Turnaround Schools, Teacher Seniority, and Union-bashing*

School reform is steady work. In September 2008,  Markham Middle School (Watts, Los Angeles)–near the bottom of the state’s list of failing schools–got a new principal and a hardworking, young staff. Under the umbrella of the Mayor’s initiative to improve schools and using one of the federally-endorsed turnaround models, the Markham staff began its work.

Then six months later, Los Angeles Unified (LAUSD) budget cuts required pink slips to be sent to about ten percent of LAUSD teaching staff. However, district policy required that those last hired had to receive those reduction-in-force notices first thus decimating Markham’s high energy, fired up young staff including the principal. Even though half of Markham’s staff was eventually rehired (including the principal), still the fire fueling the turnaround was doused. Especially so, after the middle school had to fill remaining vacancies with veteran teachers let go elsewhere in the district according to the seniority provision in the contract.  Markham made offers to 21 experienced teachers of whom two accepted. Since then, the school had to hire long-term substitutes to fill the vacancies. Last Spring, another round of budget cuts again sent those young teachers home.

The story, according to champions of the Markham turnaround, is simple: Markham meets  contract: contract’s seniority rule wins, reform loses. If it were not for the unions….

Yes, the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA)  is a powerful interest group representing 45,000 teachers. They help elect members to the school board. Furthermore, the school board awarded teacher-led, union-backed groups the operation of 29 low-performing schools. Too late for Markham, however. Then a jolt to the union. A recent school board decision challenged the seniority rule and, over-riding UTLA arguments, the board identified 45 target schools where “last hired, first fired” would not apply. Yes, one of those targeted schools is Markham Middle School. While reform is “steady work,” no one said it is easy or blame-free.

Blaming unions for higher teacher salaries and less money available for instruction, blaming unions for protecting teachers from dismissal, blaming unions for rules that make it hard for teachers to teach and students to learn is in the air that business-driven, “no excuses” reformers currently breathe.

Deep hostility toward teacher unions won’t easily go away even when facts make clear that many teacher unions have worked closely with reform-minded school boards on high-profile issues of charters, pay-4-performance, and evaluation (e.g., Denver, Pittsburgh, Boston, Baltimore). Or even when facts about the lack of collectively bargained contracts in southern “right-to-work” states paint a picture of these states doing less well on national tests than states with union contracts.

In short, teacher unions vary in their support and opposition to charters, pay-4-performance schemes, and current business-driven school reform initiatives. They are not villains as cast in recent documentaries and manifestos. Nor are they heroes as union publications have portrayed. Neither have unions caused the failure of largely minority and poor urban and rural schools across the nation. Teacher unions are private groups representing millions of teachers who pay dues to have a voice and a seat at the table when school boards, mayors, governors, and the U.S. President and Congress make major policy decisions that affect their salaries, working conditions, and students for whom they are responsible.

Are some teacher unions hostile to reforms they believe will destroy their hard-won gains?  Yes. Are some teacher unions determined partners with school boards and superintendents embarked on major revisions in policy and practice? Yes. And the majority of teacher unions are spread along a continuum between these two poles.

While I surely hope that LAUSD’s Markham Middle School will get turned around, I do not know whether it will happen. The truth is that there is no villain in the Markham story. Neither the teacher union nor the contracted seniority rule that the school board approved is villainous. Nor do  Superintendent Ray Cortines and the school board wear black hats. Can “no excuses” reformers, well intentioned and determined as they are, do the “steady work” of reform without trash-talking veteran teachers and their unions? I sure hope so because, in the end, it is the teachers who work everyday in classrooms. Not the reformers.

*In the interest of full disclosure, when I was a teacher I was a member of teacher unions in Cleveland and Washington, D.C. When I was a D.C. administrator, I was part of the school board bargaining team on professional development; when I was superintendent in Arlington, we bargained with five different unions; the school board negotiator reported to me and the school board. I met monthly with the teacher union executive director to discuss (but not decide) issues that had arisen that needed attention.


Filed under school reform policies

8 responses to “Turnaround Schools, Teacher Seniority, and Union-bashing*

  1. Tony

    These turnaround schools are a sham – when you “turnaround” a school by bringing in a new principal and making all the teachers reapply, where do you think all the cruddy ones go? To the school next door with a weak principal.

