Q&A

Rick Hess: ‘teacher leadership’ can and should be more than an empty phrase

Rick Hess

Rick Hess, the political scientist and education reform advocate/critic, is out with a new book, “The Cage-Busting Teacher.”

The book is meant to be a guide for teachers who want to create a better learning environment for themselves and their students. Hess was in Denver last week to promote his book at a special event hosted by the Donnell-Kay Foundation. Before his event, Hess, who is the director of education policy at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, sat down with Chalkbeat Colorado to talk about his new book and what teachers in cities like Denver can do to advocate for themselves.

This interview has been edited and for length and clarity.

You write “I’m struck by how often even acclaimed teachers tell me that they feel muffled, stifled, ignored, undervalued, and marginalized … and aren’t sure what to do about it.” How do you think we got to this place where teachers feel trapped? 

One, it’s always been this way. Back in the 1970s, a wonderful University of Chicago scholar, Dan Lortie, wrote the book “Schoolteacher,” talking about how teachers were out of the loop for key decisions about their schools. I think it’s part of the way we’ve built the American education system. In the 19th Century, when we created the common the school, we feminized teaching and put men in charge. The men would call the shots and the women would just do what they were told. And we never revisited that model. So a lot of it is historical.

Second, when teachers fought for their rights — I mean, teachers used to be treated just horrifically. Women who got pregnant would be fired. Teachers in New York would be fired if they didn’t fit a certain height or weight requirement. As teachers fought for step and lane pay and tenure, I think those things were good advances a century ago. But as the teacher unions fought to build on things like seniority protection, things that were once reasonable adjustments created a very bureaucratic profession.

And I think third, frustration that schools that were designed hundreds of years ago and systems that were designed 50 to 100 years ago don’t seem very conducive to excellence today. You have a lot of reformers and policy makers trying to do something about it. And their language and ideas have sometimes been careless and crudely drawn. And teachers have not responded productively, which has made these reformers distrust them. I think we set the table and teachers have reacted in a way that makes the reformers distrust them. We’ve gotten into this cycle of hostility.

This book [attempts]…to help teachers think about how to break that cycle.

Can you give me an example of a workplace rule that you find nonconducive to today and conversely a half baked policy initiative?

Step and lane pay were introduced a century ago because women were being paid a third of what their male counterparts were making. And so the idea that teachers should be paid based on experience and some credentials was a far more equitable approach. That made a lot of sense at that point in time. Today, that’s not how any professional is compensated. Seniority is a part of how professionals are compensated and credentials matter, but places that employ college graduates don’t usually have these strict gridlock models.

What’s a place where reformers have misfired? On compensation: we should absolutely differentiate pay. Some people are better at their job, some aren’t. We’ve seen for example in Nashville: the school district was going to pay science teachers more if their kids’ test scores went up. Well, that’s really how we paid encyclopedia salesmen in the 1960s. That’s not anyone’s recipe for how you attract professionals or motivate them in the 21st Century.

You write, “Breaking free from this disheartening standstill begins with cage-busting teachers ready to step out of their classroom, able to deal with policymakers in good faith, and willing to make teacher leadership more than an empty phrase.”   When I read this, it makes it sound like it’s the teachers responsibility to end the hostility. Why do they have to step up? Why isn’t it the reformers responsibility to end the hostility?

Frankly, you only get out of the cycle if both sides do their part. Most of what I write is targeted toward the reformers. Many of my reformer friends are somewhat frustrated with me because I raise these kinds of points about how reformers tend to take good ideas and out of the best of intentions push them further than they can usefully push them and rush them in clumsy ways.

So, the backdrop is that reformers and policymakers need to do a lot better here. But this book is not for them — its for the teachers. And in reality, teachers also have to do their part on this. And they have to do at least their part because they’re in an asymmetric relationship with policymakers. Like it or not, its policymakers who are elected to write the laws and fund the schools.

…[W]hat’s happened is to a large extent…there are these teachers out there who are doing amazing things and speaking up, there are lot of teachers who are just doing their thing in the middle, and then you have teachers who are disgruntled and frustrated. These teachers in the backend, the 10 percent, they’re the teachers the reformers and policymakers envision when they think about the profession. They’re the ones who are rallying and screaming and writing nasty notes at the bottom of New York Times stories.

