Dr. Raj Chopra has made a career of turning around failing school districts. Hes pretty good at it. When he came to Phoenix Union High School District in 2001, the graduation rate was a dismal 55 percent and seven of the 10 high schools were rated underperforming, the lowest classification. By 2006, the graduation rate had climbed to 72 percent and all 10 high schools had achieved a performing plus rating.
Chopra himself says the key was changing the culture of this district from an adult-centered district to a child-centered district. And, boy, are the adults angry about that. The local teachers union, in last Novembers election, successfully replaced the majority of board members who supported Chopra with union supporters who have vowed to rein him in or else. For now, they have backed off earlier vows to remove him from office.
Things seemed pretty hopeless before Chopra's tenure, says former Phoenix Union teacher Johanna Haver. What hes done nobody thought could be done. What did he do? Well, it really wasn't about the money, which may come as a surprise to those who still insist that insufficient funding is the root cause of our educational inadequacies.
In fact, contrary to stereotype, Phoenix Unions mostly inner-city schools were among the best funded in the state, even when they were underperforming. Chopra hasn't spent more. In fact, he has saved millions from improved fiscal management.
Like all successful educators, Chopra firmly believes in the ability of students to achieve. We've never had high expectations of our kids at Phoenix Union, says deposed board member Harry Garewal. Dr. Chopra holds high expectations for our kids. Chopra pushed for more Advanced Placement classes, more libraries and art programs. He cleaned up the restrooms. He insisted on more authority for school principals, another necessity for successful schools.
To achieve this turnaround, Chopra was inevitably pitted against the union status quo. He demanded that even union officials had to teach if they expected to draw a teaching salary and required lesson plans from all teachers. =He unilaterally renegotiated the 137-page labor agreement which had served so long as the districts blueprint for failure, paring it down to 60 pages. Heres where the trouble started.
Of course, union officials wont admit they care more about their own prerogatives than the academic betterment of students. No, no, no, say union heads Ed Bufford and John Wright. They and their new governing board buddies have a more enlightened approach than Dr. Chopra's high-handed style. They believe in collaboration between professionals at all levels and that the highest degree of academic success is achieved and sustained through collaboration.
That's nice, but it fails to explain why, in all the years collaboration with the teachers union was the administrative style in the Phoenix Union district, the schools were abject failures. Collaboration by definition implies shared goals. Heres the hard truth: Dr. Chopra's single-minded devotion to improving academic achievement is simply not a value shared by the union.
Chopra's detractors focus on his confrontational personality and demand that he change it. Lets hope not. If he were less obstinate he would have no more success than his predecessors in transforming a culture of low expectations that is oriented to the needs of adults and their unions.
Unions are what they are: Organizations committed to the welfare of their members. But teachers unions have a persistent record of opposing all reforms not in their own best interests, including merit based pay, performance accountability and anything smacking of more options for students and their parents. The teachers union in Little Rock, Ark., recently gained control of their districts board to quash a plan to give bonuses to high-performing teachers, even though academic gains had been demonstrated. Sound familiar? This is the mindset Dr. Chopra undoubtedly faces every day.
The Phoenix Union board faces a decision. Should they curtail Dr. Chopra's efforts or even fire him? Or do they permit him to continue his work in spite of the powerful vested interests arrayed against him? The future prospects of thousands of students hang on their decision.
East Valley resident Tom Patterson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a retired emergency room physician and former state senator.