League of Education Voters
I would like to present a look inside the teaching core that we have in Seattle, with a spotlight on a different breed of teacher that exists in schools. I would also like to take a look inside our teachers' union, its structure, the narrative that dictates its actions, and how that different breed of teacher is beginning to demand a different breed of labor leader.
Let's start with a look at the union movement and the teaching profession. “After the post office,” former Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander said, “schools are the most unionized activity in America.” But it wasn’t always that way. Our two largest teacher unions are the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). The NEA was until the 1960s in majority populated by school administrators, not teachers. The founder of the American Federation of Labor, Samuel Gompers, felt that teachers didn’t belong in organized labor, in part because they were too educated. The image of a union worker was blue collar and gruff — not polished like teachers.
Franklin Roosevelt, himself a champion of labor unions and collective bargaining, asserted that unionizing teachers was a bad idea. “The process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service…. The very nature and purposes of government make it impossible for administrative officials to represent fully or to bind the employer in mutual discussions with government employee organizations. The employer is the whole people,” FDR declared.
However, in the 1950s, big private-sector union wins led to factory worker salaries outpacing teacher salaries. Combined with the fact that many teachers were subjected to shoveling snow or punching time clocks and stories of female teachers being sent home at the first sign of being pregnant, the situation was ripe for organized action. The United Federation of Teachers in New York City, under the leadership of Albert Shanker, went on strike, demanding collective bargaining rights, and they got it. From that point on, everything changed.
Prior to 1960, just before collective bargaining in public education, union membership had been slowly moving toward 750,000 teachers nationally. Now, that number is upwards of 4 million. Teaching had begun to identify with the labor movement.
But that labor mentality never fully took hold, even among union leadership. Albert Shanker himself in his later years became perhaps the nation’s most prominent education reformer. The father of collective bargaining in public schools and president of the American Federation of Teachers later broke far and wide from his membership, proposing the idea for charter schools, merit pay, and rigorous peer-review procedures. As someone who believed in the mission of educating our most disadvantaged students well, he imagined a new kind of teacher that needed to be protected. He foresaw a “second revolution.”
To be sure, many people still identify teaching with labor. One Seattle Public Schools Board Director recently objected to Teach For America (TFA) teachers applying for positions in Seattle on the grounds that “there are still a lot of qualified teachers out there on their couches without jobs.” That is a labor mentality.
A contrasting mentality is focused on the mission of closing the achievement gap. This is a departure from a compliant, credential-based model of teacher in favor of a justice-minded, outcomes-based one. In order to uphold such democratic values as equality, these teachers see their role as not to simply stand, deliver, and collect a paycheck; it is to take responsibility for every student and make sure that they succeed.
This represents a shift in mindset: when you take responsibility for every student and their success, you have to act.
This kind of teacher is frustrated by a system that holds them back, by peers who lack their urgency in solving the problem or who make excuses for why the problem can’t be solved. Our unions many times do just this, and fewer teachers identify with their unions as they currently operate. They appreciate the protections that the union provides against capricious acts. But few, if any of these reform-minded teachers are clinging to due process of dismissal rights.
Why this shift? Teachers are entering the profession specifically to work to close the achievment gap. Teachers who are mission-driven in this way are a principal’s dream, since they can more easily work with these teachers and mold them. Those teachers want badly to improve and they want someone to protect their vision and work. The mindset is: When every student has succeeded, then we have succeeded.
The mission of doing transformative work in underserved communities and doing what I could to help create better outcomes for all students lured me to the profession of teaching. Therefore, an organization such as Teach for America was very appealing. I was accepted and taught two years in Houston. There, I saw what is possible. To give one example: I started a chess club my first year of teaching with four players. By the end of my second year, we had almost 60 and made it to the state chess championships. Very few of those students had ever played chess before joining the club.
I moved then to New York City to become a founding teacher at a KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) school in Harlem, part of a highly successful national network of charter schools. There, our students mostly came from the housing projects nearby. When they came in as 5th graders, they tested at the 19th percentile nationally in math. Through hard work and never making excuses, those students tested at the 92nd percentile nationally as 8th graders. Half of them passed their high school graduation requirement math test as 8th graders.
I saw that the solution does exist: a mindset that failure is not an option.
Last year, I taught at Mercer Middle School on Beacon Hill. Since 2004, Mercer has quietly worked its way from a traditionally failing, low-income school to one of the best middle schools in the state, out and out. Last year, I taught 6th grade math. Our 6th grade math team adopted this no-excuses mentality and revamped our approach to instruction. Scores increased from 61 percent passing in 2009-10 to nearly 79 percent passing in 2010-11. We were led by a principal, Andhra Lutz, who is of the breed of teacher that I have described.
A key shift is to view the teaching corps as a team. If our goal is to win the championship (in this case, 100 percent of our students graduating high school prepared for success in college or their career), then everyone has to go hard, on every play. If we have 4, 5, 10 people dogging it, we can’t tolerate that. Nor can we tolerate a leader who protects such holding back by some team members. The goal of the labor movement is to protect workers. We think that the goal should be to protect effective teachers and provide coaching to help the rest get better quickly.
The teachers in this new breed do not identify with the labor movement. So, how do we get a new kind of union leadership?
A former union leader in Florida refers to the teachers' union communication methodology as “The East German Model.” Rather than represent the variety of perspectives among the teaching corps, leaders proclaim that when they speak, they are representing the voice of all of their teachers. They claim that they are unified on each issue, and should you go against that, you are against teachers.
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