VIVA Teacher Speaks Out on Chicago Teachers Union’s Common Core Vote

Freeda Pirillis, a first grade teacher in Chicago Public Schools, was a member of the very first VIVA Idea Exchange, Voices from the Classroom. For the last three years, she has been working with the Chicago Teachers Union to develop Common Core curricula.

As she describes in this story on Chicago Public Radio, she was stunned to learn union delegates had voted to oppose the standards.

Chicago Teachers Union votes to oppose Common Core (by Linda Lutton, WBEZ 91.5, May 8, 2014)

Freeda said she understands the frustrations her colleagues have with how Common Core is being implemented. (Read her blog post, Implementing the Common Core State Standards: Too Little Too Soon, from last spring.). She is personally concerned about how the standards can and will be applied to students who have special needs or are English Language Learners. And, of course, she wonders what will become of the considerable amount of work she has done with the union the past few years.

New NEA Idea Exchange on Time in School

Time in school is a hot topic among both educators and education policymakers: If your school or district isn’t already talking about it, it won’t be long before they do. For that reason, NEA is launching a new initiative to develop a national strategy to help its state and local associations respond to time in school issues.

NEA-Banner-190-1To inform that strategy, NEA has launched a VIVA Idea Exchange™ on this question: If you could redesign the school structure to best fit the needs of your students, what would the school day, week and year look like?

As every educator knows, time in school is a complex issue that relates not only to how long the day or year is, but how much time is spent teaching, how much time students spend on learning, and how teachers balance preparation, professional development and non-classroom activities. NEA is encouraging its members to be creative, push the bounds of current structures, and challenge conventional thinking to structure time in school that provides the most benefits to students.

If you are a member of NEA, please join the VIVA NEA Idea Exchange: Time in School to share your ideas for making the most of teacher and student time in school. At the end of the online dialogue, a small group of participants will present recommendations to NEA leadership in Washington, D.C.


An End to the Blame Game Starts at Home

By Jim Barnhill

Let’s face it. We are all exhausted from the education wars between education reformers and teachers. It’s time to end the polarized debates and find a new way to dialogue. This is not going to happen in the current climate unless we all do something radical. The ongoing battle has had harsh consequences in districts around the country, as evidenced by massive school closures, attacks on collective bargaining, and an unprecedented testing-industrial-complex. Caught in the middle of it all are kids of color in the ever-widening opportunity gap. The longer labor and management fights, the more students suffer. But they aren’t the only ones because we all suffer with them. Every player in the education conversation—teachers, administrators, board members, reformers, and community activists—has handed out and been on the receiving end of verbal bullying, hostility and misrepresentation. We all say we are on the side of students, but are we willing to put down our agendas just long enough to listen to one another?

Before I became a teacher, I worked in family counseling. In any family conflict, identifying one person as the “sick” individual is a recipe for family stagnation and dysfunction. Focusing on the one person allows the rest of the family to deny any responsibility for the overall patterns of dysfunction. Worse, when a family tries to force that “sick” member to change, it often backfires miserably. And so it goes with our education debates. Depending on who writes the article or who testifies before the legislature or who rises to speak, a “patient” is often identified in the debate. It might be the bad teacher, the incompetent district administration, the uninvolved parent, the self-interested teachers union, or the corporate-backed education foundation. However, when we talk about each other in such a way we create resistance to change and make it nearly impossible for others to hear our very real concerns. In effect, we all become tone deaf.

There seems to be no shortage of blame and shame going around, or an end to efforts to force change through legislation, contracts and local elections. The inability to see that we are all a part of an interdependent system ‑ with mutual responsibility for the failures and the solutions in education ‑ is a communal failure for our children. The way forward must start with an acceptance of our mutual responsibility for the education of our children and a focus on how we can change our part of the system. Put simply, the more time we spend pointing fingers at the “sick” member of the system, the more polarized we will become.

The Way Forward

It’s not an easy thing to do, but we won’t see an improvement in the quality of our national dialogue until educators and our unions take the unilateral step of naming our responsibility for the improvement of public education. For example, as a teacher in this multicultural society, I must be culturally competent in my classroom. I need to be aware of the positive and negative ways in which my teaching impacts the diverse students in my multi-national classroom. I also must be aware of, embrace and implement research-based teaching methodologies without remaining stuck in techniques that are past their prime. Moreover, I have to learn to become a collaborative teacher. Gone are the days when I can just teach behind closed doors in the ways I see fit. Today’s profession requires that we collaborate with teams of educators, and support one another in the goal of improving our craft.

My responsibility does not end in the classroom. Like so many of us, I have more than one role in education.

As a union member, I have to ask if we as teachers are willing to hold ourselves to the highest standards of the profession by asking for support when I need it, offering support when others need it, and embracing a fair evaluation process as a path for professional growth. Knowing how important it is to communities of color that their children also be taught by teachers from their own race or culture, I have to be willing to find ways to help our district attract and retain a racially and ethnically diverse workforce. I will also stand up for my profession and remind others that the best and brightest teachers come to and stay in this profession when we pay them enough to provide for their own families.

