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August 1, 2014
Teacher leaders from Washoe Co. School District  (NV) discuss their work at TURN Conference in Chicago (7/28/14, photo by the author)

Teacher leaders from Washoe Co. School District (NV) discuss their work at TURN Conference in Chicago (7/28/14, photo by the author)

For the past couple of years, I’ve been connected with the Teacher Union Reform Network (TURN), primarily through its affiliated regional network in California, CalTURN. On the occasion of my most recent TURN experience (in Chicago the past few days), and also due to some questions and criticisms surfacing in social media lately, I’ve decided to write a bit about why I participate in TURN, and how I think it contributes to strengthening unions, the teaching profession, and public education.

Before I go into the details, let me establish some basic points:

  • I strongly believe in collective bargaining, and have found TURN entirely committed to strong unions using collective bargaining to improve teaching and learning.
  • I also believe our unions must address labor issues, the professionalization of teaching, and social justice; I have always found TURN leadership and participants share those values.
  • I am an advocate of expanding teacher leadership as part of every phase of school and district governance, and have been engaged with TURN because it is helping this to happen within a strong union framework.
  • I want to pursue expanded career pathways for teachers, formalizing new roles in educational systems, allowing us to exert greater influence on curriculum, professional development, and school improvement; I have consistently found TURN supporting those ideas.

These were my beliefs before I found TURN. If I didn’t think TURN was supportive of these principles, I wouldn’t be involved. My allegiance to these principles supersedes my commitment to any organization, and I hope this blog post (along with others if anyone really wants to dig into it) will help clarify where I’m coming from, and what motivates me and others with whom I’ve shared this work.

My awareness of TURN goes back several years, but my own involvement began shortly after I worked with a group of educators in Accomplished California Teachers to help produce a policy report on teacher evaluation. I was invited to present that work at a CalTURN conference in Santa Monica, and found the group was engaging in some interesting work around labor-management collaboration and interest-based bargaining. There were district teams attending the meeting with both union and administrative leaders, working together, taking time to find common ground, wrestle with challenges, and learn from other unions and administrators at the conference. The conversations in the room were productive, and consistently focused on helping teachers do a better job of helping students learn more effectively.

In my own district, I had always seen a spirit of cooperation and good will among union leaders and administrators. Again, it’s not perfect – but it wasn’t divisive or vitriolic. In my twelve years there, we’ve gone through a few variations on teacher evaluation and professional development, conversations and work in which I had a little more insight and input, and I have seen how a district’s positive working relationship contributes to better teaching and learning. Though my district has not participated in CalTURN in the time that I have started to, I stayed involved on my own, and was eventually invited to participate on the steering committee (though, please note, I do not speak for CalTURN or anyone else on the steering committee). I’ve written about CalTURN in prior blog posts for those who want more insights into the conferences I’ve attended, and what they accomplished.

This week was my first time attending a TURN conference drawing attendees from around the country. Again, I saw labor-management teams attending together, and importantly, working together, having substantive conversations about how to to do better work for our students. There are TURN-affiliated districts around the country, representing tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of teachers.

Labor and management at the table together, planning future collaboration. (TURN, Chicago, 7/29/14, photo by the author)

Labor and management at the table, planning future collaboration. (TURN, Chicago, 7/29/14, photo by the author)

The recent tensions on social media, I think, are largely arising because the conference focused on Common Core implementation. Putting those three words together pretty much ends the debate before it starts for some people, and I started seeing critical posts on Twitter, Facebook, and blogs. The argument is that helping implement Common Core is helping corporatize and privatize public education. By implication, the critics seem to argue that any union member or local association that is implementing the common core is selling out. They do not seem to accept that many of our union brothers and sisters look at the same information and reach different conclusions about the implications of that information, or the best course of action. My approach is to accept that my fellow professionals, and our associations in various states and in various political circumstances, can be trusted to determine their own priorities and directions on a variety of complicated issues in challenging times.

TURN is addressing Common Core implementation because that’s what member associations and districts are doing, some enthusiastically, some still expressing varying degrees of concern. TURN is not in the position of telling anyone to implement CCSS, but rather, meeting the needs of members that are going through that transition. The overarching goal is to ensure that teachers, through their unions, have the ability to negotiate policies and collaborate in decision-making to improve teaching and learning.

In the past few days, I heard presenters consistently describing ways in which labor-management collaboration and union advocacy have created new professional development and leadership opportunities for teachers. I heard about districts making policy changes that entrust teachers – and unions – with new roles and greater responsibility. These are concrete gains, solid improvements in the profession. As the assessment and accountability landscape evolves, I believe we are now in a better position to influence policy improvements. I do wish more of this progress had come without CCSS in the picture, but my hope now is that teachers and unions will protect these gains, ensuring the continued improvement of teaching in their districts. If we do that, we’ll have stronger unions, better teaching, and lasting improvements that will persist through the inevitable transition through CCSS to the Next Big Thing, whenever that might occur.

I do understand the concerns around Common Core. I’ve been critical of the Common Core in the past, especially the processes by which they were crafted and adopted, and this blog has featured posts (mine and others’) critical of CCSS. I’m deeply concerned that the assessments will be abused the same way that testing was abused under NCLB. I’ve also previously written about why I am not actively resisting Common Core in my context at this time, though I remain vigilant to see what will happen in the future, and remain engaged to try to prevent outcomes such as the misuse of test scores for teacher evaluation. If I were teaching in New York, I’m sure I’d be taking a different approach, and I may yet in California. The fact that at times I’ve been a member or leader connected to any organization – my local union, CTA, TURN, NBPTS, NCTE, ASCD, Learning Forward, etc. – does not mean I automatically subscribe to all of their positions and agree with all of their policies. That’s partly why I engage – not only to support what I think is good work by good organizations, but also to try to influence their work and make it better.

