Monday, September 21, 2009

Getting the MCEA History Right

MCEA Paved Its Own Way to Higher Wages

by Joseph A. Hawkins

In my last posting, I noted to readers that I was interested in setting the historical record straight on two fronts. One front was the notion that Montgomery County Superintendent Jerry Weast was the first county school superintendent courageous enough to put race on the table. Even a quick survey of county history reveals that this is wrong. There is plenty of evidence that detailed and formal conversations about race were ongoing back in the mid-1970’s—nearly 25 years before Weast arrived in the county.

In this posting, I take on the “myth” (it certainly seems to be headed in that direction) that Weast made it safe for the Montgomery County Education Association (MCEA)—the teachers union, a local National Education Association (NEA) affiliate—to come out of the dark and participate in decision-making. Dark is my word, but it is the image that comes to mind when I read The Washington Post article, Over 10 Years, Montgomery's Weast Aced Tough Tests, by reporter Daniel de Vise on 7/28/09. In that piece, de Vise wrote,
“He forged a rapport with teachers almost unknown in public education, inviting union leaders onto his inner-sanctum leadership team. Weast offered teachers the same deal the school board had offered him: good pay for hard work. He made Montgomery teachers the best-paid in the region. In return, the union took the remarkable step this year of giving up a 5 percent pay raise to balance the budget. Weast collaborated with the union on a program to help struggling teachers improve or exit the classroom.”
“Inner-sanctum leadership team.” Wow! Sounds private, secretive, mysterious, and definitely dark.

But let us get real folks—MCEA has no history of anything close to being a shy wall-flower. And below I make the case for why this is true. Warning: When I resigned my Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) job in 1998, I was not only an active MCEA member but also an elected member of the MCEA Board of Directors. And in 1997 and 1998, I was a member of the MCEA contract bargaining team. I am a little biased.

Commission on Excellence in Teaching: MCEA has always been serious about collaborating

I first became conscious of MCEA’s ability to collaborate with others in MCPS in 1985 when MCEA and the Board of Education established the Commission of Excellence in Teaching. The Commission concluded its work in 1987 and issued a very comprehensive report titled Attracting, Keeping and Enabling Excellent Teachers. One of the really cool things about the Commission was the caliber of experts called upon to serve. Experts like Linda Darling-Hammond (clearly a guru in the field of teaching), Michael O’Keefe (former president of the Consortium for the Advancement of Private Higher Education), and David Tatel (former Director of the U.S. Office for Civil Rights) served on the Commission.

I really became conscious of the Commission’s work when MCPS and MCEA began to implement its recommendations in the late 1980’s. After putting in place in multiple schools, site-based management (teachers and parents involved in local school decision-making), new teacher induction programs (think mentoring programs for novice teachers), and site-based staff development and training (teachers involved in decisions about what training they needed), my old Accountability Office was called upon to evaluate impacts. I was personally responsible for evaluating the teacher induction programs and the site-based staff development efforts. Beyond what was actually going on in schools across the county—new teachers definitely needed supports and were getting them and school staff were extremely capable of designing and managing their own training needs—I got a unique opportunity to view the extent to which MCEA was deeply involved in pushing MCPS in directions that were making schools better. (Note to self: Don’t they call this stuff school reform. The Washington Post called it reform when they wrote about it 1988. So, MCEA was engaged as a true partner and this was more than 10 years prior to Weast arriving in the county.)

And I believe it extremely important to note that the Commission’s work also stressed to the county at large that paying teachers more was a high priority. So, the roadmap, the game plan to have our teachers become the “best-paid” in the region was laid out as early as 1987.

New Unionism: MCEA jumps onboard with both feet

In early 1997, then NEA president Bob Chase set forth an agenda for NEA affiliates to adopt new unionism. In a nutshell, new unionism encourages teachers to partner with administrators in promoting school reforms. For the most part, NEA affiliates around the nation did not rush to sign up for new unionism; however, MCEA did and did so by jumping in with both feet. I remember MCEA’s move to new unionism because I was there. And the jump made sense given MCEA’s history and support of the recommendations of from the Commission of Excellence in Teaching. For MCEA, the move to new unionism was guided by then MCEA president Mark Simon (retired) and MCEA executive director Tom Israel.

(Note: Those seeking additional information on new unionism ought to do a Google search on Bob Chase and new unionism. Lots of links pop up.)