So what’s happened is they’ve become the face of the profession. And what I’m taking about, those other teachers, instead of retreating to their classrooms saying ‘I don’t want any part of this,’ need to take ownership of their profession…

In the preface and in some of your blogs, you take to task the idea of teacher leadership. You call it an empty buzzword. Well, it’s a really big buzzword in Denver. Are you familiar with the local model?

Not specifically.

The one thing about Denver’s model is that there is no one model. Every teacher-leader has their own sort of portfolio. While they might all do some coaching, one might be in charge of professional development, one might be in charge of leading data discussions. What do you think needs to happen in places in Denver — or any urban district — to make teacher-leaders a reality?

Teachers don’t work in isolation, they work in schools. If discipline is lax it affects how a teacher does her job. If a school is disorganized with their substitutes and a teacher has to be pulled out to do coverage, that affects how a teacher does her job. So the reality is a lousy schools make it difficult for a teacher to close her door and teach. And good schools make an OK teacher a better one because she can ride on the coattails of her colleagues.

Part of the trick is so many terrific teachers think of the job simply in the terms of pedagogy and instruction. So they’re writing a lot of micro-grants and they’re up until 2 a.m. and burning themselves out and they’re not really changing anything at the school. So the logic for me, what teacher leadership really needs to come down to is teachers who are opening that classroom door and creating schools and systems that are easier for them to do their best work. Where professional development is actually energizing rather than infuriating. Where principals are helping solve problems. Where weak colleagues are either getting better or moving on.

For me, teacher leadership should start with teachers using their specific insight on what’s going on in their schools and classrooms to help make schools work better for kids and teachers. So, when principals are coming on and making announcements and disrupting first and last period, teacher should call them on that. When meetings are wasting time and not yielding any useful outcomes, when schools are giving feedback or taking into account teacher morale, these are the kinds of things I want teachers to start with.

One of my concerns about leadership is that it’s led teachers to believe it means giving up your Saturday to go to the statehouse to rally or sit in some boring meeting or talk to legislators for 10 minutes.

Rather than thinking “leadership,” it’s solving problems at the school, generating trust to get more involved at the district, and then using that insight and expertise to then contribute at the policy level and in public discussion. That all falls under the umbrella of leadership, but I think it gets lost when people just throw that word around.

(Disclosure: Chalkbeat Colorado is a grantee of the Donnell-Kay Foundation.)

Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly identified Hess as a social scientist. He is a political scientist. 

another round

New York wants to overhaul its teacher evaluations — again. Here’s a guide to the brewing battle.

PHOTO: Kyle Taubken

State policymakers recently dipped their toes into one of New York’s most politically charged education issues: teacher evaluations.

At a meeting this month, state education department officials outlined plans to revamp the unpopular teacher-rating system, which was essentially put on hold more than two years ago. Shortly after, the state teachers union called for faster action setting the stage for a new round of evaluation debates.

To help explain the brewing debate, Chalkbeat has created a guide to the current evaluations, how they came to be, and what might be in store for them.

Here’s what you need to know:

How do New York’s teacher evaluations work now?

Teachers are evaluated based on two components: students’ academic improvement and principals’ observation of their teaching.

Every district creates its own state-approved evaluation plan that spells out how they will measure student learning. In 2015, state policymakers temporarily banned the use of grades 3-8 math and English state tests in evaluations.

In New York City, teams of educators at each school pick from a menu of assessments called “Measures of Student Learning.” Among the options are developed essay-based tasks and “running records,” where students are assessed as they read increasingly difficult texts. They can also choose to include the results of science tests or high-school graduation exams. (Certain teachers — such as those who teach physical education — are evaluated based partly on their students’ scores in other subjects.)

Teachers receive one score based on how much students improved academically, and another based on principals’ ratings. The combined scores are translated into one of four ratings, ranging from “highly effective” to “ineffective.”

Teacher evaluations must still be a factor in tenure decisions and three “ineffective” ratings can trigger a teacher’s firing.

What are the outcomes of the current system?

Nearly 97 percent of New York City teachers earned the top two ratings of either “effective” or “highly effective” in the 2016-17 school year, according to preliminary numbers presented by the city teachers union president at a meeting in October. That is an increase from the previous year when 93 percent of teachers earned one of those ratings.

How did we get here?

Until 2010, teachers were rated either “satisfactory” and “unsatisfactory,” and individual districts and principals were given latitude to determine how those ratings were assigned.