As the parent of three children in public schools, I will read to them nightly, volunteer in their schools, and offer homework support. For the sake of equity, I will also advocate for those schools that need more resources in communities with greater needs. I will assume responsibility as a taxpayer to write my elected officials urging them to sufficiently fund public education so schools don’t have to rely on Target or General Mills Box Tops to pay for critically important programs.

Responsibility for the improvement of education in our country is in everyone’s hands. By accepting our own responsibility for finding solutions for improved educational outcomes, we are not accepting all of the blame for what ails our schools. We are, however, creating the climate in which others can start to own up to their own responsibility for this very complicated public good. In this way, we stand a chance of breaking out of polarized education debates for the sake of our children.

jim barnhillJim Barnhill is a special education teacher at South High School in Minneapolis, Minn. He’s a member of the Minnesota Board of Teaching and served as the Recording Secretary of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers #59 from 2008-2012. He was a member of the VIVA Minneapolis II Writing Collaborative on teacher evaluation.


Press Release on VIVA Report from Massachusetts Teacher Assocation

Classroom teachers recommend ways to narrow achievement gaps in Gateway Cities

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.

Education Reform: Teachers Have Always Been at the Forefront

By Mary Cathryn Ricker

I was intrigued by Jay Mathews’ Washington Post column that proclaims “Teachers leaning in favor of reforms.” I do appreciate that he points out he has never once written about unions hindering reform, even if he back-hands the compliment withthat is not the same as saying the unions have worked hard to make all teachers more successful in the classroom.”

That is where I part very good company with him.

I appreciate the parsing of teacher’s feelings toward current education hot topics in the research he sites by Teach Plus and Education Sector. As the current president of my teacher’s union in St. Paul, Minnesota it is helpful to learn what teachers are saying and thinking both, individually and locally, and in the aggregate.

However, I have a fairly unique view, as a teacher serving as a local union president and a third generation teacher in my family, which leads me to a couple questions and a couple points I would like to make about teachers “leaning in favor of reforms.”

Supporting Education Reform

Because this research is a snapshot in time, it is impossible to say whether these attitudes captured by Teach Plus and Education Sector are new or not. In my family and in the historic local teacher’s union I have the privilege of serving, these attitudes are not new.

Someday we will have longitudinal research that either proves this group of newer teachers is somehow unique, or it will prove what I have experienced anecdotally: that teachers, and our unions, have always had a bias for improving teaching and learning conditions. Indeed, it was because I saw up close these examples of acting within a union to improve teaching and learning that I ran for president of my union, rather than get an administrative credential or take some other job, when I felt ready to lead with new ideas of mine and my colleagues’.

My Dad, Union President and Reformer

I saw my dad, and his generation, fight for adequate preparation time so I could build on that by advocating for increased professional learning time. His generation built salary schedules that honored years of expertise and graduate specialties so that we could come along and create leadership opportunities that don’t force a teacher to choose between leading or teaching.

The work done by teachers in their unions before me to recognize National Board Certification paved the way for others to design other differentiated pay structures. We can entertain a serious discussion about the AFT’s bar exam idea precisely because of the professional ideas to improve teaching and learning brought to the table year after year by many leaders who have come before us raising the bar for teacher standards over time from high school diploma to some college to a full credential. There wouldn’t be this notion of rethinking tenure, or due process, if there hadn’t been progress from capricious, political, sexist at-will status to fair due process in the first place.

Examples of Union-Supported Reforms

In the Saint Paul Federation of Teachers we have been doing things like:

  • Designing our own alternative licensure program to diversify our profession and fill hard-to-staff license areas
  • Expanding the professional development opportunities we started offering more than 25 years ago
  • Expanding our parent/teacher home visit project
  • Negotiating contract language to strengthen our peer assistance and review program and evaluation
  • Offering alternatives to seniority to protect the integrity of programs we offer our students.

We’re doing all of that with our ultimate goal of making our contract the most powerful document our district has to attract, support and retain a high-quality, diverse workforce that knows how to meet the needs of our students and families.

None of this would have been possible if it wasn’t for the teacher union leadership that came before us. None of it.

I appreciate the acknowledgement that Jay Mathews was trying to offer, but I caution him about painting the last 150+ years of St. Paul teachers (and others) as stagnant, versus a recently discovered fountain of youthful teachers suddenly leaning toward reform. The teaching profession has been evolving since it started. Each generation has added something, built on the work of the generation before.

Teachers have always leaned toward reform except, of course, for those times when we’ve been leading it.

What is a Good Teacher?

So much of the chatter in education policy these days is shaped by the goal of getting rid of bad teachers. While that is something we certainly should do, shouldn’t we spend a lot more time thinking about getting as many good teachers as possible into our nation’s classrooms? What about thinking about how to help good teachers become great, rather than the myopic focus on punishing lousy teachers?

