Selling Teachers on School Reform


Huddled around a conference table in a fancy Seattle hotel, America’s most reform-minded teachers union bosses sounded more like crusading politicians than advocates for the rank and file.

Why not tie teachers’ raises to their ability to pass demanding tests? Even better, fire slackers who can’t cut it. Or, most radical of all, pay teachers based on how much their students learn.

Until recently, union leaders had been loath to even whisper such ideas.

“In the past, being a union boss was like being a defense attorney. If you molested kids or were incompetent, my job was to get you off the hook,” said Adam Urbanski, director of the Teacher Union Reform Network, a group of progressive union locals that held one of its regular meetings last fall in Seattle. “That’s not flying anymore.”


Indeed, unions nationwide are negotiating contracts with provisions that link teachers’ skills to their pay. They are developing training programs to improve the skills of veteran teachers. In New York, Cincinnati and elsewhere they are helping administrators shut down failing schools and evaluating colleagues who are not making the grade.

Selling such ideas, however, can be a challenge. Teachers worry that their economic interests are being downplayed to serve a political agenda designed to improve the union image, while administrators often regard union reforms as encroachments on management powers. Many administrators also doubt that the types of reforms supported by unions--which sometimes carry a hefty price tag--will lead to gains in student achievement.

There is reason for skepticism. The results of union reform efforts have been difficult to document. Even members of the reform network say they are frustrated by the slow pace of change.

“We’ve been talking about these issues since 1986,” said Don Whatley, president of the Albuquerque Federation of Teachers. “But very little of it has had any effect on teaching and learning in the classroom.”

Still, Whatley and others say unions cannot afford to retreat to their old patterns of confrontation, lest they find themselves losing customers and jobs, as the auto, rubber and steel unions did in the 1970s and 1980s.

Polls of parents and voters show growing support for alternatives to the public schools, such as charter schools, which are usually not unionized and operate free of most state and local regulations, and voucher programs.


“We’re losing market share; the customers are bailing,” said Day Higuchi, president of United Teachers-Los Angeles. “So we need to say, ‘What are the roots of the problem?’ ”

Teacher Quality a Major Problem

Teacher quality is widely recognized as one of the biggest problems confronting schools today.

In Rochester, N.Y., where Urbanski has long been a leader in the reform movement as president of the union local, teachers judged unsatisfactory by supervisors do not get scheduled raises. Conversely, a contract provision calls for top teachers who earn an extra credential as a reading teacher, or who agree to be deployed in a low-achieving school, to receive a $1,500 annual bonus.

In Boston; Columbus, Ohio; and elsewhere, unions have agreed to campuswide bonuses based on a school’s performance.

“The major impact” of the bonuses, said teacher compensation expert Allen Odden of the University of Wisconsin, “is to focus people on the mission of the system.”

Employing another strategy, the California Teachers Assn. invested nearly $2 million to develop a class on how to teach children who are not native English speakers. Six hundred teachers have completed that 45-hour course, and nearly 1,000 more are currently enrolled.


The union in the San Juan Unified School District outside Sacramento has worked with the school of education at the local Cal State campus to create a master’s degree program to develop the skills teachers need to help reform their schools.

Finally, it has become commonplace for mentor teachers to assist less experienced colleagues. Now more unions are agreeing to have teachers evaluate the work of their colleagues and recommend dismissal of poor performers.

But many teachers fear that the reformers are drawing attention away from what they contend is a bigger problem--a lack of books, supplies and other resources.

The idea of acknowledging that some teachers are doing a lousy job is “a defensive posture, and it’s not going to work,” said Los Angeles teacher Joshua Pechthalt, a vocal critic of the union local. “It’s not going to deal with the problems of the public schools, and it’s going to erode solidarity among their own members.”

Ed Doherty, president of the Boston Teachers Union, agreed that he and his peers must be careful not to get too far ahead of their members.

