March 8, 2011
By FERNANDA SANTOS, NY Times
The Bloomberg administration’s signature strategy for low-performing schools has been to shut them down, a drastic move that often incites anger and protests from teachers, parents and neighborhood officials. Since the beginning of the mayor’s first term, more than 110 schools have been shuttered or are in the process of closing.
The administration is now thinking of testing another approach at two schools in the Bronx: replacing the principals and at least half of the teachers, but keeping the schools and all of their programs running — a strategy known as a turnaround.
The plan would bring together unlikely partners: the New York City Department of Education, the teachers’ union and the founder of a charter school network who is best known for turning around one of the toughest high schools in Los Angeles.
There are benefits and risks for each side. The city would be departing from its philosophy of closing large schools and opening smaller ones in their space. But it could cause less political blowback.
Union leaders might be seen by their rank and file as acquiescing to the replacement of teachers, though those teachers would be entitled to their full salaries and jobs elsewhere in the system. But if those schools were closed, they could be replaced with charter schools, which tend not to be unionized.
For the charter network, Green Dot America, the plan is an attempt to turn its model into a national commodity of sorts. But Green Dot would also be inheriting some of the city’s most challenging students.
“This notion that some kids can make it and some kids can’t, I don’t buy that,” Steve Barr, who founded the network, said in an interview. “I’m of the belief that all kids can be college-ready if you give them a chance.”
The plan involves a middle school and a high school in the South Bronx; the schools were not named because their staffs had not been notified. The schools would be controlled by the Education Department, managed by Green Dot and staffed by unionized teachers, as is the norm in the 17 charter schools run by Green Dot Public Schools, a separate organization that Mr. Barr founded. Among those schools is a high school in the South Bronx that opened in 2008.
Mr. Barr has been in the business of turning around schools for more than a decade, but his work gained prominence in 2007, when the Los Angeles Unified School District refused to give him control of Alain Leroy Locke Senior High School, in the city’s rough Watts neighborhood. But he took control anyway. He put a school board member on his payroll, managed to infiltrate the school building even after he was banned from it and persuaded half of Locke’s teachers to vote to split from the district. The district relented, allowing him to turn the school into a charter.
Mr. Barr is proposing a more conciliatory tack in New York City, going door to door to garner support among parents, while weaving political alliances to avoid fighting — though, he said, he would not shy away from more aggressive tactics if that was what it took.
“We’re going to do it one way or the other, no matter who resists,” said Mr. Barr, whose management expenses are largely covered by private philanthropies, chiefly the Ford Foundation.
Turnarounds, among the four school-improvement strategies that qualify for federal assistance, have not been tried in New York City before, but they have run into obstacles elsewhere, as some districts have had trouble finding qualified principals ready to replace the ones being forced out.
The plan would also involve forcing all teachers to reapply for their jobs and using a committee of teachers, school administrators and parents to pick who got to stay.
The teachers’ contract would give them some measure of job protection, but it would be easier to fire them. The teachers also would work under more flexible rules, including longer hours in exchange for higher pay.
“It’s about, what do we need to get this staff in order for them to meet the needs of the children and stop with this one-size-fits-all stuff?” said Michael Mulgrew, the president of the teachers’ union, the United Federation of Teachers.
Mr. Mulgrew has been waging a very public war with Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg over the mayor’s push to eliminate rules that protect the most senior teachers in the event of layoffs, but the union chief has been quietly lobbying for the turnaround plan behind the scenes. He met with Schools Chancellor Cathleen P. Black in January and sounded conciliatory when asked about potential roadblocks, saying, “We are committed to getting this idea for these schools moving.”
City education officials have been receptive to the proposal, but say it is still early in the process. They are also contemplating using the turnaround model in schools other than those Green Dot would run.
“We’re always ready to work with organizations that are interested in doing the hard work of reforming public education,” said Jack Zarin-Rosenfeld, a spokesman for the Education Department.
