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.
- Antonio Villaraigosa: The End of Seniority-Based Teacher Layoffs (huffingtonpost.com)
- LA teacher layoff pact seen as model for districts (sfgate.com)