Are unions blocking school reform?

Thirty potential unions and partner school districts will be identified as a next step.

NEA Foundation President and CEO Harriet Sanford said some local unions already have put the idea into practice by collaborating with districts on creating performance evaluations and new induction and professional development models.

Sanford said the plan is a reflection of a “growing movement among education unions that are seeking to reposition their locals to engage in innovative reform in partnership with their school districts.”

“So many of our union leaders, particularly entities involved in the Teachers Union Reform Network [TURN], have been working in isolation to address the complex issues relating to improving student achievement,” said Mary McDonald, core service director for the Consortium for Educational Change, a TURN member, and a planning partner.

“Union leaders have been searching for help and support as they tackle the tough work in their local communities of improving teacher appraisal systems, teacher effectiveness, attracting and retaining teachers, and removing time-honored policies and practices that impede schools from implementing a change agenda,” said McDonald.

“The NEA Foundation’s Institute for Local Innovation in Teaching and Learning will provide an opportunity for local leaders to address these challenges together–learning from and building upon each other’s efforts to improve our teaching profession in every community.”

One example of success

Larry Cuban, professor emeritus of education at Stanford University, pointed to Denver’s ProComp system, a teacher compensation system that has received national attention, as an example of how unions and school systems can come together to effect real change.

Designed in a partnership between the Denver Classroom Teachers Association and Denver Public Schools, ProComp links teacher pay to the district’s instructional objectives.

Of teachers who taught math, reading, or writing in grades 4-10, 365 received an incentive for exceeding expectations on student growth on Colorado’s state test in spring 2009. Teachers receive the incentive when at least half of the eligible students in their class reach the 55th or higher percentile for statewide student growth.

Denver’s state score gains have outpaced or met those of the rest of the state in all four core content areas, and in 2009 Denver marked its fourth consecutive year of gains and the fourth consecutive year that Denver’s gains have been greater than the gains made by the rest of the state.

In an October 2009 blog post, Cuban said political and education leaders cannot place the blame on teachers and then expect those same teachers to turn around and work endlessly to correct the wrongs in public education.

“Over 3.5 million teachers do the daily work of teaching; they teach reading, wipe noses, find lost backpacks, write recommendations, and grade tests,” the blog post says. “No online courses, charter schools, vouchers, home schooling, or any other star-crossed idea that business-driven, entrepreneurial reformers design will replace them. So blaming and shaming teachers into working harder is no recipe for improved student learning.”

Teachers do need both prodding and support, Cuban wrote. They receive enough prodding, but school leaders fall short of giving teachers the support they need.

“De-escalating the virulent rhetoric about unions and incompetent teachers would be a reasonable first step,” he wrote. “Respect for teachers, never high in the U.S. to begin with, has unraveled even further with constant bashing. But hard as it [is] to ratchet down the noise level does not mean it is impossible.”

School-reform proponents should not feed into “critics’ obsessive concentration on unions and the small number of incompetent teachers,” he wrote. Instead, they should “focus on the structures that keep even mediocre teachers from improving.”

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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Laura Ascione

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