On Teachers: Let’s Stop Bashing and Get Proactive

Last week in this space I wondered why the President had singled out for high praise a school in Denver where the teachers had taken on their own union to get work rules relaxed. Was he, I asked, sending a not-very-subtle message to teacher unions, “Put kids’ interests first. Stop with the trade union behavior”?

I asked Peter Cunningham, the Department’s uber-capable Assistant Secretary for Communications and Outreach, how that particular school was selected. He responded in an email that he had had nothing to do with it.

So if it wasn’t the Department of Education, then who? The likely suspects are on the President’s White House staff or in the Office of Management and Budget. Perhaps someone is off the reservation.

Or perhaps a speechwriter didn’t perform due diligence. That happens.

Or maybe eager staffers who work for Colorado Senator Michael Bennet (former Denver Superintendent of Schools) did their job—promoted their boss—effectively. (We saw the Senator and others from Colorado give their own standing ovation at that point in the speech.)

I wish the President had singled out a successful school that also models what many of us would like to see everywhere: teachers and their unions working with management to give kids maximum opportunities to learn. That would have been a great lesson for his audience, and it would have helped tamp down the teacher-bashing and teacher-union bashing. Instead, he added fuel to their fire, which is already hot and getting hotter, as more governors go after tenure and seniority.

But what matters more right now is what the Department and others are actually doing. Lots, it turns out. For instance, later this month the Department will host 150 school districts (in Denver!) for two days about ‘labor management collaboration.’ In the press release, Education Secretary Arne Duncan is quoted as saying, “Union leaders and administrators across the country are finding new ways to work together to focus on student success. The leaders from these 150 districts are committed to bold reforms and are showing the country what is possible when adults come together, particularly in tough times, to do the right thing for kids.”

This event is sponsored by the two teacher unions, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, the National School Boards Association, the American Association of School Administrators and the Council of the Great City Schools. That is, just about everyone.
The Ford Foundation is picking up this tab, according to the press release. Elsewhere, the Gates Foundation is putting serious dollars behind collaborative efforts in Hillsborough, Florida and other districts.

The skeptic in me wonders about two phrases the Secretary uses: ‘bold reforms’ and ‘student success.’ If by the latter he means higher test scores, this meeting won’t amount to much. If by ‘bold reforms,’ he means ‘turnaround specialists’ and other half-hearted changes, the meeting will probably be a waste of time.

I hope he (and Peter Cunningham) insist that everyone prepare for the meeting by reading or re-reading the two most recent surveys of teachers done by Met Life and Scholastic/Gates Foundation. Use those documents as the foundation, and something great could come out of these two days in February.

Stopping teacher bashing is not enough. Nor is “better communication” between labor and management. What’s needed is a proactive effort to make teaching a better job.

NB: “Better Job” does NOT mean shorter hours or higher pay, if you trust what the teachers themselves say. What they want, according to MetLife and Scholastic/Gates, are opportunities to collaborate, involvement in curriculum, trust and respect.

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5 thoughts on “On Teachers: Let’s Stop Bashing and Get Proactive

  1. Mr. Merrow, I feel the need to respond to both this and last week’s Taking Note posts referring to President Obama’s mention of Bruce Randolph in the State of the Union. I am a former Bruce Randolph teacher and what concerns me most is that I fear the “how” of Bruce Randolph’s innovation is being misrepresented as an attack on the union. The purpose of seeking autonomy – which, by the way was an effort orchestrated by a team of dues-paying union teachers in concert with their principal – was to free the school from unnecessary bureaucracy created by both district policies and union contract requirements. The goal was not to attack our own union (in fact Bruce Randolph had the highest percentage of union members of any Denver Public School the year we sought autonomy). Rather, the goal was to simply innovate, do things differently and retain control of a school whose growth could soon be stifled by a series of rules and regulations.

    As a school that was nearly closed for poor performance, but had started seeing significant steady student learning growth, we grew tired of having someone far removed from the school tell us what assessments to use, where the budget had to be spent, how our school day had to be structured, how much we paid our teachers or when we could hire the best teachers for our students. The teachers and principal knew how to do all this better than any contract article or district policy, so we sought freedom from the barriers in our way, district and union alike.

    Admittedly, at the time this was a fairly radical departure from the way schools were (are) run and difficult for most to understand. The district did not understand right away, but quickly realized they were in no place to tell a successful high-poverty school what they could and could not do – so they became advocates. The problem? Our union leadership could not make the paradigm shift. And so, as dues-paying teachers, we had to negotiate with our own union the ability to take control of our school and find the freedom to control our own money, people and time. But again, I stress that this was not the moral of our story. The moral is that we need to think differently about how districts and unions operate and work together to support schools. Bruce Randolph didn’t just need the union to back off; we needed the district to back off too.

    In this week’s post you say, “I wish the President had singled out a successful school that also models what many of us would like to see everywhere: teachers and their unions working with management to give kids maximum opportunities to learn.” I argue that this is exactly what Bruce Randolph did: a group of union teachers worked with their management to give kids maximum opportunities to learn.

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  2. I appreciate this thoughtful response. My point was that the union fought this instead of welcoming it. There are models of the latter, and there will be more and more of them. Will there be enough to overcome the union-bashing? Can labor and management get beyond their paradigm (“we fight”) and put the interests of students and teachers first?
    Maybe if the President had told the national audience “at first the union fought this, but now…” Or if he had said that his Secretary of Education is supporting union-management collaboration?
    Congratulations, and thanks for providing the back story.

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