Teaching teachers

Blame game must end for schools to improve, says new dean of CU education school

PHOTO: Courtesy of CU
Kathy Schultz is the new dean of the School at Education at the University of Colorado.

BOULDER — There’s a new dean in town.

And she wants to make teaching fun and intellectual again.

Kathy Schultz, who will begin her role as dean of the University of Colorado at Boulder’s School of Education in August, said in a wide-ranging interview with Chalkbeat that everyone needs to stop blaming each other for a broken school system and that teachers should be given more autonomy and better training based on individual needs.

Schultz currently runs the School of Education at Mills College, a liberal arts college in Oakland, Calif. She will succeed Lorrie Shepard, who led the school at CU for 15 years.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How are you getting settled in Boulder?
It’s been great. I’ve been able to meet with Lorrie about once a month.

This is such a strong school of education. What I really want to do is build on its strengths. I want to build on all the incredible programs going on already, while bringing in my own vision to support people to move forward.

There is an incredible faculty here. And from what I know, an incredible group of students. The kinds of programs and the research agenda and community engagement that people are doing make it really strong. The scholars here are nationally and internationally recognized. There’s this very nice combination of people committed to educational research and educational practice and educational policy. That kind of combination is really rare.

What is your vision for the school?
To really flesh out what my vision is, I need to keep learning about what’s being done here. My work has been in preparing urban teachers. One of the things that’s very interesting to me is that this school is not located in an urban center. I think that presents really interesting possibilities. I will continue to be very interested in understanding what the connections can be in Denver while thinking about how to look at underserved populations in rural areas.

As a dean, I’ve become increasingly interested in education policy. I really do see this as a place where there are a lot of people working on issues. There’s an opportunity to highlight our role in participating in public conversations.

The Denver-metro area student population is changing very quickly, in part to gentrification.
That’s one of the big issues I’ve been working on in Oakland: How are we responsible to these new and changing groups of students? I think that’s very relevant here. How do we think about changing demographics? What are our responsibilities? And what are our responses?

What are the responsibilities for schools of education?
It’s really important that schools of education present themselves as in the conversation, not the experts who are going to determine the conversation. So I’d like to think of the walls as being really porous. As a school of education, we should be learning from the community and using the external resources of the community to inform the courses we’re providing. At the same time, we’re not only educating the students in our walls, but (asking), ‘How do we contribute to the larger education of the community?’ Again, this school does this a lot. More and more schools of education have that obligation: take in knowledge, but also contribute knowledge through scholarship and research and through practice like professional development for teachers and policy briefs.

Many states, including California and Colorado, are in the midst of teacher shortages. What should teacher colleges be doing to address this? What have you done?
The figures are incredible in California: Over the last 10 years there’s been a 75 percent drop in people going into teaching. So that’s been a huge concern both for the health of the teacher education programs and school districts.

One of the things CU Boulder is doing is developing a new major for undergraduates. This major is being connected to leadership and civic engagement. It’s just such a strong move for the university to be making. What this means is that when students come in as freshmen, they have opportunities to think about teaching and think of it as being closely connected to community engagement work.

I think this generation of students, of youth, is interested in making a difference and being engaged in community. I think there’s less and less of an interest in just being a teacher.

Partly that’s because teaching is being de-professionalized. It’s not intellectual work in the same way it used to be.

That’s one way to work on it: make it a better profession.

Are we asking too much of our teachers?
I think what’s important is that when you have greater demands there should be greater rewards. And I’m not just saying financial rewards — although that would help. I’m also saying, make it so that teaching continues to be a rewarding profession. There just has to be a real, greater appreciation for teachers.

One of the things that happens in education is that there is this revolving set of targets for who to blame. It’s the parents or the children who are being blamed. More recently it’s been the teachers and the teacher educators. Some people would say the truth is it’s none of those — it’s poverty.

