Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Occupy Christmas

Jeremy Vaughn is a gifted artist and radical from Montpelier, VT.  This is his Christmas card for 2011.  It speaks for itself.  I loved this image so much that I asked his permission to share it online.  Happy holidays and enjoy!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Teacher Professionalism and Leadership

My friend and colleague Gamal Sherif teaches at the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, PA.  We are both Teaching Ambassador Fellows for the US Department of Education (Gamal this year and me last year), and members of the Teacher Leader Network Forum, part of the Center for Teaching Quality.  We are both also union activists - I'm NEA and Gamal is AFT.  What I love about our friendship is the differences: I’m a rural elementary teacher and Gamal is an urban high school teacher, yet across these differences we share so much.  I asked Gamal’s permission to share his latest blog post and I urge people to follow his excellent blog ProgressEd.
In a recent USA Today article, Wendy Kopp (CEO of Teach for America) and Dennis Van Roekel (President of the National Education Association), recommend “3 steps improve the USA’s teachers.”  
Of course everyone wants to improve, but it would be helpful to determine what the specific problems are before we create policy guidelines.  Once the problems are identified, teachers should be directly involved in creating, implementing and evaluating the solutions.
Specifically, Kopp and Van Roekel suggest that we:
·         Use data to improve teacher preparation.
·         Bring new talent to the teaching profession.
·         Give teachers opportunities for continuous professional development.
Of course teachers are life-long learners and we are, therefore, interested in continuous improvement.  However, when it comes to student learning, the focus on teachers is incomplete.  We should also consider the students' readiness to learn when they arrive at school.  
In order to learn, students need to be well-rested, well-fed, safe, and curious when they arrive at school.  If that's not the case, then we need to look to the social and economic context in which the children live outside of school.  And yes, teachers do have some perspective on that context.
An over-emphasis on teacher quality is a distraction from what truly ails us: students' and teachers' diminished ability to make informed (and careful) decisions about their learning.  
Over-emphasis on teacher quality as the "...single biggest factor in student success..." implies that if students are not succeeding, or learning, then teachers should be held accountable.  Yet research has shown that teachers are less effective when they have poor working conditions.
The onus is on teachers to advocate for effective working conditions, among other things.  Teachers should be involved in the design and implementation of curriculum, instruction, assessment AND policy -- all aspects of our working conditions. This emphasis on teacher leadership ties in very well with the US Department of Education's Blueprint for Reform that emphasizes teacher professionalism.
Within the article, it is not clear if Kopp and Van Roekel are referring to worthwhile assessments of "student learning" -- or simple measurements of "student success."  Poorly-designed standardized tests CANNOT be used to correlate the quality of teacher training programs. 
Why use bad data to create wishy-washy (or worse) policy?

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Celebrating Labor-Management Collaboration: The Literature Grows

