Conrolling Teacher Militancy Will Recent Empowerment Efforts Have Any Impact? By: Dr. Randy Dunn, Ph.D.

Tremendous emphasis has been given to teacher empowerment in the educational reform movement. A general assumption within this trend is that teacher empowerment will reduce teacher militancy. But is this so? While the conventional wisdom suggests that greater teacher autonomy, authority, and participation in decision-making should lessen militancy across all issues, such may not be the case. Following the introduction, I will seek to explore this paradox. First I will briefly review research identifying the determinants of teacher militancy. Then I'll analyze approaches to empowerment currently seen in schools in relationship to what the research has said regarding the causes of teacher militancy. Finally, I will offer some conclusions about the potential for continued militant behavior among teachers within an empowered environment, and will recommend further research in this area. 

* Dr. Dunn is an Associate Professor in the Department of Educational Administration and Higher Education at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale.

Dr. Dunn thanks Brenda Armstrong for her research assistance on this paper. 


In a classic work, Hirschman* posited that organizational actors [e.g., administrators, teachers] rely upon two alternative approaches, exit and voice, when they encounter working conditions which they object to. The concept of "exit" in the organizational literature has usually referred to job turnover (Mayes & Ganster, 1988); and the concept of "voice" (first applied by Bacharach and Bamberger, 1990), refers to the formation of contentious attitudes or the taking of political action (e.g., strike) to improve organizational conditions.

The growth of public sector unionism and the attendant militant actions by these unions over the past four decades have been grist for the mill for researchers. Their studies have been notable for providing numerous models of militancy and profiles of militant employees. Within the field of educational labor relations in particular, potential determinants of teacher militancy have been suggested by scholars since the 1970s (Alutto & Belasco, 1974; Corwin, 1970; Fox & Wince, 1976; Tomkiewicz, 1979).

Though some may assume that teachers become militant solely because of economic concerns, as these educational employees press for higher wages and more extensive benefits, yet it has been shown that such is not always the case (Bacharach, Bamberger & Conley, 1990; Jessup, 1978, 1985). In the present labor relations environment, teachers' concerns for their professional rights and responsibilities in the workplace are on a par with the importance attached to the economic battles of the past. Though McDonnell and Pascal (1988) concede that the attainment of key provisions regulating salary and basic working conditions is necessary to secure contract provisions increasing professionalism, one cannot escape a "distinctive pressure" (Shedd, 1988, p.405) relating to the significance of professional issues in the teacher unionism literature. 

* The Reference list at the end of this article contains the full citation for each study referred to in the text. 

Interestingly, and probably not coincidentally, at the same time such concerns were gaining ground within teacher unions, a second wave of the education reform movement began calling for major changes in the organization of the teaching profession. Indeed, a separate and distinct sub-literature within the larger inquiry into teacher professionalism started to emerge which specifically identified the "empowerment" of the classroom teacher as a key component of educational reform (Maeroff, 1988; Mertens & Yarger, 1988; Sickler, 1988).

This empowerment sub-literature generally indicated that teachers were just as concerned about working conditions that affect their ability to perform their jobs as they are about higher salaries. A definition of teacher empowerment grew from this early literature which implies that teaching conditions must be established which allow greater teacher autonomy, authority, decision-making and control. In the typical world of the teacher, then, these changes would seemingly demand new structures to overcome a lack of input into decision-making on matters such as:

  • teaching and learning,
  • restrictive bureaucratic controls, and
  • incomplete administrative supports for teaching.

In one sense, it is not incorrect to view the arguments in support of teacher empowerment as actually bringing the earliest interpretations of teacher militancy full circle. Corwin (1970), whose book on the "professional militancy" of teachers predated essentially all writing on teacher empowerment by nearly a generation, detailed the modern history of educational administration as an outmoded, hierarchical, bureaucratic system. Corwin argued that as the education bureaucracy controls and standardizes the work setting it constrains the authority of employees over the policies that govern their work. Hence, teacher empowerment can be construed as a militant process, that is, as competing ideas of organization clash in school systems across the nation.

