Friday, October 30, 2009

Binding Arbitration and School Reform in Rhode Island

Let's look at a little history: of the goals in the strategic plan was to renegotiate contracts with the district’s unions to try to align better with reform efforts. Portions of the teachers’ contract were singled out as “obstacles” to reform. District leaders felt that the teachers union had focused more on member salaries and working conditions and less on the issue of teacher professional growth. Furthermore it appeared that over the years, the teachers union in Providence had negotiated numerous provisions into the contract that seemed to inhibit implementation of different elements of the district’s strategic plan. The five and one-half hour workday, for example, made it difficult to arrange times for teachers to plan, share, problem solve, and learn together in small groups or as whole faculties. The contract required cancellation of in-school professional development activities during the regular workday if substitute teachers could not be found for all of those teachers involved. Given the shortage of qualified substitute teachers in Providence, this was often the case. Moreover, school administrators were not permitted to ask teachers to cover a colleague’s classes in such circumstances. Contractual restrictions on altering teachers’ schedules after September made it difficult for schools to experiment with alternative arrangements of time for teachers’ joint work and for dealing with unexpected shifts in student enrollment during the academic year. Waivers that might be agreed upon by a majority of teachers in one school were subject to approval by the union membership across the district before they could be granted.

Anecdotal accounts from staff in schools where there had been a history of failure suggested that the union’s traditional stance might have been well justified due to the dysfunctional management styles of some principals and the frequent principal turnover that had existed in the past. What’s more, the situation was exacerbated in part by the apparent failure of the district administration to successfully involve the union in the original design for reform, thus treating the union more as an obstacle than as a fundamental partner. In a sense, rather than forging a more collaborative relationship, this perpetuated long-standing adversarial relations between the district leadership and the union.

The challenge of working together was further complicated by an apparent division within the union between those who supported the reform initiatives and plan and those who were opposed to it for reasons stated above. The union executive during Superintendent Lam’s tenure reportedly was more disposed to seeking ways of working with the administration, and this support was manifested in several concrete actions.

Union executives helped craft the hiring process for instructional coaches in a way that gave precedence to the technical and interpersonal skill requirements of the job overcontractual provisions favoring seniority. They mediated member concerns about the intent of administrator Learning Walks and about the coaches’ perceived interference with professional autonomy. The union executive also suggested a strategy for building lesson planning into the teacher appraisal process through the contractually authorized teacher evaluation labor-management committee, thereby mitigating the need to insert lesson planning into the contract. In the 2001–2002 contract negotiations, the union agreed to a process whereby teachers, with financial compensation, could voluntarily provide coverage when substitutes could not be found for in-school inservice activities that did not involve all staff.

The union executive leaders who took part in these actions, however, had reportedly been elected by a slim majority. When they presented the draft of a new contract negotiated with the district to the membership in February 2002, it was defeated in what the media portrayed as an acrimonious public vote. A new contract was finally approved late in the school year.

The rank and file rejection of the first contract proposal was a huge setback for school reform in Providence. It weakened the administration, helped trigger a decade long cycle of revolving door superintendencies, divided the union, and as the final contract included both a bigger pay raise and fewer concessions in work rules, reinforced the idea that intransigence by the union would be rewarded. Also, the entire conflict triggered a long period of "work to rule" right as a whole range of promising reform initiatives were ramping up.

If Rhode Island had binding arbitration in 2000, everything would have been different. No work to rule, and the orderly adoption of a contract that would have probably closely resembled the original agreement between administration and union leadership. This would have been followed by two more contracts that progressed in an orderly way toward more reasonable work rules, and we'd be working on the fourth in that series right now.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, a look at recent history confirms that binding arbitration would be good for school reform in Rhode Island.

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