A year ago, I began a bibliography of every web and print resource I could find on the subject of labor-management collaboration.  I was worried that heading into the U.S. Department of Education’s Labor –Management Conference in Denver, participants would lack the background and context to deal with the ideas and practices they would encounter.
Initially, I did only web resources, and could find just seventeen.  It was a sparse literature.  Over the ensuing year I added several books, including classics like United Mindworkers and Getting to Yes.  I added the research we performed for the Denver LMC.  It still looked pretty sparse to me.
Suddenly, there has been a small, but exciting explosion of publications on the subject. 
Recently, Education Week published a special report on labor-management collaboration entitled “Joining Forces: Moving district-union negotiations beyond bread-and-butter issues”.  With this report, labor management collaboration has gone mainstream.  But leading up to this breakthrough, there have been several other publications of note that have significantly expanded the literature.
Improving Student Learning Through Collective Bargaining” By Adam Urbanski (Harvard Education Letter May/June 2011) Urbanski, the brilliant local president of the Rochester, NY NYSUT affiliate,  and cofounder of the Teacher Union Reform Network (TURN) writes of the use of continuous  and expanded scope bargaining to promote student learning.
SRI International and J. Koppich & Associates published “Peer Review: Getting Serious About Teacher Support and Evaluation”  This paper reaches three important conclusions based on in-depth analysis of two established Peer Assistance and Review (PAR) programs in California: 1) Peer support and evaluation can and should coexist.  2) PAR is a rigorous alternative to traditional forms of teacher evaluation and development. 3) PAR leads to better collaboration between districts and unions.
The NEA Today Summer 2011 issue had a cover story entitled “Change Agents: Union led collaboration is driving success in schools across America.”  The story profiles several locals which employed the traditional levers of unionism to benefit student learning.  I was particularly struck by the story about the Dayton local employing the grievance process to acquire textbooks for special needs students.  This aligns with John Wilson’s call for use of expanded scope bargaining to achieve social justice in his farewell speech at the 2011 RA in Chicago.
Richard Elmore’s I Used to Think….and Now I Think is a brilliant meditation on policy by 20 leading education reformers.  Among the many wise and provocative essays two stand out with regard to the subject at hand:
Brad Jupp’s “Rethinking Unions’ Roles in Ed Reform” takes on union reform from a systems perspective.  Jupp, who as Denver Classroom Teachers Association lead negotiator was one of the architects of Denver’s ground breaking ProComp strategic compensation system, tackles the issue of union reform from a systems perspective.  He writes, “If we are to see teacher union affiliates take a leading role in improving our schools, we must begin to ask some questions about how they are designed.”  He posits that unions are well designed to “get the results they are presently getting.”  Several pointed questions encourage repurposing unions to support the success of the overall educational enterprise: great student learning.
Mark Simon, former president of the Montgomery County MD NEA affiliate, and a TURN leader, contributed “High Stakes Progressive Teacher Unionism.”  He writes, “Teacher Unions have a responsibility to advocate not just in the narrow self-interest of their dues paying members, but in the public interest, from a teacher’s perspective.”
But Joining Forces really excited me when I saw it this month.  Here is a national education policy newspaper highlighting the difficult work successfully pursued by unions and districts across the country.   From New Haven to Memphis to Los Angeles and Lucia Mar , CA, the articles highlight unions and board as they grapple with the art and science of collaboration, wrapped around tough issues like Value Added Methods, the Teacher Advancement Program, and new forms of compensation.  Included is a great introduction/overview and a timeline.  This is a must read to get the history and flavor of Labor-Management Collaboration.
Oh yes - hot off the presses: Transforming Teaching: Connecting Professional Responsibility with Student Learning - 2011 Report.  The NEA Commission on Effective Teachers and Teaching (CETT) just published their report chock full of union reform recommendations.  More on that later.
Last February at the Denver LMC Arne Duncan spoke of igniting a movement that would make labor-management collaboration the norm.  Speaking as a union leader, on the subject of labor-management collaboration I support the Department of Education - and the CETT.   The current wave of significant research and publication leads me to believe the vision is getting traction.
What other publications should I add to this list or to my Union Reform Resources Page?

Sunday, December 11, 2011

One More Thing Brill Got Wrong

On pages 35 and 36 of Class Warfare, Steven Brill analyzes teacher salary increases in New York City that resulted from Albert Shanker’s leadership of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT).  His numbers look like this:
Table 1 New York City teacher stating salaries 1953-2007
 $    2,600
 $    5,300
 $  10,950
 $  45,530

From this, Brill concludes, “By 2007….the starting salary would be $45,530.00, or more than eight times 1962’s $5300.”  Evidently Brill wants to spark outrage that teacher unionism would lead to outrageous increases in starting salaries.  In taking this cheap shot, he missed a far more interesting story.  To uncover that story, we need to be able to compare salaries apples for apples.  To do this I used a CPI Inflation Calculator.  Adjusting for inflation, the numbers look like this:
Table 2 New York City teacher starting salaries in 2007 dollars
2007 dollars
 $    2,600.00
 $      20,190.61
 $    5,300.00
 $      36,387.83
 $  10,950.00
 $      61,863.62
 $  45,530.00
 $      45,530.00

