to either get the district out of the schools or the schools out of the district.

  • A Herculean Task
    Putting aside the old map and working from a more believable sense of the lay of the land, AASA leaders and their counterparts at NEA and AFT had begun to see exciting possibilities for connecting existing resources to the daily interactions of students and teachers. They could see that the task ahead was herculean, but it’s remarkable what can be done when all your old answers no longer seem to fit.

    They agreed they had to create a different answer--one that could continually increase the effectiveness of schools’ daily interactions with children and at the same time develop those schools’ capacities to continue to improve. It could not work unless it met all of these internal and external criteria:


  • Focus on the needs of school children;



  • Tap resources that would not diminish current services to children;



  • Be part of everyday school operations, not an add-on;



  • Engage and interact with present classroom, building and district operations by providing a safe way to question practices, purposes, assumptions and beliefs, and from there try new approaches, learn from what doesn’t work well and try again;



  • Enable curriculum design and delivery to be interactive, continuous and developmental by anchoring it in classroom experiences;



  • Allow the need for solutions to current problems to serve as the impetus for ongoing professional development;



  • Sustain the district as the unit of change and feed development of its continual knowledge base for serving all its parts; and



  • Tap informational technology’s potential for reshaping the school system by changing the communication interactions between its parts. Use it to support new work patterns, roles and relationships among practitioners with common agendas; provide access to information and other resources at the places and times needed for timely classroom and building use; and facilitate tradeoffs in resources that permit the start of solution strategies before all the right parts are in place.


    With the growing knowledge they were developing back in 1999, the AASA and union leaders realized the only way that requirements as fundamental as these could be established was from the inside out as people developed new beliefs and assumptions from their daily experiences. Even if their experiences seemed to deny it, people had to act as if the parts of their system were as interdependent as they now could understand they actually were.

  • Scaffolding Change
    Working from their new sense of the human resources they represented and how much they needed each other, AASA and union leaders searched for a way to simultaneously improve how today’s practitioners met the immediate needs of children while directly improving the school system’s capacity to support tomorrow’s.

    They found a metaphor for their task in two seemingly different areas--engineering and cognitive science. Architects put external structures, or scaffolds, around a building so work can go on within it while it is being improved. Those who study the way humans learn use the same concept to describe the teaching support that gradually fades away as the learner gains competence and confidence.

    This metaphor made sense. But how could they help school districts create an infrastructure scaffold over the present work of schools that would enable them to function as if they were the connected system they already had the potential to be?

    Change From Inside Out
    They soon discovered two resources that had never fit into the total process of making a daily difference for children. Almost every school system had two rich pools of human resources that had not been able to contribute their experience and expertise to directly support daily learning and teaching. In fact, they were frequently bypassed because they were considered to be the enemies of effective changes.

    These were the staffs of the central office and the unions. Back in 1999, greetings such as "Hi, I’m from the central office (or union) and I’m here to help" always produced a snicker or an "Oh yeah?" chuckle.

    AASA and union leaders developed a functional way to redeploy the time and resources of central-office and union staffs and align them in support of the teaching process as a whole, not just the isolated individual teacher at the critical interactive end of the process.

    First they made these two groups accountable for a capacity-building scaffold that fit over and involved the daily work of everyone in a school system and community whose actions were intended to make a difference in the learning lives of children.

    Then they anchored this temporary supportive infrastructure at the school site where it provided each teacher with an enhanced capacity to respond more appropriately to each child’s learning needs. Regardless of their personal experience, expertise and training, each teacher had timely access to critical information about that child and collaborative support for understanding and then acting on it. Just-in-time learners had access, for the first time, to the full resources of the just-in-case school system.

    Until they began to do this, it had never occurred to them that this was the fundamental way that hospitals were organized to support the continual diagnosis and prescription required for each person’s needs to be individually met. One wouldn’t send their children to a hospital that treated everyone the same. Why, they wondered, had schools been held to a lower standard? The scaffolding infrastructure provided experiences out of which schools developed that same core capacity.

    Back to the Future
    Now in the year 2009 they lifted their glasses to toast the new public school systems that had emerged from the experiences of adults discovering they really could have an impact on the learning of all children.

    And they toasted themselves for helping their own members change what in 1999 had been the playing field for power battles. No longer did a concern for who had the power over resources serve as a focus for their relationships. Now, the source of their new interconnectedness was their mutual understanding of who has the power to effect positive results.

    They now could see they had made it possible for school districts to become learning organizations by enabling them to act as if they already were an organization of learners.

    Lew Rhodes, an educational consultant and former AASA associate executive director, can be contacted at 814 Lamberton Drive, Silver Spring, MD 20902. E-mail: lewrhodes@aol.com