Less Conflict, More Collaboration: Zurier Commission Presents a Vision for Providence Schools

image courtesy of Providence Public Schools District

RI Senator Sam Zurier’s (D – Providence) quest to nurture a kinder, gentler and more productive relationship between the Providence Teacher’s Union (PTU) and district leadership appears quixotic on its face. But given where we are, it seems like a long shot worth taking.

Observers consistently use the words “toxic,” and” poisonous” to describe interactions between the Providence Teachers’ Union (PTU) and its management counterparts in the Providence Public School District’s  (PPSD) Central Office and the RI Dept of Education (RIDE). (RIDE has exercised oversight authority over Central Office since October of 2019 under the state-mandated takeover of the district.)

Contract negotiations were already stalled in 2021 when management terminated the positions of 188 teachers. The union voted “no confidence” in Commissioner Infante-Green and then-Superintendent Harrison Peters.  The relationship has only gotten more contentious since Peters was replaced by Javier Montañez.

That was the backdrop in September when Senator Zurier convened a new Providence Public Schools Study Commission on labor-management relations between school districts and teachers. As a Senatorial commission, the group’s official purpose is to recommend changes to state law. But discussion and testimony over the course of the Commission’s 10 meetings have touched on a broad range of interlinked reforms, practices and values around teachers and school governance that could transform Providence’s public schools, though many, like good will and trust, cannot be legislated.

RI Senator Samuel D. Zurier

Zurier was inspired to create the Commission after reading the December, 2022 article, “Call to Action: Union, Management Must Blow Up Providence’s Broken School System”  by Steve Smith (a former President of the Providence Teacher’s Union) and Susan Lusi (former Providence Schools Superintendent), which cites state laws as major barriers to school improvement.

In the article, Lusi pointed to state laws governing teacher contracts that lead to a rigid “one-size-fits-all” approach to teacher assignments, class sizes and schedules, thwarting individualized responses to the needs of specific schools and students. Smith called for revised state laws to encourage performance-based pay and make the removal of clearly unqualified teachers less cumbersome.

The 15 Commissioners have heard from national experts, as well as Providence stakeholders, who have wide experience studying and actively reshaping labor-management relations in school districts around the US. All of the experts acknowledged a legitimate need for teacher unions. Their recommendations assumed that unions will continue to play a major role in public schools, but they envisioned a very different collaborative and professional role for unions.

Here in Providence and around the US, teachers’ unions were formed in the 1950s and 1960s in response to low pay, poor working conditions and favoritism in hiring and firing. After great struggles, teachers secured the right to form unions to negotiate pay, benefits and working conditions.

In response, districts everywhere have staked out contractual “management rights” to define the prerogatives of administrators, such as control of educational strategy and district operations. In the contractual no-man’s-land between teachers’ benefits and management’s rights, each side sees the other’s gain as their loss. Contracts have blown up to hundreds of pages which leave students, families and communities largely unmentioned.

The fact is that, nationally, as well as locally, fewer and fewer people want to teach, especially in the most challenged districts such as PPSD. And it’s not all about pay.  The typical contract leaves many issues that teachers care deeply about off the negotiating table. Evan Stone’s organization, Educators for Excellence, has surveyed teachers about what they really want and worry about. According to Stone, the younger teachers and educators of color they surveyed wanted:

  • More opportunities to lead and grow as professionals.
  • More collaboration with others.
  • Pay for performance, rather seniority.

Much of which is not happening, currently, in Providence.  Patrick Shelton, a teacher who moved from the recently closed Broad Street Feinstein Elementary School  to Martin Luther King Elementary School spoke to frustration with micro-management since the takeover. “Every part of my day is decided for me. I have little control.”

Doing what is best for students means attracting, supporting and retaining the most effective teachers, according to Heather Pesky, President of the National Council on Teacher Quality. She shared research showing that teacher effectiveness is the decisive factor in student success in school, careers and life.   And, not surprisingly, teachers are more effective in collaborative school environments.  Research by Saul Rubinstein of the Collaboration Network, facilitated at Rutgers University in New Jersey, showed that more collaborative districts have better student outcomes, citing a 12% difference in student English test outcomes as just one example. He says they also benefit from greatly reduced teacher turnover and better decision-making.

photo: Wikimedia Commons

A number of possible innovations aimed at ensuring that students have more highly qualified teachers rose to the top of the Commission’s testimony. Most of them would require at least some movement toward collaboration between teachers and administrators.

