Recalibrating the School Reform Conversation

Boston, MA ~ The spring meeting of the Teacher Union Reform Network, April 14-16, was designed to strike a balance between the issues confronting teachers and their unions and developing a positive, alternative reform agenda -- described as a continuation of an ongoing, but serious challenge to redesign the work of teacher unions in light of the new conditions brought on by the onslaught of attacks and the realities of fundamental changes in the structure and mission of public education.

The Boston meeting represented a milestone in the development of regional networks, when for the first time; reports from the regions were at the top of the agenda.  Each of the regional coordinators presented updates on their organizing activities. 

After individual introductions from the 85 participants, the balance of the agenda was spent in conversation with five presenters:

Pat Dolan provided the big picture with the help of his famous hand-drawn maps that he used to illustrate the changing context of teacher union work.  His central point: teacher unions are structured against a system that used to be very stable, but is now shifting very rapidly in terms of structure and mission.  Both the SEA (state) and LEA (district) are loosing relevance as policy making simultaneously shifts upward and downward, requiring affiliates of the two major national teacher unions to rethink how they can best serve the interests of their members. 

Says Dolan, "This is a sacred moment for answering the question of who you are, what you stand for, and what meaning you will bring to the table."

Ron Ferguson, Harvard University, discussed the Tripod Survey: Classroom-Level Student Perceptions (click here for a copy of the presentation). The tripod refers to three big ideas (content knowledge, pedagogical skill, and relationship-building skill) supported by 7 Cs:  1) caring, 2) controlling, 3) clarifying, 4) challenging, 5) captivating, 6) conferring, and 7) consolidating.  His main point: student perceptions of classroom practice on Seven C's dimensions can help in predicting learning outcomes and should be taken seriously by policy-makers.  Combining all seven of the indices forms a composite 7C inter-classroom index.  The composite index is used to rank classrooms into instructional quality deciles, quintiles, or quartiles in order to identify priority needs.  Ferguson sees tripod is a social movement -- getting everyone moving in the same direction through capacity-building and sharing successes.  It is not possible to replace everyone.  There is no choice but to develop and nurture.  "It is a conspiracy," says Ferguson, "to succeed and undermine the aspects of the peer culture that get in the way." 

Jeanne Oakes & Fred Frelow of the Ford Foundation (funders of the current TURN Incubation Grant) described the foundation's focus on extended time for learning and paying attention to what happens beyond the school day.  When viewed this way, education opportunities can extend up to 14 hours/day.   Ford is interested in the variance in achievement (about 1/3 depends on school and 2/3 on the factors outside of schools).  Oakes noted, "We tend to think of the out of school as being intractable.  [We need to] take the schools in the most vulnerable neighborhoods and expend the school day/year to create a different form of education equity."  Both speakers noted that there is much agreement that the current school day/year does not fit current needs and realities.  The goal: to assure that all children have access to quality education -- closing gaps in resources as well as outcomes.  The challenge:  to move forward without adding more of the same, but by doing things differently.  Oakes and Frelow see the time issue as an opportunity for unions to step into areas that are not about teacher quality.  Neither the status quo types nor the reformers own this issue.


Jo Anderson, Senior Advisory to the US Secretary of Education, talked about two recent major conferences hosted by the Department: the Labor-Management Collaboration (funded by the Ford Foundation), and the International Conference on Education, invited 25 countries that do better than US on assessments (sponsored by WNET).

Anderson shared key learnings from both meetings with regard to advancing the profession.  At the top of the list is the need for professional autonomy.  "The very best performing countries have very strong unions," he noted, "The Secretary and the President are both distancing themselves from the Republican approach."  According to Anderson, the Department is looking for places that produce improvements through collaboration with the intention of elevating and celebrating their successes.  He pointed to recent developments in Illinois as an example, where the two state teacher unions and the Chicago Teachers Union came together to develop "Accountability For All" and were able to stop legislation promoted by Stand For Children.  Instead they were able to bring Stand For Children and a number of stakeholder groups to the table to hammer out legislation (Senate Bill 7) that will provide a vast improvement in teacher appraisal and evaluation and include performance as one factor in decisions about reduction-in-force.  At the same time, the changes in state law articulate responsibilities for boards and administrators in the area of teacher quality.

Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers, complemented the work of TURN, acknowledged the enormous challenge of defending union while advancing the profession, and energized the group with a message of urgency in the current political climate.  Her call, "We are one election cycle away from extinction!"   Weingarten delineated two competing theories:  a) the market theory that says let business figure out how to do it and focus on the test score; and b) listen to the voices of the people who are closest to the work. Give them space and support to do courageous things.  She noted that reformers on both sides are saying the same thing: schools have to change in order to prepare kids for a knowledge economy.  Everyone recognizes that part of the problem is that schools are factories.  Unfortunately, NCLB made it worse.  The narrow focus on math, literacy and science is not good for learning.  And, the corporate view of reform that describes teachers and unions as the enemy has the opposite effect that the reformers are claiming. 

Much of the conversation centered on the battles over union rights in Wisconsin, Ohio, Idaho, New Jersey, and Florida.  The good news is that both national unions, in coordination with community-oriented groups, are putting significant resources into organizing with observable positive effect - especially in terms of the increased activism and collaboration.

Weingarten skillfully brought the conversation around to examples of success, such as the groundbreaking legislation currently working through the legislative process in Illinois.  She brought the house to its feet when she advised union leaders to take the arguments made by the billionaire and right-wing reformers and to reframe them.  For instance, when the "reformers" say that the teacher is the most significant in-school factor for student success, ask the question: "Then, why do you not provide the resources and support they need to do their best work?"

Documents from this meeting (plus the latest TURNews) are posted in Meeting Archive


  1. Take-aways
    I thought that Pat Dolan's presentation was extremely illuminating. The landscape of public education has changed dramatically in the last several years, control is moving away from local school boards, superintendents and teacher unions and has shifted to control by the  federal government through state governments. Teacher unions need to modify their structures to adapt to this rapidly changing environment.
  2. Re: Take Aways from the Boston Meeting

    I agree, Rick.  Dolan did an effective job of illustrating how the action in education is shifting rapidly.  Although, you'll recall that he talked about a simultaneous shifting -- up and down.  

    Dolan's remarks provided just the right context for the speakers who followed. I got the sense from the Q&A and from informal chatter, that a good chunk of the teacher union leaders in the room were seeing opportunities to "turn" the education reform movement on its head.  I'm looking forward to hearing what other participants have to say about their take-aways. 

  3. Steve Owens says:
    Blog and Take Aways

    I wrote about it on the blog.  Please understand I write for the Department on this blog, hence the focus on Jo.

    I also appreciated Patrick's remarks, as I did in Philadelphia.  These resonated for me because we actually have an extra layer in Vermont - the individual schools have boards, that feed reprentatives onto the boards of supervisory unions, where much of the negotiation action takes place.  This layer of insulation has protected the structure, but we are misinterpreting the meaning, to our peril.  We are deceived that our legislative lobbying married to our member servicing (UDs) are doing the trick.  It's really just an accident of history.

    I was struck by the NEA leaders who expressed a wish that Randi was our president.  I'm NEA and we have issues with AFT here in VT, many of which could be better understood if we could get our collective heads out of our you-know-whats.  Some of the more radical NEA people here talk privately of defecting to AFT.  AFT leads and NEA follows.

    TURN - please remember that there are 10,000 rural NEA leaders like me who have no release time and struggle to keep up.  Capture us and you have a movement.

  4. Getting the Word Out
    Nice job with the blog posting, Steve.  It's already been reposted on Patrick Ledesma's Leading From the Classroom blog, on EdWeek, as well as Gamal Sherif's blog on ProgressEd.   
  5. Getting the Word out

    Good work Gary and Steve.

    I have often hoped RI would merge so I could be a member of both NEA and AFT. Randi did a superb job of reminding us that the future won't look like the past in union work.

    Tuesday Diane Ravitch will be in Providence. The 2000 teachers who have been fired, not laid off, in Providence will welcome her message. I'll be there.

  6. Take aways and NEA vs. AFT
    I'm glad you mentioned the NEA/AFT issue, Steve, because I was one of those who said I was disappointed that our NEA leadership has been so silent on the very issues we grapple with in TURN, both regionally and nationally.  I hope that we can find a space and a time to pull together TURN locals at the NEA-RA in Chicago this year.  We need to figure out how best to get our voices and our agenda heard by our national leaders.  I'd love to hear people's ideas!

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