Here are a few articles over the summer worth checking out.
New Groups Giving Teachers Alternative Voice
The teachers’ unions remain the most visible, powerful, and probably the most important advocates for teachers. But over the past few years, a number of new efforts have sprung up purporting to give teachers a say in policy, and their emergence is extending discussions about “teacher voice” in unexpected ways.
In general, the groups’ origins, goals, and purposes remain diverse, and their work continues to evolve. Where the groups seem to converge, though, is that their members are gradually becoming involved in conversations about policy, ranging from teacher evaluation to seniority to professional development.
Groups include the Los Angeles-based NewTLA, which operates as a caucus within the city teachers’ union, and the Educators 4 Excellence group in New York City, which has purposely worked outside the teachers’ union.
Two other efforts, one begun by the Boston-based Teach Plus nonprofit organization and the other by the Carrboro, N.C.-based Center for Teaching Quality, have gathered together teachers in multiple cities. Their approaches are similar: providing those teachers with research on issues of interest and avenues for interacting with policymakers.
“There are so many teachers out there who want change and have great ideas, but they’ve had so few venues and vehicles to be heard, understood, and embraced,” said Barnett Berry, the president of the center. “They’re itching for the research knowledge to help them articulate the connections between policy and practice.”
New MajorityIt is hard to point to just one factor that has led to the surge in such groups.
Caucus within United Teachers
No. of Teachers: N/A
Location: Los Angeles
TEACH PLUS POLICY FELLOWS
No. of teachers: 2,000
(current fellows and alumni)
Locations: Boston, Chicago, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Memphis, Tenn.
NEW MILLENNIUM INITIATIVE
(Center for Teaching Quality)
No. of Teachers: 85
Locations: Denver; Hillsborough County, Fla.; Illinois; San Francisco Bay Area; Seattle
EDUCATORS 4 EXCELLENCE
No. of Teachers: 2,500
Location: New York City
Teach Plus’ founder, Celine Coggins, began the organization in 2007 to give such teachers leadership opportunities and, ultimately, to help retain them in the profession.
“Having a say in how our schools look and function will play a role in their decisionmaking about whether they’re going to stay for another 10 years, or two, or five,” Ms. Coggins said.
The Center for Teaching Quality’s efforts date to 2003, when it began an initiative to assemble a cadre of accomplished teachers to discuss the broad issues facing the profession. Gradually, the idea has evolved into the New Millennium Initiative, in which local networks of teachers work to make their voices heard on topics of local interest, such as the implementation of new state laws.
Support from a variety of private national and local foundations, including the Joyce Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Denver-based Rose Community Foundation, have helped in the transition. (The Joyce Foundation underwrites coverage of improvements to the teaching profession in Education Week, and the Gates Foundation provides grant support to Editorial Projects in Education, the newspaper’s parent company.)
Jessica Keigan, a high school language arts teacher in Denver participating in the initiative there, said she was excited not just about having her voice heard, but also in learning the details of how education policy is made.
“I’d never immersed myself in policy before,” she said, “and it’s been a great way to see how decisions get made and to feel I had some awareness and also some say.”
The Educators 4 Excellence group was formed by Evan Stone and Sydney Morris, who were frustrated by a lack of control over district policy decisions while teaching in a traditional public school in New York City. Their decision to form a group for like-minded colleagues, in 2010, quickly attracted other teachers.
“There are all these new changes created at the 30,000-foot level pushed down to you,” Ms. Morris said. “It’s our mission to include teachers in creation of those changes.”
Whither Unions?The traditional teachers’ unions have had a variety of reactions to the emergent organizations, ranging from respectful to uneasy.
NewTLA, for instance, began as a group of Los Angeles teachers who were frustrated with the local union’s failure to put forth proposals on teacher evaluation and professional development.
In the union’s recent internal election, NewTLA-affiliated members won a significant number of seats on the United Teachers Los Angeles’ governing body.
NewTLA co-founder Jordan Henry turned down several interview requests, saying that the caucus would be putting together a more specific agenda and set of initiatives this fall. The group’s website says that its priorities will be “determined and decided solely by dues-paying UTLA members,” and that it “improves union governance through greater representation of the many voices.“
The Educators 4 Excellence group, by contrast, is unabashedly working outside New York City’s United Federation of Teachers. Its founders say they didn’t feel their interactions with the union were productive.
“It became very clear in those conversations that the union needs to have one stance on every issue,” Mr. Stone said. “We didn’t feel that on the issues where we disagreed there was room for debate, or discussion, or dialogue. We felt the opportunity to have buy-in needed to be outside the established organization.”
