Denver teachers went out on strike this week, protesting what they say is an unfair pay system that leaves them not knowing how much money they will earn each year and other elements of market-based school reform.
The strike is the latest in what has been a remarkable display of public protest by teachers during the past year. In this post, two teachers from Denver explain what drove them to the picket line. They are Sean Davis, a special-education teacher at South High School, and Moira Casados Cassidy, who teaches English and English language arts at the same school.
By Sean Davis and Moira Casados Cassidy
Denver teachers are now on strike. We are fighting for a contract that would allow us to afford to live in Denver and continue teaching the students we love. Our strike is also in many ways a referendum on corporate-backed school reform and part of a larger movement for democratically controlled public schools.
For more than 10 years, Denver Public Schools students have been the unwitting guinea pigs in a series of school reform experiments, which include merit pay, charter schools and high-stakes standardized testing. Over this period, Denver’s achievement gap has only widened, further disadvantaging poor and working-class students of color. The reforms have done nothing to expand opportunities for black and brown students. They have done nothing to make teaching a sustainable career in our city.
We feel especially moved to speak out against market-based school reform, as teachers of special-education students and English-language learners. The impact of these policies is not abstract for us, nor is it abstract for our students.
The issue at the heart of the strike is Denver’s unpredictable, unreliable pay system, called ProComp. The district’s pay system emphasizes one-time “market incentives” at the expense of base pay, allegedly in order to encourage teachers to take certain jobs.
But bonuses don’t keep teachers in a school. Teachers stay in schools when they feel valued by their principal and colleagues, when they have a predictable salary, and when they have the resources their students need.
This year, teachers at our school waited anxiously to find out whether we would qualify to receive a $1,500 bonus for working in a Title I (high poverty) school. The percentage of students eligible to receive free and reduced lunch benefits at our school had slightly decreased, putting us close to the district’s cutoff. Ultimately, we did receive the bonus, though it may disappear next year.
Unpredictable pay, based on the district’s arbitrary formula, makes it impossible for teachers to plan their lives, and it does nothing to actually keep good teachers in the schools that need them.
Another reform that has been detrimental to Denver students is the constant focus on high-stakes standardized testing. In Denver Public Schools, standardized test scores have an outsize impact on everything we do. Test scores determine school ratings, which in turn affect teacher pay and school choice enrollment. But we’re painfully aware that standardized tests are not a fair indicator of student learning.
For many students with disabilities and English learners, a test like the SAT is not only inaccessible, it’s irrelevant. We know the most important thing for our students is to ensure their successful post-secondary transitions. However, when we are required to teach to a test that many of our students struggle to access, we’re losing precious time to prepare them for success after graduation.
Are our students ready for a job interview? Do they have a bank account or an ID? Can they read a rental lease? Can they independently ride public transportation or communicate their needs to a stranger?
Teachers know what’s best for our students, because we work with them every day. Our job is to create opportunities for them and to set them up to achieve their goals. Teaching to the test distracts us from that important work.
Finally, Denver’s “portfolio model” of school choice has harmed students by severing ties between schools and neighborhoods. Many of our students travel hours every day on city buses to and from school on top of working to help support their families. Families “choice in” to our school for its record of excellence in serving English learners, but the question remains: Why aren’t excellent schools located in every neighborhood? Why should students and parents be forced to sacrifice their precious time to commute to more affluent schools?
School choice has also fueled the gentrification of historical black and Latino neighborhoods in Denver. As Denver’s economy has boomed, its leaders have catered to wealthy developers. Since 2005, Denver has closed 48 neighborhood schools with rich histories and generations of graduates, replacing them with charter and “innovation” schools despite the objections of the community. At a recent organizing meeting in Montbello, a primarily black neighborhood whose flagship high school closed in 2010, one community member said: “It’s not that we don’t have a voice. We do. It’s just that no one listens.”
Denver doesn’t need to look far to find strategies that actually work. Decades of data on school integration and recent findings on community schools show that we already know how to provide relevant, supportive educational experiences for students of all backgrounds. Parents know their kids, teachers know their students, and research shows results. Let’s use this expertise to improve student achievement.
Like teachers in California, Arizona, Oklahoma, Kentucky and West Virginia, Denver teachers are striking for the schools our students deserve. The whole country is watching, and now is our chance to stand on the right side of history. We urge Denver Public Schools and political leaders to work with us — teachers, parents and students — to ensure that our students receive a world-class education.