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:
3. a focus on competence
5. better student results
6. greater teacher retention
7. a sense of “community” around standards
Guestblogger Dal Lawrence, Toledo Federation of Teachers