Meanwhile, Ms. Coggins of Teach Plus underscored that her group’s theory of action is that improved engagement for teachers in the issues that affect them will result in improved student achievement. Often, that means more participation in teachers’ unions, and the organization encourages such work.
Alex Seeskin, a policy fellow with Teach Plus’ Chicago cohort, was initially skeptical of becoming more deeply involved with the Chicago Teachers Union. But after joining a union committee on teacher evaluations, he found diverse opinions among rank-and-file teachers, rather than hard and fast dogma.
“The more I’ve read, the more discussions I’ve had, the more I’m able to see not only a teacher’s point of view, but also a union delegate’s point of view and administrator’s point of view, and realize most of the time, these issues are more complex than one- or two-line sound bites,” Mr. Seeskin said of his participation with Teach Plus and the CTU.
“The education debate we have, both local and national, has become hyperpartisan, and there isn’t much room for moderates,” he continued. “Teach Plus has helped me figure out how we can help find middle ground, especially locally.”
Affecting PolicyEach of the groups has made its mark on local policies, and many of them explicitly describe their work as “solutions-oriented.”
The Center for Teaching Quality’s Denver teachers, for example, are providing input into the implementation of a Colorado bill that passed last year that overhauls teacher-evaluation and -tenure provisions. They’ve submitted early comments for rulemaking on that bill. The state education department, state lawmakers, and the Colorado Education Association have all invited the group’s input.
“There’s been so much frustration and mistrust among the different groups,” Ms. Keigan, the high school teacher, said. “I hope we can find that common page to be on.”
In New York, the E4E group pushed to base layoffs in the city on three criteria, rather than the reverse-seniority provisions in state law. Those changes were included in a state Senate bill. (The measure passed the Senate but was not introduced in the Assembly.)
Teach Plus’ policy fellows have selected a variety of hot topics for study, such as the unequal distribution of talent and the difficult nuances of teacher-evaluation systems. Its Boston fellows helped craft a model to encourage highly effective teachers to transfer to, and stay in, challenging schools, a venture now in its second year. ("Teacher Teams Help Schools Turn Around," April 20, 2011.)
In Indianapolis, Teach Plus members proposed changes in layoff policies to the Indianapolis Federation of Teachers, which were ultimately codified in a new collective bargaining agreement in 2010. And in Chicago, the policy fellows have called for a peer-assistance and -review program, in which experienced teachers help coach novices. They have also weighed in on teacher evaluations, an area in which the city is currently in limbo, having scrapped a pilot program in favor of a new framework.
‘Astroturf’?The policy issues tackled, as well as the groups’ goals and origins, have made several of them fodder for criticism.
Some observers have referred to the new groups as “astroturf,” a pejorative term for a grassroots organization that is actually a front for a vested interest. E4E, in particular, has fought against that claim.
To become a member of the E4E group, which received some $160,000 in start-up funding from the Gates Foundation, individuals must sign a declaration asserting, among other beliefs, that teachers should be evaluated based on student progress and that tenure policies should be rethought. Those positions are generally consistent with the teacher-effectiveness philosophy expounded by Gates.
But Ms. Morris said the group is not anti-union, and further, that its declaration is merely a starting point for conversations. “Some of the items are newer ideas, I think, but there is a lot of room to discuss and debate the details,” she said. Its board of directors, she added, is entirely staffed by teachers.
In 2009, Teach Plus received a $4 million grant over several years from the Gates Foundation. But Ms. Coggins says the foundation has merely helped increase the number of policy-fellow teams and has in no way influenced their work.
Ms. Coggins attributes criticism of Teach Plus to the sensitive problems the teachers have chosen to address.
“Frankly, the process [the teacher teams] experience in generating new ideas, helping to see them through to a point of viability, figuring out the funding for them and the conditions of success is always tricky and different,” she said. “There’s not exactly a formula, and sometimes we’re looked upon with suspicion” by outside organizations and pundits.
Policy fellows sometimes choose not to endorse high-profile policy efforts championed by philanthropies, Ms. Coggins noted. For instance, the Chicago fellows didn’t support a recent bill overhauling teacher tenure and evaluation rules in Illinois, over concerns about a provision curbing the right of Chicago teachers to strike.
The Gates Foundation has in the past also donated to both national teachers’ unions, though in proportionally smaller amounts.
Staying PowerThe test of the new groups’ ability to help reshape the teaching profession will come in part from their staying power, as well as what their teacher members go on to do.
“I think our influence is just starting now,” said Noah Zeichner, a high school social studies teacher in Seattle who works with the New Millennium Initiative team there. “Teachers are invested in the classroom, and they are always engaged in the complexity of teaching, which I think is easy to forget and difficult to understand, if you don’t experience that reality every day.”
For now, Mr. Seeskin says participating in Teach Plus has given him a new outlook on the profession.
