Monday, July 30, 2012

What Have We Done?

I was at a political event last Saturday in my little rural town.  Bernie Sanders came and spoke.  Nothing about education, even though he is on HELP and has a brilliant education aide in Jessica Cardichon.
I was volunteering (my daughter organized the event.)  I was tempted to stand up and ask a question about Vermont rejecting the NCLB waiver process, or maybe something about our failure to resource Common Core implementation, but I didn't.  First of all I was sick and exhausted (no brain cells left.)  

Second, I realized if I asked questions of this sort none of my neighbors would know what the hell I was talking about.

What have we done?  Have we made education policy so arcane that the average citizen cannot meaningfully participate?  Has it become a forest of acronyms and a minefield of political relationships that play out behind closed doors?

Does this all provide cover for ostensibly progressive leaders to unleash their inner tea partier?

The evil genius of NCLB was its simplicity.  You don't need to understand the subtleties of VAM formulas, or navigate the bloated world of "multiple measures" to understand 100% proficiency.  Unfortunately that particular deal with the devil was made a decade ago.....and he's back to demand payment.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

I've said it before, I'll say it again.

The following is my reaction to an Education Week article, States' Costs Skyrocket on Master's Degree Pay for Teachers by Stephen Sawchuk on July 17, 2012.  The narrative is familiar: master’s degrees add no value in terms of student test scores, therefore, they represent the misappropriation of resources.  Read the original, then cool your jets: 
Let's flip this and consider the single salary schedule for what it is: a deferred compensation system.  It is not that senior teachers with advanced degrees are overpaid, but rather that beginning teachers are underpaid, unless you count the IOU represented by that top level salary twenty years in the future plus the pension.  The highest paid teachers are being paid for their work, plus an amount representing work they performed many years before.  Retired teachers are paid entirely for services rendered in the past.
Since single salary schedules contain both steps and columns, master’s degrees, and arrangements which subsidize them, represent a mechanism for states and localities to control the pace that individuals move across the schedule towards those top level salaries.  In other words, requirements for advanced education string people along and allow the polity to delay the day which it has to pay professional salaries.
Rather than pull deferred compensation from the future into the present, while honoring current commitments, political expediency leads to attacks on the single salary schedule itself, including masters degrees, pensions, and tenure, the glue which gives deferred compensation legitimacy. A social contract is being broken, without recompense, with the people charged with caring for our children.  Our nation is morally debased as a result.
The real problem with master’s degrees is that they are driven by an economic arrangement, rather than an educational one.  Many teachers do use them as an opportunity to improve their practice.  Perhaps the imperfections of advanced degrees stem from not really being intended for this purpose.  The real focus is on delaying payment for services rendered, with the added bonus of being able to walk away from the deal when the debts become inconvenient.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Twelve Leadership Takeaways from Representative Assembly

