Archives For Work

by Andrew Worthington, UFT Chapter Leader at M298 Pace High School

 

It has been 50 years since the United Federation of Teachers, representing New York City’s teachers, has had a contract that included reduced class sizes. Since then, there has been a plethora of research conducted that shows the positive impacts of class size on students and teachers alike.

In March 2018 at the UFT Executive Board Meeting, Arthur Goldstein proposed a resolution to make class size limits a major goal of the UFT’s negotiations with the city. The resolution passed the Executive Board. However, it passed in the following edited form:

“Whereas, the goals for class size in the city’s original C4E plan, approved by the state in the fall of 2007, are for an average of no more than 20 students per class in K-3, 23 in grades 4-8 and 25 in high school core classes; and

“Whereas, the Department of Education has flouted this law flagrantly since 2007; and Whereas, the DOE gets C4E funding that is often not used to reduce class size; be it therefore

“Resolved, that the UFT will make lowering class sizes to the C4E limits of 20 students in a class K-3, 23 in Grades 4-8 and 25 in high school core classes a major goal; and be it further

“Resolved, that funding for this class size reduction should not in any way affect monies for contractual raises for UFT members as the DOE is already receiving C4E money to reduce class sizes from the state.”

The process of how this resolution passed can be simply described through the strikethroughs. The reference to “this class size reduction” described in the final lines is never specified or explained.  

Except that it may not be appropriate to consider it a process. It is all the order of business in the UFT’s pseudo-democratic bodies: the Executive Board and the Delegate Assembly.

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In 2006, the New York State Supreme Court ruled that students were being denied their constitutional right to an adequate education.  The Contracts for Excellence law passed the following year required the DOE to reduce class sizes over a 5-year period, tying funding to this initiative. While schools have been receiving some of this funding, class size averages have been increasing in the decade since. The UFT and the DOE have done nothing to stop this.

Mr. Goldstein proposed that the UFT confront the DOE about this directly in contract negotiations. The UFT leadership agreed that this an issue. What to do about this issue? The UFT leadership decided not to worry about the specifics, in favor of fighting easier fights, hoping everyone forgets this fight, and hiding the fact that they are skirting accountability, or at least measurability, regarding progress on this front. The UFT leadership believes that the only way to achieve these specific (legally-mandated) class size reductions would be to make concessions in other areas, so they have decided not to bother with any battle.

In the simple math of class sizes, though, specifics are what matter most. Schools that serve the wealthiest have the lowest class sizes. Any argument about class size must answer this question: If class size doesn’t matter, then why do the wealthy prefer smaller class sizes for the schools they pay so much money for when it is their own kids?

 

I don’t remember what the PD was about, but my old principal was talking about “engagement.” Another teacher probably mentioned how that was hard to achieve with so many students in our classes, which were often at, if not above, the contractual limit of 34 students. My principal looked at this teacher and said, “That is just completely false and completely not germane to the issue at hand. We are talking about interesting and investing students in their learning and making them feel like a part of it. And besides, all of the research out there shows that class size doesn’t matter. What matters is the pedagogue in front of the room. Class size does not matter.”

Said in this way, the statement marginalized even further the students who were most affected by massive class sizes: students with disabilities. In order to create integrated, team-taught classes, school administrators most often program these classes, which serve students with learning disabilities, to be the maximum class size so that the ratio of general education to special education students can be within its own legal limits (roughly 3:2) and the number of special education classes, which require more teachers and more resources, can be reduced. This is a systemic problem across the city’s schools, but it was more acute at this school because the school was understaffed and under joint city-state control after decades of poor test scores, poor attendance, and discipline issues.

I understood why the principal lied. It was a lie that was created by the larger governmental apparatus that controls our schools. The end result is in the bottom line, and not in education. Any rational being could understand this, but the government is not a rational being. Neither is our city’s teachers’ union, as seen above in the resolution “process” described by Mr. Goldstein.

Rather than accept the proposition that more overall funding is needed for public education, the union prefers to operate with a business mindset that argues there is only so much money. The reality is that we only lack political will to allocate sufficient resources. Further, the union misses advancing a key issue which could unite parents, students, and teachers in a coalition that could realistically achieve all of its demands, given effective mobilization.

 

The average class size nationally is around 25, depending on the age of students and type of instruction. If an instructional period is 50 minutes, this gives 2 minutes for individualized instruction per student, assuming that none of that instructional time is used in whole class instruction. It wasn’t an accident that I didn’t yet get around to mentioning time for building rapport and trust with students.  The time for this is almost nil.

The average class size in the NYC public schools is a tad higher (~26) and hasn’t shifted greatly in years. In fact, average class sizes have gone up since 2007, when the city laid out a plan to reduce them (mentioned and struckthrough above in the UFT resolution). Thousands of classes still violate the caps set in the teacher contract for at least the first few weeks of the school year, and sometimes longer.

 

In 2014, a UFT survey found that 99% of teachers considered reducing class size to be a reform they would like pursued. From 2008-2013, the #1 priority listed on the DOE’s parent survey was the reduction of class sizes.

The teachers and parents also have the facts on their side. An oft-cited study called Project STAR demonstrates the long-term value of smaller class sizes starting at the early elementary age.

