Politicians and Teachers Unions – thoughts for philanthropy

I live in Oberlin Ohio and due to my wife’s position as Director of the Cooper International Learning Center at Oberlin College we are active members in the life of the College and the town of Oberlin, Ohio. Located in corn fields about 27 miles west of Cleveland, Oberlin is a town that is rich in history and home to a college with a legacy of excellence in education.  It has a reputation for being liberal – sometimes on the fringe.  After and expensive “branding” campaign, the school adopted the term “FEARLESS” as its defining slogan.   Despite being ranked as one of the top 20 liberal arts colleges in the country, Oberlin College is located in a town with a public school system that has for many years struggled with low performance scores on state standardized tests.   In fact, it was ranked among the lowest performing in the State a few years ago.

The reasons are complex and rooted to some extent in a stratified economic and class system, which may seem odd for a town of only 4,000 permanent residents.  I referenced the social stratifications in my previous blog posting called “Philanthropy, Education and Class ‘what are we thinking, ”  With one of the best colleges in the country one would think that the public school system would excel.  Well, it has not.  Two years into his job, the visionary superintendent has had his challenges with a population that has taken him to task on his attempt to introduce a one-laptop per child into the schools as part of a larger goal to move the school to innovation in learning and technology.  That attempt was voted down in a school levy in 2006.  Most recently, the Superintendent has introduced the International Baccaulaureate Program into this district with approximately 1,200 students as a means of introducing rigor into the academic environment.  Starting with the lower grades, teachers have been trained on IB programs and eventually IB will be incorporated into the entire K-12 curriculum.  The townspeople have not been unanimous in their support.  The foundation I work with provided support to an organization that began a community voice project called, “Community Diaries” We started it around the laptop issue and with word-of-mouth marketing, we saw more than 500 posts in one month!.  When the levy failed, the discussions continued with some more strident voices nudging others out.  Today, there continues to be a lot of voices against IB, espeically from people who I surmise are from the miniority community.  ( The blog allows citizens to post anonymously). Even in this small town of 8,000 college students and permanent residents, running a school district is not an easy task.

As part of the 175th Year Celebration, Oberlin College has held a number of colloquia with speakers from around the country.  Tonight, Oberlin College was awarded the Harry S. Truman Foundation‘s 2008 Foundation Honor Institution.    Oberlin Alumnus Adrian M. Fenty class of 1992 was the featured speaker tonight.  Mr. Fenty is Mayor of Washington, D.C.  Mr. Fenty gave an impressive talk about his”…excitement about being back at Oberlin, his excitement for Ohio, his excitement for the District of Columbia and his excitement for the Nation for the hope he sense for the District and the Nation, especially with the President elect Obama.”  He was excited that Ohio was a “difference-maker in the national election.”  He was impressed with the Oberlin students who, in this past election led a county-wide effort to assist non-registered citizens any way they can to register for vote.  He was excited for the nation which has expressed its intolerance for the ways elections used to be done.  Voters realized that Obama kept a consistent message even early on and did not change his speeches or platforms to play to a base.  Fenty said, “If you campaign to your base, people realize you will govern to your base.”  People are at a point and realize that politics should be based on Performance and not Patronage.  He mentioned other leaders like the remarkable Cory Booker, in Newark (who I had the pleasure of meeting and hearing at a conference with Philanthropy Roundtable in October) ; Mayor Michael Bloomberg in New York, Gavin Newsom in San Francisco; and Byron Brown of Buffalo, New York and recently elected Governor of Maryland and former Mayor of Baltimore  Martin O’Malley, as examples of strong leaders who are focused and represent principled leaders who are determined to focus on performance and not patronage.

When the time for questions opened, I asked Mayor Fenty to talk about his number one priority – creating effective schools in the District of Columbia.  In my opinion, Mr. Fenty’s Chancellor of Schools Michelle Rhee is one of the most impressive leaders in American education.  He and Ms. Rhee constitute a team of public officials showing singularly strong and effective leadership by taking charge and changing a struggling public school district.  (I had the pleasure to meet Ms. Rhee when she was with Project REACH and spoke at Philanthropy Roundtable).  I asked Mr. Fenty the following question:

Your partnership with Chancellor Rhee has earned this team national recognition for innovation in transforming districts.  Was there anything you felt unprepared for when you took on this task of the appalling state of the district’s schools.  What did you learn from the experience and what advice would you give to mayors and leaders of smaller cities such as Lorain, Ohio; Elyria, Ohio and Cleveland?

Mr. Fenty answered, ” We learned early on that there was no mechanism in place for anyone to take decisive action.  Someone was accountable (the mayor) and had to take responsiblity for action.  People knew what the right thing to do was, but people in the system were so bogged down in the bureaucracy, they couldn’t act.  Too many people would shirk responsiblity and blame it on someone else or give excuses.  I would recommend to mayors of larger urban areas –  “Get Rid of the School Board.”  Too many people with agendas and interests (patronage?) are left to make decisions, then public hearings make it impossible for anyone to take decisive and critical action!  I (Fenty) passed the changes within 24 hours of being elected.  Decisions to close 23 reduntant and underperforming schools was made quickly and by fiat.

