12/20/2012 01:08 pm ET

Dave Cicarella, New Haven Teachers Union President, Wins 3rd Term, Marking Step In Education Reform

This piece comes to us courtesy of New Haven Independent.

The teachers union issued a mandate on New Haven’s leap into embracing school reform by reelecting Dave Cicarella as its president.

The election took place Dec. 4. He ran unopposed. Cicarella’s new three-year term, his third, begins Jan. 1.

The union, a chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, represents 1,800 teachers in New Haven’s public school district.

The vote was the first referendum on major changes in the city teachers’ contract. As unions deadlocked with reformers in cities like Washington, D.C., Cicarella (pictured) in 2009 negotiated a landmark contract that embraced key reforms without a fight.

Enticed in part by healthy pay raises in a down economy, teachers overwhelmingly ratified a contract that made it easier for the district to fire tenured teachers. Teachers agreed to be graded based on how their kids perform in class—and lose their jobs if they fail to improve. And they agreed to let the city overhaul a few failing schools each year as “turnarounds,” letting principals pick which teachers stay. The contract hurled the city into the national spotlight as a leading example of how teachers can work with their bosses to welcome, not fight, reform. The New York Times hailed the experiment as the “New Haven Model.”

Teachers are now in their third year of the new grading system. So far, the school district has succeeded in pushing out low-performing teachers while maintaining its good relationship with the union. That’s partly because New Haven took a more moderate line than some reformers who call for teachers to be graded strictly on the percentage growth students make on test scores. New Haven’s evaluation is based on a scale of 1 to 5, from “needs improvement” to “exemplary.” Teachers set their own goals for student growth, which is roughly 50 percent of their final grade, depending on how consistent the student data is. The rest of the grade is based on an evaluation of the teacher’s “instructional practices” and “professional values.” Low and high grades are checked by independent auditors. The system focuses on giving teachers plenty of time and support to improve, rather than kicking them out.

In its first year, in the spring of 2011, the system pushed out 34 teachers, 16 of them tenured. In its second year it eased out 24 teachers. In both cases, teachers agreed to resign without being fired or filing a grievance, according to Cicarella.

The recent union election is the first time teachers have voted on the new paradigm. Some members of the union executive board faced challenges, Cicarella said, but the rest of the leadership team—Vice-President Tom Burns, Secretary Pat DeLucia and Treasurer Michael Pantaleo—all won reelection, he said.

Cicarella called the election a “vote of confidence” in union leadership.

“I think we’ve done some good work. It’s certainly not all me,” he said, but “I like to think I’ve had some part of it.”

Cicarella, who’s 56, is in his 34th year as a New Haven public school teacher. He started out as a math teacher, then spent six years as an instructional coach in literacy and math. After 28 years, he became union president. In January he’ll begin his third, three-year term.

His new term will feature another round of contract negotiations. Talks will begin next summer on a new contract to succeed the current one, which runs from July 1, 2010 to June 30, 2014. Talks will likely include new ways to give teachers monetary bonuses for working in hard-to-serve schools.

Cicarella said he also aims to use the negotiations to address class size. The current contract caps classes at 26 students for kindergarten to 2nd grade and 27 students for 3rd grade and up. Cicarella said those classes are too big.

“With 27 students with the challenges we have, we’re not going to get where we want to be,” he said.