Editorial: Detroit teachers union should embrace changes
THE DETROIT NEWS
The Detroit Federation of Teachers’ contract is set to expire later this week as talks between the union and school district Emergency Financial Manager Robert Bobb remain stalled over reforms to improve district finances and student achievement. Detroit’s teachers ironically could help break the impasse by adopting policies that its national union supports.
After months of negotiations, including a one-month extension, Bobb last week characterized the negotiations as “brutal.” While he acknowledged that the union has proposed “some very creative cost-cutting ideas that we are embracing,” he indicated the union is resisting academic reforms, including modifying seniority in Detroit’s lowest-performing schools. This would allow Detroit the flexibility to staff schools with its best teachers instead of those who have clocked the most time in the district.
Site-based management is also a sticking point, says Barbara Byrd-Bennett, Bobb’s academic czar. The idea is to empower principals and teachers to manage their schools instead of relying on the district’s traditional model of schools being guided by a highly centralized and distant bureaucracy. Union leaders such as the Detroit Federation of Teachers’ Keith Johnson are used to negotiating big decisions such as teacher pay and bonuses themselves, rather than allowing their members to do so at individual schools.
None of Bobb’s requests are unreasonable or unprecedented nationally. The American Federation of Teachers affiliate in New York City supported a radically different contract in partnership with unionized charter school operator Green Dot Schools, which is out-performing Detroit high schools in practically every measure.
Earlier this month, the AFT Innovation Fund announced it will distribute $1.2 million to projects at eight affiliates. They include developing new teacher evaluations in Rhode Island and New York, and creating a compensation plan that considers multiple measures of student learning in Broward County, Fla.
The American Federation of Teachers, led by President Randi Weingarten, considers these reform projects important. The affiliate in Rhode Island noting that its evaluation project emphasizes that it “has no interest in protecting incompetent teachers.”
If a new contract is not finalized by the end of this week, Bobb says he would be willing to extend it by just one week. After that, declaring the school district bankrupt is “still an option,” he said.
If the Detroit teacher union remains resistant, Bobb should make good on his word to declare bankruptcy. It would wipe out the teacher contract and allow him to set up more flexible and effective rules and practices for the district. This would benefit students more than rewarding the recalcitrance of the union — which three years ago conducted an illegal strike, causing misery for school families and a hemorrhage of students from the district.
The better option for the union would seem to be to adopt the AFT’s reforms with Bobb and continue to have a say in the district’s destiny. The union should do what’s best for the future of teachers and students, not just its own parochial interests.
The American Federation of Teachers union announced this month it would fund eight affiliates to support ground-breaking new teacher contracts. These changes include:
Developing new teacher evaluations to measure teacher quality and its link to student achievement. The proposal indicates the union “has no interest in protecting incompetent teachers.”
Supporting a new compensation plan that rewards teachers and staff for improved student learning.
Agreeing to more flexible contracts to help build high-performing new schools and boost student enrollment
Source: Detroit News research; American Federation of Teachers
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