We Can't Just Say 'No': Teachers Unions Must Lead Change

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RCE Commentary

During my terms as vice president and president of the 110,000-member Massachusetts Teachers Association, I have adopted a quote from President John F. Kennedy as a motto: "Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future." Based on my own experience, I most certainly agree and would argue that the pace of change in education has drastically increased over the past decade.

But with change comes opportunity, and I believe that in this period of economic tumult and education reform, there is an enormous opportunity for educators and their unions - along with parents, students and community partners - to take on the mantle of educational leadership and be the leaders of a real transformation in education.

During my 20-plus years of teaching and union involvement, I have battled the familiar stereotype that teacher unions are only concerned with salaries, benefits and grievances. I have argued that teachers unions are not the problem but that we must be part of the solution for improving our schools. I have preached a so-called "progressive" or "new" unionism gospel. It goes something like this: We are a union of professional educators and we must be the voice of public education and the profession. We absolutely should continue to advocate for good salaries, working conditions and benefits, but if we are to remain relevant to our members, we need to listen to what they have to say about education policies and advocate for the time, tools and resources they need to do their jobs well. If we are to remain relevant to the public, we need to listen to their concerns and show them, not just tell them, that we have the best interest of their students at heart. We must be advocates for the profession and for taking charge of quality. We must put forward our best ideas for meeting the needs of our students and communities. We must be more proactive and promote student centered, union-led change.

I am not the first or only union leader to do promote this line of thinking. My views have been heavily influenced by the ideas of other educators and union leaders, including Dennis Van Roekel, Bob Chase, Susan Moore Johnson, Al Shanker, Adam Urbanski, Randi Weingarten, Linda Darling-Hammond and many other state and local leaders I have met along the way. One of the best sources available on the topic of teacher and union-led change is United Mind Workers: Unions and Teaching in the Knowledge Society, by Charles Taylor Kerchner, Julia E. Koppich and Joseph G. Weeres. It was published in 1998 but it could have been written yesterday. I hope it is not too late for us to capitalize on the recommendations it includes.
The authors point out that American schools are being asked to do something they have never been asked to do before and were not designed to do - to educate all students to a very high academic standard and make them career- and college-ready. We have entered a world of profound change in which knowledge, not industry, is the future. Thinking for a living is the norm, not the exception.

As the demands for change continue to increase, teachers and schools are being criticized for perceived shortcomings. We are locked in an either-or debate. One side says our schools are great and there is no need for change, poverty is the problem. Others argue our schools are failing and we need to blow up the system, poverty is no excuse. Lots of people on the outside are telling the teachers, administrators and superintendents on the inside how to do their work. Some of these outsiders support public education as an institution, but believe they know what is best. Others are entrepreneurs who believe they have found a better way to organize schools and make money at the same time. Some question the value of "public" education altogether.

As educators and union leaders, we can't let those powerful forces on the outside dictate the changes. But what we also can't do is reflexively say "no" to proposals for change. Many problems can be traced to poverty, not the quality of their teachers or schools. But teachers unions must play an important role by focusing far more on the quality of public education, which includes taking part in setting academic standards, promoting strong evaluation systems, designing better teacher preparation and professional development programs and, most importantly, demanding shared decision-making authority in exchange for shared accountability for the results.

Educators in Massachusetts and across the country agree. In polls and focus groups conducted by the unions, professional associations and foundations, educators say they want more time to work with their colleagues and more control over their profession. Our members want less top-down and more shared decision-making over policy and practice in their schools and classrooms. They want to be the architects of reform and not continue to be the objects of reform. They want to be treated as the professionals they are. These results are regularly corroborated by my own conversations with state and local leaders and members, both veteran and new.

The only way we can bring about lasting and meaningful change in our schools for the benefit of our students is to provide teachers with meaningful voice in the decisions affecting their day-to-day work life and developing strong labor-management collaboration at all levels - national, state and local.

What needs to be done

At the national and state level, teachers must be much more involved with the development of policies and implementation strategies regarding evaluation, accountability, curriculum standards and developing assessments. In Massachusetts, the MTA has worked closely with the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education on the development of new educator evaluation frameworks and regulations. We are partnering to do research on the piloting of new online student assessments and creating opportunities for teachers to provide feedback. We are working with Teach Plus and other organizations to provide teacher-led training in how to develop units and lessons aligned to the Common Core State Standards which are then uploaded to Better Lessons' website to share with teachers around the country free of charge. These are just some examples of our efforts to support and promote teacher led change.

At the district and school level, there needs to be much more flexibility and autonomy. Central administration is needed to provide and bundle supports and services for our teachers and schools in a cost effective manner. School committees and district unions are essential to the survival of democratic public schools as advocates for resources and supports for the educators and students they serve. But the educators, parents and community partners at the school level must be given much more site-based control and flexibility to meet the demands and needs of their students and communities. We need to focus on developing schools that are much more student-centered and meet the challenges of a 21st-century knowledge-based economy. Such schools can only be developed and successful in the long term where there is a trusting and respectful labor-management relationship and a true partnership with teachers and their unions.

This is why the Massachusetts Teachers Association is a founding member of the Massachusetts Education Partnership. The partnership is composed of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, and numerous education policy organizations. The goal of this partnership is to support local school districts and unions that want to develop collaborative models of school-based reform to advance student success. This has led to hundreds of district teams exploring interest-based bargaining, teacher career ladders, peer assistance and review, expanded learning time and teacher-led schools.

Balancing both missions as a union and a profession in these times of reform isn't always easy. We must fight back against our opponents who simply want unions to go away because they see us as an obstacle or a political threat. But we can't ignore the legitimate need for change in the way our schools operate and deliver our services to students. We can't just say "no." I believe we need to consider and evaluate each serious, well-intentioned proposal that is made because the public, and our members, are telling us that the status quo isn't good enough. Making quality public education a priority is important, both for our students and for the survival of our unions.

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