DOE Fails · NYC Schools · student voices · UFT

Teachers Have a Union… Why Don’t Students: How They Can Help Each Other When the DOE Fails

Every adult in a school building gets a union. Most are members of the United Federation of Teachers, and together they are incredibly powerful and effective. They negotiate all the rules. They can influence hiring and firing procedures, and everything about teaching. They have negotiated an incredible list of policies and rights for their members, including limits on class sizes, limits on their workload, limits on the lengths of school days and academic years, and many other policies that should have been decided, at least in part, by the students most affected by those policies.

Imagine if students could negotiate their class sizes, workloads, and class-time limits. If we organized, we could take control of our educations and our schools, but that’s not all. Students have a fundamentally different kind of power and leverage than teachers or other school staff, so we shouldn’t limit ourselves just to collective bargaining like any typical labor union.

If the students of NYC organized, we could help each other in ways that the DOE doesn’t help us. Instead of trying to compel the DOE to help us and hoping they yield to our demands, we could help each other directly and without DOE approval, which could be revoked at any time without any student input. Doing this would make this organization more of a syndicate than a union, which I think is a better term for what I envision.

If we, as students, formed a syndicate, what services could we provide to each other? Among others, this syndicate could organize sharing of resources between students of all schools and homeschools, making education more accessible to everyone. Some of these resource-sharing projects could be:

  1. Lesson Libraries

Students could record lessons by their favorite teachers and share them to all students for free. Ideally, this could be done for all teachers at all schools, so that all students could have the opportunity to learn from as wide a variety of teachers as possible. This would allow the best teachers to have the widest influence, an influence determined not by administrators of the DOE, but by the students who benefit from the education.

A lesson library could also help students at a particular school make better choices about which teacher’s classes they should take, and it could help them to better prepare themselves for class, should they desire it. Clearly, this would be a great thing to make available to all students.

  1. Assignment Archives

The syndicate could organize and make available a comprehensive archive of the assignments students are given, the responses they gave, and the grades they received. This well-organized archive would be an invaluable resource for many reasons.

Firstly, having easy access to other students’ work can help students to understand what the standards and expectations really are, especially if a teacher expresses their expectations as poorly as some do. This archive would consequently remove the mystery of how grades are given and how standards are applied.

Secondly, grade transparency is critical to ensuring that students are being treated fairly. This archive could help to reveal preferential or discriminatory treatment on the level of individual teachers, or even entire schools. Although employers and teachers have made it taboo to talk about money or grades, we must do so if we are to hold teachers and schools accountable for unfair treatment of their students.

Any potential danger of plagiarism is irrelevant. It is likely that students will use the assignment archive to measure their own work against the work of others to predict their grade so they can improve their own work to meet the standards which they are now able to better understand. This archive will make it even easier to catch and avoid plagiarism by making any assignment easy to cross-reference across the multitude of all similar assignments. Helping students to improve their work and helping teachers to catch plagiarism would be a mutually beneficial arrangement.

If students used the homework archive to improve their work and to see teacher feedback on previous students’ work before even submitting assignments, that would also make teachers’ jobs easier. They would not have to repeat themselves as often, and they could more easily build on students’ skills, because the students will have effectively already had one or more rounds of feedback before even submitting an assignment. Any teacher who truly wants to improve students’ skills would support this.

Both the recorded lesson library and the assignment archive would help students to make more informed decisions about which classes to take and with which teachers. This will make teachers’ jobs easier by having a higher proportion of students who made informed decisions to be in their class, and it would make students’ lives easier by giving them a better idea of what they were getting themselves into and by helping them to prepare themselves accordingly.

I believe that all of these suggestions would help the students of NYC.

But, even if you’re not a student, you can still help a student in NYC by donating a laptop, tablet, or other device via NYC School Tech. If you are a student who would like to help implement some of the programs I’ve suggested here, or you have your own ideas, send me an email at

In the coming weeks, I will write more about the potential of a student syndicate, including more ideas for services the syndicate could provide. Subscribe to this blog by entering your email below, to make sure you don’t miss it!

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