New Generation of Teachers Seeks Greater Role in Education Reform
Changing demographics and ideas fuel challenges to conventional teachers union positions
CAMBRIDGE, MA—A new analysis examines the growing array of groups spawned by the “teacher voice” movement, which promotes opportunities for teachers to have much greater involvement in shaping and improving their profession than they have had under the traditional union-dominated system. More than half of all teachers now have fewer than 10 years of experience, and this younger generation is driving the movement. The report, “Taking Back Teaching,” by Richard Lee Colvin will appear in the Spring 2013 issue of Education Next and is currently available online at www.educationnext.org.
Regardless of their approach, Colvin writes, “all of the groups unabashedly embrace the idea that some teachers are more effective than others,” and they tend to favor teacher evaluations and alternatives to rigid seniority systems. The teachers in these groups typically think of themselves as “solutions-oriented problem solvers” rather than school district adversaries. Colvin cites recent national surveys that show decreasing support among teachers for their unions. Education Sector’s 2011 survey, for example, found that more than 40 percent of teachers want their unions to focus more on teacher performance and student achievement and less than half consider unions to be absolutely essential. The 2012 annual survey conducted by Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance found that only 43 percent of teachers have a positive view of unions, and the percentage of teachers holding negative views doubled in one year to 32 percent.
The new teacher organizations work to amplify the voices of classroom teachers in several ways:
1) Urging and preparing top classroom teachers to weigh in on the implementation of controversial policy issues.
• Educators for Excellence (E4E), founded in 2010, has attracted the support of 4,500 teachers in New York City and Los Angeles who have signed its manifesto of principles—calling for using value-added data in evaluations; school choice; merit pay; higher hurdles to achieving tenure; and the elimination of seniority-driven layoffs.
• Hope Street Group, a consulting firm that was instrumental in formulating Race to the Top, sponsors a Teaching Fellows program that awards $5,000 stipends for teachers who are involved in implementing reforms, such as rigorous teacher evaluations, in their respective states.
2) Trying to keep successful teachers in the profession by giving them opportunities to assume leadership roles within their schools and districts.
• The 8,000-member Teach Plus, the largest of the teacher voice groups, was started in 2007 and has since expanded to Los Angeles, Memphis, Chicago, Indianapolis, and Washington, D.C. The group runs a Teaching Policy Fellowships program that involves teachers in policy formation and a Teacher Turnaround Team (T3) initiative, where teachers earn a stipend to take lead roles in school improvement efforts.
• Leading Educators, based in New Orleans and now expanding to Kansas City and Detroit, focuses on providing teachers with training in management, leadership, and problem-solving.
3) Pushing local unions to become more democratic.
• New Teachers Los Angeles (NewTLA) operates as a reform-motivated caucus within the local teachers union. Last year, the caucus helped 85 of its members get elected to the 350-member union House of Representatives and promoted the election a union president who appears to be amenable to reforms; the union has since agreed to grant individual schools flexibility over the school calendar, hiring and assignment of teachers.
Colvin notes that the teacher unions are wary about the new groups. American Federation of Teachers president, Randi Weingarten, has said that E4E “tends to be a wedge against the union,” and she emphasizes that the union thinks these groups should organize within unions, not as independent entities. Recently, E4E provoked the ire of the United Federation of Teachers when its recommendations for reforming the appeals process on performance ratings were adopted. It is evident, Colvin observes, that the unions “recognize the threat” from growing public demands for improved school performance and teachers’ shift away from industrial-style union practices.
About the Author
Richard Lee Colvin was formerly Executive Director of Education Sector and is currently a Visiting Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Fellowship Foundation. He is available for interviews.
About Education Next
Education Next is a scholarly journal published by the Hoover Institution that is committed to careful examination of evidence relating to school reform. Other collaborating institutions are the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University, part of the Taubman Center for State and Local Government at the Harvard Kennedy School, and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. For more information about Education Next, please visit: www.educationnext.org.