School & District Management Opinion

Big Ideas Provide Big Opportunities for Teachers’ Unions

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — January 12, 2015 6 min read
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Al Fondy was a Falstaff of a man with arms like a steelworker and a tongue to match. He led his Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania) Federation of Teachers on three strikes and was a formidable negotiator. And Fondy had a big idea. He began to see his union as a professional organization, and two decades after union recognition he was to make its relationship to school success explicit.

In 1987, he wrote, “If there are problems in the school system, and the union is strong, then the union is responsible either for the fact that the problems exist in the first place, or at least responsible for the fact that they are not being addressed.”

Fondy knew that unions were not only the defender of teachers—both individually and collectively—but the shapers of their occupation.

The key qualifier, Fondy said, was whether the union is strong. A weak union can’t be responsible for much, because it doesn’t have much power. But a strong one can. California’s teacher unions are strong.

A Two Year Window of Opportunity

As I wrote last month, California’s teacher unions, particularly the California Teachers Association, have an unprecedented two-year window of opportunity to reshape teaching and unionism. They have a supportive governor and state school chief, and a Democratic legislature. The state’s financial upswing is projected to produce billions in new money over the next two years. So, there is opportunity.

But on the ideas front, the union’s opposition is winning. Education reform has come to mean what the corporate reformers say it does, and union power is reduced to resistance. Resistance is not a big idea. Yammering about the “billionaires boys club,” or “privatization” may play well to the faithful, but it doesn’t lead the state’s education system. Only 12% of registered voters who responded to last year’s Policy Analysis for California Education/USC poll gave California public schools an A or B grade. Some 62% said they supported the Vergara case judge’s decision to restrict tenure and due process rights. In a poll where 20% of respondents were teachers, only 31% said teacher unions had a positive effect on education.

During the first two years of Brown’s 4th term, the state’s teacher unions have the capacity to transform teaching. Rather than engaging in trench warfare with the corporate reformers, they can outflank them with ideas of their own; ideas that are already in play.

Deeper Learning and Teacher Accountability

There is a growing movement, some of it fueled by California teachers and foundations, for what is called deeper learning. At the same time, there is an insistent call for teacher accountability. A skillful marriage of these two instincts could fundamentally change the work of teachers and the education of students.

Deeper learning has become the catch phrase for teaching students to think critically, to apply what they are learning, to collaborate, to solve problems where the answers are not obvious. There is enormous support among teacher leaders, and among foundations located in California, for embedding deeper learning in everyday schooling.

The Hewlett Foundation has made it one of its signature programs and at least a score of other organizations are promoting deeper learning efforts, including, Big Picture Learning, The New Tech Network (website), Connect Ed (website), High Tech High, (website) (my case study) Envision Education, (website), and the Alliance for Excellent Education.

(As Education Week readers know, one of the most authoritative sources of advocacy for deeper learning can be found at Robert Rothman and Jal Mehta’s “Learning Deeply.”)

The fumes from the bubbling pot of innovation are ready to be distilled by some smart unionists. For example: creating networks of teacher leaders, something that the CTA is already working on in cooperation with centers at Stanford University. And the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching is collaborating with the American Federation of Teachers to create support for beginning teachers nationwide.

Achieving deeper learning, and the teaching that supports it, requires evaluating students and teachers differently. Value-added measurement based on increases in standardized test scores—the lynchpin of the corporate reformer agenda—won’t work to measure deeper learning, and the state has marched boldly toward a broadened definition of valued outcomes with it’s Eight State Priorities.

Unions have at least three opportunities to marry these ideas:

First, get teacher evaluation right.

Teachers will either develop an evaluation system with teeth—the hallmark of a profession—or others will develop one and impose it on them.

There is no shortage of good ideas. Linda Darling-Hammond, Gene Wilhoit, and Linda Pittenger have developed “big system” evaluation that works on all levels—from the state to the individual teacher and student. It emphasizes formative assessment and capacity building and works within existing constraints. Other states, particularly Kentucky and New Hampshire, have implemented comprehensive teacher development ideas. There’s lots to build on.

But for teacher unions, the key is to create a teacher evaluation system with teeth. The corporate reformers greatly overestimate the numbers of bad teachers and fail to understand the nature of the teacher labor market when they assert that successive waves of firing bad ones will improve our system. Still, there are teachers who can’t or won’t teach in California classrooms, and the public will insist on an evaluation system that weeds them out.

Robust peer review systems, pioneered by teacher unions in California and elsewhere, are an answer to maintaining due process protections, providing substantive support for struggling teachers, and “calling the question” when interventions don’t work.

California’s state unions have danced around this issue. It’s time to grab the opportunity, or not.

Second, use the Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP) process as a way to advocate for deeper learning and the resources it requires.

The local control budgeting and accountability process offer opportunities for local teacher leaders to show how well designed and executed learning experiences benefit students, and particularly how they can benefit those low income, English Learner, and foster youth students who receive supplementary funding. Parents and parents and community advocates need to become convinced that deeper learning experiences—as opposed to packaged instructional programs specifically labeled for these students—will provide greater benefit.

As a recent report from Education Trust West makes clear, the LCAP process has created unprecedented levels of community engagement. Local activists have clout in the budget process, and they are getting more, a level of influence that in some cases rivals that of the teachers.

Third, use collective bargaining and the local control financing process as a way to create and protect funding for teacher professional development and to create time in the school day for adults to meet, learn and collaborate.

It’s a truism that “you can’t be a professional by yourself.” Building teaching capacity is a collective effort. If teachers, through their unions, don’t provide ample budget for high quality, job-embedded professional development, they have only themselves to blame. If they don’t create space in the workday for collaboration and the “adult conversations,” they’ve missed the opportunity provided by expanded school budgets.

Unions may have to fight for deeper learning and substantive evaluation. There are school board members and administrators who think that any teacher time not spent standing in front of a classroom is wasted. There are skeptics that think that teachers won’t impose high standards on other teachers. There are doubters who think only those skills measured on standardized tests should count as an education. Those folks need educating.

That’s teaching work, and union work, too.

Photo: Stuart Miles/Freedigitalphotos.net

The opinions expressed in On California 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.