Call to Action: Union, Management Must Blow Up Providence’s Broken School System

Former union leader and ex-superintendent write that only by changing state law on teacher pay, evaluation, tenure can city truly serve its students

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In Providence, as in many places around the country, labor-management relations are like a boxing match. The rules of the game, codified in state law, are designed to create an adversarial relationship. That baked-in conflict has existed for decades and colors every aspect of the school district.

How do we know? One of us is the former teachers union leader in Providence and the other a former superintendent of the schools there. We know because we tried to change the rules by collaborating. And while we had some success and were complimented for being risk takers, our efforts ultimately failed. Our ambitions bumped up against long-entrenched norms on both sides of the labor-management relationship, and the supports weren’t there to grow our nascent effort.

The problem is that education isn’t at all like boxing. Winning, by serving students well, is not a solitary activity by a lone contender. High-quality education takes high-quality collaboration by both labor and management. That means the rules, starting with state law, must change to make collaboration, not contention, the norm. 

Education in Providence is unquestionably broken. This has been well documented since as early as 1993, more than two generations of students ago. A devastating report by Johns Hopkins in 2019 led to the current state takeover, followed by protracted and acrimonious contract negotiations that led to no substantive change. The status quo was maintained, and the adversarial relationship continues, to the detriment of every student, family and educator. It is self-perpetuating because state law does not require the professionals to collaborate in the best interest of children. In fact, in our experience, the legal framework incentivizes the adults to protect their turf, and the contentious relationship between labor and management robs schools of the social capital and relational trust needed for school improvement. This lack of improvement leaves families seeking other options through charter or private schools.

From the management (Sue’s) perspective:

The teachers contract, negotiated pursuant to state law, creates rigid working conditions and conditions of employment that make it nearly impossible to create strong school communities of like-minded educators. This one-size-fits-all approach, which dictates teacher assignments, class sizes and schedules, makes it impossible to create the kind of flexible structures needed to meet the varied academic and social-emotional needs that Providence students bring to school. Decisions on how best to accommodate students should instead be made by educators in that building, guided by an ongoing review of data on learning and other outcomes, paired with knowledge of best practices.

Some argue for stronger management rights as the way to build greater flexibility into unionized environments. But there is abundant evidence in the U.S. that unfettered management control, absent the obligation to consult and collaborate with employees, doesn’t result in equitable and sustainable systems that serve employees or those in their charge well. And at the end of the day, teachers who aren’t treated as respected professionals are not going to serve their students well, either. The culture between students and adults in a building mirrors the adult culture. Both cultures must be collaborative, equitable, humane and centered on results for kids. 

From the union (Steve’s) perspective:

State statute limits the union’s role to negotiating wages, benefits and conditions of employment, in a one-size-fits-all approach that applies to every school. It also requires the union to defend the indefensible when it comes to teacher discipline. This factory model no longer serves teachers. Instead, the union should be charged with owning the profession, with the responsibility to deliver high-quality

educators guided by data-informed best practices in every classroom. Union leaders and administrators working together in the best interest of students should be the norm, not an option.

While I believe in the labor movement and its future, any organization that doesn’t adapt will become irrelevant or cease to exist. Labor-management collaboration may be rare in public education in Rhode Island, but buildings-trade unions, for instance, have made the shift from adversarial relationships to partnerships with contractors in order to compete with nonunion companies for market share. This was accomplished by providing contractors with a highly qualified, well-trained workforce, in order to guarantee a quality product, benefitting both the contractor and the union member. Trade unions do not defend or tolerate poor performance, and neither should teachers unions. Good teachers know that poor teaching hurts not only kids, but also other teachers’ ability to educate them. 

Altering the labor-management relationship in Providence Schools requires a fundamental change in the rules of engagement, starting with Rhode Island General Law. It has to be rewritten to allow for greater school-based flexibility and accountability for the professionals who best know the students. A few examples:

  • Teacher pay should reward performance and expertise instead of just reflecting time in the system. Great teachers shouldn’t have to wait 10 to 12 years to earn decent salaries, and they shouldn’t have to leave the classroom to take on additional responsibilities.
  • Teacher evaluation should be an ongoing conversation about best practices, with continuous feedback and support for improvement. If these measures don’t lead to quality performance in the classroom, those teachers should be let go in an expedited fashion.
  • Tenure should be awarded after five years, rather than three, and should not preclude removal for poor practice.

These ideas are the beginning of a lot of work to change longstanding norms. To bring this to fruition in Providence, educators, legislators, business leaders, parents, students, community organizations and philanthropists must come together to support the writing of a state education statute grounded in best practice. Bringing about the changes we are calling for will require concerted effort, and we believe that would best be done either through a dedicated 501(c)3 or by having the work housed in an existing nonprofit with dedicated resources for the project. The time for small measures has passed; Providence needs dramatically new rules of engagement that will mandate collaboration. The status quo and refusal to work together in the best interest of students can no longer be an option.

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