on second thought

UFT chief Mulgrew doubles down on private remarks, with one concession

PHOTO: Geoff Decker

UFT President Michael Mulgrew doubled down on blunt remarks he made privately to his  members this week, defending his role in last year’s failed teacher evaluation deal and vilifying opponents of the union.

“They wanted to use teacher evaluations to take teachers down,” Mulgrew said in an interview on Friday, explaining why he fought to implement a more complex teacher rating system than the one the city wanted.

The sentiments echo his remarks to the teachers union’s delegate assembly on Wednesday night, where he said that the union pushed to require supervisors to rate teachers on 22 skills as a way to “gum up the works” and spoke disparagingly of the Bloomberg administration. Chalkbeat reported those comments Thursday, which critics pounced on as proof the union did not fully support changes meant to increase accountability for teachers.

Mulgrew also raised eyebrows with a critique of education “reformers” who oppose teacher tenure and support charter schools, whose ideas he said were destroying public education. On Friday, he said it was merely the latest showdown in a lengthy battle and said he no longer wanted to associate himself with the term “reform.”

“We’ve been fighting with these folks for years,” Mulgrew said. “This has been a non-stop fight.” 

When Mayor Bill de Blasio was asked on Friday whether the union president’s remarks indicated an unwillingness to support change, the mayor defended Mulgrew. The union leader was “front and center” in pushing for the biggest changes in the proposed contract, de Blasio said, including higher salaries for top teachers who agree to take on leadership responsibilities, bonuses for teachers in high-need schools, and the creation of “innovation schools” that will be freed from certain scheduling restrictions.

“These are all fundamental reforms, so Mr. Mulgrew was front and center in making those reforms happen with us and I respect him for it,” de Blasio said.

The comments capped a whirlwind week for Mulgrew, who announced a tentative agreement with the city on a new contract last Thursday. Though some members have criticized the way the union communicated the contract’s terms, Mulgrew has successfully steered the union’s ratification process through two preliminary rounds of approval. All that is left is a vote by the union’s 100,000 members, which is expected next month.

But Mulgrew has been criticized by advocates who said his comment are symbolic of the union’s resistance to change. Others said Mulgrew’s comments offered proof that he was negotiating in bad faith over teacher evaluations—especially significant because the city’s failure to negotiate a teacher evaluation system last year cost schools $290 million in state aid.

Mona Davids, a parent activist who is suing the state to recoup some of that money, said that she planned to add Mulgrew and the teachers union to the lawsuit in the wake of his comments.

“He admitted to gumming it up so there was no way possible, no matter what, for this thing to work,” Davids said. “He had no intention to negotiate with Michael Bloomberg. He knowingly cost our children $290 million.”

When State Education Commissioner John King settled the dispute, he sided with the union on its request to require that all 22 elements be used to rate teachers.

This year, principals have said the mandate has been the most frustrating part of the resulting evaluation system. They’ve said that rating teachers on all 22 elements is overly burdensome and that the emphasis on completing the entire rubric has made it difficult to focus on supporting teachers in specific ways. It has also led to more work for teachers because they’ve had to collect paperwork and submit it to supervisors to be rated on some of the 22 competencies.

Chancellor Carmen Fariña also singled out the 22 components as a flaw in this year’s teacher evaluation system, calling them “a bit overwhelming” last week.

But the evaluation system Mulgrew signed onto for next year closely resembled the one he so vehemently opposed during last year’s negotiations, with fewer skills to be assessed. Six of the seven components the city wanted last year will be used next year.

Asked if he felt responsible for any of these implementation hurdles, Mulgrew said the alternative would have been even worse. Trust had eroded so dramatically between the union and the Bloomberg administration that he assumed the metrics would have been used more punitively, he said.

“They would have turned it into a complete disaster this year,” Mulgrew said. “It would have completely damaged education this year.”

Speaking about Wednesday’s Delegate Assembly meeting, Mulgrew said that he wished some of his comments about the contract had gotten more attention. For instance, he said, the new contract expands the definition of sexual misconduct, a fireable offense, so that it includes inappropriate texting between a teacher and student.

“The [delegate assembly] was wholeheartedly endorsing it,” Mulgrew recalled from Wednesday’s meeting, “and we’re proud of it.”

And though Mulgrew didn’t back away from his remarks about the teacher evaluation negotiations, he did admit to second thoughts about another recent rhetorical addition: the use of the phrase “education reform.”

