Network Seeks Union Role in Reform Efforts
Reform-minded leaders of 21 local teachers' unions will spend the next two years looking at how their organizations can play a leading role in promoting change in education while protecting teachers' rights and benefits.
The Teacher Union Reform Network brings together leaders of local affiliates of both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. They represent locations ranging from Los Angeles, the nation's second-largest school system with 650,000 students, to the 3,430-student Westerly, R.I., district.
But the union members say they share a common desire: to learn from one another and to craft a new vision of teachers' unions, in tune with changes both in education and in the teaching profession.
The project, known as TURN, will be housed at the University of California at Los Angeles, which has received $250,000 from the Pew Charitable Trusts to support the two-year initiative. Faculty members from UCLA's graduate school of education and information studies will also participate.
"The question is, how do you maintain traditional union values while behaving in a different way in a different world?" said Helen F. Bernstein, the outgoing president of United Teachers Los Angeles, who will direct the network.
The project's goal is to create new models of teacher unionism that could be used by other affiliates. Union leaders will examine how organized labor functions in "high-performance organizations," which are characterized by labor-management cooperation and intense worker involvement in decisionmaking.
"We don't want others to have to go through the pain we've gone through," Ms. Bernstein said of her and her colleagues' efforts to secure a more active role for teachers in education reform. "Each of us has been under attack by our own membership for stands we've taken."
Participants in the TURN project, who have met four times in the past 10 months, say they relish the chance to trade ideas with like-minded labor leaders.
While their national affiliates have been supportive of their efforts, they say, the new network is uniquely focused on the challenge of reinventing teacher unionism.
"The opportunity to have a deep conversation with colleagues and others in the union movement who are struggling with these issues is rare," said Mike Schoeppach, the executive director of the Bellevue (Wash.) Education Association. "The quality of the people who are engaged in this conversation I find very exciting."
Mr. Schoeppach said he eventually would like to see teachers' unions "taking responsibility for student achievement in ways that are very clear and meaningful."
"Believe me, there is a lot of tension about that," he said. "We've had some spirited conversations about the implications for our organizations and the members we serve."
Union leaders say the TURN meetings have been free of any rivalry that might stem from their membership in separate national organizations. Two of the unions involved in the project--those in Los Angeles and San Francisco--are merged locals that are affiliated with both the NEA and the AFT. Together, those national unions have more than 3 million members.
Five of the 10 NEA local affiliates taking part in the discussions are involved in the association's Learning Laboratories initiative. In those sites, teachers are involved in deciding how to educate their students, documenting their experiences, and sharing the results with others.
In Memphis, Tenn., one of the Learning Laboratories sites, teachers are working to put cutting-edge models of education, developed by New American Schools, into place in 54 schools.
Many of the AFT affiliates have made names for themselves by creating peer-review programs, career ladders, new models of professional development, and programs for novice teachers.
Most of the local unions also have been heavily involved in efforts to extend decisionmaking authority to teachers and others at the school level.
Robert Schwartz, the director of the education program at the Philadelphia-based Pew Trusts, said he was taken aback by the eagerness of the union leaders to get together and talk about what they have learned.
"There is no agenda other than trying to figure out how to really help one another move ahead with pioneering this new ground," said Mr. Schwartz, who attends the network's meetings. "These are very thoughtful people wrestling with the question of how to reconcile unionism and the emerging professionalism model" in teaching.
A support team made up of Theodore R. Mitchell, the dean of the UCLA education school; Buzz Wilms, a UCLA faculty member and expert on labor-management relations; and Ray Marshall, the U.S. secretary of labor under President Carter and a professor at the University of Texas who has studied teachers' unions in other countries, is offering expertise and helping direct the group's discussions.
'Source of Courage'
The union leaders taking part in TURN have long sought to change teachers' roles, and some have been bruised by attempts to get their members to make the most of the gains they have scored.
"Our contract is worded in such a way that we need to be involved in almost all important decisions," said Don Woodard, the president of the Greece (N.Y.) Teachers Association. "The problem is making that mind-set work."
District administrators and teachers themselves can be reluctant to think of their jobs in new ways, Mr. Woodard said, adding that professional development is essential in helping teachers make such transitions.
TURN leaders, in fact, have talked about ways to encourage teachers' unions to take a greater role in honing their members' knowledge and skills.
"We see the vacuum," said Tom Mooney, the president of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers. "There's a huge void."
For Wayne Pike, the president of the Memphis Education Association, the project offers the hope of distilling the union leaders' collective wisdom into a model for future action.
"We are moving away from the old adversarial behaviors to more collaborative behaviors," he said. "We are looking at a role that is different than just to sit down at the bargaining table and bargain teacher contracts and rights."
Mr. Mooney said the TURN network can be a "source of courage" for union leaders.
"It helps give people the moral support to try some new approaches," he said. "In education generally--and I include in unions--courage has been too scarce a commodity."
Leaders from the following unions are participating in the Teacher Union Reform Network:
Albuquerque Teachers Federation, Albuquerque, N.M.
Bellevue Education Association, Bellevue, Wash.
Boston Teachers Union, Boston
Cincinnati Federation of Teachers, Cincinnati
Columbus Education Association, Columbus, Ohio
Denver Classroom Teachers Association, Denver
Greece Teachers Association, Greece, N.Y.
Hammond Teachers Federation, Hammond, Ind.
Memphis Education Association, Memphis, Tenn.
Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, Minneapolis
Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association, St. Petersburg, Fla.
Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, Pittsburgh
Rochester Teachers Association, Rochester, N.Y.
San Diego Teachers Association, San Diego
Seattle Education Association, Seattle
Toledo Federation of Teachers, Toledo, Ohio
United Educators of San Francisco, San Francisco
United Federation of Teachers, New York City
United Teachers of Dade, Miami
United Teachers Los Angeles, Los Angeles
Westerly Teachers Association, Westerly, R.I.