Bashing teachers' unions never goes out of style. But when the complaints started flying thick and fast at a Los Angeles meeting in January, the malcontents weren't business leaders or politicians. Rather, they were union leaders themselves.
They complained about their groups' layered bureaucracies, disengaged members, and overworked staffs and officers. And that was just for starters. Such candor—and the opportunity to exchange ideas about possible remedies—is a hallmark of a four-year-old network of union of affiliates, known as TURN, for Teacher Union Reform Network of NEA and AFT Locals.
Along with the big name, the network has a big goal: restructuring unions so they can promote changes that will lead to improved student achievement. Launched by Adam Urbanski, president of the Rochester Teachers Association, an American Federation of Teachers affiliate in New York state, and the late Helen Bernstein, then president of United Teachers Los Angeles, TURN now includes 24 local unions. These are roughly divided between affiliates of the two national teachers' unions: the AFT and the National Education Association. Members of the network, which includes both elected union officers and top employees, say it provides a rare opportunity to step back from their day-to-day world to trade information and learn from one another's experiences and mistakes. But whether the self- described "TURNsters" can move beyond intellectual support to serve as catalysts for union change remains to be seen. There's tension between those members who want to make their work concrete and those who want to use the network primarily for professional development.
In its first three years, the network organized its discussions around "working groups" in three areas: teacher compensation, the union role in professional development, and teacher recruitment, induction, and retention. The idea that unions should take a leading role in inducting new teachers into the profession—acting as either a provider or broker of training—wasn't a big stretch for the TURNsters. Many of the participating locals—such as the Rochester affiliate and the Ohio threesome of Cincinnati, Columbus, and Dayton—had been at the forefront of negotiating peer-review programs. The United Federation of Teachers in New York City also has a long history of providing training for teachers. On the touchy issue of compensation, TURN reached what Urbanski calls "an implicit consensus" that paying teachers for acquiring knowledge and skills was a worthy idea. Network members have worked with Allan Odden, a professor of educational administration at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an expert on teacher compensation.
But these days, TURN members are moving to turn their sometimes-lofty discussions into action. Last fall, the network reorganized into three new working groups, to examine teacher quality and instructional issues; explore ways of engaging union members and the public in improvement efforts; and seek change that could strengthen union efforts to improve student achievement. Urbanski, a co-director of TURN, has asked leaders to draft action plans for their unions. The four locals that haven't drafted such plans, he says, likely will be asked to leave the network by the fall.
Switching gears to focus on organizational change does not come easy for all. "The challenge is not just to come together to talk about the issues, but to come together and really work hard to push the envelope and go back home and make it real,'' notes Mark Simon, president of the Montgomery County Education Association, an NEA affiliate in Maryland. "I don't think everyone is in the same position to do that."
That is evident from the members' action plans, which vary considerably in quality and depth. Some localsincluding those in Cincinnati, Minneapolis, Denver, Montgomery County, and Seattlehave taken bold steps recently. Others—including the unions in Dade County, Florida; Memphis, Tennessee; and Pittsburgh—are more notable for their past willingness to support change. Still other affiliates are struggling to form the collaborative relationships with their district officials that would allow them to negotiate reform-oriented contracts.
As for those locals already at the vanguard of union reform, at least one is dissatisfied with the pace of change and has turned away from the network. John Grossman, president of the Columbus Education Association, says he doesn't attend TURN meetings because "we've been waiting for a lot of the other locals to really get moving. A lot of what TURN has been talking about are things we've done a long time ago."
Four locals that are officially still members of the network—including the unions in Pinellas County, Florida, and San Diego—no longer participate, and the Greece, New York, teachers' association dropped out of TURN altogether after a new president took office. Still, new blood is trickling in. Last year, three new locals joined the network, including the Poway Federation of Teachers in California, which has been a leader in creating peer-review programs and has helped a large proportion of the district's teachers become certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. And with support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the network is creating several new TURN satellites to involve more union leaders in network discussions.
Julia Koppich, a San Francisco- based education consultant, argues that risk- taking unions haven't had the opportunity so far to step back and take a hard look at themselves. But a new $355,000 grant that TURN received from the U.S. Department of Education could change that. As part of the grant, the network will put selected local affiliates under the microscope. The four local affiliates involved—in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Denver, Minneapolis, and Montgomery County—will do "self-studies" to assess their structures, cultures, and operations as well as identify internal changes that could better reflect the union's work. The findings from the studies may very well persuade reluctant network members that aggressive union reform is their calling after all. "There are parallel unions—the people who do traditional work, and the people who do reform," Koppich adds. TURN members, she says, "are realizing that reform work is the work."
Vol. 11, Issue 7, Pages 18-19Published in Print: April 1, 2000, as Presto, Change-o