“I was in Southeast Asia and spent a beautiful afternoon inside writing a long essay for the Teach Plus message board, and my wife was like, ‘Please stop, we’re on vacation,’ ” Mr. Seeskin recalled. “It was the first time that I really felt about policy, ‘This is so cool. I love this.’ ”
Mike Antonucci at EIA:
There are two problems. One is that in any corporate culture radical changes in direction are frowned upon, if not suppressed. In unions, whose very hallmark is solidarity, this reluctance to entertain unorthodox thought is ratcheted up several levels. The relative electoral success of NewTLA is remarkable, but such victories don’t usually result in further gains in subsequent elections. I admit we are operating in extraordinary times, so maybe things will be different and I’ll be surprised.
Second, everyone is an insurgent until he or she achieves power. If you think this is an easy transition, ask Karen Lewis in Chicago. Or ask Bob Chase how that new unionism thing worked out for him. The teacher union reform field is littered with the bodies of those who sought to alter the union’s primary mission – protecting teachers – and found themselves ousted in favor of challengers who promised to get tough with administrators.
You say you want a revolution? Well, you know…
A Revolution from Within
NewTLA, a progressive caucus within UTLA, currently holds 90 of the 350 elected leadership seats in UTLA’s official governing body. With over 25% of the seats, NewTLA holds considerable power to shift UTLA policy towards NewTLA’s priorities which include: comprehensive teacher evaluation, meaningful professional development, and quality-based criteria for determining layoffs and dismissals. Earlier this year during a hotly contested runoff election for union president, NewTLA endorsed underdog and self-described change agent Warren Fletcher over UTLA vice-president and front-runner Julie Washington. Fletcher won the election, cementing NewTLA’s reputation as a player in UTLA politics.
Many believe that teachers unions, designed to safeguard jobs and pay, will not play a role in reform or will only engage in the face of significant outside pressure. NewTLA, however, demonstrates that being reform-minded and union may not be mutually exclusive. According to Jordan Henry, cofounder of NewTLA, many members of NewTLA are experienced teachers with strong union ties. Henry believes that, “the fact that many [active union members] have chosen to throw down with NewTLA as a political caucus now gives [NewTLA] a lot of credibility within the union.”
Henry, a Teach For America alum, is profiled in the current issue of the Teach For America alumni magazine. In an article conspicuously titled “A More Perfect Union”, Henry describes the role of unions: “Unions should be protectors of not just employees but the institutions in which they work. A teachers union needs to protect public education as well.”
Teach For America’s choice to profile Jordan Henry is not surprising. In the wake of the NEA vote accusing TFA of placing corps members in districts with no teacher shortages, TFA wrote to corps members and alumni that the vote was “a signal that we must strive harder to build positive relationships and partner with our valued colleagues in the teaching profession.” Of course, the article also makes a subtler point: As more TFA alums stay in the classroom and become active members in local unions, NewTLA may be a sign of what’s to come.
Quiet Riot: Insurgents Take On Teachers' UnionsBy Andrew J. Rotherham
Quick: Which group consistently tops the list of U.S. political donors — bankers? Oil barons? The Koch brothers? Nope. Try schoolteachers. The two major teachers' unions, despite all the rhetoric about how teachers have no influence on policy, collectively spent more than $67 million directly on political races from 1989 to 2010. And that figure doesn't include millions more spent by their state and local affiliates and all kinds of support for favored (read: reform-averse) candidates.
For years, union leaders have lambasted as antiteacher pretty much every proposal to expand charter schools, improve teacher evaluation and turn around low-performing schools. Yet these reform issues have moved to the mainstream as even the Democrats, traditionally labor's biggest allies, have gotten fed up with union intransigence to structural changes to improve America's schools. Meanwhile, states as diverse as Massachusetts, New Jersey, Florida, Ohio and — you guessed it — Wisconsin are attacking union prerogatives such as valuing seniority over on-the-job performance and collectively bargaining for benefits. At the same time, black and Latino parents are growing increasingly impatient with lousy schools and are organizing in an effort to provide a counterweight to the unions. Just last week, the nation's second biggest teachers' union, the American Federation of Teachers, was embarrassed when a PowerPoint presentation surfaced on the Web outlining strategies for undercutting parent groups. Sample quote: "What helped us? Absence of charter school and parent groups from the table."