Second, you have to have a STRATEGY that is clear and concise.  Too few leaders have a strategy that has benchmarks for success along the way.  A good leader will roll-out that strategy early on and Chancellor Rhee did that.  Fenty is there to support her and do what it takes to make it happen.

Finally, “Get rid of teachers unions!”  Fenty said he agrees with and supports teachers organizing.  He has learned that teachers unions and especially their leadership are out not for the children but for ways to protect their jobs.  Their desire to protect their jobs has for too long shielded individual teachers from accountablity.  He quoted his Chancellor who says, ‘Adults have to be held accountable for student performance!”  In the union patronage system, too many people blame others or systems or tests ….anything but themselves for poor performance.  If they ask themselves if they might be the problem, then doors open to personal and professional improvement. ”

I was sitting next to the Oberlin Superintendent who, along with the rest of the audience was pretty much dumfounded by what he has to say.  Oberlin is a town that has prided itself in typical democratic platforms of the past and have been, in general supportive of unions.  The school district has had a highy politicized teachers union that some claim have contributed to the schools low performance.  I do not have children in the public system so I am in no position to comment on that fact.  My children(mine attend independent schools – we only have one chance at it and my children have been better served by private education).  Mr. Fenty’s comments left many uncomfortable.

I confess to some jubilation at Mr. Fenty’s comments.  In a future blog I will comment on the last days of the Ohio Grantmakers Forum project on providing the governor with ideas on how to introduce innovation in Ohio Schools and prepare students for the 21st Century.  In a final review of the process which, for the first time brought us the complete report of the other working group called Teacher/Principal Quality there were some concerns raised.  I asked whether a document which will be called

Preparing Students for Success in the Global Economy and Guaranteeing Quality Teaching and Effective School Leadership

and which is charged with providing a vision for innovation in teaching and learning. sould include language with specific langugage for legsilation that would clarify means for hiring and firing teachers.  The proposals also included legislative language eo ensure tenure for teachers.  My question was whether this document which is sponsored by a membership organization of foundations across the state should include language that is clearly an agenda item for the Ohio Teachers Union and their ongoing issues with the Ohio Department of Education.  I suggested that there was wide and varying opinion among foundations about teachers unions and their role in the future of public education.  Given that, I suggested the document which is well written and reflecting a lot of work, might be better suited as a separate piece without requesting sign off from foundations? A rather heated discussion ensued.  The word “anti-union” agenda was thrown out.  That experience helped me realized Mr. Fenty and Chancellor Rhee’s bravery and leadership.

For too long I have heard too many people speak with me in my official capacity “off the record” about the entrenched system of patronage that keeps people in jobs for life in the public school system with little accountability.  Too many leaders have spoken with me in confidence of how difficult and self-serving many teachers unions are.  For too long, I have heard and seen retired teachers pulled back into the system as patronage, to be reinstated at 80% salary and benefits. the Cleveland Plain Dealer had a lead story this week “What Should Schools Do About Bad Teachers?” which describes one district having to pay $200,000 in legal fees to arbitrate a grievance filed by a teacher who was let go.  I have it on fairly reliable evidence that the financially stricken Lorain City School District spent over $700,000 in legal fees one year to address union grievances.  Mr. Booker of Newark urged the audience to read about Mayor Bloomberg’s controversial “Rubber room” where teachers who are deemed unfit for class, but not able to be fired, are relegated to a room where they sit all day and collect taxpayers dollars protected by unions.  It was announced the other day that the Governor of Ohio is facing a $675 million dollar budget deficit.  In the current fiscal situation cities and towns will face economic crisis.  This is a time for all people to examine areas where costs can be contained, where patronage can be dropped for real performance and where citizens will be presented with the real cost ovrerruns and waste in this entity we call public schools.  The economic crisis and a sense of true citizenship demands we do so.

When one offers critique of unions and the way things have been done, one is readily shot down.  I have found that the experience of retort is not pleasant, filled with passion and bordering on unreasonable.   Just read letters to the editor when the press critiques unions.  It is deemed as having an “anti-union” agenda.  These are buzz words that the new political leadership in both the Democratic and Republican parties are beginning to see through and address.   I admire people like Mr. Fenty and Chancellor Rhee who have taken such leadership. I think more people in the foundation and philanthropic sectors need to follow the lead and see through old systems of patronage and hold teachers accountable for performance.  We can be excited about the emergence of new and forward thinking leaders like Mr. Fenty.   Mr Fenty lives up to Oberlin College’s slogan…….FEARLESS!  Philanthropy should too!

5 thoughts on “Politicians and Teachers Unions – thoughts for philanthropy

  1. John

    Sounds like a great talk! Wish I had been there.

