Tag Archives: unions

Why teachers’ unions matter

Teachers’ unions have been getting bad press in the media in the past few years. The media has blamed them for protecting “bad” teachers and ignored their contribution to the stability and quality of our public education system. So what do teachers’ unions do and why does it matter?

If you went to public school, think back to all the good teachers you had. Some of them were probably new, but most had probably been in the education system for a while. During the first difficult year, teachers are still learning the ropes and tend to make all sorts of mistakes. It takes practice before teachers can even get kids to behave. After a couple of years, when good teachers have hit their stride, they make it look so easy.

Once good teachers have mastered their profession, what should school districts do – keep them or fire them? Keep them, of course. But there’s a financial incentive to fire them or lay them off. And that’s where teachers’ unions come in.

Teachers’ unions protect the jobs of our quality, experienced teachers through seniority. Labor contracts and state law specify that when layoffs happen, the teachers with the most seniority are the last ones to be laid off. This means that teachers can go into teaching as a profession, suffering through the first difficult years with the promise of a stable job later on. And this means that our schools will be filled with more experienced teachers, who can collaborate with one another in the long term and build a true school community.

Lately, the media been attacking seniority, ignoring its benefits and focusing on the “bad” teachers that seniority rules protect. It is certainly true that some teachers have been in the profession too long. But it’s not because of seniority rules. Labor contracts actually do have provisions for teachers to be put on probation and let go. Often it’s the principal or school district officials who protect the jobs of teachers who are not capable of doing their jobs.

Teachers’ unions protect the quality of our education in other ways too. Unions negotiate pay, medical insurance, retirement, and sick days – all the things that make teaching a more attractive job. Without these protections, who would enter the profession? The most qualified – or the most desperate?

And teachers’ unions also negotiate mentoring and professional development. These things can actually turn a “bad teacher” into a “good” one. Teaching isn’t a job you can just jump into – it is a profession with a steep learning curve, and teachers need all the help they can get.

So let’s stop taking teachers’ unions for granted. We owe teachers an enormous debt for the time and energy they put into our educations and our children’s educations. It’s time to pay it back.

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Reflections on the Seattle teacher contract negotiations

Many Seattle teachers were outraged when the school superintendent made an 11th hour change to the labor contract that was being negotiated between teachers and the district. The superintendent added a proposal called SERVE, which would dramatically increase student testing, monopolize the school library for nine weeks out of the school year, and tie teacher evaluations to the student tests. Tying teacher evaluations to the results of student tests has become popular across the nation, but there’s no evidence that it works, and mounting evidence that it does real harm to teachers, students, and schools.

I got involved in parent support of teachers, and I feel good about my contribution, but I could have done more if it hadn’t been so last-minute, or if we already had a grassroots organization of parents in support of teachers.

The union and district reached a tentative agreement on Wednesday September 1st, about twenty-four hours before teachers had to vote on it. This didn’t give teachers enough time to give it a good, hard look before they voted. On Thursday, at the union’s general meeting, many teachers brought strong opposition to the contract. The majority, however, voted to accept it. Was it because they liked it? I doubt it. More likely, they made the best of a bad situation.

The sticking point of tying teacher evaluations to student test scores is still in there. It’s much weaker than the original proposal, though, and that’s a victory for teachers, students, and parents alike.

Going forward, there is a real need for parents to pay closer attention to what is going on at the district level. The media has made a big noisy fuss about teacher accountability, but we need to hold the district accountable too.

There’s also a real need for us to pay closer attention to the “failing schools.” What are the actual problems they face? And in what ways are they succeeding?

Finally, Seattle needs to take a good hard look at institutional racism and the split between North Seattle schools and South Seattle schools. Decades of work to integrate schools have been slowly but surely eroded over the last few years, and the result is both a lack of resources going to South Seattle schools and a lack of connection between North and South parents.

