departures

Top UFT official to leave for union's Washington, D.C. think tank

United Federation of Teachers Vice President Leo Casey at a public hearing about Opportunity Charter School's charter renewal in November.

A top United Federation of Teachers official who has been the union’s leading intellectual voice in recent years is heading south.

But he won’t be going as far as Florida, a common destination for union members who retire. Instead, Leo Casey, the vice president of academic high schools since 2007, said today that is taking a new position this fall as the director of the Albert Shanker Institute in Washington, D.C. The institute is a research arm of the American Federation of Teachers, the national union to which the UFT belongs.

In his role at the UFT, Casey has been both an intellectual and a seasoned activist. He has represented the union on various panels, forums, and debates on education policy and blogged prolifically for the union’s news and opinion site, Edwize. But he has been just as comfortable protesting at public hearings, where he was known to deliver fiery speeches against school closures, co-locations, and other policies that the union opposed.

In moving to the Albert Shanker Institute, a progressive think tank focused on education and labor policies, he will focus on research. Casey, a city teacher for 27 years, said that he hoped his legacy at the UFT would be of pushing against school reform that is driven by non-educators.

“I think one of the most important things that has driven my time at the UFT is to provide a voice for classroom teachers and that far too much of education policy making today is in the hands of folks who don’t understand what it’s like to teach,” Casey said.

AFT President Randi Weingarten, a close friend and former colleague who helped hire him as a board member on the Shanker Institute, called Casey “an exquisite choice.”

“I could not be more pleased that someone who has been a teacher and a union activist and a leader in the UFT all these years would agree to take over this very important think tank,” said Weingarten, who worked and co-taught with Casey when she was president of the UFT.

People who have worked closely with Casey over the years said today that his departure would leave a major hole in the union and that he would be difficult to replace.

“Leo’s very, very bright. He’s very much a public intellectual,” said education historian and activist Diane Ravitch, who sits on the Shanker Institute’s board.  “I think there should be somebody who can kind of be the intellectual and policy face of the union.”

Casey has also been one of the UFT’s staunchest defenders. In February, Casey used Edwize to take on Ravitch and Carol Burris after they criticized the union for endorsing a teacher evaluation deal that they believed counted test scores too heavily. Casey challenged their grasp of the complex issue and believe their public writings on the subject were misguided.

“Unfortunately, complexity has provided a fertile ground for commentaries on the New York teacher evaluation framework that reach alarmist conclusions, with arguments built on a foundation of misinformation and groundless speculation,” he wrote.

Casey also butted heads with activists who were traditionally aligned with the union. At a Panel for Educational Policy meeting earlier this year, Casey drew heat from Occupy the DOE protesters who wanted the union to join them in a united rally.

Yet even traditional enemies of the union said they respected him.

“This is a big loss for the UFT,” said Gideon Stein, a vice chair of Success Academy Charter Schools. “Leo is their leading intellectual and probably best writer.”

Stein, president of Future is Now Schools, was also on the other side of the negotiating table when Green Dot Charter High School teachers recently signed an updated union contract.

“I really liked working with Leo and while we certainly have don’t see eye to eye on a lot of issues, he’s a very decent guy,” Stein added.

Casey currently teaches global studies at Manhattan’s Bard High School Early College. Previously, he taught at Clara Barton High School, including a stint when he co-taught with Weingarten.

“For me, it’s all the same movement,” Casey said of his decision to leave the UFT. “It’s the same purpose. I’m just doing it in a different place.”

He added, “I have something important to add on the policy side and to really speak with some authority. I think in some ways it’s a job that I am particularly well-prepared for.”

Below: Watch a video of Casey arguing with Brian Jones, a teacher who is active in the Grassroots Education Movement, about protest tactics for a PEP meeting where school closures were on the table.

First Person

First Person: Why my education nonprofit is bucking the coastal trend and setting up shop in Oklahoma

PHOTO: Creative Commons

“Oklahoma?! Why are you expanding to Oklahoma?!”

The response when I told some people that Generation Citizen, the nonprofit I run, was expanding to central Texas and Oklahoma, quickly became predictable. They could understand Texas, probably because our headquarters will be in the blue-dot-in-sea-of-red Austin. But Oklahoma?

My answer: Generation Citizen is expanding to Oklahoma City because no one would expect us to expand to Oklahoma City.

Our nonprofit is dedicated to empowering young people to become engaged citizens by reviving civics education in schools. We help middle and high school students learn about local politics by guiding them as they take action on issues they care about, like funding for teen jobs or state resources for teenage moms.

I founded the organization after graduating from Brown University in Rhode Island in 2009. Since then, we’ve expanded our programming to Boston, New York City, and the San Francisco Bay Area. All are urban areas with wide swaths of low-income young people, unequal schools, and disparate power dynamics. Our work is needed in those areas.

At the same time, all of these areas have predominantly liberal populations. In fact, according to The Economist, they are among the 10 most liberal cities in the country.

Generation Citizen is a non-partisan organization. We do not wish to convince young people to support a particular candidate or party — we just want them to engage politically, period. But the fact that we are preparing low-income young people in liberal urban centers to become politically active complicates this narrative.

