Shop Talk

August 01, 1996 3 min read

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--TURN for short--brings together leaders of local affiliates of both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. They represent teachers in 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. Those involved say they share a common desire: to learn from one another and to craft a new vision of teachers’ unions, one in tune with changes both in education and the teaching profession.

The project 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 from UCLA’s graduate school of education and information studies will also participate.

The 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. “The question is, how do you maintain traditional union values while behaving in a different way in a different world?’' says Helen Bernstein, outgoing president of United Teachers Los Angeles, who will direct the network.

Working with the support of their national organizations, the participants say they relish the chance to trade ideas with like-minded labor leaders. “The opportunity to have a deep conversation with colleagues and others in the union movement who are struggling with these issues is rare,’' says Mike Schoeppach, executive director of the Bellevue (Wash.) Education Association.

Schoeppach says he eventually would like to see teachers’ unions “taking responsibility for student achievement in ways that are very clear and meaningful.’' But, he adds, “there is a lot of tension about that. We’ve had some spirited conversations about the implications for our organizations and the members we serve.’'

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. Many of the participating AFT affiliates have made names for themselves by creating peer-review systems, career ladders, and programs for novice teachers. Most of the locals have been heavily involved in efforts to extend decisionmaking authority to teachers and others at the school level.

Robert Schwartz, director of the education program at the Philadelphia-based Pew Trusts, says he was surprised 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,’' says Schwartz. “These are very thoughtful people wrestling with the question of how to reconcile unionism and the emerging professionalism model.’'

The union leaders taking part in TURN have long sought to change teachers’ roles, and some have been bruised in the process. “Our contract is worded in such a way that we need to be involved in almost all important decisions,’' says Don Woodard, 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, Woodard says, adding that professional development for teachers is essential.

Participant Tom Mooney, president of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers, hopes TURN will be a “source of courage’’ for union leaders. “In education generally--and I include in unions--courage has been too scarce a commodity,’' he says.

--Ann Bradley

A version of this article appeared in the August 01, 1996 edition of Teacher as Shop Talk