February 2 — 4:37 pm, 2010

How teachers and unions feel about turnaround

Teachers often are the targets of turnaround strategies, but in some schools, teachers and unions have taken the lead.

p24 20teacher 20photo Photo: Harvey Finkle

School turnarounds often result in the dismissal of teachers, if not the entire faculty. It is no surprise that those who work in classrooms every day are highly skeptical of this strategy for improving low-performing schools.

“Blaming teachers for poor-performing schools is a solution in search of a problem,” said Sara Turley, a second grade teacher at Spring Garden Elementary. Instead, she said, “the District needs to rethink the way that it attracts, hires, and maintains a staff of high-quality teachers.”

At the sometimes contentious ratification meeting on January 21 for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers contract, members expressed the most anger when discussing Renaissance Schools, the District’s new program for turnaround.

Using models approved by the U.S. Department of Education, the new contract specifies that all teachers will be force-transferred from these schools, and no more than half can be rehired. Teachers do maintain some seniority rights in finding other placements at District schools.

Teachers who work in Renaissance Schools converted to charters or turned over to private management will no longer be covered by the District’s collective bargaining agreement.

Michael Roth, an Edison High School social studies teacher, expressed a common view that “teachers are easy to blame” for failed schools that are products of social injustice. He and other teachers pointed out that teachers have “little control” over students whose attendance is spotty, as an example.

While school turnarounds raise serious concerns for teachers, however, they can also provide opportunities, such as teacher-run schools, teacher-directed professional development, and more collaboration.

Doing it right

The American Federation of Teachers, which represents mostly urban teachers, supports turnarounds with qualifications.

AFT President Randi Weingarten told the New York Times that the U.S. Department of Education’s focus on fixing the worst schools was “the right strategy,” but added that “wholesale firing of staffs, pretending that if you just close a school and open a new one, it will solve all the problems – that’s the wrong way.”

Evidence is thin that reconstitution – the arbitrary replacement of school staff – works; in some cases it may make matters worse. A University of Maryland study found that in under-resourced districts, reconstitution aggravated problems with teacher retention.

The rationale for reconstitution is often that low-achieving schools are characterized by a dysfunctional school culture. Numerous case studies document the need for cultural transformation at such schools, including extensive changes in staffing.

However, there are many examples of successful turnaround without reconstitution.

“How you do the turnaround must pay attention to the school context,” said Jessica Johnson, a turnaround specialist with Learning Point Associates, which consults with low-performing schools. “There are multiple pathways” to school turnaround, she said.

The experience of the Broad Acres Elementary School in Montgomery County, Md. is a case in point.

A report authored by Mark Simon, formerly president of the Montgomery County Education Association (MCEA) and now with the Tom Mooney Institute for Teacher and Union leadership, explains how a new superintendent slated the persistently failing school for reconstitution. But the union believed the school had assets that could provide a foundation for a different kind of restructuring and persuaded the administration to try it.

Under the plan, teachers took responsibility for developing the instructional program. Longer hours and intensive professional development were key.

At the beginning, one-third of the teachers voluntarily left. And over a three-year period, the school made dramatic gains. It reached federal achievement goals under adequate yearly progress and posted the biggest improvement in math scores in the county.

Simon believes the current mandate for turnaround provides opportunities as well as difficulties. Unions must “find out how much wiggle room there is” to do turnaround “the right way,” he said. They should argue at both the federal and local levels for forms of restructuring that empower teachers to improve student learning, rather than rely on their dismissal, he added.

In terms of concerns about seniority, due process, and fairness, Simon said these principles should be preserved without “being dogmatic.” He cited as a model Cincinnati, in which the union traded off seniority for a robust site-selection system in which teachers play a central role in hiring.

Another response of teacher unions to the turnaround challenge is the creation of teacher-run schools. In some cities these schools are emerging as a union-supported alternative to privately managed or charter schools. In Boston, the teachers’ union runs a school with two lead teachers replacing the principal as building leader. This school offers more flexibility for teachers and a longer school day. The teachers are members of the union and are paid for working the additional hours.

In Denver, the teachers’ local, an affiliate of the National Education Association, operates a school called the Math and Science Leadership Academy (MSLA), run by a teacher committee and headed by two lead teachers. The K-3 school opened in September and gives teachers the freedom to make their own decisions about how to teach material, in what order to teach it, and how to connect it to relevant community and social issues. At this school, teachers learn from and evaluate one another.

Even though 60 percent of the students are English language learners and 90 percent qualify for free or reduced price lunch, teachers are eager to work at MSLA. The school received 30 applications for each teacher opening.

Taking it to another level

Most turnaround specialists concede that, with the federal push, the effort is entering uncharted waters.

One U. S. Department of Education publication even acknowledges that “the research base on school turnaround practices is limited.” Johnson, from Learning Point, said that it still must be clarified how to set goals and measure the success of turnaround schools.

But with the Obama administration calling for 1,000 turnarounds a year, there will soon be a body of experience that may shed light on what approaches are most effective. Teachers and their organizations will undoubtedly be part of that conversation.

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