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Archive for the ‘Teacher unions’ Category

DCTA president: School board violated innovation law

Wednesday, May 4th, 2011

The following post was submitted by Henry Roman, president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association.

The membership of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association would like to take this opportunity to rebut a few of the assertions made by Denver Public Schools in the article “DPS board 4-3 on FNE schools” published by your organization Monday, May 2.

The Denver school board did not have legal authority to approve three new Denver public schools (Noel Community Arts School, the Denver Center for International Studies at Ford and the Denver Center for International Studies at Montbello) for innovation status because these schools do not have the complete staff employed to approve this action.  According to the Innovation Schools Act, schools may only be approved for this status when they have secured:

  • Evidence that a majority of the administrators employed at the public school, a majority of the teachers employed at the public school, and a majority of the school accountability committee for the public school consent to designation as an innovation school.
  • A statement of the level of support for designation as an innovation school demonstrated by the other persons employed at the public school, the students and parents of students enrolled in the public school, and the community surrounding the public school.

Since the new schools have yet to employ a complete staff, and have yet to create levels of support among students, parents and the community, it’s impossible for the board to meet these requirements for approval.  The Innovation Schools Act does not allow a new school with no current teachers employed and no current accountability committee to begin as an innovation school.

Further, the board’s rush to approval also brings up the significant concern that these schools will use consent for innovation status as a condition for employment, which is clearly outside the scope of the Innovation Schools Act. The article quoted DPS legal counsel John Kechriotis, who claimed the board had legal precedence for approving these new schools as innovation schools.  The two cases he cited, however, should not be used to approve these new schools.

In the case of Denver Green School, the law requiring a staff in place for an innovation vote was not applied in creating its innovation status. The failure to apply the law for this school does not mean the law shouldn’t be applied in new cases. In the case of the Math and Science Leadership Academy, this learning institution is a performance school, not an innovation school. MSLA was negotiated collaboratively between DCTA and the district in accordance with performance school policy. Its status is irrelevant to the creation of new innovation schools.

DCTA does not oppose a school’s right to apply for innovation status; however, in the case of these new schools, their faculty and school accountability committee should vote on whether they actually need innovation status or not.  Alternatively, the District could work with DCTA to create new performance schools like MSLA.  Either of these options would give the teachers and the school community a voice in such an important decision.

The law needs to be implemented as it was intended – rushing new schools into innovation status without the consent of employees who haven’t even begun employment in these schools neither fulfills the spirit nor the letter of the law.

Popularity: 42% [?]

Case study: How not to cut a teacher

Thursday, April 21st, 2011

Mark Sass, a teacher since 1994, teaches at Legacy High School in the Adams Five Star School District.

Public policy reflects our values.  Embedded within the arcane and obtuse language of policy is evidence of what a society honors, admires, and respects.  This holds true for policies that impact millions of us and for policies that affect a few.

Recently, I attended an “Appendix E” meeting at my school.  Appendix E refers to the section in our master agreement dealing with layoffs in schools.  Due to budget cuts, we have to cut a teacher in our department.  The first to go are any probationary teachers.  If there are no probationary teachers, you go to Appendix E and follow a protocol that involves a series of variables involving points.  Since we have no probationary teachers, we had to use Appendix E.

A representative from human resources attends, as well as an association representative.  All of the teachers are requested to attend, but not required.  Each teacher has to fill out a “cheat sheet” that outlines the various point options for a teacher.  This is an open and transparent process.  At various points in the meeting, point totals are read aloud.  It becomes apparent after a few readings who is not in danger of being cut.  In case of a tie, Appendix E uses some tie-breaking formulas.  At the end of the process, which took us about an hour, we all knew who was going to be cut.

We have a very professional and collegial department, so the process was not as tense as I imagine it can get.  We joked about how we thought “there would be no math involved since we are all social science teachers.”  Or that there should be an attendance bonus of 50 points for teachers who showed up to the process (some colleagues had other commitments, like coaching).  I am very proud to be a member of such a thoughtful and open department.

