Sunday, November 10, 2013

Will a New Generation of DFL Leaders Put Kids First

Minneapolis school reform advocates are celebrating  a victory in Minneapolis, and they should be.   The victory elevated a number of democrats to the city council who seem to favor demanding concessions or cooperation from the labor movement in reforming public education in the the city.   Possibly this victory represents a change in the focus of the DFL, or possibly it simply means that the DFL is willing to tolerate education change agents in the elective council that has no powers to make that change.  But the tone of the dialog among DFL candidates in the Council race suggests that a change is occurring at the core of the urban DFL that's saying, enough is enough, we need to put kids first in the way we run our schools.  And if that happens in Minneapolis, possibly it could infect democrats at the legislature and in the Governor's mansion, and that would be a great step forward.  If these changes  results in change that actually works, then this could be a watershed moment in education here in Minnesota.   But its going to take a whole lot more than just electing the new generation of democrats to the City Council to make a difference for kids in schools.

The danger is that the change that results from all this reform talk will not translate into changes that actually work for the young people whom the change movement is supposed to benefit.  Let me start with the gruesome facts regarding the impact of No Child Left Behind and other reforms that have occurred since 2000.   Contrary to media hype fed by some elements in the reform movement, reading and math scores for whites, blacks and Hispanics have risen modestly since 1970.   That's since 1970, folks, twenty years before the passage of No Child Left Behind.   And, contrary to recent breathless claims among some reform advocates, recent increases in scores have not outpaced the increases that occurred back in the 1970's.  National reforms, the testing, the anti-union movement, attempts at privatization, and all the rest, have not measurably improved the pace of educational improvement any more than what occurred decades ago.

 The introduction of charter schools has not worked on a global scale.   The introduction of futher competition in public schools has not worked on a global scale.   The evidence on the impact of charter schools and school competition is controversial, but the Minnesota's non-partisan study of charter schools conducted by the Office of Legislative Auditor does not support a claim that the system of charter schools is improving education on a global scale.   Traditional publics are doing as well as charters with the target population.  

I'm not suggesting that the evidence tells us that we are doing well enough.  Nor, am I supporting the folks who claim that we can't make quantum leaps in education until we eliminate poverty or drive out all racism.  On the contrary, I'm suggesting that the evidence is telling us that we haven't been bold enough, or persistent enough, because we've been barely scratching the surface in making the changes in teaching and learning that must be made inside schools.   Changing what we do in classrooms is so much harder than changing the ownership of schools.  Its easy (but very expensive) to lower class size, but its very hard to change the instruction that occurs in the class after class size is lowered.  Its relatively easy to create a bonus system to reward teachers who happen to have students who do a bit better than some other students, but that bonus system is unlikely to radically change the teaching that actually occurs in the classroom.  

I've just said that charter schools have not created global improvement in student achivement, but the introduction of charter schools has served a very important function, which is to create examples of what works.   Some charters are doing fabulously well.   I contend that they are doing fabulously well, not because they are charters, per se, but because they are making reforms in the delivery of instruction.   They are requiring that their teaching force use data in different ways.  They are implementing changes based upon the data acquired from test results immediately, instead of waiting until October of the following year to examine their MCA results, when it is far to late to use them.  They are extending the school day and extending the school year.  They are creating a culture that respects learning, and they are adjusting their teaching methods based on what is working with their students -- all of them.  They are trying new things, not because they are fads propagated by consultants with systems bearing their names.  They are trying new things because they make sense, and if they don't work, they are pitching them.   And, of course, when these ideas make sense, the union cannot stand in the way and block them.

Most of these highly successful charters are led by instructional leaders who are focused on making sure that every student's needs are addressed.   They are asking their teachers to use direct instruction, if it works for their students.  And, if it isn't working, then they are going to get rid of it, because they are running their schools based on results, not on preserving the status quo. If the emerging leadership of the DFL wants to learn from charters, it will insist that public schools take bold action to implement changes in instruction, in teaching approaches, in use of data, in collaboration among all professional staff, and by responding with agility to the needs of their students.    Unions need to clear the way for these changes; policy makers need to insist on them, because the lesson of this election is that the DFL is moving in a new direction.     That means that school leadership should identify any aspects of the labor agreement which stands in the way of implementing that bold action.  Not because unions needed to be busted to create reform.  There is just no evidence that kids are learning more effectively where unions are dismantled.   The goal is not busting unions:  the goal is to give management the ability and responsibility to implement bold changes in instruction, and to make the necessary changes in delivery of instruction, that the evidence tells us is required.


  1. Jerry,
    I would ask that you name the specific aspects of the MPS labor agreement that you believe are standing in the way of student achievement. I assume you would cite a longer school day/year, but apart from that, what do you think the union actually does that blocks various methodologies of instruction or use of data? I'm asking you to do this because it seems in your piece that you have some ideas in mind. Full disclosure: I was on the negotiating team for MFT for the 2009-11 contract and served as the secretary for 4 years, and I find the narrative that the union blocks needed change to range from interesting to overstated. I'm hoping that specific examples from you might help.

