Why Teachers Like Me Support Unions

I meant to post this yesterday, in order to show my EDUSolidarity, but WordPress was having some issues and I couldn’t log on to finish it. Well, better late then never.

As I’ve mentioned in an earlier post, when I first entered the field of education, I was skeptical of unions, but was coming to appreciate the protection from short-sighted policy and budgetary broadsides that a union affords. One of the benefits of the events in Wisconsin is that it has served as a clarifying point to many people like me who may have been on the fence or uncertain about their support for unions. It forced me to examine whether I really supported the collective bargaining rights of a union, as well as to consider more broadly whether I felt the field of education might even be better with the power of unions subverted. As I considered these issues, I realized that the tactic which Republicans and businessmen were calling for was not surprising, given the values of management and capitalists in general, but that it brought to the forefront a major issue with untrammeled access of private interests in public education. Education in our country is based on the ideals of a working democracy, and if we can’t handle the messy debates and political process that such democracy entails via a system of checks and balances, then we will be cutting out the legs from under the efforts of education reform, even as it might momentarily appear that we would be gaining greater efficiency.

Simply because our economy is suffering due to misguided policies that benefit the wealthy few does not mean that we should begin slicing away at the very foundations of our democracy. The Economist is heralding the demise of unions, and they sound so eminently reasonable, don’t they? Problem is, they’ve forgotten that they are discussing real human lives in their equations.

Unfortunately, our society likes to pay lip service to our soldiers, our teachers, our firemen, our policemen, etc. But if the issue is ever broached that we would have to raise taxes to pay for those essential services, everybody clams up. And they hide away in their protective ideologies and behind their pacifying Fox news blather and tantalizing talk show hate radio. I don’t care what the situation with the economy is. We should NEVER cut essential services such as education or social services in our budgets. Because those services are the cornerstone of a functioning democracy, and when we cut those services, we cut into the lives of those members of our society who need them the most. We can talk about accountability, sure! I’m all for it. I’ve seen too many of those federal and state dollars go to waste sitting in a closet. We need to invest that money smarter and track the effects of contracted programs in districts. Definitely! But should we be laying off teachers, subverting the roles of unions, and eliminating some of the few incentives and protections that teachers have in a highly challenging role that produces a product (competent students and citizens) that is of utmost value?

We need unions to protect the interests not only of teachers, but of the children who are raised in poverty. When we cut services or diminish rights in the interest of efficiency or economic duress, we cut directly into those children’s lives. Unions serve to balance the power of government and private interests. That doesn’t mean unions are saints or that I agree with all their policies or organizational structure. It means that I believe unions are a necessary counterbalance to bring the interests of various stakeholders to the bargaining table.


EWA Conference: The Promise and Pitfalls of Improving the Teaching Profession

My summary and account of an Education Writer’s Association conference on The Promise and Pitfalls of Improving the Teaching Profession.

Every now and then, I get a chance to attend a conference or seminar on some issue in education. Some teachers I know hate attending conferences, but I see them not only as an opportunity to gain new knowledge and to network, but also a chance to retain my sense of sanity and perspective. The everyday life in the self-contained classroom is one of high stress, and as much as I love my students, sometimes I need a break. Conferences are a way for me to thus gain a “mental health” day, while developing professionally at the same time. Also, as a friend of mine who works in the software engineering world put it, conferences are a great chance to “geek out” with other people who work in the same field. How often do I get to talk shop with like-minded folks?

I attended a conference put on by the Education Writer’s Association (and sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation) on the topic of improving the teaching profession. This event was primarily for journalists, but some teacher bloggers were also invited.

The chance to meet with other teachers is always an opportunity I cherish, whether simply within the confines of my school, within my district, or more broadly such as at this conference. When teachers get together and really start to talk about education, it helps to alleviate the sense of isolation that one often feels in a classroom. We don’t tend to agree on everything, but when it comes to the everyday reality of teaching, we find our common ground. Another area of consensus amongst teachers is that we all want to be included in the national conversation on education, whether within the political or policy realm. We want the world to know what teaching is really all about.

I also enjoyed meeting education journalists and speaking with them. I knew in the abstract that the world of news is undergoing a huge rupture in the industry due to the rise of digital information technology, but it wasn’t until I  heard some of their stories that I understood the impact this is really having on the lives of journalists. The writers I met were well-spoken, knowledgeable, and interesting individuals.

This conference was set up typically, in that there were sets of panelists who discussed issues related to the topics of schools of education, teacher recruitment, and professional development. As they held their discussions, I jotted down notes about things that struck me. I will share those notes below in the hope that they may be useful to other educators or writers on education.

