How $3 Can Help Transform Education

NEA_GPS_Fund_2Two years ago, delegates to the NEA Representative Assembly voted to increase annual membership dues by $3 per member. The additional resources created the Great Public Schools (GPS) Fund, which is using union-led initiatives to strengthen the education professions and improve student success.

“The sacrifice and commitment to pay an additional $3 is indicative of the shift members have taken to change the mental model of the union— expanding the concepts of employee rights, organizing, and collective action to include not only issues like wages, benefits and working conditions, but issues like professional practice and authority, social justice, and student success,” says NEA Vice President Becky Pringle.

But it’s hard to shift thinking about unions. The reason? Charles Taylor Kerchener, Julia E. Koppich and Joseph G.Weeres, authors of United Mind Workers: Unions and Teaching in the Knowledge Society, say it’s because “Industrial-era labor relations successfully organized [around] the economic rights of teachers, connecting them to the power of collective bargaining” They say the “other half” of teaching still “remains unorganized.”

“Other half” refers to those who are focused on the quality and professional development of all educators—teachers and school support staff. For more than a decade, NEA members have worked to bring these two halves together, and the GPS fund is the glue. Through the initiative, educators are working differently to lead their professions and transform public education, including their unions. To date, 53 grants have been awarded, and more are on the way.

Empowered Beyond Job Description

Utah has been called one of the happiest states in the nation. But the state also struggles with a less flattering and contradictory reality: High teen suicide rates. The pain has been especially high in Tooele County where a dozen suicides have occurred since 2014.

Tooele school support staff were determined to find a solution, and the local president of the Tooele Education Support Professionals (ESPs) Association offered to partner with the county school district to offer in-depth training on bullying and suicide prevention. More than 400 ESPs attended.

The training grew from a three-year GPS grant to the Utah School Employee Association (USEA). The goal was to transform the lead organization, and its 39 locals, into a student-centered, member-led entity. Members—like those in Tooele—are now energized and equipped to move outside the lines of their immediate needs and job descriptions. As a result, they are able to make a lasting impact in schools.

‘The Go-to Organization’

USEA’s immediate goal was institutional change. For example, leadership and staff identified self-limiting features and worked to abandon outdated thinking. This included providing services based on the framework of doing for others. The new mindset means that now USEA works with educators and empowers them to have more input in what happens in their schools. The organization also promotes the work of ESPs. This helps to broaden the understanding that every adult in a public school has a responsibility to educate the whole student.

Professional development is the driving force to that empowerment, and USEA will offer members new skills through a professional development academy that is still in the works, and will offer high-quality training on issues like bullying, safety, nutrition, and Common Core for ESPs.

“We want to be the go-to organization for high-quality training,” says Jerad Reay, president of USEA. “We want our support staff certified so they’re more than just an electrician. This is a school with a certified electrician who knows what’s best for kids.”

By the end of the grant, USEA will broaden agreements with partners, increase local affiliate participation, and design structures to allow the Association to support its members, attract new ones, and mature with them for years to come.

The California Network

It started with an email. The California Teachers Association (CTA) was urging members to join the Instructional Leadership Corp (ILC), a statewide network of professional development providers. They support the implementation of school wide professional development on the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and the Next Generation Science Standards.

Angela Stegal, an English teacher in the Greater Sacramento area, was one of the educators who received the email that described ILC guidelines, which require educators to go through intensive training on the standards and then return to their districts to train 100 of their colleagues to do the same. The idea is to build local instructional and leadership capacity to support new instructional practices. “I can’t do one more thing,” Stegal remembers saying.

Gabriela Orozco Gonzalez, a second-grade teacher at Montebello Gardens Elementary and ILC member, discusses with teachers strategies for “productive work groups” and how to engage students in academic discourse.

Gabriela Orozco Gonzalez, a second-grade teacher at Montebello Gardens Elementary and ILC member, discusses with teachers strategies for “productive work groups” and how to engage students in academic discourse.

But she couldn’t sit by the sidelines, either. “How can I question what my district is doing if I’m not willing to do something myself?” she asks today. So she signed on and was accepted into the program, along with 183 educators who formed regional teams of ILC members.

