Teaching Profession

Rhee Teams Up With Former Union Chief Parker

By Stephen Sawchuk — May 23, 2011 2 min read
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Top on the list of stories that caught my attention this morning as I was catching up on last week’s news was the announcement that former Washington Teachers’ Union President George Parker would be joining former District of Columbia Chancellor Michelle Rhee’s advocacy group, Students First, as a senior policy fellow.

In that role, he’ll be talking to state lawmakers and teachers’ unions’ officials about the need for unions to be involved in changes to the profession, including better policing of their own members’ performance.

This came as a big surprise to a lot of folks. The president of the WTU’s parent union, the American Federation of Teachers, reportedly texted “REALLY?” to Parker when she found out about his plan.

When you consider the collective bargaining process in Washington that ended in a much-publicized 2010 contract, it’s not hard to understand similar reactions from the field. Bargaining went on for nearly two years and was widely portrayed as a kind of cage death match between the district and union.

In reality, the situation was a lot more complicated, and Parker was the locus of some of those complications. Early on in Rhee’s tenure, Parker’s openness to some of her proposals made AFT officials nervous. In fact, he initially requested that the national union stay out of things, only to request formal bargaining assistance from AFT later as the bargaining process grew strained.

Parker’s positions were never simplistic, and they were influenced both by pragmatism and by a deeply divided WTU membership, which made for very challenging politics.

For instance, Parker was upfront about the unique circumstances in D.C. that made getting a more-traditional contract all but impossible, and he made headlines for noting a lack of research tying teacher tenure to student performance. He ultimately lost the presidency of the WTU to Nathan Saunders because some members felt he was too closely tied to the Rhee administration.

But Parker had qualms about the IMPACT teacher-evaluation system Rhee developed in D.C., at one point saying it had formalized teachers’ routines too much, turning teaching into “bean counting.” And he fought back against Rhee’s carrying out, in 2009, a reduction-in-force. and her 2010 dismissal of some 100 teachers.

While this partnership is certainly an example of strange bedfellows, it will be interesting to see what fruit will come out of it.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.