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Volume 29, Number 4
July/August 2013

Educators Speak Out

Organizations offer teachers new avenues for influencing education policy


Teacher/activist Jessica Keigan explains the state's new evaluation system to the staff at Horizon High School in Thornton, Colo.

During her first seven years of teaching, Jessica Keigan rarely contemplated education issues outside of her own school and district. A high school English teacher in the Denver suburbs, Keigan served as a department head at her school and sat on various district committees. But she did not engage in broader political debates or think much about how federal and state policies affected her work.

That all changed in 2010, when a colleague invited Keigan to join the Denver New Millennium Initiative, a project of the North Carolina–based Center for Teaching Quality aimed, in part, at helping teachers shape education policy. “My blinders came off after years of just being in the classroom, and I’ve been catapulted to the 30,000-foot view,” says Keigan. “Now I have one foot in the classroom and one foot in policy.”

The Denver initiative, since renamed Center for Teaching Quality (CTQ)–Colorado, is one of several new or expanding groups trying to organize teachers outside of traditional union structures. Some, like Educators 4 Excellence, advocate for specific policies, often related to teacher hiring, firing, and evaluation. Others, like Leading Educators, provide leadership training for classroom teachers eager to stay in education but rise up the ranks.

They are all responding in various ways to political and demographic shifts transforming the teaching profession. Federal and state policies now influence teachers’ work in the classroom far more than they once did as a result of No Child Left Behind’s emphasis on standardized testing, Race to the Top–inspired overhauls of teacher evaluation systems, and the widespread adoption of Common Core State Standards. Many of the new groups seek to give teachers greater say in the design and implementation of such policies, which affect their daily lives.

Others provide expanded professional development opportunities for restless early- and midcareer teachers who are hoping to ascend to principalships or other leadership positions. Most young educators no longer see classroom teaching as a long-term career, says Susan Moore Johnson, director of Harvard University’s Project on the Next Generation of Teachers. As a result, they are more likely than their predecessors to seek out formal leadership training if they plan to stick with education. “My generation was the first and probably the last to make teaching”—rather than education in general—“a lifelong career,” Johnson says.

For hundreds of individual teachers like Keigan, working with the new groups has been transformational. Keigan has testified before the Colorado State Board of Education, arguing that educators need to be involved in designing the state’s teacher evaluation system; she has helped create professional development sessions for colleagues; and she has co-authored an opinion column with one of her students about the importance of incorporating student voice in decisions such as school start time. The column was published on TransformED, a CTQ blog.

Pushing for Policy Change
On the surface, the new organizations have a lot in common. They tend to be funded by philanthropic foundations, not dues. Also, for the most part they stress their grassroots origins and claim that classroom teachers, not conventional union priorities regarding seniority and pay increases, drive their agenda. And almost all of them cite examples of specific times and places when they feel that they have influenced a policy debate.

They differ, however, in the extent to which they identify with a political agenda or collaborate with teacher unions. Leading Educators, for instance, receives support from foundations that would like to see specific policy changes in the teaching profession, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, but views its primary mission as reducing teacher attrition and nurturing future leaders, not shaping policy. Participants receive two-year fellowships that allow them to continue teaching while they receive in-school coaching and attend out-of-school training sessions. “I think what we are doing is nonpolitical work,” says Jonas Chartock, the group’s CEO.

Taking a different approach, about a dozen New York City teachers created the advocacy group Educators 4 Excellence in 2010 because they wanted a greater voice in school policy and did not feel like they could achieve that within the United Federation of Teachers. Participants in the group sign a declaration of beliefs stating that they support such practices as performance-based pay for teachers, teacher evaluation systems that incorporate student test scores, and increased school choice for families.

When officials threatened to lay off 6,000 New York City teachers two years ago, Educators 4 Excellence positioned itself against the union by arguing vociferously against “last in, first out” policies that base layoffs on seniority. (The city averted layoffs in the end.) Educators 4 Excellence now works primarily in New York, Los Angeles, and Minnesota, training school “captains” to become teacher-leaders and organizing small groups of teachers to research and advocate for various issues.

Most of the groups, including Teach Plus and VIVA Teachers (VIVA stands for “voice, ideas, vision, action”), fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum: They offer a mixture of advocacy and professional development opportunities, and their relationship with teacher unions can vary depending on the issue and place.

Teach Plus, a Boston-based organization created four years ago, has worked with the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA) on joint events and recruitment. But the group has also positioned itself against the traditional union stance by supporting the legislation in Indiana that ended seniority-based layoffs. As part of the campaign, nine teachers testified before lawmakers, several educators had op-eds published in local news­papers, and Teach Plus sponsored a meeting that brought together 50 teachers with four state legislators.

Celine Coggins, the organization’s founder and CEO, says union leaders value Teach Plus’s efforts to engage and retain younger teachers. “I think the place where we diverge is that we are ruthless in saying, ‘There are variations in quality between teachers, and we need to be listening to the best teachers, not the squeaky wheels.’”
Complements or Competitors?
Some see the new organizations as the latest in a long line of similar efforts stretching back more than a century to change teacher unions. Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), likened some of them to the Teacher Union Reform Network, or TURN, which was created in 1996 when a group of National Education Assocation (NEA) and AFT affiliates decided they wanted to focus more explicitly on improving instruction and student outcomes. And some say that these groups in fact mirror the history of the unions themselves. Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute points out that when the NEA originated in the mid-1800s, it was created to help teachers speak and be heard.

