A story of educational courage

This is an excerpt from a book titled “Educational Courage: Resisting the Ambush of Public Education,” which profiles people working in support of public education against a tide of school reform that has turned out to be more destructive than helpful. The book of essays by different authors is the brainchild of Nancy Schniedewind & Mara Sapon-Shevin. Following is Chapter 16 by Sam Coleman and Edwin Mayorga, who tell the story of how Coleman came to recognize how corporate-based reform was affecting what he did in the classroom and how he stopped a standardized test score-based merit pay program at his school.

16. “You Want to Pay Me for What?!?”: Resisting Merit Pay and the Business Model of Education by Sam Coleman and Edwin Mayorga

The story we tell is a single act of resistance within a single public
school in New York City. This is a local victory, but we believe that it
is a sign that ordinary teachers everywhere are summoning the will
to stand up for what is just, fair, and equitable, even as the attacks on
our profession, our students, and their families become deeper and
more damaging. We hope that local acts of resistance like this one
can encourage a few more teachers, and those, a few more, and so
on. We start with Sam’s story of how he acted to stop the implementation
of a merit-pay program at his school. Then we discuss how
Sam’s act of courage can instruct and inspire others.

Sam’s Story
This story starts during my third year as a teacher in a dual-language
program (English-Spanish) in a public elementary school in Sunset
Park, Brooklyn. From the beginning, there were moments in
my daily life as a teacher when I felt uncomfortable with what I was
teaching and how I was teaching it. Even as I worked to create and
implement a curriculum that engaged my students with the world,
through a lens of their own and their families’ experiences, I found
myself narrowing the curriculum in order to find time to prepare my
students for state tests. In order to make up for the fact that most of
my students spoke a language other than English at home and were,
according to the state, not on grade level for reading, I found that
I often had to spend between one and three hours a day teaching
my students how to outwit the tests. These were “high-stakes” tests
because students needed to pass them in order to be promoted to
the next grade, regardless of school performance. Although research
shows that it takes five to seven years for English-language learners
(ELLs) to develop academic proficiency in their second language,
my students were expected to take the same tests that native English
speakers take, despite the fact that many of my students had spent
only one year in an English-speaking environment. I was discovering
that our educational system was in fact designed to force teachers
to ignore good pedagogy in favor of finding ways to help students
pass these tests. So, while there were moments when I saw myself as
an agent of change, I would also go home wondering if I was doing
more harm than good. My work was a giant contradiction.

As I began to pay more attention to my own practice, and its
fluctuation between resistance to and support of the status quo, I
also was thinking about the larger policy issues and changes that
were swirling around the world of education. I began to make some
connections. Nationally, the anti-immigrant policy swing has been
coupled with a resistance to bilingual education. Consequently, no
consideration was given to the benefits of taking a few extra years
to develop bilingual and biliterate children. National and state testing
requirements were forcing me to teach to tests, a clear disservice
to all students, but particularly damaging to our society’s most vulnerable
students, including ELLs and students with disabilities. So,
as a third-year teacher, with my teacher education coursework and
master’s degree finally complete, with a feeling of breathing room
back in my life, I decided it was time to get involved in combating
unjust policies.

An opportunity to act came soon after the school year had begun.
I had been to a few meetings of New York Collective of Radical
Educators (NYCoRE), a local collective of current and former public
school educators committed to working for educational justice, but I
had not been able to carve out the time needed to engage in political
work. This year, I had finally found enough time to get involved. The
educational issue that NYCoRE was working on that most resonated
for me was the unjust policies regarding testing. I objected to the
use of standardized test results/scores to judge the success of schools,
principals, teachers, and students when I could clearly see that the
tests were unfair. NYCoRE had just restarted Justice Not Just Tests
(JNJT), a working group formed to resist the use of standardized and
high-stakes tests, so I began going to the meetings. Working on the
belief that high-stakes testing was part of a larger agenda for a business
model of school reform that was pervasive in our school system,
JNJT set out to choose a specific issue to look at and find a way to
resist it. It was around this time that the mayor-controlled New York
City Department of Education (DOE) proposed to pilot a teacher
merit-pay system called the “bonus plan.”

New York City’s Bonus Plan
Merit-pay plans, simply defined, are pay incentive systems based
on individual performance. For educators, merit-pay plans have
been primarily based on “student achievement”—a concept that is
often equated with test scores. In some cases, school systems have
introduced merit pay against the wishes of the local teacher union;
in others, with their tacit support; and still others, with their full
endorsement. The bonus plan came into the New York City school
system by way of a deal our union, the United Federation of Teachers
(UFT), made with the DOE during contract negotiations. At the
time, neither side spoke about the bonus plan, at least not with us,
the rank-and-file teachers.

