state of the union

Seven moments in UFT history maybe more pivotal than this one

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Even as many unions nationwide are struggling to retain their clout, the United Federation of Teachers is still flexing considerable muscle in New York City. But with a teacher evaluation deal still up in the air and Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s last months in office approaching, the teachers union is nonetheless at a crossroads.

Just how much the current moment translates into change for the UFT will not be clear for years. Other turning points in UFT history have been more obvious. Here are a few:

1960: The UFT is born out of rival factions

CAP (Courtesy of UFT)
Teachers Guild President Charles Cogen, addressing a rally in Manhattan, later became the UFT’s first president. (Courtesy of UFT)

The Teachers Guild, a group made up primarily of older teachers, and the more confrontational High School Teachers Association merged in 1960 to create the UFT. Relations between the two groups, which were not the only unions representing city teachers, had thawed after members picketed together the previous year. The UFT’s future hegemony was not at all obvious then, as the union didn’t have collective bargaining power until December 1961 and the Teachers Guild didn’t dissolve until 1964. The UFT would play a crucial role in the education upheaval later that decade, including the 1968 teachers strike precipitated by the firing of teachers in Ocean Hill-Brownsville.

1968: Teachers strike for months

CAP (Courtesy of UFT)
Teachers embarked on a series of strikes in 1968 over race tensions in schools in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville section of Brooklyn. (Courtesy of UFT)

Books have been written about the conflict that raged after the school board in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville section of Brooklyn fired 18 white teachers without cause. In response, UFT President Al Shanker called a series of strikes, first in May of that year and then at the beginning of the next school year, which in total shut most of the city’s schools down for 36 days. That strained the relationship between the black and Jewish communities in New York, made Shanker one of the best-known men in the city; and, when the teachers were rehired, ultimately strengthened the UFT. (It was also a decisive blow to the concept of community control of schools.) But the victory did little to address the underlying issues of the racial and ethnic make-up of the city’s teaching force or the city’s funding priorities that would make the 1970s a turbulent time for city schools and the union.

1969: Paraprofessionals join the union

The UFT has continued to gain strength by representing groups other than traditional classroom educators, a practice that has allowed it to grow its ranks even when the number of teachers in the city stagnated. In 1969, in one of the first major augmentations, 1,000 paraprofessionals joined the union, even though they had different concerns from other educators. The move created a precedent for expansion that led to school psychologists, nurses, guidance counselors, secretaries, and other employees who are now included under the UFT umbrella, as well as employees who don’t work with public school students at all — such as nurses at Jewish Home and Hospital and a few other hospitals in the city. The UFT’s largest boost came in 2007, when city child care workers voted to be represented by the UFT, with the hope that the union would be able to negotiate to increase their salaries. That added 28,000 members to the UFT’s rolls and swelled the union’s representation to include those taking care of children before they even reach the city school system.

1975: The UFT keeps the city from declaring bankruptcy

UFT President Al Shanker led a march across Brooklyn Bridge from the Board of Education to City Hall to protest school budget cuts in 1975, a month before lending union funds to the city to save it from bankruptcy. (Courtesy of UFT)

This oft-cited moment of cooperation between the union and the city was not without considerable tension — the year had already seen a five-day strike in September and thousands of teacher and paraprofessional layoffs that would reshape education in the city for years to come. But $150 million in UFT pension funds provided for city bonds did allow Mayor Abraham Beame to avoid declaring bankruptcy in October 1975. According to “Tough Liberal,” Richard Kahlenberg’s 2007 biography of Shanker, Newsweek at the time quoted a Bank of America vice president calling the union president “the most powerful man in the United States” in the lead-up to that decision, which Shanker made following the intervention of New York’s governor. The city made it clear that the union’s money was New York’s only option, and the union earned widespread praise for its actions.

