Sep 28, 2015

The Dwindling Black Educator and the Death of Transparency in DC

By Candi Peterson, WTU Gen. Vice President

Statements or expressions of opinions herein 'do not' represent the views or official positions of DCPS, AFT, Washington Teachers' Union (WTU) or its members. Views are my own. 

Think back and try to remember all the teachers that left the District’s public school system since the era of former Chancellor Michelle Rhee and beyond? (2008-2015)

How many of those teachers were African-American?

Unfortunately, we can’t answer those questions because we don’t have hard data, mainly because the District fails to provide data on the number of teachers hired, separated, resigning, and retiring by race, age, gender, school and years of service on a yearly basis.

Simply put, government officials in DC do not have the authority to refuse to honor Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. When I chaired a WTU Data committee, we attempted to get information about teacher terminations through a FOIA request, as well as through other internal channels. We requested information be released by common identifiers but the information we received was heavily redacted and of little practical use.

Either approve or deny the request. The practice of keeping information out of the hands of the public is government’s way of covering its tracks. 

Albert Shanker Institute researchers encountered similar challenges when preparing their national Teacher Diversity report. “Despite intensive efforts over the past 1 ½ years, we have been unable to procure teacher-level data for the District and charter schools in Washington, DC. We were therefore forced to draw data from a sample provided by the U.S. Department of Education’s (DOE) Schools and Staffing Survey,” as quoted by Shanker researchers.

The Albert Shanker Institute gathered in September to release their findings from their study titled: “The State of Teacher Diversity in American Education.” The group examined teacher diversity from 2002-2012 in nine major American cities: Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, DC, LA, New Orleans, New York City, Philadelphia and San Francisco.

University of Pennsylvania Professor Richard Ingersoll, recently spoke about the Shanker diversity report to an audience at the National Press club gathering in DC. Ingersoll said the rate of minority teachers ballooned from 1980-2008 and doubled that of non-minority teachers, before the recession.

Since 2008 and post recession, Ingersoll reports that minority teacher rates across the US declined tremendously due to layoffs and “high quit” rates of minority teachers due to job dissatisfaction around poor working conditions in the mostly urban schools where they teach. Other factors cited for lower minority teacher hiring are budget cuts, new charter school openings, and shifting of resources from public schools to charter schools.

Due to a lack of data from DC, Shanker researchers were forced to draw data from the small sample surveys from Department of Education. Based on these surveys, African American teachers decreased from 77% to 49% while white teachers more than doubled in size from 16% to 39% between 2003 and 2008 in DC. Hispanic teachers increased moderately. In contrast by 2022, non-white students are projected to make up 54% of public school attendance, according to the Department of Education. 

The Diversity report noted that black teachers declined as a proportion of all the cities teacher workforce they examined but the shrinkage in black teachers in Washington, DC was described as “alarming”. I suspect if we had data available beyond 2012, the numbers of black teachers exiting our school system may be even greater.

“We just had no idea the extent of it. What’s clear from this data is over the last 10 years or so with the recession, if you look at every one of these cities, there’s a loss of teachers—but African Americans are bearing a hugely disproportionate share of the loss,” Leo Casey, executive director of the Shanker Institute told The Washington Post. The number of black teachers in the workforce declined, in varying rates of severity—from roughly 1 percent in Boston’s charter sector and Cleveland’s district sector, to more than 24 percent in both New Orleans sectors and nearly 28 percent in Washington, D.C’s charters and districts.”

The lack of teacher diversity has been addressed as a national epidemic by education scholars. Among the educational analysts studying this problem is Dr. Leslie Fenwick, Dean of the Howard School of Education. Dr. Fenwick sees the elimination of black teachers from the classroom as not only an economic loss for those educators but a disservice to their students and a detriment for the teaching profession as well.

Studies in the late 80’s and ’90s, found that teachers of color can boost the self-worth of their minority students, partly by exposing them to professionals who look like them. The benefits of keeping teachers of color in the classroom extend far beyond role models.

Research has also shown that students perform better academically and graduate at higher graduation rates, and stay in school when they have teachers who come from the same backgrounds as they do. White students benefit, too. Early interactions with teachers of color can help dispel damaging stereotypes about different ethnic groups.

The question is what can be done to stop high attrition rates of black teachers?  The Shanker Institute study suggests there should be more programs at the state and local level to help minority teachers stay in the classroom.

At DC's New Teacher Orientation (NTO) this school year, I had a conversation with a central office staffer who confirmed my hunch that more teachers of color, more male teachers and more veterans had been hired this school year. Certainly, that’s progress from where I sit but there still there is a lot more to be done.