But perhaps the biggest strategic pressure for reform is starting to come from teachers themselves, many of whom are trying to change their unions and, by extension, their profession. These renegade groups, composed generally of younger teachers, are trying to accomplish what a generation of education reformers, activists and think tanks have not: forcing the unions to genuinely mend their ways. Here are the three most-talked-about initiatives:
The takeover artists. The Los Angeles teachers' union, United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA), has long been regarded as one of the nation's most hidebound. But Jordan Henry, a 12-year veteran teacher, wants to change that, so last year he co-founded NewTLA. (Get it? Rhymes with UTLA? C'mon, this is education reform — we must find little bright spots wherever we can.) Henry has managed in short order to build a large dissident faction within the union. After the last union election, NewTLA holds 90 of the 350 seats in the union's house of representatives, an impressive feat of organizing given how challenging it is for nonmainstream candidates to get much traction within the union. And although Henry is trying to change the union from within, he is not shy about criticizing it publicly, recently telling the Teach For America alumni magazine that, "I don't think my local affiliate is a leader in reform, as much as it says it might be." NewTLA is already taking on tough issues like seniority and urging UTLA to move from its narrow focus on the teachers' contract to a broader one about how to improve schools. (See what makes a school great.)
The outsiders. Educators for Excellence (E4E) is a group of more than 3,500 New York City teachers that is to trying to change laws and policies by going straight to policymakers. For instance, when New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed doing away with the current system of laying off the most recent hires first, the union attacked any notion of letting principals unilaterally pick which teachers get booted. But the newly formed E4E forced its way into the conversation and sought a middle ground, proposing an alternative that took into account such things as how often teachers had been absent, whether they were actually in front of students or in nonteaching "reserve" roles and also factoring in performance ratings. The union wasn't enthusiastic about this approach either, but the idea got traction in Albany. And although the city and the teachers' union cut a deal on layoffs, the episode established E4E as a voice in education policymaking. E4E's leaders say they don't want to create a parallel organization to the unions; their goal is to "generate an elevated profession of teachers who want to be accountable," according to Sydney Morris, one of two New York City teachers who founded the group last year. Still, given the divergence between its positions and ethos and those of the teachers' unions, E4E seems destined to be an outside agitator for a while. Look for it to expand to other cities to "demonstrate that there are teachers across the country who feel this way," says co-founder Evan Stone. "It's not isolated bubbles."
The hybrid. Teach Plus is a network of teachers with chapters in Boston, Chicago, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Memphis and, starting this fall, Washington. The group recruits accomplished teachers who want to take on leadership roles within their schools or to advocate for public policy changes without leaving their classrooms. More than 4,500 teachers are involved so far, and about 250 have gone through selective 12- and 18-month fellowships. Teach Plus says it wants to partner with unions — albeit by bringing reformers inside the tent. Celine Coggins, a former middle-school science teacher in Massachusetts who founded the group in 2007, says many teachers often tell her that the unions "seem like my grandfather's union, not necessarily mine." That's why Teach Plus is offering a home for teachers interested in an organization, as Coggins puts it, "with a bias toward high performers" — eduspeak for wanting to support and reward the best rather than focus on defending the worst. Teach Plus is starting to make a dent: its members are now serving in leadership roles within the Boston Teachers Union.
It's too early to tell whether any of these groups — or even all of them working in tandem — will succeed in changing the teachers' unions. Will the uprisings bring about a transformative revolution like in Tahrir Square or a deadlock like in Libya? And while ridiculous seniority policies provide easy targets, more complicated issues such as teacher evaluation and creating a genuinely professional culture within schools lie ahead for them. Union leaders, meanwhile, bristle at the upstarts and so far seem less inclined to help them than to co-opt or marginalize them. And there is an obvious structural hurdle facing the insurgents: like all unions, teachers' unions exist to protect their members, creating a natural conflict between, say, maintaining job security for everyone and implementing measures that differentiate based on performance or create real accountability for results. (See "Back-to-School Special: 5 Tips on Picking a Good School.")
But when you talk to progressive union leaders and the teachers at the vanguard of this new movement, it's striking how much they have in common — even accounting for disagreements around specific policies. Most notably, they share a frustration with the education conversation today and a desire for actual change.
Over the past two decades, the demand for reform has caused the teachers' unions to do little more than budge on a few issues. AFT President Randi Weingarten admitted to CBS News earlier this year that in some places teacher tenure does amount to a job for life, and her union has put forward its own teacher-evaluation proposals. Still, it's not yet the kind of dramatic change needed to create genuinely high-performing schools. So although significant reforms in education have traditionally come from outside the education field, perhaps with these budding alternaunions, the best hope for change is now coming from within.
Disclosure: Two of my partners at Bellwether have done executive search and strategy work for Teach Plus, and I have advised the organization informally.
Andrew J. Rotherham, who writes the blog Eduwonk, is a co-founder and partner at Bellwether Education, a nonprofit working to improve educational outcomes for low-income students. School of Thought, his education column for TIME.com, appears every Thursday.