by Gary L. Albrecht, Ph.D.
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In the past few years, Wisconsin schools have experienced significant changes as a result of state policy changes (most notably ACT 10) that occurred in the spring of 2011. As result, many districts altered their compensation, ended collective bargaining with represented employees, slashed healthcare benefits, and implemented an employee contribution to retirement benefits. Employee handbooks have been written in lieu of collective bargaining agreements while administrators and school boards have been placed in the position of having much greater unilateral authority without adequate preparation.
Last spring (2013), Dr. Kent Peterson ( University of Wisconsin Emeritus Professor) and Dr. Don Ferguson (private practice consultant/psychologist) presented at a conference for Wisconsin school district administrators. The session was entitled, Managing and Leading During Tectonic District Shift. Peterson and Ferguson assert that the recent changes “go deeply into the core expectations, as to how employees are compensated and rewarded, and the processes of decision-making and involvement. Given that the current culture has been in place for a very long time, these changes are being deeply felt as significant seismic transformations, tectonic shifts in districts and schools.”
Further, Peterson and Ferguson believe that “resistance, grief, anger, and sometimes withdrawal individually and in-group manifestations of fear or discontent are to be expected.” They site five key shifts:
(1) Changes in Contracts are central, potentially lifestyle-altering events. The loss of collective bargaining rights can lead to a sense of powerlessness, social disengagement, and sometimes active or passive resistance.
(2) Reductions in compensation can affect not only weekly budgets, but also long-term financial and career decisions. In most districts staff are facing reduced compensation, in some cases causing financial pressure, reduced opportunities, such as short term budget constraints, changes in life choices (such as putting off a house purchase of going to graduate school) and doubts about the future or an immediate financial crisis. This is especially the case if it is a couple with two teaching positions. Fear, anger, and withdrawal of commitment can occur.
(3) Even a brief lack of work rules or lack of clarity may bring on passive resistance.
(4) Feeling that the community no longer values one’s work can increase anxiety among staff. One of the most serious consequences can be perceived loss of support for teachers and their role in the education of children.
(5) Previous conflicts may come back and cause anger. A prior history of conflict and disagreement between the district and the union may foster a sudden sense of power on the part of administrators and set off the imposition of changes they have always wanted. Sudden autocratic changes can seriously damage longterm relations with staff.
(Peterson & Ferguson. Managing and Leading During Tectonic District Shifts. December 2012)
In addition to the changes above, public schools across the country are challenged by many initiatives such as the implementation of school report cards, Common Core State Standards, Educator Effectiveness, Response to Intervention (RtI), and Positive Behavior Intervention Strategies (PBIS). Compounding these challenges are increasing concerns regarding school safety and vastly increased numbers of students coming from families in poverty, and an increasing number of English as a Second Language students.
Media reports across the country suggest that all of these challenges face schools across our country and that while not all states have encountered the changes cited by Peterson and Furgeson, other states are watching closely as they approach the brink of a similar fate. Having visited over 50 school districts in the past year, it is apparent that all of these challenges are real and that few of the consequences were considered or underpinned with a grand plan.
Over the past 30 years, since A Nation at Risk was published, reform efforts to improve student achievement and close achievement gaps between economically disadvantaged students and non-English speaking students for the most part have failed. Are we providing students the support they need to succeed? Is the emphasis on accountability and testing meeting the needs of our students? Can technology be more effectively used to support students and teachers?
There is a wide array of issues and questions, so when the “Tectonic Shifts” proposed by Peterson and Ferguson are thrown in the mix, several questions arise that schools and states across our country may ponder.
- Given that these changes will not be “undone”, how can school boards and administrators act in order to “re-professionalize” the teaching position in order to give teachers a voice into their personal and professional destiny (including curriculum/assessment development and input into salary and benefit structures)?
- As other states have experienced similar education initiatives but perhaps not the changes with regard to personnel salary and benefits, what policy changes might they consider so that they can avoid feelings of fear and discontent among staff during a very unsettled time in education?
- How can local communities become more involved as a support network for their schools as partners in the fabric of the community?