New York City’s New Teachers’ Contract Matters—To All of Us

The Rev. John Thomas, former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator at Chicago Theological Seminary, where he writes a blog.  Last Thursday, the 1st of May, the Rev. Thomas posted the following:  “May Day commemorates the Haymarket uprising in Chicago in 1886 that began as a march by workers in support of the eight hour workday.  It continues to be celebrated in many places as a day to honor workers and to rally workers to the labor movement.  But these days May Day is perhaps more aptly described as a collective “Mayday!” on behalf of workers who have been under assault for decades—lost jobs, suppressed wages, broken unions, attacks on collective bargaining, reduced benefits, and on and on it goes.”

It is therefore particularly fitting that last week on Thursday, May 1, 2014, New York City’s new mayor, Bill de Blasio and the United Federation of Teachers agreed on a contract that will end a bitter, long running dispute.  The NY Times covered the agreement, noting that “The teachers’ union has been without a contract for four and a half years…. The retroactive pay granted in the deal is the same pair of 4 percent raises that most other municipal unions received in 2009 and 2010.” In an earlier article, the NY Times reported that New York City’s 100,000 school teachers and other school employees represented by the United Federation of Teachers had been without a contract since 2009.  (Members of the United Federation of Teachers will be taking a vote soon on the agreement.)

Many of you who read this blog may live far from New York City and may wonder if New York City’s new labor agreement with its teachers is relevant to you.  Consider that New York’s previous mayor, Michael Bloomberg, was a leader in the national wave of hostility toward teachers and their unions. The NY Times editorial board, which has not always been complimentary to the new Mayor de Blasio, praised him this past Saturday in an editorial: “Dispensing with the unproductive tension that tarnished the Bloomberg administration, the two sides showed that real progress can be made—on both the fiscal and the educational sides of the contract—when there is good will instead of disdain.”  Bloomberg’s active disdain for New York’s  teachers’ union provided cover for too many leaders across the country to attack teachers and their unions. It is to be hoped that  New York’s new contract with its teachers will become a symbol of the beginning of a national change of heart about school teachers.

Four years ago, the Rev. Thomas posted another blog that seemed so significant to me that I have kept it right in the front of my clipping file of articles about school teachers.  Rev. Thomas titled his piece, It’s Not OK to Hate Teachers.  Here is what Rev. Thomas wrote on June 3, 2010: “Earlier this year Arne Duncan and Barack Obama publicly affirmed the decision of a Rhode Island school district to fire every teacher at a failing public high school.  Do we really think every teacher at that high school deserved to be fired?… This spring the governor of New Jersey, angry at the pace of negotiations with teachers’ unions, publicly urged citizens to vote down their school levies knowing full well what kind of devastating impact that would have on public school classrooms in his state.  This Sunday, the Cleveland Plain Dealer published a front page report on the teachers in the Cleveland Public Schools that, at least to me, seemed designed to paint teachers in the worst possible light as overpaid, underworked, intransigent about reform, and not overly competent.”

And since 2010, the attacks on teachers have only worsened.  Although the majority of  teachers’ contributions to the lives of their students can be named only with words grammarians would call abstract, non-count nouns—learning, reason, discernment, creativity, character, encouragement, support, perseverance, discipline—school teachers have now seen their work quantified with value-added-measures—econometric formulas based on students’ scores on standardized tests.  In fact to qualify for No Child Left Behind Waivers from the U.S. Department of Education, states had to promise to incorporate students’ scores on the statewide test into their teacher evaluation systems.  Teachers are being blamed for shortfalls (due to the recession and in some places mismanagement) in the public pension systems they pay into throughout their careers, even as many states do not have public employees pay into Social Security.  Now Secretary of Education Arne Duncan says he plans to institute new ratings for the Colleges of Education where teachers are trained.  We have come to accept the language of economics to discuss the “inputs” teachers contribute and the  “outcomes” teachers are thought to “produce,” and we’ve learned that the inputs don’t really matter.  What’s measurable in the outcomes is all that counts.

