Mooney Institute Tries to Blend Unionism, School Reform

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Teachers’ unions are rarely seen as hands-on school reformers.

But the Tom Mooney Institute for Teacher & Union Leadership thinks they should be, and is trying to get a new generation of local union leaders ready for such roles.

The institute is an offshoot of the 13-year-old Teachers Union Reform Network of NEA and AFT Locals, or TURN, which brings together like-minded union leaders to exchange ideas on improving schools. The Mooney Institute takes the message a step further, offering practical guidance as those leaders create and run improvement projects in their districts.

“People in TURN who recognized what it took to really carry a reform agenda knew [that] something more than [TURN] was needed,” said Mark Simon, one of the Mooney Institute’s national coordinators. With the institute, he said, there is an expectation that participants will “create bold collaborations with school districts.”

Now in its fourth year, the institute is still evolving. Its first cohort of trainees, made up of teams from nine local union affiliates, was formed in 2005. That group concluded its work in December 2006, and while the institute would very much like to train a second cohort and has been in dialogues with half a dozen locals, Mr. Simon said, it needs more money before they can proceed.

Discussions are now on with funders, he added.

Meanwhile, the institute’s vision has expanded. It has been helping the nine teams with collaborative work in their districts. And the institute is adding its voice to the national dialogue on teaching and “progressive unionism,” and it has set up a Web site, Mr. Simon said.

A Case to Make

Mr. Simon and Naomi Baden manage the institute out of an office in Washington. There is no full-time staff, but many unionists around the country help out. It also has a roster of coaches, consultants, and advisers drawn from unions as well as academia.

Ms. Baden said as the institute secures more funding, it hopes to set up a national advisory board and a planning board.

But observers agreed that it might not be easy for an endeavor involving teacher unions to attract significant backing.

Julia Koppich, an education consultant based in San Francisco who is also a coach for the Mooney Institute, said that despite the significant work done by some progressive unions, “foundations by and large don’t like to fund unions.”

Many see unionism as an obstruction rather than a path to reform, noted Susan Moore Johnson, a professor of education at Harvard University who is an adviser to the institute.

This is a period, she said, when money tends to follow alternative providers, such as charter schools or programs of alternative certification for teachers.

“Some people don’t see the potential in unions to substantially change the way they work or the way schools work,” she said, “and consequently it is hard to make a case that an organization or foundation should fund them.”

Mr. Simon said funders need to look at the institute’s goal of preparing progressive unionists as a leadership issue. Foundations have targeted superintendents, principals, and school boards for leadership development, he said. “The group that is most conspicuously absent is the group that sticks around the longest—teacher unions,” he said. “We have stepped in to fill that gap.”

Tom Mooney Institute for Teacher & Union Leadership

Mission: To help local teachers' union leaders become bold, collaborative advocates for improving public education, and to make teachers' unions critical players in improving the quality of teaching and student learning. The institute provides leadership and organizational-development services by engaging in a multiyear consulting relationship with the locals and providing a cohort experience for participants.

Founded: October 2004; first cohort trained April 2005-December 2006

Local unions in first cohort
• Organization of DeKalb County Educators, DeKalb County, Ga. (NEA)
• Decatur Education Association, Decatur, Ill. (NEA)
• Elgin Teachers Association, Elgin, Ill. (NEA)
• Springfield Education Association, Springfield, Ill. (NEA)
• Milwaukee Teachers Education Association (NEA)
• Prince George’s County Educators’ Association, Prince George’s County, Md. (NEA)
• Minneapolis Federation of Teachers (NEA/AFT)
• Cincinnati Federation of Teachers (AFT)
• Cleveland Teachers Union (AFT)

• Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
• Broad Foundation
• George Gund Foundation
• Joyce Foundation
• KnowledgeWorks

1. Mark Simon, National Coordinator
A former high school teacher, Mr. Simon served as the president of the Montgomery County (Md.) Education Association for two six-year terms between 1985 and 2003, negotiating a program of peer assistance and review. He served on the National Education Association’s board of directors between 1991 and 1997. He is now co-director of the Center for Teacher Leadership, working in Maryland with the George Washington University’s graduate school of education to support and cultivate National Board for Professional Teaching Standards candidates in high-needs schools.

