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Are teachers changing their unions?

Posted by Jim Stergios  July 10, 2012 05:22 PM

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The recent deal brokered by Stand for Children with the Massachusetts Teachers Association (and at the end supported by the AFL-CIO and the Massachusetts chapter of the American Federation for Teachers) made some progress in making student performance a larger consideration in evaluating teachers and lessened the role of seniority.

The Globe editorial board put it this way:

Stand for Children was plowing ahead with a tough ballot initiative that would have eliminated nearly all aspects of teacher seniority in the state’s public school systems. It went so far as to put non-tenured teachers with three years or less experience — so-called provisionals — on par with the most senior teachers during layoffs.

With the 107,000-member Massachusetts Teachers Association gearing up for a fight—and also thinking that it wanted to avoid a protracted battle and a diversion of funds away from political causes in an important Senatorial election year, the unions sought compromise. Back to the Globe:

The union gave up less. Under the compromise legislation, for example, provisional teachers — no matter how promising — will continue to be laid off before senior teachers. The union also eludes the ballot question’s requirement that every school district adopt a model teacher-evaluation method or state-approved alternative. Under the compromise legislation, school districts retain more leeway, and the emphasis shifts to more comprehensive reporting of teacher-evaluation data.

But there is real reform in the compromise bill. Unlike now, teacher performance — and not seniority — becomes the new touchstone for reassignments, transfers, and other staffing decisions.

I am not sure I’d go as far as that, but the Globe is absolutely right that

The compromise bill makes a huge course correction by giving principals significantly more power to build their faculties through the teacher-evaluation process. A cynic might also note that the Massachusetts Teachers Association’s president Paul Toner did also negotiate a delay in the implementation of the legislation to 2016, meaning that the MTA and its allies will still have two legislative cycles to undo what was done.

All that said, Toner’s piece in the summer MTA newsletter gives good reason to think there is a shift underway in his membership. He starts by underscoring his total opposition to the Stand referendum:

We met with Stand’s leaders repeatedly and urged them not to proceed. We also asked major education and parent groups and leading policymakers to press them to stop. Dozens of them did, including Governor Deval Patrick, Senate President Therese Murray, House Speaker Robert DeLeo, Secretary of Education Paul Reville, the Massachusetts PTA and John Walsh, the head of the Massachusetts Democratic Party. Undeterred, Stand easily collected the first round of signatures needed to qualify the question for the ballot.

We challenged the attorney general’s decision to certify the initiative. When we didn’t prevail in that effort, we filed a complaint with the Supreme Judicial Court on behalf of seven plaintiffs contending that the question was not appropriate for the ballot. Many labor and education groups filed briefs supporting our complaint.

More important than Toner’s views and views, though, are what he learned by listening to his members.

We assessed our odds of prevailing on the ballot and determined that it would be an enormous challenge. The initiative was very complicated, but easily reduced to an oversimplified sound bite: Every child deserves a great teacher; therefore, performance should be more important than seniority in personnel decisions. Our polling found that a vast majority of Massachusetts voters agreed with this proposition. Significantly, so did a majority of our members, who were polled on the issue in three separate random sample surveys. (my italics)

Put that data point together with this survey just released by Education Sector, and a picture begins to emerge where teachers are beginning to embrace some reforms focused on the profession such as "evaluation, pay, and tenure, and the role of unions in pushing for or against these reforms." From the press release of the sample of 1,100 K-12 public school teachers included in Trending Toward Reform: Teachers Speak on Unions and the Future of the Profession:

The 2011 survey repeats questions from Education Sector’s 2007 survey Waiting to Be Won Over and a 2003 Public Agenda survey on these same issues. So Trending Toward Reform shows how teachers’ thinking has evolved on some reform issues. The findings show continued strong support for teachers unions. Compared with earlier years, teachers say their union plays an important role in protecting jobs and addressing working conditions. But teachers want more from their unions. In 2007, 52 percent of teachers said their union should “stick to bread and butter issues” rather than focusing on reform; today, just 42 percent of teachers feel that way. At the same time, the number of teachers who want their union to put more focus on reform has risen from 32 percent to 43 percent. As one example, 75 percent of teachers surveyed said that unions should play a role in simplifying the process to remove ineffective teachers—up from 63 percent in 2007.

The Ed Sector survey also finds that teachers “support differentiated pay for teachers who work in tough neighborhoods with low-performing schools” and “those who teach hard-to-fill subjects.”

The survey shows that teachers, however, still oppose the use of student test scores to reward performance. No questions on broader reforms (charters, standards and curricula, etc.) were included in the Ed Sector survey.

Is this change? For now, it's small change. Let's hope the teachers themselves begin yearning for more.

Crossposted at Pioneer's blog. Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, or visit Pioneer's website.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Jim Stergios is executive director of the Pioneer Institute. Before joining Pioneer, he was Chief of Staff and Undersecretary for Policy in the Commonwealth's Executive Office of Environmental Affairs, where More »

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