Will the Proposed New UFT Contract Change the Direction of Education Policy Across the Nation? From “Duncan Voice” to Teacher Voice?

Teacher contracts around the country have followed the Gates-Broad-Duncan model: merit pay based on student performance as measured by a Value-Added Metric (VAM), tying tenure decisions to VAM scores, eroding tenure and due process procedures and a heavy dose of compliance. A few contracts delink seniority from step/longevity increases and offer the potential of larger raises if teachers jump into the pay for student performance plans.

An example is the highly touted Denver ProComp Plan, negotiated by the union and the school district,

• Rewards and recognizes teachers for meeting and exceeding expectations
• Links compensation more closely with instructional outcomes for students
• Enables the district to attract and retain the most qualified and effective teachers by offering uncapped annual earnings in a fair system

The glitter of the Denver plan turned to dross – the enthusiasm waned and Denver did not become nirvana; however, the enthusiasm for the elements remain as similar contracts were negotiated in Cleveland and Baltimore.

The New York City proposed contract moves in a starkly different direction, according to the UFT website,

New teacher leadership positions, with extra pay, will foster idea-sharing by allowing exemplary teachers to remain teachers while extending their reach to help others.
Under the tentative deal, collaborative school communities will have new opportunities to innovate outside the confines of the UFT contract and DOE regulations. A new program known as Progressive Redesign Opportunity Schools for Excellence (PROSE) will give educators in participating schools greater voice in decision-making and a chance to experiment with new strategies.

The website Chalkbeat adds,

Under a new “career ladder” compensation system, high-performing teachers can earn yearly bonuses of $7,500 or $20,000 for allowing colleagues to observe their work or sharing best practices. Teachers who work at certain schools in low-income areas will be paid a $5,000 bonus. Low-rated teachers won’t receive the bonus, the city said.

The proposed contract is taking on the essence of improving schools – changing school cultures. High performing individuals may impact students in their own classrooms, they do not impact schools. Teachers working in collaborative settings, none of which are necessarily superstars can create higher performing schools.

For twenty years, The Wisdom of Teams: Creating the High-Performance Organization (1993) has been the bible in corporate America – every large corporation organized themselves into a team structure.

A summary of the book that is the Talmud/Ten Commandments of organization after organization,

Lessons we have learned
• Significant performance challenges energize teams regardless of where they are in an organization. No team arises without a performance challenge that is meaningful to those involved. A common set of demanding performance goals that a group considers important to achieve will lead, most of the time, to both performance and team…
• Organizational leaders can foster team performance best by building a strong performance ethic rather than by establishing a team-promoting environment alone.
• Discipline-both within the team and across the organization-creates the conditions for team performance. For organizational leaders, this entails making clear and consistent demands that reflect the needs of customers, shareholders, and employees, and then holding themselves and the organization relentlessly accountable.

Team Basics
• Small enough in number. Can convene and communicate easily and frequently. Discussions are open and interactive for all members. Each member understands the other’s roles and skills.
• Goals are clear, simple, and measurable. If they are not measurable, can their achievement be determined? Goals are realistic as well as ambitious.
• The approach is concrete, clear, and really understood and agreed to by everybody. It requires all members to contribute equivalent amounts of real work. It provides for open interaction, fact-based problem solving, and result-based evaluation. The approach provides for modification and improvement over time. Fresh input and perspective is systematically sought and added, for example, through information and analysis, new members, and sponsors.
• There is a sense of mutual accountability.

From Google, (“Redesigning Google“) to Harvard Business School teams are the expected organizational structure, except in schools.

Schools and school districts traditionally have been top-down organizations, each step down the ladder to the classroom everyone salutes and not much changes. Teachers close their doors and do what they have been doing for decades – new ideas; “innovations” come and go: from homogeneous versus heterogeneous grouping of students, the Workshop Model to the Common Core Learning Standards, the culture of schools are strong and firmly embedded and schools become skilled at shedding ideas that require change.

The feds acknowledge the power of culture in their turnaround strategies: replacing the principal and/or 50% of the staff, converting the school to charter or closing the school; in other words, the only way to change the culture is to change the school leadership and/or the teachers who are not onboard. The turnaround efforts, in spite of huge dollar inputs have not shown lasting success – in my view because the plans are punitive (“change or else”), are put in place far too late in a school’s downward spiral and are imposed from the aeries of all knowledge, the hallways of Washington, Albany and Tweed. Turnaround schools are persistently lowest achieving Title 1 schools – the lowest 5% in a state, waiting until a school is far beyond a “tipping point” is a failed strategy.

The winter 2013-14 edition of the American Educator is devoted to the question collaboration,

In recent years, rigorous studies have shown that effective public schools are built on strong collaborative relationships between administrators and teachers.