“The membership will not tolerate a union not concerned about salaries and sick days,” he said.


Still, he said, union leaders must persuade their members of the importance of improving schools. “It really is our responsibility,” Doherty said.

Plans Can Carry Hefty Price Tags

Union-led reforms are not always greeted warmly by politicians either. In Seattle, the union has proposed lengthening the school year by 40 days and requiring new teachers to prove their skills or move on. But that plan carries a hefty, $60-million price tag and is meeting resistance from the Washington Legislature.

In Cincinnati, the school board has decided to trim programs--considered national models for how to professionalize teaching--to close a $20-million budget shortfall.

The board has decided to scale back a “career ladder” that pays bonuses of as much as $5,000 to master teachers. The district’s highly regarded peer review program, which last year recommended the dismissal of 13 rookie teachers and four veterans, also is shrinking.

The bottom line, said Cincinnati Supt. Steven Adamowski, is that “student achievement has not improved.” He acknowledges that an overly centralized district administration is an obstacle to reform, and is working to change that. He also says the rigid regulations of the union contract must be changed as well.

But Sandra Feldman, president of the 1-million-member American Federation of Teachers, calls the notion that unions are roadblocks to reform “the big lie.”


Indeed, under the leadership of Al Shanker, her union was among the earliest to call for more demanding academic standards, charter schools, tougher discipline for students and the creation of national certification tests for teachers.

More recently, the federation has been an influential voice touting widespread research showing the importance of phonics in early reading instruction.

The other national teachers union, the 2.4-million-member National Education Assn., got on the reform train more recently.

Soon after he became president of the organization in 1997, Bob Chase called on the group to take risks to improve schools. For example, he said, the union should drop its longtime opposition to peer review programs.

‘You Don’t Gain . . . Support by Whining’

In the past, Chase said, teachers unions were vulnerable to attack because they were inveterate naysayers.

“You don’t gain public support by whining,” he said in an interview. “You get public support by not being defensive and by supporting things.”


His union recently added 12 experts in teaching to its national staff to help members. And, with the teachers federation, it has sponsored conferences for new teachers on discipline techniques.

Chase said his union is still pushing bread and butter issues and trying to raise the salaries of teachers, which average $42,000 a year. But, he said, “we hesitate to talk about it because people say, ‘Oh, there they go again.’ ”

Teachers unions in Michigan, for example, are among the most militant in the country, and the teachers there are the highest paid, averaging nearly $59,000 a year. But the Michigan Education Assn. has been defeated time and again in legislative battles by Republican Gov. John Engler.

Michigan now has 150 charter schools, a longer academic year and a ban on paying teachers who go on strike.

“The teachers got so blinded by their hatred for the governor that they almost couldn’t see reality,” said John Trescott, Engler’s spokesman. “They do have to rethink their approach if they hope to have an impact on the process.”

Former California Gov. Pete Wilson regarded the California Teachers Assn. as a stubborn obstacle to reform. During his eight years in office, he successfully diverted funds that could have gone for teachers’ salaries to textbooks, computers and smaller class sizes. But he was unsuccessful in ending teacher tenure.


Aware of its reputation, the California union in the last two years has softened its rhetoric and embraced some of the school reform measures pushed this winter by Gov. Gray Davis. The union has even endorsed the creation of more charter schools, but with an important caveat--the group is pushing legislation requiring those schools to unionize.

For all the talk at the national and state levels about the need for unions to be partners in reform, contracts get negotiated at the local level. And, on that score, Urbanski said, the record is mixed.

“There are indeed places in this country where the teacher unions are leading reform--that’s the good news,” he said. “But the bad news is they are the exception, not the norm. In at least as many places as they are leading reform, they are blocking reform.”

In Los Angeles, the powerful UTLA has done some of each.

The 40,000-member organization has insisted that new teachers without a credential get a full week of training before entering the classroom and is negotiating with the district to set up professional development centers.

