Within days of her election, Deborah Lynch was on the phone with Adam Urbanski, co-director of a national group of reform-minded locals that calls itself the Teacher Union Reform Network. He was congratulating her, and she was saying she wanted CTU to join TURN.

In the past, TURN has limited its membership to stay cohesive and avoid any appearance of trying to become an alternative to the American Federation of Teachers or National Education Association. However, an exception may be made for Chicago. “Chicago is such an important union for us,” says Urbanski, longtime head of the AFT local in Rochester, N.Y.

“I’ve been invited to their next meeting,” says Lynch. “I like the progressive thinking [of TURN], the idea of thinking out of the box and the notion of anticipating change.”

As a member of TURN, CTU would join the company of 24 AFT and NEA locals that are working with the school administrations in their districts to improve schools in bold new ways, including from tying pay to skill levels, giving teachers a voice in evaluating principals and giving parents a voice in evaluating teachers.

Historically, union leaders have operated in a highly adversarial environment with their school board counterparts, warring intensely and publicly every two or three years over economic and work-place issues such as salaries, due process protections, student discipline and seniority rights.

In TURN districts, union presidents are not only collaborating with superintendents and board members—a union heresy—but also leading the way on key education issues that lie far outside of the traditional scope of contract negotiations.

Thus far, the fruits of this approach have been few but notable. Among them:

Nine of the 24 TURN districts (including Boston and Denver) have implemented skill-based pay plans. 10 TURN districts (including New York City and Dade County, Fla.) have approved bonuses to schools that make strong academic progress. 15 TURN districts (including San Francisco and San Diego) promote teacher certification by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

Several union locals, including New York City, have supported changes in seniority rights in school assignments.

Urbanski’s Rochester is one of the acknowledged leaders. In this 59,000-student school system, the union and district created a career ladder for teachers nearly 10 years ago; it aligns pay with responsibilities rather than seniority and the number of graduate credits, which has long been the standard. The school board and union then negotiated a teacher evaluation system that includes peer review and portfolios along the lines of those required by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. And in 1999, they gave teachers a role in principal evaluation, and parents a role in teacher evaluation.

“I was told that I would be impeached—if not sent back to Poland,” says Urbanski, a Polish immigrant, of the anticipated teacher reaction to the parent evaluation proposal. But instead he won an overwhelming vote of support from his membership, and is now serving his 20th year as president. “We developed a system that makes sense to them,” he says.

The 44,000-student Cincinnati, Ohio school system, another leader, has had peer review for more than a decade, an initiative launched by Tom Mooney, former president of the AFT local there and now president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers. Last year, teachers and district leaders developed an ambitious new plan to pay teachers according to skills and knowledge. The plan is being piloted in 10 schools and will require teachers’ approval before being implemented districtwide.

In the 71,000-student Denver school system, union leaders have tied their proposals closely to the recommendations of the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future. In 1999, they developed an innovative pay-for-performance plan that links teacher compensation to various measures of student achievement; it now is being piloted at 16 schools and will be approved or rejected by teachers in two years.

In the 134,000-student Montgomery County (Md.) schools, union head Mark Simon has developed and won support for a variety of measures aimed at giving teachers more responsibility for improving instruction:

The creation of staff development positions that are filled by teachers at each school. “Professional development” substitutes at each of the district’s 189 schools.$1,000 stipends for elementary school team leaders.

Peer assistance and review by master teachers for new and struggling teachers.

“We now have a significant investment in staff development,” says Simon, who estimates that district spending on staff development has doubled to 2 percent in the past few years. As for teachers who can’t be helped, 46 were removed or resigned midway through the review process last year. Peer review, Simon cautions, “can’t be a token project that the district is really running.”

“TURN had a huge impact on what we took to the bargaining table,” says Simon, whose NEA-affiliated local joined TURN in 1997.

However, he and other union leaders stress that the new unionism is an addition to, not a replacement for, traditional union advocacy. “Collaboration and taking up teacher quality and student achievement issues should never mean taking down your guard,” says Simon, who led wildcat sickouts during the 1980s and, in recent years, has won 5 percent annual raises for his members. “It’s the possibility of the fight that keeps the administration honest. Your ability to be collaborative depends on your credibility as a fighter.”

