Cincinnati’s Teacher Union Tackles Quality

Despite complexities and shortcomings, the district's teacher quality initiatives are making a difference

By Barbara Miner

Illustrator: Michael Duffy

Cincinnati, Ohio

Sue Taylor, president of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers (CFT), started teaching more than 25 years ago. Sent to teach three different classes at three different grade levels in junior high, she needed to become an immediate expert not only in classroom management, but in Ohio history, U.S. history, and “careers.” Before long, she was sinking fast.

“I told my principal, who was a band teacher, that I really needed help, so he came to visit my classroom,” Taylor recalls. “His only suggestion was, ‘Did you hear that guy tapping his pencil in the back of the room? Do something about that.'”

“The memories of that first year, and how impossible it was, are so vivid and fresh,” she continues. “I would never want any teacher not to have structured, automatic, built-in help from a peer who is an expert in that grade level and content.”

Such help is now the norm in Cincinnati, where every new hire is assigned a mentor from the appropriate content area. And that’s only one small part of an interrelated network of teacher quality initiatives run collaboratively by the union and administration in this district of 36,000 students.

Mark Twain is said to have quipped, “When the end of the world comes, I want to be in Cincinnati because it’s always 20 years behind the times.” Even today, the city evokes memories of an era of 19th- and early 20th-century industry, with steamboats puffing up and down the Ohio River.

But Cincinnati — along with other Ohio districts such as Toledo and Columbus and a handful of districts nationwide such as Rochester, N.Y., Minneapolis, and Denver — has garnered a reputation for innovation and the union’s willingness to go beyond the norm. Cincinnati’s initiatives even encroach on areas traditionally held to be the exclusive purview of management, such as an evaluation system that can, among other things, affect salary, advancement, and continued employment.

“We do a lot of things that other teacher unions would find very radical or very risky.” Taylor says, citing as an example how a veteran teacher’s salary can be frozen if he or she is not making expected progress in their evaluations. “We not only didnfight that, we probably crafted it,” she jokes.

Taylor admits the initiatives are controversial, complicated, and contradictory. But she believes the union has the responsibility to immerse itself in issues of teacher quality, despite the inherent problems. “The union needs to be concerned about the rights and working conditions of teachers, but it also needs to be the impetus for professionalizing teaching,” she says.

National Political Context

As No Child Left Behind (NCLB) continues, many of its supporters are arguing there needs to be more focus on teacher quality, and their arguments are sometimes accompanied by thinly veiled threats of a clampdown. And these threats are not coming from just the usual suspects of conservative foundations and think tanks. As The New York Times editorialized Oct. 22, following less than hoped-for progress on math and reading scores as measured by this year’s National Assessment of Educational Progress, “The next level of progress will require deeper systemic change, especially in the realm of teacher quality. . . . That will mean hard work and more money — and a direct confrontation with the politically explosive issue of teacher preparedness.”

There is little doubt that teacher unions, already under attack by conservatives, will become enmeshed in these confrontations. The question is not so much if unions will have to address teacher quality, but why and how.

One answer to “why” is because teacher unions can be well equipped to do so by virtue of their day-to-day interaction with teachers and the resources they can marshal to develop programs and collaborate on a districtwide level.

Equally important, the alternative is far less pleasant. “We have to address the quality issues or other people — be they mayors, or governors, or whoever — will impose their reforms on us,” argues Tom Mooney, president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers and a former president of the Cincinnati union (see interview p. 34). “And it will probably be in ways we will not like and that will not help students.”

The answer to “how” will depend in part on the local context: Who is leading the initiatives? What are the relations between the union and administration? And are the initiatives a smokescreen for privatization and the de-skilling of the teaching profession?

One factor is so obvious it might be forgotten. How will rank-and-file teachers be involved?

 Photo: Barbara Miner
Students at Hughes Center High School, Cincinnati.

The Cincinnati Initiatives

Twenty years ago, Cincinnati pioneered the first of its teacher quality initiatives, Peer Assistance and Evaluation, a joint collaboration between the union and the administration. Under the program, fellow teachers are trained to evalute and mentor other classroom teachers. The philosophy that underlies this is that teachers are in touch with classroom realities. And because the peer evaluators work with teachers with similar accreditation, they have a strong background in a teacher’s content area.

A few years later, the union and administration added a Career in Teaching program for teacher advancement. One of its main goals was to provide career and financial incentives to keep good teachers in the classroom rather than have them leave and go into administration.

Five years ago, Cincinnati unveiled a new and comprehensive Teacher Evaluation System (TES), which covers all new employees and ultimately will be used to evaluate every teacher in the system (see article on page 32 for a more complete explanation of the various initiatives).

The peer evaluation and career in teaching programs are, at this point, well established and have become ingrained in the culture of the district. The evaluation system has had more ups and downs — including teacher uproar three years ago when a short-lived pay for performance component nearly sunk the entire evaluation system. More than 96 percent of union members voted in 2002 against continuing and expanding the “pay for performance” experiment under which teachers, especially veteran teachers, could have had their pay cut if they did not meet expected scores on their evaluations.

Few teachers seem unhappy that pay for performance is dead. But the other initiatives continued, and the union-administration collaboration survived. Today, new questions are on the table, especially how to link evaluation with the teaching models and professional development needed to help improve teaching.

“The potential is there to make the evaluation more of a learning experience,” says Diana Porter, a classroom teacher currently working part time for the union on teacher quality issues. “Too often, some in the administration view evaluation with a ‘gotcha’ mentality, trying to catch teachers rather than help them improve.”

