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Teaching Profession Opinion

The Power of Progressive Thinking

By Mark Simon & Naomi Baden — January 29, 2008 7 min read
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A year from now, we will have a new president in the White House, and both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers are likely to have new presidents. If there has ever been a year of opportunity, a time to prepare for new thinking and defuse the increasingly polarized debate about how best to reform the nation’s schools, it is 2008. Whatever the merits or shortcomings of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, or the reasons behind the resentment it has generated among teachers, the public perception of teachers’ unions has suffered: They have come to be seen as the “just say no” organizations.

Teachers’ unions could be playing a very different kind of role. And many within our diverse, decentralized movement are pressing for a new role as constructive partners in education reform.

Before his death one year ago, the AFT vice president and Ohio Federation of Teachers president Tom Mooney was known as a champion of progressive teacher unionism. He argued that the industrial model of teacher unionism had served a useful purpose, by improving pay and working conditions and ending arbitrary and discriminatory practices, but that a broader vision incorporating a professional and social-justice emphasis would be more relevant and powerful today.

Harvard University’s Susan Moore Johnson and Morgaen Donaldson have echoed Tom Mooney’s concerns, writing recently that beliefs central to industrial-era unionism—preserving teacher autonomy, “egalitarianism,” and strict seniority—have become barriers to new roles for teachers as instructional leaders, contributing to a generational divide among teachers’ union members. These priorities of an earlier era continue to shape the unions’ agenda in public education despite mounting evidence that there are better ways to improve teacher working conditions.

Visionary national union leaders have understood the danger of teacher unions’ being seen as the obstacle to improving schools.

Unions, Tom Mooney believed, have to champion programs and policies that improve the quality of teaching and learning. Some of the most important questions: What constitutes good teaching? How do we improve teaching and equalize the distribution of teacher talent? How do we sustain new teachers? How do we build powerful coalitions with families and students? Such questions are not being addressed by the most visible teachers’ union leaders today.

This was not always the case. Visionary national union leaders have understood the danger of teacher unions’ being seen as the obstacle to improving schools. In the early 1980s, Albert Shanker, then the president of the AFT, advocated national standards before the standards movement existed, and conceived the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. Shanker saw in the privatization movement a tremendous threat to public education and American democracy.

The NEA president of that time, Mary Hatwood Futrell, had a vision of teacher-driven instructional leadership, one that culminated in the establishment of the NBPTS. She created an NEA foundation that would serve as a catalyst for educational innovation. In 1997, then-NEA president Bob Chase declared the “new unionism,” putting the union in partnership with district management to improve teaching quality. Public-sector education unions, Chase argued, are more like American craft unions, protecting the quality of the work when external forces exert pressure to compromise good practice.

Two recent publications—“Leading the Local,” by Susan Moore Johnson, and “Fresh Ideas in Collective Bargaining: How New Agreements Help Kids,” by the Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights—underscore that the legacy of progressive unionism is still alive, that union leaders are willing to think anew, and that the vision of teachers’ union leaders is contested terrain. The studies also make clear, however, that leading with a reform-minded vision, rather than simply articulating the worst fears and frustrations of teachers, is hard work.

While some simply went into resistance mode after the No Child Left Behind Act became law, others, including many who opposed NCLB, went to work. These progressive union leaders have advocated the following:

Interventions or additional resources for teachers in the most challenging schools. The “Leading the Local” study cites examples of unions championing strategies, including pay incentives, to empower the most accomplished teachers, improve systems of instruction, and make high-need schools more attractive to the most accomplished teachers.

These initiatives gain credibility when they are designed by the district and the union together. In Portland, Maine, for example, the two have collaboratively developed a promising alternative-compensation plan to put teacher pay in the service of improving student learning. And the United Federation of Teachers in New York City has fashioned an agreement with the school system providing school incentives for student gains. Progressive union locals actively engage in the process, to ensure that alternative-compensation projects and intervention programs have integrity.

Teacher evaluation through peer review. First in the Ohio districts of Toledo, Cincinnati, and Columbus, and then in other locals, teachers’ unions have negotiated and are now helping run “peer assistance and review” programs that develop good teachers and weed out ineffective ones.

Leading with a reform-minded vision, rather than simply articulating the worst fears and frustrations of teachers, is hard work.

Professional-development programs collaboratively designed, implemented, and evaluated by the teachers’ union and the district. The Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights’ study of collective bargaining cites examples of districts where the union’s focus on teacher quality and the maintenance of co-managed professional-growth systems have produced positive results. Others have joined Minneapolis, Montgomery County, Md., and Rochester, N.Y., in employing this strategy.

Cooperation on implementing new curriculum, assessment, and instruction systems. In Montgomery County and in Poway, Calif., the districts agreed to the use of newly created union governance structures called “councils on teaching and learning,” in which elected subject and grade-level representatives bring the professional voice of teachers to the table to engage in joint problem-solving with central-office administrators on instructional issues as curriculum or assessment changes are considered.

Organizing and supporting the leadership of the most accomplished teachers. Unions negotiate additional compensation for lead teachers or teachers with NBPTS certification, gaining credibility by empowering these teachers’ voices and drawing them into union leadership.

Differentiated teacher roles and new career paths. Unions design and negotiate career lattices that allow the best teachers to remain in the classroom while also taking on leadership roles at school and district levels. This approach empowers teachers, improves and elevates the profession, inspires younger members, and unifies a generationally divided teacher workforce.

Building alliances with parents and community organizations, so that the union becomes the public’s best hope for school improvement, not just the advocate of members’ narrow self-interest. For example, the UFT’s president, Randi Weingarten, decided it was important to support a community-led “lead teacher” initiative to attract the most accomplished teachers to high-poverty schools in the South Bronx.

Effective union leadership today requires a different set of skills and new ways of deploying union resources. That’s why the Tom Mooney Institute for Teacher and Union Leadership, a new organization that emerged from discussions at the Teachers Union Reform Network, or TURN, was founded in 2006. Its purpose is to support union locals in building their capacity to improve the quality of teaching and learning and make that central to the union’s mission.

The teachers’ union movement faces tremendous challenges. Younger teachers now dominate the workforce and have very different ideas about what they need from their union. They are facing threats to their control over the classroom and the integrity of their teaching. Either the new presidents of the NEA and the AFT will lead with a bold vision, inspiring the next generation of local leaders to navigate the complicated education reform landscape and champion creative solutions to school improvement that speak to the concerns of the younger and the most accomplished teachers, or the unions will remain on the periphery of what is important to those members and to the public.

Support for a growing movement for progressive unionism within the next generation of teachers’ union leaders could be the fulcrum on which discussions about public education now under way will turn.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 30, 2008 edition of Education Week as The Power of Progressive Thinking

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