For D.C. based author and illustrator Juana Medina, learning English in her native Columbia was a requirement she resisted as a child, yet appreciated later as an adult.
The District’s school system remains a battleground for debates about where teachers fit into education reform. During the past several years, the Washington Teachers’ Union clashed with administrators over how educators should be evaluated and compensated. The WTU’s new president, Elizabeth Davis, joins Kojo in the studio to explore her union’s current priorities as it negotiates a new contract with the city.
- Elizabeth Davis President, Washington Teachers' Union
MR. KOJO NNAMDITeachers' unions across the country today are holding a collective day of action to reclaim the basic promises of public education in the United States. But here in the District the question of ownership and education reform is indeed a tricky one. Few local issues in Washington are as politically explosive as the fight for the future of its education system. And the teaching core of the city's public schools, which some say is threatened existentially by an increasingly popular network of charters is caught in the crossfire.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIElizabeth Davis became president of the Washington Teachers' Union this past summer. She joins us now in studio. Elizabeth Davis, thank you for joining us.
MS. ELIZABETH DAVISThank you. It's good to be here, Kojo.
NNAMDIDuring the past seven years few local issues in the District have commanded as much attention as education reform. Former mayor Adrian Fenty made it the centerpiece of his administration. The issue played a starring role in the next election, which Fenty lost. But today, your union and unions across the country are trying to reclaim the place that teachers have in this conversation. What would you say that you're trying to reclaim? What would you say during the past few years that you've lost?
DAVISWell, as a veteran teacher of 41 years and nine schools in D.C., teachers have lost their voice, along with a number of other professional rights. As a union we decided that the WTU is going to have to become more of a social justice solution driven union that will focus its attention on larger social issues, not simply the bread and butter issues of the past. But reclaiming our voice as educators is critical to teachers in the District. After mayoral control it seems that teachers have been left out of the conversations around education reform.
DAVISAnd in my opinion teachers are the experts on what constitutes quality teaching and learning. One of the things that teachers have complained about in the past few years is this test-driven curriculum, which is deviated from a rich, rigorous content and moving more towards having students to pick the right answer on a bubble test. And the teachers who are in 105 schools that are remaining open are also looking at some of the larger issues that are contributing to our problems, the closing of a number of public schools and the opening of charters.
NNAMDIJust to name a few of the things. 800-433-8850 is the number to call if you'd like to join the conversation with Elizabeth Davis, president of the Washington Teachers' Union. Do you feel the District is on the right track when it comes to reforming its traditional public schools? Give us a call, 800-433-8850. Or do you feel it's time to rethink some of the policies that have been put in place during the past seven years? You can also send email to email@example.com.
NNAMDIIt's hard to find many people who feel that in the broadest sense improvement in our traditional public schools is not absolutely necessary. Where do you feel that teachers fit in to who bears the responsibility for how those schools are performing and where do you feel we can do better?
DAVISWell, I’m certainly not going to argue that our schools need to be reformed. However, parents, teachers, community members, public education supporters certainly need to be a part of the reform plan. Teachers, when we were under a board of education, teachers had an opportunity to weigh in on decisions made about school reform. And of course now, under mayoral control, the voice of teachers has been diminished over the years, along with parent and students. So strong schools mean that we will have strong communities. And teachers' voices, parents' voices, students' voices matter. Assessments of schools are basically now being determined by a test score.
DAVISAnd the test-driven environment has actually led to schools being closed as a result of test scores. So assessment is not merely being used to assess the performance of teachers or the students. It's not being used to justify the closing and consolidation of schools. Quality teaching and learning are two of the things that teachers know. We know what support teachers will need in order to do the jobs that they're required to do. Currently, it seems that the bar's been raised for teachers and students, but the supports that they need in order to reach the bar is simply not there.
NNAMDIIf you've been teaching in this school system or involved in it for 41 years, then you go back at least as far as when William Simons was president of the Washington Teachers' Union.
NNAMDIHe was the president during the first teachers' strike in this city that I covered. What would you say the difference is between then and now. You pointed out that then there was a school board, now there is not. Now, there is mayoral control. Apparently, you feel that during the course of these past 40 years, teachers have lost a say in what goes on in the school system. Is that your view?
DAVISAbsolutely. And of course when we had a school board that authentic decision making power, parents and teachers and the community had a chance to weigh in on issues that surrounded our schools. Now, we have a chancellor and we have sort of a corporate top-down model for reform. A chancellor who reports only to the mayor. A board that is pretty -- well, it's not inactive. It simply does not have the power to make decisions about the schools. And of course principals who are at will, teachers who are pretty close to being at will.
