Working with Unions on Reform

Can real reforms, particularly those targeted at fundamental issues such as educator evaluation, be done in partnership with teachers, or must they be done in spite of teachers?  This has been a question asked over and over in recent years, usual with a poor answer that gets us back to the same question.

Of course teachers need to be part of the reform process.  Educators are the ones on the front lines, the ones who need to implement (with fidelity) the reforms and transformations that policymakers, parents, and educators themselves are seeking.  Excluding them from the process only likely sets us a process destined to fail.
Case in point, the New Haven Public Schools teacher evaluation system.  Here, the City of New Haven worked with the American Federation of Teachers to build a better mousetrap.  An effective evaluation model.  A system that prioritizes student performance above all.  A system that finally aligns our expectations with what is happening in the classroom.
And the system is starting to show its potential.  Nicholas Kristof at The New York Times has also taken notice, penning an interesting piece on “The New Haven Experiment.”
From Kristof:

Yet reformers like myself face a conundrum. Teachers’ unions are here to stay, and the only way to achieve systematic improvement is with their buy-in. Moreover, the United States critically needs to attract talented young people into teaching. And that’s less likely when we’re whacking teachers’ unions in ways that leave many teachers feeling insulted and demoralized.

The breakthrough experiment in New Haven offers a glimpse of an education future that is less rancorous. It’s a tribute to the savvy of Randi Weingartenthe president of the American Federation of Teachers and as shrewd a union leader as any I’ve seen. She realized that the unions were alienating their allies, and she is trying to change the narrative.

Yes, the model itself is a remarkable step forward for public education.  But it is particularly refreshing to see NHPS, Mayor John DeStephano (New Haven is a mayoral control district), the AFT, and the New Haven Federation of Teachers working together to develop, implement, improve, and maintain.  
As Kristof notes, “It’ll take years to verify that students themselves are benefiting, but it’s striking that teachers and administrators alike seem happy with the new system.  They even say nice things about each other.  In many tough school districts, teachers are demoralized and wilted; that feels less true in New Haven.”
Indeed.  If only all reforms could work this way.

2 thoughts on “Working with Unions on Reform

  1. The teachers and administrators alike are happy”? Not in this city. I’m not sure who you’ve spoken to, but there is a great deal of dissatisfaction in this system to say the least. This is wishful thinking on your part. Teachers have virtually no say in the administration of their programs and the teachers who are being selected as exemplary are being punished by having to submit to greater burden of proof if they have been identified as being among the best. This makes no sense. What also makes no sense is the fact that the staff of ConnCAN, your organization, does not have one person with real experience as a teacher or administrator. Rather curious don’t you think? Would you invite a group of plumbers to devise tort reform? A group of lawyers and policy wonks make recommendations that would greatly impact the lives of children and teachers? Oh, wait – that’s you. You have one woman on staff who “worked in k-3 classrooms,” which is a pretty vague statement of her experience. But she has a background as a buyer for Pottery Barn so that suffices. Your CEO is a member of the American Federation for Children, a right-wing group with ties to a number of slippery conservative groups (and is funded in part by the Kock brothers, those paragons of virtue). Betsy DeVos, the head of this group, and her husband Dick, have spent millions developing 527 nonprofits and pacs that act as shills for the rigt-wing voucher movement. So this is really a political group not a reform group. And so are you.

  2. As an inner-city educator, I could not be happier to read this post. I have mixed feelings about the union – not those who pay either unwillingly into the system or pay into it for protection and peace of mind while teaching in a public school – but those who run the unions in their cities, states and nationally. Unions have an amazing structure in place, are well funded and have powerful influence over decision makers as a result. For this reason, I am always dismayed to see the union flyer in the teacher lounge that boasts their “achievements” of more teacher lunch time, less teacher paperwork and putting members in classrooms to help move desks. Really? One of the most powerful organizations in our nation (second maybe only the the NRA) and this is how they utilize their power.I often wonder what would happen if the reformers and the unions teamed-up, sat down, came to agreements and put students first. There has to be at least some things the reformers and unions agree on: less absences, more support with students who face issues such as homelessness, malnutrition, and teen pregnancy and more comprehensive evaluation systems, to name a few. Imagine the impact the union could have if it put students first and realized that when students are the first priority, teachers benefit.

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