Enlightened self-interest

Union involvement in reform measures has been fueled by a number of factors, not the least of which is enlightened self-interest on the part of union leaders and superintendents alike. Both worry about public dissatisfaction with public schools and the growing interest in vouchers and charter schools. Some superintendents and board members also have come to recognize that their reform efforts are all but doomed without buy-in from union leaders and classroom teachers.

“If an initiative makes no sense to [teachers] or conflicts with what they know about how children learn, it will fail,” writes Urbanski in “A TURN For The Better,” an upcoming paper on union reforms that will be published by the Fordham Foundation.

However, unions’ rank and file has sometimes been slow to follow their counter-culture leaders. And members sometimes sour on reforms when the implementation doesn’t meet their expectations.

For example, Denver’s highly publicized “pay for performance” pilot has encountered pockets of fierce resistance and has been extended two additional years. In San Diego, after several years of collaboration between union and district leaders, many teachers have grown resistant, largely over the authority that centrally assigned teaching coaches have over teachers and principals and the way they were assigned. In Montgomery County, some teachers reportedly have claimed that principals are hiring mediocre teachers for the schoolwide staff development positions or have given them non-instructional duties.

And last spring, Rick Beck, the reform-minded successor to Mooney in Cincinnati, was voted out of office by a large margin-a move that was widely attributed to his involvement with the innovative pay plan. “The membership can be slow to respond,” says Beck. “Sometimes when you push them hard, they don’t see where you’ve drawn the lines.”

Some school administrators and school reformers view the new unionism with skepticism, if not cynicism, too. “The educational well-being of children may be invoked,” writes conservative pundit Chester “Checker” Finn of how most teacher unions work, “but it’s usually a decoy, a bit of spin meant to garb the adult self-interest in something less naked.” For example, he views the recent decision by the NEA to support parents who want to remove their children from standardized testing programs as a cover for teachers who don’t want to be held accountable for student achievement.

Chicago’s prospects

In Chicago, a long history of labor-management strife and the recent loss of the first union president who went along with many administration initiatives suggest that the rank and file might not be ready for additional reforms or collaboration. However, Chicago teachers already work under conditions that elsewhere are but reform goals.

For example, the Chicago School Reform Act gave teachers, through their seats on local school councils, a limited but formal role in principal selection and local program planning and spending. It also foisted reforms upon them, most notably the elimination of seniority as a factor in filling teacher vacancies.

With its Quest Center, founded in 1992 to provide professional development, the Chicago Teachers Union joined hands with other school reformers.

The CTU, says Urbanski, was “country when country wasn’t cool … Many teacher unions don’t consider it within their periphery to have a professional development operation.”

“Much of what they have done in TURN, we are already doing,” says the Quest Center’s Allen Bearden, who has attended TURN meetings with other CTU staffers. The union and administration already meet regularly to discuss educational issues, according to Bearden, and the CTU has sent representatives to a state-level commission chaired by Carolyn Nordstrom, president of Chicago United, that is looking into alternative pay plans like the one in Cincinnati.

Under the late CTU President Jacqueline Vaughn, the union and board agreed to explore peer review, but that contract clause was dropped, without explanation, under Thomas Reece, the Vaughn successor whom Lynch defeated.

For the time being at least, Lynch is keeping her distance from peer review and innovative teacher pay plans, citing the lower level of trust in the system. However, she is interested in peer coaching, or assigning competent instructors to help strugglers. “But that requires a context of professional community,” she cautions.

However, a variety of Chicago insiders say alternatives to the traditional salary schedule as well as an expanded union role in professional development and an overhaul of the school intervention process are possible areas of collaboration during this “third wave” of reform in Chicago.

Urbanski is optimistic about labor-management relations in Chicago. “I think it’s going to get better,” he says, describing Lynch as someone who has “impulses for collaboration” with management. “Just because somebody is strong and tough, doesn’t mean that they are adversarial.”

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