What should teachers unions do to remain effective and relevant?

Today we launch “Yes, but…”, an engaging conversation among California’s leading thinkers in education. We’ll feature a new topic regularly, if not weekly, and bring together policymakers, teachers, scholars, and advocates for a spirited dialogue.

We begin with thoughts on the future of teachers unions. Our sages are Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa; California Teachers Association President Dean Vogel; consultant and researcher Julia Koppich; special education teacher KC Walsh, who’s a board member of the CTA and the National Education Association; Stephen McMahon, president of the San José Teachers Association; and Los Angeles high school English teacher Lisa Alva Wood. We’re asking our contributors to check comments during the week to continue the discussion.

Our next topic, to be published next week, will address the topic, “How should we measure our schools, if not by current API scores?”

Antonio Villaraigosa: Unions should advance agenda for change

Antonio Villaraigosa
Antonio Villaraigosa

As a former teachers union organizer, I have seen firsthand the dedication and long hours that teachers put in to ensure their students’ success. Thanks to that hard work and commitment, we have seen a steady increase in student achievement in California – including recent gains here in Los Angeles.

But despite these gains, California’s education system still faces enormous challenges. Our eighth graders rank 46th in math on national assessments and California is ranked 46th in per-pupil funding. And here’s the figure that should keep us all up at night: 1,000,000. That is the number of additional college graduates we need by 2025 to keep our economy afloat.

Education is arguably the most important issue facing our state, and the relevancy of teachers and their union on this issue is without question. I appreciate this opportunity to weigh in with TOPed and its thoughtful community on this topic.

For real change to occur at our schools, teachers’ voices need to be heard loud and clear. Without teacher input, we will not be able to build the education system that will place California among the best in the world. Teachers know what works and what doesn’t. And it is through their unions that these teachers’ voices will be raised at the negotiating table, the legislative floor, and the ballot box.

California’s schools need more funding to restore and expand early education, arts, music, and physical education and to bring modern technology to our classrooms. To successfully run these programs, we need not only to restore the teaching positions we’ve  lost – we need to take the lead in offering competitive salaries that will help attract top talent from around the country and keep quality teachers in the classroom.

But we won’t improve our schools with money alone. Funds must be linked to progressive efforts such as robust data systems, Common Core standards, and aligned assessments. They also must be linked to a multiple-measure evaluation system that ensures accountability, compensation, professional development, and career opportunities for teachers. Lastly, California needs a more transparent funding system where money follows the student and where allocations are weighted, so we are putting our dollars where they are needed most.

As a mayor, and as a parent, it is my hope that unions will advance an agenda such as this to improve our schools by working with leaders in Sacramento, parents, and local school administrators. If they do, teachers and their unions will not only stay relevant, they will lead California to a state of education excellence.

Since becoming mayor of Los Angeles in 2005, Antonio Villaraigosa has made education a priority.  Working to  elect and re-elect pro-reform candidates for Los Angeles Unified  School Board,  he helped to advance Public School Choice.  In 2007, he founded The Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, a school turnaround project serving more than 20,000 students across 22 schools. Its goal is to transform LA’s lowest-performing schools and create a model for district-wide change.

Dean E. Vogel: Fight for future of neighborhood schools

Dean Vogel
Dean Vogel

Teachers believe in opportunity for all children, not just a few. And we believe quality public education is essential to building better communities and a better future for America. This is the mission and work of the California Teachers Association (CTA).

Founded in 1863, today’s 325,000-member CTA is one of the strongest advocates for educators in the country.

Our effectiveness as a democratic organization is a matter of record – from billions of dollars secured for renovating and building new schools, to the landmark passage of the 1988 minimum school funding law. These resources made things better for our students. CTA also backed innovative reform with the landmark Quality Education Investment Act (QEIA) of 2006, which provides $3 billion over eight years to at-risk schools for proven reforms like smaller class sizes, collaboration, and more counselors. These at-risk students are making good progress. When we improve the learning conditions for our students and the teaching conditions for educators we create sustainable progress. This is part of union work, and CTA is a vital part of the union movement.

But current economic conditions challenge our schools daily. A new report warns that California ranks 46th in per-pupil spending and dead last in teachers and librarians per student. That’s why our union work includes urgent community coalition discussions about a progressive ballot measure for next year to generate new revenues for schools and all essential public services.

We are also working more with coalitions to expose the billionaire reformers like Bill Gates and Eli Broad who seek to privatize public education. We are demanding that corporations pay their fair share of taxes. And we are asking Congress to rewrite the federal No Child Left Behind law based on CTA principles that would protect students and schools from being labeled by test scores.

CTA and its members are driven by learning, not by profit. We are the classroom experts and we know what works. Stopping those wealthy few who would silence our political voices will be key in the months and years ahead in the ability of public education unions to protect neighborhood schools, rebuild the middle class, and help provide a rebirth of the American Dream.

