American teachers’ unions are under a steady barrage of attack. Just last week, the U.S. Supreme Court decided to hear a case, Janus v. AFSCME, which could allow disgruntled teachers and other public sector employees to become “free riders:” benefiting from the efforts unions undertake to bargain for higher wages and benefits, but not contributing a penny in fair share fees to support those efforts.

This new attempt to defund unions rides on top of the narrative from so-called “education reformers,” dominant in today’s discourse about education, that teachers’ unions are defenders of the status quo who are opposed to innovation in schools. This narrative decries unions for opposing efforts to remove ineffective teachers, and claims that they want all teachers to be paid the same amount no matter their skills or efforts, believe seniority should guide all transfer decisions, and bargain only in teachers’ self-interest.

But that is not true of most teacher unionists I’ve met. A decade ago, I published a biography of Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) from 1974-1997, who was at once a proud teacher union leader and the nation’s leading education reformer. He consistently proposed innovations that surprised union critics and were often embraced by educators across the political spectrum.

Some have claimed that Shanker was a one-of-a kind union leader, replaced by a new generation of unionists who oppose reform. But that simply isn’t true: Shanker was an intellectual giant, yes, in many ways unsurpassable as an individual, but his spirit lives on. The current AFT president, Randi Weingarten, has herself proposed innovative ideas in the Shanker mold—like a high-quality “bar exam” for entering teachers. And for the past two years, I have been working with a coalition of thirty progressive teachers’ unions which embody Shanker innovative approach through the Teacher Union Reform Network (TURN).

The group has developed a new report that I helped facilitate, entitled: “Our TURN: Revitalizing Public Education and Strengthening Our Democracy Through the Collective Wisdom of Teachers.” The report backs a number of novel approaches, including ones for removing ineffective teachers, getting beyond the traditional single-salary schedule for paying teachers, modifying rigid seniority rules, and putting educational quality at the center of collective bargaining agreements.

But even more importantly, the report lays out an entirely new framework for thinking about education innovation. Instead of just responding reactively to bad, top-down ideas to privatize education or micromanage teachers, TURN’s report outlines a positive vision of education reform, tapping into the collective wisdom of educators. Led by some of most creative unionists I’ve ever met—Adam Urbanski of the Rochester Teachers Association, Ellen Bernstein of the Albuquerque Teachers Federation, and Tom Alves of the San Juan Teachers Association—TURN held several meetings in different parts of the country to formulate four pillars for reform:

  1. If we want schools to prepare students to be career- and college-ready, thoughtful citizens, and reflective human beings, then schools should be safe, learner-centered, and well-resourced to serve the needs of each individual student.
  2. If teachers are the most important in-school determinant of student learning, then teaching must be recognized as a true profession.
  3. If America needs to tap into the talents of all students, irrespective of their background, then educational excellence must be inclusive and education redesign must be accompanied by changes in other aspects of students’ lives.
  4. If all education policy must ultimately be about enhancing opportunities for students to learn, then collective bargaining (and other forms of collaborative decision-making) between teachers and management should always aim to advance student learning.”

The report begins by laying out a positive vision of what schools should look like. In these schools, students engage in hands-on and experiential learning that always takes place in groups; and they have a rich curriculum, receiving individualized attention from teachers as they move through it. The teachers guiding them are drawn from the brightest college graduates, and they are inducted and compensated with the equity and respect that professionals in fields such as medicine and architecture receive. Furthermore, they have a professional voice, and are active participants in decision-making. The schools themselves are racially, ethnically, and socioeconomically diverse, and are places where parents from all backgrounds are welcomed. Students receive free early childhood education and health care, nutrition, and counseling. And collective bargaining proposals are all backed by evidence that they will advance student learning.

The TURN report advocates a number of proposals that may surprise union critics:

  • Instead of defending every teacher, the group supports “the widespread adoption of peer assistance and review procedures that support struggling teachers and in some instances remove teachers from the profession.”
  • The report calls for school-specific agreements, “where a supermajority of teachers in a school can override the corresponding district-wide contract to allow for tailoring terms and conditions to improve teaching and learning.”
  • The group calls for eliminating pay systems that rise in lockstep with advances in seniority, and advocate instead for “adopting differentiated pay,” based on teacher expertise, job-related knowledge and skills, and added responsibilities.
  • The report backs “meaningful consultation with parents and community members as part of the process of collective bargaining” with management.

These types of ideas are already being implemented in districts across the country. In St. Paul, Minnesota, for example, union representatives meet with parents for their input on collective bargaining agreements. And in Toledo, Ohio, outside expert teachers work with struggling colleagues to improve performance but sometimes ultimately recommend termination of teachers.

It would be excellent if the TURN report helps to defang critics of teachers’ unions, as it certainly responds in fine form to their assumptions and concerns; but its more important accomplishment lies in how it marshals the wisdom of frontline educators for a series of reforms that will make an enormous difference in the lives of students—such as economic and racial school integration in 100 districts, and teacher-powered schools that tap into the leadership of educators, and not just their expertise.

For educators, parents, and students who have been turned off by what passes today for education reform—test-and-punish curricular models, and privatizing and outsourcing education to nonpublic schools—the TURN report provides a noble vision of public education in our democratic society, and a roadmap of how to get there.