In a picture the UFT distributed on Twitter, President Michael Mulgrew and AFT President Randi Weingarten wear red today to show solidarity with teachers on strike in Chicago.
When teachers in the country's third-largest school district go on strike, the question is only natural: Could the same thing happen in New York City?
The answer is yes, in theory. But there are a host of reasons why New York City teachers probably won't follow their Chicago colleagues in trading the classroom for the picket line any time soon. Here are several issues to consider:
Only some of the issues in dispute in Chicago are also under contention in New York City. Like Chicago's teachers, city teachers would like a pay hike. They've have gone without substantial raises for several years. And like Chicago's union, the UFT is very concerned about some elements of the reform agenda that the Obama administration has advanced, particularly about the use of student test scores in teacher evaluation systems. That issue has caused acute tensions between the UFT and the Bloomberg administration for more than a year, keeping the city so far from complying with the state's new teacher evaluation requirements.
But New York City teachers don't have to grapple with many of the issues Chicago teachers face. The union contract already contains class size limits, even if the union says they are sometimes skirted. Recall rights for laid-off teachers have been in place for decades. And the school year has long been 180 days.
And because the policy agenda that Mayor Rahm Emanuel brought to Chicago last year has been solidly in place in New York City for nearly a decade, city teachers and their union have had more time to adjust and reach compromises. While the Bloomberg administration and the UFT haven't agreed on the technical points of teacher evaluations, they have struck a broad agreement on the concept that student test scores can play some role in ratings. They have already agreed to extend the school day and given schools options to add even more time. And their 2005 contract created an Absent Teacher Reserve with no time limit on how long teachers can draw salaries without occupying permanent positions after losing their old ones — a policy that city officials now want to change but so far have not been able to.
The UFT more resembles 2009's Chicago Teachers Union than today's. Like Chicago's union until recently, the United Federation of Teachers has long been dominated by a single caucus that has been willing to work with city officials to reach compromises on issues such as teacher placement, extending the school day, and even evaluations. The compromises have angered some union members, who have criticized the union and its leadership for not adequately defending teachers' rights.
But unlike in Chicago, where the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators, or CORE, seized power in 2010, there hasn't yet been a serious threat to Unity's power. In the last union elections, the caucus's candidate for president, Michael Mulgrew, won with 91 percent of the vote.
PHOTO: Grace TatterStriking Chicago teachers picket today outside Ray Elementary School, where U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan sent his children when he was Chicago's schools chief. (Photo: Raiselle Resnick for GothamSchools)
Chicago's long-threatened teacher strike, which began today, isn't just about Chicago teachers. It's also something of a referendum on the current moment in education policy.
Of the many reasons for the strike, three stand out. We explain each one below — and then explain how the strike could evolve from here. In a second post, we'll explain why the Windy City's labor conflict matters here in the Big Apple.
1. A new mayor. Chicago teachers have been distressed for several years as budget cuts caused school closures and hundreds of layoffs. Tensions between the Chicago Teachers Union and the city mounted last year when former Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel was elected mayor, bringing with him an aggressive approach to cost-cutting, the support of national education reform advocacy groups, and a superintendent who cut his teeth under Joel Klein in New York City. Jean-Claude Brizard quickly earned criticism as "anti-teacher" based on his record in Rochester, N.Y., where 95 percent of teachers gave him a "no-confidence" vote shortly before he departed.
Emanuel immediately announced that he was canceling raises promised to Chicago teachers and requiring teachers to work longer days and years. The extended-day gambit backfired when a state labor board ruled that Emanuel could not unilaterally require that kind of change. But Emanuel pressed on, offering incentives to schools that would add teaching time. He and Brizard also introduced a new rating system for schools, engineered closures and multiple "turnaround" efforts that cost some teachers their jobs, and introduced a new teacher evaluation system without union consent. (WBEZ Chicago has a comprehensive timeline of Emanuel's education initiatives and how they were received.)
2. A new teachers union. Emanuel's moves would have angered any teachers union. But since 2010, Chicago's has one of the most aggressive in the country. That's when a minority party known as the Caucus of Rank and File Educators, or CORE, took power from the reigning union leadership, which it criticized as complacent on issues of privatization and community engagement. After contract talks failed to satisfy the union this year, its members voted to authorize a strike in June, in a vote with a 91.5 percent turnout rate and a 90 percent approval rate. Since then, the city made several rounds of concessions and reached a deal with CTU about how to extend the school day. But several issues remained unresolved by the strike deadline on Sunday.
CORE started out as a minority party in the union that was organizing with the goal of pushing the union's agenda to the left. As budget conditions worsened and city officials took an increasingly aggressive tone, the group gained traction with a platform that stood apart from most union leaders'.
Longtime teachers union members Norm Scott (left) and Michael Fiorillo give a brief history lesson to potential MORE members Thursday.
Factions from various corners of the city's educational activism scene are coming together to challenge the Unity Caucus's political might.
