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How Teachers Unions Lead the Way to Better Schools

5:00 pm in Uncategorized by Amy B. Dean

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In honor of Teacher Appreciation Day 2010

I have a concern: Teachers are getting pummeled. Too often, they are being demonized in the media and blamed by politicians for being the cause of bad schools. Right-wing governors, power-hungry mayors and corporate “reformers”—all ignoring root issues such as poverty and inequality—have scapegoated the people who have devoted their lives to educating our children. Moreover, these forces are seeking to destroy the collective organizations formed by educators: teachers unions.

The stakes for our country could not be more profound. The labor movement and the public education system are two critical institutions of American democracy. And they are two that go hand in hand. Teachers unions have played a critical role in advocating for public education, but you’d never know it from mainstream media coverage. Therefore, there is a great need to lift up this tradition and highlight the efforts of teachers to collectively push for top-notch public schools.

To figure out how we can push forward on this issue, I talked with Diane Ravitch, one of the country’s leading education historians and public school advocates. A professor at New York University, Ravitch is a former Assistant Secretary of Education and the author of several books, including 2010’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education.

What do you see as the role of teachers unions in preserving public education?

For many years, there has been an effort to diminish teachers unions and to blame them for all the problems of public education. I believe the reason, first of all, is that some people just hate unions. But there’s also a political reason that’s very specific. That is that if you silence the union, then there’s nobody at the table when the legislature or the governor wants to cut the budget, so they can hack away at will. That’s happening in states across the country. I was in Texas a few weeks ago, and there the legislature cut over $5 billion dollars from the education budget, but they did manage to squeeze out $500 million dollars for more testing. They have a weak union. They had no one at the table to say, “You can’t do this.” And no one cared what the teachers thought anyway.

This past summer, you championed the Chicago teachers strike as an example of teachers publicly transcending self-interest and pushing for better conditions in the schools. Can you speak about some of the victories have shown a different style of advocacy from teachers?

Well, the teachers’ union had a problem in that most of the things they were concerned about they’re not allowed to collectively bargain. The law says they’re not allowed to collectively bargain the teaching and learning conditions, but that was the essence of the strike. They had to say that they were striking over something that was legal and not over something that the law didn’t allow. I think that one of the things that they were able to accomplish—and it’s a small accomplishment but an important one—is that the mayor wanted the [teachers’ performance] evaluations to be based, I think, 40 or 50 percent on [student] test scores. They got it down to what was the legally required minimum. My own view is that the test scores should account for zero in teacher evaluation.
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The Top Takeaway from the Chicago Teachers’ Strike: We Need Collaboration to Fix Public Schools

12:32 pm in Uncategorized by Amy B. Dean

“We are striking to improve the conditions in the schools. Right now the children are getting a raw deal.”

That statement came from a striking member of the Chicago Teachers’ Union… in 1969. It still resonates in September 2012, when the CTU’s members have again walked a picket line. Although it has often been obscured in the news headlines and in the rhetoric of city officials, the real message of the strike of the past two weeks is simple: We’re for good schools; we’re for kids; and, yes, we’re for teachers too.

There’s no shame in teachers standing up for their self-interest. When one is devoted to working for the common good over the long haul, taking care of oneself is a necessary part of being a good steward. People who go into the teaching profession don’t do it to get rich. They do it with the goal of inspiring and educating the next generation.

By framing the strike as being about greedy teachers threatening the public well-being, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his lieutenants have not only done long-term damage to the cause of repairing our schools; they have engaged in a practice that, sadly, is all too common in our nation’s politics. They attempted to blame a complex problem on a single group. It’s called scapegoating. And scapegoating should never be a substitute for leadership.

The takeaway from the Chicago strike is that true leadership in education requires partnership — an approach that supports what is working in our schools and creates a collaborative effort among teachers, school officials, and policymakers to make sure we build on that success.

Education as Engine of Urban Economies

There’s a reason why many big city mayors are trying to take a stronger role in steering their cities’ school systems. In a globalized economy, there isn’t much mayors can do independently to foster development and improve the economic competitiveness of their metropolitan regions. They have some tools available in the realms of housing and transportation. But good schools are a reliable driver of economic success, as prominent education thinkers like University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan have documented. Ambitious mayors recognize this fact. That’s why Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa — who himself came out of a teachers’ union — has joined Emanuel in moving to exert more influence over his city’s schools.

Such mayors are right to understand the economic importance of schools. The question is, are regional political leaders like Emanuel willing to work with teachers to educate poor and wealthy kids alike? Or will we wind up, as respected education scholar Diane Ravitch warns, with a permanent two-tiered system, with elite charter schools for the (mostly richer) kids who score high on standardized tests? Under such a system, kids who may be smart but lack the vocabulary and support to succeed on the tests will languish in sweltering, inadequately supplied classrooms.

