Union and District Leaders Collaborate at CalTURN
The headlines concerning teachers unions and policymakers usually concern some kind of conflict, ranging from divergent positions on bills and ballot measures, to lawsuits and strikes. These stories mostly emerge at the state level, or from the larger cities and districts, which naturally have the larger media outlets to dramatize the stories. Garnering less attention are the positive stories about education reform efforts led by national and state unions. And then, in relative obscurity, there are smaller districts where district and union leaders are engaged in productive labor-management collaboration.
The California Teacher Union Reform Network, or CalTURN, is helping lead the way for such districts. (Disclosure: I’m a recent addition to the CalTURN steering committee). By convening semi-annual working conferences, CalTURN provides time and space for labor-management teams to learn and together. Unlike a large conference featuring one-way delivery and delayed work, these smaller conferences include not only great speakers and presentations, but also ample opportunities to learn from colleagues around the state, and put all the learning to use in actual teamwork sessions.
Don’t get me wrong – the member districts and unions are not living in a dream world. There are disagreements over how to use limited resources, and challenging negotiations over any number of contract items. However, with a commitment to ongoing collaborative work and practices like interest-based bargaining, we do have some excellent models of how unions and district leaders can build strong relationships that allow both sides to better serve students. I’ve written about two of these districts – Poway Unified and San Juan Unified – multiple times in the past; both districts have been recognized many times over the years for their joint-committees that handle new teacher evaluation, and peer assistance and review (PAR). Not only have they created a venue for labor-management collaboration that improves the overall climate in the district, but they’ve also created systems with a well-documented capacity to provide robust teacher evaluations in a time when so many districts seem to struggle in that area.
The current focus of CalTURN is to build the capacity of teachers in member districts to design and lead ongoing professional development efforts. At this time, that means collaboration around Common Core (CCSS) implementation. The CCSS transition has been challenging and controversial from the start, and like many other teachers, I’ve expressed some serious concerns about many aspects of the enterprise. (CCSS-related posts are the most read and commented at this blog – click here to see a listing of those posts). Taking the long view, putting teacher leaders into a wider variety of responsibilities is a smart managment move for several reasons (whether or not the short-term transition to CCSS is popular). The more teacher input and expertise goes into administrative decisions and activities – especially related directly to instruction – the more success they’re likely to have. That success will result not only from increased odds of making the best decision, but also the increased efficacy that comes with widespread buy-in from teachers. Sounds logical, right? It’s a principle demonstrated not only in the practices of successful districts, but also in a comprehensive study that examined the positive effects of distributed leadership. Additionaly, the more responsibilities and opportunities teacher leaders can find at school, the more likely they are to stay, reducing turnover and keeping teacher expertise in (or nearer to) the classroom.
The time is right for California to strengthen the teaching profession, and strong labor-management collaboration will be essential in that effort. Accomplished California Teachers has published policy recommendations to encourage some specific steps towards achieving that goal, and we’re glad to have had some of our members on the Bay Area New Millennium Initiative that produced a report with similar conclusions. California’s Educator Excellence Task Force, which included four ACT members, took a broader look at the profession from a full range of stakeholder perspectives, and in the report Greatness by Design, further supported the idea of expanding formal roles for teacher leaders.
The CalTURN fall conference begins today, hosted by the Poway Federation of Teachers. If you turn to the major news outlets for the latest scoop on teachers unions today, you probably won’t find CalTURN making headlines; however, if you’ve read this far, you know better than most people that California unions and districts are coming together in quiet but remarkable ways to improve public education around the state. Now that you know, I invite you to share the news, and encourage similar work in whatever venues are open to you.