Toledo Teacher Union President: Partner When You Can, Fight When You Must

Francine Lawrence, president of the Toledo Federation of Teachers (TFT), spoke with me about the union's continual—and often successful—struggle to forge a working partnership with the school district. Results include the Reading Academy and the landmark 1981 Toledo Plan for assisting and evaluating first-year teachers and, if necessary, dismissing teachers for unsatisfactory performance. This conversation occurred on Election Day 2006 amid chronic deficits; a school board divided since the 2005 election; and the departure last spring of the superintendent and a dozen top deputies, which left an inexperienced caretaker administration in charge. Lawrence is also the chairperson of the AFT's preK–12 Teachers Program and Policy Council.

–Neill S. Rosenfeld

Neill Rosenfeld: Administrations and school boards come and go, while the union remains. How has the TFT used that fact of life?

Francine Lawrence: Typically there's a void of leadership and ideas from management. The union and the teachers we represent have the opportunity to fill that void and to lead with ideas. The best ideas come from our teachers and the elected leadership of the union about what can effectively make schools work. Any type of school reform initiative will only succeed if there is ownership by teachers, and ownership only comes when teachers are at the table.

Over the last three or four decades, we've used collective bargaining to get teachers a seat at the table. We've done that contract after contract, because any genuine profession has a meaningful influence over entrance standards, professional development, and who remains in the profession—and we negotiated those elements for our teachers in Toledo. Our vision has been building a genuine profession for teachers and more effective schools for our students.

Rosenfeld: How did those principles play out with the Reading Academy, an idea that arose after a previous proposal to create a professional development laboratory school fell through?

Lawrence: There were many differences between the union and the district's mid-level management, which wanted the dominant role in the professional development school to be played by them rather than having the teachers be the primary leadership. Real professionals don't look to those outside their profession for leadership. Doctors don't do it; neither should teachers. We were about two and a half days away from a strike when a settlement was reached in March 1998. The superintendent, Merrill Grant, and I didn't communicate for several months following this contentious period. But toward the end of his tenure, he made a decision to establish a relationship with our union. The thaw in relations opened the door for discussions that led to our Reading Academy.

I was able to convince then–Chief Academic Officer Craig Cotner to give us an opportunity to initiate research-based professional development. The initiative sold itself and management invested more financially and gave more authority to the teachers as a result.

We started small and demonstrated results; ultimately, a report developed by us really guided the literacy initiatives in our district. Our scores began to improve and teachers were not only willing participants in professional development and peer coaching, but were asking for it. Schools where it didn't exist were asking for it. Here, when the union says there's a better way, our members pay attention.

Once we had a breakthrough and the administration saw that the empowerment of teachers led to their willingness to take responsibility for results, they became a willing partner. They realized that school improvement comes through genuine labor-management collaboration. Otherwise it's imposed by management and resisted by those who teach in the classroom. For example, curriculum specialists in management's ranks try to design professional development in English, or other areas, that is not meaningful to instructional practice. Teachers don't respond positively and stop attending.

As I look back, so many of our initiatives have depended on the credibility of the teachers involved. Our three teachers who, in 1999, were sent to the AFT for ER&D reading training are not only great teachers, they have that something extra that enables them to work effectively with other adults. They have credibility with our members and inspire the trust of management.

Rosenfeld: You negotiated additional pay for teachers who have earned both a reading endorsement to their state license and a master's degree.

Lawrence: Yes, $3,010 additional compensation is added to their salary step on top of the master's lane in the salary schedule. And it's not just for those with the state reading endorsement, but for anyone who earns a "master's-in-field." It's a master's degree in a liberal arts subject-specific discipline, exclusive of a graduate degree in education. The reading endorsement qualifies an elementary teacher to receive the master's-in-field differential. We also have master's-in-field pay for early childhood, K, 1, and 2.

Rosenfeld: Has TFT's involvement in educational issues strengthened the union?

Lawrence: No question. We've brought in many people through our professional issues focus. We have a constituency within our union leadership that is focused on school reform.

However, a significant part of our union's success with our membership has been by maintaining our traditional adversarial role. Because management is often incompetent, we need to pursue issues on behalf of our members—like getting people paid on time and taking care of abuses that happen in working and learning conditions, such as insufficient curriculum materials and supplies, or the administration's failure to enforce the district's student discipline code or provide a safe working environment. But it is also important to get beyond the adversarial relationship. We always hope for collaboration, but I'm not hesitant to criticize the school board or the superintendent if I need to, and members see that.

Rosenfeld: What is the union looking for in a new superintendent?

Lawrence: Tomorrow morning I'll be interviewed by a search firm on the qualities I think the new superintendent should possess. I'm taking a few of our elected leaders along. The attributes will add up to a profile that no man or woman can fulfill, but here's our vision: Someone who advances teaching and learning. Someone who views teachers as instructional leaders and will support teacher instructional leadership. Someone who believes in and will enforce high academic standards. Someone who believes in competence for all employees and will apply that to the highest management people, just as we do for our own colleagues. Management doesn't take care of its own incompetent people. That sends a message throughout the district. High standards for performance need to begin at the top levels of management.

We're looking for a superintendent who doesn't think that top-down management is the model to employ, who is collaborative, because that has been an important ingredient to our success, and who understands and values good labor-management relations. Those aren't typical attributes of many superintendent candidates.

Once someone is selected, you need to build a relationship around trust, and then a partnership is formed. Most superintendents would love to have a union that aspires to what our union does and one that is a willing collaborative partner.

Rosenfeld: For you, and the leaders of other locals around the country, what are the stakes in finding a good superintendent and a good board, and building strong, collaborative relationships with them?

Lawrence: If we, as teacher union presidents, don't provide leadership for student achievement, not only do our public schools fail, but we will fail as a union. If our students don't succeed, public schools won't succeed.

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