Can Rhee and the D.C. teachers union work as partners?

Washington Post columnist Robert McCartney discusses the new labor contract ratified by D.C. teachers and whether the agreement will lead to a push for school reform.
By Robert McCartney
Thursday, June 3, 2010

For even the best teachers, it's tough getting students to focus in the classroom when other kids are setting fires in the bathroom down the hall. That's the challenge at the District's Jefferson Middle School, where teachers said three small fires were set in two days last month and kids are sometimes undisciplined.

The troubles there point to a larger question about the historic labor contract ratified by teachers Wednesday: Does the new pact mean Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee and the Washington Teachers' Union are now partners, however wary, in pushing forward comprehensive school reform?

If the answer is yes, then the District should see real cooperation between Rhee and teachers to address chronic problems of student disorder, unequal distribution of resources and teacher training. That would widen the focus of reform to include more than just raising test scores, which has dominated the chancellor's first three years.

The contract provides for such a broad approach, although that's been overshadowed by pay and tenure issues. For instance, the pact includes a section providing for the union to develop a District-wide system for dealing with the chaos that reigns in too many schools. Especially in middle and high schools in poor neighborhoods, teachers said, students routinely ignore orders, use filthy language with adults and often make learning impossible.

However, if Rhee and the union return to being bitter adversaries, then the outlook for the District's schools is murkier. Problems with discipline and similar issues would surely persist. Mistrust between labor and management would lead to repeated confrontations over personnel, evaluations and merit pay. The District's children would suffer most.

Both Rhee and the union will have to shed their mutual hostility to make it work, but the rewards would be great. If they succeed, it would make the District a national showpiece for successful school reform. In particular, it would demonstrate that teachers unions can become allies of change rather than obstacles to it.

"I feel like we're finally moving out of a hole in D.C. It seems like we've improved scores, and if Chancellor Rhee and the union can work together, then we really have a chance to move forward and keep that momentum," said Steve Aupperle, who coaches middle school teachers at Truesdell Educational Center in Northwest Washington and is a former member of the WTU's executive board.

Although critical of Rhee's approach in some ways, Aupperle stressed that the union had to cooperate, too.

"If the union kind of goes back to old-fashioned tactics of fighting at every junction to get control [of work processes], it's just not going to work," he said.

It might seem impossibly optimistic that Rhee and the union would work together. Teachers unions nationwide view her as an archenemy who tried to bust the union in the fall by using a phony budget shortage to fire hundreds of teachers. She sees unions as selfish, out-of-date institutions that have protected incompetent instructors and tolerated substandard learning.

But the atmosphere has improved. Union members voted overwhelmingly to ratify the pact, even though it meant formally giving up long-standing tenure and seniority protections. The WTU has gone further to compromise on those key issues than any other union in a major urban school district.

They voted that way largely because of the substantial pay raise, of course. But teachers said it also was important to them that Rhee compromised on other issues in nearly three years of negotiations. They cited discipline, professional development and a greater voice for the union and parents in giving advice on personnel decisions. Now it's critical that Rhee stick to her promises on those topics, which some past D.C. schools chiefs have failed to do.

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