One of the unanswered questions is where the money would come from to finance the flexible compensation plan for teachers — federal grants, philanthropic donations or a combination of both, said Gideon Stein, the president of Green Dot America.
One of the criticisms of Green Dot’s work at Locke has been that it costs far more per student than at traditional schools.
If New York City’s Education Department signs off on the proposal, the schools would begin the new model in the fall of next year.
October 15, 2010
|Randi Weingarten with students at Green Dot High School in the Bronx|
Despite Image, Union Leader Backs School Change
By TRIP GABRIEL, NY Times
In “Waiting for Superman,” the new education documentary, the union leader Randi Weingarten is portrayed, in the words of Variety, as “a foaming satanic beast.”
At a two-day education summit hosted by NBC News recently, the lopsided panels often featured Ms. Weingarten on one side, facing a murderer’s row of charter school founders and urban superintendents. Even Tom Brokaw piled on.
It’s nothing personal, really. Ms. Weingarten happens to be the most visible, powerful leader of unionized teachers, and in that role she personifies what many reformers see as the chief obstacle to lifting dismal schools: unions that protect incompetent teachers.
A combative labor leader who does not shrink from the spotlight, Ms. Weingarten has been fighting back. She issued a written rebuttal to “Waiting for Superman,” and she has publicly debated the film’s director, Davis Guggenheim, arguing that teachers have been made scapegoats. More to the point, the portrait of Ms. Weingarten as a demonic opponent of change — albeit one more likely to appear in a business suit and cashmere V-neck sweater, with a Cartier Tank watch and a red kabbalah string around her wrist — is out of date, according to many education experts.
In the past year, for example, she has led her members — sometimes against internal resistance — to embrace innovations that were once unthinkable. She has acted out of a fear that teachers’ unions could end up on the wrong side of a historic and inevitable wave of change.
“She has shrewdly recognized that teachers’ unions need to be part of the reform,” said Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, an education research group.
Christopher Cerf, a former deputy schools chancellor in New York City who has sparred with Ms. Weingarten, offered a similar, if more skeptical interpretation.
“The earth moved in a really dramatic way,” he said, “to the point that a very successful strategist like Randi has to know that teacher unionism itself is in jeopardy, perhaps even in mortal jeopardy.”
Both friends and foes describe Ms. Weingarten, 52, who became president of the 1.5-million member American Federation of Teachers in 2008 after a decade leading the New York City local, as a superb tactician who cares deeply about being seen as a reformer.
“We have spent a lot of time in the last two years looking at ourselves in a mirror, trying to figure out what we’ve done right and what we’ve done wrong, and we’re trying to reform,” Ms. Weingarten said in an interview.
Early this year, she delivered a major policy speech that embraced tying teachers’ evaluations in part to students’ scores on standardized tests, a formula that teachers — and Ms. Weingarten herself — once resisted.
In the District of Columbia, Ms. Weingarten stepped into a stalemated contract negotiation and agreed to give up certain seniority protections and to enable schools to more easily fire poorly rated teachers.
And in May, she threw her support behind a Colorado law that went further than any in the nation to strip tenure protections from ineffective teachers. “You have to look at that collection of steps and say they deserve applause,” said Timothy Daly, president of the nonprofit New Teacher Project, who has been a frequent critic of teachers’ unions.
Lest anyone think the union is rolling over, it threw money and manpower into defeating the mayoral patron of Michelle A. Rhee, the Washington schools chancellor — and a heroine of “Waiting for Superman” — who resigned this week.
Ms. Weingarten must navigate tricky waters between reformers who demand sweeping changes and rank-and-file union members for whom job security is a major issue. She has met with some opposition within her ranks.
On Thursday, Baltimore teachers voted down a new contract that Ms. Weingarten had endorsed, which would have based pay in large part on how successful teachers are in the classroom rather than on seniority.