2. Naomi Baden, National Coordinator
Served as the director of training and organizational development for the Montgomery County Education Association. A labor lawyer, Ms. Baden was the first executive director of the Coalition of Labor Union Women, and then worked as a national organizer for the Service Employees International Union.

A handful of union leaders have championed “progressive unionism,” which Mr. Simon said rests on the belief that while unions’ “industrial concerns aren’t illegitimate, equally important is the responsibility to articulate the professional expertise of teachers and the responsibility to speak to the social justice implications of the work teachers do.”

Tom Mooney of the Ohio Federation of Teachers, who was one of the institute’s founders and after whom the institute was renamed when he died last year; Dal Lawrence of Toledo, Ohio; Louise Sundin of Minneapolis; and Adam Urbanski of Rochester, N.Y., among others, have successfully mingled bread-and-butter issues with school improvement. Mr. Simon himself negotiated a program of peer review and assistance for teachers in Montgomery County, Md., whose teacher union he led for 12 years.

Still, the results of progressive unionism have so far been pretty modest, said Andrew J. Rotherham, the co-director of Education Sector, a Washington think tank. He added there is an “enormous need” for something like the Mooney Institute because it involves people looking really hard at the challenges facing schools.

But hurdles remain as the institute tries to attract local leaders to progressive unionism, he noted. In recent years, some reform-minded leaders have ended up losing their elected positions to competitors more focused on traditional interests.

“If the Mooney Institute is willing to really think big, and put some big ideas on the table, there will be a real appetite for that,” he said. Such ideas, he added, could include a larger role for unions in human resources, contracts that allow for more school-site autonomy, and teacher-run charters.

‘Not Out There Alone’

A reportRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader last year from Mr. Rotherham’s organization, co-written by Ms. Johnson, found that newer union leaders are more interested in forming collaborative relationships with their school districts. But the pressures of federal education laws and tightening school budgets have simultaneously made it harder for local affiliates to step into the role of reformers, some say.

And the national unions, whose support is important for local affiliates seeking to take on a progressive role, have stepped back in recent years, Ms. Koppich said. “Up until a few years ago,” she said, “both the AFT and the NEA were spreading the message of reform and were moving forward several education programs.”

Ms. Johnson said she found in her report for Education Sector that many local union presidents were fairly alone in the work they were doing, and relied on state and national affiliates to support them.

Of the nine local unions that took part in the institute’s training, some have completed projects or used the ideas they absorbed to form or refresh collaborative relationships with their districts. The teams took part in summer institutes, site visits, and workshops, and developed programs they hoped to put in place back home.

“Part of [the Mooney Institute experience] is you realize you are not out there alone, although sometimes you feel like you are,” said Dennis Oulihan, the president of the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association. His team came up with the idea of a union-run tutoring center, financed under the supplemental-services provision of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, for students at Milwaukee schools needing improvement. The center opened last year.

Carol Kilby, who was the president of the Prince George’s County Educators’ Association when she took part in the training, now acts a liaison between the union and the Maryland district for the federal Teacher Incentive Fund grant it received last year. The Mooney Institute experience, she said, “gives me background” and a network to seek advice for her district’s new pay-for-performance plan.

“You can get lost and adrift in all this mumbo-jumbo,” she said, “but I know the Mooney Institute is something I can trust.”

Coverage of leadership is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at

Vol. 27, Issue 32, Pages 1, 14-15

Published in Print: April 9, 2008, as Mooney Institute Tries to Blend Unionism, School Reform
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In an earlier version of this story, the accompanying chart should have said that Mark Simon served as the president of the Montgomery County Education Association in Maryland for two six-year terms between 1985 and 2003.

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