Experiences at the 2012 NEA Representative Assembly left me with a lot to think about.  As I began to reflect on lessons learned from working on 3 different New Business Items (4, 5, and 82), I discovered a growing list.  Here are twelve takeaways from the experience:
Hmmm - can you imagine this being issued in 2012?
  1. Use the “we” voice.  Leading in an organization means you are no longer on your own.  “We” is both more accurate and more powerful.  Thank you Mary McDonald for the reminder!
  2. Have metrics for success.  That way you win no matter what.  You have to have a metric to measure success if your initiative happens, and you have to have a metric for success if your initiative doesn’t happen.  The latter was certainly the case for NBI #4.  But this happened by default – being intentional about it takes it to the next level.  Planning for success is valuable both in leadership and teaching.
  3. Conviction matters.  Genuinely caring about the organization and outcomes trumps a lot of bad stuff.  Conviction confuses the self-interested.  They don’t understand your motivations.
  4. Relationship means knowing what people are good at.  Jo Anderson of the US Department of Education told me, “Relationship is everything.”  I never truly understood what this meant until this RA.  Knowing the strengths of others, and understanding how they operate, is critical to trust.
  5. Teamwork, teamwork, teamwork.  As a rural leader, I’m used to being chief cook and bottle washer.  As a team coalesced around NBI #4 in the TURN caucus and around NBI #82 more generally, I was amazed to watch high capacity leaders quickly deploy their strengths and figure out their roles on the fly.  It was a real eye opener.
  6. Break off pieces of a problem.  Doing something specific and actionable is better than doing something diffuse and rhetorical.  This is the theory and practice of being bold.  Actually saying something inspires meaningful debate, which is a fundamental political good.
  7. Avoid factionalism.  Rural vs. Urban, NEA vs. AFT.  Sometimes one has to let go of little things in order to get at the big issues.  Factions are about power.  The antidote to factionalism is inclusiveness.  When people actually talk to each other, we discover other folks care as much as we do, and don’t have horns and a tail.
  8.  People don’t like being forced to do things.  They don’t even like the smell of it.  All the pro-NBI #4 speakers tried to be clear that this would not force anybody to do anything.  The anti-NBI #4 speakers painted it as a top-down initiative that would compel people to do things they might not want to do.  That rhetoric swayed the assembly.  We’re going to need to think about the implications very carefully in the future.
  9. Language matters.  With 5000 wordsmiths in the room you have to get the language right.  Leveraging the talents of some of those wordsmiths is a valuable thing to do.
  10. Power and position are just platforms to get things done. It is a terrible mistake to value these things for their own sake.  Using power and position to strengthen the organization is correct; using these things for self-aggrandizement diminishes everyone.
  11. Developing leadership capacity means having experiences.  Nobody can tell you how to do leadership work.  You have to thrust yourself into the maelstrom.  As the old adage says, “Experience is what you get when you don’t get what you really want.”  This is an example of #2 above, succeeding either way.  Nobody can teach you how to speak in front of 9000 people, how to file a New Business Item for optimal effect, or how to lobby Congress.  You just have to do it and take your lumps.  If you value engagement as a fundamental good, you have to encourage others to have these experiences as well – whether or not you agree with them.
  12. Reflection is as valuable in leadership as it is in teaching.  I’m a National Board Certified Teacher.  It doesn’t mean I’m better than you; it just means I’ve enhanced my capacity for reflection and improvement.  Reflection is priceless for improving classroom practice.  It is equally valuable in leadership.
So here’s hoping I don’t repeat too many mistakes, and that my future mistakes are novel and exciting….
What are your leadership takeaways from RA?

Monday, July 9, 2012

Reflections on Teacher Leadership

At the 2011 National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) conference I had the privilege of serving on a panel with Patrick Ledesma, Nancy Flanagan, and Jenay Leach.  The topic under discussion was how teachers can influence policy.  Amy Dominello blogged about our panel on "SmartBlog on Leadership" and her post was picked up by Accomplished Teacher SmartBrief.  What follows are edited excerpts from the prepared text of my remarks, which I stand by a year later:

