Columbia Heights: A Case for Teachers Unions
In today's educational debate, much is made about the obstructionist tendencies of teachers unions. They stop sensible policies from being implemented; they keep bad teachers in the classroom; they demand too much money for their members; and the list goes on. Opponents of teachers unions will often grant that unions once had their place, specifically back when female teachers were routinely treated worse than their male counterparts. However, these critics often argue that the time for teachers unions is long gone, that teachers have it made these days, that schools and districts are capable of treating teachers fairly, and that it's time to rid ourselves of the unions in the name of progress. I would agree, if all that were true, but it's not. It's true that unions often pose significant barriers to real and potentially positive change in the world of educational policy and practice. It's also true that unions often fight to retain ineffective teachers. But sadly, many teachers are still so horribly mistreated by administrators that unions are still a necessity in many places.
Columbia Heights Educational Campus is a perfect example of a school that demands a union. Teachers at the school are routinely bullied. They are expected to do nearly twice as much work as teachers at other schools with no extra compensation because the school is so interested in demonstrating to the outside world that it's doing ALL the best practices in education at once (so that it can rake in money from various non-profits - see Fight for Children) that it doesn't have time to support or listen to teachers' challenges. Teachers are provided very little voice in the decision-making process at the school and very little support. Administrators have been accused of sexual harassment, engaging in physical confrontations, lying on IMPACT evaluations, and consistent verbal abuse of teachers and students. However, because teachers fear the school's politically well-connected leadership will retaliate against them if they file charges or speak out, almost no teachers are brave enough to write letters to the union or human resources explaining their reasons for leaving. And filing lawsuits requires significant documentation of alleged abuses, the kind that teachers who are so overworked simply have little time for (although, despite this, some courageous individuals have managed to take at least some union action against administrators who have lied on teacher evaluations).
To provide some insight into the kinds of people that teachers at Columbia Heights are dealing with, I'd like to show you what one of the administrators wrote on my Filthy Teaching blog back in March:
"Show your face, don't hide behind the white hood of your blog. You are a Neo-Nazi coward, disguising yourself as an educator.
You are from Seattle, right.
I bet you have a dog-eared version of "The Turner Diaries" on your nightstand. Charlatan. Faux education journalist/ policy guru. You give white folks a bad name. From your bio--"I wanted to know what it was like to teach in a dysfunctional system", to the stick figure images of students, to I shaved my head bald to intimidate students, everything about you smacks of white entitlement and bigotry. I know your former school is ecstatic that you are gone.
I mean, come on, be original, how many young white teachers move to DC, have no knowledge of the city, no cultural competence, let alone no teaching skills, but envision themselves teaching for two years, and then heading for the Ed Policy hills, armed with the street credibility of working in urban education. (a buzz word for working with black and brown students. You and your cynical ilk , get away from our students. Go and mis-educate your own kind."
Additional hateful comments were posted by the same administrator on the blog of another teacher at CHEC:
"You are FIRED!
You need to be fired, you unwashed cochino. I guaran-tee, you don’t spend as much time planning, as you do writing this juvenile blog. Anyone who despises students, despises learning as much as you do, should have a group of black-suited commandos (all of the students you have screwed-over) strap you to the white board, and beat you with the teachers’ editions of the ******** and ****** textbooks you deprived them of. All the while you’ll be babbling ” But I showed you guys ********.”
You typically don't expect administrators to incite violence against colleagues over the internet, but that's CHEC for you.
The situation at Columbia Heights has gotten so bad that multiple letters have been sent not only to Chancellor Michelle Rhee, but even to Mayor Adrian Fenty. These letters describe the abuses of teachers and the lives that many of them are forced to lead, which often includes feeling physically ill to go to work. In the social studies department alone, FOUR teachers have quit just since November (one just this week), and all but a few of them plan on leaving in June. Despite the constant turnover, administrators refuse to acknowledge that teachers are leaving. They ignore the fact in staff meetings and often don't even respond to letters of resignation.
One recent letter to Chancellor Rhee reads as follows:
"Dear Chancellor Rhee,
Some numbers for you:
19 teachers have taught in this department since the beginning of the 2008-09 school year.
6 of those 19 remain or have not formally resigned effective at the end of 2009-10.
4 of those 6, that I know of, are actively seeking employment elsewhere for next year.
Our department is fully staffed with 9 teachers. Even if the 4 who are hoping to leave come back, that gives us a 144% turnover rate over these two years. If they leave, our turnover rate is 189% for two years.
I could add to this many opinions, anecdotes, rumors and all manner of other details that could shed light on these numbers. They would all be colored by my own biases and I know much of what I have to say has been well-documented in the past. So I will hold these thoughts for now and stick to the numbers.
In the name of data-driven decision making and what is good for students, I submit that these numbers indicate that something is deeply wrong with this department."
The mess at CHEC has prompted one thirteen-year veteran (a national board certified educator and one of the most well-known and well-respected teachers in all of DCPS) to finally decide to leave the school at the end of the year. When he informed the administration, they chose not to acknowledge it and, instead, sent an administrator to formally observe him the day after his announcement (and if you want to know how those observations go, read this post) Additionally, this teacher chose to exercise some leadership of his own and has begun to boycott department meetings (with the possibility that an entire department may begin boycotting meetings as a result of failed leadership on the part of the administration). The same veteran managed to organize a meeting scheduled to take place today with a representative from the chancellor's office, the union, the department, and the school's administration to discuss this failure.
The sad reality about this whole situation is that it's nothing new. This kind of abuse happens in a lot of schools across the country (here's an example in NYC). Often, these horrendous conditions endure because teachers simply quit and a whole new batch of fresh-faced newbies comes in to fill the void. JD2718, a teacher's blog in NYC, has an entire section devoted to schools teachers should stay away from (see Do Not Apply).
What will it take for Rhee and the central office to remove awful administrators from a school they consider to be one of their jewels? Jay Matthews would say that it doesn't matter how horribly teachers are treated, education is about students; so as long as test scores are rising, that's all that really matters. I would disagree. It shouldn't take a genius to figure out that you shouldn't treat people like this simply for human decency's sake. But if that's not enough for you, then I would also point out that there is no way for students to get a solid, unified curriculum from a school that turns almost fifty percent of its staff over every summer. Additionally, the outrageously high stress levels of the teachers at schools like CHEC undoubtedly influence the quality of instruction in the classroom. Teachers in these environs face the double challenge of working with kids from impoverished backgrounds and disadvantaged communities on the one hand while fighting a corrupt and often incompetent administration on the other.
And so it is, and will be, that unions have an appropriate role to play in bettering the educational opportunities for our students. Although the WTU has been less than effective at solving the problem at CHEC, practically no noise would have been made about the situation at all had it not been for the union.
Rather than demonize teachers and their unions, it might be more effective to first ensure that teachers are treated fairly enough that they don't fear working without a union. Maybe then teachers and their unions would be less resistant to changes in policy and practice.