How’s Partnership Working for Teachers?

Bill Gates took the stage with AFT President Randi Weingarten at the union's last convention, earning an ovation from some delegates. Photo: George N. Schmidt.

With a few local exceptions, America’s teachers unions—the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association—have met billionaire school reform with surrender, accommodation, and ill-advised partnership. The AFT’s largest local is a case study in the turn-the-cheek approach.

New York City’s United Federation of Teachers is a mammoth union in a mammoth school district, with 87,000 teachers serving 1.1 million students. While union responses vary from city to city, the UFT’s posture is representative of national trends and, by virtue of its size and sophistication, strongly influential. It is no accident that AFT President Randi Weingarten led UFT before rising to the helm of the national union, as did two of her predecessors.


Given the philosophy of teacher-blaming that guides today’s schools, it is inevitable that performance evaluations of teachers are front and center.

Traditional evaluations relied on principals observing teachers in their classrooms. Nowadays teacher performance is increasingly measured by student performance—a measure many teachers consider unfair, since so many factors beyond teachers’ control affect student performance.

UFT, however, fully accepts tying teacher evaluations to student performance. It’s developing such an evaluation system with New York state’s department of education (DOE). The union is actively selling the new system to teachers, pointing out that it relies on several performance measures, not just tests.

“Whether it’s tests or other aspects of performance, we shouldn’t be rated by student performance,” says Marian Swerdlow, a 21-year high school social studies teacher who is active with Teachers for a Just Contract, a reform caucus in UFT.

Swerdlow teaches at one of 11 high schools where testing of the new evaluation system will soon be under way. A union vice president came to her school, she said, and announced that student improvement throughout the year will be the basis for 40 percent of each teacher’s ratings.

Swerdlow takes strong objection: “What if the kid comes into my class and is struggling to learn English? A year may not be enough time for him to acquire enough English, and he won’t make that much progress.”

In effect, the union and the DOE are jointly setting up a system that promises widespread teacher failure.


Step by step, New York schools have been weakening teachers’ job security—with the union’s acquiescence. When combined with the new evaluation system that threatens any teacher whose students struggle academically, the changes could result in a firing frenzy.

The union has allowed without protest new rules that make it harder for new teachers to get tenure. Opponents of teacher unions have made tenure a chief point of attack, painting it as giving lousy teachers a job for life. In reality, tenure is equivalent to completing probation, with due process rights over discipline or dismissal.



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In the past, a teacher with three years of satisfactory ratings got tenure, Swerdlow said. But now the principal has to make a case to the New York City DOE. It’s a complicated process, with data and value-added algorithms. Now, the default is that the teacher doesn’t get tenure.

Tenured teachers are also losing job security, as the city’s education department eagerly looks to cut higher-paid senior teachers. In the past, teachers who lost their assignments due to a school closure or program cut were automatically placed in the nearest available vacant position.

That ended with UFT’s 2005 contract. Now “excessed” teachers must apply for vacant positions, and schools have no obligation to take them. If they have high seniority, their higher pay makes them unattractive to principals.

The 2005 contract did provide a safety net: laid-off teachers are placed on “absent teacher reserve,” with full pay and benefits. But now the DOE is demanding that time in reserves be limited to one year, as is the case in Chicago schools.

A limitation on New York’s reserve time is very likely on the horizon, Swerdlow believes, which will lead to massive job loss, as seen in Washington, D.C. and Chicago after school closures and purges of “underperforming” teachers there. Shortly after this school year began, there were about 1,800 teachers in New York’s reserve pool and about 1,200 vacancies in schools.

A new time limit on the reserve teachers will likely come out of deadlocked UFT contract negotiations, which are awaiting a fact-finding panel’s recommendations.

If the reserve teachers lose protections, Swerdlow says it’s because the union relied on fact-finding instead of organizing members for a vigorous contract campaign.


The billionaire reform agenda proposes to shut down public schools deemed to be failing and replace them with charter schools. Pushed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who wields full control over city schools, dozens have been closed and replaced with privately run but publicly funded charters, most of them non-union.

The UFT is pro-charter. The union’s website hails charters’ “innovation and promise” and boasts about forging a “collaborative relationship” with “progressive charter advocates, such as Green Dot.” The union says it opposes charters only when they promote “ideological goals: privatizing public education and breaking the power of teacher unions.” But dismantling public education and breaking unions is precisely the effect of the charter school movement.

UFT is caught in a vise, struggling to organize some charters while recognizing that the charter movement is privatizing teacher jobs and draining education budgets faster than it can keep up.

Meanwhile, UFT’s partner Green Dot has been one of California’s leading predators of public schools.

Green Dot sponsored California legislation that grants parents living near an academically struggling school the power to force that school to become a charter, through petitioning. At the same time, Green Dot founder Steve Barr launched an organization called Parent Revolution, which uses paid organizers to press parents to sign petitions to privatize neighborhood schools.

UFT delayed some New York school closures through court challenges. But closures have continued apace, with 26 planned this year. (An educational panel convened by the mayor, who controls city schools, voted to close 10 schools Tuesday night.) The union’s quiet, lawsuit-oriented approach can only slow the juggernaut.

