Unions and Turnaround: Promising Signs

Los Angeles teacher Mike Stryer co-founded NewTLA, the reform caucus in UTLA (United Teachers Los Angeles) in 2010. Now he’s leading new unionism efforts at Future Is Now Schools, increasing participation of classroom teachers in union governance and policy-making. We asked Stryer for his take on the current state of union-driven reform and its implication for school-based reforms/turnarounds

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By Mike Stryer

Obscured beneath the unproductive, polarized hostilities between the “pro-reform” and “teacher union” camps is one of the most promising developments in American K-12 education today: the rise of teachers unions genuinely supportive of meaningful educational reform and teacher quality.  This development is of critical importance in creating the policy environment – Mass Insight’s “turnaround zone” – in which turnarounds can succeed.

Admittedly, the transformation of teachers unions remains in its infancy. But, through democratization of union practices and increased participation by high-quality teachers in union-backed reform, it is unmistakable. Prominent examples include:

  • New Haven, where dedicated teachers and their union played an integral role in devising and implementing a rigorous, multiple-measure evaluation system that provides stronger teacher quality control.
  • And Los Angeles, where teachers overwhelmingly approved a teacher-driven referendum that compels the UTLA (United Teachers Los Angeles) union leadership to negotiate a new, multiple measure teacher evaluation system.

Here and elsewhere teachers are stepping forward to both elevate our profession and raise student achievement. They are rejecting the false dichotomy between “traditional unionism” and transformational change.  Both can and must be promoted.  The ability to secure and retain competitive, fair working conditions (“traditional unionism”) hinges on our collective ability to meet the educational needs of students, parents, and community.

So, what’s the connection to turnaround? Systemic, scalable school-based reform and school turnarounds in most major urban districts depend on collaboration with local teachers unions. It’s not collaboration for collaboration’s sake, but rather for a shared accountability and commitment to student achievement outcomes.

In Los Angeles, the district and union recently agreed to a Local Schools Initiative plan.  The plan allows local schools, with the agreement of a majority of teachers, to adopt important reforms, including extended learning time, mutual consent hiring, and flexible methods for determining class assignment, among others.  Success in the “early adopter” schools could pave the way for large-scale, teacher-driven (and union-backed) reform throughout Los Angeles – changes that will power successful turnarounds.

The time has come to put aside destructive polarization in favor of a more collaborative relationship that can make school turnarounds successful – and scalable. In cities across the country, our most effective teachers – and their increasingly progressive unions – are starting to lead the way.

Mike can be reached at mstryer@finschools.org.