At the end of the meeting I as well as a few colleagues I talked with, felt disappointed and ashamed at the means by which the decision was made.  Ashamed that after it was all over, you could not say that the least effective teacher was cut.  But then Appendix E isn’t about effectiveness in the classroom; as a matter of fact, there isn’t one reference in the entire process about what you do IN the classroom.

Here are the point opportunities.  See if you can find what our process values:

State Certification/Licensure and Area- 26 points for endorsement in area to be reduced and another 5 points for any additional endorsement areas.

Teaching experience-one point per semester taught for a maximum total of 24 points.  Additional points per semester for teaching experience outside of the district for a maximum total of 10 points.  Points awarded for how long you have taught in your current school as well as points for time in other schools.  The maximum total for these two areas cannot exceed 28 points.

Training-Points awarded, not to exceed 11, for training received through the district and for training outside of the district, not to exceed 11.  Advanced degrees:  4 for masters, 8 for specialist degree, and 12 for doctorate.

Non-teaching Duties-Co-curricular sponsor, maximum of 4 points.  Chairperson, 6 points maximum. Coaching, maximum of 9 points.  Member of a committee, in building maximum 8 points, at district level maximum 4 points.

That’s it.  That’s how our profession decides who is to be cut: longevity, training, membership on committees, and co-curricular.  Can you imagine any other profession using only these characteristics as a representation of what they value?  Don’t get me wrong, I do believe that longevity, training, membership, and co-curricular should be factors.  But the only factors?

Our association is addressing some of the language in Appendix E.  I hope that eventually, as SB 10-191 is implemented, teacher performance can be a factor in these decisions.  Our current Appendix E language is a reflection of a time long past, a time when administrators used personal preference to make personnel decisions, a time when we put into policy values that have since changed.

Popularity: 36% [?]

Is there a subtext to public union critiques?

Sunday, February 27th, 2011

Holly Yettick is a doctoral student in the Educational Foundations, Policy and Practice program at the School of Education at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

The recent push to weaken public sector unions is making me uneasy. Part of the reason I am uneasy is that I am not even sure that this subtext is real. From day to day, my opinion shifts, to the point that I wonder whether I should even be writing this post. The object of this discomfort: The concern that teachers are the focal point of the rhetoric surrounding these initiatives at least in part because education is dominated by females.

There, I dropped the F bomb. But first let me explain why I hesitated to do so.  It is because I can think of many other reasons why teachers and teachers’ unions are the focus of the rhetoric surrounding initiatives. These reasons range from the credulous (There are more teachers than policemen and firemen and so reducing teacher pension benefits will make a bigger dint in state budget deficits.) to the cynical (The governors supporting the cuts are Republicans and conservatives are more likely to be sympathetic to the law and order functions of government.)

The concern that teachers are the focal point of the rhetoric surrounding these initiatives at least in part because education is dominated by females.

Now here’s what made me uneasy: As national attention has turned to the protests surrounding the Wisconsin capital, it has been focused almost entirely on the teachers and teachers unions that would be affected by Gov. Scott Walker’s proposal to weaken or eliminate collective bargaining.  Nationwide, more than 80% of K-12 teachers are female. If other affected employees were mentioned at all, they were referred to as social workers (69% female) or nurses (92% female for registered nurses). Exempt from Walker’s proposals (although supportive of the affected unions) are police and fire unions. Nationwide, 16% of patrol officers are female, and 3% of firefighters.

Then, in a profile in this week’s Sunday Times Magazine, reporter Matt Bai zeroed in on New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s antagonistic relationship with public employees’ unions.  Yet the only union members interviewed for the article were leaders of teachers unions.  On the first page of the article, Bai writes:

“Hundreds of thousands of YouTube viewers linger on scenes from Christie’s town hall meetings, like the one in which he takes a part a teacher for her histrionics. (‘If what you want to do is put on a show and giggle every time I talk, then I have no interest in answering your question.’)”

Personally, I cannot ever recall hearing a man referred to as “histrionic. “When I viewed the clip in question, I certainly did not find the teacher to be “deliberately affected or self-consciously emotional; overly dramatic, in behavior or speech.” I could not help but think that if the questioner had been a man, he would have been described as “persistent” or “insistent.”   As for Christie’s response, I also cannot think of the last time I heard a grown man’s laughter described as a giggle except perhaps in jest. Yet it remains acceptable to subtly denigrate a grown woman by describing her like a child.

