Last week, I was selected as a union building representative.
Please, stop screaming. There's more.
The other union building representative is a Republican.
After you gather your composure, please continue reading. There's a lot more to cover.
Ready? Here goes.
Long before I was elected union building representative, I had often wondered about the future of unions in the schools of the 21st century. What would they look like? How would they function? Would they even exist?
These questions and more are being brought to the forefront of the education debate this week, after the long anticipated documentary, "Waiting for Superman" was released this past Friday. The film follows the efforts of a small number of families in Harlem who are trying to find good schools for their children. Even watching the trailer almost makes you want to cry. Has getting a good education in this country come down to whether or not your name gets called at an enrollment lottery? If so, this country is doomed.
Added to the film's opening is NBC's Education Nation, a series of specials, panels, and seminars broadcast and on the web that talk about the state of our schools and efforts to reform them. Though much of the content of Education Nation focuses on teachers and soliciting their voices, the more prominent prime time panels on TV have been noticeably absent of classroom teacher voices. They have given large time to entertainers, school administrators, and the president of the smaller teacher's union, AFT President Randi Weingarten.
It was not surprising to me that most classroom teacher comments I've read & seen seemed to think that the film was basically a propaganda piece to push for right wing conservative education principles. This is a little ironic, because the film's creator, Davis Guggenheim, famously created the film, "An Inconvenient Truth" which managed to draw the ire of Conservatives on two fronts; 1 touting the need for climate change reform and 2, making Al Gore simutaniousously more cool & popular that he ever could have arguably become as President.
As Guggenhiem's Inconvienet Truth made villains of climate change reform to be the usual suspects; Republicans, energy lobbyists, & corporations, he similarly made apparent villains of education reform. Only this time the villians weren't the corporations or politicians. They were the teachers and the labor unions that represent them.
Waiting for Superman gained even more prominence as media queen, Oprah Winfrey, dedicated two shows in one week to discussing the film and talking about education reform. Prior to this week, audience viewers took Oprah at her word when she would often proclaim that she "looooooves" teachers. Throughout the years, she'd always made it a point to laud teachers for the tremendous work they do, often teaching with little thanks or reward.
I supposed since this is her last season and she doesn't need her predominantly female audience, many of whom are teachers, to support her advertisers or to give her Neilson ratings, she let the gloves come off. Apparently the singular problem with education is teachers. Bad teachers. And the good for nothing unions that protect them. They're not invited to Austrailiaaaaaaaa!
And of course, since its on Oprah you know it the golden truth. Never mind that debacle with "Little Pieces." She's got it right this time. The blame for the current state of the nation's schools can squarely be placed at the feet of the institution that represents classroom teachers: unions.
It almost seems as though "union" is a dirty four letter word, not to be uttered around children or priests. This is nothing new though. Unions have increasingly been labeled as the opponents of progressive (read conservative) reform, not only in the education sector, but in the private sector as well. The common thematic argument is that the worker's unions have placed the needs of workers over the needs of customers & the corporation as a whole. Famous among the accusation are the legendary rubber rooms, where union employees who should be swiftly terminated are instead sent to sit during normal working hours in a room as they continue to collect full salaries.
Oh how this lambasting of unions reflects our poor knowledge of history and our fleeting moral center in our failure to show gratitude towards what unions have done for this country.
Without getting all preachy & lecturey, unions helped usher in an era of economic prosperity & social justice on which American greatness is founded. Coupled with good ol' fashioned Yankee ingenuity & wealth infused capital, the unions helped give the common man a shot at joining the middle class. They helped usher in everything from fair work week hours, to lunch breaks, paid vacations, sick time, even clean bathrooms and proper ventilation. They gave the worker a voice and in many instances served as ethical compasses to ensure corporations treated workers fairly. They fought for fair and even generous pay & benefits that not only set the pace of unionized workforce, but the non-unionized workforce as well.