I’m putting some thought into what I can contribute. Overall, we need more grassroots efforts. And we need to add ethics to this conversation. We need to get back to the goal of educating every student. The district has an ethical responsibility to intervene with every student who hasn’t learned to read by third grade. These students need mentors and coaches and textbooks and research-based education and small classes. How do we make that happen?

Here’s what one Florida teacher has to say about the realities of teaching:

http://neatoday.org/2010/04/21/florida-teacher-issues-rallying-cry-for-respect-for-educators/

Teachers and district close to an agreement?

It looks like the teachers and the district are close to an agreement. I hope it’s a good one!

In other news, the Washington Post has an article about a study that finds the evaluation method described in the SERVE proposal to be ineffective:

http://voices.washingtonpost.com/answer-sheet/teachers/new-study-blasts-popular-teach.html?wprss=answer-sheet

“Student standardized tests are not reliable indicators of how effective the teacher is in the classroom, not even with the addition of new ‘value added’ methods, according to a study released today. It calls on policymakers and educators to stop using test scores as a central factor in holding teachers accountable.”

I’m disappointed in the weaselly language of “as a central factor,” though. If they’re not reliable, they shouldn’t be used at all. Here’s why:

Suppose teacher Alice and teacher Bob have an evaluation that is dictated 10% by the results of their student tests. In all other measures, they come out even, but Alice’s student tests are better (or improve more in the course of the school year). She gets merit pay and Bob doesn’t. Is that fair? Layoffs happen, and Alice gets to keep her job and Bob gets laid off. Is that fair?

Can the teachers get an agreement?

There’s a great article in the Times today explaining the ins and outs of the school district’s controversial SERVE proposal, which would:

– spend $4 million dollars in a tight economy

– take over the library for 9 weeks of the school year

– add up to 14 early-release days, which parents would have to scramble to cover

– increase “teaching to the test”

Here’s the article:

http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/localnews/2012751141_teachercontract29m.html

Seattle teachers: what’s all the fuss about?

A week ago, I got a message from the NE Mom’s list about a new proposal introduced by the school superintendent. My last blog post has the text of that message. Since then, I’ve had a busy time getting up to speed on the facts and the issues. There’s a lot of information to wade through!

The key sticking point is a proposal called SERVE, which would base teachers’ evaluations partly on a computerized student test on math and reading. It’s an improper use of the test, even according to the testing company. What scares me about it is that in other cities, teachers have been fired after their students receive poor scores. If you’re a parent, please get informed ASAP. The Seattle Council PTSA site has links to the arguments for and against SERVE at:

http://www.seattlecouncilptsa.org/article_272.shtml

There’s more info at:

http://seattleducation2010.wordpress.com/

There are some important dates coming up:

August 31st – teacher’s union hopes to reach an agreement with the district

September 1st – board meeting

September 2nd – teachers vote on whether to approve the labor contract

I feel like we as parents need to be supporting teachers right now. In the next couple days, I’ll be posting updates & links to what folks are doing. In the meantime, if you want to organize to help parents support teachers, drop me a note.

Seattle teacher’s letter about SERVE proposal

Here’s a letter I got a week ago through a Seattle mom’s listserv. I don’t know which teacher wrote it, but it reflects the concerns of a lot of teachers.

– – – –

Dear Parents of children I have taught,

There is a new system that is steamrolling into our school district, into our classrooms, and into the relationships that I have with each of my students. This system, driven by standardized tests, will change the classroom environment dramatically. I am asking for you to make your voices heard on this issue.

As you may already know, Seattle Public Schools is prioritizing its focus and funding on ways to make teachers “more accountable” by linking student test scores to teacher evaluation and compensation.

But the elephant in the room is: Are these high quality tests? Do we want teachers to give them highest priority? Tests such as the Measurement of Academic Progress (MAP) test finite skills, which can be useful for a teacher in designing instruction, but let’s not be

misled: it does not test how an individual child is developing skills of critical thinking, creativity and problem solving, or independent and teamwork skills—cornerstone qualities of the most successful members of our society.

As a successful lifelong learner myself, I naturally need feedback in many forms to evaluate my teaching so I can continuously improve.