Other data suggests that class size is equally important in later grades:

“A study commissioned by the US Department of Education analyzed at the achievement levels of students in 2,561 schools across the nation, as measured by their performance on the national NAEP exams. The sample included at least 50 schools in each state, including large and small, urban and rural, affluent and poor areas. After controlling for student background, the only objective factor that correlated with higher test scores was class size, and the gains in the upper grades associated with smaller classes surpassed the gains from smaller classes in the lower grades.”

 

The same can hold true for college students. The paper “Connecting in class? College Class Size and Inequality in America’s Social Capital” observes the following:  

“Compared to students enrolled in smaller classes, students enrolled in larger classes had significantly fewer interactions with professors about course material and with peers about course-related ideas. Social group also moderated some effects of class size. Class size negatively influenced first-generation (but not continuing generation) students’ likelihood of talking to professors or TAs about ideas from class.”

 

Students of color and students from lower-income backgrounds are also disproportionately affected by larger class sizes:

“In 1995, Boozer and Rouse analyzed patterns class size across and within schools and found that Black students tend to be in schools with larger average class sizes, as well as in larger classes within schools. These differences in class size could explain approximately 15% of the Black-White difference in educational attainment.

“A 2012 NCPEA Policy Brief on the STAR experiment and other class size studies noted that poor, minority, and male students received stronger benefits from reduced class size in terms of improved test scores, school engagement, and reduced grade retention and dropout rates.”

Additionally, there are well-documented benefits from lower class sizes for school climate, school discipline, and teacher attrition.

Like most education research, or social science research in general, there is no way to be 100% certain about any of our ideas. But the evidence to support lowering class size is essentially undeniable.

 

Beyond research and rhetoric, the real issue underlying the class size issue is that it is in absolutely no one’s interest to change it except the people who are directly involved in the public education system: school staff, parents, and students. One could argue that all communities at-large should value long-term effects drawn from education; while we need to start thinking in such a more universal way, the reality is that people who do not perceive themselves as benefiting directly from public education often resist paying higher taxes to fund improving it.

 

The NYC public schools have the largest class sizes in the state, and this is not a coincidence. Like so many other turf wars between the city and state, there are undertones of class distinctions and conflicts.

However, simply changing the class size limits and making them more enforceable won’t solve all issues of inequality in our schools. Class size reform needs to be part of a broader policy platform that expands public goods and addresses the root material disparity that divides rich and poor.

The UFT has a strong potential for fighting for education equality on a comprehensive scale, including the programmatic reform of reduced class sizes. But both comprehensively and specifically, the UFT has been too inactive.

 

In conversation with members of the Movement of Rank-and-File Educators, Leonie Haimson, the director of the organization Class Size Matters, suggested the following approach for upcoming contract negotiations:

“The UFT should negotiate far smaller class size caps to be achieved gradually over five years of no more than 20 students per class in K-3 grades; 23 in 4th through 8th grades and 25 in high school classes in order to comply with the Contract for Excellence class size reduction plan submitted by DOE and approved by the state in 2007.  The DOE should adhere to the class size limits within the first two weeks of the beginning of school, with an expedited process of arbitration to ensure that no violations persist after the first month of school.

“In order to help fund the reduction in class sizes, the DOE should reduce the number of consultants and bureaucrats, and assign teachers in the Active Teacher Reserve pool as classroom teachers and hire more teachers to do so. In order to make space for these class sizes, the DOE must be required to fully fund the five year capital plan and accelerate the pace of school construction.”

As they have shown in the Executive Board proceedings, the UFT leadership does not want to fight the DOE on specifics regarding class size. Instead, the UFT continues to engage in a zero-sum game with the DOE on this and countless other issues.

 

With the recent ruling in Janus v. AFSCME, the Supreme Court struck a serious blow to public employee unions, and by extension a serious blow to public education. Weakening the power of the union weakens the voice of the teachers; weakening the voice of the teachers weakens advocacy for public education. Business interests will enter the vacuum and attack the working conditions of public school teachers, and thereby public schools in general, offering poisonous alternatives such as funding cuts, larger classes, and charter school increases. Class sizes don’t matter to the privatization ideologues who want to kill unions and slash public education funding. The market-based, profit-focused models of schooling will only continue to build their dominance in the education system, followed by declining working and learning conditions, until (and unless) we decide to organize, mobilize, and create real, material change.

With a budget surplus of at least $4 billion, the UFT should be arguing with the city and the state for an expanded public education budget to facilitate class size reductions. Instead, the UFT is arguing with its members that class size reductions are unfeasible because they would require teachers to take a pay cut.

The only option for the UFT is to adapt an aggressive approach to the contract negotiations. The easy and expeditious route must not be taken. Members will unite behind a union that stands for ideals, engages its members, and produces radical results.

What will the UFT do to mobilize membership around the contract and this issue? If previous history is a guide, nothing.

There are many issues that the UFT will need to tackle, but we know we have a duty to defend not only our workplace, but the places where our children learn. Any parent would want their children in a school with smaller classes. It is the teacher’s responsibility to make sure our contract includes new enforceable limits on class size, somewhere along the lines of those presented by Mr. Goldstein in the first section. If the UFT leadership won’t fight for this issue, then it may not be the leadership we need.

 

 

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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.