Voices in Education

The Distrust Beneath the Recent Teacher Strikes
Beginning with the well-publicized teacher walkouts in West Virginia and continuing this year in Los Angeles, Denver, and Oakland—teachers across the United States initiated strikes for a variety of reasons: to demand increased social services for students and smaller class sizes, to protest the movement toward the privatization of schools (which has led to budget crises and potential school closings), and in opposition to other current reforms such as performance-based pay. Although the initial teacher walkouts in 2018 were short and symbolic and frequently organized through social networks, the more recent strikes have been initiated by teacher unions, lasted for days, and drawn wide support from community members and, in a few cities such as Oakland, principals and board members.

Beneath the rhetoric and demands in these strikes, and in the failures at the bargaining tables, is a growing distrust between teachers and district-level administrators. For instance, in Denver, recently appointed superintendent Susana Cordova was unable to avoid a strike against the district compensation policy that rewards teachers in low-performing schools and teachers who are rated well by their supervisors. Teachers claimed that the complex formula was inconsistent. As a result, the teachers’ salaries were unpredictable from one year to the next, making it difficult to know if they can afford to live in a city where housing costs are increasing rapidly. Teachers went on strike both because they did not trust the system to fairly compensate them and also because they did not trust the administrators to make decisions to fix the system unless they flexed their political muscles and went on strike. After several days, the district compromised their strict adherence to the formula and teachers returned to work. 

The distrust entwined in the teachers’ decisions to strike and the breakdown of talks reflects a distrust that is endemic to many aspects of our education system as well as a more pervasive feeling of distrust in the US. We live in a time infused with distrust—between individuals, and among particular groups of people, and institutions. Distrust is manifest in the name-calling among members of the US Congress whose working relationships were once more amicable and collaborative. Distrust is also manifest in the quick labeling of news as “fake news” when it does not support a particular point of view or version of events. Typically, in conflict situations, both parties harbor distrust. In the recent strikes, not only did the teachers distrust the district administrators to advocate well on their behalf and in the interests of the children but the district leaders distrusted the teachers, who they did not believe would bargain in good faith and with an understanding of their budget constraints. 

If distrust remains unaddressed, it will persist. Teachers and district leadership might come to a temporary agreement that is robust enough to end a strike, but the underlying issues will persist. These tensions may lead to a subsequent strike or, even more concerning, teachers permanently leaving the system. In order to work toward resolving distrust in the long term, it is critical to move beyond simply working to build trust. Instead, it is imperative to identify and seek solutions to the underlying issues and tensions that led to the distrust. As educators and policymakers we might ask: What are the historical or political events that were the antecedents to the distrust? Are there patterns of interaction that we can change that will lead to more collaborative decision-making?

The pervasive distrust throughout our education system has led to strikes rather than conversation, compromise, and calls for increased compassion and understanding. What would it mean for teachers to work in a system that treated them with dignity, both in terms of salary and also in terms of participation and transparency in critical policies? When consequential decisions are made solely by people in power—school administrators, superintendents, board members—without engaging those most affected by the decisions, there will be tremendous distrust. And when there is distrust, the youth in the schools and their communities will be robbed of the education they deserve.

About the Author: Katherine Schultz is dean and professor of education at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education. She is the author of Distrust and Educational Change: Overcoming Barriers to Just and Lasting Reform (Harvard Education Press, 2019).