School & District Management

Union Agitators

By Vaishali Honawar — January 31, 2006 7 min read
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A room filled with union leaders, each with a mind of his or her own, can be a formidable audience. But that doesn’t deter Adam Urbanski.

One recent sunny day here in California’s Napa Valley, the director of the Teacher Union Reform Network of AFT and NEA Locals, or TURN, declares, “I think we should make public schools more like private schools.” His statement is greeted with one loud shout of “Wait a minute!,” a few gasps, and many raised eyebrows.

The next moment, the room erupts in heated debate. “That is a horrible model. ... It would be like the tail wagging the dog,” retorts A. James Duffy, the president of United Teachers of Los Angeles. “We are talking not about cars but about human beings.”

TURN at a Glance


Director: Adam Urbanski Number of member locals when founded: 21
Number of member locals today: 31

Number of satellites: Three, in California, Great Lakes region, and Northeast


Employees: Run entirely by volunteers

Funding: Past grantors include the Pew Charitable Trusts, the MacArthur Foundation, the Broad Foundation, and the U.S. Department of Education. Now self-sustaining. Members pay $100 fee per meeting; meetings are held three times a year.

SOURCE: Education Week

“What about the children who are going to get lost? I am not sure this premise is correct,” maintains Donald S. Raczka, the chief of the Poway Federation of Teachers in California.

An hour later, the debate still going on, Mr. Urbanski shrugs as he sits on a porch overlooking the golf course at the lush Silverado Resort, the venue of TURN’s latest conference, Jan. 20-21. Mr. Urbanski and the network he leads have built something of a reputation for throwing out provocative ideas that seek to expand the role of teachers’ unions in school improvement.

“I love dissent. What I fear is complacence,” he says. “It is impossible to be the reformer of an institution and a darling.”

Created in 1995, TURN was the brainchild of Mr. Urbanski, the president of the Rochester (N.Y.) Teachers Association for the past 25 years, and Helen Bernstein, a past UTLA president, who was killed in an accident just two years later. Like Mr. Urbanski, Ms. Bernstein, a former civil rights activist, was infused with an urge to expand upon the traditional role of teachers’ unions and involve them in bettering education.

Now, a decade later, the big question is: Has TURN lived up to the expectations that it set for itself, namely, that teachers’ unions should look beyond their traditional role of protecting members’ bread-and-butter interests and work to recast themselves with the goal of upgrading student achievement?

It is a question that cannot be easily answered.

“TURN has served the important function of creating a network of leaders for doing work that is traditionally not labor work,” said Linda Kaboolian, a public-policy lecturer at Harvard University and the author of the book Win-Win Labor-Management Collaboration in Education.

But, she added: “One of the things everyone wanted to see was an improvement in student outcomes, and that is something yet to be documented.”

Mr. Urbanski himself describes TURN as “therapy” and a “safe environment for thinking out loud.” But he turns a critic’s eye when asked about the network’s achievements over its 10 years.

“I would give TURN a C-plus,” he said.

Making Change

TURN has helped guide member locals in fostering improvements in their districts, and has also helped lead to the creation of a leadership-development project that promotes what supporters see as this progressive brand of unionism in schools.

In 2003, the Institute for Teacher Union Leadership, or ITUL, was born. Although not part of TURN, its director, Mark Simon, a former president of the Montgomery County Teachers Association in Maryland and the director of the Center for Teacher Leadership in Washington, says it is an outgrowth of the network and some of the ideas aired during TURN get-togethers. The Washington-based institute is a multiyear project that aims to prepare the next generation of progressive union leaders.

The 13 participating locals are connected to urban districts, including Cincinnati, Milwaukee, and Minneapolis, that are wrestling with high rates of poverty and mobility, and non-English-speaking populations. Participants go through residential summer-immersion experiences, on-the-job fieldwork, self-assessment tools, and a consultation process with experienced union leaders.

TURN Membership

Thirty-one teachers’ union locals currently make up the network. Some strong union states, such as New York and Ohio, are represented, while locals in others, such as Michigan and New Jersey, are not invovled.

*Click image to enlarge.


The institute seeks to take unions a step further than TURN does. “TURN meetings are helpful, but it is just a network,” Mr. Simon said. “There is a lot of unevenness among TURN locals. ITUL required a critical mass of locals interested in deep reform working among themselves.”

Member locals of TURN have also negotiated other changes they believe will improve teaching and learning.

