UFT President Michael Mulgrew doubled down on blunt remarks he made privately to his members this week, defending his role in last year’s failed teacher evaluation deal and vilifying opponents of the union.
“They wanted to use teacher evaluations to take teachers down,” Mulgrew said in an interview on Friday, explaining why he fought to implement a more complex teacher rating system than the one the city wanted.
The sentiments echo his remarks to the teachers union’s delegate assembly on Wednesday night, where he said that the union pushed to require supervisors to rate teachers on 22 skills as a way to “gum up the works” and spoke disparagingly of the Bloomberg administration. Chalkbeat reported those comments Thursday, which critics pounced on as proof the union did not fully support changes meant to increase accountability for teachers.
Mulgrew also raised eyebrows with a critique of education “reformers” who oppose teacher tenure and support charter schools, whose ideas he said were destroying public education. On Friday, he said it was merely the latest showdown in a lengthy battle and said he no longer wanted to associate himself with the term “reform.”
“We’ve been fighting with these folks for years,” Mulgrew said. “This has been a non-stop fight.”
When Mayor Bill de Blasio was asked on Friday whether the union president’s remarks indicated an unwillingness to support change, the mayor defended Mulgrew. The union leader was “front and center” in pushing for the biggest changes in the proposed contract, de Blasio said, including higher salaries for top teachers who agree to take on leadership responsibilities, bonuses for teachers in high-need schools, and the creation of “innovation schools” that will be freed from certain scheduling restrictions.
“These are all fundamental reforms, so Mr. Mulgrew was front and center in making those reforms happen with us and I respect him for it,” de Blasio said.
The comments capped a whirlwind week for Mulgrew, who announced a tentative agreement with the city on a new contract last Thursday. Though some members have criticized the way the union communicated the contract’s terms, Mulgrew has successfully steered the union’s ratification process through two preliminary rounds of approval. All that is left is a vote by the union’s 100,000 members, which is expected next month.
But Mulgrew has been criticized by advocates who said his comment are symbolic of the union’s resistance to change. Others said Mulgrew’s comments offered proof that he was negotiating in bad faith over teacher evaluations—especially significant because the city’s failure to negotiate a teacher evaluation system last year cost schools $290 million in state aid.
Mona Davids, a parent activist who is suing the state to recoup some of that money, said that she planned to add Mulgrew and the teachers union to the lawsuit in the wake of his comments.
“He admitted to gumming it up so there was no way possible, no matter what, for this thing to work,” Davids said. “He had no intention to negotiate with Michael Bloomberg. He knowingly cost our children $290 million.”
When State Education Commissioner John King settled the dispute, he sided with the union on its request to require that all 22 elements be used to rate teachers.
This year, principals have said the mandate has been the most frustrating part of the resulting evaluation system. They’ve said that rating teachers on all 22 elements is overly burdensome and that the emphasis on completing the entire rubric has made it difficult to focus on supporting teachers in specific ways. It has also led to more work for teachers because they’ve had to collect paperwork and submit it to supervisors to be rated on some of the 22 competencies.
Chancellor Carmen Fariña also singled out the 22 components as a flaw in this year’s teacher evaluation system, calling them “a bit overwhelming” last week.
But the evaluation system Mulgrew signed onto for next year closely resembled the one he so vehemently opposed during last year’s negotiations, with fewer skills to be assessed. Six of the seven components the city wanted last year will be used next year.
Asked if he felt responsible for any of these implementation hurdles, Mulgrew said the alternative would have been even worse. Trust had eroded so dramatically between the union and the Bloomberg administration that he assumed the metrics would have been used more punitively, he said.
“They would have turned it into a complete disaster this year,” Mulgrew said. “It would have completely damaged education this year.”
Speaking about Wednesday’s Delegate Assembly meeting, Mulgrew said that he wished some of his comments about the contract had gotten more attention. For instance, he said, the new contract expands the definition of sexual misconduct, a fireable offense, so that it includes inappropriate texting between a teacher and student.
“The [delegate assembly] was wholeheartedly endorsing it,” Mulgrew recalled from Wednesday’s meeting, “and we’re proud of it.”
And though Mulgrew didn’t back away from his remarks about the teacher evaluation negotiations, he did admit to second thoughts about another recent rhetorical addition: the use of the phrase “education reform.”
He and Mayor de Blasio touted their tentative contract agreement as being “truly in education reform mode” less than a week ago. But in Friday’s interview, Mulgrew said he was retiring the word “reform” from his vocabulary altogether.
“I thought about it for the last couple of days, and I thought, you know what, I’m not going to call it education reform,” Mulgrew said.
“What we’re doing is innovation,” he continued. “We are innovating education.”
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