Remember the Stanford Marshmallow Test? Adorable children were tested on their “willpower” by being ordered to wait alone in a room with an alluring sweet placed before them. Though they had been promised a second marshmallow if they waited fifteen minutes, some succumbed the urge to take a clandestine bite. The experiment seemed to demonstrate inherent human fallibility, but a more progressive interpretation offers a lesson in social trust: the kids’ willingness to wait was a measure of their confidence that the grown-up would follow through on the promise of delayed gratification. It’s a useful lesson in behavioral psychology for New York’s teachers, who are poised to vote on a long-delayed contract proposal that could end over four years of waiting for labor peace in city public schools.
Mayor de Blasio and schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña hailed the deal as a breakthrough that could grease the skids for other union contract talks. But some educator activists say the deal, which combines modest pay hikes with cuts in healthcare funds and few major changes to working conditions, fails to make up for years of underfunding and labor hostility under the Bloomberg administration. Today, the Movement of Rank-and-File Educators (MORE) Caucus, a rabble-rousing group of United Federation of Teachers members, is campaigning for a “no” vote.
On the bread-and-butter issues, MORE smarts at the convoluted pay-hike scheme, which spreads an 18 percent raise in increments over nine years. An average annual raise of 2 percent hovers around the rate of inflation, which amounts to basically no raise at all, for a workforce with a starting salary well below the city’s median wage. Overall, the dribs and drabs of raises would stretch until 2020—a salary schedule that appears significantly less generous than those negotiated previously by the transit workers. The gap, MORE points out, might set a regressive pattern for other city contract negotiations.
The city offers some teachers an even more questionable pay hike: a “merit pay” system tied to academic performance, designating selected educators with categories of “Ambassador,” “Model” and “Master” teachers. It’s unclear how these labels would be assigned, but generally, tiered pay schemes are criticized as a form of union busting, because they potentially create competing divisions among teachers and undermine union solidarity and workforce morale.
Disgruntled teachers note that many educators—who have long been stressed and frustrated by overwhelming workloads, creativity-stifling standardized tests, weakened due process in employment decisions, and domineering management of schools—might not trust the administration to determine which teachers deserve to be rewarded as models and masters. On MORE’s blog, high school teacher Mike Schirtzer wonders, given the Department of Education’s track record of degrading and undervaluing teachers’ labor in general, “How will they decide who is a master teacher and who is not, by more testing, the flawed ratings, who the principal likes the most?”
The grading of teachers folds into a larger debate on professional evaluation, which the proposed contract will likely perpetuate. The evaluation process would be streamlined by simplifying the assessment criteria from twenty-two factors down to eight, with such jargony titles as “Establishing a Culture for Learning” and “Using Assessment in Instruction.” Those terms do not capture the social nuances of the classroom, or how students and school dynamics differ across schools and communities. And that could end up hurting both teachers and students with arbitrary negative labeling.
An Urban Institute study on New York City teachers who switched schools found that among first-year teachers who were deemed more “effective,” their transfers would tend to place them in schools with higher-achieving students. This threatened to widen the very achievement gaps that the quality designations are supposed address. Now, if teachers are penalized with negative assessments because they work with more challenging students, they may be pressured to flee to “easier,” more affluent schools, exacerbating the teacher turnover problem and leaving disadvantaged students even farther behind.
The proposed contract will also replace teachers’ scheduled work time devoted to providing extra academic help to struggling students, and give them instead more professional development time. Many teachers welcome this plan, since it provides much-needed time for colleagues to exchange ideas and develop curricula. But the trade-off reflects more fundamental system-wide resource shortages: when time and money are short, teachers’ and students’ unmet needs get pitted against each other.
Activist educators demand more holistic investments in the school community, not just tinkering with schedules. The administration could improve the learning environment, for example, by investing in the workforce to reduce class sizes, or adding guidance counselors and nurses to provide “wraparound” supports that facilitate early intervention for struggling kids.
The contract says little about impending long-range reforms, including the implementation of controversial national “common core” standards, which are supposed to make curricula more uniform and rigorous. But the contract offers a placeholder for more dramatic restructuring in the future: up to 200 schools will be allowed to become “innovation schools.” This scheme, which requires the consent of faculty and the union, allows schools to operate outside of conventional union work rules and to undertake more experimental programs. Some see the loosening of union rules as a double-edged sword.
The upside, says Brooklyn teacher and MORE member Julie Cavanagh, may be more room for teachers to experiment creatively with programming—say, trying out new teacher evaluation systems or overhauling curricula to develop programs with a unique focus, such as a social studies-based school. And over time, “we could see some innovations that, if successful, we could then imprint on other schools.” But from a labor standpoint, she adds, “if we’re talking about eroding contract provisions around compensation and job security…. I think that’s very dangerous, and is not something we as a union should be collaborating in.”
As they move toward decision time, the teachers’ contract vote will depend largely on whether they feel they can rely on this administration to steer the education system in a more progressive direction after years of getting bullied by Bloomberg.
“There was an opportunity here to really go into communities and listen…and come up with some really solid policy solutions that would address the oppression that we’ve been experiencing under the last administration,” Cavanagh says. “And frankly the proposed contract falls short of doing that.”
If they feel the contract on offer is more fluff than substance, then the lessons of the Marshmallow Test should apply: the upcoming vote gives teachers—hungry as they are for a raise—a chance to resist the temptation to bite, leave the deal on the table for now and hold out for something sweeter.