The contract stated that there was to be a pilot program involving
two hundred schools during the first year. The schools chosen
served a majority of low-income students of color. These individual
schools would vote on whether to accept the merit-pay plan. Approval
of the plan required that 55 percent of each school’s educators
vote in favor of it. If approved, the DOE would set targets for that
school’s raw test scores and level of improvement over the previous
year’s scores. Discussions about scores did not involve school staff in
any way, despite the fact that the scores would account for 85 percent
of the formula for determining a school’s eligibility for the bonus.
The other 15 percent would come from a formula involving student
attendance and the results of parent and teacher surveys on school
environment. If the school met the target numbers, it would receive
a lump sum of $3,000 per UFT member (50 members = $150,000). A
committee made up of the principal, a person selected by the principal,
and two UFT members elected by the staff would meet to decide
how to distribute the money. The committee could decide to
share the money with all staff members; alternatively it could give
the money only to those teachers whose students did well or only to
those who taught subjects that were tested. If they could not reach a
consensus on how to divide the money, it would be forfeited.

The bonus plan brought both a sense of outrage and opportunity
for the JNJT work group. We were still gathering information
at the time, but we could see that a merit-pay program based on
testing would, among many things, divide union members, further
narrow the curriculum, and reinforce impoverished notions of “best
pedagogical practice” and “student achievement.” Tackling the bonus
plan also presented a good opportunity for action because there
would have to be a vote in every one of the two hundred schools.

This meant that instead of having to change the minds of inaccessible
DOE officials or lobbying union leadership, JNJT members would be
able to appeal directly to colleagues in a common language based
on the realities of the classroom. We felt that if we could clearly and
concisely express what we felt was wrong with implementing the bonus
plan, we would have a chance to convince at least some schools to
vote against the program. A major hitch, obviously, was that money
was involved, and in talking to teachers, we could not forget that this
program offered a chance for $3,000 dollars. For many of our colleagues,
that money would make a real difference in their personal
economic situations. We had to be thoughtful about our approach.

Taking a Stand
The opportunity to put the JNJT plan into practice came much
more quickly than we expected. The day after we had decided to
make merit pay our target, I found a joint DOE-UFT memo in my
box at school announcing that our school had been selected as a site
for the bonus plan. The memo came to us on a Thursday morning,
and it mandated that we have the vote by the following Wednesday.
That weekend, with the help of JNJT members, I wrote the following
leaflet:

12/10/07
Dear Colleagues,
The offer to have our school participate in the merit pay
pilot program was thrown at our community without giving
us enough time to carefully consider the consequences.
I spent the weekend doing some research and here are some
thoughts. . . .
I hope everyone can make the meeting on Tuesday to
discuss this.

Some Things to Consider Regarding Merit Pay
• The proposed plan implies that the most reliable measure of a
school’s success is the student’s test scores.
• By accepting this plan we are encouraging the use of high-stakes
testing and encouraging teachers to teach to the test.
(You get money only if students perform well on a test!)
• This plan diverts our attention from the real questions we
should be asking our union and our city government: why
isn’t this money going to reduce class size, increase teacher
salaries in general, and increase arts and other enrichment
programs.
• This plan creates a situation where the principal, someone the
principal designates and two UFT members sit behind closed
doors and decide how the money will be divided. This has the
potential for some inequitable decisions as well as for creating
a divisive atmosphere in our school.
• Merit pay implies that the problem in our schools is that
teachers are not working hard enough. “If only those teachers
would try a little harder, our students would succeed.” It does
not address any of the larger issues that we know impact our
students’ success.
• By accepting merit pay, we are sending the message that we
agree with the analysis that teachers are the problem.
• We have to meet 100% of the goal to get the money. (We still
do not know how the goals will be set, or who will set them.) If
we vote for this plan, and only reach 99% of our goal, we only
get 50% of the money ($1,500).
• If we vote for this plan, and reach 74% of our goal, we get
nothing.
• With all of the issues to consider and unanswered questions,
why are we being rushed to make such a hasty decision?
• Finally, what we do in P.S. 24 will impact what happens in
New York City, and what happens in New York sets a precedent
for the nation. We have a responsibility to carefully weigh
this decision.
• $1,500 is a substantial amount of money. This is a tough decision
for everyone. Come to the meeting on Tuesday afternoon
so we can figure this out together.

Over the next two days, many of my colleagues came to my classroom
or stopped me in the hall to thank me and say that they had
not thought about all the implications of merit pay. The following
Tuesday, there was a buzz in the school, and by 3:15, forty of the
ninety UFT members in the building had gathered in the auditorium
to discuss the proposal. There was a palpable anger in the room, and
it quickly became clear that most of the people who had come to the
meeting were opposed to the bonus plan. As my colleagues got up
to speak, it was exciting (especially to someone new to activism) to
hear comments such as: “Like Sam said in his letter, they are trying to
blame us for the problems in our schools.” The next day, we voted.
When it was over, the bonus plan had been defeated by a seventy-to-thirty
margin. We, as a school, had taken a decisive stand.

