Education Letter to the Editor

Teachers and Reform

January 04, 2005 3 min read

To the Editor:

The following words from Larry Cuban (“Blame, Credit, and Urban School Reform,” Commentary, Nov. 24, 2004) should be posted on the walls of every politician, academic, and administrator who wants to “improve education” or “leave no child behind” in the United States:

“Without teacher commitment to district-designated reforms, sustained improvement in teaching and student achievement will falter and ultimately fail.”

The reality of the public school is that the classroom teacher makes 99.9 percent of the decisions for her students each day without the assistance or involvement of any other school employee. If she does not agree with a directive from above, she has a thousand and one ways to be creatively noncompliant.

As for the “higher test scores” being touted as a result of education legislation, let’s not forget that the preparation, administration, and sometimes the grading and recording of these tests are also done by the teacher.

So Mr. Cuban is absolutely correct: Many people outside the classroom might make “policy” for public education, but if we want to see improvement, we’d better include “Miss Jones” in Kansas City.

Linda Mele Johnson

Long Beach, Calif.

To the Editor:

A statewide effort in Ohio to redesign 17 large urban high schools into 58 highly personalized small schools offers lessons that support and expand upon Larry Cuban’s Commentary. In implementing the Ohio High School Transformation Initiative, we too have found that while “conflicts between superintendents and teachers’ unions are common, they are not inevitable.”

The issue that we have tackled and that Mr. Cuban does not address is this: “Why do teachers’ unions become a perceived obstacle to reform, and how can they be made to be true partners?”

We have concluded that teachers’ unions exist fundamentally for the purpose of protecting their members from the consequences of systems that rarely nor meaningfully include them in the decisionmaking process. By addressing this reality, our experience has been that teachers and their unions can be dependable and valuable partners if they are properly approached and involved.

The Ohio initiative has included a commitment to real union partnership from the very start. In fact, unions and districts must sign a memorandum of understanding committing themselves to specific guidelines for a collaborative relationship. In some cases, the partner’s commitment to collaboration is easily forgotten, and the well-established adversarial approach keeps coming back into the picture. To counter this pattern, considerable effort has been made to nurture and monitor these relationships as a third-party “critical friend.”

As an external party that supports all the partners with extensive technical assistance and resources, we are also able to provide either a listening ear or a gentle push in times of trouble. Doing so ensures that new challenges and major decisions encountered during the complex high school transformation process are addressed as a team. We have found that almost any obstacle can be overcome in such a working environment.

Acting in this capacity takes both time and resources. But we feel strongly that committing ourselves to creating such collaborative cultures is the best hope for establishing and sustaining schools that nurture all students and are characterized by rigorous and relevant learning opportunities.

All school reform is difficult, and urban school reform is all the more so. Making teachers and their unions true partners is a foundation upon which reform must be built and upon which it can be sustained.

Robert Barkley Jr.

Former Executive Director

Ohio Education Association

Columbus, Ohio

Harold Brown

Vice President

KnowledgeWorks Foundation

Cincinnati, Ohio

A version of this article appeared in the January 05, 2005 edition of Education Week as Teachers and Reform