That approach won’t appeal to everyone. So be it. But the critics win no converts by implying that any thinking, informed person who shares their core values regarding schools must also share their opinions about the One True Path to help schools. It’s implied we are supposed to avoid or resist anything connected at all with the Common Core, or the Gates Foundation, or Pearson… you get the idea. I fully understand the criticisms of those entities; I agree on many points, have made many of those same points myself at times, and I’m glad that there is a vigorous debate around the issues. But if you reject everything and everyone connected even tangentially to the largest initiatives, largest vendors, and largest funders in education, you don’t have much to work with.

So, instead of engaging in an ideological battle that divides everyone into one camp or the other, I’m finding ways to do the most productive work I can, guided by the principles outlined above, to help students, teachers, and public schools.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. alicemercer permalink
    August 1, 2014 11:28 am

    Hey David, I was there for part of that party on social media, and I appreciate your calm and well-reasoned approach. I have watched your posts on TURN over the last few years, and I know of neighboring San Juan USD’s participation in the group. I know that local is doing a lot of collaborative work around the new LCAP/LCFF funding with their district which is something that should be encouraged.
    I’ve also met folks who have a bad experience on TURN, like in Massachusetts, where this was used to cut a deal on VAM (teacher evaluation based on student test scores). This came about for a number of reasons, besides TURN, but it was a tool used to do this.
    I’m trying to understand structurally how TURN works. It looks like it has regions that have their own mission statements. It looks like participating in VAM is not a requirement, or even participation in CCSS (although that’s most of the resources they seem to be providing are about CCSS so it wouldn’t be useful if you weren’t interested in that).
    I guess my question is, if you are having a productive relationship between your union local and district administration, what does TURN bring to the table that can help? What about where it has hurt (like Massachusetts)?

    • David B. Cohen permalink*
      August 1, 2014 1:18 pm

      Alice – great questions! (I’m typing by phone so forgive typos or bad editing!). I’m a relative newcomer to TURN so I can’t speak authoritatively about the past, or about other regions. But from what I’ve seen/heard myself, TURN serves/supports locals and not the other way around. If any individual local leader has displeased the assoc. membership, it seems to me it’s their issue to work out. I don’t know that TURN has an independent position on these hot-button issues. I think the benefit of TURN participation is more about how we work, not the content of the work. Presentations and speakers at conferences I’ve attended focused on expanding teacher leadership through L/M collaboration, interest-based bargaining, etc. I’ll write more soon about CCSS presentations at this conference. I saw two CA teachers who are local assoc. leaders, and are working with CTA around CCSS/SBAC. They laid out ideas about working through the union to fight for resources, flexibility, better curriculum, etc. Now, when the testing really kicks in, we’ll have to see what happens. But I honestly think that even though the standards, assessments, and policies were all “sold” as a bundle, we can fight for policies at every level to pull them apart in implementation. We have years of uncertainty ahead on the CCSS front. In the meantime, I like what TURN is helping unions accomplish to promote the profession in ways I described above.


      • alicemercer permalink
        August 1, 2014 2:01 pm

        I’d think that it would be better to focus on LCAP/LCFF which would involve decisions about funding around CCSS, but by focusing on the funding framework, whatever happens with the standards and tests in the future, you’d be set to keep the teacher voice in the funding part, which is more important.

        As I’ve said before, I don’t think TURN or IBB are a good fit in my district, but the general rule in CTA is that locals make local decisions that work for their local, and the same logic that says TURN won’t work in my local would apply to San Juan or Poway saying it did, but ultimately, there gonna have to answer to their members, which is ultimately what happened in Massachusetts.

      • David B. Cohen permalink*
        August 1, 2014 3:38 pm


        LCAP and LCFF were the focus of the CalTURN conference in March, but they are only relevant in CA and not in TURN nationally. As for answering to their locals, I can’t speak for Poway so San Juan but I think their involvement in TURN is exactly how they’re answering to members. And as a result, those two districts are ahead of most in developing better induction, evaluation, and PAR systems where union appointees have equal standing with district admin. on joint panels responsible for permanent status and dismissal. Other districts are working on their own issues, with varying degrees of overlap, in their own way at their own pace. There’s no lockstep set of rules or policy goals – more a loose network of locals and districts interested in collaborating within and among districts to address similar issues.


  2. Lisa Alva permalink
    August 3, 2014 3:06 pm

    David, it appears we’re still struggling with basic problems: marketing and communications. If the membership doesn’t know what the message is, and there’s not a two-way feedback method, leadership is working in isolation. I like your foci (interest-based bargaining, teacher leadership, etc.), and wish TURN had the budget and human resources to take the message to a wider audience and invite their participation. Whether or not the organization is nimble enough to be responsive once they do that is yet another issue.
    Your solutions are good ones, take heart.

  3. Joan permalink
    August 9, 2014 8:51 am

    As a teachers I am appalled that Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified JUST HIRED A 2ND SUPERINTENDENT! The predecessor is staying! Cost = $300,000 to keep the old one! New one to consult with the old one to get a bigger pension as he leaves next year! THE $300,000 IS THE COST OF A TEACHERS 2% RAISE. THERE WILL BE NO RAISE FOR TEACHERS THIS YEAR, BECAUSE NEW ONE HIRED TO IMPLEMENT COMMON CORE.
    Do TEACHERS want to give up their raises in the name of COMMON CORE?


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