Now granted, that was a different time then. No globalization, no free trade, no school choice; not even microwaves. (Gosh, how did they make it?) And sure, the various union leaderships were, at times, guilty of the corruption and mismanagement that the saw in corporate management. Ever see the film, "Blue Collar." Scary stuff, even as grossly Hollywoodized as it may be.
But the current accusations lobbed against today's unions, teacher unions in particular, are so miscalculated and misinformed, its almost funny. But its not.
Its actually quite sad that somehow all the ills of the educational system are not blamed on the architects of that system or the managers of that system, but the workers at bottom of that system. Truth be told, even with the power of the unions, teachers are still often treated like factory workers who need to be told what to do. When we do as we are told, we get the blame. When we resist top down mandates, we are blamed even more.
Most union criticisms can be dismissed so easily, there's still time to talk about the Lions' loosing streak after we order appetizers, before we even get to the drinks.
But, unions are no angels. They have plenty of problems. And if unions cannot figure out a way to make themselves leaders in the quest to reform our nation's schools, I predict that they will continue to become marginalized and ultimately rendered irrelevant as our nation seeks to reclaim its mantle as the global leader in education and innovation.
Here are my suggestions for how Unions might advance themselves to regain the mantle of Education Reform. They aren't pretty and they aren't easy. But, they are necessary.
#1. Fire your PR Firm.
Much about politics is rooted in perception; how people perceive an organization or a public figure. Robert Downy Jr., for example, is the lead for one of the biggest comic book franchises to hit the silver screen, Iron Man. Kids all over the planet are lining up to be Iron Man this Halloween.
But, 10 years ago Robert Downy couldn't stay out of LA County Lock-Up & Drug Rehabilitation programs. He was the the poster child for the typical Hollywood fallen star; like the male version of Lindsay Lohan, only with a much, much better filmography. The fact that Downey has a job, let alone a leading role in a huge blockbuster franchise speaks volume to how a careful team of lawyers, agents, and managers can make lemons into lemonade.
Today's teacher labor unions are in need of a tall glass of lemonade so they can be reminded of what it tastes like. So far, they've been eating the lemons & making that ugly, sour lemon face.
How is it that the unions have allowed themselves to take the brunt of the blame for the ills of public education? Clearly what we have is a management problem; a leadership problem. Poor hiring practices, poor evaluation practices, poor resource allocation, poor professional development, poor instructional support. Also, I think it speaks poorly of leaders to blame the problems with the organization on those under their supervision. That's like me blaming my students for their poor academic performance. You wouldn't call me a trailblazing education reformer if I blamed the poor performance of my class on the 3 or 4 worst performing students.
Unions have to figure out a way to tell their story in a way that resonates with people, particularly the politicians and the private sector leaders that are shaping today's education agenda. At their core, unions represent the interests of classroom teachers; the same people who help kids grow, help them read, give them confidence, and let them soar. They are not the ones to bear the blame, carte blanche.
If Robert Downey can do it, so can Randi Weingarten & Dennis Van Roekel.
#2. Keep students at the forefront of philosophy AND practice.
Unions say that advancing & supporting students is the goal that guides their operating philosophy. But sometimes that goal is not always reflected in their practice. Sometimes our practices reveal that we may be, at times, placing our preferences above the needs of students and the needs of the organization as a whole.
I once heard of a school where a teacher filed a grievance over lesson plans. The teacher did not want to submit weekly lesson plans to the administration, so that they could review teacher lessons & objectives. The administrators were actually reading the lesson plans & making commentary/suggestions on their actitives. Some Nerve! There was actually a series a several meetings between the administrators and union leadership over whether or not the administration had the right to demand weekly lesson plans & how they were to treat the lesson plans.
It was eventually determined that teachers were indeed supposed to submit lesson plans to the administrators. But this is nothing monumental. Lesson planning is an essential part of high quality teaching. Lesson planning helps teachers be prepared and helps them deliver better, more precise classroom instruction. Most would agree that fighting lesson plans is not in the best interest of students.