The union also negotiated a 15% raise for Los Angeles teachers who complete the rigorous process of becoming certified by the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards. Last year, 47 Los Angeles Unified School District teachers gained that status, and nearly 200 are preparing to take the certification exams later this year.

But last fall, the union moved wages to the top of the agenda when it launched a “raise the raise” campaign seeking a 4% salary boost in the middle of a three-year contract. Because of its clout on the Los Angeles Board of Education, the union was able to get a 2% raise while agreeing only to limited teacher accountability measures. Just a handful of teachers, those judged unsatisfactory by principals, will be subject to peer review.


Yet even that concession generated opposition within the union and undercut support for President Higuchi. He was recently elected to a second term but with only 57% of the votes, an unusually low figure.

“I think the union is looking at these big, fancy reform issues, and they’re not paying attention to the bread and butter,” said Warren Fletcher, who unsuccessfully challenged Higuchi for the presidency.

Since getting reelected, Higuchi has been sounding much more strident. He is already gearing up for negotiations next year, demanding a 30% pay raise and promising “no contract, no work.”

Learning From Craft Guilds

Elsewhere, reformers are urging bolder steps.

Susan Moore Johnson, dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, analyzed contracts in districts across the nation and concluded that administrators often refuse to implement some of the most progressive provisions. On the other hand, she said, unions have continued to insist on seniority provisions that let teachers choose where and what to teach.

Such policies “really do stand in the way of reform,” she said.

The foundations that support the work of the Teacher Union Reform Network are becoming impatient and have begun pushing for more decisive action. The organization, founded in 1995 and based at UCLA, consists of 21 locals, including those in Los Angeles and New York.

Ed Reidy, a program officer with the Pew Charitable Trust, one of the network’s supporters, said unions could learn a lesson from the craft guilds of the past, which controlled their membership through apprenticeships.


“Unions could say tomorrow that, from here on out, we take teacher quality very seriously and you can’t become a full member unless you meet certain standards,” he said. “I don’t think they’re there yet.”

Peter Martinez of the Macarthur Foundation is also looking for the reform network to become more aggressive.

“They’ve got to bite the bullet on setting up a good system for letting bad teachers go,” he said. “It needs to be clear to everyone that, if you are good, you’re going to be rewarded for that.” And, if not, you won’t have a job.

As director of the network and president of the Rochester union, Urbanski understands those concerns.

Rochester schools began experimenting with reforms in 1986.

Teachers there were among the first to be given decision-making power over their schools and to agree that teacher leaders ought to earn more for taking extra responsibility. And they were among the first to be asked to evaluate struggling peers.

Yet, for all of that, the district’s academic achievement has not been sufficient to persuade most middle class residents of the city to keep their children in the public schools.


Last month, Urbanski, with the backing of his union, proposed something more radical. He wants every campus in the district to have an opportunity to become a charter school free of the central office rules. He also wants such schools to be free to toss out the union contract.

Urbanski hopes that the teachers would still turn to his union for help in negotiating a contract, for teacher training, for help in obtaining grants and other services.

“We’re putting our reputation to a test,” he said. The bottom line, he said, must be what best serves the interests of children.

“We believe that if the kids do well, we’ll do well, and if the kids don’t do well and we do, this community won’t, nor should they, tolerate our doing well,” said Urbanski.


Teacher Compensation

Although teachers unions are under pressure to take the lead in crafting school reform, salaries remain a top priority for them. Unions nationally and in California have succeeded in winning steady pay raises over the past 15 years.

Teachers are paid less than those in some other fields, according to these 1996 national averages. But teachers work an average of 37 weeks a year.


Teacher: $37,594

Assistant professor, public university: $39,000

Accountant: $41,444

Buyer: $46,662

Computer system analyst: $58,529

Engineer: $61,613

Attorney: 65,472

Professor, public university: 69,760

Sources: American Federation of Teachers, National Education Assn.