Calling themselves MORE, the Movement of Rank-and-file Educators, members of the fledgling group held their first public meeting in a Lower East Side Bar on Thursday evening. There, they discussed the history of the United Federation of Teachers and floated plans for a minority caucus they hope could wrest some power from the union's political majority.
The meeting was led by Norm Scott, Michael Fiorillo, Gloria Brandman and Sam Coleman, retired and current teachers who have been active in union politics for years. Attendees also included a mix of union chapter leaders, Occupy the Department of Education organizers, some of the teachers union's younger members, and retirees.
As they introduced themselves, many described their disillusionment with a teachers union almost entirely controlled by Unity. Unity has dominated union politics for decades and supported Randi Weingarten and Michael Mulgrew in their bids for the union's presidency. Both won their elections by huge majorities.
Designer John Murphy uses the SMALLab at ChicagoQuest school.
What does a digital classroom look like? Some schools roll smartboards and carts of computers into each classroom. At others, students plug into iPads at every desk to play interactive learning games.
The Institute of Play envisions a different picture: A dark, empty classroom with the window shades pulled shut, where a life-size computer game board is projected onto the linoleum floor, and students act as both the players and joysticks to accomplish problem-solving tasks.
There are only a handful classroom "labs" like this in the country that serve as a testing ground for "embedded learning environment" games, and a New York City middle school houses one of them.
The Institute of Play is a non-profit research group that studies the relationship between game-playing, learning and engagement. It is also one arm of the team behind the NYC Quest to Learn School, which opened in 2009 in Manhattan.
I will be visiting the school later this month to see how these classroom innovations are changing the way students learn now that the school is well into its third year. But last week I stopped at the school's recently opened sister school, ChicagoQuest, while in Chicago for a Hechinger Institute conference about reporting on digital learning.
At ChicagoQuest, which is as a charter school and receives funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, each of its 234 sixth- and seventh-graders have an iPad. They use it to take notes, search the internet, and play games themed around concepts such as fractions and geography.
Though they are only a few weeks into the school year, students at the new school said they have very positive first impressions of the iPad-based lesson plans. One said she prefers taking notes on the iPad over traditional pen-and-paper methods because, "Even though it's not as fast, we can do a lot more with it," by changing up the formatting of the text and linking certain notes or phrases to each other.
Though students can be more prone to distraction when the internet (and, in this case, the popular portrait-taking program PhotoBooth) are readily available, Patrick Hoover, the curriculum specialist, said teaches have a simple but district disciplinary policy has kept goofing-off at bay: use the iPad improperly once, and it is taken away for the rest of the class period.
New Yorkers following Chicago’s snowballing union-district standoff over plans to extend the school day may not realize that similar conversations take place inside city schools every year.
Chicago's new mayor, Rahm Emanuel, and his schools chief, former New York City deputy Jean-Claude Brizard, are pushing schools to add 90 minutes to their 5-hour-long days, among the shortest in the nation. But they have offered teachers only 2 percent more pay, raising the ire of the teachers union, whose president, Karen Lewis, has said Emanuel is creating "a nightmare" by asking union members to override their union contract.
Even though the union has filed a lawsuit over the plan, Emanuel and Brizard decided to shop the proposal school by school, and teachers at at least nine schools have voted to extend their working hours—and the instructional day. The city and the teachers union send out warring press releases each time another school takes a vote.
Staff at New York City schools routinely take similar votes, but with less fanfare. There has been no system-wide push for a longer school day in years, and educators do not foresee a Chicago-style showdown repeating in New York.
That’s in part because the average New York City school day is already much longer than Chicago’s, and slightly longer than other major cities’, with many students in school for 6.5 hours or more. In addition, the district already struck a flexible deal with the union five years ago to extend the school day by 37.5 minutes four days a week for at least 290,000 city students, mostly those who struggle academically. How that time is spent is, to a large degree, up to each school.
Researchers say it is almost impossible to make a good estimate of the length of the New York City school day—something that one Chicago columnist found last week when he tried to tally the numbers—because instructional time requirements vary by grade-level and subject, and principals and teachers can decide together how they want to structure parts of the school day.
Jean-Claude Brizard, the embattled superintendent of Rochester, N.Y., and a former New York City Department of Education official, will be Chicago's next schools chief.
Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel announced his superintendent pick at a press conference today, billing Brizard as a leader who is "not afraid of tough choices." In three years as Rochester's superintendent, Brizard alienated local leaders and the teachers union with his support for charter schools, tying teacher evaluations to student test scores, and closing low-performing schools.
Picking Brizard suggests that Emanuel could be preparing to tangle with Chicago's teachers union, whose president, Karen Lewis, took an aggressive stance in her fights with Ron Huberman, the superintendent who resigned last year. The choice also signals yet again that administrators who cut their teeth under former New York City Chancellor Joel Klein remain in demand around the country.