I frequently find myself thinking about the observation of Parker Palmer, the writer who devoted his career to helping people consider their vocation.  Palmer wrote The Courage to Teach to help exhausted teachers recover their connection to their sense of calling.  In his introduction to a companion volume, Stories of The Courage to Teach, Palmer asks us to appreciate teachers in ways that can neither be counted nor computed, nor measured, nor monetized:

“America’s teachers are the culture heroes of our time.  Daily they are asked to solve problems that baffle the rest of us.  Daily they are asked to work with resources nowhere near commensurate with the task.  And daily they are berated by politicians, the public, and the press for their alleged failures and inadequacies…  If you are not a teacher and are skeptical either about their plight or their dedication,… visit a public school near you and shadow a couple of teachers for a couple of days.  Almost certainly you will witness for yourself the challenges teachers face, their lack of resources, and the deep demoralization they feel about serving as scapegoats for our nation’s ills… Caught in an anguishing bind between the good work they do and public misperceptions that surround them, hundreds of thousands of teachers somehow keep the faith and keep going…. Every day in classrooms across the land, good people are working hard, with competency and compassion, at reweaving the tattered fabric of society on which we all depend.” (pp. xvii-xviii)

Thank you, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, for recognizing the work of New York City’s teachers with a fair contract.



We Can’t Measure What We Treasure about Our Best Teachers

My husband grew up here in Ohio near the town where we now live, and last Sunday afternoon he told me he had noticed in the newspaper that his elementary school was celebrating its hundredth anniversary with an open house.  He wondered if I’d like to go with him just for a little while to walk through the school to see what had changed in the years since his time there—from from 1951 until 1958—kindergarten through sixth grade.

We had a lovely time strolling through classrooms and old-fashioned cloak rooms.  My husband, a not-particularly-sentimental person, took me to the classroom where he had attended each of the grades and remembered each teacher—his favorite teacher and others who challenged him.  The halls were filled with the children who attend the school today along with their families, but we had the chance to talk with some of today’s teachers and to look at the work posted on classroom walls and in hallways.  The teachers have been thinking with children about the passage of time.  The word “centennial” seemed to be a prominent vocabulary word for all the grades, and there were news stories posted here and there about major events in each of the school’s ten decades.

I was delighted to realize that we were not seeing anything about the massive testing that has invaded this public school and all the other elementary schools across the country.  Instead, there was evidence of thinking and writing and a conceptual approach to reading and learning.  And we saw today’s teachers enjoying a happy time with children and their families.

But today’s test-and-punish realities are affecting the teachers we observed, despite the celebratory atmosphere during our Sunday afternoon visit.  President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act and President Obama’s competitive programs like Race to the Top are demanding better test scores without significant additional federal investment. Teachers are being expected to work harder and smarter and do more with less. One result all across America has been the widespread scapegoating of school teachers when scores don’t rise fast enough. To qualify for No Child Left Behind waivers, states must incorporate students’ standardized test scores to at least some degree in the formal evaluations of teachers.

While the attack on teachers feels monolithic, there is growing push-back.  Columnist Myra Blackmon, writing for the Athens, Georgia Banner-Herald, celebrates the school teachers who, during an unusual Georgia winter snowstorm, stayed with children and helped them survive a night at school when they could not get home.  “There is no way student test scores can be used to evaluate those teachers.  There is not a metric to measure commitment to children.  Nor is there a way to measure teachers’ long-term impact on lives and families.”  Blackmon quotes sociologist William Julius Wilson: “But the person who scored well on an SAT will not necessarily be the best doctor or the best lawyer or the best businessman.  These tests do not measure character, leadership, creativity, perseverance.”

And in one of the best books written about public education in 2013, Improbable Scholars, David Kirp, professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkley, celebrates the qualities that cannot be measured in a group of great teachers, this time in Union City, New Jersey, a formerly struggling school district that was transformed as its teachers came together to improve the coordination of curriculum and teaching from grade to grade.  Kirp profiles one elementary school’s third grade teaching team: “It’s unlikely that these teachers would have been accepted by Teach for America.  They all grew up within a half hour’s drive from Union City and never moved away…  Only a higher education expert or someone who hails from northern New Jersey would have heard of the commuter schools—William Paterson, Jersey City, Stockton State, and the like—that they attended.  Their GPAs weren’t necessarily stellar, and while some of them are more naturally gifted teachers than others, they all had a hard time at the start of their teaching careers. The best explanation for their effectiveness is what they have learned—and keep learning—from their colleagues. Experience matters, of course, but these teachers improve, the passable ones becoming solid practitioners….  These professionals know and trust one another, for they can draw on their history of working together, and that eases the path to collaboration.” (Improbable Scholars, pp. 61-62)

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is well known for saying, “We measure what we treasure.”  I wonder about that.  As my husband walked around his former third grade classroom and told me about his favorite teacher, Miss Gallagher, he wasn’t thinking about an experience he has any way of quantifying all these years later.