Anti-union sentiment and initiatives are nothing new in this nation. Union membership has been shrinking now for decades in the private sector as the percentage of the general public that supports unionization. As Bai writes, public sector unions are in a sense, “the final frontier” for those who oppose unions.  There are many, many potential reasons why teachers’ unions appear to be viewed as both the primary target and the weakest link in this battle. I can’t help but wonder if the “f” word is one of them.  Further, it is not uncommon these days to hear complaints about “anti-teacher rhetoric.” (The crafters of such rhetoric generally deny that they are anti-teacher, as does Christie.)For those who believe that such rhetoric does exist, I can’t help but wonder if some it may also be anti-female.

Popularity: 15% [?]

The next Wisconsin?

Saturday, February 26th, 2011

The Providence, R.I. school board voted Thursday to send termination letters to all its 1,926 teachers.

Sounds drastic, doesn’t it? And why might the school board have done this? According to the Providence Journal:

Teachers begged the School Board to issue layoffs rather than fire them outright because, under the layoff provisions, teachers are recalled based on seniority. There is no guarantee that seniority would be used to bring back any of the fired teachers. School leaders have been vague about exactly how seniority will play out in the case of terminations.

The mandated last-in first-out layoff system is rightfully under siege. The Providence school board’s action is sure to escalate matters, and probably beyond Rhode Island.

For some perspective, read The New Teacher Project’s new policy brief on the issue. The crux:

Quality-blind layoff policies threaten to make this year’s layoffs catastrophic. Talented new teachers will lose their jobs while less effective teachers remain. More job losses will be necessary to meet budget reduction goals, because the least senior teachers are also the lowest-paid. And, as is all too common, the most disadvantaged students will be hit hardest, because they tend to have the newest teachers. These outcomes are intolerable.

The policy brief singles out Colorado because under Senate Bill 10-191, districts must consider teacher effectiveness before seniority in making layoff decisions. Rhode Island, by contrast, is one of 14 states that require “quality-blind” layoffs. When economic times get tough and policymakers feel painted into a corner, actions like the one in Providence are what result.

Popularity: 21% [?]

On, Wisconsin!

Tuesday, February 22nd, 2011

Cross-posted from the Failing Schools blog

Some people just don’t know when to quit.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is one of those people.

In the wake of the state’s recent budget shortfall, Walker could have done the humble, fiscally-sound thing: admit that the tax breaks and conservative health care experiment he championed had worsened the state’s budget situation, and asked lawmakers to correct the problem. He could also have done the tough but responsible thing: negotiate fairly with public sector workers, who have expressed their willingness to pay a greater share of their pension and benefits to ease that burden on the state’s budget.

But no. Like the glutton who eats until his buttons give way, Walker and his allies have decided to keep their pet policies intact and try to grab evenmore power for themselves by trying to eliminate some public employees’ rights to collective bargaining. (I’m not sure how they plan to continue spinning the mere having of rights as too expensive for the state to afford, but I’m sure theirwealthy friendsthink tank pals, and buddies in Murdoch’s Media Misinformation Machine will continue funding and broadcasting their efforts.) While completely ignoring the self-serving actions that have caused much of the state’s financial distress, they are trying to:

  • Adopt a proposal that clearly punishes members of certain unions (teachers, nurses, social workers, etc.) and not others (police, firefighters). We’ve a number of choices regarding how to interpret this disparate treatment, but one is particularly clear: it’s a naked attempt to limit the power of unions that didn’t support Walker & Co during election season, and protect those that did.
  • Obscure the true origins of the budget shortfall, appealing to a troubling nationwide narrative thatblames public sector workers for budget problems, instead of the toxic economic mess created by greedy and under-regulated Wall Street financiers
  • Pretend there is no choice but to make cuts and restrict rights that overwhelmingly affect middle and low-income people—instead of correcting the tax structures and other policies that enrich the wealthy at everyone else’s expense
  • Cultivate and capitalize on the current fiscal situation and whatever resentment exists between privately-employed taxpayers and unionized public employees to break their unions permanently.