DAVISAnd of course working in an environment such as that basically put a muzzle on teachers and principals and students. So if you have a climate in which people are not willing to identify the problems in schools, it pretty much puts students at risk.
NNAMDIYou became president of the union this past summer, defeating Nathan Saunders, a man who just a few years ago ran against his predecessor George Parker because he felt Parker was too conciliatory to administrators, like former chancellor Michelle Rhee. You essentially made the same criticism of Saunders. You said he was "embedded with management." Where did you feel he was coming up short and why did you feel it was necessary for new leadership?
DAVISWell, Mr. Saunders and I, of course, have had conversations since I won this election. And we differed on opinions about how much leeway do we give management, the chancellor, in determining the contractual and professional rights of teachers. One of the areas in which we were clearly on different turfs was about the teacher's evaluation. The fact that we now have mutual consent in our contract, which was not put there by Nathan Saunders, but more by George Parker, the previous president. However--
NNAMDIWhat does mutual consent mean?
DAVISIt basically gives principals the right, if a teacher's accessed and is not picked up by another school, they need to be terminated.
DAVISAnd of course, if a principal, who may be seeking teachers for various positions, feel that that teacher is not someone they want they have the ability to make that call. It's really not mutual. It's basically a one-sided deal where principals make the final decision as to whether or not they want a teacher.
NNAMDIAnd of course there's the impact evaluation system, which a lot of teachers don't like, but which is not a part of your negotiating contract at all.
DAVISIt's not a part of our negotiating contract. It will certainly be on the table for discussion with the chancellor when we begin the negotiations process. It is clearly a system of assessment that is broken. It needs to be fixed. It's lead to a teacher turnover rate in D.C., which is the highest in the nation. And no one is taking a close look at why teachers are leaving as quickly as we recruit them. The impact evaluation system certainly is very subjective and, of course, it is used in ways other than to simply assess the performance of teachers.
NNAMDII was about to ask what are your most immediate priorities for the union, but I think you just identified one of them. Give me a couple of others.
DAVISOne is professional development. And of course at the top of the list is to reimage the Washington Teachers' Union to take it outside of that stereotypical box that community or the media want to place us in, which is one that's simply rally to the needs of teachers. Teachers are on the front line with students. They are the caretakers, the caregivers. They're in loco parentee, in place of the parent. And they should have a chance to say we care about students as much as the community does. However, at this time teachers are being demonized. They're being dehumanized. And in a lot of ways, the evaluation process is being used to do it.
DAVISThat evaluation system is used not only to assess teacher's performance, but also custodians--all school workers. And of course many of them will agree that it is highly subjective and it certainly needs to be revised and revisited or possibly tossed out.
NNAMDIIt's my understanding that one of the areas where you're particularly skeptical of Chancellor Kaya Henderson is on extending school hours or on extending the school year. Why is it your sense that more flexible hours would not necessarily lead to better student achievement?
DAVISBecause I haven't seen any research that shows that extended school days or year has led to student academic achievement. And I'm willing to take a look at any data that suggests so. I would prefer to see students with a better school day. A longer school day does not necessarily correlate with a better school day for students. We need to take a look at what is going on in classrooms during the days that we have and during the time period that students are in schools.
NNAMDIDo you believe that recent improvements on test scores give you more or less leverage in these talks that you're going to have? Administrators have said gains posted this past year are proof that the approach they've been taking is working.
DAVISI beg to differ with that because there are a number of elements left out of what is included in those test scores. And I'm proud of the fact that our scores went up. I'm proud of the fact that we had a 4 percent boost in our D.C. CAT scores. But what I want to examine closely is how we got it. What students were left behind as a result of us focusing all of our attention on the students on the top of the bubble, the ones that could take us to the next hit or the next hike in our scores. There are a number of students who have been over-tested, almost out of school. The idea of us focusing all of our attention on a standardized test is, in my opinion, very dangerous.
NNAMDIAnd that's one of the things you'll obviously be talking with the school's chancellor about. Elizabeth Davis is the president of the Washington Teachers' Union. This is the first of what are likely to be many appearances on this broadcast, once you agree to return.
DAVISThank you. I will be glad to come back.
NNAMDIAs I said, she's president of the Washington Teachers' Union. Thank you for joining us.
DAVISThank you. It was good being here.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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