I don’t think it’s helpful to blame any group, or even poverty. I do think poverty is an underlying cause and needs to be addressed. People can’t learn if they don’t have breakfast. But I think that rather than blaming, there has to be a focus on, ‘What are the rewards? How do you recognize the successes of teachers?’

How do you make it so it feels not like a losing, overwhelming job — because people will leave it. And they do. It’s not only that people aren’t going into teaching. It’s that people are leaving too quickly. We not only have to get more people into teaching, but we especially need to work on retaining teachers.

At Mills, we put a lot of effort into programs to support teachers through their first three or four years of teaching. If you can get teachers to stay for three to five years, it’s more likely that they’ll stay longer. It’s that revolving door that is really creating the shortage.

What was your program at Mills like?
Teachers would come together once a month. They would bring questions from their classroom. Now, it’s really structured on teachers doing practitioner research in their own classrooms. We’ve developed it so principals are supporting whole schools to do this work.

Teachers feel like professionals. They’re actually doing research. They’re feeling respected for doing it. They’re teaching is improving. And they’re talking every month with their colleagues about a puzzle they have about teaching. And collecting data about it.

What could lawmakers do to improve the teaching profession?
For schools to succeed, teaching has to be a respected profession. And I think that means we need to attract the most excited and engaged people into teaching. That includes salary and work conditions. It’s really tied to the demands on teachers.

How do we both hold high expectations and give teachers autonomy? One of the ways that teaching doesn’t feel like a profession now is when teachers are given very little autonomy and are told what to do. That’s because accountability is held at such a premium.

I think the Every Student Succeeds Act is flawed in many ways that No Child Left Behind was. But I think more local control is a good thing. And the state would do well to give more local control.

I’m for even more than local control. I’ve written a lot about how teaching is about listening to students. So when I talk about standards, I talk in a way about respecting students’ own standards. I think we need to pay lots of attention to who students are and build curriculum around that.

That’s doesn’t mean as a country we don’t have high expectations. You don’t have to have national standards to hold high expectations for everybody. This is a cliche, but there is a difference between standards and standardization.

If you were going to open up a school for the 21st century, what would it look like?
It would be open to the community and it wouldn’t be just from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. It would be porous to the community. I think students would be able to pursue their interests. It would be well-resourced. There would be structure for people who need structure.

The idea of who is a teacher would be greatly expanded. There would not only be the people who are paid to teach, but also community members would be teachers and maybe students would be teachers.

There would be very high expectations. Maybe clear graduation requirements that would be adaptable to how the world is changing. It would have plenty of technology, as well as technology free spaces so there could be different forms of creativity.

… That sounds pretty romantic.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported that Mills College is an all-women’s institution. It serves both genders.  

Regents retreat

Regents use annual retreat to take stock of changes in testing, charter schools and more

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Chancellor Betty Rosa, center, at a recent Board of Regents meeting.

New York State’s top education policymakers took a whirlwind tour Monday of their own accomplishments this year, kicking off a two-day retreat full of presentations and updates.

The briefings, conducted by top education department officials, served as a distillation of some top policy goals among the Board of Regents: rolling back graduation requirements, creating new graduation pathways, cutting back on state testing, and even rethinking how the board evaluates the charter schools it oversees.

Monday’s discussions largely tread on familiar territory, but here are three of the key issues they discussed.

Testing

New York State continues to be a hotbed of controversy surrounding testing, with roughly one in five students opting out of the 3-8 math and reading exams in recent years (the number is far smaller in New York City).

In response to concerns about the length of the exams, the Regents reduced the number of testing days for each exam from three to two — a change that went into effect this year. Education officials touted those changes Monday while stressing that they have gone out of their way to involve educators in the process of crafting exam questions.

“One of the things I believe is a major adjustment in New York is the extent to which teachers across New York are involved,” state education MaryEllen Elia told the board, noting that 75 percent of the test questions are released to the public. “We have to constantly be asking ourselves what can we do better.”

Still, some Regents continued to express concerns about the exams, including whether they are fair to English learners, and whether the tests themselves help perpetuate disparities.

