Why Students Benefit When Grown-ups Collaborate for Race to the Top

10/25/2013 04:17 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

At face value, the arguments from the teachers' union at Newark Public Schools, New Jersey's largest school district, seem reasonable. The union's president, Joe Del Grosso, refused to sign off on a $30 million grant proposal to the Obama administration under the federal "Race to the Top" program because he felt it would fund projects he deemed wasteful. He also claims he could not sign off because he received the proposal only 48 hours before the submission date. District spokesman Matthew Frankel told me, "We made several public and private attempts to engage Del Grosso in this dialogue; he turned us down at every turn."

The requirement for union sign-off was new to last year's iteration of the competition, a rule that has delayed or revoked other districts' grant applications as well. Negotiations between Newark district administrators and the union stalled, and last week, district leaders submitted the application without the required signature, a gamble that has not worked elsewhere. District leaders argued that last year's application--which did have the union president's signature -- had not changed substantially and should be approved.

The heart of the matter is that millions of dollars in funding for programs designed to help the high-risk community of Newark will likely go elsewhere. These programs would improve teacher effectiveness in a district that has battled budgeting shortfalls, and students lose out the most.

Del Grosso compared the union's decision to Gov. Chris Christie's quashing a Hudson River tunnel project in 2010 because of its spiraling costs. But this argument doesn't carry water; Christie would have been taking New Jersey taxpayer money to pay for the project, which had uncertain implications. The Race to the Top is from a federal fund of $4.35 billion appropriated in 2009; the money is going somewhere, so "Why not Newark?" Frankel asks.

What likely truly underlies Del Grosso's opposition to this year's application is the backlash he experienced, manifested by a slim reelection margin, after supporting experimental merit pay programs and other changes teacher unions leaders typically oppose. In a public letter to union members on their website, Del Grosso outlines aspects of this year's application he finds particularly egregious, such as social-emotional learning programming and teacher ear-buds for direct feedback. Del Grosso noticeably rejects all proposal items that send funds to anyone other than teachers, suggesting his motives are centered on teachers, even though they themselves would benefit from third-party support.

Nearly one in three Newark residents live in poverty, and the city is considered one of America's deadliest. Many of Newark's 40,000 students face overwhelming challenges that affluent children never confront: chronic stress, cognitive lags, emotional struggles (sometimes caused by the death of friends or family members), and health and safety concerns. Newark's latest application innovatively acknowledges this and aims to develop social-emotional learning that integrates student experiences and life circumstances into the classroom. This type of teaching, where educators consider the whole child and aim to instill a sense of self-confidence, is critical and an incredibly effective way to build inclusive classroom and school culture. The district also proposed providing highest-need students with supplemental support from social workers and outside services providers. In response to both ideas, Del Grosso said there is enough support for students in schools. Del Grosso is dismissive of the district's judgment on the need for improved support.

Another project Del Grosso criticized involves Real Time Coaching, a professional development tool that involves teachers using ear buds to receive live feedback from present or virtual expert educators while teaching. This service is frequently used in low-income communities and is said to reduce off-task behavior, when students don't follow teacher directions, by 55 percent. Without the attention of students who often distrust their failing school systems, learning isn't possible.

This dispute between the district and union falls in line with a national trend, with similar disagreements in districts across California and Oregon. Perhaps the most effective resolution is for the Obama administration to require unions to collaborate and remain active stakeholders in the full proposal process. If these standards are met, applications may be considered fully signed off because unions were included in their development. This would certainly alleviate re-election pressure for union presidents and ideally yield more union support.