First Person

Voices: Do unions benefit education?

Teacher Mark Sass believes teachers’ unions can and should play a vital role in school reform if the focus is on working collaboratively and not on individual teachers.

I’ve been on strike twice in my life, both times when I was a truck mechanic and a member of the International Association of Machinist and Aerospace Workers. Each time I hit the picket lines, I knew what we were fighting for – wages and working conditions.

A Denver Public Schools teacher works with students in this EdNews file photo.

The union gave a collective voice to the workers against the power of the business owners. I had no problem defending the role of the union for the profession and for the betterment of our society.  History holds that the unions filled both roles well.

As much as I’ve supported unions from my vantage point as a mechanic, I have always struggled with the role of unions in education.  I have been a member of our local since I became a teacher, and I served on the union’s executive committee. Despite this, I’ve struggled with the purpose of teachers’ unions.

In my mind, the question comes down to this simple one: Do teachers’ unions benefit our education system? In other words, can unions represent teachers while at the same time maintain or improve the overall quality of education in our country?  Unlike what the media says, teachers’ unions aren’t just looking at the almighty dollar as the point of discussion. We are looking at the education of our children – and I think this is an important distinction.

In most school districts, 70 to 80 percent of the budget is dedicated to labor costs.  Teachers, administrators, paraprofessionals, bus drivers, building maintenance personnel and myriad other professionals all work toward educating our children and they need to be supplied with salaries, benefits and positive working conditions.

As a member of the mechanics’ union, we addressed issues such as building maintenance, the quality of shared equipment and personnel issues (such as when supervisors played favorites with some mechanics by giving them plum jobs). Some of these unfavorable conditions lead to poor performance and unsatisfied workers, all of which lead to a drop in worker output and eventually a drop in revenue.

Teachers face similar issues – lack of heating and air conditioning, decrepit and outdated technology, and principals who take care of their favorite teachers by giving them cushy class schedules.  These conditions result in unsatisfied teachers, which either lead to quality teachers leaving the profession or unhappy teachers staying – both of which negatively affect student learning.

In fact, according to the recent MetLife survey of teachers, working conditions and a drop in job satisfaction are some of the major reasons teachers are leaving the profession. Teachers are a long-term investment and, as such, every time a teacher leaves the profession it costs money to hire and train new teachers.

Why teachers – collectively – must play a role in reform

Society’s long-term investment in education isn’t just about individual teachers, though. It’s about teachers working together, collaboratively, to bring about sustained and institutional change. Here again is where teachers’ unions play a key role.

Education is a labor-intensive “industry.” It’s an industry that relies on the same capital many businesses do – individual and social capital.  Andy Hargreaves and Michael Fullan have written a wonderful book on the symbiotic relationship between individual teachers and the collective group.  The book, Professional Capital: Transforming Teaching in Every School, makes the compelling argument that if we continue to focus on individual teacher quality, we will never make the changes necessary to improve the education for all students.

Using data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) highly respected international tests of student achievement, Hargreaves and Fullan identify four countries – Singapore, South Korea, Finland and Canada – whose unions and education systems we can learn from.  These countries use fresh approaches to reforming education and professional effectiveness that don’t include bashing teachers or unions. All four of these countries have strong unions.

If we recognize that individual teachers as a collective have the greatest impact on education outcomes, unions become necessary. Our largest investment in education is in our educators, the personnel necessary to educate our children. Unions are one of the keys to bringing about permanent change to our educational landscape by ensuring productive working conditions for teachers.

So if teachers’ unions are necessary, how do they best work for students and education? There is a need for a collective voice when it comes to some basic union responsibilities: working conditions, wages, and other bread-and-butter issues. But as Hargreaves and Fullan write:

It [also] means recasting teacher unions not only to become sources of outraged opposition to negative, imposed changes that narrow learning, harm students, and create burnout among classroom teaches, but also to become active and inspirational agents of change that serve students, especially the most disadvantaged, improve quality among the teaching force, and to put teachers in the vanguard of large-scale change.

For teachers’ unions, the main struggle should be about the profession and not self-interest or power. There are unions around the country that are beginning to take on this role.  The teachers union in Toledo, Ohio, started Peer Assistance and Review or PAR programs, which call for teachers evaluating other teachers.  In Colorado, the Jefferson County Education Association is piloting an evaluation system in which master teachers evaluate other teachers. PAR programs identify teachers’ strengths and deficiencies, which helps to ensure high-quality teachers.  Both of these approaches exemplify the role of the unions as change agents for the profession.

When I was a member of our teachers’ union executive committee, we researched and put together a proposal for a PAR program in our district.  I knew that this proposal was not going to come from a disparate group of teachers without understanding their power as a collective group of professionals. This is what the union can and should do – tap into the collective power of teachers to transform teaching.

To profoundly change the way we do the “business” of education in this country, we need to focus on direct group action versus isolated attempts at reform. Teachers’ unions, through their local, state and national organizations, can and should play a role in this transformation.

First Person

I’ve spent years studying the link between SHSAT scores and student success. The test doesn’t tell you as much as you might think.

PHOTO: Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Proponents of the New York City’s specialized high school exam, the test the mayor wants to scrap in favor of a new admissions system, defend it as meritocratic. Opponents contend that when used without consideration of school grades or other factors, it’s an inappropriate metric.

One thing that’s been clear for decades about the exam, now used to admit students to eight top high schools, is that it matters a great deal.

