First Person

Riding the Silver Bullet

Teachers are panicked. I’m panicked. With the state’s new teacher evaluation system, I figure I have three years before I can be fired for factors beyond my control.

Next year I’ll be rated as usual. That shouldn’t be a problem — administrators who’ve judged me by what they’ve seen in my classroom have been pretty good to me. But come 2012 and 2013 they’ll look at my students’ scores. They depend not only on what I do, but also on what the kids do. I’ve been teaching teenagers for 25 years (and I have one at home). I know one thing for certain about teenagers — you never know what they will do.

On the brighter side, there are surefire ways to improve statistics. When you focus on that, you don’t need to worry as much about whether or not kids actually learn anything, or communicate in English (the language I’m paid to teach). Taking this broad view, it may be easier to create favorable statistics than actually teach. Instead of wasting time with actual classroom techniques, let’s examine a few individuals who’ve managed to look good under this up-and-coming paradigm.

One good example is former Education Secretary Rod Paige. Paige is famous for having engineered the 1990’s “Texas Miracle,” in which he managed to curb the dropout rate and get kids through school in unprecedented numbers. This became not only a calling card for future President George W. Bush, but also the predecessor of the prominent No Child Left Behind. So how did Paige manage to engineer this miracle? It appears he doctored the statistics. Using such methods, NCLB’s goal of 100 percent proficiency for all in 2014 appears much more realistic.

Another success story is Steve Perry, the principal of Capital Preparatory Magnet School in Connecticut. Perry’s claim to fame is 100 percent of the students who graduate from his school manage to go to four-year colleges. Via this remarkable feat, Perry’s managed to become a prominent CNN education commentator who blames teachers, badmouths the NAACP, and urges the use of vouchers. The question, of course, is how you meet this seemingly incredible 100 percent figure. Apparently, what you do is rid yourself of 43 percent of your students before they reach graduation. That way, the 57 percent who finish magically become 100 percent, and you become a working-class hero, celebrated by the media.

This brings us to Mayor Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein. They brought us a campaign for continued mayoral control a few years back that aggressively boasted of their test score gains (a campaign funded directly from Bill Gates’s pocket). Critics have been saying these test scores were inflated for years, and it turns out they were absolutely right. It further turns out Mayor Bloomberg’s much-touted claims of having erased the achievement gap were utterly baseless.

At the moment, eclipsing Bloomberg and Klein is President Barack Obama. He rode into the White House promising change, but for my money appears to be taking marching orders from Bill Gates and the Walton family, cheerleading a direct continuation of George W. Bush’s policies. Obama’s deputy, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan (who ran the Chicago public schools Obama deemed not good enough for his children) is adding some of his Chicago-style reforms nationwide via Race to the Top. How have Duncan’s initiatives affected Chicago’s all-important test scores? From the Chicago Tribune:

Scores from the elementary schools created under Renaissance 2010 are nearly identical to the city average, and scores at the remade high schools are below the already abysmal city average, the analysis found.

The moribund test scores follow other less than enthusiastic findings about Renaissance 2010 — that displaced students ended up mostly in other low-performing schools and that mass closings led to youth violence as rival gang members ended up in the same classrooms. Together, they suggest the initiative hasn’t lived up to its promise by this, its target year.

That hardly sounds promising. Yet here we are in New York City, closing and transforming schools a la Chicago, hoping for the best, and ignoring all aspects of education problems unrelated to unionized teachers.

But hey, if this is the game, this is the game. If teachers get to play by the same rule utilized by the reformers, we can’t help but win. Bad stats? Just change ’em. Critics? Attack them personally on the city’s dime.

It’s another matter, though, if this whole accountability thing applies only to the little people. That would go a long way toward explaining why Mayor Bloomberg chooses to hold up Lady Gaga as a role model. Plenty of parents would like their kids to be famous singers or NBA stars. Those who depend on it, though, may as well blow the college fund on lotto tickets.

Despite abysmal results, it appears reformers, from Joel Klein and Michael Bloomberg to Barack Obama and Bill Gates, are willing to take just such chances with our children. None sent their own kids to public schools. This goes a long way toward explaining why they see “full speed ahead” as a perfectly acceptable approach to clearly failed policies.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.

First Person

I was an attorney representing school districts in contract talks. Here’s why I hope the Supreme Court doesn’t weaken teachers unions.