The key, of course, is knowing what a good teacher is. I’ve been catching up on my reading lately and came across two recent(ish) studies that will help us make that shift to think about effective teaching.

In “Transforming Teaching: Connecting Professional Responsibility with Student Learning,” the National Education Association (click to download) published the work of its Commission on Effective Teachers and Teaching. The report lays out an exciting vision for a teacher-driven public school system. It contains a clear call to elevate teachers’ professional leadership and responsibility and lists specific characteristics of effective teachers.

There’s a lot of food for thought in this report and we ought to spend a lot of time thinking about how we tap into the professional skills and judgment of classroom teachers–not just in their classrooms but in shaping our approach to public education.

Source: National Archives and Records Administration

In The Hangover: Thinking about the unintended Consequences of the Nation’s Teacher Evaluation Binge, the American Enterprise Institute tackles the incredible pace of change in our thinking about teacher evaluation. More than 20 states have put new teacher evaluation laws on their books in the last three years. And, the rhetoric around most of these legislative changes has been pretty dismal. The authors caution that there’s a lot of connecting the dots to be done to make these laws work well and actually have an impact on teaching practices.

Engaging Teachers

At VIVA Teachers, we think the more we engage classroom teachers in these conversations about what a effective teacher looks like, and how you actually measure effective teaching, the more likely our children are to have a good (or better) teacher in front of their classroom.

VIVA Teachers in New York and Minnesota have made some of the same points as the authors of these reports: that teachers’ professional judgment needs to be part of the calculus on effective teaching. That data is indispensable to evaluating effective teaching. In two detailed reports, these teachers outline a clear action plan for professional evaluation of teachers and principals that will help all of us understand what effective teaching looks like.

NBC Teacher Town Hall, a Meeting of Convergent Volume

 by Wade Sutton

“…And thus the Native hue of Resolution

Is sicklied o’er, with the pale cast of Thought

And enterprises of great pitch and moment,

With this regard their Currents turn awry,

And lose the name of Action.”

– Hamlet (Act III, Scene 1)

You would expect a national Teacher Town Hall to ask for change and action. You would think it would encourage divergent thinking. You would be wrong.

If MSNBC’s Education Nation had been honed to actually get 300 teachers to talk substance and seek resolution, here is the script I would have handed to Brian Williams:

Is it the place of the public school system to provide “wraparound services” that include medical care and breakfast? How does this really serve parents? Does it take away from the mission of schools? Are we creating dependence by filling these voids? Discuss.

Will structuring our teaching to a Common Core drive us further into a box and force us to teach to a test? What are other options that keep power at the state level? Discuss.

Why are universities failing to train educators fully? What needs to change? Should teachers only graduate and be licensed after at least three years’ experience in the classroom? Discuss.

Only master teachers with at least 10 years classroom experience should be allowed to begin an administrative degree program. How can we narrow the field to only accept the best as our instructional leaders? Discuss.

How does nurturing the culture of antagonism between teachers’ unions and administration harm our school system and our students? How can this vicious cycle be stopped? Discuss.

Why do teachers see unions as the strongest advocates for education instead of parents? Parents are the strongest advocates for their children, why the disconnect? Discuss.

But these questions demand time. These questions require careful thought and want divergent thinking. These questions depend on quiet contemplation and creativity. None of these powerful, progressive skills were in evidence at Education Nation. Instead, volume ruled the day.

The Pale Cast of Thought

Sitting in front of me were four teachers I thought cloned from one another. They exemplified the tone in the room: filled with what Yeats would describe as “passionate intensity,” the loudest and worst of the consensus, sadly more loyal to their union than to the art of education. They yelled and booed and cheered, entitled to be heard. One spoke to the camera and refused to stop. She solved nothing with her volume. The tone from the audience was not to hear and discuss, it was to display a unified direction. And to shout down dissent with “sound and fury signifying nothing” near to a solution. Good educators know that the loudest may not be the most dynamic. Their filibuster flares quickly and dies while we crave the silent solutions and strength that is caste in a slow hot fire.

And Lose the Name of Action?

This is why I walked away inspired to act with a consistent, powerful force in my own community to inspire change at the local level. I hope in the future that the national stage will mature to seek real solutions and next year I look forward to representing rural schools again. It is a game with a tone that limits our national dialogue on education. This must change. Progress cannot remain pressed aside in comfortable silence. Although quiet solutions were diminished and a real exchange was lost in the tempest, I am encouraged. It will be your unnoticed educator, the quiet and steady servant to parents, who will lead to change and actionable ideas.

Wade Sutton teaches 7-12 grade English at Indus School in Birchdale, Minnesota. He has taught in private and in public school and was a member of the VIVA Minnesota Teachers Writing Collaborative that produced the report called 360 Degree Leadership: Evaluating Minnesota Principals.