  2. Jerry,
    I also want to add that I'm surprised that you claim in your piece that the union argues that "we can't make quantum leaps in education until we eliminate poverty." That's a frustrating misrepresentation of what I do hear the union saying which is this: there is a strong correlation between educational achievement and income. That's really indisputable given the research. The second thing I hear the union argue is that we all need to make sure that our politicians and community continue to take seriously all of those factors that do impact the economic life of the kids we serve. That's a call for societal-wide responsibility. It's a recognition of the ways poverty impacts kids during the school day and I don't know how anyone serious about education could possibly ignore this or claim it as a deflection of responsibility. Anything that we can do that ameliorates hunger, that allows parents to drop that second job, that improves health outcomes….. how could these things NOT improve educational outcomes? Why is it okay to fight for these things as a citizen, but not okay for the union to highlight these factors that do impact kids during the school day. I really just don't get that.

  3. I've looked at the MSP CBA. It has pages and pages and pages of material that have nothing whatsoever to do with the terms and conditions of employment. I can't pretend to know what this means in practice, but a reading of the agreement, beginning with Article IV suggests that the district's management is being described and locked into the collective bargaining agreement. It gives me a headache trying to figure out what it all means.

    Possibly it works: I don't know. But I can't see how in the world putting all that stuff in the CBA could possibly lead to good governance and good management. It looks to me that just about any time someone sneezes, they are likely to be in violation of some provision of the agreement. The structure of the agreement wreaks of the parties saying, nobody trusts management to do anything; lets put a straightjacket around it.

    But I think that you misunderstood the thrust of my comment. I said that the key to school improvement lies in leadership and robust curriculum and instruction. What I am trying to say is that the reform movement in the United States is bankrupt, because its not focusing on the things that need to get reformed. I'm arguing that school management should present a program for doing the things that work, and that unions should give management to make those things work.

    I'm not on the ground, as it were, in Minneapolis. But as an outsider, I have to say that the sense I get out of the CBA is that the union has way overstepped its bounds by trying to put the governance and management policy for schools and the district into the collective bargaining agreement. I feel that all of that stuff should be removed and transferred into administrative policy, with the right of management to make changes in policy.

    1. Jerry, thanks for your response. I agree that robust curriculum and instruction is where positive gains can always be made and that far too much time and emphasis is spent on reforms that will not amount to any significant change.

      Regarding the CBA in Minneapolis, you accurately describe the narrative that many would like the public to believe is true, and in fact, many have come to believe is true, ie. that the union has locked management out of governing the schools. However, there is one very important point which undermines this entirely: Only a small portion of the CBA, the portion that state law mandates must be negotiated, may be grieved in court. You understand that term, but for those who do not, this means that only a few sections of the contract can be taken to an arbitrator or judge if the union believes it has been violated. The many portions of the CBA that are non-grievable are a part of it because it states the intention of the district and union regarding how they intend to operate with each other. They do not restrict the district from doing its work, and in fact, it often does not abide by these sections of the CBA. The union cannot do anything about it precisely because it isn't grievable.

      So, I summarize by saying that it simply isn't the case, in my opinion, that MPS cannot do its managerial duties out of the constraints that the union has placed on it. That's a fine bit of deflection on the part of the district to the extent that they use this argument. They know full well what is grievable and what isn't within that contract.

      One area that I have hoped would be fruitful is the negotiations around planning time for instruction. Like you, I believe high quality instruction is where we get the most bang for our buck, and this requires an investment in carving out protected planning time for the purpose of teaming, and professional learning communities. It has been a difficult point of contention in talks with MPS because carving out time for teachers to discuss important work X with each other on a frequent basis requires that less important work Y be given up. Moreover, teaming and professional learning community work does not come easy for some teachers and requires training in and of itself.

      Fruitful negotiation with MPS requires managerial decisions on what we can all agree is most important and what is less important, rather than the size of a CBA that really has nothing to do with our day to day business.

  4. Perhaps it is time to reconsider whether having all this material in the CBA is really worth the heartache it is causing. Its sort of a case of "you bought it, you own it." By putting all this material in the CBA, the union is giving management an excuse for not leading with agility.

    Also, I'm not sure I buy the argument that provisions in the CBA are harmless simply because they are not grievable. In the first place, in an agreement of this kind, the union refuses to sign off on the compensation part of the agreement, until it gets an agreement on the other parts of the agreement, which ought not be bargained. The strategy is to put a financially unreachable package on the table (or no package at all) until the language package is agreed to. So management winds up agreeing to a management straightjacket that it despises, to avoid a strike.

    In the second place, the fact that these items aren't grievable doesn't mean that management doesn't have to comply with them. They can be enforced with work to rule, or attacks on morale, or other tactics. Or, they can be taken up at the next bargaining session: you broke the agreement, now you are going to have to fix the agreement so you can't break it again.

    Teachers deserve quality management. Quality management cannot be acquired through collective bargaining; it can only be stifled through collective bargaining. Its like telling your doctor that you want to collectively bargain how she will do surgery, or telling your lawyer that you demand he make certain objections at trial. You are making management ineffective by trying to manage from the bargaining table.

    Teachers should not be managing schools. They aren't trained to manage. They aren't good at management. They aren't in a position to take responsibility for their decisions. They should be consulted: they should be heard. But they should get the heck out of management. If a football team collectively bargained on who should carry the ball, or how many passes should be thrown, or whether to use a spread offense, the team would lose every time.

    Unions should stop trying to manage schools and instead urge the school board to recruit, retain and support outstanding managers with the authority to lead teachers to excellence.


comments welcome