New Groups Giving Teachers Alternative Voice

By Stephen Sawchuk — September 12, 2011 9 min read
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In times of great uncertainty for U.S. teachers, who speaks for them? The question is almost axiomatic in its simplicity, but the answer is far less clear-cut.

The teachers’ unions remain the most visible, powerful, and probably the most important advocates for teachers. But over the past few years, a number of new efforts have sprung up purporting to give teachers a say in policy, and their emergence is extending discussions about “teacher voice” in unexpected ways.

In general, the groups’ origins, goals, and purposes remain diverse, and their work continues to evolve. Where the groups seem to converge, though, is that their members are gradually becoming involved in conversations about policy, ranging from teacher evaluation to seniority to professional development.

Groups include the Los Angeles-based NewTLA, which operates as a caucus within the city teachers’ union, and the Educators 4 Excellence group in New York City, which has purposely worked outside the teachers’ union.

Two other efforts, one begun by the Boston-based Teach Plus nonprofit organization and the other by the Carrboro, N.C.-based Center for Teaching Quality, have gathered together teachers in multiple cities. Their approaches are similar: providing those teachers with research on issues of interest and avenues for interacting with policymakers.

“There are so many teachers out there who want change and have great ideas, but they’ve had so few venues and vehicles to be heard, understood, and embraced,” said Barnett Berry, the president of the center. “They’re itching for the research knowledge to help them articulate the connections between policy and practice.”

New Majority

It is hard to point to just one factor that has led to the surge in such groups.

Advocacy Groups

Caucus within United Teachers
Los Angeles
No. of Teachers: N/A
Location: Los Angeles

Nonprofit organization
No. of teachers: 2,000
(current fellows and alumni)
Locations: Boston, Chicago, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Memphis, Tenn.

(Center for Teaching Quality)

Nonprofit organization
No. of Teachers: 85
Locations: Denver; Hillsborough County, Fla.; Illinois; San Francisco Bay Area; Seattle

Nonprofit organization
No. of Teachers: 2,500
Location: New York City

SOURCE: Education Week

One important influence, though, could be demographic changes. According to an analysis of federal data conducted by Teach Plus, 52 percent of teachers now have 10 or fewer years in the teaching profession, a phenomenon the group refers to as “the new majority.”

Teach Plus’ founder, Celine Coggins, began the organization in 2007 to give such teachers leadership opportunities and, ultimately, to help retain them in the profession.

“Having a say in how our schools look and function will play a role in their decisionmaking about whether they’re going to stay for another 10 years, or two, or five,” Ms. Coggins said.

The Center for Teaching Quality’s efforts date to 2003, when it began an initiative to assemble a cadre of accomplished teachers to discuss the broad issues facing the profession. Gradually, the idea has evolved into the New Millennium Initiative, in which local networks of teachers work to make their voices heard on topics of local interest, such as the implementation of new state laws.

Support from a variety of private national and local foundations, including the Joyce Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Denver-based Rose Community Foundation, have helped in the transition. (The Joyce Foundation underwrites coverage of improvements to the teaching profession in Education Week, and the Gates Foundation provides grant support to Editorial Projects in Education, the newspaper’s parent company.)

Jessica Keigan, a high school language arts teacher in Denver participating in the initiative there, said she was excited not just about having her voice heard, but also in learning the details of how education policy is made.

“I’d never immersed myself in policy before,” she said, “and it’s been a great way to see how decisions get made and to feel I had some awareness and also some say.”

The Educators 4 Excellence group was formed by Evan Stone and Sydney Morris, who were frustrated by a lack of control over district policy decisions while teaching in a traditional public school in New York City. Their decision to form a group for like-minded colleagues, in 2010, quickly attracted other teachers.

“There are all these new changes created at the 30,000-foot level pushed down to you,” Ms. Morris said. “It’s our mission to include teachers in creation of those changes.”

Whither Unions?

The traditional teachers’ unions have had a variety of reactions to the emergent organizations, ranging from respectful to uneasy.

NewTLA, for instance, began as a group of Los Angeles teachers who were frustrated with the local union’s failure to put forth proposals on teacher evaluation and professional development.

In the union’s recent internal election, NewTLA-affiliated members won a significant number of seats on the United Teachers Los Angeles’ governing body.

NewTLA co-founder Jordan Henry turned down several interview requests, saying that the caucus would be putting together a more specific agenda and set of initiatives this fall. The group’s website says that its priorities will be “determined and decided solely by dues-paying UTLA members,” and that it “improves union governance through greater representation of the many voices.“

The Educators 4 Excellence group, by contrast, is unabashedly working outside New York City’s United Federation of Teachers. Its founders say they didn’t feel their interactions with the union were productive.

“It became very clear in those conversations that the union needs to have one stance on every issue,” Mr. Stone said. “We didn’t feel that on the issues where we disagreed there was room for debate, or discussion, or dialogue. We felt the opportunity to have buy-in needed to be outside the established organization.”

Meanwhile, Ms. Coggins of Teach Plus underscored that her group’s theory of action is that improved engagement for teachers in the issues that affect them will result in improved student achievement. Often, that means more participation in teachers’ unions, and the organization encourages such work.