    Interesting timing for this topic because I have been thinking a lot about unions as the UAW has come under fire in recent weeks. While I think everyone is entitled to fair pay and good benefits, it really frustrates me when a union’s actions go against what it is that they are supposed to represent – teachers are there for the benefit of the children they teach, and any actions, rules, or regulations that put the kids @ a disadvantage seems highly inappropriate. While unions can and do accomplish some impressive things (http://www.thenation.com/doc/20081215/nichols), like any institution with such influence over an industry, an old fashion, stubborn , or close-minded union can easily stand in the way of progress. My fear in the abolishment of a teachers union would be the opportunity for unfair treatment of teaching staff – the excitement lies with the greater chance for innovation and progress & a better education for students.

    This post made me think back on your previous posts on Clayton Christensen’s book Disrupting Class, where he discusses some of the problems that exist around unions and innovation that would bring a significant shift in the ‘classic’ public education model.

    The ‘Rubber Room’ seems like a pretty archaic solution to an equally intolerable situation of not being able to appropriately deal with teachers that range from ineffective to abusive; a great example of the waste and lose that can be found where highly protective and over-bearing unions meet a school district that it equally unwilling to tolerate such faculty.

  2. John

    Teachers unions are a maligned group and I am not sure how much is popular cant and how much is real. I suppose the truth lies somewhere in-between. I do recall a book club I did at the Center for Leadership in Education with a group of teachers. They complained bitterly about their union leaders – with one saying, and I quote, “When it comes time to negotiate a contract schools would do best to get lawyers and the union leaders out of the room.” I later heard a gathering of Teachers of the Year complain in unison to a US Senator that the felt as though the school teachers unions were out of touch with their realities. I just wish teachers unions would take on the challenge of how new teachnologies and ways of learning will impact schools and the teaching profession in the future. They remain stunningly silent on those issues focusing more on the most immediate needs. I was shocked to hear a union leader tell a group of us, “If it is not written in the law, I as a teacher will not do it…”

    I am impressed with the work of Adam Urbanski http://www.aft.org/about/officers/vp_bios/urbanski_bio.htm

  3. Jeff Jaroscak


    I approach this post with caution, not with the FEARLESSNESS mentioned in your post. In my work with the KnowledgeWorks Foundation I have had the pleasure of working with many union members and leaders. Some of my interactions with them were frustrating and some were very enlightening.

    I think that many people lump problems with public education into large categories, unions being one of them. Certain inequities often raise the ire of union critics. Tenure protections for underperforming teachers is in the top five, as is the fact that veteran teachers make triple the salary of beginning teachers, yet the veterans often “beat the busses” out of the parking lot at the end of the school day while the beginning teacher remains long past dinner time.

    I suggest that while these situations might be disturbing to those who function in what they call the “real world,” eliminating the teachers unions would bring little satisfaction.

    My point is this: The union mentality as mentioned in an earlier comment as “If its not written in the law, I won’t do it” does not match my experience. I have heard numerous teachers make such comments, to be sure, but I think the comment comes from a different place. If we examine the logic behind the remark it seems to imply that there is a much higher level at which a teacher could be performing, but school policy, an unpopular administrator, or substandard working conditions causes them to “hold back.” It is the “holding back” that does not match my experience. I have worked in over one hundred schools and have never witnessed a teacher holding back. The good news, and the bad news, is that teachers are doing the best they can.

    After spending eight years as an administrator at the middle school level, I confess that many times I thought that things would be better without union constraints. Then again, I also think that world in general would be a much better place if people would just do what I say.

    In all, I think that there is a place at the table for teacher associations. Absent these organizations, I am not sure that teachers would have a “seat at the table” for the school reform conversations.

  4. John

    Jeff. Thanks so much again for your thoughful comments. As I mentioned in the blog teachers union are for me an enigma. I am not currently a teacher (but I was a teacher in the past) and so I miss the day-to-day. In my current position I sometimes feel like “confessor.” The experience I relay are all true but sometimes I feel as though I am that proverbial messenger that people want to slay when I talk about how some people, (especially administrators) confide in me their frustration with unions. I think it is more an attitude of unions rather than the “unions” themselve. In my experience, I find schools and teachers esepcially to be working in places that are threatening environments. The entire system is based on punitive concepts and I think the NCLB contributes to that reality. When you think about it, teachers must work to have their kids pass tests. The aggregate number for the class is reported to “the administration” for assessent. If a school district performs poorly, there is a cloud of threat hovering. The worst possible outcome would be for THE STATE to take over the district (whatever that means). The report card scores go nowhere, except to the public which, if its bad enough will move from the district. The superintendent is called on the carpet by the public and the state. What a sick system. Under these circumstances, everyone is put into a defensive posture. When people are feeling threatened, they act it out typically in postures that are combative. So, in some way it all makes sense, but confirms my belief that the STATE, as the ultimate arbiter of consequense is a sick and abberated system that is one reason why education in this country suffers so much.
    Unfortunately, the unions and their reps who respond accordingly are all part of a system that needs overhaul.
    Philanthropy has a role and a responsbility to free this system from these institutional shackles. But few are willing to speak out.

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