This is an interesting story.  The first UFT contract in 1962 resulted in a starting salary 80% higher than Albert Shanker’s starting salary in 1953.  By 1969, the starting salary increased an additional 70%, representing increases averaging 12% each year.  But between 1969 and 2007 starting salaries actually declined 26% in real dollar terms.
At the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards Conference last summer, Arne Duncan gave a speech in which he said:
Last year, McKinsey did a study comparing the U.S. to other countries and recommending—among other things—that we change the economics of the profession, pointing out that entry-level salary in the high 30's and an average ceiling in the high 60's will never attract and retain the top talent. We must think radically differently.  We should also be asking how the teaching profession might change if salaries started at $60,000 and rose to $150,000. 
The UFT had achieved those starting salaries in 1969.  I think the question of why a starting salary that would genuinely attract talent to the profession declined 26% over the next 38 years is a fascinating question, one worth pondering.  Rather than offer any glib speculations, I prefer to continue the story….
Starting salaries only tell part of the story when analyzing a single salary schedule.  I articulated my views on the single salary elsewhere on this blog.  Let’s turn to the top level salary and the ratios between top level and starting salaries for a fuller picture.
Table 3 Top level NYC salaries in 2008 dollars
Top level (T)
% Increase
Starting (S)
Ratio (T:S)
From 1962 to 1969 top level salaries increased 43%.  Because starting salaries rose 70% in the same time period, the ratio fell from 1.86 to 1.55.  In the ensuing 39 years top level salaries were virtually flat, but because starting salaries fell 26% the ratio increased radically to 2.2.
As a negotiator I was trained that an indexed salary schedule with a 2:1 ratio is ideal.  I do not think that a 2:1 ratio is a good thing if it means that starting salaries are cut.  Why? Because a dollar you receive today, especially in the current political environment is worth a lot more than an IOU.
The ratio that Arne Duncan proposed in his speech is 2.5.  What this means is that the UFT achieved what the Secretary of Education is recommending for a starting salary way back in 1969, and they approached his recommended ratio in the 21st century, but because this was achieved through reductions in starting salaries, they did not achieve these things at the same time.  I know this involves an anachronism, but bear with me.
If you’ve managed to follow me to this point, I congratulate you.  I’ve seized on a very minute piece of Brill’s story, but I’ve been pondering it for months.  I freely admit that it’s an arcane point, but one worth mulling.  If teachers are to be compensated like the professionals that they are, why was the most powerful local in the country, the UFT, unable to roll together a salary schedule combining both a livable wage for beginners and top level salaries commensurate with professionalism? 
I think this is a fascinating historical question, the consideration of which may be illuminating for union leaders going forward.
The next lines of Duncan’s speech are interesting to consider in light of this question
We must ask and answer hard questions on topics that have been off limits in the past like staffing practices and school organization, benefits packages and job security—because the answers may give us more realistic ways to afford these new professional conditions.  If teachers are to be treated and compensated as the true professionals they are, the profession will need to shift away from an industrial-era blue-collar model of compensation to rewarding effectiveness and performance.
As a union leader and as a socialist I maintain a healthy skepticism here.  The devil is in the details.  The devil is also in the question of whether the practitioner’s voice will be decisive in these matters.  We can see from the gutting of regulations for for-profit colleges that in the current environment money dominates education policy in particular and politics in general.  But for that fact, I would be a lot more receptive to the secretary’s challenge.
If teachers and our unions can seize upon these matters of “topics that have been off limits in the past” and shape them in ways that work for students and workers, there may be a way forward here.  But it will take a constitutional amendment negating Citizens United to make it possible.
Just some things to ponder….

Saturday, December 10, 2011

How Things Have Changed in Two Years....

