Toward a More Perfect Union

Toward a More Perfect Union

At last, teachers' unions are beginning to support bold school reform.

"We've got to be willing to do something about test scores and to deal with ineffective teachers who have tenure and are hiding behind the union. It's coming to a head where the public is saying, 'We've had it now,'" declares David Cicarella of the New Haven (Conn.) Public Schools.

Statements like this one have become commonplace among reform-minded school leaders around the country. What makes Cicarella's comments remarkable is that they are not coming from a frustrated superintendent or enterprising principal, but from the president of the city schools' teachers union.

And last October, Cicarella—who has taught in New Haven for more than three decades—moved beyond the rhetoric of reform in persuading the New Haven Federation of Teachers (NH FT) to approve a new contract in a whopping 842-39 vote closely watched from the highest echelons of the U.S. Department of Education and national teachers unions. The agreement, scheduled to take effect in July, links teachers' evaluations to standardized test scores for the first time, makes it easier for the district to fire those who don't measure up, and allows the city to replace underperforming schools and their employees with new charter schools and new employees.

"It was not just an aspirational covenant," says Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), NH FT's parent unit. "There are very specific contract procedures and provisions that make it real." "We've got to be willing to do something about test scores and to deal with ineffective teachers who have tenure and are hiding behind the union. It's coming to a head where the public is saying, 'We've had it now,'" declares David Cicarella of the New Haven (Conn.) Public Schools.

"By any measure that's a pretty extraordinary vote," adds Education Department General Counsel Charlie Rose, who monitored the progress of New Haven's teacher and administrator negotiations. "It signifies that rank-and-file teachers are willing to support bold reform."

The National View

Randi Weingarten speaks to members of the American Federation of Teachers in January explaining in part how some districts' unions are evolving and supporting various reforms.

Although some districts are evolving, the latest report, 2009 State Teacher Policy Yearbook, from National Council on Teacher Quality, reveals that most states are still keeping ineffective teachers in the classroom. And this makes the results of the negotiations in New Haven that much more noteworthy. Weingarten and Rose have been promoting programs aimed at similar breakthroughs around the country. "There's starting to be a recognition of working together rather than fighting in the sandbox," Weingarten says. "That's why New Haven was so important. It was a culture change where labor and management are now interlocked in order to help all kids succeed."

Weingarten drove the point home again in January at the AFT meeting in Washington, D.C., when she offered four approaches to quality teaching and better schools, including unveiling a new template for teacher development, discussing a new approach to due process, and changing the labor-management relationship.

"I'd like to suggest a new path forward toward a 21st-century education system, a serious and comprehensive reform plan to transform our schools, ensure great teaching and prepare our children for productive, successful and meaningful lives," she stated in her speech. She also mentioned the results of a question to AFT members last summer: "When your union deals with issues affecting teaching quality and teachers' rights, which should be the higher priority— working for professional teaching standards and good teaching, or defining the job rights of teachers who face disciplinary action?"

By a margin of 4 to 1, AFT members chose the former as the higher priority. Weingarten mentioned how unions in Pittsburgh and Hillsborough County, Fla., are working toward the new path.

An additional number of districts, including those in New York City, Memphis and Denver, have already made breakthroughs with their unions on the controversial front of merit pay for teachers. District of Columbia Public Schools is trying to implement a similar program. The approach has been endorsed by President Barack Obama and is touted frequently by Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who recently highlighted 36 districts and union chapters around the country that have taken innovative approaches to compensation.

Last October, using monies provided by educational philanthropies such as the Broad and Gates foundations, the AFT disbursed its first Innovation Fund grants to seven local chapters to increase their engagement on school reform with district leaders. The Innovation Fund grants, up to $300,000, are aimed at moving local unions into previously uncharted territory. Some ideas include developing a compensation plan in Broward County (Fla.) Public Schools that includes standardized test scores in determining teacher pay, and working with district officials in San Antonio (Texas) Independent School District to increase the number of charter schools.

