November 30, 2011

Teacher Faction Expands to L.A.

Original article in The Wall Street Journal by Stephanie Banchero

An organization of young teachers who support overhauling union contracts launched a new chapter in Los Angeles Wednesday, part of a growing faction of groups that have successfully challenged old-guard labor leaders to overhaul the nation's schools.

The New York City-based Educators 4 Excellence said nearly 200 Los Angeles teachers had joined the group and signed a declaration calling for linking teacher evaluations to student test scores and ending policies that allow the least veteran teachers to be laid off first.

The announcement by the nonprofit group comes as the Los Angeles school district and union leaders are locked in tough contract negotiations.

"When teachers are fully informed and empowered, they hold themselves and their students to high expectations," said Ama Nyamekye, executive director of the Los Angeles chapter and a former New York City teacher.

Educators 4 Excellence, or E4E, is one of a handful of groups working both within and outside existing unions to encourage teachers to become active in reshaping local policies on teacher evaluation, tenure and layoffs. Despite their small numbers, the groups have changed the policy debates in many cities.

Teach Plus, for example, which connects groups of teachers to top policy makers in six cities, including Boston, Chicago and Memphis, helped alter the Indianapolis contract to ensure that teacher effectiveness was considered when laying off teachers with less than six years of experience. E4E, which claims about 3,000 members in New York City, helped shape a similar bill in New York that passed the Senate but not the Assembly.

Other groups include NewTLA, a caucus within Unified Teachers Los Angeles, the city teachers union, and the New Millennium Initiative, a network of educators in five cities that tries to influence local and state education policies.

Teach Plus and E4E have come under fire from critics who charge they are funded by outside organizations and don't represent the view of most local teachers. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, for example, awarded E4E about $1 million and Teach Plus about $4 million.

Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers in New York City, said the funding from national organizations raised questions. "It hurts the morale of the teachers when you have outside groups trying to force an agenda," he said.

Leaders of both groups said they launched their organizations with local teachers before getting Gates Foundation money to expand into other districts.

The groups have mainly attracted those new to the profession, though older teachers have also joined. Many younger educators, who attended school when student testing took hold, feel more comfortable than veteran teachers using data to alter their teaching methods and to judge their performance. They also worry about layoff policies.

April Bain, a 29–year-old math teacher at Downtown Magnets High School in Los Angeles, said she joined E4E in part because she didn't approve of how layoffs were made last year. "It doesn't seem right to just make an Excel spreadsheet of start dates and just start deleting the first 200 rows," she said. "I'm new to this, but I want to be part of the process to find a better way to make those decisions."