Wednesday, February 13, 2008



How would you assess the union’s current leadership, and what should its role be in improving Los Angeles schools? David Tokofsky and Lisa Snell debate.

Today, Tokofsky and Snell discuss how UTLA can lend itself to improving L.A. schools. Previously, they weighed options for students enrolled in low-performing campuses. Later in the week, they'll discuss vouchers, breaking up the school district and more.

So many bureaucratic distractions

By David Tokofsky

With all empathy for those who truly suffer with bipolar disorder, I find that my union for 12 years, United Teachers Los Angeles, may in fact have this difficult-to-treat psychological condition. Many, however, might want to classify the leaders of the nearly 50,000-member union as instead having O.D.D., or Opposition Disposition Disorder — every time their red t-shirts are in the news, they are protesting some government injustice or district boondoggle. A closer analysis may shrink the true disorder as either organizational manic depression or perhaps A.D.D. — what Garrison Keillor, the cultural anthropologist on National Public Radio, rightly identifies as Affection Deficit Disorder.

With all these potential afflictions, it is no wonder we cannot love our teachers organization as much as we love our individual classroom instructors.

Teachers generally rally behind UTLA when it is criticized because the union is in fact a very democratic body. Unfortunately, few members vote in officer elections. Yet no one prevents members from voting or participating. Not only is the union a highly democratic body, but UTLA also serves its members' needs fairly well. Its leadership enforces a lengthy contract rigorously and knowledgeably. UTLA fights for the delineated needs of its members by collectively bargaining with a district management that often cannot shape any coherent vision or define accountability, responsibility or good teaching. On these measures, the union earns a very good to excellent score.

As for truly assessing the silent majority of teachers' inner aspirations to change kids' lives, and putting that cause first, UTLA only from time to time advocates for the professional growth of its members. Too often, however, poorly planned or ideologically driven initiatives from mid-level bureaucrats in the Los Angeles Unified School District distract UTLA leaders. In those cases, the union criticizes the Los Angeles Board of Education or state rather than addressing the professional agenda of curriculum, instruction and assessment. Instead of hearing from all of its members through polling or customer demands and satisfaction, UTLA leaders often shape the debate themselves and win the salary and benefits agenda. Consequently, they don't often pay much attention to quality teaching, curriculum transformation and professional growth.

Granted, some past union presidents have seen success in this arena — namely, Helen Bernstein, Day Higuchi and John Perez. But ultimately, professional dignity is defined dominantly by dollars and salary without any parallel progress on change in the teaching profession.

Indeed, this is the bipolar problem facing all teachers' unions. It is caused ultimately by inadequate state funding and is exacerbated by local ineptitude. The problem is further fanned by salary victories from California's small pot of money compared to New York, Kentucky, Connecticut and other states. The current union leadership understands that it must not just fight district bureaucracy; it must also make the budget pie grow. Teachers unions in San Francisco, San Diego, Montebello and Santa Monica are moving forward by putting parcel taxes on their June ballots to replace funds cut by the distant state Legislature and governor. In L.A., the union leadership is only now moving slowly forward. It didn't previously because of several major distractions over the last few years, including Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's proposed district takeover, ideological debates over charter schools and school board elections, which change the board's composition every two years.
It is enough to classify the system as manic-depressive. And while the leaders of UTLA and the district often engage in a co-dependant death dance, the two of us nonetheless do care more about our schools than the city government cares about its failings. Indeed, we hope more for improvement by schools and teachers unions than we do for cities cleaning up our parks.

Hopefully, UTLA will swing toward its less advocated pole of professionalism and balance itself without the electroshock of losing students and, consequently, teachers. Whether the district loses its students and families to charters or cheaper housing in other counties, declining enrollment means fewer teachers hired and dues paid to UTLA. We all wait for the union to embody the collective love we give our teachers, but that may be as impossible as bringing Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama together.

David Tokofsky was an L.A. Board of Education member for 12 years. Before that, he taught social studies and Spanish at John Marshall High School for 12 years.

Move to a "thin contract" model

By Lisa Snell

The current UTLA leadership is too focused on more money for teachers and status quo reforms such as smaller class sizes and opposition to the No Child Left Behind Act. David, we should not be resistant to looking at other innovative labor models to improve student achievement in L.A. Unified.