Progressives within UFT, including the Grassroots Education Movement and Teachers for a Just Contract, have pressed the union to aggressively oppose closures, to no avail.

UFT’s acquiescence to the billionaire agenda increased with President Obama’s “Race to the Top” school funding program in 2009—a trend across teacher unions nationally.

The program invites states to compete for funds based on how thoroughly they have adopted the billionaires’ education policies. UFT’s support for tying teacher evaluations to student performance, and its decision not to protest legislation that almost doubled the number of charter schools in the state, helped New York win about $700 million last August.

Race to the Top accomplished its goal. In exchange for short-term injections of badly needed money, UFT and other teacher unions cooperated with policies that undermine teachers and unions and threaten public education.

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #383, February 2011. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.


historyteach (not verified) | 06/25/11

Everything in this article describes what has happened in Providence, Rhode Island.
There is one difference, though. We, the teachers of Providence, RI, have already *all* been fired. Some where rehired. There were 498 left without positions.

Those that were not called back had to endure a degrading "match up" with the principals to try and secure a job for next year. Problem was, so many jobs were already promised to people on the sly -- in violation, once more, of the agreement made with our union. So, what else is new? And then there are the "Teach for America" scabs in positions, with 30 more promised for next year by the administration. And the fact that these scabs are in positions that are *not* "hard to fill" as they claim. They are in English and history positions, while myself, (a history teacher - displaced for two years), and others are without positions!

The final humiliation came on Thursday last. It was at 5:30 in the morning when I and 124 others received our notification that we had been completely, officially and non-revocably terminated -- just before we had to go to work! It did not matter that we received our first termination notice back in February, and still have not had our "fair hearing" as is our legal right. I personally have asked for it in person and in writing. My union has asked for me also. In total, I have asked for my fair hearing 7 times. Yet, the Providence School Board and the Providence School Department refuses to uphold their legal obligation to me and the other 124 teachers that were illegally fired.

Yes, we were illegally fired. There was no just cause to fire us, as is required in the State of Rhode Island and the Providence Plantations. Their actions have been, and continue to be completely illegal. Our union has a total of 6 lawsuits pending against them. The first started last year when the school department and the school board unilaterally, and with the blessing of the commissioner of education, Deborah Gist, decided to violate our contract and end seniority rights. Although this issue has been in the Federal Court for over a year, no decision has been made yet. And the school continues to act "as if" seniority is indeed over with, despite our contract.

To make matters even worse, the judge in the Federal Court has a daughter who is one of the scabs infecting our schools.... Yes, the judge's daughter is a Teach for America scab. And the other Federal judge in our jurisdiction also has a child who is a TFA'er! Clearly there is no opportunity for a hearing without a conflict of interest with either of the available judges. Yet the only other alternative is to start the entire case over in another state -- in New Hampshire -- our legal representative, Mark Gursky, told us last night at a meeting.

All of this sad reality came about when our union president, Steve Smith, formed a labor-management agreement. http://www.projo.comnews/contentlabor_management_partnership_11-08-10_SA... In it, he pledged our union's support for RttT, Arne Duncan's latest, greatest "deform." We are the Providence Teachers Union, local 958, AFT; AFL-CIO.) In doing so, he signed onto an increase of charter schools, teacher evaluation based on student test scores, and more give -aways of our protections. He believed that in doing this, there would be protection of job security for us, and protection of our contract, unlike what we've seen in other states. He was wrong.

The Providence School Department and the Providence School Board, along with Commissioner Gist pulled the rug right out from under him. In short - they lied. Once they got what they wanted, we got fired. All of the protections Smith believed he won for us were gone in a heartbeat!

I will not make judgements about our union president, Steve Smith. He did what he thought was the right thing to do. He's not a stupid man. He grew up in a tough part of town, and was a state politician for years when he became our president. He knows how to fight, and the gloves are now off.

Frankly, I pity the fools who crossed Steve Smith this way, and destroyed the opportunities he created for our children with a labor-management agreement. Watch the news and see for yourself how this plays out. Better yet, please come and investigate it yourself to see and, more importantly, to report on what has been happening here in RI. There was Central Falls then East Providence now it's Providence. I don't think the suburbs will be hit, though. Because of what they did in Providence!

Steve wanted to prevent what had happened in those other communities from happening to our capital city schools, teachers and children. The disruption and chaos hurts everyone. Deborah Gist will learn, as will those who jumped on her bandwagon. And the sun is quickly setting on her day here in our beautiful state of Rhode Island.

And that is the story of our "partnership" in Providence, RI. I doesn't work. It never will work. We cannot trust those who want nothing but control! And that is what these new administrators want - control. They are all trained by the Broad Foundation, (or those of the same ilk). And they are after our tax dollars via the charter school movement. This can only be done by labeling schools a failure and firing teachers. Beware the wolf in sheep's clothing...

Thanks for the opportunity to share my story. It is the story of loss -- for the children, the parents, the teachers and the community -- in Providence, RI.