PHOTO: Creative Commons / supermac1961

Many so-called education reformers argue that collective bargaining — and unions — are obstacles to real change in education. It’s common to hear assertions about how “restrictive” contracts and “recalcitrant” unions put adult interests over children’s.

The underlying message: if union power were minimized and collective bargaining rights weakened or eliminated, school leaders would be able to enact sweeping changes that could disrupt public education’s status quo.

Those that subscribe to this view are eagerly awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. At issue is the constitutionality of “agency” or “fair share” fees — employee payroll deductions that go to local unions, meant to cover the costs of negotiating and implementing a bargaining agreement.

In states that permit agency fees (there are about 20), a teacher may decline to be part of a union but must still pay those fees. If the Supreme Court rules that those agency fees are unconstitutional, and many teachers do not voluntarily pay, local unions will be deprived of resources needed to negotiate and enforce bargaining agreements.

Based on my experience as an attorney representing school districts in bargaining and contract issues, I have this to say to those hoping the Court will strike down these fees: be careful what you wish for.

Eliminating fair share fees (and trying to weaken unions) represents a misguided assumption about bargaining — that the process weakens school quality. To the contrary, strong relationships with unions, built through negotiations, can help create the conditions for student and school success. Indeed, in my experience, the best superintendents and school boards seized bargaining as an opportunity to advance their agenda, and engaged unions as partners whenever possible.

Why, and how, can this work? For one, the process of negotiations provides a forum for school leaders and teachers to hear one another’s concerns and goals. In my experience, this is most effective in districts that adopt “interest-based bargaining,” which encourages problem-solving as starting point for discussions as opposed to viewing bargaining as a zero-sum game.

Interest-based bargaining begins with both sides listing their major concerns and brainstorming solutions. The touchstone for a solution to be adopted in a bargaining agreement: Is the proposal in the best interests of children? This important question, if embedded in the process, forces both sides to carefully consider their shared mission.

For example, some districts I worked with paid teachers less than comparable neighboring districts did. It would have been unreasonable for unions to insist that their pay be increased enough to even that difference out, because that would mean reducing investments in other items of importance to children, like technology or infrastructure. At the same time, it would have been untenable for management to play “hard ball” and deny the problem, because to do so would likely lead to a disgruntled workforce.

Instead, both sides were forced to “own” the issue and collaboratively craft plausible solutions. That made unions more agreeable to proposals that demonstrated some commitment by the district to addressing the issue of pay, and districts open to other things that they could provide without breaking the budget (like more early release days for professional development).

To be sure, many school administrators could get frustrated with the process of bargaining or having to consult the negotiated agreement when they want to make a change. Some districts would very much like to adopt an extended school day, for example, but they know that they must first consult and negotiate such an idea with the union.

Yet, in districts where school administrators had built a reservoir of goodwill through collective bargaining, disagreement does not come at the cost of operating schools efficiently. Both sides come to recognize that while they inevitably will disagree on some things, they can also seek agreement — and often do on high-stakes matters, like teacher evaluations.

How does this relate to the Supreme Court’s pending decision? Without fees from some teachers, unions may lack the resources to ensure that contract negotiations and enforcement are robust and done well. This could create a vicious cycle: teachers who voluntarily pay fees for bargaining in a post-Janus world, assuming the court rules against the unions, will view such payments as not delivering any return on investment. In turn, they will stop contributing voluntarily, further degrading the quality of the union’s services.

Even more troubling, if fair share fees are prohibited, resentment and internal strife will arise between those who continue to pay the fees and those who refuse. This would undercut a primary benefit of bargaining — labor peace and a sense of shared purpose.

Speaking as a parent, this raises a serious concern: who wants to send their child to a school where there is an undercurrent of bitterness between teachers and administrators that will certainly carry over into the classroom?

It is easy to see the appeal of those opposing agency fees. No one wants to see more money going out of their paycheck. The union-as-bogeyman mentality is pervasive. Moreover, in my experience, some teachers (especially the newer ones) do not recognize the hidden benefits to bargaining contracts.

But, obvious or not, agency fees help promote a stable workplace that allows teachers to concentrate on their primary responsibility: their students. Removing the key ingredient threatens this balance.

Mark Paige is a former school teacher and school law attorney who represented school districts in New England. He is currently an associate professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth.