Education in the Media
Moran: Newark Teacher Union's Chief Backs Groundbreaking ReformOctober 21, 2012
Joe Del Grosso is 65 years old now, slowed by Crohn’s disease, with a ring of thick silver hair circling a bald top.
He remembers his militant days as young man, when he began the climb that landed him at the top of the teachers union in Newark.
“I was in jail for three months,” he says.
His crime was joining a strike in 1970. But he was never caught for shooting out the car windows of the school board president, something he did over and over to vent his rage.
“I saw him later at a bar,” Del Grosso says. “And I said, ‘You’re the son of a bitch who sent me to jail.’ And he said, ‘You’re the son of a bitch who blew my windows out.’ So we decided to have a drink, us two sons of bitches. And we became friends.”
History may be repeating itself. Because after decades of battling one superintendent after another, Del Grosso last week smoked a peace pipe with Superintendent Cami Anderson by signing agroundbreaking contract that could unleash a tidal wave of reform in the city.
The contract gives his teachers the chance to earn $5,000 bonuses if they can show they are highly effective, and double that if they agree to teach in a struggling school. Teachers who fill shortages in subjects such as math and science can get another $2,500.
The flip side is that it denies raises to the worst teachers until they are removed under the new tenure law. That’s merit pay, and for most union leaders, it is taboo.
But Del Grosso was willing to do it, and to stake his career on it, because teachers will finally have a seat at the table when those evaluations are made. No other district in New Jersey has granted teachers that power.
Del Grosso has no problem with the notion of rewarding the best and punishing the worst — as long as the judgment is right. And having a teacher at the table helps ensure that.
Despite what you may have heard, he says, most teachers are ready to make this leap.
“The teachers who come in early and stay late, and take the job seriously, are offended by the teachers who don’t,” he says. “They are the silent majority, and I think they will overwhelmingly vote for a contract that involves them in their own destiny.”
This is explosive stuff. Workers in the private sector take it for granted that their performance will affect their pay, and that if they screw up badly, they will be fired. Teachers, like many other public employees, have been protected against that harsh, real-world stuff.
Del Grosso believes that most teachers see themselves as professionals and don’t want to live in this bubble. They want to get more money for doing a good job. And if a lazy underperformer can’t improve, they want the district to draw a line. The kids who don’t learn in one classroom, after all, become a burden in the next.
“No way a teacher with integrity wants to see someone in the profession who demeans the profession,” he says.
Now, he has to convince his teachers to ratify the contract next week. And this deal, with the blessing of Gov. Chris Christie, greases that effort the old-fashioned way — with lots of cash.
The average Newark teacher makes $67,000, according to the union. He or she will get retroactive raises for the past two years, and bumps during the next three years of 3.8 percent, 4.7 percent and 5.4 percent. The bonuses are on top of that.
The contract also allows teachers in designated turnaround schools to earn more by working longer days and school years, a change that has repeatedly shown to boost student performance.
The district is being secretive about financial details, but says the cost of all this will be about $100 million — half of it from foundations, mostly the one financed by Face–book founder Mark Zuckerberg. Other Jersey districts will have a hard time following this lead.
And Del Grosso’s union is part of the American Federation of Teachers, led by Randi Weingarten, which represents only a handful of districts in the state. The rival New Jersey Education Association is much bigger and more reactionary. They are against these changes.
But imagine if Newark teachers embrace this and it works. It is hard to see how that success won’t spread. And that’s possible, mainly because Del Grosso was willing to break tradition and try something new.
The radical buried inside him, it seems, is still kicking.