Keigan had not joined the teacher union when she became involved with the New Millennium Initiative. “The union president asked me pretty point blank, ‘Why are you promoting this group instead of joining the union?’” She has since joined her local chapter of the Colorado Education Association, which has cosponsored some professional development sessions with the initiative. But overall Keigan views the work of CTQ as distinct from the union. She says the unions focus on “pragmatic, nitty-gritty” concerns like contract negotiations, while CTQ concentrates more on big-picture issues and on supporting teachers with the implementation of new policies.

Still, it’s hard for union officials not to see some of the groups, like Educators 4 Excellence, in a competitive light. Weingarten argues that the new organizations will have more staying power and impact in the long run if they work to change unions from the inside. She cites Teach Plus as one of the more influential of the new organizations and says that’s partly because its leaders have been successful at working alongside union officials at times. But “most of [the groups] have had very little impact,” she claims.

Harvard’s Johnson says the unions also have to address the needs and demands of the new organizations or risk losing power over time. Many of the groups were founded by young teachers or focus their efforts on early-to-midcareer educators. When Keigan joined the New Millennium Initiative, teachers had to be under 35 and in their first 10 years of teaching to participate, requirements the organization has since lifted.
Johnson says she’s surprised more locals haven’t already recruited younger teachers into their leadership ranks. “The numbers are on the side of the younger organizations,” she says. “Unless unions figure out how to be responsive, they will not have members.”

Some unions have already responded. The MTA, for instance, engaged in a campaign with VIVA Teachers that recruited teachers to develop policy recommendations (see sidebar “Partnering with Unions”) Partnering with Unions
Increasingly, new teacher advocacy organizations are joining forces with unions to broaden their impact. VIVA Teachers, for instance, partnered with the Massachusetts Teachers Association last year to gather teacher recommendations on how to improve education in the state’s “gateway cities”—small urban communities, like Fall River, Lowell, and Worcester, which have fallen on tough economic times and lack the resources of larger cities, like Boston.

The union, which spent about $35,000 on the project, began by sending a form e-mail to each of its 30,000 members in 26 gateway cities, says Paul Toner, the union president. A few thousand teachers opened up the e-mail and clicked on a website VIVA had created; a few hundred of those teachers joined the online discussion about how to close the achievement gap in their communities. Once online, the educators could share an idea, comment on someone else’s idea, note that they liked an idea, or simply read what they found there. VIVA then used a computer algorithm to determine which of the participants were most engaged and influential based on such variables as amount of time spent on the website and the popularity of their ideas. “It’s not just who posts the most, but whose ideas seem to be gaining ground,” says Toner.

VIVA invited 10 of those teachers to help write policy recommendations, and six accepted the offer, says Elizabeth Evans, the organization’s founding CEO. The final recommendations included breaking the school-to-prison pipeline by moving away from zero-tolerance school discipline policies, transforming professional development to better prepare teachers for a diverse student population, and lengthening the school day.

VIVA delivered the report to the union’s board of directors, which ultimately voted to endorse it and shared the recommendations with education leaders and news media across Massachusetts. “Much of what VIVA teachers were recommending are values we’ve held for some time,” says Toner. “But there are those who say they don’t want to hear from the union. They want to hear from ‘real’ teachers. So we were like, ‘Okay, fine. Here you go.’”
. It’s too early to say whether the effort will result in any policy changes, but regardless, Paul Toner, MTA’s president, says groups like VIVA fill an important void for teachers who want to be more involved in policy conversations. With the exception of some high-functioning local chapters that are engaged in policy, local union officials tend to focus on contract issues, Toner says.

Impact Hard to Measure
So far the role of the new organizations in shaping policy has been amorphous. Not long after Keigan became involved with CTQ–Colorado, for instance, the organization recommended that districts use more than one standardized test to assess teachers’ impact under the state’s new evaluation system. “One test alone doesn’t tell you what a student knows,” says Keigan. The state eventually included that requirement as part of its rules. But other groups lobbied for a similar mandate, making it difficult to tease out the effect of CTQ’s work.

Brad Jupp, an adviser to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, says that, in the long term, the groups might make just as large an impact on practice as on policy. With state and federal mandates changing at such a rapid clip, they can play a crucial role in helping teachers adapt, he adds. CTQ–Colorado, for instance, compiled a long list of different standardized tests that schools can use for the data portion of teacher evaluations. The organization also held a three-part webinar for teachers seeking advice on how to implement Common Core standards.

Jupp cites the work of Memphis teacher Dru Davison as an example of the power the new groups can exert both on policy implementation and individual careers. Davison, who is now the performing arts coordinator for the Memphis City Schools, worked with support from the Hope Street Group, a national organization that sponsors teacher fellowships, to design a portfolio approach to measuring student learning in performing and fine arts. Tennessee’s state board of education eventually approved his idea for use in teacher evaluations across the state.

Even if the new groups provide teachers with more knowledge and awareness than political influence, they will have filled an important void, some say. “We’ve gone from a system where education decisions were made at the local level to a system where federal and state officials are setting the tone,” says Toner, adding that some unions are struggling to figure out how best to help their members in the new environment. “It’s caught all of us somewhat by surprise.”

Sarah Carr, a freelance education writer, is the author of Hope Against Hope (Bloomsbury Press, 2013), a story of the New Orleans schools post-Katrina.