Those who fear that the big problem with America’s schools is the teachers who work in them would be heartened by spending a little time at an Educators 4 Excellence (E4E) conclave. Sydney Morris and Evan Stone launched Educators 4 Excellence in 2010 to push unions and schools to get serious about recognizing excellence and addressing mediocrity. The idea of E4E germinated during their hour-long commute on the 4 train from New York’s East Village up to their elementary school in the North Bronx, when they had plenty of time to share their frustrations. Says Morris, “In room 402, I could close the door and focus on my students. In that room, I had lots of responsibility, autonomy, and control. Yet beyond those four walls, I had little say in any decision that affected my students or me as a professional.”
Morris and Stone launched E4E after learning that, in the United Federation of Teachers’ 2010 leadership election, 65 percent of the votes were cast by retirees or non-classroom personnel. Morris marvels, “Classroom teachers were actually a minority of the folks who voted in that election!” Together with a dozen colleagues, Morris and Stone penned a declaration of beliefs that became the foundation of E4E. Stone says, “We had a bunch of teachers from seven or eight schools, some new and some with a decade or more of experience, but we all had the same frustrations: a lack of meaningful feedback, of tools and supports, of aspirational career pathways. The goal was to lay out our visions and beliefs and see if other teachers felt the same way.”
Teaching has long suffered occasional bouts of enthusiasm for “new unionism,” which promises to end industrial-era conventions in favor of a performance-oriented culture. Such talk has consistently come up empty because of entrenched union resistance, adverse conditions, and a lack of organizational muscle. But we may be in the midst of a more significant shift, as a generation of teacher-reformers seeks to take advantage of changes that give them a fighting chance.
The teachers’ unions face some daunting challenges. Financial headwinds have caused decades of persistent spending growth in schooling to give way to choppier waters, pitting young teachers against old on issues such as layoffs and pensions. Successful GOP efforts to narrow the scope of collective bargaining in states such as Wisconsin and Indiana have cost unions members and threatened their clout. Reformers fighting to curtail tenure protections and to get serious about teacher evaluation are visible across the land. And, for the first time in memory, these trends have caused the mighty 3 million–member National Education Association to suffer substantial membership losses. Unions are struggling to regain their footing and just may be forced to evolve.
Today’s teacher-reformers may be fresh-faced, but they’re also passionate, tech-enabled, and backed by big philanthropy and professional operatives. They’re fighting for an outsider’s reform agenda with an insider’s credibility and savvy. E4E’s declaration calls for the kind of tough-minded reform that teachers are often thought to oppose. It calls for a system that uses “an evenhanded performance-based pay structure to reward excellent teachers.” It calls for eliminating “last in, first out” layoffs and ensuring that tenure is a “significant professional milestone.” And it advocates “plac[ing] student achievement first” when making decisions about schooling or spending.
Stone says that advocating these beliefs hasn’t been easy. There have been plenty of petty attacks and cheap shots. “But,” he says, “we kept growing because we offered like-minded teachers camaraderie and a safe space for solutions-oriented dialogue. It wasn’t one teacher standing up, but many standing together.” Today, E4E encompasses more than 15,000 teachers in locales including New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Connecticut, and Minnesota.
Meanwhile, the union diehards may not be as strong as is commonly assumed. Teach for America co-CEO Matt Kramer observes that TFA alumni (who include both Morris and Stone) have long shown little interest in pursuing union leadership. More recently, he says, “we’ve started to see promising stories of TFA members and alumni getting involved. . . . When our people get involved, they see the ways they can make a difference, they step up, and we’re seeing changes. The unions have been held captive by a fringe element. But that’s changing in some places.”
Celine Coggins launched the Boston-based Teach Plus in 2009 because, she says, “at the time, when we talked about performance-based pay or teacher leadership, union leaders could say, ‘Teachers don’t want that,’ as if teachers were monolithic. And no one could really challenge or question them when they said that. I thought it’d make sense to bring teachers together, especially younger teachers, and see what they said.”