Alex Seeskin, a policy fellow with Teach Plus’ Chicago cohort, was initially skeptical of becoming more deeply involved with the Chicago Teachers Union. But after joining a union committee on teacher evaluations, he found diverse opinions among rank-and-file teachers, rather than hard and fast dogma.

“The more I’ve read, the more discussions I’ve had, the more I’m able to see not only a teacher’s point of view, but also a union delegate’s point of view and administrator’s point of view, and realize most of the time, these issues are more complex than one- or two-line sound bites,” Mr. Seeskin said of his participation with Teach Plus and the CTU.

“The education debate we have, both local and national, has become hyperpartisan, and there isn’t much room for moderates,” he continued. “Teach Plus has helped me figure out how we can help find middle ground, especially locally.”

Affecting Policy

Each of the groups has made its mark on local policies, and many of them explicitly describe their work as “solutions-oriented.”

The Center for Teaching Quality’s Denver teachers, for example, are providing input into the implementation of a Colorado bill that passed last year that overhauls teacher-evaluation and -tenure provisions. They’ve submitted early comments for rulemaking on that bill. The state education department, state lawmakers, and the Colorado Education Association have all invited the group’s input.

“There’s been so much frustration and mistrust among the different groups,” Ms. Keigan, the high school teacher, said. “I hope we can find that common page to be on.”

In New York, the E4E group pushed to base layoffs in the city on three criteria, rather than the reverse-seniority provisions in state law. Those changes were included in a state Senate bill. (The measure passed the Senate but was not introduced in the Assembly.)

Teach Plus’ policy fellows have selected a variety of hot topics for study, such as the unequal distribution of talent and the difficult nuances of teacher-evaluation systems. Its Boston fellows helped craft a model to encourage highly effective teachers to transfer to, and stay in, challenging schools, a venture now in its second year. (“Teacher Teams Help Schools Turn Around,” April 20, 2011.)

In Indianapolis, Teach Plus members proposed changes in layoff policies to the Indianapolis Federation of Teachers, which were ultimately codified in a new collective bargaining agreement in 2010. And in Chicago, the policy fellows have called for a peer-assistance and -review program, in which experienced teachers help coach novices. They have also weighed in on teacher evaluations, an area in which the city is currently in limbo, having scrapped a pilot program in favor of a new framework.


The policy issues tackled, as well as the groups’ goals and origins, have made several of them fodder for criticism.

Some observers have referred to the new groups as “astroturf,” a pejorative term for a grassroots organization that is actually a front for a vested interest. E4E, in particular, has fought against that claim.

To become a member of the E4E group, which received some $160,000 in start-up funding from the Gates Foundation, individuals must sign a declaration asserting, among other beliefs, that teachers should be evaluated based on student progress and that tenure policies should be rethought. Those positions are generally consistent with the teacher-effectiveness philosophy expounded by Gates.

E4E’s members “have a thin grasp of education policy” outside of hot-button issues favored by self-styled reformers, contended Leo Casey, the vice president of academic issues for the United Federation of Teachers. “They don’t really have to a lot to say about instruction.”

But Ms. Morris said the group is not anti-union, and further, that its declaration is merely a starting point for conversations. “Some of the items are newer ideas, I think, but there is a lot of room to discuss and debate the details,” she said. Its board of directors, she added, is entirely staffed by teachers.

In 2009, Teach Plus received a $4 million grant over several years from the Gates Foundation. But Ms. Coggins says the foundation has merely helped increase the number of policy-fellow teams and has in no way influenced their work.

Ms. Coggins attributes criticism of Teach Plus to the sensitive problems the teachers have chosen to address.

“Frankly, the process [the teacher teams] experience in generating new ideas, helping to see them through to a point of viability, figuring out the funding for them and the conditions of success is always tricky and different,” she said. “There’s not exactly a formula, and sometimes we’re looked upon with suspicion” by outside organizations and pundits.

Policy fellows sometimes choose not to endorse high-profile policy efforts championed by philanthropies, Ms. Coggins noted. For instance, the Chicago fellows didn’t support a recent bill overhauling teacher tenure and evaluation rules in Illinois, over concerns about a provision curbing the right of Chicago teachers to strike.

The Gates Foundation has in the past also donated to both national teachers’ unions, though in proportionally smaller amounts.

Staying Power

The test of the new groups’ ability to help reshape the teaching profession will come in part from their staying power, as well as what their teacher members go on to do.

“I think our influence is just starting now,” said Noah Zeichner, a high school social studies teacher in Seattle who works with the New Millennium Initiative team there. “Teachers are invested in the classroom, and they are always engaged in the complexity of teaching, which I think is easy to forget and difficult to understand, if you don’t experience that reality every day.”

For now, Mr. Seeskin says participating in Teach Plus has given him a new outlook on the profession.

“I was in Southeast Asia and spent a beautiful afternoon inside writing a long essay for the Teach Plus message board, and my wife was like, ‘Please stop, we’re on vacation,’ ” Mr. Seeskin recalled. “It was the first time that I really felt about policy, ‘This is so cool. I love this.’ ”

A version of this article appeared in the September 14, 2011 edition of Education Week as New Groups Giving Teachers Alternative Voice


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