Multiple Avenues; One Goal
Seattle union advances student learning, improves teaching, and makes schools better
Today’s education reform climate seems to focus on a misguided narrative of unions as obstructionists and educators as villains. It’s a one-sided perspective pushed by so-called reformers who tout legislation that divides, while handcuffing students and educators to poorly crafted policies that promote sanctions, rather than solutions.
This climate ignores how teachers, support staff, and their unions are leading successful reform efforts all across the country. These efforts have significantly raised student performance, increased attendance and graduation rates, and elevated the teaching profession.
Leading the way in school reform are 3 million men and women of the National Education Association (NEA) who work to unite all stakeholders—students, administrators, policymakers, parents, communities—in a collaborative mission to fulfill the promise of public education.
Take the Seattle Education Association (SEA). They’re a prime example of educators taking responsibility for what good teaching and the profession look like.
“I realized we were getting hammered by the message that ‘all we do is protect bad teachers and try to get more money for our members,’” said Jonathan Knapp, president of SEA. “I felt it was important to put a foot forward and show that we are interested in the profession and as being advocates for high quality public education.”
It was more than one foot forward. It was several steps of union-led, teacher-driven, and student-centered reform efforts that have positioned SEA as a key player in advancing student learning, improving teaching, and making schools better.
Here’s how they did it:
National Board Certified Teachers
Washington State has more than 5,000 educators who have earned National Board Certification, which is a rigorous teaching credential that compliments a state’s teacher license. Called National Board Certified Teachers (NBCTs), these educators are recognized as being among the most highly effective in the profession.
The completion rate for educators who try to become NBCTs on their own is abysmally low, says Knapp. However, with the Evergreen State having the fourth largest group of NBCTs in the nation, SEA used this as an opportunity to provide group support to board certified candidates by teaming them with board certified facilitators, who are also NBCTs.
In Seattle, the union tapped members who were trained facilitators to offer candidates extra support.
Elizabeth Hensley is a 2nd grade teacher at John Hay Elementary School who facilitates a group of 7 teachers. Hensley meets with candidates once a month to review portfolio direction and standards. She also evaluates videos of candidates teaching and reviews their writing. Hensley also engages with the group throughout the week, providing constant feedback.
“Sometimes candidates are so overwhelmed they put their work aside. I try to work with them to get them to finish the goal they set out for themselves,” said Hensley, who became a facilitator after receiving similar support from mentors she had worked with during her candidacy. Hensley said that going through the board certified process is challenging and emotionally exhausting. But it’s a process that pushes a candidate’s teaching practice to the next level, which has a positive impact on student learning.
Four groups of no more than nine candidates are being provided cohort support this year. This service comes to members at a lower price from what area universities charge, too.
“This is a union-run program. We have enough certified facilitators in our ranks that we can hire our own folk and provide this service to our members,” said Knapp, explaining that the completion rate is much better for people who work in groups and who are supported by trained facilitators experienced in the board certified process.
Contract bargaining with a twist
Unions do bargain on behalf of the employee. But they can negotiate for better learning environments for students, too. Such was the case with Seattle’s “Creative Schools Approach,” which was born out of contract bargaining in 2010.
The union and the Seattle Public Schools (SPS) agreed there were problems with student achievement gaps. How to close those gaps was where tensions rose. The district was pushing merit pay, ending teacher seniority, and evaluating teachers directly by student test scores. The union had other ideas.
“The previous superintendent had [certain] views about how to move student achievement,” said Knapp. “We said, ‘No, that’s not going to do it.’”
SEA urged the district to give more independence to school staff so they could shape their teaching environment and address the needs of their students. Ideas that were discussed included varied class period length, Saturday school, specialized curriculum models, intensive partnerships with community organizations, parent groups, and alternative assessment tools instead of the district-mandated tests.
The school district eventually agreed, and, together, they developed the “Creative Schools Approach” to closing student achievement gaps.
Schools with innovative new design proposals needed to show their ideas, metrics, and research justification. An early requirement for schools submitting applications was to show at least 80 percent buy-in from educators, as well as substantial parent participation and community engagement.
The school district and union received 14 applications this year; six were selected by a district-union oversight committee to start next fall. These schools will operate under the “Creative Schools Approach” model for three years, with the option to renew if performance goals are met.
Hawthorne Elementary School is one of the schools that received a Creative Schools Approach designation.
Kirby B. Green, a fourth grade teacher at Hawthorne, explained that the school was looking for more ways to be successful, but still teach to standards and to what students need to learn.
“This was an opportunity to do something different,” said Green. “I have kids whose talents don’t come through standardized tests. But they are talented kids and smart kids,” adding that educators now have an opportunity to teach a curriculum that is relevant and that matters.
A new curriculum based on math and science, but with a splash of art, will be introduced this fall. Called STEAM for science, technology, engineering, art, and math, this curriculum will infuse art into core subject areas.
