VIVA Teachers and MTA in Worcester Telegram

State teachers’ union sets educational goals

Report targets achievement gaps

By Jacqueline Reis, Telegram and Gazette Staff
The Massachusetts Teachers Association, the largest teachers union in the state, has released recommendations from teachers about narrowing achievement gaps in Gateway Cities such as Worcester, Fitchburg and Leominster.
Gateway Cities are the 24 communities with populations between 35,000 and 250,000 and income and education attainment levels below the state average. The report also includes input from teachers in Cambridge and Somerville.

The six recommendations are:

• Have all students learn a second language to fluency, starting in kindergarten, and adjust MCAS rules to give English language learners more time before they must take the test.

• Reduce student suspensions to all but the most egregious offenses, end zero-tolerance policies, create supervised spaces within schools where students can refocus rather than being sent to the office, and develop programs that reward positive behavior and evaluate disruptive students for special needs.

• Ensure all teachers are prepared to teach diverse students and have the autonomy to apply their skills in their classrooms.

• Strengthen school-community relationships by designating an educator to serve as a community liaison and by creating schools that stay open beyond school hours to serve the community, including new immigrants.

• Lengthen the school day and reorganize the school year to better serve students.

• Encourage Gateway Cities to collaborate and jointly seek grants.

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Press Release on VIVA Report from Massachusetts Teacher Assocation

Classroom teachers recommend ways to narrow achievement gaps in Gateway Cities

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Jan. 11, 2013
CONTACT: Laura Barrett, MTA, 617-878-8267

Download the Report

The state’s largest teachers union has released recommendations from teachers in low-income urban districts about ways to help narrow student achievement gaps, including replacing “zero tolerance” disciplinary policies that lead to high suspension rates with programs aimed at improving behavior within school settings.

The teachers’ recommendations stem from a collaborative project of the Massachusetts Teachers Association and New Voice Strategies, a nonprofit that has engaged in similar “idea exchanges” elsewhere. They are contained in a report titled “Addressing Educational Inequities: Proposals for Narrowing the Achievement Gaps in Massachusetts Gateway Cities,” which has been endorsed by the MTA.

Through the initiative, more than 300 teachers in 24 Massachusetts Gateway Cities plus Cambridge and Somerville shared their views in a freewheeling online discussion. Active participants were then asked to join a writing collaborative to craft the recommendations.

“We hope that the MTA VIVA project inspires discussions at the local level about what schools and districts can do about the critically important issues that our teachers have raised,” said MTA President Paul Toner. “The wide variety of opinions expressed during this project reminds us all that there is no single solution. Rather, there are a variety of strategies that can be effective if teachers, administrators, parents and community members all work together on behalf of students.”

The recommendations include:

  • Breaking the school-to-prison pipeline by reducing suspensions and promoting positive student behavior through in-school initiatives.
  • Offering both bilingual education and Sheltered English Immersion instruction to English Language Learners and promoting second-language fluency among native English speakers.
  • Transforming teacher preparation and professional development to address the challenges of a diverse student population.
  • Strengthening school-community relations.
  • Using flexible staffing schedules and collaboration with community-based organizations, among other methods, to lengthen the school day to provide enrichment and academic support for students and common planning time for education staff.
  • Encouraging Gateway Cities to collaborate on initiatives and jointly seek grant funding.

Gateway Cities are midsized urban centers that often serve as the “gateway” into Massachusetts for immigrant families. Many of these communities, including Holyoke, Springfield, Lawrence and Lowell, were former manufacturing centers. They have faced significant social and economic challenges since manufacturing has been in decline in the United States.

Education is often seen as the best means for building stronger economies in these communities, yet – as in Boston – student performance and graduation rates are significantly lower in Gateway Cities than in the rest of the state. For example, the five-year graduation rate for high school students is just 69 percent in Gateway Cities as opposed to 72 percent in Boston and 91 percent in the rest of the state.

One of the biggest challenges for school districts in Gateway Cities is that they serve a relatively high percentage of English Language Learners. Among other recommendations, the MTA VIVA teachers recommend a change in state law that would allow bilingual education services to be offered as well as the currently mandated Sheltered English Immersion. They also call on districts to do a better job of identifying ELL students who have learning disabilities so they can receive appropriate services at a young age. In addition, they encourage districts to provide early and effective second-language instruction to native English speakers so that they can become fluent.

On the issue of suspensions, the report recommends, “End all ‘no excuses’ or ‘zero tolerance’ disciplinary programs and policies that criminalize minor infractions of school rules and limit both in-school and out-of-school suspensions to only the most serious disruptions.”

The report also recommends strengthening school-community relations by, among other measures, extending school building hours “to allow students to have a safe place for before- and after-school activities” and establishing “home-school visitation programs,” such as one  in effect in parts of Springfield.

The authors recommend that Gateway Cities administrators work more closely together to share ideas and professional development opportunities and to apply jointly for grants.

The teacher-writers for the MTA VIVA project and the districts in which they teach are: Nancy Hilliard and James Kobialka, Worcester; Joel Patterson, Cambridge; Chelsea Mullins, Springfield; and Kathleen Sullivan, Malden. To reach any of these participants, contact Laura Barrett at MTA at 617-878-8267.

Public Education in a Global Economy: An Agenda for Massachusetts Public Schools

Download Full Report as a PDF

On June 23, 2012, members of the VIVA MTA Writing Collaborative presented their ideas to the Board of Directors of the Massachusetts Teachers Association. The process continued on Aug. 5, when the teachers presented a revised version of their report, incorporating suggestions from MTA Board members.

Download a copy of “Public Education in a Global Economy: An Agenda for Massachusetts Public Schools.”

Executive Summary

Massachusetts Gateway Cities have a high percentage of residents living in poverty, growing immigrant populations and multiple language-minority residents. The tremendously dedicated classroom teachers in these communities and the Massachusetts Teachers Association recommend that Gateway Cities work together to share resources, address common challenges and advocate for more financial support.

Our goal as teachers is the education of creative and critical thinkers. Our students deserve to learn the skills that we use to be successful: critical thinking, adaptability and a whole host of others. Our current system makes choices for students: what they learn, when they learn it, and even how well they are capable of learning in general. A powerful education system should have different characteristics. Instead of making choices for our students, we should be empowering them to make their own choices. Students are not buckets to be filled with information. They are fires to be lit.

Teachers are already working on this change. There are thousands of dedicated teachers who strive every day to get their students to read, write, think and apply their knowledge. They are not always supported. Some teachers need to bend the rules, sneaking in labs or writing projects in circumstances where they have been instructed to give practice tests and multiple-choice exams. When every teacher in a district is directed to follow the same timeline
and scripted curriculum, then student questions and student engagement are not driving instruction. This is not a sustainable model of education. If we hope to help our students, to narrow the achievement gaps and to improve the quality of life in our Gateway Cities, we need policies to reflect the intensely personal and provocative nature of education. We need our schools to be growth-focused communities of learners.

Recommendations

Expand language acquisition programs by valuing the existing multilingualism in our Gateway Cities schools and enabling all students to achieve fluency in a second language.

Break the school-to-prison pipeline through student engagement programs focused on positive behavior outcomes.

Transform teacher preparation and professional development to ensure that all teachers are prepared to address the challenges of a diverse student population; then give teachers the autonomy to apply professional knowledge and skills in their classrooms.

Strengthen school-community relationships.

Lengthen the school day and reorganize the school year to better serve students.

Focus the existing Gateway Cities Coalition on identifying and sharing resources to support the recommendations in this report.