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Unions and school reform – a brief history

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Starting in the 1980s, teacher unions started taking a more active role in professional issues like teacher induction, training and development, and evaluation. A few have also signed contracts that include performance rewards.

Some milestones:

  • 1981 Toledo, OH, at union instigation, began one of the first “peer review” and intervention systems. Master teachers mentor and supervise new colleagues and a joint union-administration panel recommends whether they should be given tenure. There is also an intervention program for struggling veterans that can lead to dismissal. Similar contracts were adopted in Columbus, Cincinnati, and other districts.
  • 1988 Rochester, NY, adopted a contract that reduced the number of seniority “step” increases and stopped automatic raises for advanced degrees, instead giving teachers the chance to get big raises in return for willingness to visit students at home, take on the toughest assignments, and assume more responsibility as “lead” teachers.
  • 1996 A group of NEA and AFT locals formed the Teacher Union Reform Network (TURN) with the goal of promoting education reform to the top of the union agenda.
  • 1997 Seattle adopted a contract that pioneered a site-based selection process for teacher placement and gave teachers a role in hiring principals. It also based teacher evaluation in part on student progress.
  • 1999 Denver began the voluntary compensation system that would later become ProComp. Initially, teachers and schools could opt into a performance pay system tied to student achievement; now, all teachers hired after 2006 are required to participate.
  • 2004 Institute for Teacher Union Leadership, now the Tom Mooney Institute, was formed as a nonprofit leadership consulting group for teacher unions. Nine urban union locals joined in a learning process about what they called “progressive unionism,” to help each other “make teacher unions critical and powerful players in improving the quality of teaching and student learning.”
  • 2010 Teachers in Baltimore adopted a contract that replaced automatic “step” raises with a system of collecting “achievement units” for such things as positive evaluations and participation in some professional development. Washington, DC, negotiated a similar pact heavy on performance measures under nowdeparted superintendent Michelle Rhee. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has been supporting such contracts.

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