Mark Simon can easily boast of his credentials as a traditional trade unionist. As the head of the Montgomery County Education Association in the late 1980s, he oversaw successful negotiations for a more than 50 percent pay increase for teachers in his Maryland district. But these days, the president of the 8,000-member National Education Association affiliate spends much of his time assuring his own members that the district's administration, which he maintains has long favored a top-down management approach, honestly wants to give teachers the authority they deserve as professionals.
A new three-year contract his union ratified in February gives teachers a substantially greater say in how their schools are run and how teachers are evaluated. More important, Simon believes, the agreement will prompt a "culture change" in the district, allowing teachers and administrators more opportunity to work together to improve their schools.
The innovative contract has put the local, the NEA's third largest, in the national spotlight. This winter, NEA President Bob Chase showcased the agreement at a news conference marking the anniversary of his now-famous speech calling for a "new unionism."
Says Doug Tuthill, a former president of the NEA affiliate in Pinellas County, Florida, and an architect of the new unionism strategy: "This is the best union contract I've ever seen negotiated as it relates to a holistic approach to education reform. It says 'all kids will succeed, and we're committed to making sure that happens.'"
But much like the larger call for a new unionism, the contract also has left some members skeptical about the promised changes. Some are wary of the new roles they're being asked to play. "It's not going to bring about change overnight," Simon conceded at a recent meeting of Montgomery County teachers. "But at least the structure will be oriented toward giving you and me the credit we deserve as professional educators of children."
The MCEA jettisoned convention even before contract talks began: Union and district negotiators sat down and brainstormed together on issues of common concern. They also brought in consultants to conduct conflict-management training. As a result, the union and the district forged an agreement without mediation for the first time in the history of the 125,500-student district.
Although the accord addresses the usual bread-and-butter issues, it first outlines seven "core concepts" for improvement. It states that teachers need to have authority over decisions affecting teaching and learning in their schools and that they need access to a coordinated program of rigorous staff development. The contract also stresses the need to train staff members to use educational data like test scores and attendance rates to measure improvement.
"When you look at it, it doesn't read like a traditional contract," says teacher Randy Changuris, who has helped negotiate several contracts in Montgomery County.
The linchpin of the agreement is a provision calling for the creation, within the next three years, of a new kind of governing body at each of the district's 183 schools. These "quality management councils" will include the principal and staff-selected representatives. They'll have authority to set a wide range of school policies, from curriculum to hiring practices, and they will govern by consensus. If a principal votes against a council's majority, the members can appeal to a yet-to-be designated committee outside the school made up of union members and administrators.
The change could rub some principals the wrong way. "By and large, we have some administrators who see it right away as a great opportunity and a way to legitimize what they've already done," says Steve Seleznow, associate superintendent for administration. "But if you believe in authoritarian control, in a top-down bureaucracy, or that all knowledge flows from the principal, then you're not going to like this contract."
Not surprisingly, the contract has produced some dissension. Two of seven school board members and about 25 percent of the teachers voted against the pact. And some parents have voiced concern that it doesn't guarantee them a spot on the councils.
"Our site-based decisionmaking policy is very clear that all stake-holders must be involved as full partners, and the current MCEA contract doesn't do that," says Mona Signer, a board member who voted against the agreement. Signer also argues that despite its emphasis on accountability, the contract doesn't include real consequences should the school councils or their members fail to achieve their goals.
Many of the objections Simon has had to address in recent weeks have come from his own members. "I'm not sure people haven't been taken a little off guard," says Alice McGinnis, an elementary school music teacher who voted for the contract. "We knew something different was being negotiated, but I don't think anybody fathomed this much. There's a sense in which we're playing catch up, and everyone is nervous about the nuts and bolts."
Since the February vote, union leaders have been visiting small groups of teachers to make sure they understand how the contract is supposed to work. Repeatedly, teachers ask how they'll find time to participate on councils and what will happen if their principals don't cooperate.
John Wehrle, a high school history teacher, says the union should have concentrated more on getting a better compensation package—the pact includes a modest 2.4 percent raise—than an agreement that gives teachers new management responsibilities. "The council concept is a nice idea, but it's just a secondary issue," says Wehrle, a 30-year district veteran who voted against the contract. "Unions are a way to protect people who don't have any other protection from management's whim."
Simon is not surprised by such comments; he expected a mix of enthusiasm, confusion, and concern. He knows it will take more than a new contract to transform the way things are done in a district that employs more than 15,000 people. "Negotiating the contract was the easy part," Simon says. "It's one thing to put things into a document; it's another to actually bring about a culture change away from a command-and-control management system."