Recommended Reading–a Texas AFT Leader on Improving Schools as Union Work

The Fall 2010 issue of American Educator, the professional journal of the American Federation of Teachers, includes an extraordinary essay by one of our own, new Texas AFT Secretary-Treasurer Louis Malfaro. His piece, entitled “The Professional Educator: Lessons on Organizing for Power and School Improvement,” offers many insights into what union organizing in education–particularly here in Texas–is all about.

As Malfaro says, our local unions seek “not power for its own sake, but power to work with school districts, policymakers, and institutions on an equal footing, to advance an agenda of issues for members and the children they serve.” Malfaro, who has just come to Texas AFT after two decades of leading our Education Austin local in the state’s capital city, tells what he has learned on the way from his 1987 start as a novice second-grade bilingual teacher. Over those years, Malfaro and his fellow Education Austin members built up the local in numbers (now 4,000 strong) and power (winning and exercising a formal role as partner in negotiations with the school administration and school board over conditions for learning and working in the schools of Austin ISD).

As a teacher of often-neglected immigrant students, Malfaro says, “My time in the classroom taught me there was a need for powerful institutions that could hold the district accountable to its students, staff, and community.” The situation cried out for strong efforts to fix schools and improve the quality of the education offered to Austin’s students, but those efforts couldn’t gain traction if the union lacked the power and institutional mechanisms to win recognition as a negotiating partner with the school district. So the local systematically set about to build power so “then we could tackle our priorities.”

Focusing hard on growing the union, talking to teachers and school support staffers about their needs and the needs of their students, Education Austin organizers fought for better pay, health care, and working conditions. The union teamed up with and took inspiration from local community organizations, working on a common agenda of school improvement. And the local, then known as the Austin Federation of Teachers and Allied Education Workers, also gained strength by campaigning successfully for a merger with the local National Education Association affiliate to create today’s Education Austin powerhouse.

These organizing efforts culminated in Education Austin’s victory in an employee election to choose a representative organization to work with the school district on local policy through the process known as “consultation.” Negotiations in this framework began to yield agreements not just on wages and working conditions but also on crucial issues of educational improvement. Through this process, the union has been able to improve district policies on many fronts, safeguarding the rights of teachers and support staff, lifting up compensation, and painstakingly negotiating a new pilot program of teacher development and extra pay for extra accomplishment.

By design, this pilot program called REACH could only start at a campus if two-thirds of teachers approved participation. Here’s how Malfaro describes the program: “”REACH provides full-time mentors for teachers in their first three years, support for national board certification, schoolwide performance bonuses based on student growth on the state’s reading and math assessments, and individual teacher bonuses based on teacher-developed student-learning objectives. We’re comfortable with this approach to alternative compensation because teachers are well supported and the alternative pay is on top of the regular salary schedule. It was important to us to recognize and encourage teacher collaboration, so the state assessment results are only used for schoolwide incentives. Instead of looking at current achievement, the district looks at year-over-year growth of the same students and compares it with the growth in 40 similar schools…..We were also careful in designing the individual incentives: they are teacher-selected student-learning objectives, and they are developed by all teachers in every subject and grade, so that the art teacher, French teacher, librarian, gym teacher, band teacher, pre-K teacher, etc., all set goals based on their students and the curriculum they teach.” Results of this experiment so far have been promising enough to win a grant of $62 million from the federal government to continue and expand it other campuses.

The story Malfaro tells is rich with anecdotes and analysis of the paths his local took toward achieving the AFT vision: fixing schools and providing professional development as union work. We encourage you to read it in full at http://www.aft.org/pdfs/americaneducator/fall2010/Malfaro.pdf.

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