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Beyond Militancy

The leaders of United Teachers Los Angeles -- the nation’s second-largest teachers union -- were resoundingly turned out of office this week by teachers who expressed frustration with the slow pace of contract talks and anger over mounting workloads and a district bureaucracy that seems indifferent to their needs.

The union’s newly elected officers promise a more militant approach, one that will energize teachers, challenge district bureaucrats and mobilize the community to push for more funding for public schools. Given the political climate, militancy alone won’t do it. Their agenda should also include a push for progressive reforms that will improve education for the district’s 750,000 students, who often wind up as odd man out in district-versus-union power struggles.

After years in the nation’s education cellar, the Los Angeles Unified School District is finally on a rising arc. Test scores are creeping up, much-needed campuses are being built and a standardized curriculum is giving more students a shot at success. But far too many are still being left behind. And too many teachers -- the linchpin of any district’s success -- feel frustrated and disengaged.

Teachers are also facing a challenge to a system that has long rewarded them based on seniority but little else. The governor is crusading for merit pay to reward the most accomplished teachers and “combat pay” to lure experienced instructors to struggling schools. Locally, the school board is considering the wholesale replacement of teachers at failing campuses. Union leaders ought to see these moves not only as threats to the union’s power but as opportunities to broaden its focus -- to represent not just teachers but teaching.

Unlike the outgoing union leaders -- who have been out of the classroom for a decade or more -- the incoming officers include a middle school special-education teacher, a high school history teacher, a kindergarten teacher and a second-grade teacher. They know firsthand the obstacles that hamstring their peers and impede students in this era of static budgets and increasing accountability. The school board and Supt. Roy Romer can learn from their perspective.

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For their part, union leaders ought to understand that they have a responsibility to enhance, not just protect, the teacher corps. The UTLA should follow the lead of other locals and develop plans to counsel incompetent teachers and remove irredeemable ones, something that currently can take years. Every new teacher ought to have a mentor to reduce the toll that isolation takes. And because teachers, not politicians, best understand what it takes for classroom success, the union ought to seize the reins in the merit pay battle and help develop a definition of competence that relies on more than students’ test scores.

The new union leaders won votes by pledging to challenge district edicts that undermine teacher autonomy. But the UTLA has floundered -- and teachers have suffered -- in recent years because its leadership has been so resistant to change. Every district overture to reform has been considered a threat: Smaller schools are seen as diluting union power; mandated, scripted lessons, like the reading program Open Court, as demeaning teachers; classroom evaluations as unfair and insulting.

The old union leaders stood against innovation. Our question for the new ones is, “What are you for?”


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