The role of teacher leader is fraught with challenges.  In my union work, it became apparent to me that there are at least two different mutually exclusive definitions.  First, is the definition some superintendents have: a teacher leader is a sort of non-commissioned officer in the chain of command of a district, with a role of carrying out policies determined by higher-ups.  This traditional role includes roles like department chair, and service on district committees, the latter because in a top-down hierarchy administrators merely use committees for cover, so they can lend a sort of pretend legitimacy to their decisions.
The second definition is exciting and cutting edge: teachers having an actual voice in making local, state or national policy.  This idea might seem self evident to those of us who are practitioners, but in reality it is quite alien to the policy process in many places.
The traditional venue for this role, and the one in which I cut my teeth, is the union.  Negotiating and administering a collective bargaining agreement gives one a voice in local policy.  Joining with others in state and national organizations which lobby for wider policy and legislation creates a collective voice.  In the current environment, with public sector unions under serious and sustained attack, union activism is fluid and challenging.
One thing which school districts and unions share is that they are hierarchical organizations.  The bureaucrats who live farther up the hierarchical food chain have a significant advantage when it comes to policy: they can spend all their time working on it.  Those of us with classrooms live with the joy and challenge that the best hours of our day are spent with students.  Any time or thought that we have for policy or politics comes out of our hides or out of the hides of our families and relationships.  I can say this from personal experience – my union work is unpaid.  Each cycle of negotiations comes at a personal cost of 200-300 hours of my personal, unpaid time.  That doesn’t count grievances, trainings, rep and executive council meetings, Regional Bargaining Councils (I have 3 to attend), meetings with the superintendent, or, now, my work on the VT-NEA Board of directors, which requires a Saturday each month.
I’m not saying this so that anybody feels sorry for me – I love the challenge of this work.  But it does give me a clear eyed view of the very real impediments to the development of effective teacher leadership in the best sense.  People go into teaching because they want to work with kids.  This we all know is an all -consuming passion.  On top of this teachers, legitimately, need to tend to families and relationships.  We are human, and we cannot sustain ourselves without love from friends and family.
When I challenge a colleague to step up to a leadership role in our local, I do this with trepidation because no one knows better than me the human cost of what I am asking them to do.  On the other hand no one knows better than me the absolute necessity of accomplished practitioners taking a role in the governance of the educational enterprise.  As a leader, I am stuck between human empathy for my colleagues, and the enormous peril of my own empathy.
And this brings me to another thing that I learned:  the three meanings of leadership.  So far I’ve spoken in detail of just one: the ability to influence followers, the rank and file of an organization.  Influencing their behavior, inspiring them to try some little bit of activism – this is encapsulated by the term organizing.  I think this is what most people think of when they consider the word leadership.  But there are two other equally important aspects of leadership: influencing peer leaders, and influencing those leaders above you in the hierarchy of an organization or government.  These two aspects require different skill sets than organizing
Influencing peer leaders is the sort of thing I’ve done on the VT-NEA board, in regional bargaining councils, and in our discussions on the Teacher Leader Network Forum.  It was the bulk of the work in our debates on the New Business Items and resolutions at NEA Representative Assembly.  In a friendly environment like this it is about developing consensus around the best course of action, and it involves building relationships, and ability to be persuasive.
It takes place in adversarial contexts as well, such as negotiations and grievance hearings.  Insofar as a local president is the peer of the superintendent, there is an art here of refusal, of parrying, and of persuasion, each of which one deploys according to the problem.
Finally there is influencing top level leaders in an organization, those “above you” so to speak.  While a premium is placed on the “elevator speech”, I think top leaders are bombarded with these and probably have filters.  My own approach is two fold.  First I like to identify the people who advise the leader in question and seek to influence those people.  Second, I like to identify those places I agree with the approach and send a positive message, in part by working for and actively supporting initiatives.
This second point is very important in my estimation.  In the present environment, the messages tend to be negative – opposed to what various policy makers are doing.  I believe however, that the policy landscape is subtler than that, and that people need to hear what they are doing right as well as what they are doing wrong.  Without positive feedback when they get it right, policy makers are flying on instruments.
As a Teaching Ambassador Fellow, and a Bernie Sanders style socialist, it was a challenge for me to find a point of contact with the Department where I could support their efforts with freedom and integrity.    Yet I did find one:  The Department under the current administration works to build the capacity of teachers to lead in the best sense of the word.  An example of concrete action that support teachers as real leaders was the Denver Labor-Management Conference, a high profile event designed to help teachers and their unions deal creatively and pro-actively with the current political and policy environment.  Unfortunately this event was over-shadowed by events in Wisconsin.
I would be the last to say that  efforts of this sort are perfect, or that the outcomes are satisfactory to all parties.  But I take it as evidence of positive disposition towards teacher leaders, and a willingness to build the capacity of teachers to participate in the policy conversation.  Encouraging engagement is in the spirit of democracy and helps to overcome the very real impediments to teacher engagement that I outlined earlier.
In my work, I’ve done my best to encourage the Department to build the capacity of teacher leaders and unions.  I think many people want immediate results, an impatience which is the result of the uncertainty of the political cycle.  Taking a longer view, an empowered and policy savvy teaching profession is the best route to better education policy, because policy will be rooted in the wisdom that is the product of actual practice.
That said, I tend to be shocked and saddened by the dearth of our most accomplished teachers in union leadership.  I was shocked at the antipathy of NEA delegates to NBCTs at the recent NEA Representative Assembly in Chicago.  I was saddened that of 124 NBCTs in the State of Vermont, only three of us were at VT-NEA Representative Assembly in March.  Taken together, these indicate to me that most union members have not experienced NBCTs as people who use their achievement as a tool to help others.  I find this very disappointing.
Those of us who are high achieving and have excess capacity have an obligation to our colleagues as well as to our students and families to lighten their burden.  At the same time, the rank and file of the profession needs to see that policy and engagement is simply far too critical to be left to “the other.”  Federal, state and local policies that encourage all varieties of genuine practitioner leadership and engagement are in the long term best interest of our profession, of grounded education policy, and, ultimately, fantastic student learning.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Teacher Negotiation Reform: Beating Swords Into Ploughshares