1986: Sandra Feldman takes over

CAP (Courtesy of UFT)
Sandra Feldman taught fourth grade at P.S. 34 in Manhattan before becoming a union official and, eventually, its president. (Courtesy of UFT)

After 25 years at the helm of the UFT, Shanker resigned to focus on leading the American Federation of Teachers, the national union. Feldman had worked closely with Shanker for decades, playing a crucial support role in the strikes of the 1960s, and she continued his brand of unionism. But Feldman also turned the union’s attention more strongly than ever to the way that teachers were treated as professionals — and to the quality of the education that union members were providing to city students. Under her leadership, the union significantly ramped up the professional development it offered its members through its Teacher Centers; secured state funding for mentoring; and negotiated a contract that allowed for teacher input in school management. Feldman also proposed new ways to deliver instruction, suggesting, for example, that schools offer ungraded “primary units” for students who enrolled with inadequate preparation. The emphases on teacher practice and student outcomes have remained central to the union’s self-identification ever since.

1995: Teachers reject a contract agreement

Feldman negotiated a new contract that included a 13 percent, five-year salary increase and a temporary ban on layoffs — but it also froze wages for two years. Resenting the wage freeze, particularly as city officials were giving big raises to themselves, teachers voted down the contract by a 56 to 44 margin. It was the first — and still only — time in the union’s history that teachers rejected a contract negotiated by their elected leaders, and the stunning defeat signaled dissent within the union at a moment when the city’s financial situation made the union especially vulnerable. Teachers didn’t approve a contract for another year, and when they did, they signed off on many of the most controversial provisions.

2002: Weingarten helps enact mayoral control

Randi Weingarten testifying at a mayoral control hearing in February.
Randi Weingarten testified at a hearing about the renewal of mayoral control in February 2009. (<em>GothamSchools</em>)

Now that the union leadership and Mayor Bloomberg, more often than not, are trading jabs and filing lawsuits against one another, it’s clear that mayoral control of city schools has proven to be an extraordinarily controversial policy decision. But Bloomberg won centralized authority over an education system that had been decentralized for 33 years only with support from Randi Weingarten, the last UFT president, in 2002. As one New York Times analysis phrased it, “Ms. Weingarten and her union are scrambling to keep their foothold in the power structure,” which they did by presenting the union as partners with the city on improvements. The implications of that decision are likely to shape the union’s future, especially as it reconsiders its school governance platform after more than a decade of mayoral control.

Top 10

From forest preschools to a secret apology, here are Chalkbeat Colorado’s must-read stories of 2018

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent "forest school" class.

We spend a lot of time at Chalkbeat chasing the news to keep our readers informed about controversial policy changes, fast-moving debates, and late-breaking decisions.

But we also relish the opportunity to dig deep into issues affecting students and families, shine light on innovative ideas, and hear from dedicated educators making a difference. With that in mind, we’ve gathered 10 of our best stories from 2018.

These stories don’t necessarily chronicle the biggest education issues of 2018, from teacher walkouts to unprecedented state interventions. But they are stories we think are important and insightful, and that we enjoyed reporting and writing. We hope you enjoy reading them.

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

One day this past summer, about a dozen children frolicked by a Jefferson County creek — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, and building dams with sticks and mud.

They were students at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, where children spend all their time outside. So-called forest preschools like Worldmind are beloved by many families but face significant regulatory and logistical barriers in expanding their footprint nationwide. Here in Colorado, a pilot program could lead a new kind of child care license designed for them.

And being licensed could help the schools confront another problem: a lack of diversity among their students. Read more.

Colorado was never ranked 46th for teacher pay. Does this change the debate?

It was an oft-cited statistic: that Colorado, despite its booming economy, ranked 46th in the nation for teacher pay. The eye-popping number found its way onto social media posts and signs at massive teacher rallies last spring. News outlets latched on to it, too.

But it was wrong. Colorado was actually ranked 30th in the nation.

Our story breaks down how the mistake happened (hint: a new data system, an unrevised report) — and how groups with different agendas seized on the snafu to score points. Read more.

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

The Adams 14 district in Commerce City is arguably the most troubled and low-performing in Colorado. Just last month, state officials directed Adams 14 to hire an external manager to oversee the district’s operations for at least the next four years.

