Of Successful Turnarounds, Heavy Hands, and Union Bargaining Power

It’s much better to have a light touch, rather than a heavy hand, from the state to exert efforts to improve schools. Colorado has its share of schools and districts in need of turnaround, with some serious options on the table (but delayed one year by a 2015 state law).

Whenever possible, I always like to highlight successful examples of struggling schools that really turn the corner and improve dramatically. Colorado Public Radio recently talked to Zach Rahn, a principal called in a few years ago to help turn around a low-performing Denver school:

He says, at that time, the school was on a downward spiral. But, through special programs, community outreach and new practices, the school has shown improvement — both in its culture and the students’ academic performance.

Rahn’s big lesson learned is worth heeding:

“My advice would be, go to where there’s excellence, ask questions, steal as much as you can, bring it back, put it in place, codify it and build from there.”

Also with him on air was Van Schoales of the local advocacy group A-Plus Denver. Providing the big picture, he noted that the federal government’s track record in promoting turnarounds is not so great, and that the chances of turning around poor performance is only about 50-50. Kind of like flipping a coin!

When I hear “coin flip,” the old Jeffco union contract’s requirement of tossing a coin in the air (rather than looking at who is better at the job) to decide which teacher gets laid off. Thankfully, the provision no longer remains, because sensible changes have been made and approved by all parties!

But you look at what’s going on in two other local districts with modest changes, and you have to wonder who is looking out for what’s best for the students. Two stories reported by Chalkbeat on consecutive days drive home the point.

First, the superintendent of Aurora Public Schools wanted to fulfill a promise and reward teachers at Paris Elementary with bonuses. Union leaders weren’t happy that the rewards were limited to teachers who reach the relatively low bar of an effective rating:

The Aurora Education Association said Tuesday it will not sign off any plan that links pay to evaluations.

Apparently, you have to reward the ineffective teachers, too. The next story, out of Denver, might be even more ridiculous — if just because of the opposing argument offered by union leaders. DPS superintendent Tom Boasberg put in place a program to give incentives to quality teachers in the 30 highest-need schools. The more at risk the student, the more they need top-notch instructors.

Union leaders said No, because of process:

While research has shown that higher pay alone is often not enough to keep teachers from leaving challenging schools, DCTA executive director Pam Shamburg said the union is not opposed to the concept.

However, she said changes such as DPS’s new incentive program “have to be bargained. They just can’t be imposed by the district unilaterally. If (Boasberg) changes his mind tomorrow, they are out the door.”

So the question the average observer might have for the union is: Why not just agree, and make it happen? Guess it’s more important to bow to union power than to adopt a commonsense change that is good for students.

Sounds like the Denver union leader is essentially making an argument to put every worthwhile policy in the union contract. Otherwise, every time a superintendent is hired by a board elected by the public, they might change something, right? But experience has shown, those sticky union provisions, like the Jeffco coin flip, are usually not easy to get out.

Unlike the state accountability clock or federal turnaround programs, that’s not a heavy hand to support well-intentioned policies. That’s a heavy hand to protect the status quo. To that I say: No, thank you, my friend.