This is a cross posting from my friend Patrick Ledesma's Leading from the Classroom on Ed Week Teacher Magazine.  He was kind enough to let me guest blog.  I'm putting it here for readers who normally read my stuff on Education Worker.

The second United States Department of Education Labor Management Collaboration Conference (LMC) convened in Cincinnati last month, with a theme of harnessing the power of collaboration to advance student achievement.  I attended the last conference in Denver as a researcher, part of a team of Teaching Ambassador Fellows, and had the opportunity to network with the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS), which promotes sound and stable labor-management relations.
Back in Vermont, in 2011 I was entering my fourth cycle as a negotiator and second as local president.  Our negotiations had always been protracted and contentious, requiring thousands of hours of teacher and school board member time.  The traditional process goes through a predictable sequence: bargaining, impasse, mediation, fact finding, crisis buildup, and, in rare instances, imposition and strike.  Mediation and fact finding employ private consultants costing thousands of dollars.  Boards often call on private attorneys to negotiate, the costs of which often exceed the amount needed to settle the economic issues.
This scenario is repeated dozens of times all over Vermont.  Each negotiation is for a small number of teachers by national standards, resulting in minor changes to “mature contracts.”  It is a time consuming and costly way to preserve the status quo.
Our previous negotiation had required at least 200 hours of each of the ten teachers on our team.  The board commitment was similar.  Rancor adds no value.  Unions, boards and administration should be partners in the cause of student learning, but are instead trapped in a ritualistic process.
I returned from Denver determined that our pending negotiation would be collaborative, and facilitated by FMCS.  It took months of persuasion – one board member could not believe that FMCS services were free.  Finally, a pair of skilled FMCS mediators trained both teams together in the techniques of Interest Based Bargaining
We invested in success. The results?
·         Zero dollars spent on a board attorney, mediators or fact finders
·         Settlement was achieved in 6 months rather than 18
·         Team members expending 60 hours rather than 200+
·         No rancorous crisis buildup
·         A labor-management committee to deal with issues as they emerge.
·         Respect between board and teachers, a result of “tough minded collaboration.”
Is this process reform sustainable? Can it become a template for our state?  An innovation of this year’s LMC is critically important in answering these questions: the presence of state leadership teams, both as presenters and participants.  Three states, Delaware, Kentucky and Massachusetts, presented.  Their teams highlighted work they have done to support local collaboration. 
Vermont sent a team of statewide leaders.  We need structures and supports at the state level to sustain and expand the collaborative work already happening at the local level.  I am confident that our state leaders found inspiration and practical ideas at the conference.
Process reform is not enough.  Sustainability depends on connecting to a greater goal: excellent student learning.  In Vermont, dealing proactively with contemporary policy challenges requires this focus.  Collective bargaining agreements must shift away from emphasis on salary and working conditions, management prerogative and taxation, and become education improvement plans in which the traditional concerns become tools. 
The tremendous civic engagement which goes into our teacher negotiations in Vermont is a gold mine of effort and commitment which could be harnessed to the cause of great student learning.  Our children deserve no less.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Progressive unionism flexes its muscles at RA

