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.

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.