Colorado school goes radical, asks teachers union to lead reform

Conventional wisdom holds that teachers’ unions are one of the greatest obstacles to education reform. A Colorado school that opened this fall is bucking that conventional line of thinking: It’s piloting a model in which unions actually lead reform.

First, the conventional wisdom. Here’s an excerpt from a September report (pdf) on stimulus money and education, put out by the conservative American Enterprise Institute. It argues that even though districts across the United States are positioned for change—with state money exiting and federal money coming in—they haven’t been able to use the opportunity promote reform because they are hamstrung by union contracts:

A significant obstacle to reform-oriented budget reductions has been the role of union contracts. Huge proportions of district budgets and many substantive policy issues are controlled by provisions in collective bargaining agreements. In order to reconsider staffing patterns or teacher compensation policies, district leaders typically need the cooperation of unions.

And here is U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, in July, speaking against current union contracts to the roughly 6,500 officials and local delegates of the National Education Association (the country’s largest teacher’s union). From EdWeek:

Mr. Duncan underscored compensation, evaluation, and tenure reform as crucial to improving the quality of the education workforce.

“I believe that teacher unions are at a crossroads. These policies were created over the past century to protect the rights of teachers, but they have produced an industrial, factory model of education that treats all teachers like interchangeable widgets,” Mr. Duncan said.

Now here’s the Colorado model:  a union-run school with no principals that puts teachers in leadership positions. It’s called the Mathematics and Science Leadership Academy, and it just opened its doors this fall.

A year-and-a-half ago union leader Kim Ursetta pitched the model to then-Denver Public Schools Superintendent Michael Bennet (now a U.S. Senator). Bennet agreed, and this year the school will pilot its model with 142 kindergarten, first- and second-grade students.

Instead of principals, the school has two “lead teachers”—and a lot fewer “top-down” restrictions. When teachers are in charge, says Ursetta, they understand how to give their colleagues the flexibility to do what is best for the kids.

From CNN:

The lack of quality school leadership is a big reason that experienced teachers leave their schools, Ursetta said. “Studies show when you take accomplished teachers and allow them to have a leadership role, that’s when they see the most success. Scores just soar. That’s how we’re focused here.”

Certainly the idea that teachers should be leading reform, not following, is interesting. But the success of the school may hinge on this:  do the “lead teachers” hold their peers accountable to “best practices”—or will “flexibility” mean too many fun things for teachers, in ways that may not always benefit students?

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