The best way for the union to serve students in Los Angeles would be to get out of the way and stop subjecting schools to tedious rules that restrict decision-making at the school level.
The latest trend in public school labor relations is for teachers to trade more professionalism, money and flexibility for less bureaucratic rules that dictate every interaction between staff and management. Student achievement can improve when principals have more control over personnel and more decision-making power over day-to-day operations at the school.

We currently have several good models that offer a road map for changing the labor model for public education. Green Dot's charter school model, pilot schools within districts in Boston and Los Angeles, and entire districts like New York City's are pointing the way to a new labor model for public schools. The goal should be to liberate teachers by getting rid of prescriptive work rules, lock-step pay and automatic tenure rules in exchange for more pay and flexibility and more professional teaching opportunities.

In Los Angeles, Green Dot offers one new labor model. The contract for Green Dot teachers is 33 pages; L.A. Unified's is more than 300. The Green Dot contract doesn't dictate day-to-day operations like the number of minutes a teacher can work in a school day or the number of days in a school year. Instead, it calls for "a professional workday," where teachers are required to do what is necessary to help students succeed — including multiple roles that include advising students and maintaining contact with parents.

Green Dot teachers can choose guaranteed retirement benefits or higher salaries and a self-managed 401(k) plan. According to a Nov. 11 editorial in the Chicago Tribune, teachers have overwhelmingly chosen 401(k) plans. Green Dot's contract does not offer tenure or seniority preferences, yet a fourth-year Green Dot teacher makes $8,000 more a year than a member of the traditional Los Angeles teachers union.

The Green Dot contract allows teachers to be fired for "just cause," and employees can challenge termination through a grievance procedure. Green Dot pushes decision-making down to the school level with very few administrators involved. Despite the use of a "thin contract" at Green Dot, many L.A. Unified teachers are willing to work with fewer job guarantees in exchange for a more professional day and higher pay. This year, Green Dot had 1,300 applicants for 90 teaching positions.

Pilot schools within larger school districts have also negotiated modified union contracts that offer teachers and principals more flexibility. For example, both Boston pilot schools and the new Belmont zone of choice in Los Angeles operate on a three-page contract that is basically a memorandum of understanding negotiated between the district and the union. The contract language from the Boston teachers union, for example, explicitly exempts the pilot schools from union work rules, allowing each individual pilot school to set hours of operation, schedules and decide on employee roles and obligations that best meet the needs of individual schools. If these exemptions work for small numbers of schools within a district, why not expand the modified contract to cover all schools within a district?

New York offers the most significant example of how a larger union can move toward simpler and more rational contracts in exchange for higher pay and more job opportunities. While New York's contract is far from the Green Dot or pilot-school model, it demonstrates a larger union willing to move toward more local control over personnel and practices.

New York revitalized the way it hired teachers by adopting an "open market" system. New York ended "bumping" and "force placing," practices that forced principals to hire teachers even if they weren't qualified or a good fit for the school. Now, through a new "open market hiring system," more than 3,000 experienced teachers applied for open jobs and were selected directly by principals for vacancies across the district.
The New York Department of Education (DOE) also worked with the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) to actually change the contract to include more flexible work rules in exchange for higher pay. The contract allows DOE to recruit and retain the high-quality teachers that New York students need and increases teacher pay by 15%. In exchange, the contract also gives DOE the ability to create "Lead Teacher" positions with a $10,000 salary differential, giving principals a powerful new tool to recruit experienced, talented teachers to high-need schools.

The DOE and UFT also created a $15,000 housing incentive for experienced math, science and special-education teachers who agree to teach for at least three years in high-needs schools. The agreement provides struggling students an additional 150 minutes every week in small-group instruction so they get the help they need to catch up during the school year.

Teachers and students at L.A. Unified would benefit from more flexibility in work rules that may not always be in the best interest of the teacher or the student. Principals would benefit from more control over personnel and day-to-day decision-making. Everyone would benefit from a simpler contract that treats teachers more like professionals.

Lisa Snell is director of education and child welfare at the Reason Foundation, a nonprofit think tank advancing free minds and free markets.

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