So despite the fact that we could work with many more students in our existing cities, we made a conscious decision to expand to a more politically diverse region. A city that had real Republicans.

As we started talking about expansion, I realized the extent to which the dialogue about political and geographic diversity was a rarity in national nonprofit circles. While several large education organizations, like Teach for America and City Year, have done an admirable job of in working in conservative and rural regions across the country, a lot of other organizations follow a more predictable path, sticking largely to cities on the east and west coasts and sometimes, if folks feel crazy, an Atlanta or Miami.

There is nothing wrong with these decisions (and we were originally following this trajectory). A big reason for the coastal-focused expansion strategy is the availability of financial resources. Nonprofits want to raise money locally to sustain themselves, and those cities are home to a lot of people and foundations who can fund nonprofits.

But a more problematic reason seems related to our increasing ideological self-segregation. Nonprofits lean toward expanding to places that are comfortable, places that their leaders visit, places where people tend to hold similar values and political views.

One of the fault lines in our democracy is our inability to talk to people who disagree with us (highlighted daily by this presidential election). And non-profits may be exacerbating this reality.

This schism actually became more apparent to me when our board of directors started having conversations about expansion. Oklahoma City had come to the top of my proposed list because of my personal and professional contacts there. But I quickly realized that no one on my board lived more than five miles from an ocean, and save a board member from Oklahoma, none had stepped foot in the state.

“Are we sure we want to expand there? Why not a gateway city?” (I still don’t know what a gateway city is.)

“We can hire a Republican to run the site, but they can’t be a Trump supporter.”

“Are we sure that we can raise enough money to operate there?”

It wasn’t just my board. Whenever I talked to friends about our plans, they’d offer the same resistance.

The stereotypes I heard were twofold: Oklahoma was full of bigoted conservatives, and it was an incredibly boring location. (The dullness narrative got an unquestionable boost this year when star basketball player Kevin Durant left the hometown Thunder. It became quite clear that a main rationale for his leaving the team was Oklahoma City itself.)

But as I met with folks about Generation Citizen’s work, I met citizen after citizen who was excited about our mission. The state is facing tremendous budget challenges, and its voter participation rates amongst the worst in the country. Given these realities, there seemed to be widespread recognition that a program like ours could actually be helpful.

I did not talk about national politics with most people I met. Indeed, we might disagree on whom to support. But we did agree on the importance of educating young people to be politically active, shared concerns about public school budget cuts, and bonded over excitement for the Thunder’s playoff chances.

Still, the actual expansion to Oklahoma will be a challenge for our organization. Despite our local ties, we are coming in from the outside, and we do have the perception of being a progressively minded organization. What will happen if one of our classes wants to advocate for open carry at schools in response to a shooting? How will my board handle working in a site where they wouldn’t ordinarily visit?

I am excited to tackle all of these challenges. And I would push other similarly sized non-profits to think about working in a more diverse set of areas. It is not possible to be a national organization and avoid entire swaths of the country. But more importantly, given these tenuous political times, it feels important to interact with people who may not hold our beliefs.

Nonprofits can’t fix our national dialogue alone. But by expanding where we work, we might help improve the conversation.

honor system

Meet Derek Voiles, the Morristown educator who is Tennessee’s newest Teacher of the Year

PHOTO: Tennessee Department of Education
Derek Voiles, Tennessee's 2016-17 Teacher of the Year

Derek Voiles, a seventh-grade English language arts teacher in Morristown, is Tennessee’s 2016-17 Teacher of the Year, the State Department of Education announced Thursday.

One of nine finalists for this year’s award, Voiles teaches at Lincoln Heights Middle in Hamblen County Schools in East Tennessee. He received the top teacher honor at a banquet in Nashville.

Voiles, who has been teaching for six years, has long shared his teaching practices publicly — on Twitter, through a blog he wrote with a colleague, and as a state ambassador for the Common Core standards. In recent years, according to a state news release, his classroom became a hub as teachers from across his district observed his teaching in hopes of replicating his practices, which often improved the performance of students far behind their peers.

“All students are capable of achieving great things, and all students deserve a teacher who believes this and will do whatever it takes to make it happen,” Voiles said in the release. He is also a doctoral candidate at East Tennessee State University.

Now, Voiles will gain an even wider stage, as Tennessee’s representative to the National Teacher of the Year program. He will also share insight from the classroom as part of committees and working groups with the Tennessee Department of Education.

All nine Teacher of the Year finalists, representing each of the state’s regions, will serve on the Commissioner Candice McQueen’s Teacher Advisory Council during the 2016-17 school year.

The department also recognized two division winners from Middle and West Tennessee. Cord Martin, a music education and enrichment teacher at Whitthorne Middle School in Maury County, was recognized for his innovative teaching strategies and connecting content to contemporary culture. Christy McManus, a fifth-grade English language arts and social studies teacher at Chester County Middle School in Henderson was honored for equipping her students with the end goal in mind: a college-ready twelfth grader.

Voiles follows Cathy Whitehead, a third-grade teacher from Chester County, who served as Tennessee’s 2015-16 Teacher of the Year. Whitehead teaches at West Chester Elementary School in Henderson in West Tennessee.