Guestblogger Dal Lawrence On Professionalization

Dal Lawrence is the former President of the Toledo Federation of Teachers, he was instrumental in the creation of the Toledo Peer Review Plan among other reforms there.

Professionalization is the term that teacher union leaders today use to describe the transformation of teacher unions from antagonistic, defensive-minded organizations to high performance organizations that place priority on classroom performance standards and student results. This is not easy because in today’s hierarchical management of schools, transformation often is viewed by school officials as usurpation of management rights – even in the face of the right to mismanage.

The leaders of this effort in places such as Columbus, Minneapolis, Rochester, Toledo, and dozens of other districts big and small agree that the starting point is teacher evaluation. The traditional evaluation system in place is broken by virtually everyone’s admission. The process often results in labor-management conflict, ignores poor performance, and reinforces the us vs. them mindset of school leaders.

Evaluation also is the ideal starting point because no one has a vested interest in incompetence. Borrowing from medicine, inducting new teachers into the classroom, and into the union, should involve internships and residencies. Changing pre-service assumptions about teacher training is obvious within the context of professionalization, but colleges have been reluctant to adopt the medical model.

The transformation in evaluation involves performance “standards” or criteria directed at the key question, “Who should teach, and who should not?” Establishing standards and then taking them seriously is an abrupt departure from current practice where poor performance “needs improvement” or the poor performer is shifted to another school or simply ignored.
The process of using accomplished teachers to mentor and recommend future employment to a joint union-management panel does two starkly different things: (1) The process insures that competence issues are finally taken seriously by everyone, and (2) union and management become allies in key questions about competence. Instead of conflict we get cooperation. Trust begins to grow and future collaboration possibilities open up.

This is the “latch point,” a mechanism that produces trust and yields better results. It is a logical way to begin transforming labor-management relations. The PAR (Peer Assistance and Review) panel latches top management and union officials together to establish, enforce, and monitor competency standards. Collaboration is a natural by-product.

Normally, reforms that depend heavily on collaboration are produced by a personal relationship (good karma) between a superintendent and a union president. Good things happen until the relationship changes through retirement or election defeat. There is no assurance that programs from the collaboration will survive and, as often as not, they don’t.

The peer review panel has a history throughout the nation of surviving personnel changes and, usually, budget constraints. Toledo, for example, has seen seven superintendents and numerous budget crunches since 1981 when the “Toledo Plan” began, including a near strike in 2001, but the plan has not only survived, it was never considered expendable. In fact, contract language from 1981 has never been changed. It merely says that a peer review program will exist, and it can be cancelled by either side with notice. It exists, literally, with a handshake.

In summary, to begin the labor-management transformation process:

1. Find a better way to mentor and evaluate.
2. Use a classic profession i.e. medicine, to grab teacher attention.
3. Govern the process jointly between management and union.

The byproducts will be:

1. ownership
2. responsibility
3. a focus on competence
4. pride
5. better student results
6. greater teacher retention
7. a sense of “community” around standards

Guestblogger Dal Lawrence, Toledo Federation of Teachers

4 Replies to “Guestblogger Dal Lawrence On Professionalization”

  1. I’m curious about any studies of PAR and similar innovations. Is anyone aware of studies that these systems actually improve classroom instruction?

  2. What needs to go hand-in-hand with evaluation is the education piece. What can teachers do to improve their practice?

    We teach doctors what to do to be better doctors. I think we can do a better job preparing teachers.

  3. I watched the handshake between our superintendent and our AFT president over the Toledo Plan. The agreement fell apart for a lot of reasons, but I was still confident that we could get it done.

    Then came NCLB …

    I read the proposals from the Citizens Commission on Civil Rights on reforms that unions support and it got me encouraged. I doubt we have the wisdom to enact Performance Pay in most circumstances but the mere discussion has great benefits, and I’d support it on a district by district basis. It brings back the issues of collaboration,professionalization, and peer review. And it is a non-starter without “multiple measures.”

    I’d also contrast their approaches to Seniority with the Comparability proposals of the Ed Trust, which just seem like spasms of resentment. (if we just want to punish, why not just force low poverty schools to cut off their air conditioners?)The big issue is how do you remove incompetent teachers (and administrators) in our high poverty schools. And remember, with today’s conditions, if you fire all ineffective teachers in inner city schools, we’d never be able to replace them. Stop burning out our best young teachers and we’ll make some progress. Back off from micro-managing teachers – and imposing the most destructive scripted, standardized instruction – and teachers will be very cooperative. As Al Shanker said, next to the students, the people who suffer the most due to ineffective teachers are other teachers who have to deal with their messes.

    And Andrew, that gets back to the NY Times article. We want real data-driven decision-making, even regarding evaluations. But we can’t just roll over and show our juggler vein. Abandon single measures, start to rebuild trust, and we’ll love to respond. And give us some disciplinary backing and you’ll see plenty of people who want to join the civil rights movement of the 21st century and teach in high poverty schools.

    Your complaint on the issue highlighted by Schemeo’s article is the mirror image of mine. I teach at a school where the Pass Rate of Algebra is always around 4 to 8% like the schools she mentioned. But we got off the failing list! We combined the poorest half of our most troubled middle school with the poorest half our our most troubled high school to create a new school to get us out of NCLB sanctions. But the results were incomprehensibly horrible. I thought I’d seen it all, but when you merge your most troubled populations and create a worse critical mass of high risk kids, you create a catastrophe. And our district is doing that in all of our toughest middle and high schools. NOBODY thinks it is good educational policy. Without NCLB, would anyone try something like that? And would union members trust an administration that did something like that.

    But I don’t understand this defensiveness on NCLB. Regardless of the letter of the law, it has to be implemented by flesh and blood human beings. NCLB caused panic, and that panic has been horribly destructive – killing more reasonable reforms.

    If we move from accountability being the cornerstone of reform to accountability being one important component, then we can get back to work on practical proposals to help kids.


  4. As an untenured teacher I would not be afraid of a change in the evaluation process. As a professional I would not be afraid of a change either. I teach Art and I deal with others who feel that my job is not essential. Having a powerful, playing field leveling evaluation would be just another reason for me to hold my head up. I take my job seriously and every day I work around those who don’t. The students know the teachers who have thrown in the towel. Those teachers seem so bored and tired. I hope I have the sense to leave if I stop enjoying my job.

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