But in order to win a federal “Race to the Top” grant that year, New York adopted a new evaluation system that factored in students’ standardized test scores — a move strongly opposed by many teachers, who consider the tests an unreliable measure of their performance. The new system was based on a 100-point scale that allotted 20 points to state tests, 20 points to local tests, and 60 points to principal observations.

The battle lines were redrawn again in 2015, when state lawmakers led by Gov. Andrew Cuomo sought to make it tougher for teachers to earn high ratings. The new system allowed for as much as half of a teacher’s rating to be based on test scores.

But that plan was never fully implemented. Following a wave of protests in which one in five New York families boycotted the state tests, officials backed away from several controversial education policies.

In late 2015, the state’s Board of Regents approved a four-year freeze on the most contentious aspect of the teacher evaluation law: the use of students’ scores on the grades 3-8 math and English tests. They later allowed districts to avoid having independent observers rate teachers — another unpopular provision in the original law.

Why is the state looking to overhaul the system now?

Over the past few years, state policymakers have revised New York’s learning standards and the annual exams that students take. Now, they are turning to the evaluation system.

The moratorium on the use of certain test scores in teacher evaluations expires after next school year, so the clock is ticking for state education officials to come up with a new system. They have said they hope to have a new system ready for the 2019-2020 school year — but they also floated the idea of extending the moratorium in order to give themselves more time.

What could change?

Everything is up for debate.

First, state policymakers must decide whether to create a single statewide evaluation system or let local school districts craft their own, as the state teachers union is urging.

Second, they must decide what to put in the evaluations. Should they include test scores, principal observations, or other measures? If they allow tests, they must determine which kinds to use and how much to weigh student scores.

However, they may run up against some obstacles. Besides the relatively short timeline, major changes to the evaluation system could require state lawmakers to revise the underlying legislation. And any new student-learning measures they hope to use could prove costly to develop.

Who are the key players and what do they want?

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia has made it clear she wants to oversee a careful redesign process that will involve teachers and could lead to a revamped, statewide evaluation system. “This isn’t going to be a fast process,” Elia said during a legislative hearing at the end of January.

State teachers union officials have called for a much quicker process that results in local school districts crafting their own evaluations — a move that could eliminate the use of test scores. “First and foremost, the teachers that we represent believe that the time to fix [teacher evaluation] is this year,” said Jolene DiBrango, executive vice president of the New York State United Teachers, after the state outlined its plan earlier this month. Since then, union officials have said they want to work collaboratively with the education department.

Gov. Cuomo has shied away from this issue after pushing for the deeply unpopular 2015 law that tried to toughen evaluations and inflamed the teachers unions. And he does not appear eager to revisit the issue this year as he seeks reelection. His spokeswoman, Abbey Fashouer, told Chalkbeat: “We will revisit the issue at the appropriate time,” and noted that the moratorium will remain in effect until the 2019-20 school year.

State lawmakers have not indicated that overhauling the teacher-evaluation law this year is a top priority.

During a city teachers union event in December, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said he was not sure the state could get to a “final idea” by the end of this year — but that he wanted to “start the dialogue.” The senate majority leader, John Flanagan, did not respond to a request for comment.

“I have not heard any movement on teacher evaluations this year,” said Patricia Fahy, a Democratic assemblymember who represents Albany, in an interview this week. “Normally something about that would be bubbling up already.”

state of the union

New York City teachers union braces for Supreme Court ruling that could drain money and members

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
UFT President Michael Mulgrew (standing) met with teachers during a school visit in 2014.

A few dozen labor leaders gathered recently at the the headquarters of New York City’s 187,000-member teachers union to hear a cautionary tale.

In a glass-walled conference room overlooking downtown Manhattan, United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew settled into a chair facing a colleague from Wisconsin. He asked the state teachers union president, Kim Kohlhaas, how her members have fared after an aggressive rollback of labor’s bargaining power there.

She described rampant teacher turnover, fewer job protections, and ballooning insurance and pension costs. In short, a union’s worst nightmare.

For the UFT, Wisconsin is a harbinger of what could result from a Supreme Court case known as Janus, which revolves around the ability of public unions to collect mandatory fees. Oral arguments begin on Feb. 26, and the decision, which is expected in a matter of months, could dramatically alter the landscape for unions across the country.

The impact will be felt especially by the UFT, the largest union local in the country. If the court rules that teachers are not required to pay for its services, the union is likely to shed members and money — a war chest that has allowed the UFT to be a major player in New York politics and to secure robust benefits for its members.

“This is dangerous stuff we’re getting into now,” Mulgrew told Chalkbeat. “They’re trying to take away people’s ability to come together, to stand up and have a voice.”

While the case deals with different issues than Wisconsin’s anti-union policies did, New York City labor leaders say the limits on their membership and funding would weaken their ability to fight against further restrictions on their organizing and bargaining power.

In anticipation of the ruling, union leaders have reportedly already considered downsizing their operations. And they have undertaken a preemptive information and recruitment campaign to hold onto members — who, soon, may be free to choose whether to keep supporting the union financially.

“Much as I oppose Janus, it’s kind of a wake up call for entrenched union leadership,” New York City teacher Arthur Goldstein blogged recently. “People need reasons to pay, and it’s on leadership to provide them.”

At issue is whether public unions can continue to charge “agency fees,” which are payments collected from people who are not members. Sometimes called a “fair share” fee, it is meant to help unions cover the cost of bargaining contracts that cover all workers, regardless of whether they are union members. Only a fraction of New York City teachers currently opt out of the union and pay the agency fees rather than dues — but experts expect many more teachers could leave the union if the Supreme Court bans the fees.

Mark Janus, a government employee in Illinois, is challenging the fee on the grounds that it violates his right to free speech. The Supreme Court deadlocked on a similar case in 2016 after the sudden death of Justice Antonin Scalia. With Neil Gorsuch now on the bench, observers expect a conservative-leaning court will side with Janus. If that happens, workers covered by unions — including the UFT — will be able to opt out of paying the fees that help keep the unions in operation.

“What that means is there will be a lot of teachers — potentially a lot of teachers in New York — who do not invest in the union,” said Evan Stone, co-founder of the teacher advocacy group Educators for Excellence. “There will be potential growth in free riders who are benefiting from the work of the union without contributing to it.”

That’s why the UFT is kicking into action. The union has trained scores of members to knock on doors and talk to fellow teachers about the case. In about two months, the union estimates its members have knocked on 11,000 doors, sharing stories about how the union has helped them and hoping to convince teachers to keep financially supporting the work, even if the courts decide they’re no longer required to.

Union leaders are also launching “membership teams” in every school. Tasked with “building a sense of unity,” the union is asking the teams to engage in personal conversations with members, and plan shows of support for the union. Stone said his organization is organizing focus groups across the city to inform members about the case.

New York City teachers automatically become union members. They pay about $117 a month in dues, while social workers, paraprofessionals, and members in other school roles pay different amounts. Members can also choose to contribute to a separate political fund, which the union uses to lobby lawmakers and support union-friendly candidates.

About 2,000 educators opt-out of the union and pay agency fees instead — which are the same amount as regular dues, according to a UFT spokesman.

Ken Girardin, who has studied the potential fallout of Janus for New York’s unions as an analyst for the right-leaning Empire Center for Public Policy, said the number of agency-fee payers is low compared to other unions. But the Janus case could change that.

Girardin looked at what happened after Michigan enacted a “right to work” law, which forbid mandatory agency fees. The result: The Michigan Education Association, among the state’s largest unions, saw a 20 percent drop in dues and fees. Among full-time teachers, membership declined by 18 percent.

Girardin estimates an equivalent decrease in New York would mean the state’s teachers unions would take a $49 million hit annually. The UFT relies on dues and agency fees for about 85 percent of its $185 million budget, according to federal documents.

“It means they’d have to make up a course change,” Girardin told Chalkbeat, referring to the potential impact of the Janus decision. “They would have to treat their members like customers instead of people who are going to pay them regardless.”

Behind the scenes, the union is reportedly making contingency plans to deal with the potential budgetary fall-out. The New York Post recently cited unnamed sources who said union leadership is considering reducing the staff at some of its borough offices and cutting back on discretionary spending.

Girardin said public-sector unions in New York have already begun to fight for state legislation that would make it harder for members to drop out — a potential work-around in case the court sides with Janus.

Some UFT members say the threat of Janus is already being felt. The union recently voted down a resolution to support Black Lives Matter after leadership said it was a divisive issue at a time when the union can’t afford to lose members, according to an NY1 report.

Rosie Frascella, a Brooklyn high school teacher who helped organized Black Lives Matter at School events across the city, said she was disappointed in the leadership’s decision. But despite those internal disagreements, she said the threat posed by Janus should compel all teachers to speak out in support of their unions.

“You need to be in a union because it protects your right to teach,” she said. “And it stands up for our students and it creates the schools our children deserve.”