The contract becomes a tool for school reform
by Joseph Colletti
From the earliest days of the UFT, presidents Charles Cogen and Al Shanker knew that educators could be a powerful tool for reform. Educators knew first-hand the problems that their students faced, and they encouraged educators to come up with solutions that would improve public education and their profession.
In 1963 a group of union educators presented the More Effective Schools model. It included lower class size — a maximum of 22 — pre-K, support services such as social workers and school psychologists, and community coordinators (many of whom later became paraprofessionals and teachers). The union negotiated the parameters of the model and it became part of the UFT contract in 1965. It was a landmark idea and a powerful model for success.
Unfortunately political battles over which schools would be part of the MES network, as well as funding issues, led to the program’s demise less than a decade later.
Besides negotiations, educators took other paths to school reform and improving their own effectiveness. In 1980, with the help of federal funds, they launched the
New York City Teacher Center Consortium to provide on-site, often in-classroom professional development, for and by teachers in a collegial atmosphere, directly related to what was happening in classrooms in that school. The Teacher Center also offered hundreds of in-service and college-level courses in affiliation with local colleges.
Currently about 250 schools have a teacher center and nearly 10,000 teachers a year take advantage of the low-cost courses that it offers. It has become a model for similar teacher-led professional development throughout the nation.
Another successful idea, one that has gone international, was Dial-A-Teacher, which started in January 1980 with funding from the City Council. Today, more than 50 union educators work in a state-of-the-art communications center after school, taking calls from students and parents and offering homework help in 11 languages besides English.
In 1983, the federal task force report “A Nation at Risk” bemoaned the “rising tide of mediocrity” in public schools. Given the impact of “A Nation at Risk” on educational discourse, when Sandra Feldman became president of the UFT in 1986 she made school reform a priority. Feldman decided to use the UFT contract as a tool for reform. Thus, the 1987 contract contained a brand new item: Article 8, “Education Reform.” Union educators knew codifying teacher rights and responsibilities in the contract could be a powerful tool. Administrators would have to listen to teachers. Teachers would have a right to make their voices heard.
Using this strategy, the Board of Education would no longer be able to cite a lack of funds as a reason for not implementing a program if it were contractually mandated. This became especially important when the city faced another fiscal crisis in 1991 and programs such as mentoring for new teachers faced elimination.
One important reform outlined the procedures for school-based management and shared decision making, which gave teachers and principals greater latitude in making the choices that would help their students succeed. Another clause, school-based options, gave school staff the right to modify specific items in the contract in order to meet the educational needs of the school. Lesson plans, which teachers long derided as a useless paperwork exercise for the benefit of supervisors because of their required formats and ritualized collection schedules, became a professional responsibility of teachers, with “organization, format, notation and other physical aspects of the lesson plan … within the discretion of the teacher.”
Today, hundreds of schools do SBOs each year.
Article 8 of the DOE-UFT contract also included a staff development program geared to the needs of new teachers and designed with input from newer teachers. The UFT made the Mentor-Teacher Intern Program, which had begun as a state mandate in 1985, a contractual right for new teachers. Teachers now had responsibility for maintaining professional levels of performance for their newest colleagues in a collegial relationship.
Another contractual innovation was called Professional Conciliation, which established a procedure for resolving disagreements between teachers and administrators on several educational issues such as textbook selection, program offerings and appraisal methodologies.
In 1987, as a way to give teachers who might need it more help or a dignified way to exit the profession, union educators started the Peer Intervention Program in which skilled “intervenors” provided intensive coaching to tenured teachers who had been or were about to be rated as unsatisfactory.
In the mid-1990s, large comprehensive high schools became the focus of reform and educators were there. They worked on the development, design and staffing of smaller, more personalized environments and often moved into leadership positions in those schools. Many of these teacher-designed small schools continue to thrive alongside larger, equally effective schools.
In the late 1990s, working collaboratively with then-Chancellor Rudy Crew, educators took a group of more than 40 failing schools and put them into a network that came to be known as the Chancellor’s District. Many of the educational strategies that had made the MES model so successful were incorporated into the
Chancellor’s District schools: smaller classes, community and parent involvement and increased social and psychological services. The UFT Teacher Center had responsibility for all professional development. Teachers worked a longer day and school year with additional compensation. A structured math and reading program was put in place. After-school programs provided additional tutoring and the city committed additional funds to improve the physical plant. These schools outperformed similar schools consistently and became the model for school reform efforts, attracting visitors from around the nation. (One of the first things that Joel Klein did when he became chancellor in 2002 was to dismantle the district.)
In 1998, a task force of union educators put out a blueprint for a career continuum for teachers entitled “Assuring Teacher Quality.” After opposition and obstruction from a string of city administrators, only now is the Department of Education acting on some of the suggestions from the task force. Positions that recognize the skills and expertise of experienced educators — such as mentor, peer intervenor, teacher center specialist and Dial-A-Teacher homework helpers — have expanded to include lead teachers, who not only provide support for peers but also open up their classrooms as professional development labs. The newest solution that union educators have offered is turn-around teachers who, beginning this year, will help teachers and students in 19 struggling schools the DOE had targeted for closure.
Based on their track record, educators are certain to continue to develop great ideas to improve teaching and learning — and the UFT will be fighting to make those ideas reality.
Originally published in New York Teacher on Sept. 30, 2010