Union-District Collaboration a Never-Ending Process
New challenges continue to pop up for a coastal California district where union and district leaders forged an agreement to bolster the teaching corps
The Lucia Mar school district is a study in contrasts.
Million-dollar homes nestle on cliffs above the Pacific Ocean in this area, located between San Luis Obispo and Santa Maria, Calif. A few short miles away fields of peas grow; agricultural work remains an important part of the economy.
Some schools enroll quite wealthy students, while in others, more than 90 percent of students are classified as low-income.
As part of an effort to help bridge some of the contrasts in school performance here, the 10,800-student district recently became the first in California to adopt the Teacher Advancement Program school reform initiative in seven of its schools.
The complex model combines professional development, multiple teacher observations keyed to a set of teaching standards, and leadership opportunities for skilled "master" and "mentor" teachers. Details of the program, including a bonus-pay element, were negotiated into the district's collective bargaining pact early this year.
For teachers here in Lucia Mar, much depends on this, the first year of implementation—and on the relationship between two of its education leaders. They, too, present a contrast in temperament, say those who know them: Superintendent Jim Hogeboom is outgoing, while Lucia Mar Unified Teachers Association President Lloyd Walzer is more reserved.
Their experience in bringing TAP to this district is both representative and instructive of the labor-management cooperation process as a whole.
It is representative, in that both parties have taken a leap of faith, and instructive, because their experience demonstrates the delicate nature of a collaboration—and underscores the truism that no such venture is ever fully complete.
As the parties here have discovered, external factors—changes in leadership, a disagreement about a school construction project—affect the policy context for working together.
"Collaboration is really hard work," Mr. Hogeboom said. "It's kind of like a marriage. You can't take it for granted. You always have to work at it."
The TAP project here grew from an inauspicious beginning. Faced with a budget crunch during his first year leading the district, in 2008-09, Mr. Hogeboom oversaw the sending of more pink slips than were ultimately necessary.
It was in grappling with the ensuing uproar, he said, that he and Kevin Statom, at that time the president of the teachers' union, began to develop a better working relationship.
"I can say that we get along pretty well; we don't agree very often, to be honest with you, but we have a good relationship," Mr. Statom said of the superintendent. "I can say anything to him, and he can say anything to me. Both of us are in it for the students and the best of the district."
When Mr. Hogeboom grew interested in applying for a federal Teacher Incentive Fund grant to finance the TAP model, Mr. Statom agreed to accompany him to a conference hosted by the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching, the Santa Monica-based nonprofit that oversees TAP.
Mr. Statom found the conference a little overwhelming—"It was a bit too 'rah-rah' for me"—but had the chance to discuss with other union leaders their experiences with TAP. And while concerned about the system's performance-pay element, he saw promise in its emphasis on regular, sustained professional development.
Mr. Hogeboom, in the meantime, kept up the pressure on the union to give the plan a go. Not all members were enthusiastic.
"Originally, we weren't going to [support TAP]; we fought it," said Mr. Walzer, who became the president of LMUTA in May 2010.
The input of a key union player helped to shift the dynamic. A staffer from the National Education Association's Uniserv regional-support network advised the LMUTA on how the program could be adopted—with safeguards for teachers—through the collective-bargaining process.
And though the union's executive board was divided on the program—and remains so—a degree of pragmatism prevailed, and the union sent a letter of support for the grant application. According to Mr. Statom, at least one executive board member argued that it was better to adopt such a program voluntarily than later on, when it might be done by legislative force.
Agreeing to support TAP was not a small step for the LMUTA to take. The state NEA chapter, the California Teachers Association, has not been kindly disposed to TAP in general.
"Some CTA people just see it as merit pay," Mr. Walzer said.
Under pressure to complete the TIF application on time during the vacation-filled summer months, the district did not involve the union in the writing of the actual grant proposal. Some of its details and phraseology later upset the union.
Mr. Hogeboom now counts that as a mistake on his part. "Maybe we could have avoided that if we'd shared the process or shared the information," he acknowledged.
Nevertheless, when the district succeeded in winning a $7.2 million grant, the union came to the table in good faith to bargain the details of the program.
"We were wondering, 'Are they going to give this a fair shake?' And to their credit, they did," Mr. Hogeboom said about the LMUTA, praising its leaders for being open-minded throughout the process.
The six days of bargaining, in fact, seemed to bring the parties closer together.
When California's Lucia Mar school district and its teachers' union negotiated details of a side agreement to implement the TAP school improvement initiative, they agreed on several safeguards for teachers.
• Teachers at each school were required to adopt the system by a 75 percent "yes" vote. Six of the seven schools identified in the district's plan met the benchmark, in some instances far outpacing it. (A seventh school was brought on board through philanthropic support.)
• Teachers in the schools selected for TAP were to be given first interviews at other schools if they didn't want to take part in the initiative.
• Observations in TAP schools inform the formal teacher-evaluation process set in the master contract—but they don't supersede it.
