Teacher union leaders can be reformers, too

It’s no secret among education reformers, and among keen-eyed observers of the reform scene (in which select population we brazenly include the Education Gadfly and his Fordham pals), that the two national teacher unions are the largest, richest, shrewdest and most dogged foes of nearly all the most urgently-needed changes in American K-12 education. Not the sole foes, to be sure, but the most potent.

At the same time, however, since the latter days of Al Shanker the unions have contained within their ranks a handful of visionaries and pragmatists who didn’t always let the short-term self-interest of adults blind them to the long-term interests of children. A few of these laudable deviants have been visible in Washington, people like Shanker himself, Bob Chase (for a time), Sandy Feldman (some of the time), even Randi Weingarten (on alternate Thursdays and full-moon Mondays).

Most of this small population, however, is less visible because they operate locally or at the state level. And these folks deserve at least one-handed applause, too, for it takes greater courage to break ranks with their peers outside the Beltway—and to do so without the attention and encouragement of the national reform crowd and media.

The possibility of federal Race to the Top dollars (and status) has brought some of these gutsy individuals into public view. Foundation dollars have lured others. Some sort of external incentive is nearly always involved, mostly in the form of money that their schools and members wouldn’t otherwise get. But that’s no reason not to welcome their movement away from outright status-quo-ism.

This week we’ve chosen to mention—and thank—a sampling of such men and women. (We’re taking the risk that Gadfly’s attention and accolades will encourage them, not ruin their careers!)

Race to the Top has stimulated reform on multiple fronts, and union leaders in some places have taken this to heart.

  • At the top of the list belong Diane Donohue and Howard Weinberg of the Delaware State Education Association. They helped their state present a united—and successful—front in round one. At Delaware’s finalist presentation in Washington, Donohue was one of the five-person delegation which pulled Delaware into first place. (Until then, the First State was in the second spot, behind Tennessee.) “We know testing has to be part of the evaluation process,” she told Steven Brill in the New York Times. “This is a culture change that has been happening over the years and came to a head with Race to the Top.” She’s right, of course, but that’s not something many like her would say.
  • Tennessee should also be sending a thank-you note to teacher union president Earl Wiman and Executive Director Al Mance. Though not completely on board with the state’s new evaluation system—a centerpiece of its winning RTT application—they’re now participating in hashing out the details. Democratic politics may have played a role here. “I was able to get the T.E.A. to accept some things that probably a Republican wouldn’t have gotten done,” explained TN Governor Phil Bredesen.
  • Providence, RI’s teacher union was the only one to sign onto that state’s RTT first-round application (ten more signed on for round two), and PTU president Steven F. Smith joined his state’s in-person presentation delegation to the Education Department. PTU has also been involved in turnaround efforts at five Providence schools, which were identified (along with the higher-profile Central Falls High School) by State Superintendent Deborah Gist as the lowest performing in the state. Four of those schools will re-open in the fall with a “joint management-labor contract” that frees them from some restrictions and restructures their management in return for improved results. However, Smith is no fan of the state’s new “criterion-based hiring” system, which effectively abolishes seniority.

Private money is also an appealing carrot. Union leadership in three cities helped their districts win large multi-year grants from the Gates’ Foundation: Pittsburgh, Memphis, and Hillsborough County (Tampa), FL. Admittedly, union collaboration was part of what attracted Gates’s attention in the first place, but union leaders in these three locales helped keep the spigot open.