Students admitted may not only receive a superior education, but also access to elite colleges and eventually to better employment. That system has also led to an under-representation of Hispanic students, black students, and girls.

As a doctoral student at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2015, and in the years after I received my Ph.D., I have tried to understand how meritocratic the process really is.

First, that requires defining merit. Only New York City defines it as the score on a single test — other cities’ selective high schools use multiple measures, as do top colleges. There are certainly other potential criteria, such as artistic achievement or citizenship.

However, when merit is defined as achievement in school, the question of whether the test is meritocratic is an empirical question that can be answered with data.

To do that, I used SHSAT scores for nearly 28,000 students and school grades for all public school students in the city. (To be clear, the city changed the SHSAT itself somewhat last year; my analysis used scores on the earlier version.)

My analysis makes clear that the SHSAT does measure an ability that contributes to some extent to success in high school. Specifically, a SHSAT score predicts 20 percent of the variability in freshman grade-point average among all public school students who took the exam. Students with extremely high SHSAT scores (greater than 650) generally also had high grades when they reached a specialized school.

However, for the vast majority of students who were admitted with lower SHSAT scores, from 486 to 600, freshman grade point averages ranged widely — from around 50 to 100. That indicates that the SHSAT was a very imprecise predictor of future success for students who scored near the cutoffs.

Course grades earned in the seventh grade, in contrast, predicted 44 percent of the variability in freshman year grades, making it a far better admissions criterion than SHSAT score, at least for students near the score cutoffs.

It’s not surprising that a standardized test does not predict as well as past school performance. The SHSAT represents a two and a half hour sample of a limited range of skills and knowledge. In contrast, middle-school grades reflect a full year of student performance across the full range of academic subjects.

Furthermore, an exam which relies almost exclusively on one method of assessment, multiple choice questions, may fail to measure abilities that are revealed by the variety of assessment methods that go into course grades. Additionally, middle school grades may capture something important that the SHSAT fails to capture: long-term motivation.

Based on his current plan, Mayor de Blasio seems to be pointed in the right direction. His focus on middle school grades and the Discovery Program, which admits students with scores below the cutoff, is well supported by the data.

In the cohort I looked at, five of the eight schools admitted some students with scores below the cutoff. The sample sizes were too small at four of them to make meaningful comparisons with regularly admitted students. But at Brooklyn Technical High School, the performance of the 35 Discovery Program students was equal to that of other students. Freshman year grade point averages for the two groups were essentially identical: 86.6 versus 86.7.

My research leads me to believe that it might be reasonable to admit a certain percentage of the students with extremely high SHSAT scores — over 600, where the exam is a good predictor —and admit the remainder using a combined index of seventh grade GPA and SHSAT scores.

When I used that formula to simulate admissions, diversity increased, somewhat. An additional 40 black students, 209 Hispanic students, and 205 white students would have been admitted, as well as an additional 716 girls. It’s worth pointing out that in my simulation, Asian students would still constitute the largest segment of students (49 percent) and would be admitted in numbers far exceeding their proportion of applicants.

Because middle school grades are better than test scores at predicting high school achievement, their use in the admissions process should not in any way dilute the quality of the admitted class, and could not be seen as discriminating against Asian students.

The success of the Discovery students should allay some of the concerns about the ability of students with SHSAT scores below the cutoffs. There is no guarantee that similar results would be achieved in an expanded Discovery Program. But this finding certainly warrants larger-scale trials.

With consideration of additional criteria, it may be possible to select a group of students who will be more representative of the community the school system serves — and the pool of students who apply — without sacrificing the quality for which New York City’s specialized high schools are so justifiably famous.

Jon Taylor is a research analyst at Hunter College analyzing student success and retention. 

First Person

With roots in Cuba and Spain, Newark student came to America to ‘shine bright’

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Layla Gonzalez

This is my story of how we came to America and why.

I am from Mallorca, Spain. I am also from Cuba, because of my dad. My dad is from Cuba and my grandmother, grandfather, uncle, aunt, and so on. That is what makes our family special — we are different.

We came to America when my sister and I were little girls. My sister was three and I was one.

The first reason why we came here to America was for a better life. My parents wanted to raise us in a better place. We also came for better jobs and better pay so we can keep this family together.

We also came here to have more opportunities — they do call this country the “Land Of Opportunities.” We came to make our dreams come true.

In addition, my family and I came to America for adventure. We came to discover new things, to be ourselves, and to be free.

Moreover, we also came here to learn new things like English. When we came here we didn’t know any English at all. It was really hard to learn a language that we didn’t know, but we learned.

Thank God that my sister and I learned quickly so we can go to school. I had a lot of fun learning and throughout the years we do learn something new each day. My sister and I got smarter and smarter and we made our family proud.

When my sister Amira and I first walked into Hawkins Street School I had the feeling that we were going to be well taught.

We have always been taught by the best even when we don’t realize. Like in the times when we think we are in trouble because our parents are mad. Well we are not in trouble, they are just trying to teach us something so that we don’t make the same mistake.

And that is why we are here to learn something new each day.

Sometimes I feel like I belong here and that I will be alright. Because this is the land where you can feel free to trust your first instinct and to be who you want to be and smile bright and look up and say, “Thank you.”

As you can see, this is why we came to America and why we can shine bright.

Layla Gonzalez is a fourth-grader at Hawkins Street School. This essay is adapted from “The Hispanic American Dreams of Hawkins Street School,” a self-published book by the school’s students and staff that was compiled by teacher Ana Couto.