Teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions. This has been MORE’s stance since our inception. We understand that there is a relationship between the erosion of our rights as workers and the erosion of quality education in our city over the past 10 years.
A few days ago, on the UFT website, Michael Mulgrew used our slogan in a piece defending his actions in the ongoing battle over teacher evaluations in New York State. Unfortunately, using our slogan is not the same as believing it. His actions surrounding the evaluation controversy cast serious doubt on whether he considers the learning conditions of our students at all, let alone the working conditions of the teachers he is paid to represent.
By examining the origins of this evaluation fiasco we can see just how much Mulgrew, along with the rest of our union’s leadership, take into consideration our students’ learning conditions. What we consider a fundamental belief is clearly nothing more than an empty slogan to the ruling Unity caucus.
It started in 2010 when New York State won its application to the federal government’s Race to the Top program. Race to the Top is the brainchild of President Obama’s Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan. According to the State Education Department’s press release, New York State was selected for Race to the Top because the state passed legislation promising to make the following four school “reforms”:
“(1) establishes a new teacher and principal evaluation system that makes student achievement data a substantial component of how educators are assessed and supported; (2) raises New York’s charter school cap from 200 to 460 and enhances charter school accountability and transparency; (3) enables school districts to enter into contracts with Educational Partnership Organizations (the term for non-profit Education Management Organizations in New York State) for the management of their persistently lowest-achieving schools and schools under registration review; and (4) appropriates $20.4 million in capital funds to the State Education Department to implement its longitudinal data system.”
Michael Mulgrew was on board with these proposals from the beginning. The same press release quoted above also thanks “United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew and New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein for appearing with us in Washington to help successfully make the case for New York.”
On his support for Race to the Top Michael Mulgrew, the man who cares about student learning conditions, is on the opposite side of the issue from the nation’s leading civil rights organizations. In a report released shortly after Mulgrew’s trip to Washington, a consortium of civil rights groups released a report that criticized RTTT for its “approach to education funding that relies too heavily on competition.” Furthermore, the report pans RTTT’s focus on opening up more charter schools:
“The largest national study found that charters are more likely to underperform than outperform other public schools serving similar students. And there is even less evidence that charters accept, consistently serve, and accommodate the needs of the full range of students. Charters enroll 54% fewer English Language Learner (ELL) students, 43% fewer special education students, and 37% fewer free and reduced price lunch students than high-minority public school districts. Thus, while some charter schools can and do work for some students, they are not a universal solution for systemic change for all students, especially those with the highest needs.”
Michael Mulgrew’s immediate and enthusiastic support for NY State’s RTTT application is just one reason why we are not convinced that he is concerned for our students’ learning conditions, especially as it relates to our students who are most in need.
New York’s approval for RTTT grant money required the state and the union to work out a framework for a new teacher evaluation system. That framework was worked out last year and included the following components according to UFT Vice President, Leo Casey:
60% (Measures of Teacher Performance)
a) 31% Supervisory Observations (Based upon “research-based” rubrics like “Danielson”.)
b) 29 % Other Measures such as Peer Observations and Portfolios of Artifacts of Teacher Performance (Exactly which measures to be used would be worked out locally via collective bargaining between unions and school districts.)
40% (Measures of Student Learning)
a) 20% Value-Added Growth from State Standardized Exams
b) 20% Growth on Local Assessments, such as Performance Assessments (Exactly what those assessments are to be worked out locally via collective bargaining between unions and schools districts.)
What Casey barely mentioned in his defense of the framework is that a teacher rated “ineffective” on the 40% part measuring “student learning” will be rated ineffective overall. Furthermore, only 13% of those rated “ineffective” will be allowed to appeal such a rating. We believe that a framework of this nature seriously undermines the learning conditions of our students.
Education historian Diane Ravitch explained how this system sacrifices student learning conditions for the sake of standardized exam scores:
“This agreement will certainly produce an intense focus on teaching to the tests. It will also profoundly demoralize teachers, as they realize that they have lost their professional autonomy and will be measured according to precise behaviors and actions that have nothing to do with their own definition of good teaching.”
Indeed, this framework brings to New York State a testing regime that has been overtaking the nation for the past decade. It is a regime that tests students at both the beginning and end of the school year in several subjects, if not all subjects. Teachers, with the sword of Damocles hanging over their heads, will be forced to toss aside everything their professional experience tells them about how students truly learn for the sake of preparing their students for exams.
This has downright brutal implications for our students. A child who starts Kindergarten under this new regime will have been tested hundreds of times by the time they graduate from high school. Their curriculum will be little more than a regimen of test-taking strategies aimed at getting them to fill in what private testing companies consider the “correct” bubble. The full learning experience that includes critical thinking, reasoning, researching, abstraction and civic engagement will be lost.
Considering the fact that President Obama sends his daughters to the prestigious Sidwell Friends, a school with exactly the type of full curriculum described above, a school free from the incessant battery of standardized testing overtaking the country, forcing everyone else’s children to sit through 13 years of narrow, myopic, simplistic, test-taking curricula is tantamount to educational segregation.
Race to the Top is creating a two-tiered education system: one for the wealthy and one for everybody else. We see Mulgrew’s complicity in the RTTT program as a betrayal of the teacher’s duty to defend student learning conditions.
In the same takedown of the framework to which Mulgrew agreed, Diane Ravitch goes on to say:
“Evaluators will come armed with elaborate rubrics identifying precisely what teachers must do and how they must act, if they want to be successful. The New York Times interviewed a principal in Tennessee who felt compelled to give a low rating to a good teacher, because the teacher did not “break students into groups” in the lesson he observed. The new system in New York will require school districts across the state to hire thousands of independent evaluators, as well as create much additional paperwork for principals. Already stressed school budgets will be squeezed further to meet the pact’s demands for monitoring and reporting.”