In November 2009 a statewide labor conference convened at the Davis Center at the University of Vermont under the auspices of the Vermont Workers Center.  The big news at the time was a contract that the Vermont State Employees Association (VSEA) was considering, a contract which was cutting state employees compensation almost 7%.  A group of us at the conference agreed to begin a statewide letter writing campaign to urge state employees to vote against ratification.
The letter writing campaign was not very successful.  Even though a dozen of us were writing to literally every statewide and regional newspaper, only a couple the letters were published.  It was an object lesson for me in the control exercised over the conventional media by conventional ideas.  My letter ended up being published on the Socialist Worker website.  I wrote:
As a teacher, I foresee reduction in services that will reduce the effectiveness of schools, as stressed families are less able to support their children's education. The negative effects of the proposed VSEA contract will be felt in schools in the form of behavior problems, hunger, abuse and neglect, with less backup from state agencies. The bad public policy represented by this contract will diminish the value of our communities' education investment.
Working people everywhere will be dragged down by this contract. Whether public sector or private sector, union or non-union, the task of achieving fair settlements and livable wages will be more difficult with the example of this bad contract hanging over us.
Shumlin administration officials and the state employees union announced on Friday afternoon that they have come to an agreement on a two-year contract that includes the restoration of the 3 percent pay cut that was instituted two and a half years ago and a 2 percent pay increase in July 2012 plus a 2 percent increase in July 2013.
This sounds promising, but I’m withholding judgment until I have a chance to talk today with other labor leaders.  But here’s another important change of attitude:
Jeb Spaulding, secretary of the Agency of Administration, said “I think it’s a fair deal for the taxpayer and a fair deal for state employees, and the fact we can do it without an acrimonious process … is a benefit for everyone, and I hope a morale booster for state employees.”
The agreement marks the first time the three bargaining units – Corrections, Supervisory and Non-Management Units — and the state have not had to resort to mediation or fact finding as part of the negotiation process.
Spaulding said the administration projected ahead of time what it would cost to go through the longer, more typical, adversarial process and determined that if they spent months of wrangling with fact finding and legislative lobbying the result would have been the same. “We spent quite a bit of time trying to project where we would be with the acrimonious route,” Spaulding said.
“We don’t have time for that kind of a game that ends up using state employees as pawns, and it’s not the most courageous or productive way to go,” Spaulding said.
This is the Jeb Spaulding of the infamous Spaulding Commission that two years ago tried to destroy public pensions in Vermont.  How things have changed in two years.
I hope school boards everywhere are listening….
Today the Vermont Workers Center and Students Stand Up! is again convening a statewide conference entitled “Human Rights for the 99%”  In a couple of hours I’ll again be climbing into my battered Corolla for the trek to the Davis Center, this time for a much larger conference which already boasts over 550 registrants.
How things have changed in two years…..
  • A VSEA contract that on the surface appears to be reasonable
  • An administration that appears to get some of the basics of labor-management collaboration
  • A statewide online publication, VT Digger, which is dedicated to balanced journalism and understands that a dialogue of diverse voices is essential to great public policy
  • A reinvigorated labor movement, energized by Occupy, rolling back the assaults in Ohio, New Hampshire and Wisconsin, now rallying not just dozens, but hundreds at a statewide Human Rights conference
I look forward to joining with my fellow workers in solidarity to celebrate progress and plan next steps.  As a labor leader, I give up a lot of weekends for the cause.  But without my union, and without the wider labor movement I would not have those weekends to do this work.  It is a great privilege to be able to do so.

Friday, December 9, 2011

VT-NEA’s Board of Directors: Of, By and For the Members

Brian Walsh served as vice president of VT-NEA.  A couple of years ago he wrote the following article – it is an eminently reasonable statement on governance, and a good introduction to board activities for rank and file members. 
Before I became a board director in 2005, I had no idea what our Board of Directors was all about – “governance” was an unfamiliar term.  Sure, as a local leader I had become acquainted with our state officers and several area directors.  But I really did not know what the board did, how often they met, or how important their positions are for our organization.  Speaking with some of my local members, it is clear that many of them share my former confusion on the role played by our board of directors as Vermont-NEA’s governance.  
Vermont-NEA’s Board of Directors is composed of our statewide officers – President, Vice President, Secretary-Treasurer and NEA Board Director – 16 regional directors from our seven uniserve districts, and our Executive Director.  Since they are members, the officers and regional directors have voting power; the Exec’s role is advisory.  The Board is our connection to the reason unions were formed.  Workers knew that it was other workers, themselves, who truly always had their best interests at heart.  These member-led unions are responsible for the compensation, benefits and working conditions – minimum-wage laws, health insurance, workplace safety rules, even  weekends - we often take for granted today.  But as time went on, the logistics and responsibilities of running a national, statewide, or even large local unions became too much for members needing to work full-time jobs to support their families.  Unions then began hiring employees to assist with the myriad responsibilities of operating large labor organizations.  
Vermont-NEA’s Board of Directors comprises its governance, or authority, for its operation.  According to the manual Governance as Leadership, the primary responsibilities of governance include fiduciary, strategic and generative functions.  Fiduciary responsibility refers to the management of an organization’s material assets.  These duties obviously need to be taken very seriously, and much care and attention is devoted to our fiduciary responsibility.  But the other two responsibilities are no less important; the most effective boards execute all three equally well.  
Strategic planning means setting long-term goals.  For these goals to be effective, they must be designed to fulfill our mission as both an educational association and as a labor organization.  Generative thinking addresses the opportunities created by the challenges an organization faces working to fulfill its mission.  This function obviously needs time to develop, but is vital if an organization is to develop its potential.  Organizations often employ staffs to assist with all three functions, but the ultimate responsibility is with the boards themselves.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Responsibility Versus Accountability