The Strategic Management of Human Capital

(side note: this was a term that was apologetically depicted by the presenters themselves as a bit technically overwrought, though I don’t have any problem with the terminology myself. We’re talking management here.)

Speaker: Talia Milgrom-Elcott, Carnegie Corporation of NY (On a sidenote: did you know that the Carnegie Corporation was responsible for funding HeadStart and Sesame Street?)

Solutions (these are all my own, which I was thinking about as counterpoints to some of the traditional data and perspectives of education reform being presented. For a better summation of the data, check out EdBeat’s post)

  • The improvement of schools needs to occur most fundamentally from within. Empower teachers with voice, feedback, time to collaborate, and leadership opportunities outside of their classroom.
  • The notion of an effective teacher must be counterbalanced with an understanding of the context of effective teaching (i.e. support within the building, resources available, etc.)
  • We need to partner with teachers to implement true reform, not simply apply pressure from outside via regulations or mandates

Teaching Teachers: Education Schools and Alternative Pathways

Panelists: Hamilton Lankford, SUNY; Sharon Robinson, American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, Kate Walsh, National Council on Teacher Quality

Moderator: Linda Perlstein, EWA


  • Journalists can do a better job of identifying what kind of impact a school of education is having on their local districts
  • Schools of education are completely inconsistent in their standards, syllabi, and demands
  • Schools of education see their role not simply to provide short-term “practical” knowledge, but furthermore the longer-term concepts of “life-long learning”–this frankly seems to me like an academic retreat from the harder conversations around what kind of content would actually be deemed “practical”
  • There is tension between what schools want in teachers and what schools of education teach teachers
  • Teachers are demanding knowing more about assessment, technology, and classroom management, according to surveys of graduates
  • Regulation does not seem to have a beneficial impact on teacher education programs
  • Lack of selectivity of candidates is a big issue
  • But there is a large shortage of teachers, and thus the rigor and quality of teachers is diminished
  • Teaching is not seen as being a competitive field to be in, especially by minorities
  • There is a dearth of research linking preparation programs to effective practice
  • Kate Walsh made an interesting and impassioned comment about teaching being one of the only industries where we seem to downplay being smart as a desired quality in candidates


  • Communication must be built between the local school districts that are fed the graduates of schools of education
  • Content schools of education teach needs to be standardized
  • A larger pool of high quality candidates must be developed, and then effective screening measures must be used
  • Concept of “teaching ordinary people to do extraordinary things” by Deborah Ball
  • 4 foci presented by Sharon Robinson:
  1. Enrich clinical performance
  2. Document candidate performance
  3. Develop feedback within the state between schools of ed and public schools
  4. Create a level playing field


  • Ariel Sacks, a teacher in Brooklyn, made the critical observation that the conversation should really not be about the recruitment of teachers, but rather about the retention of effective teachers – I couldn’t agree more
  • One of my thoughts during this conversation, when someone brought up the inevitable data about Finland, Singapore or South Korea: Why are we always so busy looking at international comparisons as opposed to the knowledge and experience that teachers within our own classrooms have to offer?
  • Mark Roberts, a teacher in Washington D.C. made the point that we don’t put someone in a courtroom and after a few years expect them to be an effective lawyer–we have extremely high standards that they have to meet prior to even entering into training. Why should it be any different for teachers?

Bringing in the Best: Recruiting and Hiring Practices

Panelists: Vicki Bernstein, NYC DOE; Dan Goldhaber, Center on Education Data & Research; Spencer Kympton, TFA

Moderator: Caroline Hendrie, EWA


  • Relative wages of teachers have decreased when you account for inflation
  • Research from the private sector suggests that compensation matters
  • There are no solid predictors of a recruit’s performance in the classroom


  • Leverage technology to recruit–it is cheap and it can be targeted
  • Institutes require incentives to change
  • Creating a competitive, viable market for teaching could influence change in schools of education
  • Elevate the prestige of the teaching profession
  • Though there are not sure predictors, we can still weed out the “bad bets”
  • Hiring from the top 1/3rd means the top 1/3 in terms of results, not where you came from or prestige
  • Refine the recruitment process based on nuances, not “silver bullets”–Vicki Bernstein pointed out that because of the complexity of teaching, it is hard to use any artificial construct to judge a potential recruit
  • Spencer Kympton pointed out that one predictor TFA has found from its data is the level of a candidate’s achievement beyond academics–such as the ability to set and meet goals


