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.

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community. 

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.