Threatened with the outrageous theft of hard-won workers’ rights—many won right there in Wisconsin—fourteen state senators left the state to avoid having to vote on the bill, and tens of thousands of citizens are demonstrating in the streets and the capitol building, including thousands of teachers and students.

As a result, some in the “news” media and elsewhere have whined about “self-serving” teachers staging a sick-out to protest these attacks on their rights. They’ve accused teachers of being liars for calling in they’re sick when they’re not (I guess being sick of injustice doesn’t qualify!), while completely ignoring by the self-serving, multi-million dollar lies on which this entire bill is based. Others are “concerned” about kids who are missing school. These people are completely missing the point.

One: Our public school system exists in large part to prepare students for their future roles as citizens. Students who watch and participate in peaceful demonstrations are getting an important lesson on how to exercise their First Amendment rights, and why we have such rights in the first place. And if there are any adults in Wisconsin, or anywhere in the US, who aren’t using these current events as teachable moments for the children in their care, then our democratic republic faces much larger threats than a budget crisis!

Two: Like this post, most of what’s happening in Wisconsin isn’t just, or even primarily, about teachers and schools. But it does further expose an ugly truth about national conversations over austerity measures and public policy reform: some people aren’t in these discussions to “repair budgets,” orimprove schools, or shore up Social Security, or any of that. Some people try to exploit our hysteria and ignorance to coerce us into making policy decisions that benefit themselves (or their ideologies) at our expense. These are decisions we wouldn’t otherwise make if we felt we had other options, or enough time to stop and deliberate.

Fortunately for proponents of responsible public policy, the brazen nature of Walker’s bill has awakened many to the need to think critically when political and economic elites use the words “crisis” and “reform” in close succession. However this all turns out in Wisconsin, there’s no turning back that awareness. Here’s hoping more of us greet this moment with courage: the courage to stand up for ourselves and our fellow men and women who’ve been unfairly attacked, and the courage to take an honest, fair-minded approach to solving our social and economic problems.

Popularity: 13% [?]

Hyperbolic rhetoric distorts Wisconsin facts

Tuesday, February 22nd, 2011

Ben DeGrow is a public policy analyst with the Independence Institute, focusing on education labor issues.

Plenty of pixels have been expended in the past five days to report and discuss the momentous happenings in Madison, Wisc. Whoever thought the Badger State would receive even more national spotlight so soon after Aaron Rodgers and the Packers secured Super Bowl champion prestige? But it’s worth all the coverage. The significance of unfolding events in Wisconsin’s capital is hard to overestimate.

Start with the fact that Wisconsin was the first state to grant government workers collective bargaining rights (in 1959). Just over half a century later, and the unsustainable trend unleashed is about to get seriously reined in. Ignored was the wisdom of reliably pro-labor Democratic Party icon Franklin D. Roosevelt. During his presidency FDR strenuously resisted the notion of public-sector unionism, famously asserting:

All Government employees should realize that the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service….The employer is the whole people, who speak by means of laws enacted by their representatives in Congress.

Government worker unions are a different breed than their private-sector counterparts. Commenting on the affair, Time Magazine editor and liberal stalwart Joe Klein ably catches the vital distinction:

Public employees unions are an interesting hybrid. Industrial unions are organized against the might and greed of ownership. Public employees unions are organized against the might and greed…of the public?

The events unfolding in Wisconsin are highly relevant to these pages because teachers unions are among the largest and strongest labor organizations in America. The degree of unions’ political influence can be exaggerated (slightly), but their collective ability to block unwanted policy changes is almost unrivaled.

If you don’t believe me, what other group could get an entire party caucus to flee their legislative duties and hide across state lines in order to forestall a vote that would weaken its legally-protected privileges? As for the unions themselves, they aren’t winning political sympathies from staging sick-outs (“by all means, defend your right to collectively bargain an agreement that you can flout at your convenience”) or getting fake doctors’ notes to cover for them.

