Unions and School Reform?

It is easy to find examples of unions taking action that thwart or seem to thwart school reform. I will not deny that I have been known to gnash my teeth at union actions or contract clauses from time to time. On the other hand, I didn’t really get too worked up when the teacher’s union in Washington DC donated a million dollars to Vincent Gray in his bid to oust Mayor Adrian Fenty. I liked DC Public School Superintendent Michele Rhee and her oft-brilliant reforms. But by most accounts, she and Mayor Fenty did not come close to gathering sufficient political support and consensus to remove or identify for possible removal nearly twenty-five percent of the teacher workforce. Even if Rhee was objectively justified in removing over two hundred teachers, her actions reinforced the fears of many teachers that linking teacher evaluations to student performance will result in wholesale layoffs that are based on scant data viewed by many as suspect. Having said that, I do hope that the new mayor (presumably Vincent Gray) and his eventual school chief will resist the political pressure to undo Michele Rhee’s school reforms, including these dismissals.

It may be coincidence, but in the midst of this very public debacle, several national AFT leaders were quietly involved with the negotiations between Baltimore City Schools and the local union which resulted in the just announced path-breaking new pay-for-performance contract that will replace the so-called “steps” and “lanes” of the traditional teacher contract.  A step is an automatic annual pay increase that accrues as teachers gain experience. In the new Baltimore contract, these small raises must be earned through acquiring “achievement credits” which can be earned by having high student performance results among other things. Lanes (the increments that accrue to teachers when they earn a Master’s or a Doctorate Degree) will be replaced by pathways in which teachers earn higher pay as they progress from a “professional” to a “model-teacher” to a “teacher-leader.” Each shift across paths will require a peer review and other demonstration of teaching expertise. Seattle, too, has just reached a union agreement in which student-performance metrics will be part of their annual teacher evaluations, pending only a public vote for a levy to support the cost of the initiative.

Let’s hope that Seattle and Baltimore are a stronger indication of the future of union-district cooperation around teaching evaluations than is the case of DC and that when properly engaged, unions can embrace the idea of teacher evaluations that include a component for student performance as well as compensation packages that are linked to evidence of effective teaching practices.

Stephen Frank, Director at Education Resource Strategies (ERS), leads ERS research on district resource allocation and ERS strategic school design consulting practice. He is the coauthor with Karen Miles of The Strategic School and is currently working on the sequel regarding strategic school systems.

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