  • Samuel Reed, an educator and consultant from Philly, inquired what kind of recruitment efforts were made to target minorities to enter the profession. TFA rep. Spencer Kympton responded that they seek to foster conversations with minority students upon entrance into college, not only when they are about to graduate, in order to build interest in teaching as a profession. He also stated that TFA obtains 40% of its recruitment pool from low-income backgrounds
  • Dan Brown, a teacher in Washington D.C., gave his personal story and used it to articulate how compensation and wages do matter. He also pointed out that accountability in education renders it an unattractive field to work in
  • David Ginsburg, an educator and consultant, pointed out that based on his personal experience, the survey instrument (Star Teacher Selection Interview) used in Haberman’s research is highly effective as a predictor of teacher performance. Dan Goldhaber responded that the survey still could only account for 10% predictor success. Vicki Bernstein may have indicated that she has used Haberman’s survey instrument as well.
  • Richard Whitmire (I think this was who said this, but I may be mistaken–please correct me if this is inaccurate information) stated that compensation should be restructured to provide incentives for teacher performance, such as by raising the bar for tenure and making it much more difficult to attain
  • Kenneth Bernstein, an educator and union rep from Washington D.C., responded to this comment with an opposing view in support of teacher pensions. He also pointed out how checklists used to gauge teacher effectiveness were superficial.

During lunch, Michele Cahill, vice president for national programs and director of urban education at Carniegie Corporation, presented some research and perspective on education reform.

  • Cahill stated that there IS a silver bullet when it comes to one area of education policy–the MDRC study on small schools of choice demonstrates that small schools of choice can improve graduation prospects for disadvantaged students
  • She pointed out that school conditions are of extreme importance, such as teaching what students need, getting an effective group of teachers together, scheduling time for teachers to collaborate together, etc
  • Routine cognitive jobs are changing or being replaced in many industries–this will inevitably occur in teaching as well
  • Technology is a potential avenue to give effective teachers greater loads of children


  • Stephen Lazar, a teacher and union rep in NYC, cautioned that scaling such use of technology in the field of education–such as in NYC’s Innovation Zone–too quickly could be detrimental
  • Cahill agreed, and said that we have to be smart about scalability and look at the sustainability of any reform, such as by paying especial attention to the concept of renewal, wherein networks collaborate and reflect on what is working well and what needs to be modified
  • Mark Roberts questioned the fads in the education industry, and asked how we can better increase teacher involvement
  • Cahill responded that one way of doing this is for teachers to look at data and collaborate in the form of inquiry teams
  • Talia Milgrom-Elcott made a comment about how we need to battle against monolithic thinking and ideologies as we seek to improve the teaching profession

Learning on the Job: Improving Professional Development

Panelists: Karen Hawley Miles, Education Resource Strategies; Ted Preston, Achievement Network; Judy Zimny, ASCD

Moderator: Stephen Sawchuk, Education Week

This was my favorite panel of the conference, as the kind of solutions all of the panelists presented corresponded with what I know is effective as an educator.

  • Differentiate PD for teachers
  • There must be strong leadership in a school – that leader must assemble a strong team and provide the vision and goals for the school
  • Teachers only get better in the contexts of their jobs, which leads to continuous improvement and professional growth
  • Time within the school day is needed for teacher teams to meet and collaborate
  • School leaders must establish common planning periods and–at first–force collaboration to happen
  • Clarity in communication is important from school leaders
  • Judy Zimny also advised that school administrators should reduce announcements made during the day, as well as put all their emphasis on teaching by reducing time spent on extras
  • High performing schools spend 3 times more time collaborating than low performing schools
  • The focus on evaluations of teachers needs to include collective accountability by focusing on teams rather than individual teachers
  • As schools struggle to improve, they must retain the perspective of where they are developmentally as a school, and therefore develop their organizational contexts at a realistic pace
  • Take the focus off of “superstar” teachers, and instead look for “synergistic” results–focus on school-wide goals that include all school staff
  • The whole organization of a school should be focused on learning, not individual goals
  • Professional Development is often cut due to funding spent on reducing class size
  • There must be people within the school who possess strong content knowledge


