The State of The (Teachers) Union

2011 SOTU address (photo NY Times)

Was the President sending a strong message to teacher unions last night? Sure looks that way in the light of day.

What most of us saw and heard was high praise for education. He put it #2, behind ‘innovation’ on his list. Five of his 23 guests were students, and a 6th—Jill Biden—is a community college teacher. That’s all good. Mr. Obama praised “Race to the Top” and called for rewriting No Child Left Behind, and that’s all good too.

He went out of his way to praise teachers and remind us all that parents must do their job—turn off the TV, and engage with their children. That provided a welcome relief from all the teacher- bashing going on now.

And—icing on the cake–he made an eloquent plea to young people: become teachers!

Friends of public education had to be smiling and may still be today. The National School Boards Association and others have issued press releases full of praise, for example.

You may remember that he singled out one public school for high praise.

Here’s what he said:

Take a school like Bruce Randolph in Denver. Three years ago, it was rated one of the worst schools in Colorado; located on turf between two rival gangs. But last May, 97% of the seniors received their diploma. Most will be the first in their family to go to college. And after the first year of the school’s transformation, the principal who made it possible wiped away tears when a student said ‘Thank you, Mrs. Waters, for showing… that we are smart and we can make it.’ [The reference is to principal Kristin Waters.]

I confess that the significance of the President’s choice went right over my head, but Andy Rotherham didn’t miss it. He provided context on the NY Times blog. Here’s what Andy wrote:

The president singled-out a Denver school that was turned around only after its teachers took on their own union to get out from under the standard collective bargaining agreement. Needless to say that’s a strategy the two national teachers’ unions don’t want to see replicated around the country. I wrote about that episode on The Times’s Op-Ed page a few years ago. Michael Bennet, now a senator from Colorado, was the superintendent in Denver at the time and the move was controversial then and the idea remains contentious today. Of all the schools the president could have chosen to highlight, it’s a fascinating choice.

Andy’s op-ed (March 10, 2008) provides more background:

When teachers at two Denver public schools demanded more control over their work days, they ran into opposition from a seemingly odd place: their union. The teachers wanted to be able to make decisions about how time was used, hiring and even pay. But this ran afoul of the teachers’ contract. After a fight, last month the union backed down — but not before the episode put a spotlight on the biggest challenge and opportunity facing teachers’ unions today.

This morning’s Denver Post explained further:

The high-poverty school was the first to petition for and be granted innovation status — an agreement by union teachers to waive certain district and union rules. The idea was to give teachers more time, money and other resources to work with struggling students. The school has been climbing in achievement over the years.
In its transformation, Bruce Randolph changed from being a straight middle school into a school serving grades 6-12. Its first class graduated last spring into the open arms of a tearful Waters.

Bruce Randolph had been on the list of schools to be closed. Today it’s not the slam-dunk success that the President implied. It’s still on the ‘watch list’ and ranks 66th out of about 150 schools in Denver, but it clearly has improved dramatically.

But the story is not how much the school has improved; it’s how. Union rules were in the way, and so teachers took on their union. With the support of the superintendent, they forced union leadership to back off.

It seems pretty clear that last night the President was firing another shot across the union bow, much as he did last year when he sided with a Rhode Island school board that fired its high school teachers when they wouldn’t go along with a reasonable ‘restructuring’ plan.

“Stop with the trade union stuff,” the President was saying. “Start putting the interests of students first.”

Unions don’t seem to have much choice in the matter, given the outpouring of anti-union and anti-teacher rhetoric and actions in New Jersey, Alabama, Wyoming and just about any state you can name. Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers, the smaller of the two unions, seems to get it, but she has to persuade her mostly urban locals to move. The far larger National Education Association hasn’t shown any signs that I have seen that it recognizes that the ground has shifted, dramatically and probably permanently.

[Click here for the full text of President Obama’s address]

7 thoughts on “The State of The (Teachers) Union

  1. NYC’s contract with the Teachers Union has had for many years a school based option, where now 51% of the staff can vote to suspend work rules. Many schools adopt this option. This provision and several others that provide education-driven, site-based flexibility were initiated by teachers in schools. Teacher unions are not monolithic. It is rather naive to expect them to be. Although there have been abuses on both sides (teacher unions and management), the anti-teacher, anti-teachers union sentiment has been well orchestrated by very wealthy parties whose agenda is to privatize public education and dismantle the social safety net. While we are excoriating teachers unions, we should take note that a non-union state ranks last on the NAEP science. As Paul Krugman says, Banana Republic, here we come! Sadly, Mr. Obama doesn’t get it.


