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Call it the soft bigotry of low expectations. As pressure increases on teachers unions to mend their ways and become better partners in school reform, the bar for what constitutes meaningful change seems to be getting lower.
In October, the New Haven (Conn.) Federation of Teachers agreed to a new labor agreement that was hailed by both American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan as a breakthrough and national model. Yet the contract was actually a set of promises and processes to potentially undertake reforms after more discussion and mutual agreement.
Maybe the union was playing for time to make more reform-oriented deals away from the crucible of a labor negotiation. Critics were not buying it and argued the entire thing was a ploy. We'll know who was right by next summer.
Now attention has shifted to Detroit, where the Detroit Federation of Teachers agreed late last week to a new contract. The agreement breaks a logjam, but there is no ambiguity about whether it constitutes real reform: This deal is not the radical change Detroit Public Schools need.
Still, in her weekly advertorial, Weingarten recently praised Detroit teachers for their leadership. Education school professor and blogger Sherman Dorn asked, "Who inside the Beltway will give unions credit here?"
Let's hope the answer is no one inside the Beltway or elsewhere. The contract is progress relative to the status quo, hence the praise.
Sometimes, however, progress on an issue should not be judged in relative terms. School reform in Detroit is such an instance.
It's hard to overstate the educational disaster that is the Detroit school district today. Education Week's Research Center puts the city's high school graduation rate at less than 30 percent. The recent National Assessment of Educational Progress found Detroit students at the bottom of urban school districts -- a majority of students score below the basic level on the test and cannot even do simple math problems.
Mismanagement and plummeting enrollment have created an unsustainable fiscal train wreck.
The depth of the challenge and political resistance to reform from the teachers union is what led Robert Bobb, the state-appointed emergency financial manager for the Detroit schools to tell Detroit News editorial writer Amber Arellano, "Anywhere else in the U.S., this (new) contract would be considered evolutionary. In Detroit, it's revolutionary."
However it's far from revolutionary enough and not even as path-breaking as reforms under way in places like New Orleans, Washington, D.C., and New York City. Like the New Haven contract, the Detroit agreement leaves most of the thorny issues to be resolved later.
But in Detroit there is no indication the union is playing for time. It's widely regarded as among the most hidebound in the country and was dragged to this agreement under threat that the Detroit school district would declare bankruptcy and act unilaterally. Still, even the tepid reforms in this agreement may cost union President Keith Johnson his job.
While the contract includes some provisions to help repair the district financially, including some noteworthy provisions on insurance where the union does deserve credit, it includes other measures at odds with that goal. For instance, low-performing teachers moved out of "priority schools" that school officials try to turn around are still guaranteed a paycheck. This approach, essentially punting on difficult personnel issues, has cost New York City more than $100 million in the past few years. Detroit cannot afford even a fraction of that.
Perhaps most illustrative of the overall problem, the Detroit Federation of Teachers PowerPoint presentation on the new contract touts, "work day (is) reduced by three minutes" for elementary school teachers. The district is failing catastrophically in a state that overall has little margin for error in transforming itself for a post-industrial economy. Yet its teachers, who seek to be respected as professionals, are concerned about a couple of minutes in the workday?
Weak reforms and cheap victories are too often celebrated in education reform.
Remember, we've had "standards," "accountability" and "choice" for two decades but insufficient gains in student learning. That is because the implementation of the ideas is often weak with little fidelity to their core intent because of politics.
Now in Detroit a contract that pays too little attention to dramatically improving instruction and apparently too much attention on what seemed possible politically has again put reform on the same slow path.