“What research is used about what’s developmentally appropriate?” Regent Judith Johnson asked. “Is it possible to have a test question that is culturally neutral?”

Charter schools

The Regents are currently discussing changes to the way they evaluate the charter schools they oversee, including taking a deeper look at suspension rates compared to traditional district schools, and tracking why students leave.

“There are charter chains that might have 25 percent of the students when they first started and they’re claiming great growth,” Regent Kathleen Cashin said during Monday’s discussion, adding that questions about why students leave shouldn’t be “buried.”

The discussion highlights a tension in the board’s discussion of the publicly funded, privately managed schools. On the one hand, board members are often quite critical — worrying some within the charter sector. But on the other hand, they have still approved large batches of new charters, including at their most recent meeting.

And the debate will continue in the fall: The Regents are expected to consider a proposal for changing the way charter schools are evaluated at their September meeting.

Students with disabilities

The board also heard from state officials about efforts to improve access to programs for students with disabilities, including those in preschool.

As Chalkbeat has previously reported, there is a shortage of seats for preschool special education students — with students often languishing at home without education services, a problem that advocates say has only gotten worse. Part of the issue, officials say, is they don’t have a way of quickly tracking supply and demand for those programs, which are often provided by private organizations.

Instead, state officials rely on phone calls and informal surveys, which can make it difficult for officials to quickly respond to shortages. Now, state officials are in the process of implementing a new data system for tracking students and open seats.

“We need to move from our current reactive system,” Christopher Suriano, an assistant commissioner of special education told the board. “We have to start reacting proactively to make sure we have capacity.”

Grab bag

  • The Regents spent some time talking about how to measure “civic readiness” which will be a component of how schools are judged under the state’s ESSA plan.
  • New data released by state officials shows that at least 500 students with disabilities graduated this year as part of a new policy that lets superintendents review their performance in lieu of passing all of the Regents exams. Though officials cautioned that the data are preliminary, and the number is likely to increase, that’s up from 315 students during the previous year.

Q&A

‘The war on teachers still exists.’ Newark Teachers Union chief on the Janus ruling, Roger León, and threats from Washington

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
"We took every opportunity to remind our members that the war on teachers still exists," said NTU President John Abeigon.

The past few weeks have been a rollercoaster ride for Newark Teachers Union President John Abeigon.

The high point came on July 1 when Roger León, a veteran Newark educator, became the district’s new superintendent. Abeigon had fought incessantly with the previous superintendent, Christopher Cerf, protesting his confirmation vote and trading insults with him in the press during contentious contract negotiations. León, by contrast, is Abeigon’s longtime acquaintance who held a two-hour introductory meeting with the union’s leadership soon after he was selected as schools chief.

The low point arrived on June 27 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that public employees who choose not to join their labor unions no longer must pay fees to cover the cost of collective bargaining. The case, which was bankrolled by anti-union conservative groups, was brought by a state worker in Illinois named Mark Janus who argued that he should not be forced to support a union whose political views he disagreed with.

“In Newark, we have a word for a guy like that: Jerk-off,” Abeigon said in an interview last week at the union’s four-story headquarters near City Hall. “‘Free rider’ might be more politically correct. But that’s just jerk-off by another name.”

In Newark, about 93 percent of the roughly 4,000 teachers, aides, and clerks represented by the NTU are full members, Abeigon said. They pay 1.1 percent of their annual salary in dues — or about $770 per year for a teacher earning $70,000 annually. The remaining employees are so-called agency-fee payers, who pay .85 percent of their salary to the union, or $595 per year for someone making $70,000.

As a result of the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in favor of Janus, the union can no longer charge such fees. That means any NTU member who wants could end their membership but still enjoy the benefits of collective bargaining for free. Abeigon said none of his members dropped out after the ruling — but they only had four days to decide before the union’s July 1 enrollment deadline. It’s possible more could leave when the next window opens on Jan. 1.