After the vote, I posted a report of what had happened on the
NYCoRE Listserv (reaching more than 1,500 people) to let people
know that my leaflet was available for others to use. I received a lot
of congratulations, a number of requests for the leaflet, and some
advice about how to deal with this issue in other schools. Since then,
JNJT has been in touch with teachers in other schools that had voted
against merit pay, allowing us to build our network as we look to
continue the fight against various educational injustices.

Edwin and Sam Reflect on Sam’s Act of Courage
There are many lessons we can draw from Sam’s act of courage. First,
we (the authors) think Sam’s story is a wonderful model for change
based on a process of reflection, analysis, and action—an approach
Brazilian thinker Paolo Freire described as liberation.

Sam’s act of courage began with his reflection on the injustices
that are present in the “trees and forest” of the educational landscape.
Merit-pay plans are a wakeup call about the almost silent attack being
waged on public education by the business model of school reform.
In New York City, the business model is a Hydra that includes
mayoral control, marginalized parent and community input, punitive
assessment systems, the closing of allegedly failing schools, and
the expansion of largely nonunionized and undemocratic charter
schools. We acknowledge that public education has been flawed and,
in some instances, a failure, particularly for the poor and working
class, people of color, those who identify as LGBTQ, ELLs, and students
with disabilities. However, we believe that business-model advocates
ignore the needs of these populations and overlook the many
teachers and schools that have succeeded in the past. Instead they
see education as the next “big enchilada”—a part of the public sector
that is ripe for acquisition by private industry. Public education
is under siege, and the work of public education advocates means
both defending public education and demanding systemic change
that puts students and teachers at the center.

Sam’s story also reminds us to consider the promises and pitfalls
of teacher unions. Historically, unions have been central to
improving work conditions, and there is a lesser-known history of
“social justice unionism” that has brought communities and multiple
unions together to make change. Unfortunately, the promise
of tackling issues beyond contract bargaining has diminished over
time. Antilabor laws hamper the ability of unions (particularly
public-sector unions) to organize and strike. Perhaps most frustratingly,
unions will sometimes limit their own democratic process in
order to appease management, make deals with politicians, and keep
particular leaders in power. Still, we remain hopeful, as grassroots
organizing by educators in places like Chicago, Milwaukee, Los Angeles,
and Washington, DC, have led to the election of more justice-oriented
union leaders. We believe that understanding how unions
operate and moving them toward social justice unionism will greatly
affect the depth of analysis and the power of action by educators.

What should be evident is that acting courageously means traversing
complicated terrain, first through careful analysis and then
taking well-informed action. Sam and JNJT moved from analyzing
the bonus plan and the conditions surrounding it to the transformative
act of sharing a simple leaflet—a democratic union practice
that we believe should be happening everywhere. Analyses must
be shared through conversations, written statements, rallies, and
community-made films like The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting
for Superman. By sharing knowledge, people are able to develop
language and tools for understanding what troubles them and build
their capacity to take action.

“We Must Be in This Together!”
Living and working in tough times, educators are in a vulnerable
position, but stories like Sam’s raise hope. Sam’s story illustrates how
powerful and necessary it is to stand up and stand together for a more
just world.

Standing up positively affected Sam’s morale and his own personal
sense of agency. He was able to negotiate the difficult contradictions
of teaching in public schools. Even though Sam found he
had to do things that were not instructionally sound to help his students,
he was also working for systemic changes that would help all
educators and students.

Sam’s story also teaches us that we must stand together. While
this story focuses on one individual, there is no way that Sam would
have acted without the support of NYCoRE. Working with others
affirms the efforts of the individual and inspires collective activity.
Recently, current and retired teachers have organized themselves
into groups like the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE) in
Chicago and Grassroots Education Movement (GEM) in New York
City to broaden the voice of educators in communities and to advocate
for social justice unionism. Working along with organizations
like NYCoRE, we all seek to reclaim democracy within the unions,
schools, and communities.

In the end, Sam’s act of courage should refuel those of us committed
to defending and transforming public education. There are
many of us out there in the fight. By working collectively, honing a
deeper understanding of what affects education, and taking action,
we are creating a groundswell of strength that will help us challenge
the daunting situation we all face.

Sam Coleman is a third-grade dual-language teacher and an organizer
for educational justice in Brooklyn, New York. Edwin Mayorga, a former
public school teacher, is a parent, a PhD candidate at the Graduate
Center-City University of New York, and a member of NYCoRE

 

Excerpt from Educational Courage by Nancy Schniedewind & Mara Sapon-Shevin

Copyright © 2012 by Nancy Schniedewind & Mara Sapon-Shevin

Reprinted by permission of Beacon Press, Boston

 

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.

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Valerie Strauss · November 22, 2012