Along with the Montgomery County local, unions in Cincinnati, Rochester, Columbus, Ohio, and Hart, Calif., have negotiated peer-review plans in which skilled teachers monitor and evaluate their peers. Minneapolis, Denver, and Douglas County, Colo., have implemented teacher performance-pay plans.

“Our participation in TURN really laid the groundwork for the association to take up the performance-pay plan,” said Bruce Dickinson, the executive director of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association.

TURN has also helped network members link up with Allen Odden, a professor of educational administration at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an expert on teacher compensation.

“Besides the idea exchange, we get resources,” Mr. Dickinson said.

In New York’s Rochester district, among other measures, the union now conducts year-round negotiations with the school district under a “living contract.” In the San Juan, Calif., district, the union last year negotiated an agreement that gives the union and the school system shared responsibility and accountability for student results.

The Poway union in California, meanwhile, started a cooperative that focuses on improving instruction and curriculum to achieve the district’s goals, encourages teachers to take responsibility for their professional growth, and compensates those who take part in the initiative with an extra 1.5 percent salary increase.

“We wouldn’t have done this as well and as quickly if we were not with TURN,” said Don Raczka, the president of the Poway Federation of Teachers. “Being here gives you an attitude that sets you in the direction of making a change.”

Tom Alves, the president of the San Juan Teachers Association, calls the TURN meetings a “rehearsal.”

“You hear what some of the reactions to your ideas can be, and then you have less fear when you go back to your locals with those ideas,” he said.

Rumors circulated when TURN was launched that it would emerge as a third union, but Tom Blanford, an associate director for education policy at the NEA, said he did not perceive any desire on the part of TURN members for that to happen, “as long as the national unions continue to be receptive to ideas and supportive of the direction locals are going in.”

He views TURN’s existence as having a positive effect on his organization.

“A lot of the locals that are participating in TURN are on the cutting edge of a lot of education reform issues and are really exploring ways in which the union can be a partner in promoting quality education. That is very valuable to us,” Mr. Blanford said.

Satellites for the Future

Some ideas tossed out at TURN, such as making public schools more like private ones and embracing vouchers for public schools, might appear shocking initially, according to Mr. Urbanski. But, he asserted, “[public] school systems are on their way out and systems of schools are on their way in.

“You put some controls in to ensure fairness, keep school boards and public control of schools, but you don’t keep out the market dynamics and competition. You make standards stick,” Mr. Urbanski said, outlining his vision. In such a system, he said, schools would franchise themselves, and schools that were not performing well would disappear.

TURN Mission Statement

Teacher unions must provide leadership for the collective voice of their members. Teacher unions have a responsibility to students, their families, and to the broader society. Teacher unions are committed to public education as a vital element of our democracy. What unites these responsibilities is our commitment to help all children learn.

We affirm the unions’ responsibility to collaborate with other stakeholders in public education and to seek consistently higher levels of student achievement by:

• Improving continuously the quailty of teaching;
• Promoting in public education and in the union democratic dynamics, fairness, and due process for all;
• Seeking to expand the scope of collective bargaining to include instructional and professional issues;
• Improving on an ongoing basis the terms and conditions under which both adults and children work and learn.

SOURCE: Teacher Union Reform Network

“The design has to be honed. It ought to come from an unlikely source,” said Mr. Urbanski, who has led TURN since it was created and is a national vice president of the AFT. “Unions must start doing what they are ‘unsupposed’ to do.”

While Mr. Urbanski gives the network some credit for sustaining conversations on reform, he regrets that it has not yet found a way to affect the majority of teachers’ unions. Only 31 NEA and AFT locals are members, up from 21 when turn started. “We will have to figure that out,” Mr. Urbanski said.

The answer could lie in setting up satellites of TURN such as the ones that are already active in the Great Lakes region, California, and in the Northeast. Attempts are under way to establish others.

David A. Schutten, the president of the Organization of DeKalb Educators, in DeKalb County, Ga., said a satellite in his state would help locals take up such causes as advancing high-quality classroom teaching.

“I hope that within the next few years, we will have a TURN satellite within driving distance of every local,” Mr. Urbanski said.

Further, he added, “we will have to go to different levels and challenge conventional thinking a lot more. We will have to challenge the national conversation on education reform.”

The network’s most outstanding success, Mr. Urbanski said, is that it’s survived.

“We are still at it. The general public realizes that unions can be part of the solution,” he said, “and that sometimes reforms fare best if spearheaded by unions, and that strong and tough don’t necessarily mean adversarial.”

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


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