    So while you have a new, “turnaround” school heralded by everyone and that can get its own funding and threaten to turn charter, you also create an equally crappy school that now has tons of really bad, really expensive, tenured priority placement teachers (or those teachers get scattered around to other schools all around the district, but they’re still teaching and lower the quality of the rest of the schools), and the same number of students are suffering in the district. This is a classic case of juking the stats, because the same number of kids are well off as would be in both cases – you’re just raising the concentration of good teachers in one place and increasing concentrating the concentration of bad teachers everywhere else, but the combined proportion is still the same.

    Without systemic reform to this archaic system of teacher compensation and tenure that defies the basic law of supply and demand, real education reform is impossible.

  2. Larry, I have written extensively about the Markham experience (see links below). And of course you are right that the unions are exclusively to blame here. It is important in these debate to consider what it is that policy can address and what needs to be addressed at the school level. On the policy side, changes can be made at any level (federal, state, local contract) to protect schools like Markham from devastating staffing layoffs. Ideally, these issues would be handled at the local level, and negotiated in a reasonable manner in the collective bargaining agreement. But, absent local action, state or federal action is necessary. Similarly the reform models being pushed from DC are mainly about forcing a shake up at these schools to force change on largely dysfunctional systems. But, any of these changes are just the first step.

    Almost all of the hard work of a school turnaround process needs to be done locally. Little in the current policy debate around School Improvement grants – transformations, restarts, turnaround, closure – have anything to do with changing instruction and instructional practices. And, unless instruction and expectations change, there is no way a school can get better. These are all issues that you can’t solve with policy solution very well. This is the role of school leaders and teachers to do the hard work of school turnarounds.


  3. Ben

    Tony, although your argument may have some merit, when it comes to the idea of displacing unwanted teachers to other district schools, it should be made clear that this was not the case at Markham. Part of why I support Mayor Villaraigosa’s Partnership for Los Angeles Schools is because they work with the existing teachers and administrators at a school site. Reconstitution is not their strategy. If Markham had a new principal and a lot of young teachers, it’s more likely because of the typical turnover in low-performing, hard-to-staff urban schools. That’s why many are celebrating this recent LAUSD School Board decision to consider the impact that layoffs have on individual schools, rather than just going by overall seniority.

    • Tony

      Interesting, while I admit I don’t know specifically about Markham’s case, I am surprised by your response – it seems that you are saying that the Partnership for LA schools can turnaround any given school with young teachers just through PD, or am I missing something?

      Also, I am surprised by your attribution of young teachers at Markham to a high turnover rate. I work in an urban school district with a much higher teacher turnover rate than LA’s and a lot of “small schools” (where statistics dictates that it should be more likely to randomly have a school with no priority placement teachers). I can guarantee to you that here, every school, with the exception of those that are labeled “turnaround” and are thus exempt from traditional priority placement rules, has several teachers their principal would love to get rid of.

      I will commit to some research on Markham.

  4. Austin Bubba

    I would have considered this a thoughtful post coming from Dr. Cuban, especially after reading his many great books. But after I read his ridiculous portrayal of Dr. Forgione as having done a great job in Austin when all data and evidence suggested he never closed the achievement gap. never provided poor/minority kids adequate resources or quality teachers, or raised the bar for poor/minority kids, I don’t really believe anything Dr. Cuban says. The AISD report was bought and paid for with a $4 million grant to Stanford. I am sure Dr. Forgione thought it was worth every dollar of taxpayers money.

    • larrycuban

      Whoa! I do not know what report you are talking about. I did write a book called “As Good As It Gets: What School Reform Brought to Austin” (Harvard University Press, 2010) that not only describes Pat Forgione’s decade in office but analyzes the previous 40 years of AISD back to the 1950s. I also describe and analyze the tri-segregated district that Austin was for African Americans, Hispanics, and whites since the early 20th century and the social, political, and economic consequences that have flowed into the the 21st century from de jure and de facto segregation. You may reach the same conclusions about my work that you stated in your comment once you have read the book. As to how and under what circumstances I wrote that book and the methodology I used, all of that is laid out in the Preface to “As Good As It Gets.”

  5. Bob Calder

    We have a period of declining revenue that will last quite a few years but is temporary on one hand. On the other, we have a long-standing protection for employees that gives security to an older workforce. (We know that replacing an older workforce can save an employer quite a bit of money in benefits.)

    I fail to see why this temporary situation requires a sea change in employment practice. A seasoned workforce should yield higher productivity unless it is badly mismanaged.

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