New In New Haven?

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.

Posted on Oct 28, 2009 @ 5:56pm

One thought on “New In New Haven?

  1. Thomas W. Carroll

    I agree that New Haven bears watching. The Mayor does seem sincere and enthusiastic. The appointment of Alex Johnston, for whom I have tremendous respect, to the New Haven school board is amazing. And, I would add, the appointment of Garth Harries (a former top aide to Joel Klein) as Assistant Superintendent is very significant, too. So, the debate is not over whether things are brewing in New Haven. They clearly are.

    Nonetheless, it still is telling that those who defend/praise the contract keep talking about the “potential” of the contract, rather than its actual provisions.

    The actual provisions of the New Haven contract — perhaps with the possible exception of a new time limit for moving towards dismissal of low-performing teachers — are not actually new, novel, or pathbreaking. So, when you talk about the contract’s “deviations,” what actual deviations do you actually see?

    What you are left with is an argument that (a) since lots of good people are involved in reform in New Haven and (b) since the union cares about how it is perceived, then (c) there must be something going on — if only we could actually nail down what the “something” actually is.

    I suggest that we not be so desperate for the unions to be flexible that we all do backflips at the slightest superficial nod in our direction. I refer people to my Huffington Post piece (graciously mentioned above) for the details.

    I fail to see how cheaply earned praise gives the teachers unions or city officials an incentive to do real reform — with all the attendant controversy — when they can get praised for hardly doing anything.

    Michelle Rhee, who actually deserves praise, must be amazed that the New Haven contract passes as significant change.

    Rather than praise the New Haven contract and then declare it a failure in 12-18 months if it is a failure, as you suggest, how about we call it what it is — not much new — and then praise New Haven in 12-18 months if they are able to pull off major reform in spite of an objectively uninspiring contract.

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