Frustrated Los Angeles teachers now have a progressive voice, NewTLA

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Like parents and our community, teachers in Los Angeles are frustrated with the current state of education. Frustrated by budget cuts, furloughs, large class sizes, excessive standardized testing, shifting priorities of Los Angeles Unified, and large numbers of layoffs/displacements at virtually every school site.  We are also frustrated by something well within our control: our union, UTLA.  The positive side of this frustration has been the birth of a fresh, clear voice of Los Angeles teachers both committed to quality education and open to desperately needed reform.

Despite the paramount importance of having a strong teachers’ union committed to excellence in education, most teachers in Los Angeles remain uninvolved in the union and broader educational issues, choosing to focus on their classrooms.  Perhaps this is because much of the UTLA leadership appears stuck in a narrowly-focused, oppositional type of unionism more appropriate for the 1950’s.  Modernization of our union is critical.

There are at least two major areas where UTLA could play a far more progressive and constructive role:

First, UTLA needs to revisit the outdated notion of using seniority as the sole means of determining layoffs and displacements.  The antiquated notion of “first-in, last out” has resulted in thousands of highly qualified younger teachers involuntarily leaving teaching (or not even wanting to enter the profession).  The full cost of this flawed policy will become painfully evident over the next several years when large numbers of veteran teachers retire, again leaving us with a massive shortage of qualified teachers.

Second, UTLA needs to broaden its current focus from contractual issues to critical educational issues. As the second largest teachers’ union in the U.S., UTLA needs to be on the forefront of pushing for proven, educational reform.  UTLA needs to play a visible, active role in formulation of state educational policies.  UTLA needs to play a watchdog role in ensuring that the district’s limited resources are focused on critical classroom needs. Key to all of this is the ability to collaborate with diverse educationally-related entities, including the district, the mayor, and other organizations.

Instead of addressing these key issues, UTLA  often either defends the failed status quo or tackles issues completely unrelated to education in Los Angeles.  At its June, 2010 meeting, the House of Representatives (UTLA’s official governing body) passed motions that included support for the Iraqi teachers union in its struggle against an Iraqi government takeover and support for the CNTE teachers union in Mexico. At a time of unprecedented educational challenges here in Los Angeles, UTLA appears to be the only union that actively pursues its own foreign policy.

Fortunately, there is a growing voice of teachers looking for new direction within the union.  Late last year, more than 50 teachers dedicated to progressive policies and reform were elected to UTLA’s House of Representatives.  This group – NewTLA – offers an alternative within our union.  NewTLA encourages openness to innovation, while looking to broaden participation to all teachers in Los Angeles. NewTLA recognizes that teachers’ ability to secure and retain competitive  conditions depends on our ability to meet educational needs of students, parents, and the community;

Specifically, NewTLA’s priorities include the following:

  • Inclusion of agreed-upon teacher quality measures, in addition to seniority, in reduction-in-force and displacement decisions;
  • Initiation of a teacher evaluation system with multiple measures that better capture a teacher’s actual contribution to educating students;
  • Design and implementation of relevant professional development that further enhances professionalism of teachers;
  • Collaborative work with the district and other entities to ensure appropriate, focused spending on critical instructional and classroom needs

For too long, teachers in Los Angeles have lacked an alternative to UTLA’s mainstream approach.  At this critical juncture, NewTLA offers all teachers in Los Angeles the opportunity to play a progressive, supportive role in bringing needed reform to our educational system.  We are ready and excited.

Mike Stryer has taught Social Studies at Fairfax High School in Los Angeles for eight years, serving as the school’s Lead Teacher and United Teachers Los Angeles chapter chair. Before teaching, he worked in international business, heading international divisions of several U.S. consumer products companies, including Applause and Variflex. He has a bachelor’s degree from Stanford in Political Science and master’s degrees  from Yale in International Relations, and from Pepperdine in Education. A version of this piece also ran in the Los Angeles Daily News.

4 Comments

  1. I wish you all the luck in the world. Hopefully you can gain a majority in the house of reps and become head of the union.

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  2. Unfortunately, when the term “multiple measures” is used, it usually refers to an assortment of “quantitative data” rather than “qualitative data”.  Since qualitative data is more complex, harder to obtain, and harder to interpret than quantitative data, it will ultimately be judged too expensive to collect and analyze meaningful qualitative data about teacher performance and effectiveness.  This will lead to a reductionist approach to teacher evaluations which will eventually end up being driven primarily by test scores, because it is the cheapest way to “evaluate” teachers.
    Critical “soft-skill” qualities such as deep understanding of human development and educational psychology, empathy, patience, capacity for caring, forgiveness, kindness, are essential to true teacher effectiveness.  When teaching is reduced to a set of technical skills and performances that are primarily subject to quantitative analysis, the character traits that make the difference between a great teacher and a mediocre teacher go unmeasured.  This will lead to a debasement of our profession and a gradual degradation of our educational system.
    Contrary to today’s politics regarding education, the affective dimensions of teacher effectiveness are the heart of motivating students to care about learning.  A sterile, technical approach to teaching will only further student alienation from school and will actually undermine student motivation and diminish their capacity for learning.

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  3. Mike – I hope you are open to the notion of “sunshining” your union’s collective bargaining proposals once they have been publicly presented to the Board of Education. Not only is the process of making the proposals public a part of the Educational Employment Relations Act in Ca., it is a very healthy way of bringing the greater school community in Los Angeles into the process of determining what is best for our children. John Perez and Duffy have ignored my numerous invitations to work with me to return the ad-hoc “Sunshine Committee” (disbanded in 2000 when Ray Cortines created 11 local districts here) to LAUSD.  I hope you can help.
    Bill Ring

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  4. I agree with your premise, to do what is right for education. But the union is in direct competition for the finite funds within the system. The union is in place to look out for the teacher i.e. working conditions, wages, etc. not to look out for the student and educational  reform. It is the responsibility of your board do what is in the best interest of the students while appeasing the union. It is unfortunate that the union uses it considerable resources to elect members sympathetic to its agenda and not the students. If you want to reform education first we need to eliminate the mandate teachers have, to pay homage to the unions in order to work. It should be voluntary much like it is for the fire union I was associated with during my career. People should have the option to opt out if either the political action fund or the union altogether.

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