THE BLOG

The State of the (Teachers) Union

01/27/2011 05:16 pm ET | Updated Aug 16, 2012

Was the President sending a strong message to teachers unions in his State of the Union address? Sure looks that way in the light of day.

What most of us saw and heard was high praise for education. He put it #2, behind "innovation" on his list. Five of his 23 guests were students, and a 6th -- Jill Biden -- is a community college teacher. That's all good. Mr. Obama praised "Race to the Top" and called for rewriting No Child Left Behind, and that's all good too.

He went out of his way to praise teachers and remind us all that parents must do their job --turn off the TV, and engage with their children. That provided a welcome relief from all the teacher- bashing going on now.

And -- icing on the cake -- he made an eloquent plea to young people: become teachers!

Friends of public education had to be smiling and may still be today. The National School Boards Association and others have issued press releases full of praise, for example.

You may remember that he singled out one public school for high praise.

Here's what he said:

Take a school like Bruce Randolph in Denver. Three years ago, it was rated one of the worst schools in Colorado; located on turf between two rival gangs. But last May, 97 percent of the seniors received their diploma. Most will be the first in their family to go to college. And after the first year of the school's transformation, the principal who made it possible wiped away tears when a student said "Thank you, Mrs. Waters, for showing... that we are smart and we can make it. [The reference is to principal Kristin Waters.]

I confess that the significance of the President's choice went right over my head, but Andy Rotherham didn't miss it. He provided context on the NY Times blog.

Here's what Andy wrote:

The president singled-out a Denver school that was turned around only after its teachers took on their own union to get out from under the standard collective bargaining agreement. Needless to say that's a strategy the two national teachers' unions don't want to see replicated around the country. I wrote about that episode on The Times's Op-Ed page a few years ago. Michael Bennet, now a senator from Colorado, was the superintendent in Denver at the time and the move was controversial then and the idea remains contentious today. Of all the schools the president could have chosen to highlight, it's a fascinating choice.

Andy's op-ed (March 10, 2008) provides more background:

When teachers at two Denver public schools demanded more control over their work days, they ran into opposition from a seemingly odd place: their union. The teachers wanted to be able to make decisions about how time was used, hiring and even pay. But this ran afoul of the teachers' contract. After a fight, last month the union backed down -- but not before the episode put a spotlight on the biggest challenge and opportunity facing teachers' unions today.

The Denver Post explained further:

The high-poverty school was the first to petition for and be granted innovation status -- an agreement by union teachers to waive certain district and union rules. The idea was to give teachers more time, money and other resources to work with struggling students. The school has been climbing in achievement over the years. In its transformation, Bruce Randolph changed from being a straight middle school into a school serving grades 6-12. Its first class graduated last spring into the open arms of a tearful Waters.

Bruce Randolph had been on the list of schools to be closed. Today it's not the slam-dunk success that the President implied. It's still on the "watch list" and ranks 66th out of about 150 schools in Denver, but it clearly has improved dramatically.

But the story is not how much the school has improved; it's how. Union rules were in the way, and so teachers took on their union. With the support of the superintendent, they forced union leadership to back off.

It seems pretty clear that the President was firing another shot across the union bow, much as he did last year when he sided with a Rhode Island school board that fired its high school teachers when they wouldn't go along with a reasonable "restructuring" plan.

"Stop with the trade union stuff," the President was saying. "Start putting the interests of students first."

Unions don't seem to have much choice in the matter, given the outpouring of anti-union and anti-teacher rhetoric and actions in New Jersey, Alabama, Wyoming and just about any state you can name. Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers, the smaller of the two unions, seems to get it, but she has to persuade her mostly urban locals to move. The far larger National Education Association hasn't shown any signs that I have seen that it recognizes that the ground has shifted, dramatically and probably permanently.

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John Merrow blogs regularly at Taking Note, where this post originally appeared. His newest book, The Influence of Teachers, will be released next month.