Rose, meanwhile, points to the DOE's $4.35 billion Race to the Top fund, whose initial grants will be awarded in April to those states that show the most promise at implementing similar reforms. While teachers unions in various states—Florida and Minnesota among them—have balked at the concessions they would have to make under the program, a growing number of districts signed on to the Race to the Top applications filed by their respective states this past January.

Students at the Osseo Public School District in Minnesota hold a bonus check, to be divided as determined by administrators and teacher representatives, based on merit pay.

Changing Business as Usual

The agreement in New Haven also represented a new chapter in a formerly difficult relationship between management and labor. "It was always very, very contentious," says Cicarella of the negotiating process, which used to target salary, benefits and class size. The union's approach changed this time around, Cicarella says, because of the rising public perception that the teachers were standing in the way of change. "This contract is focused on school reform. Our feeling now is that we're all in this together."

New Haven Superintendent Reginald Mayo, who has led the district for 15 years, agrees that a different dynamic ruled this time around. "Don't think that we didn't raise our eyebrows that this agreement happened. We certainly didn't think we'd get there as quickly as we did," he notes. "But if you sit down and agree that you're focusing on kids and what's best for them—not for teachers or administrators—that sets a good tone."

The new contract is built on a foundation of quid pro quos unlike any the New Haven school system has seen before. For starters, the district will have new leverage and a speedier process for dismissing incompetent teachers—but only after the union has tried to rehabilitate them—in return for a similar set of procedures for replacing poor administrators.

The exact standards and procedures for enforcing that accountability are being worked out by a 12-person task force evenly divided among administrators and teachers. The group has to submit its recommendations to the city's board of education by April 15.

"If a teacher's got tenure, we don't have to circle the wagons and add to the public perception that we protect incompetent teachers," says Cicarella. "At the same time, we're working on a new document that covers administrators. This can't just be, 'We're going to fix the teachers, but everything else is business as usual.' There has to be top-to-bottom accountability."

When it comes to dealing with deficient teachers, the new contract lets the union supplement the three- to fourmonth improvement plans devised by school principals. These interventions typically assign an instructional coach—such as a senior teacher or department chair— to meet periodically with the teacher and visit his or her classroom. "After that time, the principal will give that teacher to us," Cicarella explains. The union will develop a peer assistance and review program with a master teacher whom the union selects and who will observe, help create lesson plans, and model lessons on almost a daily basis.

"If the teacher can't make the necessary improvements, we'll say, 'We can't support you,'" Cicarella says. Instead, he adds, the union will counsel those teachers to leave the system. If they don't leave, the union won't stand in the way of the district's firing them expeditiously, an about-face from the recent past, when the union routinely pulled out all the stops to save one of their own.

"It took a lot of effort and a long, long time—I mean three, four or five years— to be able to terminate a teacher," recalls 16-year veteran New Haven principal Peggy Moore, who heads the Betsy Ross Arts Magnet School. Moore also welcomes the greater scrutiny reserved under the new labor agreement for her fellow administrators, albeit with some concern. "We're not perfect, and when you have time to think about the document, you question, 'How is this going to affect me?'" she says. "But we're on the cutting edge of where I believe education is going, and I think it's a collaborative effort."

Compromising in Negotiations

A thornier issue on the bargaining table involved using student test scores for evaluating all teachers—a practice not allowed in the contract that expires in June—but the union agreed to drop that prohibition as long as administrators weigh an ample number of other factors.

The criteria being considered by the joint panel range from giving value to portfolios of student work and the benefits of student internships to counting how well teachers employ external resources and make use of what Mayo calls "incidental learning," that is, being able to change course midclass when a useful but unplanned topic or issue comes up. All of these considerations would ensure that a good teacher is not judged simply on standardized test scores.

Compromise has also played a role in the union's blessing of new charter schools, three of which are planned for next year. "They were originally talking about nonunion charters, but that idea has been reconceived under the new agreement," Cicarella explains. While the district would have the option of making all teachers at those schools reapply for their jobs and hiring nonunion teachers in their place, any union teachers losing positions would have to be reassigned to other New Haven schools. The new contract also allows leaders at any district school to expand school hours provided 75 percent of the staff approves of the change.

