The other day I was talking to a knowledgeable and pretty teachers’ union-friendly colleague in our space who was deriding this new New Haven teachers’ contract agreement (I have not been able to find a link to it online though hard copies are about). Their point was that’s it not yet real but merely a path toward creating something real through various processes so all the praise for it is premature until there are actually big changes on the ground. Tom Carroll is more pointed in this HuffPo piece calling the whole thing into question as a fraud since the actual changes are minimal.
They’re both fair points but I’d disagree for three reasons – opportunity, deviation, and perception.
Opportunity: Sure, there must be further agreements to make this into a real reform but the opportunity – and as importantly the risk – is there now. The opportunity is pretty straightforward, there is reform energy in New Haven, the mayor seems fired up, arguably the best EAO in the country operates there (ConnCan) and Alex Johnston is on the New Haven Board of Education, that’s a pretty good line-up. And the teachers’ unions surely get the risk. If they’re just trying to kick the can down the road it’s going to backfire, the press is paying attention (what David Brooks gives he can take away!), and the stakes are high for their leadership to deliver real results. A part of the strategy may well be that they’re are more likely be able to get something done if it’s not in the context of the actual contract negotiations with all the attendant politics.* Besides, if they don’t accomplish anything with this they’ll have a lot to answer for in the wake of all the big talk.
Deviation: For a long time the teachers’ unions had a lot of trouble tolerating much deviation from various norms. That’s why in some states, for instance New Jersey, local contract negotiations are keenly watched by state teachers’ associations. It’s also why you’d see state teachers’ unions rush to file unfair labor action complaints when faced with deviations from the single-salary scale and so forth. And why the NEA has had so much trouble with almost any kind of significantly differentiated compensation. Thankfully that’s changing. Things like this agreement are not sufficient but are signs of change and a greater tolerance for deviation than in the past. That sort of change and disruption at the bottom will ultimately intersect with the imperative for change at the top.
Perception:Perception matters a lot to the teachers’ unions. For instance this year they’ve been as concerned about the growing perception that Arne Duncan doesn’t listen to them as they are about actual policy differences with Duncan. Though they’re powerful organizations they do benefit from perception as well and there is more than a little bit of a “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” quality to aspects of this debate. That they’re OK with even the perception that this contract is wildly different is not a small thing even if the details– at this point — don’t support that perception. In other words, in just a few years they’ve moved from a posture of, “move along, nothing to see here” to one of implicitlyacknowledging that these contracts must change. That’s not sufficient, but no small thing either.
So what went down in New Haven isn’t a silver bullet or the only change that needs to happen with regard to teachers’ contracts. But it’s something, and given the politics and pace in our field it’s a real something and could turn into a laboratory for change. Declare it a failure in twelve or eighteen months and hold everyone accountable if that’s not happening, but to do so now is premature.
*One illustration: A colleauge who runs a big city teachers’ union once called me during contract negotiations and we were talking about where things stand and he said, “well, their first offer was good, really good actually, but of course I can’t take it because my members would have my head if we don’t fight with them for a few months…”
Update: NYT editorial page makes the same caution in Thurs’ edition.