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Clash of Cultures: Blue Collar, White Collar, and School Reform

The vitriol that characterizes much of the dialog on school reform is most roiling when the conversation turns, as it invariably does, to teachers unions on one hand, and “corporate reformers” on the other. At that point the light goes down, the heat goes up, and the arguments become essentially ad hominem. Why is this?

Policy versus Practice
Policy versus Practice

Ten years ago, watching the turf and political battles play out within the NYCDOE under Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein, it struck me that what I was witnessing was at root a clash of drastically different workplace and social cultures that was misunderstood and mischaracterized even (or especially) by the participants themselves.

Consider that, since their inception, large city school systems (like other municipal service departments such as fire, sanitation, police, and general administration) drew employees largely from blue-collar urban ethnic populations seeking entry into the middle class. If they attended college they were often among the first in their families to do so, and their colleges were most likely to be local public or religious institutions. Their peers and relatives who did not enter municipal service often sought economic stability through the unionized trades.

Both work cultures—the trades and municipal services—were built on similar assumptions of craft apprenticeship (literal or figurative), the value of personal relationships gained through immersion and tenure in the workplace, and an acute awareness of chain of command and workplace rules. Since these assets—the knowing of the “how”, the “who,” and the limits of getting things done—deepened over time, seniority and getting along were highly valued both by the practitioners and by the system itself.

The techniques of day-to-day practice (on a job site, at a fire, in the classroom) were largely unwritten; passed through stories, lore, and peer-mediated experience. Coming up through the system was both an educative and a normative experience, reinforcing the workplace culture and drawing clear boundaries between insiders and outsiders. The centers of gravity and legitimacy were situated with the front-line workers themselves, and only those managers who had risen through the ranks of successive apprenticeship had legitimized authority. Attempts by non-legitimized authority to impose rules or shape practice were generally ignored or subverted.

Contrast this with the white-collar, managerially focused culture represented by Bloomberg and Klein. This was a much more abstracted, rationalized notion of practice that assumes that structure and incentives—not experience and relationships—are the most powerful determinants of practice. In this framework, seniority and experience are suspect, even potential detriments, because they are bound up with the culture and practices of the old worldview. They reek of personal loyalties and obligations, which are not assets but liabilities to org chart-style managers.

Under Klein, efficacy was believed to derive as much from the rationalization and alignment of the system as from the skill and experience of line workers. At every level of the organization new career routes were created that explicitly sought to route around the traditional pathways of apprenticeship.

For the first time, significant numbers of teachers, principals, and district personnel were recruited from elite institutions, not for lifelong careers but for stints of indeterminate duration. Now, principals need not to have spent long periods in the classroom or serving apprenticeships as assistant principals. Central office administrators increasingly drew from the ranks of those who had (or could have had) lucrative professional careers elsewhere and would never before have considered service within one of the nation’s most notorious bureaucracies.

Reform critics are correct to have sniffed a corporatist agenda within this strand of school reform, but they have fundamentally misconstrued the motive. It’s less about extracting profits than it is about advancing a cultural hegemony.

At the time I was a vendor to the new DOE on projects related to assessment, personalized learning, and human capital (that these even existed was indicative of new, more “managed” ways of thinking about efficacy) and so had one foot inside and one foot outside the organization. It was fascinating to witness the mutual distrust and incomprehension of the two cultures, the two tribes.

The newly debarked white-collar managers saw themselves as missionary and insurgent, their nominal authority threatened and undermined at every turn by aboriginal cultures of practice. Where they found strongholds they dismantled them, most significantly in the community school districts and in the central Division of Teaching and Learning (headed at the time by Carmen Farina, now de Blasio’s Chancellor and settling scores). Wherever possible, the ground was salted and a new language of practice imposed in an attempt to prevent the old order from reestablishing itself.

Many long-standing teachers, administrators, and bureaucrats—seeing that the assumptions, norms, and power centers of the culture were shifting drastically—simply left, to the general satisfaction of the new administration. Some of those who remained were genuinely enthusiastic about the new level of energy and the chance to reimagine their work, but many more had an oil-and-water experience, never quite blending into the new culture and content to just run out the retirement clock.

Whether you approve of it or not, Carmen Farina’s restoration clearly represents the return of the repressed culture of relationship and apprenticeship. She seeks legitimacy in her own humble-origins story and her lifetime tenure at all levels of the system. She has made clear her disregard for those without long service (just as Klein did his for veterans), has reemphasized the primacy of practitioner over managerial perspective, and has resurrected or re-empowered old colleagues with similarly lengthy pedigrees to rule alongside her. Farina and her deputies have made clear through word and deed that the white-collar, McKinsey mentality that Klein embodied is anathema to her vision of schools and school systems.

So, when I hear the slurring of this or that policy as an example of “corporate reform,” or that anything associated with the Gates or Broad Foundations, or someone who became rich on Wall Street is inherently (if non-specifically) tainted, I’m aware that I am hearing code, as we almost always are in this country when dealing with issues of class and culture. That what is saliently “corporate” about these sponsors is not that they are profit seeking, but that they represent thoroughly white-collar notions about work and value expressed in endless wonky tweaking of measurements, incentives, and management structures that feel increasingly disconnected from the lived experience of students, parents, and teachers.

The same holds true when reformers dismiss as a self-serving smokescreen for incompetence the argument that schools shouldn’t be reduced to data streams or incentive structures because they are complex social spaces best understood by experienced practitioners. When they do, I know then that I am hearing—at least in part—a technocratic version of the long-standing distrust of the governed by the governors, a distrust of their underground networks, their obscure rites, their stubborn resilience, their blue-collar mentalities.

Steven Hodas (@stevenhodas) is a veteran of both the New York City Department of Education and the edtech industry. In this blog series, School District Innovation: When Practice Collides with Policy, he provides insights into the challenges, struggles, and opportunities of large-district attempts to reform longstanding practices and change cultural norms. This series is part of CRPE’s ongoing examination of innovative school systems.

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