"If they want to take a school and charter it and get a third-party operator to do it, if they want a longer school day and school year, we want to give them that flexibility," Cicarella says. "The current contract is too inhibiting to let that happen."

The new flexibility suits Mayo, who says it provides the opportunity "to look at schools from a portfolio approach and provide for their individual needs."

The two leaders also agree on what made their negotiations successful. "In the past, the changes were always top down," Cicarella recalls. "The school system would say, 'Here's our plan.' There was never any input from us, so there was no buy-in. Now we're all sitting at the table as equals."

Mayo, who also engaged a labor relations consultant specializing in negotiations with teachers unions and welcomed input from representatives of the AFT, depended on greater transparency than in the past. "At the beginning, it was hard getting the teachers to feel that we didn't have a hidden agenda," Mayo says. "But the labor relations consultant kept saying, 'Don't hide anything. Put everything on the table.'"

The Merits of Merit Pay

Denver's Professional Compensation System for Teachers (ProComp) has become the most recognized merit pay program nationally and since 2006 has based teacher compensation on a 10-item menu of teacher performance. Teachers who choose to participate can permanently raise their base salaries by receiving a satisfactory professional evaluation or an advanced degree. They can also add annual bonuses of almost $2,400 for serving in underperforming or hardto- staff schools and achieving significant gains in student standardized test scores. "You're talking about a radical change in how teachers typically are paid," says Henry Roman, president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, a local chapter of the National Education Association.

Tom Boasberg, the district's superintendent, says union and management found common ground during the piloting of ProComp in the early part of the last decade. "We spent a long time looking at data and trying to move away from ideology to focus on what's best here for our kids and what's best for attracting and retaining high-quality teachers," says Boasberg, who notes that two-thirds of Denver's 4,500 teachers now participate in ProComp. Over the program's first four years, between 70 and 80 percent of those teachers have met at least one bonus criterion. "Our recruitment numbers are way up, and our teacher turnover is way down, and we have a much more results-oriented culture," Boasberg continues. "Over the past four years, Denver has seen greater growth in student achievement than in any other district in the state."

ProComp required support from Denver's voters, and, in 2005, they approved an annual $25 million levy dedicated to the new program. It helped that the district had run its three-year pilot program at several schools, with input along the way from teachers and administrators. "We live in a very reactive profession," Roman says, "but this time teachers got involved in the process and provided examples of how to improve professional growth."

Such examples in Denver helped determine the current schedule of bonuses, which range from $876 for new teachers receiving satisfactory evaluations to $2,403 annual payouts to teachers working at schools that either have a high percentage of students receiving free and reducedprice lunches, a high teacher turnover, or that reach the status of a "top performing school" based on the district's school performance framework.

"The Denver model seems to be special in that it used more collaboration in developing the incentive structure," agrees Texas A&M's Lori Taylor, a government and public service professor who has studied compensation programs in public schools. She adds that incentive programs that have failed to achieve significant increases on student standardized test scores—such as in Texas, where an effort focused on schools that were already high-performing, and in Dallas, where it was not clear enough how teachers could meet their individual goals—are not the only story.

Collaboration has moved to an even higher plane in Minnesota, which has offered its teachers the statewide Quality Compensation for Teachers program (Q-Comp) in the past five years. Under the initiative, funded at $75 million annually and bolstered by local tax levies, entire districts receive lump-sum bonuses to be divided among school administrators, teachers and staff members, according to a formula they have devised. Teacher bonuses range from $500 to $1,500 a year.

Each participating district—the number rose to 44 this year, about a third of the districts in the state—and its teachers' union have to agree to enter Q-Comp. Participation has spread largely by word of mouth among administrators and union leaders, says Patricia King, the program's director. While the compensation plans vary across districts, they must include strong components for teacher evaluation and professional development, emphasizing teachers working together, King says.

"Everybody's working to achieve the same goal and meeting in professional learning communities," she says. "We're hearing more of a collaborative approach to teaching. Teachers no longer have the luxury of going into the classroom and closing the door, teaching in isolation."

Ron Schachter is a contributing writer for District Administration.


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