Working Around the Union in our Nation’s Capital?

Without question, now is a time of transition for DC Public Schools.  Chancellor Michelle Rhee, now hitting a year and a half into her tenure, has made (or offered) many a bold change since taking over the troubled district.  She closed schools.  She fired principals.  She’s offered teacher incentive pay.  She’s paying middle schoolers for high grades.  And she’s taken action when those before her have waited for direction.

Sure, there have been bumps along the way.  Parents have pushed back, wondering why the Chancellor was picking on their schools or their neighborhoods.  The City Council has wondered if the administration has over-stepped its authority, thus leaving Council members out of the process in determining the schools’ future.  But no pushback has been greater than that felt by DC teachers — and the DC teachers union — who are quickly going from primary drivers in DC instruction to also-rans.
Today’s Washington Post highlights the plans by Rhee and DC Mayor Adrian Fenty to “look for ways around the union” to deal with DC teacher reform.  It details ideas such as creating more nonunionized charter schools, declaring a “state of emergency” for the schools, and other opportunities designed to “eliminate the need to bargain with the Washington Teachers’ Union.”  The full story can be found here —   
As WP writer Bill Turque points out in the piece, the goal is to essentially do in DC what leaders did in New Orleans, create a major takeover of the system, allowing for major rebuilding and a whole new set of new rules.  Unfortunately, there was no major individual tragedy resulting in such a move, just decades of stops and starts and general inaction.
Triggering lasting improvement in a district like DC is hard work, really hard work.  It requires new thinking and it requires action that is far outside the norm and far beyond what may have been tried before.  It means holding all parties accountable, including the classroom teachers, and ensuring that all those involved in the educational and instructional process share a common commitment to boosting quality and improving student achievement.  The status quo won’t stand, nor will educators who are complacent or who simply want to do the bare minimum to earn a paycheck.
This may surprise many an Eduflack reader, but this bold move is the wrong step at the wrong time.  In her first year at the helm, Rhee was able to produce some promising first-year achievement gains.  But such gains are typical in year one, when you have a new system, a new leader, and new enthusiasm for it across the district.  The real challenge is maintaining those gains three and four years into the reform.  The real proof is demonstrating year-on-year gains of student achievement over a five-year period.  
If Rhee and her team are going to achieve that, they need full buy-in of DC teachers, they need meaningful team-building and relationship development, not ongoing skirmishes that are leading into outright wars.  In the WP, Rhee says that the vast majority of DC teacher support her plans for incentive pay, the elimination of tenure, and the removal of teachers unable to make the grade, and that it is the WTU that is standing in her — and her teachers’ — way.  That may or may not be the case.  But when Rhee took the job, she knew that WTU was the advocate for DC’s teachers.   Anyone who has studied Education Politics 101 knows that if you want to change the collective bargaining agreement, you need to work with the union.
Unfortunately, there is a deep history here.  Too many a DC teacher is used to hearing big promises from the central office, only to find reams of new regulations and, at times, an inability to even receive the paychecks they’ve earned.  But they are also still smarting from the scandal of WTU years ago, a scandal that stripped the union of its leadership and stripped the organization of the trust of the 4,000 teachers it currently serves.
At the end of the day, that is really where Rhee sees her opening.  Fair or no, George Parker is a weak leader of WTU.  He hasn’t been empowered by his membership to take the bold action needed to stand up to a strong schools leader and a strong mayor.  As a result, he learns about such reforms from the Washington Post, instead of from the district, and he looks uninformed and without real power.  Rhee knows that and is trying to take advantage of that.  Would she try such tactics if this is NYC and Randi Weingarten was still running the local?  Of course not.  Strong leadership is strong leadership, regardless of which side of the negotiating table one is sitting on.  Strong district leaders need strong union leaders to keep them honest. 
Don’t get me wrong.  Eduflack recognizes the value charter schools play in improving many an urban school district.  I am an advocate for merit pay, particularly if we can identify those principals, teachers, and school leaders who are responsible for leading school turnaround and boosting student achievement.  I know there are teachers in the classroom — particularly in our urban centers — who shouldn’t be teachers (and I think those teachers realize it, and just don’t have a better alternative or a workable exit strategy).  And I believe a superintendent (or a schools chancellor) needs the authority and the ability to make real changes if he or she is going to make real improvements.
The way to do that is not through state of emergencies or “work arounds” when it comes to the teachers.  It comes from building strong relationships that result in trust, support, and action across the school district.  For the sort of reforms Rhee is calling for, she needs every teacher in the district to serve as a passionate advocate for reform.  She needs the commitment to improvement from all of those in the classroom, knowing that sustained improvement will result in meaningful reward.  And she needs this to be a team effort, with the chancellor, the central office, the principals, the teachers, the parents, and the business community working TOGETHER to bring the sort of improvement that will revolutionize the district, and not just make minor changes resulting in short-term gains and long-term headaches.
At the end of the day, once Rhee has gotten all of the change and reform she’s seeking, she actually has to work with those left standing to deliver on her promise to boost student achievement and close the achievement gap.  That means parents and families.  It means teachers and principals.  And it certainly means the Washington Teachers Union.  Rhee’s ultimate success will be determined by the effectiveness of the teachers and the union that supports them.  And there is no working around that, no matter how hard you try.

One thought on “Working Around the Union in our Nation’s Capital?

  1. In education, when there is trust among the adults, there is virtually nothing that can’t be done. If there is no trust among the adults there is virtually nothing that can be done. Chancellor Rhee needs to work at building trust among the adults to make sustainable progress in DC Public Schools. Too often, articles quoting the Chancellor have her throwing someone under the bus. That has an effect on people around her as well as on the people she needs support from like DC Council Members, WTU members, DCPS employees, contractors, and parents. A false emergency is disrespectful to process and people. It may provide an opportunity for a short-term gain at the expense of long-term success.

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