The grievance process allows teachers to file grievances over pretty much anything they feel is unfair or violates their contract, even if it is frivolous & quite silly. I once knew of a teacher who filed a grievance because he wanted a job assignment for which he was unqualified. Seems almost to be an exercise in futility. Still, most contracts don't have any standards or thresholds that grievances must meet. How about this simple question:
How does the action in question harm student achievement and/or have a deleterious effect on the well-being of students?
Though oversimplified, asking this question would shut down a lot of foolishness & ensure that the union lives up to its creed.
Classroom teachers love their students. Union actions must be rooted in that love too.
#3 Sacrifice for the common good.
A few years ago, the state faced a specific budget crisis where 100 state troppers faced permanent layoffs. Michigan has long been hit hard by the economic downturn and department budgets everywhere were shrinking. Many thought core services would be held harmless, but they nonetheless shared the pain.
So the governor gave the Michigan State Police a choice. Take a cut in pay & keep all of the current troopers. Or, they could keep their same rate of pay and see 100 of their blue brethren calling MARVIN the next week.
What did the MSP chose?
Press 1 for English.
Teachers, on the other hand, seem to be much more generous. Those heart-on-sleeve wearing liberals have voted in contracts time after time to support their colleagues. As a teacher in Detroit, I, along with thousands of other DFT members voted in several contracts that took one for the team. In one contract, teacher salary increases were frozen. In another, teachers gave the district a cash loan and gave back sick days to keep it from the brink of financial insolvency. In the most recent contract, teachers took a $500 month pay cut to save the jobs of the younger, less seniority teachers, so that class sizes would not increase dramatically.
At their hearts, teachers are willing to sacrifice to help kids and want the district to give them the tools & conditions to succeed, even if that means making financial sacrifices.
I would extend that argument to include lengthening work hours without an accompanying raise. This could mean increasing the school day by some measure or providing students with access to teachers & tutors after normal school hours. Many teachers are already doing this on their own, whether volunteering to help students for a few minutes after school, tutoring students on difficult concepts after class, or communicating with students & parents online at home. Of course, as an English teacher, I always have a stack of papers peaking at me from my work bag, waiting to be graded.
Geoffrey Canada, founder of the famous Harlem Children's Zone, made a recommendation on NBC's Education Nation that teachers teach an extra hour each day, or an extra 5 hours a week. That would extend a teachers working hours the equivalent of 1 month. Now, that would be a little extreme at the bargaining table. Teaching is a profession, after all. You pay professionals. You don't expect them to volunteer. There is nothing particularly greedy or anti-reform minded about paying people for the work they do.
But, what about an extra 30 minutes a day or an extra 20 minutes a day? What about tutoring a few hours a week.?What about providing teachers with phones to communicate with students & parents outside of normal work hours. What about home visits? There are many creative ways to increase instructional time without huge increases in labor costs. The union might not be the 1st voice at the table to offer up these suggestions, but they certainly should be willing to consider them.
# 4 Reform evaluations, reform tenure.
Even if unions aren't a dirty 4 letter word in the reform movement, tenure certainly is.
Tenure. Ooo, shut 'yo mouth!
Tenure is a process where a teacher attains added job security after completing a probationary period, which in Michigan is 4 years. An administrator has 4 years to rate teachers unsatisfactory to prevent them from getting tenure during this time, and can theoretically fire them for legitimate flaws in their evaluation.
After the 4 year probation period, the teacher gains tenure and has rights of due process & arbitration. They receive an evaluation only once every 3 years. If that evaluation is poor, they are put on an Individual Development Plan (IDP) and they have 1 year to demonstrate that they are following that plan and improve their performance.
Ahh, but the devil is in the details.
