Teachers should lead reform of our schools

A new movement, Teachers United, hopes to transcend the sterile, labor-versus-management model of our education debate. Here's how to get beyond "the labor mentality" in public schools.
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Chris Eide: empowering teachers.

A new movement, Teachers United, hopes to transcend the sterile, labor-versus-management model of our education debate. Here's how to get beyond "the labor mentality" in public schools.

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.

They are able to say this because of the structure of the union. Each school elects teachers to serve as union representatives. Their job is to listen to concerns from the teachers at each school and voice those concerns when they gather at the representative assembly each month. In turn, those representatives convey information to teachers that is passed down to them at the assembly. When information is conveyed clearly from classroom to union leadership, and the union position is likewise impacted, that is a democratic system. The reality, however, is much different.

Instead, it is a top-down system. The position and narrative are sent to membership from union leaders. Last year, I was at the union meeting for all of the teachers in Seattle where the two issues were whether to ratify the new collective bargaining agreement, and a vote of “no confidence” in then-Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson. The leaders were up on stage, loudly decrying the vulnerable position of teachers against corporations and foundations whose agenda, they claim, seeks to privatize and destroy public education. “What does Bill Gates know about real schools? He went to private schools!” they proclaimed.

The solution, they said, is to fully fund our public schools, shrink class sizes, and not attack teachers. Allowing outsiders to fund education initiatives, as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation does, they claim, is submitting to the"‘corporate education reform agenda" and will destroy our public schools. This us-versus-them, David-versus-Goliath narrative is very powerful, and disempowering.

Within the union ranks, adherence to this simplistic narrative ranges from fervent to utter rejection. In the great middle lies a sleeping giant: the majority of teachers who pay no mind to the dialogue.

We must think boldly and constructively. How do we modify our circumstances to get away from the labor-versus-management paradigm that has led us to this cdold war in education?

A good place to start is Shanker's advice: “Teachers have to give up the comforts of the classroom, the notion that 2.2 million teachers are equal.” Liberate that powerful core of teachers in our schools who insist that we all do better for our kids. Rather than have that core of teachers begin an uprising against their union, let’s find an approach that allows the voice of that teacher to positively impact the school system, while allowing the unions to continue to provide necessary job protections.

The teacher unions are in a political cul-de-sac. They serve a vital need, but their adnerence to the labor mentality has hemmed them in amid a growing outcry for needed reforms. One labor leader confides that what unions badly need is a group of intelligent, thoughtful, and successful teachers within the union, influencing the dialogue. This is one of the goals of Teachers United, an organization that I head. It began last year among high-achieving teachers who feel that our current school system is not set up to serve students well.

We have helped teachers to testify in front of school boards and in front of the House and Senate Education Committees where our teachers spoke in favor of protecting effective teachers in the event of layoffs. These testimonies contributed to the passage of our new teacher evaluation law. Our teachers are leaders on not-for-profit boards in the city, within their union, and at their schools.

I am often asked about how teacher actions at the state level can translate into real change. The new teacher-evaluation system that we contributed to, for example, leaves much to be decided at the local level. Teachers are going to be drafting a set of recommendations regarding how they should be evaluated. The only way that it will be supported is if we have leadership at the district that adopts a clear, comprehensive, results-oriented vision that values teacher input. Such a vision might be similar to the plan that Dr. Susan Enfield was hatching with her AGREE plan before the school board elections shifted the local dynamics.

We have seen what happens in the absence of such a plan. We go back to sterile debates. Issues like Teach for America and charter schools become framed as "fringe issues" rather than as components of a broad strategy. Those fringe issues then get subjected to suspicion by extremist groups within the community. This then influences things like school board races and we end up where we are today with a badly split board.

In order for the vision of these teachers to take hold, we need community support. So here are some things that you can do to support this new direction and significantly and positively impact Seattle's school system:

1. Support a vision of district leadership that puts increased achievement by our disadvantaged students above all else; one that values excellence in instruction and is willing to make sacrifices for that. Great teachers will want to be a part of that vision.

2. Encourage the new superintendent to adopt and not waver from this bold vision and give him cover when he needs it.

3. Recruit and support board directors who uphold that vision.

4. Last, bring cookies to an incredible teacher. I'm happy to connect you to as many as you wish.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Christopher Eide

Christopher Eide is a native Washingtonian, lecturer at UW, and previously founded Teachers United to advocate for equity in public education.