In New Haven, a Teachers Union Embraces Change

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Melanie Stengel / The New Haven Register / AP

From left: Mayor John DeStefano, Representative Rosa DeLauro, and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan participate in a round table discussion on education reform at Jepson School in New Haven, Conn., on May 29, 2012.

New Haven, Conn. — In the spring of 2011, David Cicarella, the teachers union president here, sat down with a tenured teacher for a difficult discussion. After a warning from his principal and months of extra support, the teacher had failed to show improvement. With a failing grade on a performance evaluation, Cicarella explained, there was little he could do to hang onto his job.

“How could you let this happen to me?” replied the teacher, Cicarella recalled. “I pay dues!” Cicarella accepted the curses hurled at him: His union had helped design the new evaluation system and would support its consequences, even if it meant that a teacher with more than 15 years of experience would lose his job.

The conversation came as Cicarella ushered his union into new territory with a teacher evaluation system that counts student performance, based on teacher-set learning goals that include standardized tests, as one of three measures of a teacher’s effectiveness. The system has pushed out a small number of teachers—62 so far, out of more than 1,800—while helping many others improve enough to keep their jobs.

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The evaluations represent a shift in mentality for the union. While teachers unions in other cities have felt under attack by reformers bent on eliminating tenure and opening up privately run charter schools, the New Haven Federation of Teachers has worked with district leaders on a collaborative approach to reform. In doing so, union leaders have found they were able to dictate many of the terms.

New Haven’s case gives a glimpse into the possible future for teachers unions, as locals across the country search for ways to respond to a national push for greater teacher accountability without ceding too much power. New Haven has drawn attention for making progress without the rancor or public standoffs that have left places like Chicago and New York City deadlocked over how to fix public schools. Unions in Baltimore, Md., and St. Paul, Minn., have used New Haven as a blueprint for their own labor contracts, and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has highlighted New Haven’s work at national conferences on labor-management collaboration.

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The partnership was a deliberate plan by a longtime Democratic mayor, John DeStefano, Jr. and a national union leader, Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), to make New Haven a proving ground. An astute politician, DeStefano had taken note of what was happening in Washington, D.C., where the AFT was reeling from a bitter fallout with Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee over teacher tenure and pay. He invited Weingarten to New Haven to try a more collaborative approach. Weingarten seized the chance to prove her union could be part of the solution to fix public schools. She declared the approach, where changes were negotiated in a union contract, successful: “New Haven is a gold standard in terms of how you do things right.”

The effort dates back to 2008, when DeStefano faced mounting criticism over the deterioration of a school system that serves 20,000 students, nearly all of them poor and black or Hispanic. Only one in five third-graders was reading at grade level.

Over the course of six months, labor and management agreed on the outline of a reform plan. DeStefano said he stopped pushing to get rid of tenure when the union agreed to a teacher evaluation that would make it easier to fire tenured teachers. And he stopped advocating for more charter schools when the union agreed to an alternative: let the district hire new management to take over a few failing schools each year as “turnarounds.” Teachers at turnaround schools have to abide by new work rules, which could include a longer day with extra pay.

Not all teachers are pleased with the union’s embrace of reform. Some argue that attaching major consequences to student tests forces teachers to move away from the more in-depth, higher-level thinking that keeps kids engaged in school. But in a recent union vote, Cicarella won reelection unopposed, a sign that the union will stay the course.

MarcAnthony Solli, a 14-year veteran English teacher and son of a former teachers union president, said the new evaluations reflect a change in the fundamental relationship between labor and management. “We’re in a post-industrial version of this profession,” he said. “This us-versus-them mentality has to give way.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University.
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