I choose to be responsible rather than accountable.  The reason is in the very etymology of the words.  Accountable is built around the verb “to count” and ascribes reality to abstract numbers, that which can be counted (and is therefore what “counts.”)   Responsibility is built around the verb “to respond.”  The ability to respond is critical in human contexts like education, and is what really counts.  
There is a fundamental conflict here: the imposition of accountability results in less collective responsibility.   The fate of De La Cruz Middle School in Chicago illustrates the conflict, where emphasis on numbers destroyed a learning community where people took collective responsibility for student success:
Anyone who visited us commented on what a wonderful place it was. Unfortunately, the only person from CPS to come visit us was the numbers guy, whose job it was to calculate "space utilization….When the numbers guy completed his report, he said we were at 61% utilization. His calculations, he admitted later, were incorrect and we were actually near 70% utilization, but that is a different story for a different time.
Long story short, all those wonderful things we were doing did not matter to CPS. Our student improvement didn’t matter to CPS. Our organic “longer day” that we had didn’t matter to CPS. Our students and community didn’t matter to CPS.
This occurred in a context of privatization and neo-liberal “reforms” which have been going on in Chicago for twenty years.  I live in Vermont, and I believe that this extreme case is instructive for us in our rural context.  People matter, and we need to fight against any trend towards dehumanizing our educational institutions, because in so doing we hurt our communities.  Responsibility is built on the belief that we can be better than we are.
Ironically, while a misplaced emphasis on accountability diminishes responsibility, increased collective responsibility creates greater achievement as a byproduct.  At De La Cruz
Student achievement had been on the rise for years; we ran one of the first true middle school programs in the city, where our students would switch classes to be taught by subject area experts and in the process they gained valuable experience for high school. Through a lot of hard work by students and staff alike, we gained certification for the AVID program. We passed the ISBE Special Education Audit, and the auditor told us that we had one of the “best special education programs she had seen.”
Isn’t this the very picture of (good) accountability as well as responsibility?  Here in Vermont, I have the privilege of working at the Sharon Elementary School, where there is a powerful sense of shared responsibility among staff, parents, students, and the community.  Suffice to say that this school is among the 28% of Vermont schools that made AYP this year - not the essence of the matter, but a useful byproduct.
In order to clarify my own thinking, I made up a chart comparing responsibility and accountability.
Responsibility – all are jointly and severally responsible for the success of the endeavor
Accountability – one is accountable to “higher ups”, taxpayers,  whatever
Deductive – starts with principles and aspirations of the community and builds out from that, standards driven
Inductive – constructs reality like a numerical jigsaw puzzle, data driven
Qualifies – seeks and accepts a broad range of evidence for great student learning.  Looks for connections between the evidence
Quantifies – what counts are the things you can count
Collaborative – interest based
Adversarial – positional/distributive
Intrinsic motivators
Extrinsic motivators “carrots and sticks”
Facilitation – seeks levers to amplify intrinsic motivation
Supervision – manages the carrots and sticks
Flat structures – lots of collateral circulation
Hierarchical – decisions flow down from the top
Sharing  of information
Control of information
The whole is greater than the sum of the parts
Zero sum – if you win, I lose
Influence over collectively shared aspirations
Power over people
The buck stops here
The buck stops someplace else

Responsibility represents our best aspirations for our schools, our communities and our children.  Why is it so hard to achieve?  Responsibility is cognitively demanding - it requires intelligence.  To those who are unable to grasp the nuances of education, accountability is the easier choice.  It doesn’t follow that it is the best choice.
We are people, not numbers.