But so it goes in Wisconsin. What is it about Senate Bill 11′s attempt to fix a looming $3.6 billion budget hole that drives the protests and the political posturing of opponents? It didn’t take long for Democratic legislators in exile to offer capitulation on the modest and eminently reasonable proposals to increase government workers’ retirement and health insurance contributions.

What else is at stake? A lot of hyperbolic rhetoric has flown around, including some National Education Association talking points that have floated into many Colorado teachers’ email inboxes (e.g., the claim that “educators will have no say in school quality issues,” an irresponsible and self-serving distortion of reality). Amid all the confusion, the other key points of the budget-repair legislation are not precisely understood:

  1. Limiting the scope of collective bargaining to worker salaries, with total negotiated increases above the inflation rate subject to local voter referendum, which would enhance public accountability to one of the largest drivers of government cost and neutralizing the power of arbitrators to reward unions for lavish proposals;
  2. Requiring an annual affirmative opt-in to continue a union’s status as exclusive bargaining representative through a simple majority vote of affected workers, which simply would ensure greater accountability in unions’ claims that they operate democratically; and
  3. Prohibiting government agencies from collecting union dues through member payroll deductions, which would end the cycle of using government resources to raise funds that are used to reward political candidates and perpetuate union power.

Since last week I’ve already been asked more than once: Could or should something like Wisconsin’s Senate Bill 11 be done in Colorado? First of all, apart from the lack of symbolism here, a smaller and less militant government union sector would make such a legislative dispute less dramatic. But more fundamentally, it wouldn’t all work in the Colorado context.

Wisconsin has a long-established and recognized body of public-sector labor law that simply does not exist here. For Colorado state legislators to have some mandated public school (or other) collective bargaining procedures to alter or remove, there would have to be something enshrined in state statute in the first place. Since there isn’t, agenda items 1 and 2 would make very little sense for a Colorado lawmaker to introduce. The third item, on the other hand, is not inextricably linked to the union negotiating process. A repeat of 2008′s citizen-initiated Amendment 49 (sponsored by the Independence Institute where I work) doubtless still would draw more dues funds spent on outrageous and misleading advertising.

The proposals championed by Governor Scott Walker and the Wisconsin Republicans would not wash away workers’ rights. Rather, they would open the door to fiscal sustainability by providing greater flexibility to elected government officials and restoring some power and accountability to taxpaying citizens. Wisconsin is receiving a large share of attention for good reason: A few states are following suit, and others soon may jump in.

Driven by the overwhelming fiscal crisis facing most state governments, what’s taking place in the Badger State looks to be a watershed. The Tea Parties are flexing their muscles, while politically-reinforced government employee unions are making a Waterloo-like stand. An identical repeat in Colorado is off the table, but local school boards may be impelled to take a closer look at negotiated policies that empower union interests over the public interest.

Popularity: 23% [?]

A step back for CEA customer service

Thursday, February 3rd, 2011

If you pay attention to this sort of thing, you may have noticed that the state’s largest teachers union has overhauled its online digs. Kudos for a new web design that’s both attractive and functional. (It can’t be said that I never write anything nice about CEA.) But customer service has taken a step backward.

I’ve written here before about the Colorado Education Association (CEA)’s opt-out political contribution scheme, known as the Every Member Option (EMO), so I won’t rehash the details. In fact, I once noted that CEA did a somewhat better job of notification than did their building-mates at the Denver Classroom Teachers Association (DCTA). CEA at least put up a webpage explaining the EMO and an online form for members who wanted to exercise the right to opt out.

Somewhere along CEA’s bridge to Web 2.0, however, both the page and the form vanished. Presumably, some sort of oversight occurred. The deadline for asking back the 2010-11 school year’s automatic $39 political contribution passed in December. Any teacher or other member who doesn’t want their funds collected along with dues to influence elections will have to ask all over again in 2011-12.

So maybe union officials just are waiting for August or September to roll around to put up the EMO information and refund request form. Even better if CEA were planning to implement an opt-in political system, but there’s no evidence to give that notion a second thought. Whatever the case, I’d like to think the disappearance did not occur because the EMO refund has become too popular and too convenient for union members.

