The Center for American Progress hosted today a “show and tell” from industry professionals on how districts and teachers unions have effectively come together to expand learning time in our schools. Titled “Union and District Partnerships to Expand Learning Time,” the event convened innovators with backgrounds in teachers unions, charter schools, and school administration to discuss cooperative solutions for expanded learning time.
The panelists spoke from their own successes working through entrenched systems and recruiting allies to expand learning time. The panel stressed that innovation can emerge from old systems with the help of creativity, good leadership, and grant incentives. And they emphasized that this is not an issue that has to pit districts and unions against each other. Each panelist’s success involved using unconventional ideas to improve educational quality and satisfy students, teachers, and districts alike.
Jonathan Spear, co-founder and chief operating officer of Generation Schools, shared the value a third party organization can bring to union and district negotiations. Generation Schools is a Brooklyn-based nonprofit that works in cooperation with teachers unions and local districts to launch innovative public schools that stagger school hours to expand learning time by 30 percent without adding to teachers’ workload.
“Generation School started as an experiment in thought,” explained Spear. The school began with two principles: to be a better place for urban students to thrive, and to be a better environment for teachers to be successful. Generation Schools took an open-minded approach to new ideas, and incorporated innovative teaching schedules and philosophies.
Generation Schools manage to increase learning time and reduce class size without increasing the cost per pupil. The program also emphasizes building an environment of constant professional development for teachers. Teachers are given 20 days of professional development each year and are given two hours daily to work in common with other teachers. Communal work time allows teachers to look at students’ work, make lesson plans, and “have the conversations that drive continuous improvement,” said Spear.
Executive Director of Project Initiatives in Buffalo Public Schools Amber Dixon says that Buffalo allows schools the flexibility to create their own schedules. Dixon encouraged schools in her district to expand learning time by spreading out teacher work schedules into early and late shifts. The district could affordably provide classes before and after the normal school day by allowing teachers to choose when they wanted to work.
The Buffalo school district was “failing by many measures” in 2005, as Dixon put it. The huge and poverty-stricken district seemed unlikely to turn around. Eighty percent of the students were below the poverty line, and the district employed 8,000 workers. That year, Dixon said, the district realized that it, “was time to put our foot down and start making some structural changes on behalf of the children.”
Dixon spearheaded a major reform effort with $11 million in state Contract for Excellence grants. Dixon earned an agreement from the teachers union to agree to unconventional work schedules in return for using a portion of the funds to reduce class sizes. Dixon’s success in changing work hours and other points of reform managed to salvage 7 of the 16 schools from her district’s list of worst-achieving schools.
Leo Casey, vice president of academic high schools from the United Federation of Teachers, brought the teachers union’s perspective to the meeting. Paying teachers differently based on the level and quality of their education is a key element to improving teacher quality, according to Casey. He explained that battling rigid national policies such as the Department of Education’s unitary pay model for teachers would be one of the biggest challenges to more widely implementing expanded learning time models. Breaking through bureaucracies is difficult, but the challenge is mostly front loaded. “The first year is always the most challenging year,” Casey emphasized.
CAP’s emphasis on education reform comes at a time when the Obama administration is calling for more schools to rethink the school day and calendar. The Department of Education made expanding learning time a key feature of the Race to the Top Fund and School Improvement Grants. These funds provide the resources and the incentives for schools to fight tough battles for reform.