OAKLAND -- The Oakland teachers union and the school district administration do not have an easy relationship. And yet, in the midst of budget cuts, an unsettled contract and threat of a strike, an unlikely -- though delicate -- partnership has arisen.
A group of teachers, including some union leaders, is quietly working with district staff on a project that could lead to big changes in how teachers in the 38,000-student school system are recruited, trained, evaluated and treated.
"It's like little bubbles of order in the midst of chaos," said Betty Olson-Jones, president of the 2,800-member Oakland Education Association.
The Effective Teaching Task Force, which Olson-Jones leads with a district staffer, is taking on sticky and complex issues. It's charged with developing a definition of effective teaching in Oakland and offering ways to measure a teacher's effectiveness beyond students' standardized test scores. Task force members are also identifying conditions and practices that they believe will lead to excellent teaching -- recommendations that could range from providing clean, properly heated classrooms (a recurring problem) to creating a career pathway for teachers.
The group's work will touch on ways to keep good teachers in the system, one of the district's major challenges; a report released in 2009 showed that 55 percent of the district's new hires left within three years.
Nationally, talk about the effectiveness of teachers and the role of teachers unions in public education has grown divisive, often putting unions on the defensive. Attempts to rate teachers by their students' test scores -- and to name those teachers, as the Los Angeles Times has done in its "Grading the Teachers" series -- have been particularly incendiary.
All of the national and local discord makes the constructive nature of Oakland's teaching task force so striking.
It didn't start out that way.
"I'll be frank in saying the first task force meeting we had, attended mostly by staff and teachers, was the most awkward, tense meeting I've ever been a part of," Ash Solar, a district manager who heads the task force with Olson-Jones, told the school board last fall. "You could literally cut through the mistrust, skepticism and anxiety of teachers in the air with a knife."
Solar said that to launch such an initiative after a contract imposition can come off as insensitive. "There was a little bit of, 'How dare you? What's going on here? Is this about value-added performance pay?' " he said in a recent interview.
By the fourth task force meeting, Solar said, the dynamic of the group had transformed.
Jesse Shapiro, a history teacher at Oakland High School, was perhaps the most vocal skeptic. He said he pictured the group drafting a generic definition of teacher effectiveness, a series of bullet points on which every teacher would be judged. But before he walked away from the effort in disgust, he said, another teacher persuaded him to stay on, arguing that the administration doesn't often ask teachers what they think about big-picture policy issues. He said he has since come to see the task force as "an honest effort" on the part of the administration to solicit opinions from teachers.
"I'm not optimistic, but I do hope that the district will listen to what teachers have to say and act upon it," Shapiro said.
Shapiro said he'd like to see a better teacher evaluation system, one that includes student- and peer-review and is based on goals set by each teacher. He's open to economic incentives, too. As a young teacher, he's on the low end of a pay scale that starts at $39,000; it's hard to afford to live in his native Oakland on his salary, he said.
On Tuesday, the task force made its first stop on a "listening tour" -- a series of meetings to get ideas from teachers who aren't on the task force. The 90-minute session began with a visualization and continued with small group discussions about professional growth, working conditions and ways to assess how a student is doing.
In April, each of the district's 100-plus schools will be invited to send two elected delegates to a three-day convention the task force is holding in Emeryville. The task force will take the information it gathers there to write a tentative, long-term plan. Next year, teams of teachers and district staff will design and test pilot projects based on those ideas, Solar said.
Kei Swensen, a kindergarten teacher at Fruitvale Elementary School and a member of the teachers union's executive board, said she was impressed by what she's seen and heard.
"Hopefully, it'll change the culture some of us have gotten used to -- the us-versus-them mentality," Swensen said, referring to the teachers and the administration. "Talk to me in two years when we find out what the result is of all this work."
Read Katy Murphy's Oakland schools blog at IBAbuzz.com/education.