  2. The wheel always turns. Schools were mini-factories long before AFT or NEA took up collective bargaining, which is a response to conditions, not a cure, only an answer to fair play, et al. The problem is the larger culture of public institutions and the communities they serve, especially the urban impoverished. Small bore solutions that don’t address core issues are just that, small bore. The interests of the kids are a whole village concern, schools included, but striking out at teachers and their collective self interest won’t help. Think Bruce Randolph is a good example, not a model. Keep looking.


  3. John, thanks so much for the insight. It’s an important one. Of course, it flew over your head, my head, and the heads of all but a few people who know the history. But I don’t sell the president short. He had to know that the history would come out the day after his speech. In politics today we don’t see a lot of subtlety, so I’m delighted that the president used subtlety to make an important point without explicitly criticizing anyone.

    I don’t believe for a minute that he is opposed to the AFT or the NEA, but I do believe that he wants and needs them to take a more proactive role in school reform than they have taken so far. Being among the parties most deeply invested in protecting their education turf, the unions certainly will be perceived as part of the problem if they do not behave in a way that clearly shows them 10 be part of the solution. Given that the unions are among the many education stakeholders who would see the election of a Republican president in 2012 as something akin to the End of Days, President Obama has an extremely strong hand in negotiating with them. He would be remiss not to use his power to prod the unions to do something that is in their own best interests as well as those of the country.


  4. Thanks to Ms (Dr?) Ancess for her reminder about the long time NY option. Some of the nation’s finest district options have flourished in NY City, and many of us (including people we’ve brought from Minneapolis St Paul, Cincinnati and other communities have learned valuable lessons from places like Julia Richman, Central Park East, District 4, Sy Fliegel, Harvey Newman, Ann Cook, etc. etc. There also have been problems in NYC that have helped lead to some outstanding charter public schools.
    I really like the president’s speech but beyond that I really like the President’s efforts to expand health care (recognizing this is vital for progress) and his recognition that we should be expanding and replicating as many outstanding district charter public schools. Sometimes unions are great allies for this work, sometimes not.
    It appears John is trying to provoke people. That can be useful – but at this point, in my work, I’m going to encourage families, students, state legislators, governors and educators with whom I work to listen to and learn from many of the President’s suggestions.


    • Sorry – in my last post I meant to say that I agree with the President’s suggestions to expand and replicate as many outstanding district and charter public schools.


  5. It is stunning to me how far those who want to promote conflict in education circles will go: I sat in the gallery of the House of Representatives listening to the State of the Union address, and like all those who watched on TV, heard the President loudly say let’s respect teachers and not ask them to do the entire job of educating our nation’s children. Then he summoned all of us to do better and to acknowledge the best teachers and make no excuses for those who cannot teach.
    What was most heartening was the spontaneous standing ovation he and teachers rightly deserve when he asked the country to respect our nations teachers. I detected no such divide.
    Those who want to use it as a way to dump on teachers unions have way to much time on their hands. Further, while I am honored that John thinks highly of my leadership, let me be clear. I am proud of my leaders’ and members’ reform records. They don’t need to be persuaded; They need help from administrators and politicians to create the conditions that enable them to do their jobs. In the last 12 months, after we announced the AFT Evaluation framework, hundreds of AFT affiliates moved to work with their districts on revamping teacher evaluation systems so that they can get ongoing feedback and assistance to do their jobs well. I’m proud of my members and the incredible work they are doing to improve teaching and learning in these tough economic times. I ask those are intent on stirring up anti-union fervor to try instead working with us to help our kids.


  6. The message SHOULD be that we don’t know how to turnaround neighborhood schools at scale. Edmund Randolph had the advantage of cherry-picking top teachers. It is unclear whether other schools who lost top teachers to the favored school can be replaced, given the horrible conditions of inner city schools. Students had to sign contracts, and meet stiff requirements for promotion. Its great they graduated 97% of their 75 seniors, but that stat means little. What percentage of their 170 8th graders will make it to their senior year? The important stats are the five-year and four-year graduation rates. My school is the lowest performing in our state, and our graduation rate always ranges from 25 to 30%. But our senior graduation rate has always been 95 to 100% even in the worst years.


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