Taking Back Teaching: Educators Organize to Influence Policy and Their Profession

By Colvin, Richard Lee | Education Next, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview

Taking Back Teaching: Educators Organize to Influence Policy and Their Profession


Colvin, Richard Lee, Education Next


In June 2012, a California judge ruled that the way the Los Angeles Unified School District evaluates its teachers violates state law because it does not factor in student achievement. He ordered the district and the local teachers union to come up with a reasonable way of doing just that. A few days later, Educators 4 Excellence, a group unaffiliated with the local teachers union, released a plan that called for student achievement to count for 40 percent of a teacher's score. The group then held a dinner, not a formal bargaining session, for teachers to discuss the issue directly with Los Angeles superintendent John Deasy. Writing on Twitter, Deasy described it as "one of the most thoughtful models that has been worked out."

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Around the same time, Boston teachers packed into their union hall to vote on a procedural change that would allow them to cast ballots by mail in biennial elections of officers. At the time, the Boston Teachers Union required its members to show up in person on a school day to vote at the South Boston union hall, which had the effect of ensuring a low turnout. Only 13 percent of the union's members, including retirees, had voted in the previous election. The proposal to change that practice fell five votes short of the two-thirds majority it needed to pass. "Teachers' voices matter," a Boston teacher who supported the change wrote on his blog. "We can, and must, do better in our own union to make our professional organization accessible to, and responsive to, ALL of us."

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That same month, Orchard Gardens, a historically low-performing K-8 school in Roxbury, Massachusetts, wrapped up its second year operating with a Teacher Turnaround Team. The team is made up of top teachers recruited with a nromise that they could lead the school's improvement effort while earning a $6,000-per-year stipend. "As long as we get the ends, we have a lot of flexibility to decide on the means," said Lynni Nordheim, 30, a 4th-grade teacher who came to the school after teaching six years in Las Vegas. T3, as the turnaround strategy is known, was developed by teachers Boston-based Teach Plus selected for its first 18-month education-policy fellowship in 2007. Teach Plus continues to recruit, develop, and support teacher leaders through partnerships with 13 schools in three districts, including Boston (see sidebar, page 26).

Each or these anecdotes represents a tacet ot a small but rapidly growing national movement to give classroom teachers opportunities to make a mark on their profession and on public education. Several new groups work to amplify the voices of top classroom teachers as they weigh in on controversial policy issues, as with the evaluations in Los Angeles. The Hope Street Group National Teacher Fellows, the New Millennium Initiative, and the Viva Project, a digital platform for crowdsourcing teachers' ideas, all fall into this category.

The aim of another set of programs is to keep successful teachers in the profession by giving them opportunities to assume leadership roles, as with Teach Plus and its T3 project. For example, a fellowship program launched in 2008 by Leading Educators, which began in New Orleans, is now operating in Kansas City, and will soon expand into Detroit and Washington, D.C., provides a select group of teachers with training in education issues, management, leadership, and problem solving.

A third front in the so-called "teacher voice" movement pushes local unions to become more democratic. The move in Boston to change the voting rules began with a small group of union members, and in less than a month more than 1,200 teachers had signed a petition in support of the change. The issue was brought up for another vote last September, and it passed.

Regardless of the approach, all of the groups unabashedly acknowledge that some teachers are more effective than others and that even the best teachers want to keep improving their practice. …

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