Schools and Politics: Bargained Success in the New Haven Schools

Summary: A reflection on Nicholas Kristof’s recent column “Uniting to Oust Failing Teachers”. He leaves out a critical element.

In his column, “Uniting to Oust Failing Teachers”, as published in the Seattle Times February 18, 2012, the peripatetic Nicholas Kristof reports on a collaboration between the New Haven schools and its associated teachers’ union that has created a teacher evaluation system reliant on various measure of student learning.  The bargained system has allowed the district to weed out teachers that both sides acknowledge are “ineffective.” It is a truth known in most schoolhouses that there are some colleagues who do not pull the weight they are assigned, and demoralize our uphill battle to educational competence.

Kristof paraphrases David Cicarella, the president of the New Haven Federation of Teachers, as saying that “accountability and feedback are welcome, if they are fair.” Last year the district pushed out 34 teachers, a nearly unheard of number, and this year another 50 are under warning that they need to improve their game. I assume these fifty, and others, are given ample mentoring to improve their skills. If Kristof reports accurately, the union would not be so fully invested if its membership was not given a fair shake.

According to New Haven mayor John DeStefano Jr. (paraphrased by Kristof), “the breakthrough isn’t so much that poor teachers are being eased out, but that feedback is making everyone perform better,” principals as well.

I am enough of a realist, though hopeful, to know that the rank and file may not perfectly reflect their leadership’s public pronouncements, and I assume there is some bruising in this process. Yet enough similar stories have poked their head up from time to time in the media as to lend credence to news of this particular development in New Haven.

Kristof wraps up his op-ed piece by commenting that it may be time for him to renew his faith in teachers’ unions, once lost amid horror stories of union defense of professionally marginal and even morally incompetent teachers.

Though I respect Kristof for his willingness to rethink his position in the light of new evidence, I think he misses a key ingredient in this turnaround.

Unions do not exist in a vacuum. Without reviewing the history of the American labor union, I believe it fair to state that labor unions grew in response to management injustice in focus on profit, to the detriment of the interests of labor. Simply put, management abuse led directly to the rise of labor organization.

The growth of teachers’ unions as well, I suspect, began and surged with the recognition that teachers’ interests and school administration interests did not always coincide, for a host of complex reasons, including administrative disrespect for teachers’ legitimate professional perspective.

This is not to say that unions have a corner on truth. Teachers’ unions have in local circumstances been a hindrance to legitimate reform, I believe. However, neither do those superintendents and principals that manage those same schools have a corner on truth.

In the New Haven case, not only should plaudits go to union leadership and its constituency for flexibility, but their flexibility would only flourish in a partnership with school district management that was trustworthy and that reached a collaborative hand out to its teachers. Kristof quotes the Mayor, he quotes the union president, but he leaves out the school superintendent and his or her governing school boards, without whose ability to negotiate in a climate in which trust was fostered, the union would not have moved from traditional intransigence. Leadership is required on both sides of the bargain.

As I look at my own hierarchically managed district, arguably a higher quality one than New Haven has been historically, I see warring camps, or at least mutually suspicious camps, that seem to have a hard time creating an atmosphere of mutual respect and need.

Need. Likely the New Haven success arose out of weariness at the same old game, the prodding by the public and the press and others, and finally a recognition that nothing would happen without recognition of the role the other side must necessarily play, and a faith that in the end, both sides want the same thing for kids. As Kristof quotes the union president, “We all use the same litmus test: Would we want our kid in that room?” On such simple mantras can powerful collaborations be built, apparently.

I would wish the same for my district, and the many others like mine who have so far seem to have lacked the requisite coincidence of enlightened and communicative, courageous leadership on both sides.

I am reminded of an emblematic final scene in Jean Paul Sartre’s play “No Exit”, at least as I remember and interpret it. His characters have been locked in dehumanizing interpersonal conflict, in a room from which there is “no exit,” in fact which they understand to be their personal hell. Finally they reseat themselves, reframe their conflict, and resolve to “get on with it,” meaning there is no escape, but a necessity to deal with the reality of themselves and of their counterparts. In the case of schools, without that realistic communication between union and management, between teachers and supervisory staff, nothing moves forward at more than a glacial pace. Recognize the stalemate, realize the power in the house is divided, accept nothing moves forward without a definition of common ground and a coordination of forces. We are stuck together, irrevocably. We may as well face up and deal.

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