Education Opinion

A Teacher Reflects on the US Department of Education’s Role in Union Reform

By Patrick Ledesma — April 26, 2011 4 min read
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In this education debate, there are those working quietly in the background in pragmatic ways to build consensus for lasting change and improvement. It’s important for these voices to be heard.

Steve Owens is a Classroom Teaching Ambassador Fellow and National Board Certified Teacher from Vermont. He is a member of the Vermont National Education Association (VT-NEA) Board of Directors and a music teacher in two rural elementary schools. This is a cross post from the US Department of Education blog, where the Teacher Ambassadors often post to express their teacher perspective.

A Teacher Reflects on ED’s Role in Union Reform

In education, teacher union reform is a constellation of ideas and practices from proactive labor leaders to enhance student learning and empower teachers to improve policy. By bringing the voice of the practitioner to the table, unions have historically been a powerful force in education.

The Teacher Union Reform Network (TURN) is a nationwide network of more than 50 union locals promoting progressive reforms in education and in teacher unions - to improve student achievement, increase teacher connectivity, and elevate teachers’ voices in the reform debate. TURN is not only a national network; the group has been developing a network of regional satellites which meet at least twice a year.

I was in Boston on April 15 and 16 for the national TURN meeting. As a Classroom Teaching Ambassador Fellow for the Department of Education as well as president of my local in Vermont, the Washington Central Education Association, and a board director for VT-NEA, I have a foot in two worlds. It was fascinating to participate in this meeting from this dual perspective.

TURN members are curious about a wide variety of innovative ideas. We heard from Harvard economist Ron Ferguson on the role of student evaluation of teachers. According to Ferguson, this data correlates with student achievement and can be a useful part of a menu of multiple measures for improving teaching. Author Patrick Dolan gave a penetrating structural analysis of the contemporary teacher union landscape that for me had considerable explanatory force. With skill and aplomb that brought this tough audience to their feet, American Federation of Teachers (AFT) president Randi Weingarten delivered a message that our unions can no longer go it alone, that we must build bridges to other stakeholder communities.

The US Department of Education had a strong presence at this meeting in the person of Jo Anderson, a senior advisor to Secretary Arne Duncan. His role at the Department in part is to assist unions to deal creatively and proactively with education reform. Jo is a critical friend of TURN, and a longtime leader of the group in his former role as Executive Director of the Illinois Education Association. Jo centered his remarks on three events.

At the Department’s February 2011 labor-management conference in Denver, ED worked with unions, boards and administrators to build capacity for new collaborative relationships that put great student outcomes first. As I wrote in a previous blog entry, this “was the Department of Education at its best, connecting people, ideas and resources and setting a vision for change.”

The March 2011 International Summit on the Teaching Profession in New York City highlighted the achievements of 15 nations that exceeded the United States on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) results. Jo emphasized that many of these countries have strong teacher unions that all give practitioners voice in the way education is delivered and regard teachers as valued professionals. The picture that emerged from the summit is consistent with the goals of the United States’ two national unions, AFT and NEA.

Jo also spoke of the pending school reform legislation in Illinois, which emerged through the collaboration of a broad coalition of stakeholders, including the state’s teacher unions. While he was not at the forefront of these efforts in Illinois because of his current role at the Department, there is no doubt that Jo’s many years of work in Illinois contributed to the collaborative infrastructure that made this agreement possible. The Illinois legislation stands in stark contrast to more combative processes in Wisconsin, Ohio and Florida.

Jo’s exposition of these three events presents an alternative narrative to the efforts of extremists to destroy teacher unions. It is apparent to me as a union leader that the Department views our unions as valued partners in the process of improving education and is willing to invest in our capacity to change so that we can be full participants in a constructive process that leads to great student learning.


1) What constructive role do you see for unions in education reform?

2) What suggestions do you have for how the Department can build the capacity of stakeholders to participate meaningfully in the great policy debates of our time?

The opinions expressed in Leading From the Classroom are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.