Some doubt that unions can embrace reform, particularly efforts that make it easier to fire teachers. “I think it’s important not to expect a cat to bark,” said Terry Moe, a Stanford political scientist who is a well-known critic of teacher unionism. “You have to remember that unions are in the business of protecting jobs.”
But the Montgomery union has sought to counter that criticism head-on. It helped create a “Peer Assistance and Review” system of evaluating and supporting teachers more than a decade ago. Struggling teachers are paired with mentors and given help, and those who fail to show progress after a year can be fired. Their cases are overseen by a committee of teachers and administrators.
Since 2001, the process has led to the dismissal of 245 teachers and the resignation of 300. In the decade before, a handful were terminated for poor performance. Teacher firings across the country are rare. “As a union, we have to be concerned about protecting our profession, not protecting everything that breathes,” Lloyd said. The union is also proud that the program has helped thousands of teachers improve and stay in the classroom.
Montgomery refused to join Maryland’s successful bid in 2010 for a federal Race to the Top school-reform grant because union and school leaders found it out of sync with the evaluation system they had created.
They have sharply criticized some reform proposals that are gaining prominence across the country: They oppose using test scores as a decisive factor to rate teachers, and they oppose merit pay, saying it promotes competition over collaboration.
Union leaders say their partnership with administrators goes back to a 1997 shift in collective-bargaining strategy. Traditionally, the two sides came to the table with long lists of competing demands, but in “interest-based” bargaining, they focus on principles they agree on.
Since then, negotiations have emphasized student achievement and created paths for teacher involvement in decision-making at all levels. Contracts now include union-elected building representatives and teacher panels that respond to policy changes countywide. Union leaders also sit in on meetings with the superintendent.
Instead of waiting for the superintendent to release a spending plan each winter, employee unions are invited to help develop it. Greater involvement has led to increased ownership, school officials say. Instead of fighting, they “go out and help us sell it,” said Larry Bowers, chief operating officer for Montgomery schools.