Editorial: An enormous opportunity to shape change

Paul Toner, MTA President

During my presidency I have adopted a quote from President John F. Kennedy as a motto: Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.

Based on my own 20 years of experience as a middle school teacher, local president, MTA Board member and now state officer, I most certainly agree with Kennedy’s viewpoint and would argue that the pace of change in education has drastically increased over the past decade. This is why I believe there is an enormous opportunity for educators — along with parents, students and community partners — to take on the mantle of educational leadership and reform.

During my years of teaching and union involvement, I have always proclaimed that the MTA is a union of professional educators and that teachers and their unions must be the voice of public education and the profession.

Yes, we absolutely should continue to advocate for good salaries, working conditions and benefits, but we also must be the leading advocates for the profession and for taking charge of quality. We must put forward our best ideas for improving our schools and profession, even if we don’t have 100 percent consensus as an organization. In poll after poll done by the MTA, the NEA and MetLife — and even in our two rounds of TELL Mass surveys, which drew responses from over 40,000 educators in the Commonwealth — teachers say they want more time to work with their colleagues and more control over their profession. These results are regularly corroborated by my own conversations with local leaders and members, both veteran and new. Our members want less top-down and more shared decision-making over policy and practice in their schools and classrooms. They want to be the architects of reform and not continue to be the objects of reform. They want to be treated as the professionals they are.

On this issue I have been heavily influenced by the ideas of other educators and union leaders, including Dennis Van Roekel, Al Shanker, Adam Urbanski, Bob Chase, Susan Moore Johnson and Randi Weingarten. All have advocated for teacher-led reforms.

Governor Deval Patrick and Secretary of Education Paul Reville have as well. They believe that by increasing teachers’ voices and working toward strong labor-management collaboration, we can bring about lasting and meaningful change in our schools for the benefit of our students. This is why they encouraged Horace Mann charter schools and made Innovation Schools an option in their 2010 Achievement Gap Bill: to give educators and community partners an opportunity to lead by creating teacher-led schools and to provide an alternative to Commonwealth charter schools. I believe that teachers and their unions need to take this opportunity and run with it or else others will.

One of the best sources available on the topic of teacher-led change is Taking Charge of Quality: How Teachers and Unions Can Revitalize Schools — An Introduction and Companion to United Mind Workers, by Charles Taylor Kerchner, Julia E. Koppich and Joseph G. Weeres. It was published in 1998, but it could have been written yesterday. I hope it is not too late for us to capitalize on the recommendations it includes.

The authors point out that American schools are being asked to do something they have never been asked to do before and were not designed to do — to educate all students to a very high academic standard and make them career- and college-ready. We have entered a world of profound change in which knowledge, not industry, is the future. Thinking for a living is the norm, not the exception.

As the demands for change continue to increase, teachers and schools are being criticized for perceived shortcomings. We are locked in an either-or debate. One side says our schools are great and there is no need for change. Others argue our schools are failing and we need to blow up the system. This is not a black-and-white debate; there are many shades of gray.

Lots of people on the outside are telling the teachers, administrators and superintendents on the inside how to do their work. Some of these outsiders support public education as an institution, but believe they know what is best. Others are entrepreneurs who believe they have found a better way to organize schools and make money at the same time. Some question the value of “public” education altogether and would like to privatize us out of existence.

Teachers’ unions must play an important role in shaping change by focusing far more on the quality of education, which includes taking part in setting academic standards, promoting strong evaluation systems, designing better preparation and professional development programs and, most importantly, demanding shared decision-making authority in exchange for shared accountability for the results.

I believe that all of this can best be done at the school level. Central administration officials, school committees and district unions are still necessary and vital partners, but mainly as providers and bundlers of services and as advocates for resources and supports for the educators and schools they serve. The educators, parents and community partners at the school level must be given much more site-based control and flexibility to meet the demands and needs of their students and communities.

I believe that we need to focus on developing schools that are much more student-centered and meet the challenges of a 21st-century knowledge-based economy. Such schools can only be successful in the long term where there is a trusting and respectful labor-management relationship and a true partnership with educators and their unions.

This is why the MTA is participating in the Massachusetts Education Partnership, which also includes the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, the Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy, Northeastern University’s Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy, MIT’s Institute for Work and Employment Research and the Collins Center for Public Management at UMass Boston. The goal of this partnership is to support local school districts and unions that want to develop collaborative models of school-based reform to advance student success.

I have heard from some members who believe that the MTA should not be taking the lead on these kinds of ambitious school improvement efforts and instead should stick to advocating strictly for members’ economic interests. Respectfully, I disagree. I believe we must do both — in order to faithfully represent our members, for our future survival as an organization and to be true to the last line of our official mission statement: “The MTA is committed to human and civil rights and advocates for quality public education in an environment in which lifelong learning and innovation flourish.”