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A teachers union embraces reform in New Haven, creating a model for others

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NEW HAVEN, Conn. — In the spring of 2011, David Cicarella, the teachers union president here, sat down with a tenured teacher for a difficult discussion. After a warning from his principal the previous November, as well as months of extra support, the teacher had failed to show improvement. The teacher could try to put up a fight, Cicarella explained, but with a failing grade on a performance evaluation, there was little he could do to hang onto his job.

“How could you let this happen to me?” replied the teacher, Cicarella recalled. “I pay dues!” Cicarella accepted the curses hurled at him: His union had helped design the new evaluation system and would support its consequences, even if it meant that a teacher with over 15 years of experience would lose his job.

Dave Cicarella & Garth Harries. (Photo by Melissa Bailey/New Haven Independent)

Dave Cicarella & Garth Harries. (Photo by Thomas MacMillan/New Haven Independent)

Thomas MacMillan

The conversation came as Cicarella ushered his union into new territory with a teacher evaluation that counts student performance, based on teacher-set learning goals that include standardized tests, as one of three measures of a teacher’s effectiveness. The system has pushed out a small number of teachers—62 so far, out of more than 1,800—while helping many others improve enough to keep their jobs.

The evaluations represent a shift in mentality for the union. While teachers unions in other cities have felt under attack by reformers bent on eliminating tenure and opening up privately run charter schools, the New Haven Federation of Teachers has worked with district leaders on a collaborative approach to reform.

In doing so, Cicarella said his union has defined itself as a group of professionals “willing to improve our craft,” agreeing to “reasonable changes” in work rules while retaining shared power. In the largest show of that shared power, the city last year let the union take over management of a failing school, freeing teachers to rewrite curricula and launch a radical experiment to end “social promotion,” the practice of passing students to the next grade level even when they’re unprepared. Union leaders found that by agreeing to work with management, they were able to dictate many of the terms.

New Haven’s case gives a glimpse into the possible future for teachers unions, as locals across the country search for ways to respond to a national push for greater teacher accountability without ceding too much power. New Haven has drawn attention for making progress without the rancor or public standoffs that have left places like Chicago and New York City deadlocked over how to fix public schools. Unions in Baltimore, Md., and St. Paul, Minn., have used New Haven as a blueprint for their own labor contracts, and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has highlighted New Haven’s work at national conferences on labor-management collaboration.

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The partnership in New Haven is no accident. It was a deliberate plan by a longtime Democratic mayor, John DeStefano, Jr. and a national union leader, Randi Weingarten, to make New Haven a proving ground. Weingarten said the city has succeeded in undertaking comprehensive school reform without undermining organized labor.

“New Haven is a gold standard in terms of how you do things right,” said Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the country’s second-largest teachers union. The effort dates back to 2008, when DeStefano faced mounting criticism over the deterioration of city schools under his watch. Only one in five third-graders was reading at grade level. DeStefano looked for a way to reverse the years of educational failure since he took office in 1994. The school system he oversees serves 20,000 students, nearly all of whom are poor and black or Hispanic.

An astute politician, DeStefano took note of what was happening in Washington, D.C., where the AFT was reeling from a bitter fallout with Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee over a new evaluation system. He made a pitch to Weingarten to come to New Haven. She seized the chance to prove the AFT could be part of the solution in fixing public schools. National AFT staff flew up from D.C. to Connecticut a half-dozen times to help their local affiliate hammer out a new labor contract that would pave the way to reform.

“New Haven was one of those first contracts which we were very, very involved in helping to steer to the end,” said Weingarten. New Haven “became a proof point to show that collective bargaining really is a path to problem-solving.” Unlike in D.C., Weingarten found both sides able to work together. “What makes it different is that it was one of the first times where you had both parties deciding that it was time to be solution-driven.”

Riley Gibbs, a teacher at New Haven's union-run high school, High School in the Community. (Photo by Melissa Bailey/New Haven Independent)

Riley Gibbs, a teacher at New Haven’s union-run high school, High School in the Community. (Photo by Melissa Bailey/New Haven Independent)

Negotiations began in early 2009. Cicarella still remembers the day it all started. He got a message at his office from the mayor. It was “very strange,” Cicarella recalled. “The mayor never called [previously].” Though DeStefano appoints the school board, he hadn’t been very involved in the schools.

DeStefano sat Cicarella down and floated the idea of a school reform drive. Cicarella bristled at two of the mayor’s early proposals, eradicating tenure and creating more charter schools. “The union is not the problem,” Cicarella recalled telling him. But when DeStefano raised other ideas—such as making teacher evaluations more meaningful and adding flexibility to work rules, like the length of the school day—the two were able to find common ground.

The mayor found the union president receptive to new ideas. The 56-year-old former math teacher is not your stereotypical union boss: For instance, despite widespread criticism of Teach For America among labor circles, Cicarella likes the elite teacher training program so much that he suggested to his daughter that she apply for it.

“I never shut my mind to anything,” Cicarella said. Negotiations began from a statement of “shared beliefs.” Cicarella agreed with DeStefano that the old teacher evaluations—which, like most of the country’s, ran on a simple satisfactory/unsatisfactory system—were failing to identify top-performers or help struggling teachers improve. In a revealing survey, rank-and-file teachers said they wanted to see truly bad teachers fired, not protected. Cicarella agreed to hold teachers accountable for how their kids learn—as long as principals and top administrators were held to the same standard.

Over the course of six months, the two sides agreed on the outline of a reform plan. DeStefano said he stopped pushing to get rid of tenure when the union agreed to a teacher evaluation that would make it easier to fire tenured teachers. And he stopped advocating for more charter schools when the union agreed to an alternative: let the district hire new management to take over a few failing schools each year as “turnarounds.” At those schools, teachers have to reapply for their jobs, though they are guaranteed work elsewhere in the district if they were displaced. If they stay at the turnaround school, they have to abide by new work rules, which could include a longer day with extra pay.

In exchange for significant changes to longstanding work rules, the city offered teachers healthy raises—3 percent per year, at a time when most unions were getting none. In October 2009, teachers approved a three-year labor contract by a staggering margin: 842 to 39. The contract laid the groundwork for a citywide reform effort that would galvanize business leaders, Yale University and local nonprofits to invest in city schools.

After the contract was settled, a team of six teachers and six administrators hashed out the details of the new evaluations in just 12 months. They did so with the guidance of Assistant Superintendent Garth Harries, who came to New Haven to oversee a more collaborative version of reform than the one he’d presided over as a top advisor to New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein.

Cicarella said the value-added model, a popular idea among reformers that has taken hold in cities like New York, was on the table at one point. The model uses a complex algorithm to predict how much a given student should learn in a year—taking into account the student’s background—and then grades a teacher on whether the student meets, exceeds or falls below the target. Cicarella said he rejected the model as flawed and unreliable. Instead, the two sides agreed to a system in which teachers—not an algorithm—set targets for student learning.

Teachers Wayne Austin and Tom James at a staff meeting at the union-run high school. (Photo by Melissa Bailey/New Haven Independent)

Teachers Wayne Austin and Tom James at a staff meeting at the union-run high school. (Photo by Melissa Bailey/New Haven Independent)

Each teacher gets to pick two goals for student growth, in agreement with an assistant principal or principal. About half of New Haven’s teachers must base one goal on standardized test scores, something Cicarella said the district insisted on. But teachers secured some safeguards against abuse: Unlike in other cities, the student learning data are weighed differently depending on how conclusive the information is. And to promote fairness, outside validators visit classrooms to audit those with low test scores.

In the fall of 2010, the new evaluation system took effect for all 1,800 teachers in the district. Teachers are now graded on a scale of 1 (“needs improvement”) to 5 (“exemplary”) based on three measures: student learning growth, instructional practice and “professional values.” The latter two are determined through several classroom observations.

The timeline for getting rid of low-performing teachers is swift: Based on classroom observations early in the year, teachers are notified in November if they’re in danger of receiving a failing grade. They get extra support throughout the year. If they don’t improve by June, they stand to lose their jobs. Termination isn’t automatic: In cases where a teacher appears to be improving, or where the principal doesn’t follow the rules about feedback and support, teachers can hold onto their jobs.

At the end of the first year with new evaluations, the district pushed out 34 teachers, or just under 2 percent of the workforce. Cicarella sat down with each one to explain the decision. He faced three reactions: “Some accepted it and moved on.” Others were “outraged.” And a few shed tears. Cicarella said those conversations were difficult, but the cases were clear-cut: Supervisors had given the teachers ample time and feedback, but they’d failed to improve.

Cicarella said he’s been “lambasted” by some outside observers for endorsing the plan. “You’re going to fire tenured teachers? Your job is to protect teachers,” one union member from Cleveland told him. But he said the system has succeeded in raising standards for the profession while keeping protections such as tenure intact.

The goal of the new evaluations is not to fire teachers, Harries said. Rather, it’s to “create professional relationships” between teachers and supervisors to improve teaching. Teachers have three conferences with a supervisor over the course of the year. One nervous first-year teacher, under pressure to improve or face termination, used her mid-year meeting to discuss classroom management, self-confidence, and why kids weren’t showing more progress in reading.

The teacher made changes after the meeting and was able to keep her job, as did many others—a fact that union and district leaders heralded as a sign of success. In many cases, Cicarella said, teachers “got better because, quite frankly, some people worked harder.” Others got better because “now we actually had plans of improvement that were real,” not “half-assed improvement plans” thrown at a teacher in May.

Of the 62 teachers who’ve been pushed out, all agreed to leave of their own volition, without being officially terminated or filing a grievance. The experiment won major national recognition last year, when Education Secretary Duncan awarded New Haven a five-year, $53.4 million grant to improve the way it evaluates, develops and rewards educators.

Brennan/Rogers School Principal Karen Lott sits down with a struggling first-year teacher for a mid-year conference as part of the teacher evaluations. (Photo by Melissa Bailey/New Haven Independent)

Brennan/Rogers School Principal Karen Lott sits down with a struggling first-year teacher for a mid-year conference as part of the teacher evaluations. (Photo by Melissa Bailey/New Haven Independent)

Not all teachers are pleased with the union’s embrace of reform. Some argue that attaching major consequences to student tests forces teachers to move away from the more in-depth, higher-level thinking that keeps kids engaged in school. But so far, New Haven’s teachers have yet to revolt. In a recent union vote, Cicarella won reelection unopposed, a sign that the union will stay the course with reform during upcoming contract negotiations.

MarcAnthony Solli, a 14-year veteran English teacher who serves as union steward at his high school, said teachers’ biggest complaint about the evaluations has been inconsistency: The quality of the feedback they receive, and the extent to which teachers have meaningful discussions with supervisors about their practice, depends on the evaluator. Solli, the son of a former teachers union leader, said the new evaluations reflect a change in the fundamental relationship between labor and management.

“We’re in a post-industrial version of this profession,” he said. Teachers are now preparing kids not just to be cogs in factories, but to emerge as highly skilled critical thinkers ready for careers. As the job changes, teachers should have “professional conversations” with their managers about how best to engage students. “This us-versus-them mentality has to give way,” he said.

Harries conceded that New Haven’s new evaluations are “far from perfect,” and the school reform efforts are a work in progress. What matters most, he said, is a shared commitment to continue looking for better solutions. “Approaching this all collaboratively gives us the room to take risks, to learn and to correct ourselves together.”

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