California, like many states, has witnessed an uneven implementation of the new academic standards. Some California districts provide professional development with no educator input. Others fly in consultants who know little about the school community. “It was cafeteria style professional development,” Stegal says. “Educators get a little of this, a little of that, and it was decompartmentalized where nothing touched.”

Taking the Lead

To turn the tide, CTA worked with partnering organizations, including Stanford University. The goal was to provide more accessible learning opportunities for educators and help the public understand the standards in the same way they are understood by educators who have successfully implemented them.

For Esther Wu, a high school English teacher in the Bay Area and ILC member, this meant providing an effective demonstration of the implementation of Common Core, and outlining the best practices needed to help students meet the standards.

“The ILC starts with students,” she says. “Educators explore who the students are, what they know, what they still need to know—connect that information to the content of the standards—and then find the best practices of instruction and pedagogy. Seeing students move toward more critical thinking, idea integration across content area knowledge, and academic talk has been exciting.”

Of equal importance was that the ILC created an opportunity for educators to reclaim their practice by showing their professional expertise, says Gabriela Orozco Gonzalez, a second-grade teacher in Los Angeles County.

“We’re designing high quality professional development that increases effective teaching strategies for each other and learning strategies for our students,” says the 15-year veteran teacher. “This really puts us back into the expert role that is essential for capacity building and a strong learning community.”

At the end of three years, the project is expected to reach more than 50,000 educators, and become a ripple effect that will reach every educator in California.

Student Learning Objectives

Many education reforms have required that teacher evaluation systems include a student growth component. Some states adopted a system that sorts and ranks educators in a competitive manner based on a single test at the end of the year. Other methods collect and use student data in a way that informs teaching on a daily basis, such as Student Learning Objectives (SLOs).

 First-grade teacher and SLO lead trainer Erica Almeida (left) of Deerfield, N.H. works with Melissa Dirks (center), an elementary art teacher in Frederick County Public Schools examine how local, state and federal initiatives fit into the SLO process.

 First-grade teacher and SLO lead trainer Erica Almeida (left) of Deerfield, N.H. works with Melissa Dirks (center), an elementary art teacher in Frederick County Public Schools examine how local, state and federal initiatives fit into the SLO process.

These objectives are teacher-developed goals that reflect student-learning growth over a specified period and work to improve and document the effectiveness of individual teachers’ instructional practice.

Through the GPS grant, NEA state affiliates in Idaho, Maryland, New Hampshire, South Carolina, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont, and Wyoming formed a consortium to study the objectives and create teacher leaders who will train and support other educators and administrators in creating high quality objectives and assessments in their respective states. Hawaii joined the group this year.

“The nice thing about [the objectives] is when [students] are taking the assessments . . . they think about them as part of the regular classroom,” says LouAnne Jensen, an ELA and U.S. History teacher in Estelline, S.D. “This isn’t the ‘high-stakes test and I have to get a good night’s sleep and I hope they give us a nutritious snack while we’re given the test.’ It’s not a ‘one-and-done’ kind of thing.”

The nine affiliates are in areas that require or suggest the use of SLOs. In total, 30 states have included them as one of the measures used to infer the effectiveness of teaching.

The Consortium

Each state is at a different level of implementation. Some are new to the concept and other states have already started initial implementation and will be the lead trainers for teachers. Others belong to the consortium because it’s difficult for teachers to access quality training.

The group includes rank-and-file members, Association leaders, and administrators. Throughout the year, members participate in virtual meetings. They come together in person for an annual NEA SLO Summit, where they hear what other states are doing.

“The consortium is beneficial because we’re watching the incredible work of educators in different states,” says Martha Allen, president of NEA-Vermont, which is in the beginning stages of implementation. “We can use those examples and lessons learned . . . to advance the profession and student achievement,” as the objectives cross all subject areas.

As with other GPS-funded projects, the consortium is changing the perception of unions by giving educators the power to come together to co-create solutions in different ways. “We don’t just come when there’s a job-related issue. We also advocate to make sure educators receive professional development to enhance their practice for their students,” says Bernadette Hampton, president of The South Carolina Education Association.