  • Jose Vilson, an educator in NYC, asked how we can development environments in schools that foster teacher leaders?
  • I asked the question of how we can measure things like the relationships and contexts within a school, given the current focus on accountability. Karen Hawley Miles responded that there is a survey instrument available that can measure the “trust” within a school. However, she noted that when tied to high stakes consequences, this data becomes skewed. I think she said that it was the”Fry” survey, but I can’t find anything when I try to Google this. If anyone know what survey she was talking about, please clue me in! I’ll try contacting her directly in the meantime and update here when I find out. UPDATE 2/23/11: I must have misheard “Schneider” as “Fry.” The survey is part of the book that I had already happened to link to under “trust” above! Guess I’ll be heading downtown to check it out in the library. If anyone is further interested in this topic, Deborah Meier also has a book on trust in schools.
  • Peter Meyer, a journalist and editor at Education Next, questioned how an effective curriculum–such as one based on ED Hirsch‘s research–can be provided to teachers
  • Stacey Snyder, project manager for Teacher Quality Partnership out in Iowa (one of the few to rep for rural schools at this conference), brought her concerns for rural schools to the table. In the face of dwindling community resources and declining enrollments, Stacy inquired about what innovations the panel saw coming in the arena of PD that could help to alleviate their sense of isolation and promote technology?


Here are links to blogs or sites from educators that were in attendance at the conference:

Here’s links to the journalists’ sites that were in attendance:

Goin’ Crazy

The interior of the Francis M. Drexel School i...
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Sometimes I feel like this profession is driving me crazy. Just about 80% of the other educators I meet I find either plumb crazy or I just simply can’t relate to them. The very few I can relate to are still pretty darn weird. Now, I ain’t exactly making any claims to normalcy myself. I have what could politely be called eclectic tastes. I drink weird herbal liqueurs and hate watching anything but depressing movies and listen to Norwegian electric guitar jazz or Senegalese mbalax. But I have worked with a pretty diverse amount of people in my time on this here earth, and once I got through my bitter misanthropic phase after college, I’ve mostly gotten along pretty well with the folks I’ve worked with. And I get along with most of the people I work with now, too. But I secretly find them all just frankly weird. I mean this in the sense that I just don’t find much of their actions nor dialogue intelligible.

I’m still confused about whether that’s because teachers in general are crazy or if it’s because public education is crazy and it drives people crazy. But it must be the latter, because now I think I’m goin crazy. I mean, how could you not? There’s so many conflicting values and directives and ideas being thrown at me that I never know which way is up. And I try to do what I do best, which is to examine the system as a whole and then enter into the fray with a structured vision which I then seek to implement. But then it’s like the rug gets pulled out from under me just when I think I’m achieving something.

Eventually, I’ve begun to understand why so many of the teachers I’ve met are such hot messes. They’ve become focused narrowly upon that point on which they know they can achieve something positive, and they lash out at anything that might threaten that unstable piece of manna. They cradle it like a flame from the wind. Because the fact is that the world outside of the classroom–even within the school itself–does not generally have the best interests of the teacher nor students therein in mind. And even when they do–the fact is that some things get very gray when they enter into the realm of classroom reality. People want to go on and on about “students first.” And no one would disagree, of course. But most of these folks have not actually stepped foot into the reality of a classroom in a high poverty district. Try it, folks. Please. See if you can take the abuse that many teachers undergo for an entire working day. Then step back and see if you can keep talking about accountability and high expectations from such a pristine moral vantage.

Schoolwork is messy, in the same manner that work in the ICU unit of a hospital is messy. At least in the NYC public school system in the South Bronx it is. Does it have to be? No. But in the meantime those of us who are crazy–or who are destined to become crazy–are the ones out on the front lines trying to dredge out a garden in the midst of a hailstorm on the precipice of a cliff. Welcome to reality. It can drive you mad.

Public Schools as Ecosystems: Part I

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In one of my recent posts, I pontificated in a rather abstract manner on the field of education, and advocated for the need for nurturing an increase in foundational systems of interconnectivity. I believe quite strongly in this concept, and I would like to begin exploring it in more practical and substantive terms in a series of blog posts, just as I once did on the issue of poverty (I, II, III, and IV). But first of all: what the hell do I even mean by foundational systems of interconnectivity?

What we’re really talking about here is the concept of a school as an ecosystem. You can’t disconnect or isolate any one component from the other without considering its relation to many other interrelated parts. For example, you can’t completely isolate a student in a classroom from the collective student body in that classroom, nor that classroom from the collective student body in the grade, nor school. You can’t completely isolate a student from their family, nor community, nor society. You can’t isolate a teacher from the professional collective of teachers and staff in the school, nor from the administration and its policies, nor from the state and federal funding and policies.

So in consideration of the school as an ecosystem, we must:

a) acknowledge interrelationships and connections when considering subgroups or individuals by:

  1. considering the school culture
  2. considering the community and culture of the student population that the school serves
  3. considering societal expectations and norms

If we can begin to analyse the components of what I outlined above, we then can begin exploring how we can better harmonize those considerations in order to best foster the conditions for a well-balanced school ecosystem.