• Each teacher gets one appeal if he or she feels an observation score is skewed.
• The side agreement went out for a districtwide vote, and it was approved by a 50-vote margin.
"It actually felt easier negotiating that side agreement than the previous three or four years bargaining a master agreement," said Mr. Walzer. "We felt like we were finally sitting at the table with them, and they were working with us to make it happen."
During the grant's planning year, the district allowed teachers to visit TAP sites in other states. The field trips helped to persuade some teachers, like Socorro Orozco, a kindergarten teacher at Fairgrove Elementary School, to vote in favor of adopting the program.
"On the plane ride there, I was thinking, 'I can't imagine being observed this many times,' " Ms. Orozco recalled. She was convinced, though, by the strength of weekly "cluster meetings" where teachers learn, practice, and debrief on the results of new teaching skills. Thatin-service feature is now her favorite aspect of the initiative.
"After 17 years teaching, I stand to learn things still, and I'm excited by it," she said.
At Judkins Middle School, master teacher Edmund C. Alarcio is another early convert.
During training with the initiative's extensive teaching guidelines, "All of us were like, wow, what did we get ourselves into?" he said. "But by the third day, I thought, 'How could I have been such an average teacher for 28 years?' I was stunned by the sheer power of what could be."
The first few months in the weekly cluster meetings have been spent helping all teachers learn the standards, testing them out in classrooms, and making connections among them.
"It's huge, and we're going at a pretty fast pace. It's a lot to internalize," said Kelly C. Logue, a master teacher at Dorothea Lange Elementary School. "I am starting to see career teachers having some 'aha!' moments in their classrooms, seeing the value in this, and saying, 'This is what I learned about myself.' "
Mr. Walzer, on the other hand, points out a few stumbling blocks in implementation. A transfer clause in the side agreement didn't work as the union had planned. A handful of teachers at Dorothea Lange didn't want to participate in TAP, but weren't able to transfer out of the school, he noted.
He believes that the program will succeed in schools where it works, in his words, like a "positive mentorship model," rather than a way to monitor teacher behavior.
"I think in schools where there was already collegiality and a strong support network, it's going fine," Mr. Walzer said. "That's not true of all the sites."
TAP, in its first year, does come with several learning curves, among them the regular scored observations. So far, the process, which results in each teacher receiving feedback on a teaching skill he or she has mastered and on another that needs strengthening, has been practiced but not formally conducted. The conferences were scheduled to begin as this article went to press.
The observations ultimately help determine whether teachers will receive a year-end bonus of up to about $5,000.
Francesca Ardizzone, a mentor teacher at Judkins Middle School, said she believes the results from the scored observations, which are conducted by principals as well as master and mentor teachers, will be humbling for some. Nearly all teachers currently earn a "competent" rating in the district's evaluation, the highest on the three-tiered scale. On the TAP framework, a rating of 3 on the 5-point scale is considered solid.
"You're not only changing the way it's scaled, you're changing the language," she noted. "The concern [about TAP] is not about the money yet; we're still in the ego phase."
Andy Stenson, the assistant superintendent of curriculum, said the district has urged observers to use common sense when they make their rounds. "We've made clear that if you walk in and the teacher is not feeling well, or a kid is winding out of control, put your pad of paper down and help out."
Mr. Hogeboom thinks most participating teachers will rally around the TAP approach.
"Teachers never got much feedback at all, let alone quality feedback. It's a change that will take a while to get used to, but I think the vast majority of teachers are going to think it's great," he said. "And there will be a few teachers for whom it will be hard to accept, for whom it will be seen as an infringement on their freedom."
Recent months have proved somewhat more challenging for Mr. Hogeboom and Mr. Walzer. Their relationship hasn't quite solidified yet; some recent tension has emerged, though much of it is entirely unrelated to TAP.
One point of disagreement concerns the district's construction of New Tech High School, a facility that will share space with the existing Arroyo Grande High School. The union has argued that the construction was pushed through during a sparsely attended board meeting and could affect the district's general operating fund and, ultimately, teacher salaries.
Mr. Hogeboom, meanwhile, felt blindsided when the teachers' union sent a strongly worded missive to teachers raising concerns about the school construction.
"It felt like it went from collaboration to confrontation," he said. "They have some valid points; why not bring them to me?"
Both men, however, say they want to communicate more. Superintendent Hogeboom envisions bimonthly meetings between district officials and the union's executive board.
In the meantime, the contract and side agreement provide some continuity for the TAP initiative. Any changes need to be approved by both parties.
TAP will continue to present learning opportunities and challenges for district and union officials in the Lucia Mar district. But teachers like Mr. Alarcio hope the program will mature.
"I think it could change the face of education in schools, if teachers are willing to be patient," Mr. Alarcio said. "It could be life-changing for teachers. It is life-changing for me."
Vol. 31, Issue 12, Pages s10, s11, s12Published in Print: November 16, 2011, as Collaboration a Never-Ending Process