Dean E. Vogel is the president of the California Teachers Association, which is affiliated with the 3.2 million-member National Education Association.

Julia E. Koppich: Listen to voices of new teachers

Julia Koppich
Julia Koppich

Teachers unions are education’s favorite punching bag these days. Books and blog posts sound the theme: Teachers unions stand in the way of higher student achievement.

It makes good copy. But there’s not much empirical evidence to support it. Research shows that the evidentiary base for concluding that unions hinder (or for that matter, help) student achievement is thin.

Nevertheless, teachers unions’ influence is undeniable. Teachers are the most important in-school influence on student learning. State and federal education policy agendas focus on better teacher evaluation and new forms of pay – both negotiable – as central to ensuring teaching effectiveness. Union impact made manifest.

Yet change must come. Too often unions just say “no” when it comes to reform. This serves neither their members nor, more importantly, the students their members teach. What should unions do?

1) End the siege mentality. In the face of attacks, unions have hunkered down. Not surprising, perhaps. One reaction to attack is to head for the bunker. But the attack on unions is part of a broader attack on public education. In this fight, union and management are on the same side. They need to fight the forces arrayed against them, not each other.

2) Mind the demographics. The future of unions hinges on its members. Just a few years ago, the average teacher had taught for at least 15 years. Now it’s fewer than 10. This is a different population.

Research shows that these new teachers want a union (many say they worry about arbitrary district actions), but they want a different kind of union, one that helps them get better at their jobs. And these teachers like differentiated pay and more rigorous evaluations (though they’re not keen on using test scores for these purposes). Unions need to catch up to them.

3) Make improving teaching effectiveness the union agenda. We have examples of putting this precept into action in California. My colleague, Dan Humphrey of SRI, and I recently completed a study of Peer Assistance and Review (PAR) in Poway (San Diego County) and San Juan (near Sacramento). Skilled teachers provide intensive support to then evaluate the performance of colleagues. A joint union-management governing board oversees the program.

Unions are integral to PAR. They don’t shy away from tough decisions. PAR support is intense. But if support isn’t enough, the union has no qualms about recommending dismissal. These unions have taken labor-management collaboration to a new level. Union and management act as partners. Agreements center on high stakes issues. Improving teaching effectiveness to improve student learning is union work.

No magic bullet will cure what ails California’s schools. Problems are complex and multifaceted. Unions can be part of the solution by adopting new mental models, implementing new ways of acting, and being more open to new ideas, even – maybe especially – those that challenge long-held traditions and assumptions.

Julia E. Koppich is president of J. Koppich & Associates, a San Francisco-based education consulting firm. Her work focuses principally on teacher effectiveness and education labor-management relations. She recently completed (with Dan Humphrey of SRI) a study of peer assistance and review in California, serves as technical assistance lead for the federal Teacher Incentive Fund, and is working with the Memphis City Schools to redesign their teacher evaluation and tenure review systems. Dr. Koppich holds a Ph.D. in education policy analysis from the University of California Berkeley.

Lisa Alva Wood: Tone down rhetoric and reorganize

Lisa Alva Wood
Lisa Alva Wood

Earlier this year, in Los Angeles, teachers from various schools met with some representatives from the federal Department of Education. Two teacher-fellows and the facilitator shared the Dept. of Ed’s “vision” for the teaching profession. The main thrust was to “professionalize” teaching by having us work “professional” days, weeks, and hours (250 days vs. the 180 we work now) and to front-load the income-based rewards; newer teachers could earn up to $65,000 per year upon earning tenure, and master teachers could earn up to $100,000 per year for exemplary performance. So, the idea is that we save for our own retirements, saving the government millions of dollars in pension costs. Yes, but… what does that say about the perceived futures of our unions?

Younger teachers only know that the union has not protected them in time of pink slips; unions, in their minds, are the guardians of older teachers who coast through semesters on the cushions of sinecure. Mid-term teachers who have come halfway through their career spans see their unions as bastions of bombast, feeling alienated by the old-school fire-and-brimstone organizers who took cuts in pay and actually walked out on strikes. The senior teachers are frustrated by charter schools bleeding away membership – in Los Angeles this year our union membership numbers 30,000, down from 44,000 ten years ago. As troubling as this is, it’s not nearly as worrisome as the federal government seemingly planning for the demise of the teachers unions, as appears to be the case. What do they know that we don’t? (That was a naive question.)

Pundits and columnists are fond of saying that the Los Angeles teachers union is one of the largest, most powerful lobbies in the state, that together with the California Teachers Association, we control enough votes and influence to keep things exactly as we want them. Yes, but our own leadership in Los Angeles embarrassed us by terming out and then taking a principal’s position with “the enemy,” a charter school.