During the hour-long interview with Chalkbeat, Abeigon gave his take on the ruling, the new superintendent, and the issues he’ll raise when contract negotiations with the district start this fall.

The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Chalkbeat: The Janus ruling was a major blow to unions that could leave them with less money, members, and political clout. What will it mean for your union?

Abeigon: Right now, Newark has no one requesting to drop out.

It makes sense given what we’ve been through in the past 10 years with [former superintendents] Cami Anderson and Chris Cerf attempting to annihilate us. It doesn’t make sense to drop out. It’s not worth it. For $700 I’m going to kick my union in the face? After all we’ve been through? After all the wins we’ve had?

What incentive do your members have to keep paying dues?

The right to run for office, the right to vote for your union leadership. Access to discount benefit programs that we have that are only available to full-time members, access to professional development that we provide gratis.

What about representation if they come up for disciplinary charges or tenure charges?

Right now, [non-dues payers] would be entitled to that. However, [the American Federation of Teachers-New Jersey] had a meeting yesterday. And there will be other meetings with the state legislature to correct that through the legislative process.

So essentially a law that would allow unions to only provide certain services to dues-paying members?

Correct.

It sounds like you’re also counting on your members to think beyond their personal financial interest and consider the greater good of the union.

We don’t have a separate source of income. We don’t sell T-shirts. We don’t invest in real estate. Our dues go to services and to protect members. If there’s no dues, there’s no service, there’s no protection. It’s that simple.

Our members know we’re not one of these unions that spend millions of dollars on staff and Cadillacs and vacations and conferences. I would say that 98 percent of union dues are spent on legal and professional services that we provide our members.

Some pundits have said the ruling could be a blessing in disguise to unions by forcing them to be more responsive to members and provide better services. Do you feel any pressure to be more responsive now?

If someone is working in a union that is not responsive and doesn’t provide services, this could be an incentive for that union to wake up and start listening to its members.

But if you look at the makeup of my executive board, my negotiation committees, my professional development committees, the workshops that we have here, I would argue there’s not a more progressive union in the state than the NTU.

So in your view, you’re already a responsive union that meets members’ needs?

Above and beyond.

Try to get in contact with another local union president while he’s on vacation through Facebook Messenger, and see if he responds. The staff in this building, we’re available 24-7.

Moving on to the new superintendent, Roger León. This is the first time the board has been able to choose a superintendent in over 20 years, rather than have one appointed by the state. And it chose a lifelong Newarker who’s a veteran educator. To you, what’s the significance of that?

It’s huge. It’s what we’ve been waiting for.

Now, not only do we have Roger, but we have [Gov. Phil] Murphy and [Commissioner Lamont] Repollet in the state Department of Education. So things should be a little more democratic.

And you know, democracy isn’t pretty. But there’s a process.

[León’s] going to learn where his role is as a superintendent who is answerable to a school board. And the school board is going to learn how to represent the parents to whom they’re responsible and the children.

How do you think your dealings with León, someone who’s from the district and worked here for over 25 years, will be different than they were with the state-appointed superintendents?

We’ll deal with him the same way we dealt with every single superintendent who preceded him. When they’re right, it’s because they listened to us, and when they’re wrong, it’s because they didn’t.

Tell me about León. Have you interacted with him over the years?

I’ve interacted with him a hundred times. I went to Montclair State with him; we took education law classes together.

Roger’s all about the kids. After that, he’s all about the teachers and administrators in the building who are in charge of providing those kids with an education.

Roger also comes from poverty. He went to Hawkins Street School as a child, and he still lives in the same house and the same neighborhood, and is loved and respected by the same people.

So it shouldn’t be all that difficult to express to Roger what’s wrong with a situation and how it can be remedied.

León also has a reputation for having very high standards. Is that a positive thing, or could it be a challenge for you if he thinks teachers are under-performing?

We expect him to be about high standards. But we also expect him to be about reasonable high standards.

