state of the union

Q&A: UFT chief Mulgrew readies his union for a “seismic shift”

UFT President Michael Mulgrew addresses Florida's Retired Teacher Chapter at their annual luncheon. (Photo by Miller Photography)
UFT President Michael Mulgrew addresses Florida’s Retired Teacher Chapter at the chapter’s annual luncheon. (Photo by Miller Photography)
United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew runs the largest teachers union local in the country, representing the teachers of New York City. Like many teachers union affiliates nationwide, the UFT has been sparring with policymakers over issues such as merit pay, school closures, and charter schools, which pose a threat to union strength and which union leaders argue harm public education. Even as some national experts predict that teacher union power is waning, the UFT has won victories and its political influence remains strong. The Hechinger Report and GothamSchools spoke with Mulgrew at the union’s headquarters near Wall Street in downtown Manhattan about the biggest challenges facing the union and what the future looks like for the UFT.

What was the biggest challenge you thought the union was facing when you started this job?

The ideological war on teachers and on public education. It’s pretty simple. We knew that the progress reports of New York City were driving the instructional practices of the schools, which were bad because the progress reports were 85 percent standardized tests. Even though we didn’t have teacher evaluations based on standardized test scores at that point, it was clear to us that the entire school system was becoming about test prep and not about curriculum, not about supporting teachers: Just prepping kids on skill sets that would allow them to do well on standardized tests and keeping the focus of education on test scores, not with developing children holistically.

What is the biggest threat now to the union?

The challenge that this union faces right now is where do we go with our school system. So we have the Bloomberg administration leaving. There’s going to be a huge, seismic shift in the school system. But what does that seismic shift result in?

How do we get teachers ready to do the work of actual education and at the same time, have a hand in creating a new school system where they can prosper inside of it? That’s our greatest challenge as a union. We have to get our contract, the things unions do, but it’s more about public education at this point.

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How are you reacting to the demographic changes in the union that, and do you think you need to?

We’re always looking at our membership. We’ve seen a shift in the delegate assembly. We’re much younger now, and the union itself is in a generational change phase. It happens every 20 or 30 years, and it’s happening right now.

Our fear is that we’re losing more teachers, because the people who are coming into the profession with different experiences are disillusioned rather quickly, and I know that we can’t be as successful as we want to be, both as a union and a school system, if that keeps going on. Because if people are leaving your profession because they don’t want anything to do with it anymore, that’s not good for the union or the school system.

So we’re going to have to target getting more support for teachers. We want a career ladder for teachers that starts when they’re brand new that gets them more support on the practices—classroom management is the biggest issue for any new teachers—moving all the way up to a master teacher—someone who can help the new ones. That’s where we’re going to go. That’s been a contract demand we’ve had throughout this contract fight.

Do you think it’s true that the new generation of teachers are looking for different things?

I don’t think anyone walking into the workforce these days is thinking I’m going to do this single job for 30 years. I don’t think that’s unique to teaching. And you have people coming in from other professions. We’re getting more people from other industries than ever before. We’re not getting a large group of teachers directly out of ed schools coming into education. We’re having more and more people where this is their second or third career, which brings different experiences but also different expectations.

In New Haven, they created a teacher evaluation, they’ve been involved in school turnarounds where they fired half the teachers, are they the model that unions will need to follow, and if not them then who?

Is there any one local? No, they’re all different. A lot of school systems right now, you need to customize your school system to where you want to go in terms of changes and things you want in the future.

What I see is New York City is growing, but I see a lot of large big city school districts that are actually diminishing in population. So you have the Philadelphia thing right now, you have the fiasco in Kansas City a couple of years ago. But the one constant is who has figured out how to deal with the high-needs, struggling student population.

That’s where I’m focusing this union on, because we have a very large portion of our student population fits that.  You can do charter schools, closing schools, but guess what, we still have those same results for those students. We have not moved the needle. And that’s where I think the union that comes up and gets a partner and starts figuring that out, that’s the union who I believe is the model people should be looking at.

Are there other locals you’re looking at?

Cincinnati. You know I’ve been back and forth to Cincinnati.

I taught for a long time. Half of my time outside of the classroom was spent trying to find services for my kids—I only taught at risk children in high school. I would run around trying to find this family’s horror story, and I would try to get the guidance counselors, and social workers, and it was so piece meal. It took up an immense amount of my time as a teacher. If I could have spent that time—if those things were at the ready for me, and there was a way to get those things for those students—I could have spent more time in diagnosing their educational needs and designing the instructions. They would have better student outcomes. That’s how I see it the high-need, big city children. That’s where we have to go.

What new responsibilities will teachers have under the system you envision?

The teacher, I would love to see more responsibilities about working in collaboration with each other. Having teachers sit and plan together has proven to be highly successful. Teachers right now are extremely isolated. Some of them like their isolation, but we do know that when we have teacher sit and work with each other it makes them stronger teachers and it also gives them more of a sense of mission in terms of the children. Right now they’re completely isolated and just doing paperwork all day.

Next fall, when most probably a Democratic candidate will be elected for mayor, how does the political dynamic change?

What I think is the next mayor is going to need a lot of help on a lot of different issues. Yes, we’re the teachers union, but we’re involved in a lot of different issues in the city and the state. And we’ll be there. We have a history, we’ve always done it. Albany has figured out that we’re a very good partner to work with. I would like the same relationship with City Hall.

I became president and how fast till we were at all-out war? When the mayor went to Washington, D.C. to brag that his goal was to close 200 schools in New York City.

Did you start out optimistic?

I’m always optimistic. I still am! I’m still trying to get [teacher evaluations] done before we have to go to the state, and according to them it’s to my advantage to go to the state, so I say let’s get this done. We want to get things done, but we want to get things done that are going to work.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and space.

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.