Teachers have always held a cherished role in our society—recognized as professionals who know how to inculcate a love of learning in our children. But the "education reform" movement represented by No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top blames teachers for the problems in our public schools.
"The people who seek to privatize the public sector are looking for any excuse to criticize teachers," says Bob Peterson, veteran fifth-grade teacher and president of the Milwaukee Teachers' Education Association (MTEA). "We must take responsibility for our profession. If we don't step up to the plate, public education is going to be destroyed."
At heart, this is a debate between competing visions of teachers' roles in public education in America. Teachers, through their unions, are defending the idea that they are best-equipped to teach children to become lifelong learners. Education "reformers," though, cite studies—such as one from the Goldwater Institute from 2004—that show that students at privately run charter schools outperform kids in public schools and say that public education would improve if public schools simply looked more like privately run schools. In privately run schools, teachers lack a collective voice, their working conditions are subject to the whims of school administrators, and they can be fired at will. This contrast with the empowered rank and file of unionized public school teachers could help explain the claims of "reformers" that traditional public school teachers are too sheltered, that they can't be dismissed easily enough, and that their unions need to be eliminated. Firing and replacing teachers based on students' scores on standardized tests, then, is part of the reformers' vision for the schools.
Everyone agrees that great teachers are key to a good education. But reform advocates such as former Washington, D.C., schools chief Michelle Rhee say that schools can fire their way to excellence. In September 2013, according to a report on the public policy website Next City, Rhee spoke at Temple University. Exemplifying the rhetoric of the reformers, Rhee said, "Not everyone can do this job. If you have a pulse and pass the criminal check, a lot of school districts will just stick you in the classroom." But Rhee's approach is to evaluate teachers by giving their students standardized tests. This approach offers, at best, an imprecise evaluation, failing to measure the intangibles that make great teachers. The result is that some of the best teachers get taken out, along with a few bad ones.
Peterson and other educators say that, unsurprisingly, the reformers' approach undermines those who have devoted their professional lives to educating kids. In 2010, Rhee fired 241 D.C. public-school teachers in a single day, but failed to achieve the promised turnaround in standardized test scores. The achievement gap between black and white elementary students is now wider than ever, as education writer Dana Goldstein and others have noted since Rhee's departure from D.C.
Across the country, teachers' unions are fighting back against the work of people like Rhee by working to educate children holistically. This means taking into account all the factors that influence students' chances for success: families, homes, communities, and often the effects of poverty. In Milwaukee, Peterson is working with his union to emphasize teacher professionalism and social justice in the community. In New York City, as part of a union-based program, 16 schools have reinvented themselves as hubs for community services. In St. Paul, teachers visit parents in their homes to build engagement with families.
Rethinking Milwaukee Schools
Peterson's organizing efforts in Milwaukee focus on highlighting how the interests of teachers—for instance, having paid time for class preparation—align closely with those of students. Peterson is a longtime fifth-grade teacher and former editor of the progressive education magazine Rethinking Schools. He was elected president of the MTEA representing a caucus of teachers who advocate funding and fixing public schools. His organizing efforts focus on using the union's clout not merely to protect teachers' jobs but to champion the common interests of teachers, students, parents, and the community.
As a first change, the union actively encourages teachers to work for social justice in their communities. "In the way past, our union didn't really do much outreach to the community except when we needed support for our issues," Peterson says. "That's changed." Recently, Peterson says, MTEA teachers turned out to support immigrants' rights groups in the city alongside a grassroots organization called Voces de la Frontera and provided adult advising and mentoring for its youth arm, Youth Empowered in the Struggle. Union members also joined picket lines in spring 2012 in support of striking Palermo's pizza factory workers. These are not actions that seem directly related to education. For MTEA teachers, addressing such stressors as legal status, support in the community, and economic insecurity is critical to student success. "We are really trying to change the narrative in the community," he says, "from 'teacher unions just defend bad teachers' to a narrative where we are seen as the go-to people when it comes to public education."
In the schools, the union's focus is on making clear how, in Peterson's words, "our teaching conditions are our students' learning conditions." The union's negotiating team recently won a 50 percent increase in paid class preparation time for MTEA teachers, allowing the teachers to accommodate the more complex curriculum material that will boost their students' achievement.
A final leg of the union's efforts, Peterson argues, is to "reclaim our profession in our classrooms." Teachers "should be child-driven and data-informed," Peterson says, using a broad set of data to measure the success of the whole child, rather than measuring learning strictly with standardized tests. In one example, the union lent its voice to the effort to overhaul Milwaukee's ailing early childhood education system and convened a joint task force with school officials to lay the groundwork for improvements in the city's pre-K through third-grade programs. Recognizing the strong evidence that improved early childhood teaching makes for improved long-term outcomes for all kids, the union has assigned early childhood education experts to the task force.
Weaving Schools into the Fabric of the Community
Because a child's education doesn't start or stop at the classroom door, education and public health officials are moving toward a consensus that schools in high-poverty areas produce the most positive outcomes when they are seamless parts of the community. Members of New York City's United Federation of Teachers (UFT) regularly confront the way poverty interferes with their students' ability to learn. They argue that the right of all children to an education is intertwined with the right of families to live free from hunger and preventable medical problems, and to have access to adequate childcare as well as parenting support.
Working with parent leaders, politicians, and school administrators, the UFT is transforming traditional public schools into community schools. The community school model was piloted in New York by the Children's Aid Society and by the Harlem Children's Zone, a comprehensive education program anchored in a partnership with Promise Academy charter schools. The model makes the school a hub where families can be introduced to available services, from child care to medical attention to classes for parents and activities for non-school-age children. In 2012, the UFT announced an initiative, which received $700,000 in new funding from the state, to establish before- and after-school care, medical services, parents' activities, clubs, and sports at 16 existing schools throughout the city.
Similar efforts exist outside New York. Activists from the national American Federation of Teachers (AFT) consulted on a project to open a community school in 2013 in Lawrence, Mass. There, the local AFT affiliate is taking full control of one school, right down to selecting its principal. The school will provide health services and child care, in keeping with the union's vision of broadening the school's role in the community.
Engaging Parents in the Home
The St. Paul Federation of Teachers is experimenting with re-establishing teachers as partners in a child's learning and development, rather than an external authority. Their Parent-Teacher Home Visit Project in St. Paul, Minn., started in 2010, led by science teacher Nick Faber. "The project stands a lot of our traditional parent engagement on its head," Faber says. "We [used to] invite parents in and talk at them, tell them things that we think they don't know. And we'd stand around and wonder why they don't show up." The new program builds relationships, using the first visit for parents and teachers simply to get to know each other and the second visit to build capacity for parents to take on more school leadership, such as joining a committee or helping in the classroom.
Inspired by a similar program in Sacramento, Calif., the St. Paul program started with eight teachers making home visits in 2010. Sixty-six teachers attended the program's trainings in 2011, and Faber reports that more than 300 teachers are now trained to visit students' families. More than 200 visits were completed in just the first two months of the 2013-2014 school year. The national AFT helped Faber start the home visits project with initial funding for training, and is now helping him put structural supports—like partnerships with community-based organizations and program evaluations—into place so it can continue to grow.
Teachers' unions are one of the few institutional forces with the power to fight back against austerity and privatization, and to instead insist that our understanding of education must extend well beyond the walls of the classroom. Scapegoating teachers will not get us to an educational model that takes the challenges of the system as a whole into account. Following the example of innovative, teacher-led programs in Milwaukee, New York City, and St. Paul will.