I. Determinants of Teacher Militancy

The literature on teacher militancy to date implies two broad categories of militancy determinants:

  • characteristics of the individual, and
  • characteristics of the workplace (Bacharach et al., 1990).

Characteristics of the individual that have been shown to contribute to increased militancy include the following variables:

  • age (Alutto & Belasco, 1974),
  • gender (Lane & Thompson, 1981),
  • race (Williams & Leonard, 1989),
  • self-image (Smith, Ball & Liontos, 1990), and
  • attitudes toward the union (McClendon & Klass, 1993).

However, while these demographic and attitudinal characteristics have a clear impact in contributing to teacher militancy, most empowerment strategies instead serve to alter the characteristics of the workplace in some way. Thus, in this section of the article I will focus on three dimensions of the workplace that impact teacher militancy:

A. Organizational Decision-making

B. Fair Treatment

C. Job Feedback

A. Organizational Decision-Making

One of the crucial factors in looking at the characteristics of organizational work for teachers is that they view themselves as professionals. As a result, teachers expect to maintain a high level of work autonomy and to be significantly involved in decision making thereby providing overall control gains. By incorporating teachers into decision-making, the administrator places value on their professional judgment and rewards their expertise. In a bureaucracy, the tendency exists for organizational leaders to specify and formalize rules that could result in too great a control over teachers' activities. The feeling that teachers lack authority over decisions, or have less influence over decisions than they should have, may result in a sense of powerlessness and dissatisfaction that leads to militant actions (Conley, Bacharach & Bauer, 1989). On the other hand, Steers and Black (1995) assert that involvement in decision-making enlarges the degree of control that employees perceive over their own behavior in the workplace.

B. Fair Treatment

The notion of fair treatment as a workplace dimension has received attention as teachers have become more sensitive to being treated fairly in regard to such issues as promotion opportunities, job enrichment opportunities, and job transfers. Johnson (1984) discovered that teachers both resented favoritism and admired evenhandedness with respect to employee treatment by principals. Johnson further reported that teachers' judgments to join forces with union members, oppose administrative decisions, and resolve problems through formal grievance channels (all militant actions) were highly dependent upon their perception of fair treatment by the principal.

Bacharach, Mitchell and Malanowski (1983) found limited support for the hypothesis that low certainty about promotion opportunity and low rationality of the promotion process will lead to high militancy. However, high rationality of the promotion process emerged as significant in the expected direction in all cases. Since a high certainty of promotion opportunity failed to emerge as a significant variable in their model (and maybe this should not be surprising given the limited career advancement opportunities available to teachers), fairness of the promotion process appears more important than the certainty of the opportunity for promotion in reducing teacher militancy.

C. Job Feedback

Lastly, research suggests that individuals who receive more job feedback have a less stressful and more positive relationship with the organization. A teacher is less likely to express militant attitudes when there is greater feedback and less stress in the instructional situation (Bacharach et al., 1983).

Because individual characteristics such as age, gender, and race cannot be modified, and the individual implications of self-image and attitude toward the union seem especially resistant to change, systemic influences to reduce teacher militancy will continue to focus upon altering characteristics of the school as a workplace. It is necessary in the upcoming section to examine how contemporary practices for heightening empowerment within schools are being utilized to transform the nature of teachers' work. This review, however, will be approached from a critical perspective as the various approaches to empowerment are analyzed according to the degree to which they refashion workplace characteristics to reduce teacher militancy.

II. A Critical Review of Empowerment

Empowerment has become the latest rallying cry in a variety of organizational settings and, as such, there seems to be no dearth of practices which purport to lead to enhanced levels of teacher empowerment (as commonly defined). For instance, the practitioner literature in educational administration cites numerous examples of practices that principals and superintendents are exhorted to follow to increase empowerment:

  • school improvement teams and
  • school governance councils; lead teachers;
  • peer observation, coaching and evaluation;
  • professional staff development and support programs; and
  • faculty review teams.

