The end of the school year is usually a happy time, but not for David Cicarella, president of the New Haven Federation of Teachers. He’s getting ready to have difficult conversations with some of his members, teachers who have flunked the Connecticut school district’s yearlong evaluation process. Cicarella will tell them the union won’t defend them, even if they have tenure. It’s time for them to look for another job.
Some of the teachers will yell at him. Others will tell him they have children to support and mortgages to pay. After one teacher received a termination notice, her husband tore into the union boss. “He said, ‘Our union would never let this s--- happen,’ ” Cicarella recalls. “I said, ‘Your wife drinks on the job. What do you want us to do here?’ ”
In the last two years, 62 teachers left the New Haven school district after getting bad reviews. Cicarella, who taught math and reading for 28 years, didn’t fight to reinstate any of them. He reminds them that during their last contract negotiations with the district in 2009, New Haven’s 1,865 teachers agreed to abide by the results of the evaluations—which rate teachers based largely on classroom performance and whether students master their subjects. Cicarella helped write the rules. Instead of fighting each other, he and New Haven Superintendent of Schools Reginald Mayo are partners in improving the schools. “We’ve got the union right there saying, ‘We agree with the administration,’ ” Mayo says. “They’re saying, ‘We’re tired of supporting underperforming teachers, too.’ ”
The harmonious relationship between labor and management in New Haven is starkly different from many other large urban districts. Chicago teachers went on strike in September in part to protest Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s demand for evaluations. Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union, frequently ridicules Emanuel in public, once calling him a “liar and a bully,” and says teachers will work to throw him out of office when he’s up for reelection in 2015. New York City schools lost $450 million in state and federal aid after Mayor Michael Bloomberg (founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, which owns Bloomberg Businessweek) and the city’s United Federation of Teachers couldn’t agree on an evaluation process in time to meet a state deadline.
Everybody seems to lose in these standoffs, but the public increasingly blames unions for protecting bad teachers at kids’ expense. In 2011, 47 percent of the people who responded to a PDK/Gallup Poll said they thought teachers unions had hurt the quality of public education in the U.S., up from 38 percent in 1976. Michael Petrilli, executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education policy think tank, argues the unions themselves are responsible for their declining public support. “They’ve resisted every reform effort that’s come along,” he says.
New Haven shows what can happen when management and labor are willing to bend a little. The catalyst for school reform in the city was John DeStefano Jr., a Democrat who’s been New Haven’s mayor since 1994. He controls the school board and has a close relationship with Mayo, who’s been superintendent since 1992. The district has challenges similar to those in other urban areas: In 2011, 78 percent of New Haven’s students were eligible for subsidized lunches, compared with 34 percent statewide. The 20,759-student district has historically fallen far short of state goals in math and reading. Starting around a decade ago, New Haven’s privately managed charter schools were shown to be vastly outperforming its public ones. At first, DeStefano was defensive. By 2008, though, he admitted the public schools were badly in need of help. “We were failing our kids,” he says.
DeStefano recruited Garth Harries, a reformer who’d worked for former New York schools chancellor Joel Klein, to come up with a plan to overhaul New Haven’s schools. Harries recommended replacing the staff at failing schools and in some cases recruiting management companies from outside the district to run them. The plan also called for greater accountability for underperforming teachers. City leaders braced for a furious reaction from the union. “Let me assure you, we thought this would be a major world war,” Mayo says.
Not so long ago it would have been. The relationship between the New Haven Federation of Teachers and the school district was once poisonous. Cicarella recalls attending union meetings where labor leaders boasted of filing hundreds of grievances against the district, sometimes for trivial contract violations. Cicarella, elected president of the union in 2007, didn’t see the administration as the enemy and wasn’t reflexively hostile to reform. He believes unions have hurt themselves by fighting to keep mediocre teachers in the classroom. “I understand this is our livelihood,” he says. “We’ve got to protect our wages and benefits. There is always going to be that part of it. I get that. But we’re not dockworkers. We’ve got kids here that we’re responsible for.”
DeStefano shrewdly courted Cicarella, asking for his advice about how to reform the schools. The union president was flattered. The mayor also reached out to Randi Weingarten, the influential president of the American Federation of Teachers. “She was very helpful,” DeStefano says. Weingarten’s blessing made it easier for Cicarella to sell the terms to his members. The union leaders spent much of 2010 negotiating details of the evaluation system with Mayo and Harries. Teachers who received an exemplary rating could be rewarded with lighter class loads and be invited to help develop the schools’ curriculums, Cicarella says. Those who scored poorly would receive coaching and other special services to help them improve. If that failed, they’d be let go.
Cicarella had to persuade his members to go along. One thing that helped: Mayo agreed to a union demand that school principals be subject to similar evaluations. “There were some fractious meetings with teachers,” Cicarella says. “They would say, ‘What about the principals? Is it going to be the same for them?’ And I would say, ‘It will be.’ ” Cicarella sat on the committee that wrote the evaluations for principals, meaning union members have a say in judging their bosses’ performance. This is unusual, but perhaps it shouldn’t be. “Unions are easy to pick on,” says Andrew Rotherham, co-founder of Bellwether Education Partners, a consulting firm. “But school management is no picnic either.” Seven principals have left since 2011.
The new system seems to be having a positive effect on student achievement. The district’s graduation rate rose from 58 percent in 2009 to 71 percent last year. Student test scores have improved, too. According to ConnCAN, which advocates for school reform in the state, the number of New Haven students whose scores have met or exceeded the goals on state tests has risen from 31 percent in 2009 to 54 percent last year. “For the past couple of years, New Haven has been among the districts that have made greater gains in the state,” says ConnCAN President Jennifer Alexander.
The question, of course, is whether the New Haven experience can be replicated elsewhere. Rotherham isn’t so sure it can. He says Lewis, Chicago’s combative union boss, has inspired teachers in other cities to take a harder line with their school district leaders. “She’s become a star of the teachers union movement,” he says. “After the strike, a lot of teachers are saying, ‘Why should we capitulate on anything? We should fight.’ ”
Cicarella says he understands why so many union leaders play the part of rabble-rouser: It gets them elected. Yet his own experience shows that people in his position don’t have to pick fights to prove their loyalty to the rank and file. Despite Cicarella’s willingness to stand by as some of his members are shown the door, teachers reelected him to a third term in December. It wasn’t even a close race: He ran unopposed.