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Op-Ed

L.A. teachers union needs to get on board

UTLA has been defensive, adversarial and obstructionist in response to a wide range of school reform efforts. It needs to start collaborating.

July 10, 2011|Ray Reisler and Leslie Gilbert-Lurie
  • Teachers and parents applaud UTLA Vice President Julie Washington, right, who said the union was "setting the record straight" after Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said teachers are blocking reforms.
Teachers and parents applaud UTLA Vice President Julie Washington, right,… (Anne Cusack, Los Angeles…)

In Pittsburgh, according to an Aspen Institute report, the local teachers union and the school district have gone from "sitting across the table and seeing the other as a problem to sitting on the same side working together to solve problems they both identified as critical."

In Florida's Hillsborough County, the teachers union worked with district administrators on reforms that have included a longer school day, merit-based pay and an evaluation system for teachers that takes student test scores into account.

At its annual convention in Chicago last week, the National Education Assn., which represents more than 3 million members, voted to embrace evaluation methods that make teachers more accountable for what their students learn.

In many parts of the country, teachers unions are beginning to embrace a wide array of reforms, and are sitting down with administrators, parents and other stakeholders to craft a variety of new approaches to improving schools.

And in Los Angeles? The teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles, has sought an injunction — so far unsuccessfully — to halt a pilot program designed to better evaluate classroom teachers.

In recent times, UTLA has been defensive, adversarial and obstructionist in response to a range of reform efforts. It has reflexively opposed most charter schools. It has seemed determined to protect mediocre teachers at the expense of great ones and to interfere with changes that could benefit children. As a result, the union has become the focus of much of the city's outrage about the state of public education.

The focus on UTLA's posturing and stonewalling is understandable. But it's a distraction from what those who care about education should be focusing on: inventive programs and ideas. Los Angeles needs its teachers union to join in the fight to improve underachieving schools.

UTLA's reluctance to join in the process of creating solutions is perplexing. The union represents 40,000 educators with immense collective knowledge about the realities of educating students. The Los Angeles Unified School District is lucky to have a large number of bright, creative, innovative teachers who would love to collaborate on meaningful school reform. Yet their union seems determined to be an impediment.

We are both progressive Angelenos who have been actively involved in public education and supportive of union representation and collective bargaining. We are not endorsing any specific reforms, any specific way that teachers be evaluated or any entity, charter or public, to run a particular school. But reform is essential, and it can't happen without the wholesale involvement of teachers.

UTLA at the moment seems bent on dragging itself into irrelevance. Day by day it is losing public support, and even many of its members are disenchanted. Los Angeles teachers, many of whom would like to be contributing to positive change, deserve a union that is willing to invest and join with other public education stakeholders in correcting the glaring disparities in student educational performance. We have seen in other cities that this is an achievable goal.

In recent years, UTLA's leadership has seemed to confuse compromise with weakness, thinking that it must stubbornly resist change to remain strong. This month, a new slate of officers and directors has taken over at the union. Let's hope that will lead to change, and that teachers will push their new leaders to be more open to experimentation and alternative practices.

If UTLA moves to put the improvement of public education before all else, it will find that in transforming itself, it has also transformed the public's perception of the union. Then it can enter into an effective partnership with students, teachers, parents, administrators and the public at large to make L.A. schools the best they can be.

It is incomprehensible why UTLA continues to make itself so vulnerable to a "union is the problem" narrative; why it allows itself to be the "fall guy" for a troubled public school system. The union used to be widely respected, and it easily could be again. Since 1970, it has served as the primary representative of classroom teachers in LAUSD, representing their economic, social and professional interests.

There is strength and reason in bargaining collectively, and unions have an important role to play in protecting workers from being discriminated against. It is painful to see that a union set up to ensure the well-being and respect of teachers has become so out of touch and so discredited. Without a dramatic change of direction, UTLA risks becoming an obsolete and irrelevant relic.

The city's students are failing, and the public's patience is wearing thin. UTLA should encourage the active participation of all its members, in conjunction with other concerned stakeholders, to craft solutions to the schools' woes. UTLA's best ideas need to be on the table, and not just on the collective bargaining table.

Ray Reisler is former executive director of the S. Mark Taper Foundation and founder of the Education Funders Group. Leslie Gilbert-Lurie is a writer, teacher, lawyer and former president of the Los Angeles County Board of Education.

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