What do Progressive Teacher Unions Do?

The following are examples of ideas – creative solutions – advocated by progressive union locals.

Union-District Joint Interventions in low performing or most challenging schools.  
The Leading the Local (PDF) 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 designed by the district and the union together. In Montgomery County, Maryland, the union and the district, together with the school staff designed a restructuring that led to a professional learning community based on teacher leadership and teaming which resulted in unprecedented student achievement gains. Read the case study on the MITUL Web site.

Alternative Compensation Plans.
Many districts are discussing ways to use the lever of the salary schedule to accomplish reforms. The Federal TIF grants offered to certain Districts have created new laboratories of reform in this arena. Prince Georges’ County, Maryland is one of those Districts and the superintendent and the union are hard at work on their pay for performance plan. Understandably, the long history of failed attempts to create merit pay schemes has led to appropriate caution by teacher unions. But, the Denver Pro-comp plan continues to be successful despite the complicated roll-out of that plan. The admirable process that the union and district agreed to achieved widespread ownership on the part of union members and is worth study.

The teachers’ union and school district in Portland (ME) have recently collaboratively developed a promising alternative compensation plan to put teacher pay in the service of improving student learning. The UFT has fashioned an agreement with the New York City school system providing school incentives for student gains. Rather than “just say no,” progressive union locals actively engage to ensure alternative compensation projects and intervention programs will work and have the support of teachers.

Teacher evaluation through peer review develops good teachers and weeds out ineffective ones. Peer review was invented by the teacher’s union in Toledo, Ohio 35 years ago as the brainchild of union president Dal Lawrence.  At that time the teachers’ union was able to insist on quality control in the profession and negotiated the authority to run the program. Cincinnati, Columbus, Poway CA, and Rochester NY were not far behind. More recently developed programs include negotiated guidelines for joint management of peer review and assistance.  In Montgomery County MD, the PAR program is run collaboratively by the teachers’ union and the principal’s union.  In California the state legislature mandated peer review and many local California districts have established the programs, but the notion of being required to establish peer review seems to defeat the purpose of the union choosing to take on this role.

In every school system using peer review, the intensity of the support provided teachers and the quality of the evaluative judgments made are far superior to the evaluations done unilaterally by the previous principal-driven programs. Intensive support is provided by “consulting teachers” who have case loads of new teachers or veteran teachers having difficulty. In most peer review programs, these top-notch teachers commit to return to the classroom after serving as consultants for three years.

The numbers of teachers in peer review systems who exit the profession for performance related reasons has been found to at least quadruple in most programs.  The fact is that teachers are able to be tougher on their peers, the support provided more intense, and the judgments more credible. A Rand corporation study in the 1990’s praised this reform as leading to excellent results. Where there are well-designed plans based on a real commitment by the union, districts often achieve their first successful attempt at serious quality control.

Professional growth and development programs collaboratively designed, implemented, and evaluated by the teacher union and the district. The CCCR study cites positive examples of a union focus on teacher quality and co-managed professional growth systems in Rochester, Minneapolis and Montgomery County, and there are others. When the District and the Union jointly develop professional growth systems that are able to define good teaching, establish a school and system culture in which adults can communicate about the process of teaching as a daily habit, and the system creates support roles that can provide assistance to teachers who are struggling, then professional development becomes job-embedded and part of the culture of the system. In districts where the culture of good teaching is not a district priority, teacher unions have  sometimes been able to take the lead in the professional growth arena.

Cooperation on implementing new curriculum, assessment and instruction systems. In Montgomery County, Md., Poway, Calif., and Cincinnati, the school districts agreed to participate in 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 National Board Certified Teachers and other lead teachers. But perhaps the greatest benefit to the union local and the profession is to organize the growing cadre of National Board Certified Teachers (NBCTs) and give their voice power in the policy arena. (See for instance, the Center for Teaching Quality networks). The Washington Education Association in Washington State has organized an electronic lobbying operation by which hundreds of NBCTs can be mobilized to lobby the statehouse with the flick of a switch. NBCTs have unquestioned credibility and the local gains credibility to the extent that they are recruited into leadership in the local.

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. These human resource structures create a rich mix of teacher leadership positions that are within the teacher bargaining unit. They empower teachers, improve and elevate the profession, inspire younger members, and unify a generationally divided teacher workforce. The Cincinnati Federation of Teachers has taken the creation of lead teacher roles in schools and in the district further than any other local in the country with their Career in Teaching program. Approximately 450 “Lead Teachers” provide instructional leadership in a variety of roles district-wide and receive significant salary supplements.

Building alliances with parents and community organizations, so that the union becomes the public’s best hope for school improvement, not just the advocates of members’ narrow self interest. For example, UFT 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. The UFT hired a former ACORN organizer full-time to work on organizing and build the community alliance. The Decatur Education Association in Illinois learned the power of community allies during their 2006 strike when the Black ministers came to their assistance, and have made it a priority to deepen community outreach on a regular basis, not just during times of crisis. 

The Organization of DeKalb Educators representing teachers in the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia works with faith based organizations building broad community alliances on more than education.  They are a founding partner in a broad community coalition called Atlantans Building Leadership for Empowerment (ABLE) working on education, immigration and health issues using the organizing model of the Industrial Areas Foundation.

Many other locals have formed long term relationships with the local affiliates of the NAACP, Parents for Public Schools, ACORN. People for the American Way, and similar advocacy groups in their communities. In Cincinnati, MITUL is working with the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers to create the long-term union infrastructure to reach out to these communities through active membership engagement.