By Melissa Rasberry
Barnett Berry will be joining school chiefs, union officials, school board leaders, and teachers from 41 states and more than 100 school districts this week in Cincinnati as the Department of Education and various partner organizations convene the second Labor Management Conference. In this post, CTQ staff member Melissa Rasberry reflects on her experiences with successful district-union relations and their efforts of "Collaborating to Transform the Teaching Profession" (the theme of this year's conference).
“I want you to leave here dissatisfied today.”
Teachers, parents, administrators, and community leaders looked on with anxious faces, uncertain how to respond. This was the first keynote I’d seen that wished for participants’ unhappiness by conference end.
“… I want you to leave here dissatisfied with the status quo,” the speaker continued, “and angry about what we are doing to our children.”
Where might you predict this conversation transpired?
I overheard the dialogue at a National Education Association (NEA) convening for its Priority Schools Campaign. If you listen much to reports in the media, you probably wouldn’t guess that the keynote speaker was NEA President Dennis Van Roekel. In fact, some journalists and policy pundits would have you believe that the NEA is a strident defender of the status quo. They purport that many ills of our educational system can be blamed on teachers’ unions. Stories of late proclaim:
• American schools have declined, while the “teachers' unions have become more and more powerful.”
• Unions “prevent teachers from being dismissed for incompetence” and don’t want to be held accountable.
• Getting rid of the teachers’ unions is the “only fight worth having.”
But yet, here I sat in a room full of educators and community members—convened by the NEA and ready to improve our nation’s most deserving schools. The conference participants did not back down from acknowledging that we have failed some of our children, but they also were not embroiled in the false dichotomies that pit unions against reformers.
Blowing Away the Myth: Success in Action
Most reformers today think that unions, which hold on to seniority hiring rights and quality-blind teacher evaluation systems, prevent schools from improving. Though unions need to change their ways in some respects, so do districts and school boards that diminish teacher leadership and exepertise. Unions can't be the only problem if the same ineffective teacher-hiring and -evaluation practices are found in both unionized and non-unionized districts.
Indeed, we find many examples of teachers’ unions across the country leading reform efforts. I’ve witnessed several of these trailblazing efforts firsthand, as part of my work here at CTQ.
• The Hillsborough County Teachers Association and Hillsborough County Public Schools gather at the table with one mission in mind: to improve the educational experiences of their students. Through the Empowering Effective Teachers initiative, district and union leaders created a system in which excellent teachers are identified, rewarded, and encouraged to spread their knowledge and skills to their colleagues.
• The district and union joined forces in Denver, Colorado, to create the first teacher-led school. The Math and Science Leadership Academy operates solely through the leadership of teachers. The district strongly encouraged the union to develop the initial plans for the school, and both organizations continue to support its success.
• CTQ is partnering to support schools involved with the NEA’s Priority Schools Campaign. CTQ prepared National Board Certified Teachers and other accomplished teachers to serve as virtual coaches for teachers in these high-needs schools. The trained coaches will facilitate virtual learning communities (VLCs), so that educators across the country can share ideas and resources for student success in an online environment.
• In December 2011, the Commission on Effective Teachers and Teaching released Transformed Teaching: Connecting Professional Responsibility with Student Learning (PDF). This blue-ribbon panel of teachers and other educational leaders (including many from our own Teacher Leaders Network) outlines key imperatives for transforming the teaching profession, characterized by “collective accountability for student learning balanced with collaborative autonomy that allows educators to do what is best for students.”
These initiatives, as well as those highlighted at this week’s 2012 Labor Management Conference sponsored by the Department of Education, present excellent examples of how districts and unions can avoid letting “the perfect be the enemy of the good.” If we want our students to achieve in our highly competitive global economy, labor-management relationships must improve. Unions and districts alike must set aside their bickering and work on finding common ground. As Dennis Van Roekel instructed the crowd at the NEA convening, our students deserve nothing less.