Reformist unions – who would have guessed?

Teachers’ unions seem to be embracing educational reform almost everywhere you look these days. Maybe they’re trying to improve their image in the face of the Waiting for “Superman” movie. Maybe they’re responding to pressure from the Obama administration.

Or maybe progressive unionism was out there all along, but we just weren’t looking.

Let’s start with Education Secretary Arne Duncan. Last week, he met in Tampa, Fla., with American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten and National Education Association president Dennis van Roekel to announce plans for a national education reform conference on labor-management collaboration.

“In dozens of districts around the country — from Tampa to Pittsburgh to Denver — union leaders and administrators are moving beyond the battles of the past and finding new ways to work together to focus on student success,” Secretary Duncan said. He cited eight examples, including Evansville, Ind., where the school district and teachers union developed the Evansville Equity Schools Project. The project includes a professional development academy that trains teachers to work in the city’s lowest-performing schools.

News releases from the AFT and NEA on Duncan’s Florida visit highlighted the partnership between the Hillsborough County, Fla., Public Schools and the district’s union. The AFT called it “a national model for teacher development and evaluation, pay for performance and teacher mentoring.” Van Roekel, the NEA president, said: “Like the Secretary of Education, reformers can look to the collaboration and progressive labor agreement in Hillsborough as a model to start the conversation.”

By most accounts, Waiting for “Superman” casts the AFT’s Weingarten as a villain who blocks reforms. But a profile in the New York Times portrays her as a shrewd union leader who has supported contracts that allow the use of test-score data in teacher evaluations, cut back on seniority protection and make it easier to fire ineffective teachers.

“She has shrewdly recognized that teachers’ unions need to be part of the reform,” Richard D. Kahlenberg of the Century Foundation tells the Times.

Weingarten even makes nice to Michelle Rhee, the Washington, D.C., schools chancellor who is her “Superman” arch-nemesis. “Despite our differences, there is no questioning her commitment to the goal of improving education in Washington, D.C.,” she says in a statement on Rhee’s resignation.

On the other hand, a story featured on the National Education Association website suggests there are limits to where the nation’s largest teachers’ union will go to support reform.

The NEA holds up as “historic” and “a new model for teacher accountability” a contract agreement in Seattle that prohibits using tests scores or input from students and parents in final evaluations of teachers and protects the use of seniority in layoff decisions. Instead, the union agreed that low test scores could be used to “trigger conversations with the principal and the possibility of additional classroom observations” of teachers.

Seattle teachers also voted no confidence in the superintendent, who had pushed for more explicit use of test scores in teacher evaluations.

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