In my next post on this topic, I will explore the concept of a school culture further.

Making Things Happen

Can I just toot my own horn a little? Please? Sometimes, folks, the horn just needs a-tootin’. Cuz ya gotta celebrate accomplishments, especially in this day and age in which all you see on the daily nightly news is tragedy and apathy.

It’s been a while since I last posted, which is because I’ve been swamped. My life could be seen as kind of dismal, I suppose, except that I’m excited by what I’m doing right now, so all the hard work and no time to play is all right, for the time being at least. I’m starting to get a bit burnt out, which is not good, but there’s a few spots of days off this month which I think will allow me to squeeze through it.

I’ve been keeping up with my ‘barefoot’ running regimen, and it’s helping me to keep more physically in tune, and also serves as precious decompression time. My feet have fully adapted, and it feels great! It took me all summer to get broken into it, but now it’s like butter.

I’ve realized that the school where I’ve been working, for all its many problems and dysfunctions, is actually the perfect place for me to hone my skills and grow as a professional. It’s a disorganized and often chaotic school, but everyone in the building means well and tries their best. Meaning that for all its dysfunctions, the place is ripe for change. All it takes is some applied pressure.

I’ve been talking on this blog for a long time about a holistic, whole systems design approach to change, and for the first time, I’m really getting to gain practical insight into that theory. I’m discovering that true power is about seeing opportunities in problems and seizing those opportunities to advocate for greater systemic change. Furthermore, true power is working in collaboration with different types of people and harnessing their skill sets as resources.

I may only be a second year teacher, but I have skill sets from my management experience that I’m beginning to draw more upon, now that I have had some space to grow into my current role. I’ve become the go-to-guy for attending workshops (simply because I’m willing to go to them, really), and as I’ve been going to all these different workshops (Common Core State Standards, Response to Intervention, Inquiry, Quality Review, Therapeutic Crisis Intervention, just to name a few), I’ve been thinking of ways for how to synthesize and apply the information in the school.

I want to accomplish these goals this year:

1) Begin tackling the Common Core State Standards in our school

2) Begin coordinating school-wide systems of academic interventions

3) Advocate for a PBIS system for behavior

4) Advocate for a system of referral tracking (SWIS or OORS)

5) Build emotional literacy in the building (understand student acting out behaviors, not simply punish them)

6) Implement the Response to Intervention model

7) Make the process of inquiry and using data authentic

My first strategy was to create a team of special education teachers. It was something I had put on my agenda since last year, but with all the other things going on, especially with my growing awareness of the Response to Intervention model, it made sense to finally get it put into place first thing this year. In tandem with that team, I came up with a short vision proposal and presented it to the principal, which included utilizing the inquiry team and the special education team to begin implementing school-wide interventions to move the school into the Response to Intervention framework, in addition towards implementing the Common Core State Standards. She agreed, and the plan I put in place has begun picking up steam.

I feel good about what is happening, because there are many points that are currently converging in the building: 1) the Common Core State Standards, which are getting rolled out statewide this year, have been examined and discussed school-wide already in an authentic, collaborative way; 2) technology, which many teachers have been highly resistant towards using last year, is now being increasingly used, such as our Google website for inputting team meeting minutes; 3) grade level teams now have discussed and implemented a team protocol, which will help to structure and build accountability for team meetings; 4) the special education teachers are already beginning to be viewed as leaders and pioneers; 5) I have successfully advocated for an assessment for reading to be used in the building that more accurately targets foundational deficiencies, which many of our students–especially students with IEPs–lack, and I subsequently designed and implemented the headers to be used in a tracking spreadsheet that is being created for our school (I had a timeline of about a week to do all of that, from advocacy to spreadsheet!); and 6) I was able to include lexile measure correlations on the spreadsheet, which will position our school to be ready for the Common Core State Standards use of lexile measures.

And this convergence all happened practically within one week! There is a momentum in the building that is exciting to see. Obviously, I am taking some credit for it (why not, I get to celebrate myself sometimes, don’t I?), but the reality is that I simply took the first steps towards putting it together. The actual implementation only has been able to occur because there are great people in the building who want to see things get better just as much as I do and who have been willing to step up and put themselves on the line to make it happen.

It remains to be seen whether this momentum is sustainable, but it’s a great start. I’m chugging along through my graduate work and if all goes according to plan, I should only have two classes left in the Spring semester. Here’s to making things happen.