On July 1, I introduced New Business Item #4 at NEA Representative Assembly.  It was supported unanimously by the Vermont delegation.  A team of fantastic leaders from the Teacher Union Reform Network (TURN) Caucus organized to support NBI #4, including Mary McDonald of CEC Illinois and CETT chair Maddie Fennell, who mobilized the entire Nebraska state delegation to yield microphones.
An all-star cast of union leaders spoke for NBI #4, including Massachusetts Teachers Association president Paul Toner, Montgomery County MD president Doug Prouty, former Fairfax VA president Rick Baumgartner, and Wisconsin State Senate candidate (and CETT member) Shelly Moore.
This is the text of NBI #4:
NEA will create a plan for presentation at 2013 RA to implement recommendation 9c on page 22 of the NEA Commission on Effective Teachers and Teaching report “Transforming Teaching” which reads: “Transform the UniServ Program, making UniServ directors advocates for educational issues to advance NEA’s professional agenda.”
The NEA Commission on Effective Teachers and Teaching (CETT) produced the policy brief “Transforming Teaching” with recommendations from real teachers on reform.  Recommendation 9 calls for NEA to “Address internal barriers to organizational engagement about teaching quality and student learning.”
The Rationale/background as published in RA Today is a follows:
The Commission on Effective Teachers and Teaching provided recommendations from accomplished teachers which highlight that educational issues have come to the forefront more than ever before.  One of the recommendations from the report is substantial and actionable within the current budget.
Pretty technical stuff…. Why then, did it inspire the opposition to organize a floor strategy against it?  NBI #4 became a screen on which the regressive forces in NEA projected their worst fears.  The opposition did not listen to our arguments.  They simply let their imagination run amok.
While NBI #4 was defeated by voice vote, much was accomplished:
·         A substantial debate about progressive unionism occurred on the floor of RA, exactly the type of internal debate which a healthy union needs.
·         The entire body of RA delegates took notice of “Transforming Teaching”
·         The progressive leaders of the Association flexed their muscles and demonstrated a remarkable capacity to organize on short notice.
·         A substantial minority of RA delegates stood up on division and supported a progressive action.  I’m sure the NEA leadership took note.
·         9000 people heard about TURN and saw demonstrated the group’s excellent work.
For the record: here is the text of my speech introducing NBI #4:
While bread and butter issues remain an essential task of our work, in the 21st century, unionism is shifting. We have the opportunity to take control of the quality debate more than ever before.   We see the link between controlling this debate about quality and our continued success in providing our members with professional pay, benefits, and working conditions. 
We need a Uniserv program prepared to support elected leadership at the local level in meeting 21st century challenges.  Our Uniserv directors need detailed knowledge of the policy challenges we face as local leaders, and the ability to respond to those challenges – bread and butter and teaching quality, with a full range of contemporary technical skills.
In many places, local leaders tell me this is already happening.  The plan we are requesting will not change that.
New Business Item #4 has three parts:
1.       We are asking for a plan to be brought to the 2013 Representative Assembly.
2.       We are asking that plan to address professional development for Uniserv directors to support our locals on issues of education quality and leading the profession.
3.       We expect that plan to align the Uniserv program to the NEA vision and the needs of our local and state affiliates to take the lead on teaching and learning.
Many of us are encountering challenges to the survival of our union and the well being of our members.  We request NEA create a plan of action for Uniserv professional development and report back to next year’s RA, so that our local and state affiliates have the support they need.
Please support New Business Item #4. 

Update, state caucus positions on NBI #4:

Support: Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont, Wisconsin

Support - leadership: Maine

Oppose: District, Maryland, Michigan, Nevada

Oppose - leadership: New Jersey

Refer - Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Indiana

No position: California, Delaware, Federal, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia