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Union-District Collaboration Becoming Norm

School districts have long been regarded as management and teachers unions as labor. The result has been protracted animosity that has unavoidably affected students. But things are slowly beginning to change in spite of isolated action in a few cities.

The latest evidence comes from Ohio, where the governor, the mayor of Cleveland and the local teachers union have come together to determine how teachers are hired, fired and paid ("A School Fix Without a Fight," The Wall Street Journal, Jul. 10). Fifty percent of teacher evaluations will be based on student test scores, presumably on state standardized tests. Teachers will also be laid off based on performance, rather than on seniority. If teachers do not demonstrate improvement after two consecutive years, they can be fired.

In New Haven, one of the district's low-performing schools has been turned over to the teachers union ("Teacher Union Will Run New 'Turnaround,' " New Haven Independent, Jun. 20). The handoff is seen by younger teachers as an opportunity to develop their own curriculums and work as a team. New Haven is not the first district to have union-run schools. There are already eight such schools nationwide, including those in Denver and New York City. Contrary to popular belief, teachers tend to be harder on each other than principals.

Before Cleveland and New Haven, however, Toledo showed how teachers unions and district administrators can cooperate. In The Case For Collaborative School Reform (Economic Policy Institute, 2008), Ray Marshall described how and why the impetus for reform came mainly from the Toledo Federation of Teachers, which worked hard to change the long-standing seniority- and credentials-based single-salary schedule. The story is a corrective to the view that teachers unions by their very nature are obstructionists.

What is given short shrift, however, is a paradox: If teachers unions are the villain they have been made out to be, then states where teachers are heavily unionized would be expected to post the lowest scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. But this is not the case. Students in Massachusetts and Minnesota, for example, earn the highest scores on NAEP, even though teacher union membership is also extremely high. In sharp contrast, students in Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas have the lowest scores on NAEP, even though few, if any, teachers belong to unions.

I've long believed that collaboration between all stakeholders offers the best hope for the continued existence of public schools. But until now, this view was seen as quixotic. With so much riding on outcomes, the time may finally be here when this ideal becomes a reality. Skeptics argue that the only reason for the change in the position taken by teachers unions is their realization that public opinion is turning against them. Therefore, if they want to survive, they have to yield. There is some truth to this view. Whether students will be better served, however, is the real question. Keep in mind the evidence in the preceding paragraph about scores on NAEP.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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