Teachers unions are routinely vilified by pundits and politicians on the right and left these days. So when schoolteachers in Seattle began the school year by going on strike, the editorial board of The Seattle Times was quick to accuse the teachers of “demanding too much.”
The editors called the strike “illegal,” “disruptive,” and “a symbol of excess for those who oppose more school spending.”
What seemed to bother this august body most was that teachers’ demands would “have a negative effect on broader efforts to reform the state education system.”
Now that a tentative settlement is in place (to be approved by the teachers on Sunday), and it appears teachers have been victorious in getting most of their demands met, it’s apparent what teachers were fighting for were issues that are in the best interests of their students.
“It’s a win for public education in many ways,” says Jesse Hagopian, a prominent spokesperson for the striking teachers. In a phone conversation, Hagopian – a Garfield High School teacher, editor of the book "More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing," and recipient of the 2013 “Secondary School Teacher of Year” award – tells me in a phone conversation, “For the first time, our union was able to make social justice the center of the debate. We took a huge step forward.”
For sure, the Seattle teachers were demanding an increase in their pay. After all, as the local Fox News affiliate reports, teachers in one of America’s most expensive cities to live in have gone six years without a cost-of-living increase and have received, over that time, a mere 8 percent increase in base salary from the district.
However, the pay increase – a bargaining position the teachers ultimately greatly compromised on – was just one item in a much more extensive list of demands that demonstrate how badly fans of education "reform" misrepresent and misunderstand what teachers unions often fight for.
Also in the settlement terms, according to a local television news outlet, were student-centered demands including requests for guaranteed 30 minutes of recess for all elementary students, additional staff such as school counselors and therapists, a reduction in the over-testing of students, and the creation of new teams in 30 schools to ensure equitable learning opportunities and treatment of students regardless of race.
While recess may seem to be an unworthy demand to the reform-minded editors of the Times, classroom teachers understand it to be something critical to the health, development, and academic success of their students, as numerous research reports have found.
Having access to school counselors, therapists, and other specialists is critical to many students, but in inadequately funded school districts, such as Seattle, these are the positions that are routinely the first to be cut.
The demand for less testing is also, ultimately, a student-centered demand. As Hagopian explains, this time to Erin Middlewood for The Progressive magazine, “’We oppose these tests because there are too many of them and they’re narrowing the curriculum and they’re making our kids feel bad, but they’re also part of maintaining institutional racism,’ says Hagopian, who serves as an adviser to Garfield’s Black Student Union.”
Hagopian sees the increasingly popular campaign to opt out of standardized tests as being connected to the Black Lives Matter movement because money that should be used to support and educate children and youth of color is being directed to punitive measures such as testing and incarceration.
The connection of education injustice, represented by standardized testing, to broader social injustices is also driving teachers’ demands for equity teams in schools to address widespread imbalances in disciplinary action based on race. Numerous studies have shown black students – especially in Seattle – are far more apt to face harsh disciplinary measures including suspensions and expulsions, and Seattle teachers are wise to insist the district address this disparity.
Social Justice For Teachers, Too
For sure, student-centered demands coming from the teachers are related to teachers' work issues too.
In their demands for less testing, teachers also asked for, and received, relief from having those test results used in their performance evaluations. Although test-based evaluations have been a favorite policy point for the Obama administration and other reform advocates, leading experts have deemed this approach unreliable and invalid as the formulas used in this process can lead to results that can vary dramatically from year to year for each individual teacher.
The district’s demand for an extended school day, an issue teachers objected to at first but now seem to be accepting, is another instance where teachers’ working conditions are intertwined with student learning. What’s ironic about extended-day mandates – another favorite policy point from the reform community – is that the demands usually come from those who are most critical of local public schools. If these critics believe schools are doing such a bad job, why would they insist students spend more time in them?
Further, those who demand students spend more time in school don’t generally consider what exactly that extra time – in this case, 20 minutes – is supposed to be used for. Adding an extra five minutes to core subject classes makes little sense. Adding extra time for, say, tutoring sessions or study time also hardly seems impactful, and may necessitate more costs.
What’s most likely to happen, Hagopian laments in his phone conversation with me, is that teachers will ultimately see the extra time taken out of their time to plan their lessons, examine student work, and collaborate with their peers – all of which are teacher activities that have enormous effects on student learning.
Parents Can Relate
Rather than angering Seattle parents, the striking teachers drew their support. As a Huffington Post reporter observes, “More than 4,000 people have signed a Change.org petitioncalling on parents to support the union. Several parents have co-authoredop-edsadvocating for the teachers' demands.“
The local NBC News affiliate reports parents rallied in front of the school district’s administrative center in support of the teachers. “I think the district needs to buck up,” a parent is quoted. “I don’t want the teachers to fold.”
Joining in the support of the teachers was the Seattle city council that voted unanimously to support the teachers and directed the city’s community centers to care for elementary-age students at no additional costs to parents.
“The biggest win for us [teachers] is not what’s in the contract,” Hagopian explains to me, “but in the solidarity of the community – the support we received from parents, the local chapter of the NAACP, the council, everyone.”
Hagopian points to a “Soup for Teachers” Facebook page that was used to organize thousand of parents to bring food to teachers on the picket lines, and he notes even as news of the settlement was breaking, supporters were rallying to their cause. The outpouring of support prompts Hagopian to regret somewhat the compromise on pay the teachers took. He calls the 2 percent increase above base pay for the least paid teachers in the district a “punch in the gut.”
Despite Hagopian’s regret on teacher pay, Seattle teachers got most of what they wanted because their demands were undoubtedly in the best interests of the students.
Connecting The Dots
Writing for the feminist news outlet Dame Magazine, Sarah Jaffee sources the success of the Seattle teachers to the tactics used in the Chicago teachers’ strike of 2012.
“Chicago’s teachers were legally prevented from striking over anything but wages and benefits,” she writes, “but their organizing, their speeches, their actions highlighted everything from the lack of air-conditioning in the schools to the forcing of students to cross gang lines when their neighborhood school was shut down. Their working conditions, they noted, were their students’ learning conditions. In Seattle, the teachers have been able to explicitly make issues like recess or racist suspension policies part of the bargaining process.”
“We’ve been connecting the dots,” Hagopian says.