New unionism fit MCEA like a glove, and the tenets of new unionism were first put in play in 1997 as MCEA and the BOE sat down to bargain for a new 1998 teachers union contract. I was a member of MCEA bargaining team. Mark Simon led the MCEA team and Steve Seleznow (now at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) then the deputy MCPS superintendent led the BOE team. The 1998 contract was bargained using interest-based bargaining. This type of bargaining is also known as Win-Win Bargaining, Mutual Gains, Principled or Interest-Based Negotiation, Interest-Based Problem Solving, Best Practice or Integrative Bargaining. Regardless of what it is called, in 1997, it required the bargaining parties—MCEA and the BOE/MCPS—to drop traditions and adopt new ideas and processes for bargaining. For example, neither party came to the table with any predetermined issues or positions.

Now cynics can dump on interest-based bargaining, but the fact of the matter is MCEA used a new approach to bargain a contract and it worked. But perhaps more than anything else, new unionism and interest-based bargaining required greater MCEA and MCPS collaboration (even rapport). And that collaboration was real (sure as member of the MCEA I felt cautious of the other side but the entire process felt honest and open). And this foundation of collaboration laid down in late 1997 and early 1998 occurred an entire school year prior to Weast’s arrival in the county. And this foundation included setting in motion specific actions and plans to aid struggling teachers and counseling failing teachers out the classroom door.

And I believe it extremely important to note that even prior to what occurred in Broad Acres Elementary School—MCPS and MCEA collaborating on moving that school forward in a positive academic direction during the early years of the Weast superintendency—MCPS and MCEA had already begun to test out the Broad Acres collaborating model before the 1999-2000 school year. I was part of a MCEA team that went into Brookhaven Elementary School in the spring of 1998 in an effort to assist struggling teachers and improve the school’s academic outcomes. Again, a roadmap and a game plan were in play.

And Then There’s the Apple Ballot

I moved from my hometown Washington D.C. to Bethesda in 1984. I’m a little fuzzy on my first official county election, but as I long as I have voted in the county, I remember there being a MCEA Apple Ballot. This is the list of MCEA endorsed candidates running for the Board of Education (BOE). County voters may have mixed feelings about the Apple Ballot, but one thing is clear—it works (you can get elected without MCEA’s endorsement but the odds of getting elected with their endorsement are extremely high). And as a former MCEA member I lost track of how many times I volunteered and stood out in front of my own voting/polling location (Pyle Middle School) handing out the Apple.

But getting the right group of people elected to the BOE, as well as to the county council, links directly to higher wages and better benefits. At the end of the day, MCEA wants elected officials that support the rhetoric of we want the “best-paid” teachers. And this is not a deal that was dreamed up by Weast. It is a reality that has been in place for nearly three solid decades. The notion that Weast rode into town and the BOE finally open up their check-books is at best non-sense.

So What Is My Point?

I believe Weast has actively promoted and supported higher pay for teachers. I also believe that he and MCPS management, including the BOE, actively involve MCEA in decision-making. However, both of these things or actions or policies or whatever you call them; especially how well they currently function with Weast as superintendent, result from a fairly long and complex history of MCEA activism and not just from the leadership of one person—no matter what their evangelical skills.


Last week in Education Week, Stacey M. Childress pinned an essay and wrote the following,
“When Weast arrived in Montgomery County, board members rarely agreed, and the unions were at odds with each other and the district. His willingness to blur the lines rather than consolidate power to himself was a first step, and stakeholder groups reciprocated by engaging deeply in the reform efforts.”

MCEA at odds with MCPS? MCEA at odds with the other unions? Who is Childress interviewing to arrive at these wrong-headed conclusions? I was there just prior to Weast’s arrival—working behind the scenes at MCEA—and I simply do not recall my fellow MCEA members at odds with others. Sure there were disagreements but “at odds” sounds like we were fighting it out in an alley somewhere. And what’s wrong with board members disagreeing publicly (or behind closed doors)? However, I also do not recall board chaos. In fact, in 1998, the board that hired Weast, approved one of the largest teacher union contracts ever long before he ever set foot in Rockville. That was not possible without a little peace and harmony.


  1. Question: During the budget deliberations of 2006-7 (the year it was proposed to phase out and close the secondary learning centers), we were told that a deal had been cut with the union whereby they would be guaranteed their substantial pay raise in return for acquiescing with MCPS's decision to close the Learning Centers.
    Parents of students with disabilities want to know, once and for all, exactly WHO was at the "secret budget table" when MCPS disclosed its plan to phase out and close the secondary learning centers, and why these people didn't share this information with the teachers they are supposed to represent.

  2. Lyda, that is not something that any of the teachers in my family have ever been made aware of. As a matter of fact, they wouldn't trade learning centers for raises especially when they know the children benefitted from the learning centers as opposed to the larger, inclusion classes. My spouse teaches a very large inclusion class and feels awful that the needs of the students cannot be met to the fullest extent possible. If there were teacher representatives at the table, it doesn't appear as if the teachers were aware of it.


If your comment does not appear in 24 hours, please send your comment directly to our e-mail address at