Porter says that, for her, the most immediate task is to make the evaluation system far less complicated and far more helpful to teachers. “We are working to get it to a point where the average teacher can understand the evaluation system, embrace it, and make it a part of their good teaching practices without being frustrated,” she says. “We’re not there yet. This is still a work in progress.”

The Teacher Perspective

It’s Monday morning, not even 9 a.m., and already English teacher Jaime Beirne feels behind.

Beirne teaches at Hughes Center High School and is part of a four-subject team teaching ninth graders at one of the five small academies within the building. His Team B already has had two parent conferences and a special ed evaluation that morning, and is planning the week’s priorities, including helping students adjust to a new schedule that week. Beirne just turned 50 and got his first pair of bifocals over the weekend. His brain feels off kilter, his attention is on his soon-to-begin class — and this reporter is pestering him to quickly summarize the strengths and weaknesses of Cincinnati’s teacher evaluation initiatives.

Beirne, a former advertising account executive and copywriter who took up teaching five years ago as a second career, barely misses a step. “The most obvious strength is that you have teacher input into decision-making and leadership, with a real teacher perspective,” he says in a soft Southern twang with the soothing cadence of a late-night DJ.

“It takes you about two minutes to forget the realities of the classroom. I’ve been there, I know,” he continues, explaining that for three years he had been a lead teacher with out-of-classroom responsibilities that limited his teaching to half time. first year I went back to a full load, I was shocked.”

Lead teachers are part of a Cincinnati program under which extra pay is given to distinguished teachers who take on additional responsibilities. In order to become a lead teacher, one has to receive especially high scores on the district’s Teacher Evaluation System (TES).

Of the three other teachers on Beirne’s Team B, one other is a lead teacher, one tried but did didn’t receive sufficient scores, and the fourth is undergoing the evaluation this year.

James Stallworth, 33, left pre-med as an undergrad to go into teaching and is the math teacher on Team B. A burly man with distinguished looking dreadlocks draping to his shoulder blades, he speaks passionately about the need for American youth, especially for African-American females, to shed their fear of math.

Stallworth admits he enjoys the messiness of young minds grappling with complicated problems. He doesn’t obsess about student mistakes in the early stages of a lesson as long as the students are thinking and working hard. Perhaps most important, he wants his students “to overcome their math phobias and learn to appreciate the beauty of math.”

“I can’t make everyone love math,” he says. “But I can help them to stop hating it.”

Several years ago, Stallworth tried to become a lead teacher, but he did not score sufficiently high in all necessary categories.

“Am I a little bitter?” he asks. “Yes.”

Stallworth wonders if his comfort level with a more-chaotic-than-usual learning and teaching style — and the fact that evaluators often get a snapshot rather than a complete picture of a teacher’s ability — may have been factors. But he was also frustrated because he was never sure what the evaluators wanted. “I think that if I had known exactly what they were looking for, I could have been better prepared,” he says.

It’s a common criticism. In various conversations with the members of Team B — sometimes one-on-one, sometimes in groups of two or three, and briefly with all four — two overriding messages emerged. First, if the Cincinnati initiatives are to fulfill their promise of improving teacher quality and making teaching a more attractive long-term profession, they must move beyond evaluating to actually modeling best practices and enhancing professional development. Second, that modeling and professional development must become so strong that the culture of teaching is transformed.

Allen Frecker, Team B’s history and social studies teacher, says that currently the evaluation system is like a test in which the teachers are never taught the right answers. “The real problem is that it is not using good teaching practices to teach teachers what they need to know,” says Frecker, a 32-year-old teacher whose highly organized style is far different from Stallworth’s but whose critique of TES is not dissimilar.

There are lovely worded rubrics, Frecker notes, “but no exemplars, no lessons connected to them. If a teacher took that approach in front of students, you would fail evaluation.”

Union and administration officials admit that this issue is rising to the surface of the district’s agenda. “We’ve said what we think the best teacher looks like,” notes the CFT’s Porter. “Now we have to help the teacher get there.”

Then there is the issue of changing the culture of teaching — of making sure that slogans such as “high standards for all” are more than hollow rhetoric. Can the Cincinnati initiatives do that? So far the answer seems to be, maybe.

Sandra Wetzel, the fourth member of Team B, is also a second-career teacher. A 54-year-old former insurance worker who graduated from college 10 years ago, becoming a teacher “was the fulfillment of a dream.”

Although she has reservations — mostly she is anxious and scared — Wetzel volunteered this year to be evaluated in the hopes of becoming a lead teacher. She believes there is “a lot of value” in the evaluation system and that it has helped her. “It focuses on what you need to be doing and makes you aware of the finer points of good teaching,” she says.

Has it helped change the culture of teaching?

“It has changed me,” she responds. “It changes you if you are open to change.”

That change in culture, the other team members chime in, is the ultimate goal. “That’s what it [the evaluation system] should do,” Frecker says. “I don’t know if it’s done that. But it could.”

Beirne, who was involved in several committees that helped develop TES, underscores that the union and administration embarked on uncharted waters with TES. “I think we did a good job of identifying and breaking down the components of good teaching,” he says in pointing out one of the strengths of the evaluation system.

Then he pauses, searching for the right words. “Designing something in a room full of people is one thing and making that system work in the realities of classroom life is another,” he continues. “This has to be a living document that changes as we see need.”

Barbara Miner (, a Milwaukee-based journalist, is a Rethinking Schools columnist.