Simply setting goals to hire more teachers of color is a simplistic solution to a complex problem. If we are really serious about attracting minority teachers to our school district, we are going to have to be willing to examine the reasons these teachers leave, get forced out and what we need to address to retain them. If we are not willing to be honest- it will be impossible to make things better.

One of the major reasons that DC is taking steps to recruit more seasoned Black teachers is likely due to the breakdown in classroom discipline as the recent wave of Teach For America teachers from suburban and mid-western backgrounds are failing to understand the cultural complexities of teaching and communicating with urban youth. New teachers also don't receive the much needed mentoring they need to be successful. 

Not to mention, the results from the independent evaluation of DC public schools which shows that student gains still remain acceptably low and more than 50% of students of color, English language learners and students with disabilities remain less than proficient despite the purging of many of our veteran teachers.

The perverse cycle of "teacher churn" has come full cycle in the District as DC's Human Capital Team are beginning to realize the value of “culturally appropriate” relationships and classroom role models as they ramp up their efforts to recruit more seasoned veteran black teachers.

Yet at the same time the District government resists the demand from parents, school activists and the public to be more transparent as the demographics of Washington, DC's  under-performing schools stay persistently black and charter operators continue to cherry pick students and diversify the teacher workforce as the Bowser administration continues to pay lip service to transparency.

© Candi Peterson, 2015

Sep 20, 2015

Cynthia Lee: The Price of Justice is Too High in a Fairfax County Public Schools Teacher Firing Case

By  Candi Peterson, WTU Gen. Vice President

Statements or expressions of opinions herein 'do not' represent the views or official positions of DCPS, AFT, Washington Teachers' Union (WTU) or its members. Views are my own. 

It’s easy to take for granted the rights and benefits we have as union members. That is, until we need the support of our local union. It’s like insurance. No one ever thinks they are going to need insurance until you get sick, you are in an accident or your house burns down.

Working in education carries risk and none of us, even tenured teachers aren’t immune anymore. From accusations of corporal punishment, workplace disputes, imperfect evaluation ratings, bully principals, suspensions and terminations, teachers regularly face a myriad of problems in the workplace, like never before.

Imagine if you had to seek redress on your own. The price of justice would be way too high for most of us to afford. Not to mention, most people need technical assistance in  interpreting their union contract or help with understanding all the rules and time lines governing the grievance and arbitration process.

I get a lot of calls regularly from DC teachers ranging from questions about the contract to how to approach their boss to advice on how to deal with an administrative investigation to requests to grieve a workplace dispute, suspension or termination.

 It caught me off guard when I received a voicemail from Cynthia Lee, a former African American Fairfax County Public School teacher who had been terminated in 2012 after 13 years. I couldn’t imagine how I could be of help. So it seems my blog, The Washington Teacher caught Lee’s attention and she thought I could offer her some media coverage about her termination.

I guess I always thought the grass was greener on the other side and that teachers in Fairfax County Public Schools somehow had it better. On the national front, in my opinion there seems to be a push to rid our schools of veteran teachers and teachers of color. What a pity for the children we serve.

In many ways, Cynthia Lee’s story is similar to another African-American teacher Fairfax County Public Schools tried to fire in 2012. Violet Nichols, a 30 year veteran tenured teacher also faced threats of termination due to allegations of incompetence.

Virginia law says that teachers may be dismissed for incompetency, immorality, noncompliance with school laws and regulations, conviction of a felony or crime of moral turpitude, or other good and just cause. Regardless of whether a teacher in the state of Virginia is tenured and has a long history of good evaluations, one administrator can throw all that out the window and deem a teacher incompetent.

Some of the reasons cited for Nichols incompetence was that she used too many worksheets and had poor use of technology which she rebutted. Let’s say for a minute we believe these allegations, doesn’t sound like a very high bar to label a teacher incompetent.

Nichols story appeared several times in the Washington Post beginning in June 2012. Although personnel proceedings are confidential, according to the Post-Nichols decided to make her fact finding hearing open to the public , “because she wanted to shine a light on what she felt was a witch hunt.”

Nichols was eventually vindicated after a public fact finding hearing in which evidence was presented and many supporters testified (parents, students). She was later reinstated. Thank God for union representation and media coverage.

Unlike Lee, Nichols was a union member and held a leadership role in her union. Her union membership status afforded her certain rights that non-members in the Virginia Education Association (VEA) aren’t entitled to including representation during the grievance process and payment of her attorney fees as well as hearing costs, which can be quite exorbitant in Virginia (roughly $8000 assessed as the teacher’s responsibility plus payment of half of the panels’ salaries during the hearing).

