Guest Blog: How Are Unions Working on Education Reform?
EWA has invited a series of guest bloggers to report on the panels at our April 7-9 National Seminar in New Orleans. This entry was submitted by Matt Franck of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Read more conference blogs from around the web in our round-up.If your news outlet is anything like mine, its coverage of teacher unions is limited almost entirely to contract negotiations or the occasional story about a dispute over teacher discipline. And yet, one cannot listen to the current national conversation about education without running into heated rhetoric about the teaching profession in general and the teachers unions in specific. Legislation filed in numerous states seeks to diminish the role of unions, critics blast their presumed lack of initiative on improving student performance and, in an age of budget cuts, many question the first-in last-out layoff policies.
Presenters at an EWA conference session on union-led school reform efforts didn't tackle all these issues. But they did offer enough ideas to have me rethink how I approach how our paper covers teachers unions.
Ann Bradley, of the American Federation of Teachers, and Sheila Simmons, of the National Education Association, laid out how their national organizations are teaming up with school districts to promote school reform initiatives. I won't explain either approach in detail. They are better explained on the AFT and NEA websites. But the basics are this: The AFT's effort involves having local unions apply for grants, called Innovation Funds, to lead school reform efforts in their cities. The NEA effort -- called the Priority Schools Campaign -- is targeted more broadly at lower performing schools nationwide.
Simmons said the NEA effort is about challenging the typical union/school board relationship.
"We see our role as disrupting the status quo," she said.
That comment had me asking the obvious -- are any such initiatives active in my area and, if so, are they succeeding in "disrupting the status quo?"
Here at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch we have written only a tiny bit on an AFT collaboration with St. Louis Public Schools. What we haven't done is compare that initiative to others nationwide. Often in education reporting we hold up one school district to another in a distant city and ask why our local schools don't stack up. The presentation drove home to me the need to also ask the same of our teachers unions.
In the question and answer session, Bradley made a point that has stuck with me: For as much as the teachers union is spoken of as a single large national entity, it's not. The American Federation of Teachers is exactly that, a federation of local autonomous organizations. "It's not a monolith," as Bradley put it.
That means approaching union issues differently. It means recognizing that unions at the local effort vary in their reform efforts -- just as school quality varies from district to district.
This may strike no one but me as a significant point. But as I assign reporters to cover various school districts, it now strikes me that they would be doing an incomplete job if they did not also get to know the union leadership. And not just in the context of contract negotiations.
As the national debate continues to place teachers on the hot seat, there are likely countless stories to be written as these varied and distinct local chapters respond -- some by taking on school reform initiatives like the ones led by the national NEA and AFT, and some not.
To that end, here are some questions that just might produce more than a few decent stories:
1.) Check to see if the schools in my area that are targeted for School Improvement Grants have any support from the local NEA or AFT chapter? If so, what do those agreements look like? If not, why not?
2.) Seattle was mentioned as a place where union/district cooperation is working. For that matter the AFT and NEA sites mention other examples. How do efforts in my area compare?
3.) Simmons mentioned that the NEA is already working with state chapters and their lobbyists to push for new legislation around union/district collaborations. What would those bills look like? Has my state chapter been brought into the conversation?
4.) This isn't on point, but since one of the presenters mentioned it, I'll add it. She said that teachers at School Improvement Grant schools often didn't even know they were among the bottom 5 percent of schools until the grant was received. Has that happened in my area? If so, how is it possible that the school district had previously told teachers the school's predicament? Are teachers that unaware of student performance in their buildings?