Short (1992), in her attempt to advance the discussion of teacher empowerment beyond the stage of a laundry list of strategies, identified six empirically derived dimensions underlying the construct of teacher empowerment; and they are:

  1. participation of teachers in critical decisions that directly affect their work; 
  2. teacher impact as an indicator of influencing school life; 
  3. teacher status concerning professional respect from colleagues; 
  4. autonomy, or teachers' beliefs that they can control certain aspects of their work life; 
  5. professional development opportunities to enhance continuous learning and expand one's skills; and 
  6. self-efficacy?perception of having the skills and ability to help students learn. 

Unfortunately, what has not been easily found are conceptual frameworks or compelling theoretical positions for thinking about teacher empowerment. Lawler (1986) forwarded the idea that teacher

empowerment relates to greater organizational effectiveness as teachers recognize they have the prerogative to help make changes that can correct perceived organizational problems.

Prawat's (1991) framework for examining teacher empowerment considered first the personal context within which the empowerment process occurs (described as conversations with self) before contemplating an external perspective for thinking about empowerment (or conversations with others). This first approach to empowerment is essentially an epistemological one as individual teachers develop the knowledge of how to deal with (what Prawat referred to as) social and political oppression. How? By overcoming "the inclination to uncritically accept (or reject) knowledge claims advanced by so-called experts in the field" (p. 739). The key to empowerment under the second perspective, though, appears to demand more of an organizational or strategic response as teachers must "be open to new and more effective ways of constructing the classroom and workplace environment" (p. 739).

Gamoran, Fowler, Levin and Walberg (1994) reflected on the prior research and their own experience to present three theoretical views of empowerment that differ significantly in their assumptions about the school and classroom domains and the impact of changes in these domains upon teacher empowerment. Their "teacher professionalism" view sees increasing teacher autonomy as leading to improved instruction and academic achievement. The "bureaucratic centralization" view holds that a strong, centralized structure will foster empowerment as teachers reach collective decisions regarding effective curricular content and organization, which must then be applied by a teaching professional in a variety of classroom contexts. Finally, the "loose coupling" view asserts that since teachers already have a high degree of control over and autonomy within their own classrooms, increased empowerment (at the classroom level at least) is irrelevant to teaching and learning. But Gamoran et al. readily acknowledge that a review of the research proffers little evidence to support or disprove any of the three views they posit.

This short review of some of the different ways of looking at teacher empowerment would seem to suggest that access to, and involvement in decision-making is central to any notion of empowerment reform. It is almost intuitive to imply that teachers, if given the opportunity to participate in the overall educational decision-making process, will be more effective and productive, as well as more favorably predisposed toward change efforts. Further, conventional wisdom holds that teachers who perceive a greater feeling of empowerment should be less militant; that is, as they concomitantly sense their professional rights being upheld, and the ability and support to master their responsibilities within the workplace. But for a variety of reasons (that are explained below), I am hesitant to believe that such will necessarily be the case.

A. Implications Related to Organizational Decision-Making

As they conceptualized their image of empowerment, Gamoran et al. (1994) distinguished between two domains of empowerment: classroom and school. Given their importance with respect to many issues of school coordination and control across the nation, one could reasonably assert a third, and possibly a fourth, domain that affect teacher empowerment; namely, the influence of district and state governance structures. Obviously, teachers' influence over decision-making is lessened as these domains conflict with one another.

In schools where empowerment strategies are liberally employed, teachers may have a strong impact on school decisions. Yet, these may not be well aligned with district or state mandates. For example, if a district-level policy requires a textbook for every course of study or curricular area and teacher evaluation is tied to text coverage, but an individual school desires to move away from the textbook-driven curriculum, teachers' wishes will likely take a back seat to district mandates, that is, unless a viable waiver provision exists.

(What these policy makers assume about teachers' lack of competency and firm grounding in matters of curricular content and pacing is not unique, but such discussion is not the focus of this article.)

Even when teachers have outright control over school issues, each school must make a determination of the degree to which collective decisions will be allowed to influence classroom practices. It is not beyond the pale to think that if a centralized, authoritarian decision-making structure is merely replaced by a professional one that is unclear, diffuse and obscure, that the same sense of confusion, powerlessness and dissatisfaction which has been shown to lead to teacher militancy would again prevail.

