Education reform the union way
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, in an inflammatory speech last month, referred to United Teachers Los Angeles as the “loudest opponent and the largest obstacle to creating quality schools.” In his enthusiasm to join the national chorus blaming teachers unions, he chose to ignore the myriad positive reforms teachers are making in L.A. schools with the support of our union leadership.
We are UTLA representatives at schools in the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, or PLAS, which is affiliated with the mayor’s office, and which the mayor has repeatedly identified as “my partnership schools.” His speech reflects a lack of knowledge of the progressive reforms UTLA is part of creating at “his” schools.
As chapter chairs, we are part of the “UTLA leadership” the mayor disparages. Like the vast majority of that leadership, we are classroom teachers who work every day with the children of Los Angeles, while he barely sets foot in our schools. We also stand up for the rights of our colleagues as workers and as educators, and work with teachers, parents and communities to make schools better for all.
At our schools, we are seeing excellent examples of grass-roots school reform. While politicians cut our funding, lay off our colleagues, raise class sizes, threaten our schools with outside takeovers and then blame everything on our union, teachers are continuing the difficult day-to-day work of transforming public education — with UTLA’s full support.
•At Gompers Middle School, the majority of English teachers have chosen to use a progressive reading and writing workshop curriculum that works with students at their academic level and helps them grow. Struggling students last year on average improved by two years of growth in reading comprehension. Gompers has spent thousands of dollars on classroom libraries for students who have limited access to quality books.
•At Mendez Learning Center, English teachers have designed their own benchmark writing assessment and set a collective goal for moving more students toward writing proficiency by the end of the year.
•At Roosevelt High School’s Academy of Environmental and Social Policy, teachers have designed an exhibition night when students present projects addressing real-world problems to parents and community members. This year, the school is organizing an internship fair so that seniors can get involved in their community.
•At Roosevelt’s School of Law and Government, teachers have developed a student career path through activities such as Teen Court, mock trial, guest speakers, courthouse field trips and courses taught by community college professors. The school recently began a second six-week parent workshop series including information on GPA, credits and college entrance requirements; preparing children for college; supporting independent readers; and improving parent-child communication.
Progressive reforms like these aren’t only happening at PLAS schools. Teachers are driving similar efforts in dozens of other schools across Los Angeles, such as Woodland Hills Academy, the UCLA Community School and Manual Arts and Crenshaw high schools. These are places where UTLA leaders and members have fought successfully to loosen the grip of L.A. Unified bureaucracy and to increase opportunities for teachers and school communities to initiate our own reforms.
Moreover, the mayor’s criticism of our union comes as UTLA has been advancing several broader reform initiatives. These include proposals for creating more stability at our hardest-to-staff schools, a new, detailed plan for authentic teacher evaluations that focuses on improving instruction, and support for new forms of school governance.
UTLA has also fought for school reform at the bargaining table. We called for L.A. Unified to prevent teacher layoffs and class-size increases by eliminating the layers of bureaucracy that have long stifled reforms. We called on the district to avoid laying off 1,000 school employees in November by spending the federal Ed Jobs Fund money it has in its hands. The mayor and his political allies on the school board have opposed these demands.
When UTLA resumes contract negotiations with the district this month, we will bring with us bargaining initiatives for authentic school change, a new teacher evaluation and support program, increased teacher autonomy and an end to class-size increases. These are the bargaining priorities that UTLA members favored in a recent survey.
Just because we oppose some of the ideas that the mayor calls “reform” — evaluating teachers based on student test scores, charter school takeovers and eliminating seniority protections — he accuses our organization of opposing educational change. We question whether his “reforms” are intended to improve education or to scapegoat teachers. What we want instead are reforms that will allow us to better meet the needs of all of our students in the public schools. We ask the mayor, how is this a partnership when instead of helping to foster school-based reform, you use your position as a bully pulpit to attack our union?
These kinds of political attacks show more than ever the need for a strong union that will simultaneously protect our rights as workers and support genuine, locally driven reform in our public schools.
Kirti Baranwal is a sixth-grade history and English teacher and UTLA chapter chair at Gompers Middle School. Gillian Russom is a history teacher and UTLA chapter chair at the Academy of Environmental and Social Policy at Roosevelt High School. This article reflects their views and those of UTLA representatives from 10 other PLAS schools.