If you’re in a classroom with 14, 15 kids, air-conditioned, parental support, you can have a certain expectation. If you’re in a classroom with 30 kids and it’s 105 degrees and gunshots interrupt the lesson, you have to adjust and monitor your expectations.

Does that mean lowering expectations for students facing those challenges?

No. But don’t expect the same results in the same amount of time.

One of the first things León did was force out 31 officials who were connected to his predecessors, Anderson and Cerf. What did you think about that?

It was a good start, but there’s still more of them to go.

Anyone associated with education reform or the corporate-charter school agenda needs to be identified, isolated, and let go. I would push Roger that anyone in the administrative sector who was hired by Cami or Cerf be terminated immediately.

You’ve called for Newark Enrolls, the district’s single enrollment system for traditional and charter schools, to be dismantled. But just recently León made a comment saying he was planning to keep it. Did that concern you?

Well it takes time to dismantle something, you can’t just dismantle it overnight. You have to replace it with something. I’ll give him time. But little by little it has to be demolished.

The purpose of Newark Enrolls was solely to put children in the empty seats at charter schools.

It had nothing to do with accommodating Newark parents. How do you accommodate a Newark parent by telling her that two of her kids are going to go to one school, and the the third is going to go to another school across town when she’s got a full-time job and has to get them to both schools?

León has limited control over charter schools. He can’t open or close charters, but he has talked about getting the two sectors to collaborate by having principals and teachers share ideas and best practices.

There’s nothing we can share. I disagree with him on that.

We have nothing to learn from the corporate charter industry. Everything that they use are things we’ve been arguing for for decades. We’ve been looking for legislation year after year to mandate a class-size minimum and maximum of 15 to 20 [students]. We didn’t need to learn that from them. We’ve been looking for that legislation forever. We can never get it.

Another issue you’ve brought up before are the extended hours at low-performing schools that was built into the 2012 teachers contract.

Another corporate-reform failure. It failed big because they thought they knew everything.

Every teacher can tell you that if you’re doing something wrong, or a kid’s not getting it, keeping him there an additional three hours a day is only going to frustrate him. It’s going to attack his self-esteem, and he’s going to act out. And that’s exactly what we saw happen.

So will you push León to get rid of that?

Yes. We want a restoration of the after-school program that has worked successfully in the traditional schools.

The contract that was negotiated in 2012 was considered groundbreaking. It had performance pay, longer hours for some schools, a new teacher evaluation system, and teacher raises.

We are a progressive union. We did negotiate those things.

And where they were successful is because we made them work. Where they failed is because the district was not being run by educators. It was being run by corporate charter reformers.

So now when the current contract is set to expire after this school year, will you try to keep any of those policies in the new contract?

We’re going to be trying to negotiate them all away.

Including performance pay?

Except for that. We have no problem with getting more money into the pockets of our members.

That’s what we’re about. We’re a union. It’s the Newark Teachers Union. A lot of people forget that. No, I’m not the parents union. I’m not the taxpayers union. I’m not the children’s union. The children in this city got more advocates than you can throw a…They got the [Advocates for Children of New Jersey], they got the Education Law Center, they got the parents and the other thing. Everyone and their mother in this city is an advocate for the children.

Wherever there’s a child in this city, one of my members is within three feet of that kid. You think I want any harm to come to that child? No, because the collateral damage will hit the teacher.

This moment seems like it’s been a bit of whiplash for your union. In Newark, you have a new locally controlled school board and a superintendent who’s an educator. But at the national level, you have a Supreme Court ruling that goes against unions. How are you feeling in this moment?

Locally, it’s a win that we’ve been working for for a long time — the return to local control.

But we were never not mindful that the war on teachers was a national one. And we took every opportunity to remind our members that the war on teachers still exists. That we may be lucky, we may have spared ourselves now, we may have found a moment to breathe without being directly attacked. But we still have to keep our helmets on for attacks that come from Washington.

But we’ll deal with it. We’ll survive those attacks, too.