Common Ground, Common Good

The education reform compromise heard round the US

To fix New Haven’s failing schools, the teachers union and mayor forged a rare compromise – a model for school districts and unions across the country in how to confront major challenges facing public education, without blaming each other, resisting change, or fighting in the streets.

By , Op-ed contributor

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    American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten speaks during a 'Monitor Breakfast' at the St. Regis Hotel on Dec. 4, 2013 in Washington. Op-ed contributor Melissa Bailey writes: In New Haven, 'Ms. Weingarten sought to prove that unions could be part of the solution to improving schools.'
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In 2009, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) was reeling from a bitter dispute with Michelle Rhee, the Washington, D.C., schools chancellor, over teacher evaluations. From the mayor's office in New Haven, Conn., John DeStefano watched the melee. He called Randi Weingarten, the union president, and suggested she come to New Haven to try a different approach.

The conflict reflected a national divide: Members of the school accountability movement blame teachers unions for perpetuating educational failure by upholding rigid work rules and protecting poor-performing teachers. Unions counter that reformers have scapegoated teachers and squashed good teaching with high-stakes testing. In that contentious climate, Mayor DeStefano was keen to avoid the battle he'd seen play out in Washington; Ms. Weingarten sought to prove that unions could be part of the solution to improving schools. They formed a partnership that would become the basis of a significant school reform effort in New Haven – and a nationally watched case study in labor-management collaboration.

DeStefano didn't start out trying to collaborate. He first hit the state capitol on a quest to end teacher tenure and create more charter schools. But legislators balked, in part because DeStefano didn't have support from his local union. Defeated, he looked for a solution back home. He didn't want to ruin a trusting relationship with his teachers by "jamming" reform on them, as Ms. Rhee had done. And he saw an advantage to getting broader buy-in. So he enlisted Weingarten in crafting a compromise.

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AFT staff members flew to New Haven to help local union president David Cicarella work out a blueprint for school reform through a collective bargaining agreement. While he bristled at DeStefano's early proposals, Mr. Cicarella kept an open mind. Cicarella never liked how unions reflexively "push back," he said. Cicarella knew big changes were coming, and "we wanted to be part of it."

Compromise wins the day

Cicarella and DeStefano agreed the teacher evaluation system was broken and work rules were far too rigid. And "no one was happy with the performance of the schools," Cicarella said. Working from a "Statement of Joint Beliefs," they hashed out a series of compromises.

DeStefano gave up on ending tenure when the union agreed to a new performance evaluation that would make it easier to fire tenured teachers. He let go of his charter-school quest when the union agreed to let the district convert a few low-performing schools into "turnarounds," where outside groups could take over, replace teachers, and lengthen school days. The city agreed that ousted teachers would be guaranteed jobs elsewhere in the district. Poor-performing principals would be pushed out, too.

To help negotiate, DeStefano brought in Garth Harries, a top adviser to former New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein. Pursuing a more collaborative version of reform than the one he oversaw in New York, Mr. Harries helped settle a contract that laid out a framework for change and then worked with teachers and administrators to create new job evaluations based partly on student performance.

A rare experiment wins admirers

The New Haven agreement is one that hard-line reformers would consider soft, partly because the evaluation system lets teachers set their own goals for student learning instead of using a standardized measure. But the approach has proved productive when compared with those of other districts. As New Haven moved ahead, New York blew a costly deadline to strike a deal with its teachers union on new evaluations last January; Chicago schools were crippled by a strike in the fall of 2012; and polarizing reform-oriented Superintendent Paul Vallas was run out of Bridgeport, Conn., in February.

In 2010, New Haven became one of the first districts in the nation to start grading teachers based on student performance. The system, which combines classroom observations and teacher-set goals for student test scores, has culled the workforce of poor-performing teachers – by about 2 percent each year, including tenured teachers – and helped others improve. The Obama administration awarded the program a $53 million grant – the same amount New York won for a school system 50 times its size.

Cicarella, who personally told tenured teachers that they faced termination, has taken heat for giving up job protections. He responds that teachers want to be treated as professionals. And by agreeing to work with management, the union was able to dictate many of the terms (and secure raises). In a rare experiment, the union even took over a failing school.

New Haven's approach has won a range of admirers, including US Education Secretary Arne Duncan and reform skeptic Diane Ravitch, as well as the editorial board of The New York Times. Unions in Baltimore and St. Paul have used it as a blueprint for their own negotiations.

Open questions

The plan has encountered challenges. The evaluations have varied widely in how helpful and fair they are. The turnaround schools effort has been put on hold. The union-run school has faltered amid infighting. But the two sides have maintained a responsibility for working things out. "The real upside of collaboration," said DeStefano, "was shared ownership."

Questions remain: Will New Haven's pact improve troubling literacy and dropout rates? How long will the partnership last under a new mayor? (DeStefano left office in December, Harries is now superintendent, and teachers reelected Cicarella.) For now, it remains intact and has helped the city rally unprecedented contributions to its schools from business leaders, Yale University, and nonprofits.

The collaboration has survived "hundreds" of disagreements in the past five years, according to Cicarella. If history is any indication, he and Harries will likely keep striking compromises – and in so doing, continue to set an example for school districts and unions across the country in how to confront major challenges facing public education, without blaming each other, resisting change, or fighting in the streets.

Melissa Bailey is the education reporter and managing editor at the New Haven Independent.

Note to Readers: Are you working with others who don't share your views in order to solve a problem in your community or beyond? E-mail us about it at commonground@csmonitor.com.

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