  • Site-based management (SBM – also called “innovation zones” or “empowerment zones”) would shift authority for teacher hiring, budgets, teacher assignments and teaching strategies from the district to a collaborative team of administrators, teachers and others such as parents or community representative, either at an individual buildings or in a selected cluster of schools. Advocates say SBM leads to a better building culture, less turnover among teachers and principals and better responsiveness to specific student needs. Legislation could lower the threshold for schools to adopt SBM.
  • Peer-Assistance and Review (PAR) would transfer teacher evaluation to teams of senior teachers who also provide training and mentoring support to bring teachers up to established standards and to “counsel out” teachers who cannot. Revising the state law around teacher discipline processes might help. But PAR also requires funding for the “master teachers” assigned to peer mentoring and support.
  • Differential compensation would adjust pay to attract good candidates to hard-to-fill positions, such as paying science and math teachers enough to compete with private sector opportunities or adding pay incentives for hard-to-fill positions such as special education teachers.
  • Performance-based compensation would link teacher salary increases to meeting teaching standards or taking on expanded responsibilities rather than years of service or professional degrees. Several experts recommended eliminating the salary bump now given to teachers who earn a Masters degree, since there is no correlation between the degree and student achievement. That would free up a lot of funding for professional development with more direct impact on learning.
  • Career ladders for teachers would set frameworks and pay scales for professional advancement from novice to tenured teacher, with later opportunities to become a “master teacher” and, eventually, a building or district leader. This framework aligns with Peer-Assisted Review (with master teachers providing support and assessment) and site-based management (where some teachers will take on governance responsibilities).

Taken together, these changes lead away from confrontation and toward collaboration between teachers and management. Moving from confrontation to collaboration requires new attitudes, new commitments, new skills. And it usually involves unraveling complex networks of existing conditions and practices in the district such as busing, budgeting, school hours, teacher evaluations and many other details that make schools work every day.  Unfortunately, examples of successful school district collaborations described by the presenters are still the exception.

Photo: Kenny Eliason/Unsplash

At its last three meetings, Commission members reviewed and discussed the several reforms recommended by the experts. From the testimony and the direct experience of some Commission members, particularly teacher and union President Maribeth Calabro, Providence teacher and union representative Jeremy Sencer and Zachary Scott, Deputy Superintendent of PPSD, it emerged that many of the reforms suggested have been tried in Providence over the last few decades, but that they were generally ended in a couple of years, when leadership changed or special funding sources expired.

The highly-regarded Hope High School redesign of 2005, imposed by state mandate, created three “academies” within the school, with teachers taking on a large degree of leadership. Commission member and Providence City Councilor Justin Roias was a junior at Hope during this time. He called his time there, a “golden year, my best educational experience and the reason I became a social worker.” But in 2008, the state cut the additional funding and returned control to the district. New superintendent Tom Brady undid the changes at Hope in the name of uniformity across the district.

In 2012, the district and Union attempted a nationally-recognized collaboration  in response to a federal mandate to overhaul three low-performing schools, Lauro,  Stuart and Alvarez. Then-Superintendent Susan Lusi and former Providence Teachers Union President Steve Smith chose to “restart” the three schools under the joint management of the PTU and the District through a new nonprofit called Providence United! After initial turmoil, the three schools achieved dramatic improvements in attendance and building culture. In 2015 Providence United! seemed poised for academic growth when it was suddenly shut down due to drastic cuts in funding for Providence Schools.

PTU President and Commission member Maribeth Calabro noted that Providence had a very robust Peer Assistance and Review program, with 16 full-time teachers taken out of their classrooms to provide peer support. She recalled that the training investment was high, but that the result won national recognition. A number of underperforming teachers were “counseled out” of the profession without going through the full firing process and more left the district voluntarily. At the same time, retention of teachers through their first three years improved. Despite this success, the district eventually eliminated all 16 of the peer support specialist positions, effectively ending PAR in Providence.

Maribeth Calabro, President of the Providence Teachers Union       photo courtesy of PTU

In January, Zurier and Senate staffers will present a draft report with at least some legislative recommendations. Zurier acknowledges that essential trust can’t be legislated. And statewide changes to the laws around teacher contracts and pay will face considerable resistance, though there may be some scope for enabling or encouraging more collaboration.

Commission members:

Senator Samuel Zurier

Senator Jessica de la Cruz

Senator Meghan E. Kallman

Zachary Scott, Deputy Superintendent of Operations, Providence Public Schools

Lisa Odom-Villella, Deputy Commissioner of Instructional Programs, RIDE

Thomas Kerr-Vanderslice, City of Providence

Justin Roias, Ward 4 Providence City Council

Erlin Rogel, President, Providence School Board

Wobberson Torchon, Principal, Mt. Pleasant High School

Maribeth Calabro, President, Providence Teacher Union

Jeremy Sencer, RI Federation of Teachers, Providence Public School teacher

Nirva LaFortune, Parent of Providence Public School students

Marcus Tremblay, Junior, Classical High School

Susan Lusi, Ex Officio Member

Steve Smith, Ex Officio Member


Expert presenters

Jo Anderson, Jr., Collaborative Leadership Consulting Group (CLCG) Chicago, IL

Heather Peske, President, National Council on Teacher Quality

Nancy Mullen, Retired Principal, Hope High School and Marshfield High School (Fall River, MA)

Paul Reville, Founding Director, Education Redesign Lab, Harvard University, former Massachusetts Commissioner of Education

Evan Stone, Co-Founder, Educators for Excellence

John Papay, Associate Professor of Education, Annenberg Center, Brown University (also parent of two Providence Schools students and a member of the Parent Advisory Council)

Peter McWalters, Former RI Commissioner of Education

Andres Alfonso, Former Professor of Practice, Harvard University, Former Deputy Chancellor of New York City Department of Education

Saul Rubinstein, Director, Collaborative School Leadership Initiative, Rutgers, University