However, this move to emphasize test results to evaluate and compensate teachers is setting students up to be shortchanged.

Teachers will be forced to teach a narrower set of skills, focusing on test‑measured forms of “success”. Class time for music, arts, social studies, science, research, and physical education will continue to dwindle as long as the focus on testing is largely in reading and math. I have already seen this happen throughout the district at the elementary level, especially in schools with higher poverty rates where students tend to test poorly and the pressure to raise test scores is intense.

Even testing logistics have a negative impact on learning. In buildings throughout the district, the entire school is denied access to precious library resources for 9 weeks out of the 36 weeks of the year to allow for MAP testing three times a year:

that’s 25% of the

year! On top of that, often teachers and principals decide that kids need more practice with standardized test taking on the computers in order to succeed on these high‑stakes tests. Children will see libraries as testing centers rather than as places to expand their learning through research and be inspired by great books.

What about teacher evaluation?

All students deserve talented, effective, inspiring teachers. We need an evaluation system that encourages teachers to engage children in critical thinking and in creative problem solving, as opposed to a system focused on multiple choice test taking. A new evaluation system was developed collaboratively over the last few years by the Seattle Education Association and Seattle Public Schools and piloted in several Seattle schools, and was shown to be a useful and effective evaluation system to judge the effectiveness of teachers. It also gave principals the power to put those teachers who demonstrated ineffective teaching skills on probation. This system is an exciting new development for our teachers and administrators, something that many saw as a very promising step forward to building successful schools.

But then Superintendent Goodloe‑Johnson acted unilaterally in adding the test based evaluation system to this new collaboratively‑developed system

After 15 meetings of the contract negotiation teams, Seattle Public Schools introduced a new addition to the collaboratively developed evaluation system, reducing the new system to 50% of a teacher’s evaluation, and announcing 35‑45% of the teacher’s evaluation would be tied to student performance on standardized tests, most significantly the new MAP test. This 11th hour addition to the contract negotiations is called SERVE. These are just a few of my concerns:

* The MAP test was brought to the district in a no‑bid contract.

Not having an alternate bid for many contracts is an embarrassing critique outlined in the federal audit of SPS, recently published.

* Superintendent Maria Goodloe‑Johnson sits on the board of the company that makes the MAP test, and did not disclose that before the contract was approved.

* Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA), the company that makes the MAP test, states the test was never designed as a tool to evaluate teachers.

* $4 million price tag to roll out this system includes money for the test and for more administrators to oversee the program‑‑‑ money that won’t go to our children’s classrooms.

* Honest and thoughtful evaluations can’t be that easy! The SERVE plan hands teacher evaluation over to a computer.

Do we want computerized tests at the core of what our teachers teach and what our children learn?

What Can You Do?

Come to the Board Meeting at John Stanford Center for Educational Excellence (JSCEE) on August 18. Just come to show your concern or sign up to speak. “Members of the public who wish to address the board may do so by e‑mailing (boardagenda@seattleschools.org) the School Board Office or calling (206) 252‑0040, beginning Monday, August 16th, at 8:00am. The public testimony list will be posted Tuesday afternoon, August 17th. For information on how the public testimony list is created, please visit the Board’s website.”

Talk and write to everyone you know about your feelings. Write to The Seattle Times and neighborhood papers. Email or call Superintendent Goodloe‑Johnson at superintendent@seattleschools.org or 206‑252‑0167

Contact the School Board members and tell them your concerns with the SERVE proposal and the direction it would take our schools. Seattle School Board email addresses:

superindendent@seattleschools.org; peter.maier@seattleschools.org, sherry.carr@seattleschools.org; harium.martin‑ morris@seattleschools.org; michael.debell@seattleschools.org;

betty.patu@seattleschools.org; steve.sundquist@seattleschools.org;

kay.smith‑blum@seattleschools.org; pjoakes@seattleschools.org; mcrain@washingtonea.org

Thank you for participating in public education; it is the foundation of our democratic society.