When teachers, through the vehicle of professional empowerment, are provided the opportunity for increased autonomy and greater involvement in (and control over) a school's mission, objectives and direction, the potential exists for similarly magnified levels of conflict within the organization. If meaningful organizational change is to occur, communication will likely become more complex, which can result in increased conflicts.

At least one study conducted in schools undergoing restructuring efforts to create greater teacher empowerment discovered that when teachers' involvement in decision-making increases, the opportunities for conflict increase due to the disclosure of various ideologies and perceptions (Short, Greer & Michael, 1991). Especially if teachers lack particular skills necessary to address organizational problems or group processes, the teachers may view additional levels of conflict as thwarting their organizational decision-making power, thus leading to more militant behavior. The fact that Short et al. also discovered that empowerment was negatively correlated to school climate (so that as empowerment increased, teachers perceived a less positive climate in their schools) would tend to corroborate this view.

Zeichner (1991) pointed out the problems that ensue when teacher empowerment becomes so strong as to strain the connections between schools and their communities. As teachers gain control of a school's decision-making process, parents and communities might well distance themselves from school affairs as their concerns take a back seat to those of the education professionals. In examining this tension between schools and parents/communities, Zeichner felt that "plans that have given more power to local schools and to teachers within those schools have not necessarily created the means for authentic partnerships between communities and schools" (p. 367).

To illustrate, governance of each of the Chicago Public Schools (under the Chicago School Reform Act) is now mandated by a local school council comprised of parents, community members and teachers. But recent reports from Chicago indicate only mixed success in altering influence relationships between parents and teachers. In some schools, teachers and the principal (whose appointment is determined by each council) can regulate the council through skillful agenda setting, selective information sharing, issues management, and other control mechanisms, these same teachers essentially control key decision-making outcomes as well. Indeed, the seeds of teacher militancy are sown as parents are circumvented from addressing salient policy issues and, as Zeichner sees it, are forced to "approach their involvement in these policy-making bodies as a way to acquire information about the school and provide service to the school, not to make school policy" (p. 368).

Previous research has solidly and credibly demonstrated the role of positive school-community relationships in contributing to student academic achievement, not just for those students typically seen as being at-risk, but for most students in urban settings. Yet as parents and other community members become disengaged from the schools, believing their bona fide interests are not being legitimated, opportunities for the growth of teacher militancy are nurtured. Moreover, as parents act upon their frustration against the professional authority of the school, certain things will presumably happen. Parents will,

  • quit working as volunteer teacher aides;
  • stop coordinating school events;
  • cease supporting teachers' efforts by checking homework, buying additional supplies, and the like; and
  • no longer serve as sympathetic members on boards of education and local school councils.

In their attempt to both counter this treatment as well as recoup some very tangible benefits which accrue from high levels of parental involvement, the temptation will exist for teachers to turn to militant behavior to retrieve these lost resources through normal organizational channels.

B. Implications for Fair Treatment

If it is assumed that autonomy, control, and access to decision-making are central to the existence of teacher empowerment, it must also be remembered that this broad authority granted to school staff to run their schools, if it has ever existed, is frequently compromised. Societal problems dealing with such issues as racial segregation, the provision of services to disabled children, and gender discrimination cannot be addressed on a school-by-school basis in any equitable fashion. Beyond the reach of federal and state mandates in these areas, certain other decisions are necessarily made at the district level, and not by individual schools. Walker and Roder (1993) illustrated just such a circumstance:

For instance, students in a school with a sizable number of African-American students could claim that aggressive enforcement of a disciplinary policy in their school was discriminatory or constituted a denial of 'equal protection" under federal or state constitutions because another school within the same school district with a largely white student population has a more relaxed disciplinary policy.

Indeed, the Office of Civil Rights of the United States Department of Education has taken the position generally that all students should receive the same discipline for the same offense. District-wide FF0 monitoring could ameliorate this problem (p. 169).