It is no surprise that collaborative relationships within schools, between teachers and school leaders and among teachers lead to more effective schools. Begrudgingly even the US Department of Education agrees,

While real differences must be acknowledged and agreement among all stakeholders is neither a practical, nor a desirable, end goal in itself, the U.S. Department of Education believes that in the long run, the most promising path to transforming American education is student-centered labor-management collaboration.

In the early nineties New York State adopted regulations requiring schools to create School Leadership Teams (SLT’s), school districts complied, and the SLT’s languished; for compliance purposes the teams met to sign Comprehensive Education Plans or other required documents; it was the rare school that actually engaged in a collaborative relationship among staff members.. “Mandating collaboration” is an oxymoron – school districts and school leaders must model collaboration in their day-to-day operations – not cede leadership, not forgo the power and responsibility of their office – they must engage, and, collaboration is a two-way street, teachers must learn to engage both with the school leader and with each other.

The American Teacher points to caveats at the outset.

First, while labor-management collaboration is a necessary condition for sustained improvement in school performance, it is not sufficient. The strong relations must extend beyond the bargaining table to a persistent, team-oriented focus on enabling teachers to work more effectively with students. Other, interrelated factors also are crucial, including close ties with parents and community groups, and attentiveness to assessment results to identify areas where students and teachers need more support.

Second, while collaboration can promote a self-sustaining culture that outlives the tenure of any individual superintendent, principal, or teachers’ union representative, it’s also the case that disruptive personnel changes and political forces can torpedo progress built on collaboration.

Third, because collaboration usually requires upending deeply entrenched cultural habits, it is inherently arduous and requires years of effort on the part of all parties. Collaboration is not a “silver bullet” that will eliminate whatever ails a school; rather, it is a shared mindset and an agreed-upon collection of processes that over time enables everyone connected to a school to effectively work together in educating children.

An in-depth study of five high performing school districts explored the reasons for their success,

A high degree of engagement between administrators and teachers in developing and selecting instructional materials, assessments, and pedagogical approaches;
• Embedded time in the workweek for teacher collaboration to improve instruction;
• An openness among teachers to being observed and advised;
• Close monitoring by administrators and teachers of testing data to identify areas where students and teachers needed additional support; and
• Personnel who dedicate time to extensive outreach to parents and coordination with community groups and social service providers.

The proposed contract is an enormous risk for the union. For years the union stood outside the circle peeing in, criticizing initiative after initiative: how can Common Core work if there are no curricula, professional development is absent or insufficient, teacher expertise is ignored, the overuse of outside consultants, principals more interested in silencing teachers than working with them, “reforms” that are destructive of teacher morale; now, for the first time, the union is inside the circle.

The creation of a zone of innovation will encourage teachers and school leaders to create and actually implement their dreams,

Under the tentative deal, collaborative school communities will have new opportunities to innovate outside the confines of the UFT contract and DOE regulations. A new program known as Progressive Redesign Opportunity Schools for Excellence (PROSE) will give educators in participating schools greater voice in decision-making and a chance to experiment with new strategies.

The PROSE schools are an answer to charter schools, the defenders of charter schools point to freedom from union and management rules, now a cluster of public schools can, if they choose, shed restrictive union and management rules. Under the former contract the School-Based Option section did allow schools to reconfigure, the new zone schools can, perhaps, share these practices. When schools have a sense of ownership the school communities are committed to making their “ideas” work, rather than constantly looking over their shoulder or trying and operate under the radar schools can proudly display what they have accomplished.

The union will have to change, to move from an organization skilled at fighting back to an organization committed to promoting educational leadership among their members. Some teachers will be unhappy, they would rather close their doors and teach; opening their doors to other teachers is frightening. Working together is not natural, some teachers are protective of their lesson plans, sharing is out of the question. The union has to move from filing grievances to mediating disputes among their members.

Union President Mulgrew has taken a risk – he could have simply negotiated dollars and cosmetic changes – he choose to negotiate a contract which may change the entire direction of a school system, he may have negotiated a contract that will resonate across the nation, he may have negotiated a contract that will impact federal legislation.

In my union representative days the Board of Education started a program called QUIPP,

Quality Improvement Program Plan for Special Educators (QUIPP) which provides supplemental professional development opportunities for New York City special education professionals and paraprofessionals at the elementary, middle, and intermediate/junior high school levels. The program stresses design of the professional development program by program participants.

As the union guy I put together a committee of special education teachers to work with the district to design the program. It evolved into a catalog of courses taught by teachers, lectures by experts, a retreat, a professional library in every school, and for me, interactions with teachers who had no interest in fighting and filing grievances; teachers, who for the most part, had never been involved in the union were now involved in an educational project led by the union and the school district.

I would like to think that we are reimagining a time when the union, in partnership with the Board of Education, was the driving force in creating new pathways, from John Dewey High School to City-As-School High School, to School-Based Options to the SBO Personnel Transfer idea.

Maybe by taking the road less traveled we can change the future,

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

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