The Virginia Education Association (VEA) represents more than 50,000 teachers and support personnel in the Common Wealth of Virginia. According to VEA website , “union members are entitled to a hearing. Either the teacher or the school board can ask a fact-finding panel (made up of one school employee nominated by the superintendent, one school employee nominated by the teacher, and a neutral chairperson) to conduct a preliminary hearing and offer findings and recommendations. However, the final decision to dismiss the teacher for cause rests with the school board.”

Cynthia Lee describes herself as the poster child for becoming a union member. Lee said “teachers should join the union, the minute they walk in the door.” She dropped her membership for financial reasons thinking she was safe as a tenured teacher in Fairfax County Public Schools. In hindsight, Lee now knows differently.

There are some parallels to both Nichols and Lee’s cases. Both were African American tenured teachers with advanced degrees and a history of good evaluations. Both had letters of support from parents. Both demonstrated student tests results that supported student achievement gains, no worse than their peers. Both filed discrimination cases that their negative treatment was racially motivated. Both were placed on probation.

In Virginia, once a teacher is placed on probation they must accept a plan of assistance to help them improve. Fairfax County Public Schools provided Lee a coach as well as a committee that helped her to improve her teaching. Lee reports she passed with flying colors and was quite excited about her success and recommendations that her conditional status as a teacher be removed. 

Subsequently, Lee’s principal arbitrarily recommended her for termination due to incompetence in spite of the recommendations by her coach/committee to have her conditional status removed. The principal’s recommendation was made during Lee's mid-year evaluation in January.

Lee states she had a presentation ready to show her principal during her evaluation and was stunned when the principal and her assistant refused to see the presentation. Lee was escorted to the back of her classroom by the principal. At that time, the principal gave her the news that she would be "fired" at the end of the school year. Lee asked the principal, “Is there anything I can do to improve between now and June so I won’t be fired? The principal responded,“no”.

What followed next is unconscionable. Lee attempted to file a grievance about her recommended termination at the Step 1 level with the principal but Fairfax County public schools denied her right to file steps 1-4 because she was a non-union member. Nichols, on the other hand- a union member was able to grieve her recommended termination with the support of the union by her side during the various stages of the process.

“Every time I called the union for help, they told me they couldn’t help me because I wasn’t a union member”, Lee said. The school district advised Lee that she could only appeal her recommendation for her termination at the Step 5 level which is an advisory fact finding hearing. 

Initially Lee had no idea that her cost to pay the arbitrator alone would be more than $8,000, until she hired an attorney who advised her of the fee-splitting costs charged by Fairfax. Ultimately, she spent thousands of dollars on attorney fees.

 According to a Fairfax County Public Schools regulation 4461.1 “the employee shall bear his or her own expense. The school board will bear the expenses of the superintendent. The expenses of the panel shall be borne one half by the school board and one half by the employee.” Lee was livid when she learned that non-union members also were required to pay for the panel members’ salaries during the course of the hearing. Had Lee been a union member, the union would have subsidized these costs.

Fairfax officials also told Lee that in order to appeal using the Step 5 hearing, she would have to waive her right to grieve her termination (using steps 1-4 that had no cost). So Lee wrote the letter to waive her rights.. Even with an attorney, Fairfax refused to allow Lee to use the grievance steps to appeal her termination.

As you can imagine having to make this kind of choice is no choice at all. Lee was unable to afford the costs of the Step 5 fact finding hearing and had to forgo it.Lee admits to signing a settlement agreement with Fairfax County Public Schools under duress, so she wouldn’t be fired and agreed to take a lesser job as an instructional assistant with a $25,000 pay reduction. She remained 1 ½ years in that position. 

 “Thank--you for helping to get the word out about my case. Most minorities cannot afford the high costs of litigation so when employers put fees in their grievance and arbitration procedures, it produces a disparate impact.  Just like the poll tax. We need to lobby congress to create laws that regulate fee-splitting.  Two good teachers with two different results.  By going public with a comparison of my case (no union - no due process - no money to pay for "Fact Finding Panel" - no vindication) and Violet Nichols case (union paid all costs – due process- vindication) it will get the word out to the public that unions are necessary and that law makers need to intervene,” Lee said.

In time, Lee retired and was able to hire another attorney with some of the proceeds from her retirement funds. It’s a shame it had to come to this. She has had several attorneys working on her behalf and remains committed to pursue her case by filing a petition for an en banc hearing (heard by the full court) with the 4th circuit in the hopes they will address the fee-splitting clause in Fairfax's grievance procedure. Hope this helps.

New and veteran teachers, this could be you. Take Lee’s advice, join a union.

© Candi Peterson 2015