When teachers' participation in and control over decision-making is compromised by an array of legal constraints, they may correspondingly sense they are being treated less fairly. If so, militancy will increase.

While on the topic of fair treatment, it is worth mentioning that current research evidence suggests even the most vigorous empowerment strategies cannot overcome organizational antecedents which limit teachers' willingness to participate in school decision-making. Smylie (1992) found that across all decision-making areas, the principal-teacher relationship is the single strongest influence on teachers' willingness to participate in decision-making; this was especially the case in the area of personnel decision-making. To the extent that the causes of militancy within a particular school are r6oted in the principal-teacher relationship, militant behavior will likely continue to flourish. In addition, Smylie also said that "promoting teacher participation in decision-making is a problem of individual and organizational change that cannot be solved effectively through legislation or regulation alone" (p.50).

C. Implications Related to Job Feedback

A review of prior research on teacher empowerment does not necessarily reveal a channel through which empowerment designs might contribute to teacher militancy along the workplace dimension of job feedback. Instead, in this arena, the relationship may actually run in the opposite direction, so that as teachers' perceptions of empowerment decrease, teacher militancy increases.

Short and Rinehart (1992) indicated that teachers who perceive a greater sense of empowerment believe they may significantly impact the work of the organization. It is reasonable to expect that teachers who have "the power to identify problems, facilitate change, and ultimately be responsible for organizational outcomes" (p. 11) must have access to feedback information from multiple sources to gauge the relative success of their efforts. If empowerment is thus correlated with some degree, of organizational efficacy (which is dependent upon receiving job and organizational feedback), not only will teachers' sense of empowerment decrease, but teacher militancy will increase in the absence of feedback.

III. Significance for Policy, Pracitce and Research

Clear implications for policy, practice and future research are somewhat difficult to glean from this work. While it seems intuitive to believe that increased empowerment leads teachers to take on a more professional orientation, thereby leading to less militant behavior, it has been argued here that this may not be so. In fact, some research is now emerging that appears to bear this out.

DiPaola and Hoy (1994) asserted that militancy develops as a natural outgrowth of a professional, as opposed to a bureaucratic, orientation in the school workplace. Indeed, they cite the demand of teachers for "independence, self-determination, and colleagueship" (p. 83) as being at the heart of the professional-bureaucratic conflict. Yet, DiPaola and Hoy made clear that the conflict associated with teacher militancy does not disrupt harmony in the schools. As such, perhaps militancy is better viewed in a somewhat less negative light and more as a resistance to a "blind faith in bureaucracy" (p. 88).

But for those who would ignore these arguments and still desire to respond to an expansion of teacher militancy through some sort of empowerment policy intervention, reform proposals that simply enhance the decision-making power and organizational status of teachers in the name of empowerment are probably not sufficient. To illustrate, most teaching and learning reforms demand new resources in the form of staff development, personnel, and materials for support. Teachers who are "empowered," yet who do not discern an environment of trust and confidence within their schools (demonstrated by the provision of additional needed resources), will continue to take individual and collective action to address difficult professional problems they face every day. This action may take forms that are commonly viewed as militant (e.g., work actions, informational pickets), but need not be seen as anti-professional.

Certainly, all of this is not to then say that school administrators should revert to bureaucratic authority structures to control teachers so that militancy is kept to a minimum. Rather, administrators should carefully analyze the impact and implications of their organizational and administrative strategies. They should not promote educational reforms designed only to stall the advance of militancy; instead, they should diligently seek to recognize problems inherent in the present school organization, and then promote reforms that will correct those problems.

Teachers have fundamental concerns that if left unresolved bring a collective, almost automatic response, known as "first-level" militancy. Teachers' concerns include:

  • class size,
  • teaching assignment,
  • teacher evaluation, and
  • length of school day and year.

These concerns, when categorized as follows, are typical of the traditional concerns that blue collar and other professional employee unions seek to resolve:

  • compensation,
  • job security, and
  • workplace organizational conditions.

When fundamental concerns of teachers remain unresolved, teachers almost always look to the counter power of the union to resolve these problems in the school organization. "First-level" militancy pertains to the above concerns and occurs when the union gets involved.