And in May, Ms. Weingarten was heckled at her union’s state convention in Michigan by a handful of Detroit teachers, who were angry, in part, that a new contract introduced an evaluation system in which they are rated by their peers. Hard-liners argued that peer review makes teachers complicit in the firing of colleagues.
Ms. Weingarten had played a major role in reaching compromises on seniority and evaluations during the contract’s negotiation. It passed in December but with 36 percent of teachers voting no. Some called the leader of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, Keith Johnson — and by extension, Ms. Weingarten — a sellout.
At the Michigan convention, when Ms. Weingarten was booed, David Hecker, the state union leader, shushed the dissenters. Ms. Weingarten, according to participants, said she wanted to hear them out.
“She was masterful,” Mr. Johnson said. “One by one, she said, ‘That is not true.’ She had the facts to contravene anything they brought forward.”
Ms. Weingarten, Mr. Johnson said, is telling teachers “things that were taboo.”
“We now have our backs up against the wall,” he added. “If we don’t embrace education reform, we will get knocked through the wall.”
In many ways, Ms. Weingarten is fighting to keep her footing in a tilted political landscape. For the first time, a Democratic president, Barack Obama, is espousing ideas that have been anathema to teachers’ unions — chiefly, encouraging school choice through charter schools and holding teachers accountable for student learning.
A $4.3 billion federal grant competition, Race to the Top, enticed many states this year to climb aboard the administration bandwagon, and pulled some unions along, too.
For some reformers — an unusual alliance of moderate Republicans and Democrats — there is still skepticism about the depth of Ms. Weingarten’s commitment.
“The problem is the messages have been very mixed,” Mr. Daly of the New Teacher Project said. “While wonderful steps have been taken, the exact same policies that seem to be supported in one context are opposed in another.”
For example, critics said, even though Ms. Weingarten helped negotiate a breakthrough contract with Ms. Rhee in Washington, the union contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to unseat Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, who lost the Democratic primary last month to Vincent Gray, setting up Ms. Rhee’s departure.
Some analysts have said that teachers’ support of Mr. Gray was a shot across the bow of elected Democrats elsewhere who might try to push unions too far.
Ms. Weingarten resisted any suggestion that her union was bending with the political winds. “There’s a much more important purpose here, which is the love of children,” she said in the interview, held at Green Dot New York Charter School in the South Bronx, an unusual example of a charter with unionized teachers.
As she did often in the interview, she spoke slowly, tapping her hand on the table for emphasis, and offered perorations, as if speaking to a hall full of listeners.
But she can also be surprisingly intimate. She is a touch person, and at one point reached across to check a reporter’s forehead to see if he might be feverish after asking a particular question.
If Ms. Weingarten is cast in the black-hat role in “Waiting for Superman,” which has inspired a blizzard of favorable op-ed columns, the role of education savior is given to high-performing charter schools.
Yet one scene that the director filmed, but left on the cutting-room floor, showed Ms. Weingarten signing a contract on behalf of teachers at Green Dot, which has had impressive results since it opened in 2008.
Steve Barr, who founded the Green Dot charter school network, lamented that the film ignored examples of charters and unions working together. “It doesn’t help to take the one true open-minded union leader and bash her,” he said.
Green Dot press Release 2008
Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA)
Green Dot plans a school in N.Y. City
Green Dot Public Schools, the upstart charter operation that has aggravated Los Angeles school administrators and union officials alike with its early successes and expansionist plans, has entered into what it hopes will be a less strident relationship in New York City.
Green Dot founder Steve Barr and Randi Weingarten, president of the powerful New York City teachers union, have reached an unusual agreement to open a jointly run charter high school. The two are scheduled to announce the collaboration in a news conference at the union's Manhattan offices today.