Because the union contract provides rights above and beyond the Tenure Laws, it is even difficult to fire probationary teachers. Regardless of tenure, all teachers have a right to grieve and a probationary teacher who has received an unsatisfactory rating can always grieve their evaluation. A poor evaluation means that your superiors think you haven't been doing a good job. What teacher wouldn't want to invoke their grievance rights under such an emotional and stressful position?
Furthermore, the evaluation tools are themselves so very subjective, they almost always prove to be ample feeding grounds for arbitrary and capricious evaluation comments. If a teacher is rated unsatisfactory, in part, because they didn't implement a specific instructional strategy, they can always point to the teacher down the hall who didn't use that strategy and didn't get marked unsatisfactory. The teacher could easily argue that the administrator did not fairly apply standards for all employees.
There goes that unsatisfactory rating!
Now comes the tenure; No evaluation for two years.
That means I could totally be an ineffective teacher and the district wouldn't be able to take action on me for three years later. And, even in that 3rd year, if I am rated unsatisfactory, I still have another year to get it right. And if I get a bad evaluation in that 4th year on an Individual Development Plan, guess what? I'm going to grieve it!
If the unsatisfactory rating remains after the grievance arbitration bears out and the district proceeds to terminate the teacher's employment, the teacher can also appeal the termination to the tenure commission. The tenure commission is set up like a judicial process, complete with administrative law judges, attorneys, and witnesses, even subpoenas. A hearing is held where the teacher & district present their evidence and wait on the administrative law judge to issue a ruling.
You didn't think we were done, did you?
After the administrative law judge makes a ruling, either party can appeal that ruling. Then it goes for review again.
Then finally the tenure commission produces a ruling that is final.
My fingers are tired now.
Still, I must solider on.
Those who defend the current tenure system are quick to point out that a teacher can be removed from the classroom at any point for any serious action, usually a felony conviction. Short of a conviction of a serious event, the district has to continue paying a teacher the full salary if they are removed from the classroom.
So, in addition to paying the would-be terminated teacher's salary, the district must also pay the salary for whomever they hire to replace that teacher. And, the district has to pay their share of the tenure hearing costs, which can include paying for a venue, and lodging, travel for the administrative law judge. The district also has to pay legal fees for their attorneys. The teacher's legal fees are covered by the union. Cha ching, ba-da-bing!
This issue is really quite simple. Unions have got to work with districts to create useful evaluation tools that accurately measure teacher performance. And, unions have to work with districts to seek legislative changes to the tenure law to make it easier for ineffective teachers to be removed from the classroom in a reasonably timely and inexpensive process. Highly effective teachers, even those who are strong union supporters, don't want to work with ineffective teachers. They clamor for administrators do their jobs; get the bad teachers out. But doing the job with the huge set of rules and layers of costs currently in place is easier said than done.
The more unions continue to defend the current tenure system, the more they will be swept up by a wave of fed up parents and lawmakers who just aren't buying it anymore.
That wave continues to grow and reach critical mass. Now that media outlets like NBC's Education Nation, CNN's Perry Principles, and Guggehheim's "Superman" have brought the voice of those fed up with the status quo to the forefront, the union finds itself at a cross roads. For the simplicity of this post, I have left out an area of union policy that is so monumental, it needs a blog entry of its own.
#5 Seniority. (Coming Soon)
So, can unions reform themselves from within to become relevant in 21st century schools?
Or will they wither in the echoes of time like gas station attendants, lead-based paint, and...Oprah (had to get one last dig in).
Unions have a long and storied reputation in making this nation a great beacon for the world. Consider the fact that the same auto unions that built up the middle class in the industrial age are now singularly owning and running the auto motive companies in the knowledge age. Were it not for dedicated unions, the domestic auto industry would be all but dead.
Teacher unions can do the same for today's schools; they can be the "Superman" for which we look in the sky and wait. And believe. And fly.
Log on next Sunday for the next EduSpiel Blog Post: What Accountability Looks Like: Beyond The Rhetoric.