Man behind the poker hand: Q & A with Washington Teachers' Union President George Parker

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While Chancellor Michelle Rhee has been generating lots of press with some bold moves (see here and here), she?s hailed Washington Teachers' Union President George Parker as the unsung hero of the contract negotiations. He became WTU president in 2005 after 27 years as a junior high and high school math teacher. NCTQ policy analyst Emily Cohen spoke with Parker last month to learn about the man on the other side of the table.

George Parker

How and why did you get involved with the union?

I started out as a building rep. In ?92 I came to work with the union as a field rep, but was fired in 1997 by Barbara Bullock, the former union president, and I started running for president pretty soon after.

Why did you run for union president?

I felt that the union needed to go in another direction... I wanted to help teachers to help children. [As a union] we have the ability to influence policy decisions that impact the entire school system and not just one classroom.

What were some of the changes you wanted to see when you took office?

Number one, some real focus on teacher support. I wanted to see some accountability for getting high quality principals in our buildings. We did not have very good principals in a lot of our buildings and that's been a problem for years--to get central administrators who work and understand that their role is to support the local schools.

How do you feel right now about the district administration?

I think that when [Michelle Rhee] came in, her rhetoric, to some degree, in terms of the concept of firing incompetent teachers, was not the right path. That rhetoric has quieted down quite a bit now, as I think it should have.

Have your views of the role of the union changed over time? How?

I think it has a lot to do with the landscape in the system right now. We have the second highest number of charter schools?-56 or 57 charters. So we are in a competitive market here in D.C..

The union has now had to take on a dual role. Previously our main concern was bread and butter issues--to make sure teachers have good benefits and working conditions. We didn?t have to be that concerned about keeping children in [D.C. schools]. But now around 21,000 of our students are in charters and around 45,000 in public schools. We lost 6,000 students last year. The charter schools have created a competition where the very survival of the union and the job security of our teachers is not dependent on the language in our contract. It is dependent on our ability to recruit and maintain students because we are funded pretty much by the number of students we have enrolled in the public system.

It puts the union in a different light. It's not just the contract that protects jobs but also student enrollment.

We are expanding our professional development because that impacts student achievement and if parents perceive we improve student achievement then we stand a better chance of getting students back who moved to charter schools. The more students we have, the more teachers we can employ, and the more security we can develop in terms of jobs.

What is the best thing about the contract proposals on the table?

I don't believe in merit pay tied to a teacher's base salary. I don?t think there are systems out there that are fair and efficient enough that [they] can provide an unbiased analysis of a teacher performance. So I would be against anything that links a teacher's base salary to student achievement. With that said, I do believe [in] incentive bonuses for teachers willing to spend more time and do more and are willing and are able to accomplish more. They should be rewarded. That is what we are discussing now.

I'm not talking about the red and green tier yet. Because we haven't come to an agreement as to the conditions as to what the other side wants to place on some of that. And so unless we can reach some agreement that may never come to fruition.

So what are some of the outstanding issues?

I can't share that. I'm sure you are aware of seniority and tenure.

What would be the reasons you want to keep seniority?

Well ... it's all about fairness. What seniority does offer is a fair system. When I say means if a teacher has to be separated that the same stick is being used to measure everybody. If a school district is seeking retention of teachers, what is the benefit of being a teacher to commit myself to DCPS? What do I get in return if I stick with this school district throughout seven superintendents if my seniority or my experience or none of that matters?

I think there are some deep issues that we have to work through.

I think that the union is willing to be flexible where flexibility is needed to improve student achievement. What we're not flexible on is anything that appears to be union busting. We will not buy into any concept from folks just trying to weaken the union. When you start talking seniority and tenure and those kinds of things it is very, very difficult to tie those kinds of things to educational benefit to children. Those are some gray areas.

Some people say they need to get rid of seniority and tenure to improve test scores. Look, our test scores went up tremendously but without any change to seniority and tenure. It has a lot to do with leadership, morale and how teachers feel about the overall progress of the system.

Whether you give the Chancellor or the previous Superintendent Janey credit, it is irrelevant. The bottom line is that growth and change occurred in the classroom and occurred without any changes to tenure and seniority.

You have mentioned that D.C. has always been able to terminate a teacher based on poor performance--so how many teachers this past year were terminated based on poor performance?

I don't know at this point. We will hopefully get that data.

Or from the previous year?

I don't have that data either.

What was your take on the firing of many principals?

Regardless of how bad some of them may have been they were due due process. Clearly principals have been a weakness...finding good quality principals has been our weakness so there certainly needed to be some improvement. I don't know at this point until we see how the new principals will perform if we've replaced less effective principal with strong principals.

What risks are in it for you as a union president in offering support for the plan on the table? It sounds like there is a lot of dissension and division in the ranks of DCPS teachers. How does this affect your role as leader of the union?

All of us realize that something has to change in DCPS. We have been at the bottom of the totem pole for a pretty long time. We have to do something different to be successful. I think the challenge is what is the role of the union. How much flexibility is it that the union should give in order to promote student achievement and when is that moving beyond what is needed.