Because posting the political refund info online is just one small part of needed union transparency — a topic I wrote about in depth a couple years ago. Take my advice for what it’s worth: Transparency is a cornerstone of good 21st century customer service. Especially for organizations with roughly 35,000 member employees, growing competition, and a deck that’s grown slightly less stacked in its favor.

A blog, a Facebook page and a Twitter account are nice features. Yet if CEA uses neither these tools nor its new and improved website to make known basic important information, they less resemble customer service than corporate-style PR. While that approach may be more functional for union leaders, it’s not more attractive to the broader base of potential members.

Popularity: 16% [?]

Pension debate heats to a boil

Wednesday, January 5th, 2011

Two remarkable articles in the NYT about the dreary and critical subject of public pensions, including those of teachers.

The first begins with the YouTubed confrontation between teacher and Governor in New Jersey, but provides a very balanced and nuanced view of the issue:

Across the nation, a rising irritation with public employee unions is palpable, as a wounded economy has blown gaping holes in state, city and town budgets, and revealed that some public pension funds dangle perilously close to bankruptcy. In California, New York, Michigan and New Jersey, states where public unions wield much power and the culture historically tends to be pro-labor, even longtime liberal political leaders have demanded concessions — wage freezes, benefit cuts and tougher work rules.

It is an angry conversation.

The second takes that anger and examines how it is both given voice and exploited in the current partisan political dogfight:

Republican lawmakers in Indiana, Maine, Missouri and seven other states plan to introduce legislation that would bar private sector unions from forcing workers they represent to pay dues or fees, reducing the flow of funds into union treasuries. In Ohio, the new Republican governor, following the precedent of many other states, wants to ban strikes by public school teachers. [...]

In the 2010 elections, Republicans emerged with seven more governor’s mansions and won control of the legislature in 26 states, up from 14. That swing has put unions more on the defensive than they have been in decades.

But it is not only Republicans who are seeking to rein in unions. In addition to Mr. Cuomo, California’s new Democratic governor, Jerry Brown, is promising to review the benefits received by government workers in his state, which faces a more than $20 billion budget shortfall over the next 18 months.

What’s clear here is twofold: this issue is going to get hotter and will be at a boil for some time, and there are no easy answers — even the draconian measures headed to a hearing in some states will do little to mitigate a looming crises that already has trillions of dollars in underfunded pensions.

This issue is currently viewed though a bifurcated lens: public employees vs. private employees.  But I think that is just the first round — what will eventually happen (and the rumbles have begun) is an increasing divide between public employees who have received or are close to retirement, and those just starting their careers.  As I’ve argued previously, if you are just beginning your teaching career, you have pretty much zero chance at receiving the same benefits as your senior peers. Zero.

I don’t have much of an answer here – and neither does anyone else. Where ever else one is on the political spectrum, one can no longer be against the idea of pension reform. The only question is what form it will eventually take, and how long until it can no longer be avoided.

Personally, I think teachers and other public employees would be better served trying to get out in front of the issue than waiting for it to be decided for them.  I’m deeply partial to the belief that the present inadequacy of teacher salaries is, in some part, a result of a compensation system weighted too heavily to retirement. Cuts to pension benefits are now unavoidable. There is probably still a chance of negotiating something in return. However at some point in the not-to-distant future, that chance will be gone.

The only clear outcome is that this will not end for a long while, and it will certainly not end well.

Popularity: 11% [?]

Guggenheim, and the CEA, on ed reform

Wednesday, October 13th, 2010

Before today’s Colorado Children’s Campaign 25th anniversary luncheon, I spent 10 minutes with “Waiting for Superman” director Davis Guggenheim, discussing the film, the Colorado education landscape and polemics versus substance. I also chatted with Colorado Education Association Vice President Colleen Heinz about the film, reform and her conversation with Guggenheim. You can watch two short videos of my Guggenheim interview and one of my talk with Heinz immediately below.