Iconic Chicago mayor Harold Washington understood that collaboration around education could enhance the economic vitality of the city. That’s why he brokered the peace in response to public outcry at the last Chicago teachers’ strike in 1987. Washington saw that business leaders and parents needed him to work with teachers to keep the machinery of education running, so working parents wouldn’t have to take more time off for the strike, and so kids could resume learning the skills they would need later to be effective members of the workforce.

The way forward is to create abundantly resourced public school systems that will push economic growth in cities and regions. Innovating and improving public schools helps attract middle- and upper-income families to cities and regions to build a healthy tax base. Mayors such as Emanuel should be funding public education and supporting what is already working — including strategies invented by unionized teachers — within public schools.

Partnership in Practice

Successful examples of smart educational investment in partnership with teachers’ unions do exist. Take Montgomery County, MD, where students at one neighborhood school continually scored low on tests. The administration, working closely with the teachers’ union, managed to turn the school completely around in just three years without using draconian pay cuts or firings. “We take the quality of teaching and learning seriously, so we jointly created and implemented a thorough, meaningful and transparent evaluation system that ensures intensive support for all new and underperforming teachers,” said Montgomery County Education Association president Doug Prouty.

Mayor Emanuel’s great failing in his approach to the strike is that he did not come to the conversation about reform with an attitude of building on what is going right. Even Chicago has had areas of hope and progress in public education. Chicago’s public school teachers have proven they can academically outcompete just about anyone. This last year, more than 24,000 children competed for about 5,000 slots in the top 5 selective enrollment high schools. The students and families lining up to apply to selective enrollment high schools accept that public schools can achieve excellence with unionized teachers. The principals at these schools accept it too, providing leadership development and mentoring for teachers and rewards for their good work.

Emanuel could have started the discussion by celebrating these successes and looking for ways to spread them. To be fair, the mayor has done some work to improve public education in the city. He created 10 new International Baccalaureate (IB) academic excellence programs in existing high schools throughout the city. He also lengthened the school day, which was sorely needed as Chicago had one of the shortest school days in the country.

Rather than saying to teachers, “I did this in spite of you,” he could have asked, “How can we do more of this together?” For we know from best practices in the business world that without cultivating buy-in from all the key stakeholders, efforts to promote change are destined to be far less effective.

Underneath the Chicago Strike Headlines

The stories about the strike printed in the media have often perpetuated an unhelpful framing of the issues at hand. We were told teachers didn’t want a longer school day. However, the true issue was not whether a longer day should be implemented, but rather what the process for putting this into practice could be. With real input from teachers, rather than a heavy-handed move to shove an altered school day down the throats of those who do the educating, this issue might not have reached an impasse.

Likewise, we were told that teachers did not want to be evaluated. But that was not the case. Educators merely wanted to be evaluated based on meaningful criteria that they could actually impact in their work — not just high-stakes test scores whose value as a measure of students’ success is highly questionable. In Cleveland, the teachers’ union and the school district worked together to create and implement a totally new teacher evaluation system that will phase in over a four-year period. As Cleveland Schools CEO Eric Gordon noted, using teamwork to resolve such a big, contentious issue is worth the longer timeline: “This is complex work and it takes time to build it thoughtfully and carefully. It really has been a joint commitment in the beginning. We all believe that this is the right [approach].”

Emanuel has said he favors the Waiting-for-Superman strategy of linking teacher pay and job security to students’ performance on standardized tests. But that approach has been found by education experts to be no more effective than traditional teaching and evaluation methods.

Simply corporatizing the schools is not going to magically make students learn. The use-tests-to-declare-public-schools-failing-and-siphon-the-money-to-corporate-branded-charters methodology has been discredited as bad pedagogical practice and thinly disguised union-busting.

Teachers have rightly asked, if they are only going to be held accountable for teaching to tests, when is the real educating supposed to happen? Sadly, this pressing question has not been heard above the din of political rhetoric.

Beyond the Strike

By making some of the changes teachers have called for, like installing air conditioning in classrooms and creating a teacher evaluation system jointly with the union, Emanuel could have made the teachers’ union into a powerful ally for improving schools. Instead, he yanked the already-stretched thread of teachers’ goodwill toward the school system, and it snapped.

Pointing fingers and placing blame is not the way to build partnerships, and it’s not the way to move forward on education. Whatever happens with the strike in Chicago, maybe we can look at some of the case studies of successful initiatives in education and see that strong respect for teachers is not at odds with the interests of students. Conversations about how to replicate and build on the things that are working in our schools need to be happening not just during contract negotiations, but on an ongoing basis.

For those conversations to happen, city officials must repair the relationships that were broken in the hardball politicking around the strike. They need to embrace teachers as full-fledged partners in conversation about reform. That’s harder than just placing blame. But it is needed if we’re serious about fixing our kids’ schools.