Thanks to Mulgrew’s support for requiring principals to use a research-based evaluation rubric (which really is little more than code for “Danielson”), the teaching profession promises to be reduced to a series of mechanical steps as teachers struggle to receive enough “checks” to be rated “effective.” Even the most skilled and veteran teacher, one whose experience informs their teaching style, will be forced to ignore their professional judgment when it conflicts with a supposedly “objective” observation rubric.
This will have the net effect of depriving children of the best our teachers have to offer.
When Diane Ravitch and Long Island principal Carol Burris criticized the framework to which the UFT agreed, Leo Casey attacked them as “alarmists.” He claimed that collective bargaining at the local level would prevent all of these things from happening. Over the past year, the vast majority of school districts in New York State have fully worked out a teacher evaluation system based upon the Race to the Top framework that Mulgrew fully supports. Time will tell if Leo Casey was correct about collective bargaining’s ability to cushion RTTT’s blow for our students and teachers.
Meanwhile in New York City, Michael Mulgrew and the Department of Education were unable to agree on a new evaluation system before the January 17, 2013 deadline. The main issue that divided the two sides was a “sunset clause”. Mulgrew agreed to a system that would have to be reapproved in two years, which is twice as long as most local unions in NY were willing to concede. Mayor Bloomberg, on the other hand, wanted an evaluation system that would remain in perpetuity, something that no other NY school district has implemented.
This prompted New York State Education Commissioner, John King, to threaten to withhold millions of dollars of Race to the Top funds from New York City. He also threatened to “take control” of Title I funds reserved for the neediest of our city’s children if Mulgrew and the city did not work out an agreement. As of now, both the UFT and DOE are still negotiating.
However, if negotiations fail, Governor Andrew Cuomo said he would push a law through the legislature empowering the State Education Department to impose a new evaluation system on New York City by force. This is a measure for which “reformer” groups in New York State have been lobbying over the past year. In response, Michael Mulgrew signaled his willingness to accept whatever system the SED sees fit to impose, something that puts him on the same side as the reform groups that have pushed for the dismantling of public education over the past 10 years.
Mulgrew’s acceptance of a proposed evaluation from the state is in direct contradiction to the framework that he agreed to last year, the framework that would allow many details of the evaluation to be collectively bargained at the local level. This is the part of the framework that Leo Casey said was essential to preventing many of the bad affects RTTT would have on our students’ learning conditions. When Ravitch and Burris contended that the framework would turn our schools into test-prep factories and deprive our children of the best our teachers have to offer, Casey called them “alarmists”. Collective bargaining would ensure that our students would have access to the best possible education, he responded.
Now that local collective bargaining is in danger of failing, Leo Casey is making the rounds stating that Governor Cuomo is not really threatening to impose an evaluation system but, rather, have the state act as an independent arbitrator. He says the SED is not going to impose a system on our schools. They will merely impose “binding arbitration.” Furthermore, Leo Casey hinted at the idea that MORE does not understand “collective bargaining.”
Our response is that we understand collective bargaining very well. We understand the concept of an “independent arbitrator” being empowered to break an impasse between a union and its employer through “binding arbitration.” We understand an independent arbitrator to be someone with no stake in the dispute between labor and management so their decision in “binding arbitration” will not be prejudiced against one side. The SED’s ability to remain independent is doubtful for the simple fact that they are also management.
As management, they are appointees of Governor Cuomo who does have a stake in this fight. As a governor whose designs on a run at the White House are a well-known “secret”, Cuomo has a deeply vested interest in being able to brandish his credentials as an “education reformer” in 2016. Mulgrew’s willingness to accede to any system the SED sees fit to impose is tantamount to surrendering our collective bargaining rights, the very same rights that Leo Casey assured us were essential in preventing the type of “alarmist” scenario outlined by Ravitch and Burris.
The implications of categorizing the fiat of the state as “binding arbitration” are dangerous. What is to stop this or any other governor in the future from imposing something on our schools under the guise that it is “binding arbitration”? Furthermore, this evaluation framework will alter many provisions in our existing contract, especially as they relate to observations and tenure. Allowing the SED to unilaterally change this through “binding arbitration” sends the message that provisions in our contract are not binding and can be changed at will depending on where the political winds are blowing.
The main reason we have a contract is so we as teachers can speak up when our students are being hurt by bad policy. Race to the Top is bad policy. The framework to which the union agreed last year is bad policy. Allowing the SED to unilaterally reform what both our students’ learning conditions and our contract look like is bad policy.
As we can see, Michael Mulgrew has been on board the Race to the Top program from the start. He has supported it despite the fact that every major civil rights group in the nation believes it hurts our neediest students. He helped negotiate a framework that would make standardized testing and narrow observation rubrics the end-all, be-all of teacher evaluations. This will make the curriculum as taught in schools an anemic affair, especially when compared to the curriculum of Sidwell Friends and other schools reserved for the wealthiest Americans. It will deprive veteran teachers of the tools that they know for a fact work with their students, since what their experience tells them and what the “Danielson” rubric tells them will surely often be at direct odds.
He failed to fight for the integrity of collective bargaining, despite the fact that collective bargaining was held out as the antidote to turning our schools into test-prep factories. Now that he has proven willing to abandon collective bargaining, does this mean that the students in New York City have no assurance that testing will not be the centerpiece of their education experience?
He has allowed a dangerous precedent to be set by categorizing SED directives as “binding arbitration”. He has allowed the governor to unilaterally alter key provisions in our contract, provisions that ensured teachers a measure of protection in speaking up for the rights of their students.
Does Michael Mulgrew believe that teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions? His actions surrounding this Race to the Top evaluation fiasco demonstrate that he is willing to sacrifice both.