“Breaking the Rules,” Can School Districts and Teacher Unions Collaborate to Encourage Innovative Educational Practices at the School Level?

Education is rules-driven: state laws and regulations, school district policies and school level compliance monitoring; “faux-innovation” is implementing an innovation mandated from the aeries of leadership, lockstep “innovation” is the goal of school systems.

Over the decades schools “innovated,” quietly, in the teacher rooms of schools. I worked in a large urban high school, over 200 teachers. The Social Studies Assistant Principal left and we asked the principal to allow us to “elect” a teacher to lead the department. He smiled, “We’ll try it,” we wrote bylaws, we elected a steering committee; we set up an alternative to formal supervisory observations (Teacher A observed B who observed C who observed A within a week). Teachers observed each other, met, asked pre-agreed upon questions; the notes of the meeting were in lieu of a formal observation. A couple of years later the supervisory union (CSA) complained, the principal left, our innovation disappeared.

The New York City teacher union (UFT) negotiated a school-based option clause in the 90’s,

A School-Based Option (SBO) allows staff at a school the ability to collaboratively modify contractual articles or to create positions not automatically allowed under the contract.

The UFT and the Board of Education agreed upon a new teacher transfer plan to replace the seniority plan, applicants were interviewed at the school level by a teacher committee, schools had to opt in with a 55% vote of the staff.

The election of Bloomberg and the coming of a mayoral control bureaucracy ended collaborative practices.

The Bloomberg administration negotiated away the school-based option; seniority transfers were replaced by an “open market,” any teachers could transfer only needing the approval of the receiving school.

Bloomberg increasingly attempted to marginalize the union and erode contractual protections.

The system was rigid, some innovative practices, the vast number of schools were part of the lockstep, top-down system.

In the 2014, the first contract after Bloomberg, the UFT and the Department negotiated an expansion of school-based options, called PROSE, Progressive Redesign Opportunity Schools for Excellence.

 … at the heart of this program are predicated on the UFT’s core belief that the solutions for schools are to be found within school communities, in the expertise of those who practice our profession.

… where teachers want to take on the work of transforming their school communities, PROSE offers the ability to alter some of the most basic parameters by which our schools function — including the way teachers are hired, evaluated and supported; the way students and teachers are programmed; the handling of grievances; and certain city and state regulations

Today 175 schools are part of the PROSE project. The PR”OSE application requires the approval of the school leader, the UFT building rep and 65% of the faculty. The “redesigns” move from structural changes in time schedules to use of the budget, time schedules and the teacher evaluations.

The Department of Education website glowingly describes the program. PROSE is moving ahead, a cohort of PROSE schools will be allowed to make changes without the requirement to seek approval from the Department and the Union.

The Progressive Redesign Opportunity Schools for Excellence (PROSE) program was established as part of the contract between the UFT, CSA and the DOE. The PROSE program enables schools who have a demonstrated record of effective school leadership, collaboration, and trust to implement innovative practices outside of existing rules. 

Administrators and teachers in 174 PROSE schools collaboratively engage in reflective conversations that surface changes and improvements to existing practices and systems with the goal of increasing student achievement and teacher effectiveness. PROSE enables collaborative schools to engage in an application and voting process to modify certain existing regulations and work rules for a period of five years.

Ultimately, the goal of PROSE is to improve teacher practice and student learning outcomes and drive innovation across the community of PROSE schools by supporting schools with a history of collaborative practices. PROSE schools also seek to develop a culture of reflection and continuous improvement at every level, in order to create structures that encourage the sharing of lessons learned and promising practices across the school system.

The next level of the program is Option PROSE – supervisory observation will part of a Structured Review Process, the teacher and the supervisory observer agreeing upon the specific skills and jointly discussing and assessing teacher practice.

Ten percent of schools in New York City are part of the PROSE process. On Tuesday I attended a celebration of PROSE and the rollout of the next generation of PROSE Plus schools.

Panels of school leaders, teacher union leaders and teachers describing how PROSE is embedded in their schools. Schools driven by collaboration: between school leadership and the staff, collaboration among staff members, collaboration between the school and the school community. What impressed me the most was the passion; these are not schools with all newer teachers. Teachers moved from traditional schools to PROSE schools, teachers seeking climates of collaboration. On the panel it was hard to distinguish school leaders from teachers.

The innovations range from high schools that moved from semesters to trimesters with the third trimester to makeup failed classes or take elective classes, to increasing the length of the school day on four days so that the staff can have extended planning time and student conferences on the fifth day, to budgetary changes to create small group instruction in intensive modules.

Some of the innovations will improve outcomes, other not. A core value of PROSE of freeing schools from the lockstep practices that drive the vast percentage of schools. PROSE says we respect your professionalism and understand there are no magic bullets; the “answers” are in schools and classrooms.

PROSE is not for every school. In fact most schools function within a traditional model.

In the traditional model schools can’t learn from research and redesign their instructional to reflect new research.

New York City’s recently released NAEP scores  were flat, basically unchanged from the scores in 2017 and the racial and ethnic achievement gaps remain distressingly large.

The Farina/Carranza leadership in New York City hasn’t made any impact.

Reflective educators, school leaders and teachers, seek instructional and organizational structures that will lead to positive academic outcomes. The vast majority of schools function within massive bureaucracies; decisions are made far, far away from schools and the implementation becomes a compliance issue.

Intriguing research by Bellweather Associates might very well be attractive to schools; however, with the exception of PROSE schools, the default model, the model proscribed by the chancellor is the mode of instruction. In the lowest achieving schools off-the-shelf tests (NWEA ) will be given three times a year with rapid proscriptive results. The proscriptions are not a surprise to teachers.

The Bellweather findings,

There are no magic solutions in education, … students who are below grade level will see accelerated progress if they:

 Are in an environment that fosters engagement and agency. This includes building a growth mindset, supporting student goal-setting, creating opportunities for choice, facilitating ownership and using culturally relevant content.

 Have a caring relationship with their teacher, with frequent 1:1 and small-group learning opportunities.Students, particularly those whom the system has historically failed, need to feel psychologically safe and supported to take academic risks. …  both peer and adult relationships play a large role in students’ success and willingness to take on challenges.

 Have consistent access to grade-level work.Most practitioners and researchers … agree that grade-level materials, and supports that enable students to engage with those materials, should be the backbone of instruction, and that personalized learning opportunities and remedial supports should not replace grade-level instruction.

 See the coherence across materials and learning experiences.Students learning across core, supplemental and interventional (including digital) materials should experience clear connections … to transfer this learning back to grade-level standards. This coherence would not just span one grade level but work across grades so learning experiences build over time.

Schools should have the opportunity to avail themselves of current research and create models that mirror research findings

Over the years I’ve been in hundreds of schools, in some, chaos ruled, in others teachers discussing individual students with colleagues, in some an exciting buzz, in others a depressing sloth. PROSE offers a path to models in which school leaders and teacher leaders can control the destiny of their schools and classrooms. There is no magic; we make changes kid by kid, classroom by classroom, and school by school.

Spending a few hours with excited school and teacher leaders, excited about how they were impacting students was exciting to everyone in the room.

And, the PROSE water bottle was a nice gift.

One response to ““Breaking the Rules,” Can School Districts and Teacher Unions Collaborate to Encourage Innovative Educational Practices at the School Level?

  1. Eric Nadelstern

    Peter: I love you to death, but you’re missing an important point.

    For my four decades in public education, the system always allowed a small number of schools to innovate and do things differently. Today there are the PROSE Schools and the Consortium Schools. Before that there were the Alternative High Schools and District 2. Before that, there were the Waiver Schools and District 4.

    However, the system created these isolated zones of innovation more as a safety valve than as fertile soil to grow new ideas that other schools could benefit from. Success was suspect because the prevailing belief was that poverty was determinant, and therefore, success derived from cheating. Successful schools must have been so because they had the best kids. Or they had more money than other schools. Or as one superintendent said referring to a school I founded and served as principal, “Your school is successful because you break all the rules.

    The pathology of public education in NYC has never been that we don’t know what to do with our failures. It was always that we could not accept and acknowledge And learn from our successes.

    Can the UFT okay a big role in changing this culture? It has not in the past except in marginal instances. But the future hasn’t been written yet.

    Like

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