Earlier this month, Klein told GothamSchools that Brizard was one of several New York City school officials, past and present, who were "being recruited in multiple venues right now" for big-city superintendencies. In addition to Chicago, other cities looking for leaders include Newark, Boston, Atlanta, and Providence, R.I. A current DOE deputy chancellor, John White, will become superintendent of New Orleans next month.
Brizard's departure from Rochester is not surprising.
A new report is urging school districts across the country to beef up their methods of evaluating teachers, which the report describes as so slipshod as to be "largely meaningless." The report, by a nonprofit group that has clashed with teachers unions in the past, describes the poor evaluations as "just one symptom of a larger, more fundamental crisis—the inability of our schools to assess instructional performance accurately or to act on this information in meaningful ways."
The report is called "The Widget Effect" because accuses districts of treating all teachers alike, regardless of how much they help students learn. It goes on:
This inability not only keeps schools from dismissing consistently poor performers, but also prevents them from recognizing excellence among top-performers or supporting growth among the broad plurality of hardworking teachers who operate in the middle of the performance spectrum. Instead, school districts default to treating all teachers as essentially the same, both in terms of effectiveness and need for development.
The report, conducted by The New Teacher Project, a nonprofit founded by the lightning-rod D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, calls on districts to develop more robust teacher evaluation systems that reward successful teachers and easily identify less successful teachers.
The report comes amid a growing push to improve teaching quality across the country. President Obama has said that teachers who are not helping students learn should be removed from classrooms, and even the national American Federation of Teachers union is working internally to build a new method of evaluating teacher quality.
The report bases its findings on surveys of thousands of teachers and administrators across four states and 12 school districts, plus a scouring of the districts' evaluation records. New York City was not one of the districts studied.
Most supporters of mayoral control list similar reasons for why they prefer the governance structure: it consolidates accountability in a single person; it reduces corruption that can proliferate in a decentralized system. But there's also a less prominent argument: that mayoral control could facilitate a new breed of full-service schools that tackle both poverty and low academic achievement.
Teachers union president Randi Weingarten made this argument last year when she said mayors could create "community schools" by linking city agencies in innovative ways. But I hadn't heard it again until today, when I spoke with Katherine Eckstein, a public policy expert who works at the Children's Aid Society, one of the city's oldest social services agencies.
"When kids are hungry or depressed, or have no place to go, or have chronic medical problems, they have no way to take advantage of opportunities put before them," she told me. Eckstein, the public policy director for the organization's National Technical Assistance Center for Community Schools, said many services exist that can help students deal with such issues, but they are not always effectively delivered.
"I see this as the promise of mayoral control — harnessing the power of city agencies," she said, adding that the Children's Aid Society plans to promote this idea as the debate over mayoral control's future picks up.
A commenter named Scott raised readers' eyebrows by declaring that Obama's choice for education secretary, Arne Duncan, doesn't use a computer. Scott added, intriguingly, that:
"His secretary prints out the emails he receives, he writes the response and the secretary responds. The man literally does not know how to use a computer."
Not exactly, according to two spokesmen I just talked to at the Chicago public schools headquarters. It is true, they said, that Duncan sometimes has his assistant, a woman named Maribel, print out his e-mail messages for him. But he does have a computer, and he sometimes reads his own e-mail with it. He also carries a Blackberry.
Said spokesman Mike Vaughn:
"He’s out at schools all the time, meeting with principals and meeting with administrators, meeting with kids and teachers, various meetings throughout the city. He does not spend a whole lot of time at his desk. But there are times when he sits at his desk and reads his emails, there’s times that he responds to them with Maribel, there's times that he responds with his Blackberry."
Another spokesman, Malon Edwards, said Duncan has championed bringing technology to education.
Chicago school buses by ##http://flickr.com/photos/good_day##Today is a Good Day##
With only the long weekend separating them from the first day of school, religious, political, and education leaders in Chicago are gearing up for a major protest in which more than 100 busloads of Chicago students will roll into a middle-class suburb and try to enroll in schools there to highlight unequal school funding between the two districts. Although organizers briefly offered to drop the boycott plan if the state's top Democrats agreed to back a $120 million reform initiative to benefit Illinois' lowest-performing schools, yesterday they announced that "the window has expired" and the boycott would go on.
The Committee for Concerned Clergy, led by state senator Rev. James Meeks, has been developing plans all summer to bus Chicago students to Winnetka, an upper-middle-class suburb 20 miles north of the city that's home to New Trier Township High School, one of the nation's top-rated high schools. Once there, the students will try to enroll in Winnetka schools, although the district's residency requirements and state laws prohibit them from being admitted. For their part, Winnetka officials are cooperating with protest leaders and are planning to make it easy for the busloads of students to fill out registration forms. Back in Chicago, school officials are nervous about a funding formula that will cost schools $110 a day for each student who is absent during the first week of school.