State of the Union

There are good general comments on the State of the Union elsewhere, I especially recommend Rotherham and Hess, in my personal effort to be *ahem* fair and balanced.  In my experience, it’s always a good time when Rick’s glass is half full …

But I wanted to call specific attention to this Denver Post article about the principal who was featured by the President.  It describes Kristin Waters and the lengths she went to in order to improve her school:

The high-poverty school was the first to petition for and be granted innovation status — an agreement by union teachers to waive certain district and union rules. The idea was to give teachers more time, money and other resources to work with struggling students. The school has been climbing in achievement over the years.

NPR did a story on the school this afternoon, and John Merrow took a closer look as well.  Merrow calls it a “shot across the union bow,” and likens these comments to Obama’s weighing-in in Central Falls, RI last year.  I think that’s a little bit of an over simplification.

For me, there are two big stories here: unions and school-level autonomy, and they’re deeply intertwined.  What this is about at its core is better conditions for teaching and learning, and that means providing more flexibility for school leadership and teachers.  More time with a stronger teacher is a good thing.  Rewarding teachers for working with the hardest to reach students is a good thing.  Creating more flexible site-level decision-making structures to compensate for the inevitable turbulence in chronically underperforming schools is a good thing.  To the extent that union contracts get in the way of those things, that’s not so good.

My point being, it’s not terribly useful to indict unions – or suggest that the President is indicting the unions – as the obstacle to reform, although that certainly is true in a lot of places.  I think it’s more useful, though, to illustrate the nature of the deals that get made to facilitate longer school days, more instructional time on task, and more flexibility for teachers and leaders.  And then we need to examine what elements of union contracts get in the way of those things.  That’s exactly what happened in Denver, and it can work.



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