Some of us mid-career teachers have formed our own caucus to tone down the rhetoric. We are trying to convert more teachers to the cause, encouraging them to participate, build the faith and strength in our union that the future will require. Without a revival, we stand to fulfill the government’s prophecy: every man for himself. We cannot let this happen.

Lisa Alva Wood has been been teaching high school English  for 15 years, the last 10 at Roosevelt High School in East Los Angeles. She has been on the Board of Directors for the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools and spearheaded many school-based projects. She is a National Board Certified Teacher.

KC Walsh: Organize parents and fight for proven reforms

KC Walsh
KC Walsh

Educators and their unions have been subjected to an incredible amount of scapegoating lately – ranging from biased movies like Waiting for Superman to multimillion-dollar foundations that think they know how to teach children better than the educated professionals in our classrooms. California leads the nation in education cuts — slashing more than $20 billion from our public schools and colleges in the past three years.

Noted labor leader Pat Dolan says unionism begins with a moral imperative to provide a voice for those who don’t have one. Our students benefit when we use our collective teacher voices as a union to fight for the quality education they deserve. To remain effective at this, teachers unions must listen to and organize more colleagues, parents, and communities in this mission. And we must continue our fight for proven reforms, like smaller class sizes, which studies show actually work in our classrooms.

From my vantage point in Silicon Valley, one major difficulty is that educators are not being listened to, but are being handed unrealistic mandates from the federal government. We are speaking out to Congress about flawed efforts like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top that are handcuffing educators from preparing tomorrow’s creative workers with their single-minded focus on standardized testing, rather than fostering creativity and critical thinking.

The California Teachers Association and the National Education Association are leading voices in education reform. CTA led passage of legislation that focused $3 billion over eight years toward helping at-risk schools; the Quality Education Investment Act of 2006 is making a difference for those students as test scores have increased and achievement gaps have narrowed. California teachers are working with administrators and parents to focus curriculum and professional development to improve student learning. NEA is working in a similar fashion to assist schools across the country to implement best practices. CTA is developing teacher evaluation systems that will help educators improve.

Changes are needed in education, and teachers unions will continue to work with parents and others in the school community to ensure that kids come first in that debate. As the leading voices in this conversation, CTA and NEA will remain relevant – and vigilant about the battles ahead.

KC Walsh is a special education teacher on leave from Bernal Intermediate School in Oak Grove Unified in San Jose. She is also on the  board of directors for the California Teachers Association and the National Education Association.

Stephen McMahon: We’re leading the classroom transformation

Stephen McMahon
Stephen McMahon

As president of the San José Teachers Association (SJTA), I experience the whole spectrum of public education on a daily basis, from the breathtaking to the reprehensible. I constantly think about the role of teachers unions in all that is public education. I also constantly think about district offices, boards of education, county offices, county boards, state departments of education, the U.S. Department of Education, publishers, consultants, advisers, contractors, researchers,  and everything else that consumes the well over $500 billion annually invested in educating our nation’s primary and secondary students1.  Among those institutions, teachers unions are far and away the most critical for anyone who genuinely puts students first.

The justification for teachers unions is straightforward. The magic of education happens in the classroom. It is all about teachers and students. No citations, research, or position statements are necessary to confirm that teachers and the work they do in the classroom are paramount. Yet only 58% of California’s K-12 education expenditures make it to the classroom2. Teachers know that the bureaucracy does not educate children – teachers do. Teachers know that the system does not inspire children – teachers do. Teachers know that the more than 40% spent outside the classroom does not change lives – teachers do.

SJTA’s mission is to “empower teachers to educate, inspire, and change lives through public education.” We in San José Unified are leading the way on: implementing a transformational evaluation process, offering different methods for compensating teachers for the work they do, exploring nontraditional approaches to the student instructional day and year, delivering instruction to students in a manner that reflects the dynamic and innovative environment of Silicon Valley, and how we measure and validate the success and achievement of both our students and our workforce. We are also transforming what it means to have strategic stakeholder partnerships that support all students.

SJTA is the natural leader in all of these areas because the daily work of its members is teaching and learning. That unmatched knowledge base has the teachers of SJTA primed with ideas, solutions, and willingness. We are taking progressive actions because we are committed to ensuring that every student receives the finest educational opportunities and experiences. We are a beacon for what is possible when the collective voice of more than 1,700 teachers is valued and respected.

All of the institutions within public education have things to be proud of and each is responsible for changes that must be made. When student learning and achievement are at the forefront, nothing exceeds the classroom in importance. Teachers are the heart of the classroom. A teachers union is its teachers. That places working with teachers unions at the top of the list for anyone seeking to truly enhance public education.

Stephen McMahon is president of the San José Teachers Association. SJTA represents the more than 1,700 teachers in Santa Clara County’s largest school district.

1:  U.S. Department of Education
2:  An Analysis of K-12 Education Expenditures in California, Davenport Institute, Pepperdine University, July 2010

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