School & District Management Opinion

Teachers’ Union Leading School Reform? Impossible!

By Anthony Cody — December 20, 2010 2 min read
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If you listen to mainstream media, you will hear the message repeated daily that our schools are in crisis, and that teacher unions exist to serve the interests of adults, and are obstacles to meaningful school reforms. You probably have NOT heard about a remarkable success story in California. In the year 2006, the California Teachers Association, the legislative arm of the National Education Association, sponsored a law called the Quality Education Investment Act (QEIA). The results are coming in, and are showing that the schools participating in this program are seeing very positive results. I should note that test scores (and the API scores derived from them) are a very inadequate measure of what is actually occurring at a school, but these results show there is some impact by the strategies that teachers and our unions have been promoting.

According to this report,

For the 2009-10 school year alone, QEIA schools, on average, experienced nearly 50 percent higher growth on the California Academic Performance Index (API) than similar, non-QEIA schools. Also, the report shows QEIA is helping to close student achievement gaps. QEIA schools are making "greater gains in API with African-American and Hispanic students, English Language Learners, and socioeconomically disadvantaged students" than comparable lower-performing schools, the report concludes.

The full report is available here.

This program is delivering resources where they are needed most. The report states,

The scope of this intervention program is unprecedented. Over eight years, QEIA provides nearly $3 billion in resources to nearly 500 lower-performing public schools serving nearly 500,000 students. Eighty-four percent of students at QEIA-funded schools qualify for free or reduced-price lunches - compared to 44 percent of students in all other California public schools; 41 percent of QEIA students are English Learners, compared to 19 percent in the rest of the schools, according to the California Department of Education. Hispanic students are 79 percent of those attending QEIA campuses, versus 41 percent in the statewide, non-QEIA population.

I wanted to hear from my California teacher friends firsthand, so I asked if people could share their experiences. Three of my friends from Accomplished California Teachers responded:

Kathie Marshall of Pacoima Middle School in the Los Angeles area wrote me:

Prior to QEIA funding, my middle school increased its API most years but more slowly than district or state rates. QEIA funding is targeting class size reduction, additional counselors, and weekly PD meetings by departments focused on data analysis, writing of benchmark assessments prior to district assessments, and sharing of best practices. In addition, we developed targeted interventions in math and English, as well as advisory lessons focused on vocabulary development, test-taking skills, and individual student meetings to clarify students' understanding of the CSTs and CST scores. Last year we saw the impact of our QEIA efforts in that our API rose by 47 points, getting us just four points shy of an initial goal of API of 700. Students are knowledgeable about the CSTs, understand the school's sense of urgency, and work with the faculty to demonstrate their capabilities in ways that did not exist prior to QEIA funding.

Fellow blogger Larry Ferlazzo, who teaches at Luther Burbank High in Sacramento, wrote,

I can't imagine where we would be without QEIA support. Our inner-city high school is divided into seven Small Learning Communities where three hundred students stay with the same classmates and teachers during their high school career. QEIA funds allowed us to sustain that SLC "purity" and keep those solid and supportive relationships. We also lowered class size average by five students and put a maximum size class at 27. In addition, we've been able to keep a larger number of counselors to help students face their many challenges, and dramatically expanded our use of technology through classroom computer projectors, document cameras, and laptop carts. Our A.P.I. scores have steadily increased, and we anticipate an even bigger jump this year.

Sarah Puglisi,
who teaches at Julien Hathaway in Oxnard, writes,

Since accepting the funds we have gone through a budget decimation and our District cut a major amount of teachers in huge class size increases at ten schools. We are the only ones now to maintain 20 to 1 lower grades, 24 to 1 grades 4-5. Class size was NOT our reason for pursuing QEIA, because we did not foresee this happening but as it turns out this saved teacher jobs and more importantly INSTANTLY made Hathaway have something special to offer. I have two, whose parents transferred TO US so their children could be in a 20 to 1 class. I have not in 6 years had a class as interesting, capable, and parent-supported as this one! QEIA allowed me the space to be a professional. I have been supported in Arts work, literacy work, in creative projects and design to a level I think unique in the underperforming schools.

There is a phenomenon in journalism.
The dominant narrative is defined, and reporters tend to highlight stories that confirm that story. If you have not read about the success of this school reform project in California, perhaps it is because it clashes with the story being driven by the media. This story paints a different picture. It shows us:

  • Class size DOES matter - tremendously. All three teachers I connected with testified to the importance of this. This is all the more poignant as we are about to see huge budget cuts that are likely to send class sizes through the roof.
  • Professional growth built around collaboration gives teachers valuable time to develop school-wide strategies to improve student outcomes.
  • Unions care about students and have ideas that actually work to improve schools and student outcomes.

(Full disclosure: I am a dues paying member of the National Education Association and the California Teachers Association.)

What do you think? Have you seen instances that contradict the dominant narrative about teacher unions and school reform? What do you think we can learn from the success of the QEIA program?

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