Teaching Profession Opinion

California Teachers Association Pres. Looks to the Future

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — April 22, 2015 8 min read
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Dean Vogel, the popular president of the California Teachers Association, has tirelessly crisscrossed the state trying to broaden the union’s appeal to rank and file classroom teachers and increase their participation in the organization. He turns over the reigns of office to Eric Heins on June 26.

His term of office ends at a time that I have called the best political opportunity in 40 years to reshape teaching and schooling. And rather than look back, I asked him to look forward. Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, follows:

I think that there are a couple of things. One of the things that we can do is that we can be a convener. We can start bringing people together from different parts of the education community to keep this conversation going.

We learned a lot today about the Instructional Leadership Corps [which is a collaboration between the CTA and Stanford University]. Districts are going to be desperate for professional learning opportunities. And what we’re learning is that teachers are most receptive to learning from teachers who are actual classroom teachers.

Can the CTA “own” professional development?

We don’t have that capacity right now, but what we can do is start modeling more appropriate behavior for professional learning, and I think that the ILC is on the right track. That’s related to the extent to which teachers feel that they are dealing with their peer, with an instructional leader.

How do changes in professional development need to change the working conditions of teachers: when they come to work, how long their day is, their year is?

The United States leads the world in instruction time. Our teachers are in front of kids more than anyone in any country. So, one of the things that we could do is to start looking at how could we provide teachers time so they could collaborate with one another. Sometimes it’s not whole faculties; sometimes it’s a grade level or a department being able to meet with one another or talk about their practice or observe one another and debrief, things like that. In the high-performing countries, that’s pretty routine.

When I was in Shanghai, I met a full-time English teacher who taught two classes. I was surprised and I asked her what she did, and she said it’s typical. Her day starts at 7:30 and ends at 4:00 and in between her classes she’s doing research or reading research, or visiting other classes, or debriefing or getting debriefed by somebody. And that costs money. You’ve got to be able to pay for that.

But I think that what CTA can do around this whole professional learning thing is to start driving that agenda. At the same time we have to start driving a thoughtful consideration about how we increase funding. That’s another story.

Go back to the CTA’s convening role.

You’ve got to bring people together who are not necessarily your thought partners. I have a great time when I am sitting with Andy Hargraves or Michael Fullan and talking about where we need to go, but I have a more difficult time when I am sitting with Ed Trust West or Democrats for Education Reform. But if you forget about all the differences and you talk about what it is that we are really trying to get done, and you can allow yourself the freedom to argue with one another, you can come to some common ground that will be valuable for everybody.

That’s what we are trying to teach our chapters, that even when you are in a very contentious environment, and you have difficulty around bargaining, one of the things that you can do is that you can find areas in which you can find common ground. It’s just like a marriage. I don’t get divorced just because I have an argument with my wife.

This is a bit of sea change for CTA. It’s been notorious for my-way-or-the-highway talk.

It’s a very big difference, and it was born out of the Strategic Plan the CTA adopted in 2014. About five years ago, when David Sanchez was president, our State Council, which is our policy making body, rose up and took the leadership to task and basically said “you have got to start a proactive agenda, we can’t continue to be reacting to everything.”

The strategic plan basically said you’ve got to focus on different things. Advocacy for public education issues and governmental relations, that’s important, but it is only one of about seven things. I mean, what about the idea of transforming the profession, paying attention to social justice issues, or engaging the community or building an organizing culture? All these other areas are important, too.

Where are the circles of overlap between the CTA and the new, vocal group called the Badass Teachers Association?

Every group has its ideologues, you know, the folks who are very positional and passionate about specific issues. Teachers are no different from any other group in that regard. And I believe that many of the BATs fit into that category concerning the Common Core. They have it in their mind that the Common Core is bad, and the reason that it’s bad is that it is all about testing and evaluating teachers based on test scores and loss of seniority and all this. And I say, that’s not what the Common Core is. The Common Core is basically a set of standards and in California we have worked hard to separate the standards from the testing. What you’re talking about are conditions of Race to the Top and conditions of NCLB waiver. They conflate the two.

I have tremendous respect for people who will stand up and say “No, Hell No.” When I’m talking to them, I say that you’re absolutely right about standardized testing. It is plain stupid. But then they ask, “should we resist?” I say you can inform parents about their right to opt-out, but if you resist a direct order from your supervisor around testing, you can get fired, and all I can do about disobeying a direct order is to make sure that they treat you well while they fire you.

If you want to resist, it has to be more than you. Try to find a parent that says, “gee I really love all this standardized testing nonsense. You can’t.”

What I say is that you have to tell the truth about how it feels as a professional with some expertise in the classroom being told continuously that you’ve got to do something other than that which you believe is in the best interest of kids.

There are some folks who just want to hold their fists in the air and they want to go on strike. I don’t particularly want to go on strike, I would if I had to.

I’m a member and I’m on the national Badass Teacher site and I’m on the California site. And one of the things that I’ve noticed is that it is often the same people who are posting. And I used to engage them, but it just got too vitriolic. They don’t like differences of opinion, so I stopped doing that.

I’ve been puzzled that the CTA hasn’t responded to the tenure and layoff issues raised in the Vergara lawsuit. There seem to be easy fixes available that wouldn’t harm teachers.

We believe that it is going to get overturned and it is going to die, but the narrative isn’t going to die. The question is really what are we going to do about the narrative.

The moneyed interests in this state have used Vergara as a club. They’ve used it to simplify the debate around what is good teaching and learning. They’ve used it as a weapon against lawmakers and anyone who disagrees with them. They’ve used it to mislead voters that teacher unions support keeping bad teachers in the classroom.

We felt that a legislative response just wasn’t necessary especially after AB215, which expedited the dismissal process for some of these egregious behaviors was approved with bipartisan and CTA support.

But the narrative keeps you on the defensive.

It’s true. But the question that we should be asking instead of who gets laid off first is: how is that we’re the 8th largest economy in the world and were 47th in the country in funding per pupil. We’re having to lose teachers because we don’t have enough money in the system.

What would you say to Eli Broad about all this?

I think Eli is on the wrong track. This idea that the union is not representing teachers—and that is really where Eli stands—is wrong. The union, especially as it is being transformed in California, really is the voice of the teacher.

Some of the most dynamic [CTA] chapter presidents I know are also instructional leaders and teachers of the year in their own right. If Eli Broad could get it that the union is really the voice of the practitioner and then try to figure out how to work together I think he’d be really surprised.

Part of the problem is that if your only frame of reference is the Los Angeles Unified School District, it’s a very difficult sell to believe that that the district or the union is a partner with you. That relationship is born out of a long history of conflict. But that union is in transition. United Teachers Los Angeles has an outstanding leadership team, and they understand the need to engage the community. They have been building an organizing culture in Los Angeles that can only make the community stronger.

When I became president I said UTLA and L.A. Unified is going to be where everything is played out over the next five or six years. In any statewide election in California, 60 percent of the vote is in the L.A. media market. What you see on TV in the L.A. media market is what you think public education in California is. So that district has to start doing well, and that means that union has to start leading. I said that over five years ago, and I’ve been watching UTLA lead and take charge of the narrative and begin to lead.

We’ve been working very closely with them and helping however we can. I believe things are getting better in LA, not only for kids and teachers but also for local neighborhoods.

So, let me come back to where I started. Part of the strength we have in California is the diversity of opinion and the promise of the next few years is directly related to our willingness to come together—even with our differences—and stand together to move forward. I happen to believe that is possible. And I think my organization is ready to convene people who believe that if we come together we can make things better.

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