He and Mayor de Blasio touted their tentative contract agreement as being “truly in education reform mode” less than a week ago. But in Friday’s interview, Mulgrew said he was retiring the word “reform” from his vocabulary altogether.

“I thought about it for the last couple of days, and I thought, you know what, I’m not going to call it education reform,” Mulgrew said.

 “What we’re doing is innovation,” he continued. “We are innovating education.”

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Election Forum

Tennesseans are about to get their first good look at candidates for governor on education

PHOTO: TN.gov
Former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen speaks as his successor, Gov. Bill Haslam, listens during a 2017 forum hosted by the State Collaborative on Reforming Education. Tennesseans will elect their next governor in November.

For almost 16 years, two Tennessee governors from two different political parties have worked off mostly the same playbook when it comes to K-12 education.

This year, voters will choose a new governor who will determine if that playbook stays intact — or takes a different direction from the administrations of Bill Haslam, a Republican leaving office next January, and Phil Bredesen, the Democrat who preceded him.

Voters will get to hear from all but one of the major candidates Tuesday evening during the first gubernatorial forum televised statewide. Organizers say the spotlight on education is fitting since, based on one poll, it’s considered one of the top three issues facing Tennessee’s next governor. Both K-12 and higher education are on the table.

Candidates participating are:

  • Mae Beavers, a Republican from Mt. Juliet and former Tennessee state senator;
  • Randy Boyd, a Republican from Knoxville and former commissioner of Economic and Community Development and a Republican from Knoxville;
  • Karl Dean, a Democrat and former mayor of Nashville;
  • Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, a Democrat from Ripley and minority leader in the Tennessee House of Representatives;
  • Rep. Beth Harwell, a Republican from Nashville and speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives;
  • Bill Lee, a Republican businessman from Williamson County

The seventh major candidate, U.S. Rep. Diane Black, a Republican from Gallatin, is in the midst of a congressional session in Washington, D.C.

The next governor will help decide whether Tennessee will stay the course under its massive overhaul of K-12 education initiated under Bredesen’s watch. The work was jump-started by the state’s $500 million federal Race to the Top award, for which Tennessee agreed to adopt the Common Core academic standards for math and English; incorporate students’ scores from standardized tests in annual teacher evaluations; and establish a state-run turnaround district to intervene in low-performing schools at an unprecedented level.

Tennessee has since enjoyed steady student growth and watched its national rankings rise, but the transition hasn’t been pain-free. Pushback on its heavy-handed turnaround district led to changes in school improvement strategies. Leaders also ordered new academic standards due to political backlash over the Common Core (though the revised standards are still basically grounded in Common Core).

A major issue now is whether the next governor and legislature will retain Tennessee’s across-the-board system of accountability for students, teachers, schools and districts. Snafus and outright failures with TNReady, the new standardized test that serves as the lynchpin, have prompted some calls to make the assessment just a diagnostic tool or scrap it altogether. Haslam and his leadership team have stood firm.

“We as Tennesseans made the right call — the tough call — on the policies we’ve pursued,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen told Chalkbeat recently. “Nearly every other state has compromised in some way on some of these core foundational components of policy work, and we have not.”

The State Collaborative on Reforming Education, an advocacy group that works closely with Tennessee’s Department of Education, is a co-host of Tuesday’s forum. Known as SCORE, the group has sought to shape the election-year conversation with priorities that include teacher quality, improving literacy, and developing school leaders — all outgrowths of learnings during Tennessee’s Race to the Top era.

SCORE President David Mansouri said the goal is to maintain the momentum of historic gains in student achievement from the last decade. “The next administration’s education policy decisions will be crucial in determining whether Tennessee students continue to progress faster than students in other states and whether they graduate ready for postsecondary success,” he said Monday.

The one-hour forum will delve into a range of issues. College and career readiness, education equity, and school funding will be among the topics broached before each candidate is allowed a one-minute closing statement, according to David Plazas, a Tennessean editor who will help moderate the discussion.

“It will be really exciting,” Plazas promised. “We’re hoping the candidates are prepared to talk substantively on the issues and to avoid slogans.”

The event begins at 7 p.m. CT at Nashville’s Belmont University. Along with SCORE, it’s being co-hosted by USA TODAY NETWORK and Nashville’s NewsChannel 5. You can livestream the event here and learn more about attending or watching here.

Tennessee’s primary election is set for Aug. 2, with the general election on Nov. 6.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at [email protected]

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede