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Collaboration, Not Confrontation

David CicarellaDavid Cicarella is being honored as a Champion of Change for his efforts in school turnaround.

I am honored to be selected as a White House Champion of Change. I must note that the true champions are my colleagues, the teachers of the New Haven Public School System. They face the tremendous challenges of urban education each and every day with steadfast determination and an unwavering commitment to our students. I was a classroom teacher for 22 years and worked six years as an instructional coach in the math department. It was incredibly rewarding work, and those 28 years provided experiences that have served me well in my present role as president of the New Haven Federation of Teachers.

I left the classroom to lead the teachers union with the hopes of truly affecting change – not merely a change of day-to-day policy and contract language, but also systemic change in the way union leadership interacts with the school district and beyond. I had seen too many well-intentioned educational plans fail due to a lack of cooperation and communication. If we could channel the collective expertise of the adult professionals in the education system to work together, we would certainly begin to solve the problems facing public education.

The New Haven School Change initiative began with a groundbreaking contract overwhelming ratified by the teachers union membership which emphasized cooperation and collaboration. The School Change initiative encompasses “top to bottom accountability,” whereby finger pointing and blame are put aside, and new evaluation systems were put in place for both teachers and administrators. These systems were created over the course of an entire school year with committees of both teachers and administrators working side by side.  The teacher evaluation system (TEVAL) has student learning, instructional practices, and professional values as its core components. New evaluation systems for principals (PEVAL) and central office administrators (CEVAL) were likewise created by committees of teachers and administrators working in tandem. They are fair and transparent, providing support with quality professional development.

The School Change initiative recognizes that wraparound services for turnaround schools, flexibility in establishing work rules at individual school buildings, and a voice for teachers and principals to collaborate on what is needed in their schools and classrooms is essential. In New Haven we have used the collective bargaining process to ensure that we will finish what we have started. We have collaborated, agreed to, and signed off on our efforts. Collective bargaining has added teeth to our reform program.

Teachers have been an equal partner at the table. Our input has been sought, valued, and included. We are proud of our collaborative and cooperative efforts and the positive results we have seen so far. Yet, we recognize there is a lot of hard work ahead of us. I hope that our experience in New Haven can be a model for the nation—that real education reform takes collaboration, not confrontation. It’s a model that relies on the experience and expertise of the adults who spend every day with our children. It’s a model that empowers and supports teachers. And we all understand the importance of working together to get it right.

David Cicarella is the union president of the New Haven Public School system.