Hawthorne’s performing arts specialist is excited about STEAM. Eve A. Hammond says, “It’s looking at things in a different way. It’s project-based learning and it’s integrated. It doesn’t feel so separate anymore [because] we’re going toward the whole child approach and we’re trying to educate students from all angles.”
While SEA’s negotiating team was bargaining for the flexibility to create innovative schools it was also negotiating a new teacher evaluation system. A new state law had indicated that Seattle would move from a two-sided evaluation system of satisfactory and unsatisfactory to a four-level scale of unsatisfactory, basic, proficient, and innovative.
A taskforce of SEA leaders and school district staff had been previously working toward a more sophisticated evaluation system, using the Charlotte Danielson Framework for teaching.
The Danielson framework is a research-based evaluation system that is highly regarded in the education community. Despite this, the school superintendent at the time wanted to chain teacher evaluation and pay to student test scores.
It was another contentious moment between the union and school district, but in the end, they agreed to create a student growth rating that was would be informative for teaching and learning, not punitive.
Knapp explained that test scores could be linked to teacher evaluation, but it would not be an evaluative criterion. Scores would be used as a marker to identify students who need extra support or determine if additional conversation is needed between the teacher and the evaluator or additional observations by the evaluator to try to identify why the scores were low.
Standing on a foundation of research and collaboration helped SEA build a more effective evaluation system.
It’s no secret that the NEA doesn’t agree with fast-track teacher certification programs, such as Teach for America, which provides five weeks of training to college graduates—typically to graduates who didn’t major in education. These recruits are placed in high-poverty schools and are required to commit to two years of teaching.
NEA has maintained that highly effective educators need to be in classrooms with students who are most in need. And they need to be committed to the profession for more than two years. SEA is of the same ilk.
The union worked with the school district, the University of Washington (UW) College of Education, and the Alliance for Education to create an apprentice program to recruit highly skilled teachers for high-poverty schools.
The Seattle Teacher Residency (STR) program provides more support for beginning educators than other flash-in-the-pan programs by combining classroom preparation with aligned, graduate level courses. This residency goes beyond creating a patchwork of existing programs that are then labeled with a “new” name, says one member of the residency design team.
“We decided from the very beginning [that] everything needs to be discussable, everything needs to be laid on the table, and we actually need to create something that’s new that takes advantage of what we all have to offer,” said Ken Zeichner, Boeing professor of Teacher Education, Director of Teacher Education for UW, College of Education.
Zeichner explained the residency program is a collaborative design that provides access to the expertise of schools, universities, and local communities in a way that traditional models don’t. He calls it a hybrid space, where knowledge from the entire school community comes together despite disagreements.
“It’s the quality of the program that’s important, and the quality in negotiation and discussion. People are listening to one another and really trying to transcend their own self-interest,” Zeichner said. Zeichner is clear: He does not support residencies that are connected to closing down schools, dumbing down the curriculum, disempowering local communities, and using entrepreneurial solutions to solve the problems of K-12 and teacher education. Neither does NEA.
Residents will get student-teaching experience in Seattle public schools and mentoring from master teachers for a full year. The program’s goals include closing student achievement gaps through the training, support and retention of effective teachers and contributing to helping the teaching force in SPS become more representative of the diversity in the student population in the district.
Twenty-five residents will be selected to begin graduate courses this summer. They will be matched with a mentor and start in a Seattle public school come fall 2013-2014.
Finland Education Conference
Knapp covets the day when public education becomes more than just a utilitarian function of providing workers for America’s corporations. “I want to move the conversation back to the whole child of education, which has been lost to test scores and basic skills acquisition,” he said.
Seattle is one of the few cities across the country that is known for moving the dial forward. This is why SEA partnered with the Economic Opportunity Institute, UW College of Education, and the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction to create the “Finland Education Conference.”
Conference organizers invited educators, activists, scholars, foundations, and reformers—specifically those who often seem to disagree on education reform policies—to learn about and discuss successes in the Finnish and Washington State educational systems.
There to start the conversation was Dr. Pasi Sahlberg, Finnish director in the Ministry of Education. He helped broaden the conversation from test-based accountability and basic skills acquisition to a conversation on equity.
“To me, that’s the lessons in Pasi’s work: You don’t get to education excellence by testing, testing, testing,” said Knapp. “He really is very adept to showing the pathway that Finland took to get to education excellence and it’s through an abiding concern for issues of equity first—that’s how you enhance student performance.”
SEA is one example of local unions leading major education reform efforts. “We really do have the expertise in our ranks,” said Knapp, referring to educators knowing best what their students need. “But no one asks teachers, ‘how should we do this?’ Educators have great ideas. Let’s have a pathway to have these ideas come to fruition.”