Drawing on her experience in both the classroom and the Massachusetts department of education, Coggins says, “When teachers think about unions and city councils, most of them think those are a waste of time and that it’s all just talk. Connecting the dots helps them get over that.” Teach Plus has put forward teacher-inspired plans for merit pay, performance-based evaluation, and tenure reform that have influenced policy in a number of cities and states. Today, there are more than 17,000 Teach Plus members in cities such as Boston, Los Angeles, Chicago, Memphis, D.C., and Indianapolis.
E4E and Teach Plus aren’t alone. Other ventures include New Orleans–based Leading Educators, Chicago-based VIVA Teachers, Gates Foundation–sponsored ECET2, and the reinvigorated National Network of State Teachers of the Year. Much of this activity has been turbocharged by a generation of energetic TFA corps members.
It can be easier than onlookers expect for these reformers to win over the silent majority of teachers and change the direction of their unions. After all, teachers know better than anyone that they suffer for the incompetents in their midst. The journal Education Next reported in 2014 that teachers believe 5 percent of those teaching in their local school systems deserve an “F” and another 8 percent a “D.” The independent think tank Education Sector has found that 75 percent of teachers want their union to make it simpler to remove ineffective teachers, and a survey by Scholastic and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation found that 89 percent believe tenure should reflect teacher effectiveness.
Mike Stryer started teaching high-school social studies in Los Angeles after nearly two decades in international business. Elected a building representative to the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA), Stryer walked into his first union meeting and noted that the topic of discussion was not L.A.’s “35 percent dropout rate” but “the condition of Bolivian tin miners.” He says, “It made me realize why a lot of teachers are completely turned off by the union. It didn’t represent classroom realities, the needs of teachers, or the needs of students.”
In response, Stryer helped launch NewTLA. Stryer and his allies elected 75 teachers to the 300-member UTLA assembly. Stryer laughs, “I was called everything under the sun. Folks were saying, ‘You have a hidden agenda, you’re a privatizer.’ Just the other week, I was called a ‘Kool-Aid-drinking Nazi propagandist.’” The same group then pushed the UTLA to fight for teacher evaluations that would be based in part on student achievement.
Anticipating a fight, Stryer “studied the contract and the bylaws. It turns out we could bypass the leadership and take a referendum directly to the members if we got 500 members to sign a petition. The result couldn’t be overturned. Few people even knew you could do that. But we gathered the signatures and got it approved with 56 percent support. That made it the ‘official policy’ of the UTLA.” His success provided a model for a group of Boston Teachers Union members to form a group named BTU Votes and successfully fight to open up their union elections.
Stryer says, “Money could have helped, but it wasn’t necessary. This was all social media and word of mouth. It really only takes a few people. We were able to do this in Los Angeles with a core group of five!”
It’s easy for politicians and reformers to paint with too broad a brush. When it comes to teachers and unions, the usual formulation has been, “Teachers’ unions are awful, but we love our teachers.” This line has proven as ineffective as it is incoherent. For one thing, as Stanford University political scientist Terry Moe has shown, teachers’ unions generally reflect the preferences of their members. For another, attacks on tenure make clear that reformers think there are plenty of teachers who don’t deserve to be loved.
At a time when tens of thousands of reform-minded teachers have organized a vanguard, reformers would do well to paint teachers and unions with a finer brush. Rather than disparage unions or offer insincere laurels to all teachers, reformers should stand foursquare behind teachers who are fighting for professional responsibility.
Twenty-first-century school reform, from Bush’s No Child Left Behind to Obama’s Race to the Top, has suffered for its fascination with grand national solutions. Efforts by today’s teachers reveal a more Tocquevillian impulse. Theirs is the activism of shopkeepers stripping off their aprons and working to set things right. Such an effort is altogether admirable. These teachers bring to the reform cause not only hard-won credibility, but also a practical appreciation of consequences and daily realities that can elude impassioned advocates who talk while others do.
– Frederick M. Hess is the director of education-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of the forthcoming book The Cage-Busting Teacher. This article originally appeared in the October 20, 2014 issue of National Review.