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City teacher union sparks new reform discussions

Ed Allen

The local American Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO has sparked new education reform discussion with a broad proposal, its president said.

The union says the plans is intended to increase teacher accountability and responsibility, as a means to improve classroom performance. The plan unveiled by Oklahoma City AFT President Ed Allen also addresses other areas of the education process, including establishment of better student behavior standards.

While not as transformational as some critics have advocated, the local AFT’s “Shared Accountability and Responsibility Blueprint” – unveiled at last week’s city board of education meeting – amounts to a vision which, if implemented, would significantly evolve system governance and the daily lives of teachers and their students.

In comments sent to The City Sentinel, Allen said, “No school district is perfect and that includes Oklahoma City. While increased funding is always welcome, more money for the sake of itself does not conquer every challenge. True reform will only result from a complete examination and understanding of our district and a willingness to work together to identify troubles and implement solutions.”

In unveiling the document, the union president said, “Our relationship with district leadership has never been better, but it can and should be much more. Our Blueprint is designed to be flexible and we are eager to work with all sides to discuss and fine tune the proposals to create a plan that will lead this district to excellence.”

District Superintendent Karl Springer has echoed the sentiment that he believes the two sides have reached a substantial meeting of the minds.

The union’s Blueprint focuses on five substantive areas: quality teaching and development, student achievement and behavior, school improvement and reform, contractual elements and collaboration.

In terms of teacher development, according to the union’s summary, the plan “suggests developing a comprehensive teacher evaluation system that is fair to both educators and administrators, establishing a meaningful teacher-led professional development system that helps teachers gain new skills and reviewing seniority to ensure the best teachers stay in the district.”

In terms of student achievement, the union argues the Oklahoma City district’s new longer school year, dubbed a “continuous learning calendar,” can “provide the time and tools for students and teachers to be successful. The Blueprint also seeks an intensive focus on reading skills and the establishment of an enforceable student behavior plan that ensures a safe and orderly learning environment.”

In the arena of system reform, in the union’s summary, “the Blueprint suggests new methods for addressing ineffective principals and recommends special attention be given to recruiting and retaining master level teachers for hard-to-staff schools. The Blueprint suggests developing a career ladder compensation system that recognizes success in student achievement. It also addresses the need for increased community and parental involvement and needed legislative changes.”

The AFT attracted widespread attention when it participated in a dramatic restructuring of U.S. Grant High School in south Oklahoma City, a process that led to moving out about half of the failing school’s teacher workforce. Some of those teachers were reassigned, while others left the profession.

In the new Blueprint, the AFT “recommends a review of the district’s collective bargaining agreement to address onerous or obsolete language and insert relevant language regarding school restructuring. The Blueprint also suggests piloting a streamlined contract to allow for flexibility and site-based team decision making when opening new schools.”

As for teacher terminations and related issues, the union has called for creation of a “collaborative environment.”

As Allen’s staff summarized, this could be established around “the use of an independent hearing officer in termination hearings to ensure fairness and impartiality.

The Blueprint also suggests surveys and/or focus groups be used to measure the views of students, teachers, parents, administrators and district residents. The Blueprint also recommends reaching out to the city’s business and community leaders for guidance and assistance in leading a transformation that will better Oklahoma City Public Schools.”

Allen reflected, We know we don’t have all the answers. Our Blueprint outlines a general direction for change and calls for a respected leadership team to nurture the process so that real reform is embedded in our school system. Our proposals are serious and deserve serious consideration.”

The state’s traditionally dominant teachers’ union is the Oklahoma Education Association, an affiliate of the powerful NEA. The AFT, while much smaller, is the bargaining agent for the Oklahoma City district.

A third group, Professional Oklahoma Educators (POE) has several thousand members in smaller districts.

Allen has recently taken a non-traditional approach in advocating for his members.

Last November, at the Oklahoma premiere of the documentary “Waiting for Superman,” Allen described some actions taken by national teachers’ union leaders as “indefensible.” He said during a panel discussion, “I am willing to discuss any issue that needs to be discussed. I don’t have any issue with the question that change is needed, but we want to be at the table. We will do everything in our power to make change happen.

“It’s close, it’s within reach. You can almost taste the possibility of real change. It’s within our grasp. We’re going to make it happen.”

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