The United Federation of Teachers' willingness to enter into an alliance with Green Dot seems certain to put pressure on United Teachers Los Angeles, which represents the roughly 35,000 teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Although in recent months UTLA President A. J. Duffy has softened his caustic and dismissive attacks on Green Dot — and charters in general — he has repeatedly rejected the idea of a partnership with Green Dot.
Weingarten, in a telephone interview Wednesday, said she hoped the deal between the nation's largest teacher union and Green Dot would encourage Duffy to move in a similar direction.
"If you really actually believe in kids and believe in their success, those of us in education, we really shouldn't be in the sandbox fighting with each other. We should be ... trying to figure out how to work together," Weingarten said.
Barr and Weingarten said the unusual collaboration should set an example, not only in Los Angeles, but elsewhere as well. Throughout the United States, charter schools are largely nonunion and, as such, have drawn the sharp ire of union leaders. Green Dot teachers, however, offer an exception, because they belong to a union, though not one representing educators in Los Angeles or New York.
Several weeks ago, Weingarten visited Green Dot schools in Los Angeles and met with Barr. The trip helped her decide to push ahead with the partnership, she said. Weingarten praised Green Dot's model, so far implemented only in the Los Angeles area, as one that has posted promising results while also giving teachers a considerable voice in making decisions on instruction and resources.
"When you go and see Green Dot schools, you see schools that really work for kids ... in places where kids have not always been given the best chances in life," she said. "Teachers are treated as the professionals they ought to be, and they step up to act as those professionals as well."
Under the terms of the proposal, which requires approval by New York state education officials, Barr, Weingarten and several New York education and civic figures would sit on a board of directors that oversees the school. The South Bronx campus is expected to open in fall 2008 and will primarily serve Latino students from low-income families.
Weingarten and Barr said they expected the school to operate much like the 10 high schools Green Dot runs in the Los Angeles area. Those schools are rooted in a set of basic tenets, including enrollment no greater than 500 students and a college-preparatory curriculum.
Although New York state regulations require that they wait until the charter is approved to work out details, Weingarten and Barr said they expect that the New York teachers will work under a labor agreement similar to the one Green Dot has with its teachers in Los Angeles.
Unlike the lengthy, proscriptive contract UTLA has negotiated with L.A. Unified that spells out a teacher's workday down to the minute and offers extensive job protections, Green Dot's contract is more straightforward. While giving teachers considerable authority and higher starting salaries, it calls for a "professional workday" and allows teachers to be fired for "just cause."
Conflict between UTLA and Green Dot has long been a barrier to serious discussions of partnership. Earlier in his first term as union president, faced with an explosion of charters in Los Angeles that ultimately drew hundreds of teachers away from district schools, Duffy hammered on the independent schools, questioning whether they produced better results and criticizing their labor practices. As the largest — and most aggressive — charter group, Green Dot was a frequent target. Earlier this year, Duffy charged that the group "takes bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, idealistic people and works them to death."
On Wednesday, he dismissed the notion that an agreement between the New York teachers union and Green Dot had relevance to Los Angeles, saying that "the landscapes are very different." He emphasized that his criticism of charters has been driven, in part, by the frantic growth of charter schools here. New York City has considerably fewer of them.
Weingarten "is doing what she thinks is best for public education in New York City," Duffy said.
But the partnership announcement comes at a particularly delicate time for him. As he prepares to mount a reelection bid, Duffy is under pressure to assuage rising discontent among teachers chafing at the slow pace of district improvements at middle and high schools.
Last month, that frustration spilled over when a core of tenured teachers at Locke High School voiced support for Green Dot's plan to take over the South Los Angeles campus and convert it into several small charters. Since then, teachers from more than a dozen other L.A. Unified schools have contacted Green Dot to discuss similar actions, Barr has said.
Duffy readily concedes that, against this backdrop, he has struck a decidedly less confrontational tone on charters, now saying he would be willing to negotiate with Green Dot if two-thirds of the teachers at a school called on him to do so.
"I am listening and responding to the needs of my members," he said.