A special thanks to Guggenheim for playing director before the interview. I was having trouble with a balky tripod on which to mount my little Sony camera/camcorder. He got the tripod adjusted, positioned his chair, and told me where to sit to get the best angle of him as he talked to me. “No upshots,” he counseled. “They’re unflattering.”

Guggenheim’s reaction to Michelle Rhee’s resignation, Colorado’s place in ed reform, and reform polemics:

Guggenheim on reactions to his movie, and break-the-mold charter schools:

Colorado Education Association Vice President Colleen Heinz on “Superman” and Guggenheim:

Popularity: 4% [?]

Why we must be “done waiting”

Tuesday, October 12th, 2010

Van Schoales is executive director of Education Reform Now, a Denver-based national advocacy group.

The scariest part of watching “Waiting for Superman for the first time a couple of weeks ago in New York City (it finally opens Friday in Colorado) was seeing the school where I started my public education career 22 years ago. I’m not sure what was worse, seeing how little Woodside High School’s (California) data had changed or reflecting on how much I had aged.  While it was nice to see that the school has a nice new performing arts center, the student results were similar to when I started teaching science there nearly a quarter-century ago.

Only about half the students at Woodside high are at grade level in reading and math, much the same as the state of California.  The school’s dropout and college success rates mirror the Golden State.  The school’s student demographics are similar to California’s with about half the kids Latino and the same number being low-income, which was what originally attracted me to the school.

While Woodside is located next to one of the richest towns in America (Woodside), the long list of billionaires who live there – like Oracle’s Larry Ellison – don’t send their kids to Woodside High.  The school is in Redwood City adjacent to East Palo Alto, from where kids were bused to Woodside. East Palo Alto had the dubious distinction of having the highest homicide rate in the US in the late 80’s.   It has changed a bit with the new development that pushed the poor out but it is still largely an impoverished community.

Back when I entered teaching, I naively thought you could redesign a big school from within if only you had the right structured conversations to surface problems and propose solutions.  It all seemed fixable with given the right curriculum, pedagogy, schedule, new structures and conversations.

Oh to be young.

I spent the first five years of my career working tirelessly to become an effective teacher while I also led Woodside’s reform efforts.  It was the school reform equivalent of being a new marine in Vietnam in 1968.   I worked with my fellow teachers, students, the union, parents and the administration to make schedule and course changes in an attempt to make an impersonal 2,000-kid school a bit more kid-centric but it was overwhelming given the culture and history of the school.

The problem was that there were too many parts to change with far too many vested interests.   The administration was only willing to support changes that didn’t fundamentally alter the system, while the teachers’ union was fine with any change as long as it didn’t affect our contract. Aand parents (meant to say PTA leaders) were supportive as long as it didn’t negatively affect the AP track or the sports programs for their typically privileged kids.

I started teaching my first day on the picket line over a contract dispute and later became the building leader for the union before I lost faith in the “union” when my fellow district union leaders killed a plan to change the school’s schedule (in spite of our school’s faculty support) that might have implications for the rest of the district’s teachers’ contract.

I realized then that I was member of a union of factory workers, not a guild of professionals as I had envisioned when I started.  I knew that labor unions brought working people a living wage, healthcare and a safe work environment, all things to celebrate.  But I learned first-hand at Woodside that modern teacher unions had become almost perfectly designed to protect teachers from any meaningful change and create a culture of victimization among teachers, rather than a culture of professionals serving kids.  My experience at Woodside gave me a hands on education in what brilliant historians like Ted Sizer , Larry Cuban and David Tyack have so well described in their books about the fixed “grammar” of schooling and the remarkable power of the system to deflect reforms while it “tinkers towards utopia” (must read for any educator).

I couldn’t wait another century so I left to start other organizations and schools that were free from much of the existing inertia of these 20th Century big factory model schools.

Seeing “Waiting for Superman” and Woodside High School was a reminder of how hard it is to change existing public schools while also a hopeful vision of what’s possible with some of the new schools described in the film. While I’m not looking forward to the state of my body in 22 years, I’m more hopeful than ever about the future of public education in this country a decade or two from now as I’m just passing, I hope, the mid-point of my life.

Popularity: 6% [?]

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