Back in September, Adams 14 officials considered taking a rare step: saying sorry to the community. But an apology letter was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the letter, which makes mention of “various and conflicting priorities, coupled with constant turnover and organizational disarray.” Read more.

Rising test scores and dwindling trust: Denver’s Tom Boasberg leaves a complicated legacy

Colorado’s largest school district experienced a big change this year when longtime leader Tom Boasberg announced he would step down after nearly 10 years in Denver Public Schools.

Because of his school improvement strategies — some of which were controversial and heightened tensions with the community — the district that the new superintendent, Susana Cordova, will inherit in January is vastly different than it was a decade ago.

One tangible difference: Schools that once served as anchors of the community but struggled academically have been closed or replaced. That disappearance was on display on one of Boasberg’s last days, when he held his cell phone close to his mouth and enunciated each word so his GPS would understand his direction: “Montbello High School.” Read more.

Parents in one Aurora high school are visiting classrooms and giving teachers feedback

Like many schools in Colorado, Aurora’s Rangeview High School has a test score gap between white and black students. But the assistant principal there came up with a unique way to try to address it: by inviting black parents to visit classrooms and observe how students are — or are not — engaging with the teacher’s lesson, and then provide suggestions for improvement.

“We give true and honest feedback,” said one parent involved, “if they looked or appeared comfortable, how they interacted with the environment, the temperature of the room.”

Although the assistant principal considers the African American Parent Committee an experiment, she said it’s generating uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Read more.

How education reform became a wedge issue among Colorado Democrats this election year

For years, more moderate Democrats, often working in unison with like-minded Republicans, championed education reform efforts ranging from school choice to holding educators accountable for student performance.

But partly because of backlash against President Donald Trump and his education secretary, those strategies no longer fly with many Democrats — especially left-leaning Democrats who see them as undercutting public education and devaluing the work of teachers.

That sentiment was palpable in Colorado’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, and could shape the next legislative session, which starts in January. “Education is the issue that really stands to divide the left in a very substantial way,” one observer said. Read more.

How a Colorado school district turned things around at 10,000 feet above sea level

School improvement efforts look a little different high in the Rocky Mountains. While many of the strategies used by the 1,000-student Lake County school district are familiar to urban settings, they’ve been retrofitted to meet the needs of a district that’s 100 miles west of Denver.

For example, instead of firing teachers and principals who weren’t accelerating student learning fast enough, the district adopted a new curriculum and gave its teachers lots of training.

“The belief that the people are the problem is wrong,” the superintendent said. “Our teachers are professionals, and we believe in them. We’re proving that there is a framework or a pathway for rural schools to improve that’s about building capacity within your own community.” Read more.

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

After state lawmakers rejected a bill to limit the use of suspensions in the earliest grades, Chalkbeat wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado. Data from the Colorado Department of Education revealed several trends.

Among them: Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates. Some rural school districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state.

And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up. Read more.

In Denver’s gentrifying neighborhoods, some middle-class parents are avoiding the school down the block

Many neighborhoods in Denver are gentrifying, with middle-class families moving into what have historically been working-class communities. That type of demographic shift could easily lead to neighborhood schools that are more integrated by family income and race.

But that doesn’t always happen in Denver. Instead, data show that wealthier families – more often than low-income families – are using Denver Public Schools’ universal school choice process to send their kids to schools elsewhere in the city.

That’s a problem because research shows integrated schools boost test scores for students from low-income families without lowering the scores of those from wealthier ones. Denver officials want to see those benefits, but allowing parents to choose may be thwarting them. Read more.

Why this Colorado principal hand delivers birthday cards to more than 2,000 students and staff

Northglenn High School Principal Sharee Blunt is Colorado’s 2018 School Principal of the year — but perhaps even more impressive is the enormous number of birthday cards she hand delivers each year. If you’re one of those people who can barely remember your spouse’s birthday, you’ll be floored by Blunt’s annual feat.

In our interview with Blunt, part of Chalkbeat’s “How I Lead” Q&A series with distinguished school leaders, she talks about what she realized after a mother’s emotional reaction, and why she gave a teacher a pass during a lesson that went awry. Read more.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.