  • Differentiated compensation schemes may have found a home in Pittsburgh with the help of Teachers Association president John Tarka. If the contract currently up for a vote is ratified, teachers hired after July 1 will be awarded raises based on effectiveness, gauged by a two year old evaluation system (RISE) whose development Tarka also aided. (On the other hand, not much will change for current teachers: The CBA makes no cuts to pay, benefits, or pensions, and current educators may opt out of the new salary scheme.)
  • Memphis also plans to overhaul teacher recruitment, evaluation, and pay. The district’s blueprint is still on paper but it has lots of tools at its disposal: The New Teacher Project, Teach For America, and the Memphis Residency Program already bring in alternatively certified teachers; New Leaders for New Schools’ Effective Practice Incentive Community, an opt-in merit pay system, differentiates compensation (for a small subset of teachers and principals), and comes with a Mathematica-developed value-added student data system; and Tennessee’s extant statewide value-added data system, TVAAS, is a mature source of quality data. The Memphis Education Association and its Executive Director Ken Foster deserve some credit here: It supported the district’s proposal to Gates—a condition of applying—and was very involved in planning the changes that lie ahead (though it hasn’t made much noise to that effect).
  • Hillsborough County’s Empowering Effective Teachers Program is billed as a district-union-Gates partnership. Union president Jean Clements was part of the team that presented the application to Gates, and she played a large role in developing the brand-new evaluation system that will rate teachers on a five-part scale. The overhaul includes a new compensation system, too, under which teachers may gain pay based on strong evaluations and lose pay for weak ones. But Clements fought for her members too: Seniority is still crucial to hiring, firing, and assignment; tenure takes a year longer to obtain, but is otherwise largely unchanged.

A few union pioneers have opened themselves to at least modest reform without the specific prods of RTT or Gates:

  • The new DC teachers’ contract has generally been seen as a big win for Michelle Rhee and her private-foundation backers, and a big loss for the teachers’ union. In reality, it looks more like a medium-sized win for both—and the result of a great deal of tedious but ultimately productive negotiating and mediating. Local union chief George Parker and the AFT’s Weingarten both deserve partial credit. (Indeed, Rhee recently lauded Weingarten for her role, urging NYC Chancellor Joel Klein to “lean on her” for support in his own battles.) Yes, their members will get juicy raises (including retroactively to 2008). But the new contract also provides for HR changes that are almost certain to prove consequential over the long haul. Gone are seniority and tenure, at least when it comes to layoffs (they are preserved otherwise); in are more principal control over hiring, performance pay, and a revamped evaluation system.
  • Not far away, union leadership in Prince George’s County, Maryland helped then-superintendent John Deasy to establish a smallish performance pay scheme in high-needs, hard-to-staff schools. The one-year-old Financial Incentive Rewards for Supervisors and Teachers (FIRST) ratchets up evaluations by making them more frequent and tying them to student scores. FIRST inspired New Leaders for New Schools to establish one of their EPIC programs in PG County, too. Deasy, and his successor William Hite, couldn’t have done it without the help of PGC Educators’ Association President Donald Briscoe, although the program presently affects just a few hundred teachers who opt into it—out of 17,000 county-wide.
  • When New Haven, CT embraced a new union contract last fall, it was loudly lauded as a model for other districts. Some were skeptical because many key details—like the teacher evaluation system—were left TBD. But those details were revealed this spring and it appears that New Haven’s AFT local (933) President Dave Cicarella is largely to thank for their rigor. Teachers will henceforth be graded on a 1-to-5 scale with those at the top eligible for bonuses, while those ranked 1 receive remediation and risk dismissal. The evaluation system will also take student achievement data into account, though technical problems with the CT test scores remain to be worked out.

Gadfly hasn’t lost his mind. He doesn’t see “climate change” here, just cracks in some of the glaciers. He hasn’t yet examined the recently-submitted RTTT round-two applications to see how many more such examples may be revealed there. Nor does he claim that these folks have turned into self-propelled reform zealots. In fact, there’s been an enormous amount of pressure on the teacher unions to change—much of it coming from the Obama administration, both in the form of dollar incentives and in the form of jaw-boning and policy priorities.

Self-interest isn’t dead, but it can take many forms. The fortress of old-style teacher unionism is being attacked on all sides and its defenders cannot fend off the assailants everywhere. So they’re giving some ground, the smart ones are, anyway, and living to fight on other fronts on other days. They’re also trying to win some big bucks for their states and districts and thereby avert layoffs and encourage pay boosts. Still and all, if this means that reforms gain traction and kids benefit, we’ll take it—and laud it—whatever the underlying motivation. Maybe it’ll even prove habit-forming.

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