"Second-level" militancy displays more concern for the following issues within the school:

  • professional decision-making,
  • autonomy, and
  • control.

However, most unions have not yet developed a system for resolving such issues (Kipnis & Schmidt, 1983). Only what Kerchner and Mitchell (1988) call third-generation, "professional" teacher unions are likely to exhibit this second-level militancy, and those do not yet exist (Urban, 1991). Even if they did exist, such professional unions may not be able to lessen first-level teacher militancy or reduce conflict between the union and management.

Streshly and DeMitchell (1994) properly emphasized that the "first business of a union is to secure the material benefits of the members' employment" (p. 66), while Bascia (1994) asserted that teachers fully expect their unions to be receptive to the issues as the teachers interpret them. Evidence that this attitude is shared within professional unionism as well can be seen in Kerchner's (1993) case study of the Pittsburgh teacher union. Though the union made professionalism a significant part of its agenda, and major reforms were accomplished in the Pittsburgh Public Schools, the union continued to do what unions do, namely, increase the number of grievances:

Grievances are filed, and the union represents teachers who receive unsatisfactory performance ratings. The number of grievances going to arbitration has actually increased because the union is some what more willing to take 'judgment call" grievances to arbitration to show that it is still fulfilling its duty to provide procedural due process for members (p. 58).

It must be acknowledged that distinctions between examples of first- and second-level militancy are sometimes difficult to define and may be artificial at best. However, such a notion can be implied from McDonnell and Pascal's (1988) developmental conceptualization of teacher unions that (a) initially bargain to obtain increases in salary and fringe benefits, and (b) later confront the administration on matters of working conditions and job security, and (c) finally address issues of educational policy and professional practice.

While certain characteristics of the individual associated with militancy (e.g., age, gender and race) cannot be altered, the organization by tactical behavior can influence the degree to which teachers resort to first-level militancy. For instance, educational reform is generally associated with increased work demands for teachers. Bacharach et al. (1983) demonstrated that teachers are likely to turn to militant behavior when confronted with high levels of work demands. Thus it is appropriate for administrators to respond to teachers' perceptions relating to the level of work demands. Administrators may need to reallocate clerical or technical support to buttress teachers' reform efforts, or pay them a small stipend via a mini-grant program. Furthermore, administrators can give symbolic rewards to heighten the intrinsic satisfaction and identification that teachers receive from high job involvement, thereby reducing militancy (Bacharach et al., 1983).

Future research should include exploratory investigation into the nature and degree of second-level militancy, especially in those schools that provide comprehensive, systemic opportunities for teachers' full participation in decision-making and policy development (related to teaching and learning). Largely unexplored is the question of whether militant attitudes are influenced more by school-level or district-level actions and practices. Also highly valuable would be longitudinal case studies which expand our understanding of the various facets of first- and second-level militant behavior, while forwarding models of teacher empowerment in diverse school and district organizational contexts.


Given their crucial role in the teaching and learning process, teachers will continue to be key players in determining the success and effectiveness of schools. For educational reform and change to thrive, meaningful teacher participation and involvement is essential. The challenge for schools will be to create conditions that encourage teachers to help develop and implement reforms that improve teaching and learning, while at the same time avoid fostering an over-reliance on strident unionism that encourages negative first-level teacher militancy.

If teachers view educational reforms (with their rigorous prescriptiveness, increased time demands and workloads, and heightened accountability) as disruptive of or contradictory to traditional union interests (e.g., salary and basic working conditions), then first-level teacher militancy will likely expand with each new reform initiative. In addition, I have posited the existence of a different, second-level militancy centering upon issues of professional empowerment. However, this new-fashioned brand of militancy (assuming it exists at all) will emerge to the extent that teacher unions (fomenting militancy in order to develop and maintain the loyalty of their dues paying members) seek to re-establish their legitimacy by addressing problems of empowerment, not just economic growth and job protection. In the end, those of us engaged in the study of educational labor relations can only hope that this new version of teacher militancy is better than the old one. 


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