The Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA) recently rejected the opportunity to offer congratulations to the National Teacher of the Year, Sydney Chaffee. Why? For the sole reason that she teaches in a charter public school. Breaking with past practice, neither would it invite her to speak to its members.
Is the charter-district war so intractable that professionals can’t offer praise to a peer who educates children exceptionally well or even listen to her ideas about good teaching?
My worst fears have been realized.
In 2009, President Obama challenged states to change their laws so public schools, district and charter, could do a better job educating children. Massachusetts answered the call. As the co-chair of the state legislature’s education committee, I helped craft the Achievement Gap Act, which gave Massachusetts new tools to reach the children being left behind in traditional district schools.
I heard school committee members and union leaders complain about charter schools not willing to share their best practices. Charter school leaders said principals and superintendents weren’t open to changing their practices or were unwilling to pursue revisions to rules that prevented them from implementing what was working so well in charter schools.
Weary of adults who struggled to even speak with one another in good faith, we included a provision in the January 2010 law that put the burden on charter schools to share ideas with districts. We made such sharing of best practices a factor when the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education considered whether to renew their charters. We hoped the high stakes would change the incentives and get folks to collaborate.
Since then, we’ve seen genuine efforts to bridge the divide, many generated by the Boston Compact, a collaboration of district, charter and Catholic schools. Boston Public Schools and Boston charter schools have completed professional development to support English-language learners, launched joint career fairs to recruit more Black and Latino teachers, aligned bell times to save millions of dollars in busing costs, and teachers visit each other’s schools looking for best practices.
In Lawrence, the state-appointed receiver invited several charter schools to help manage struggling district schools, start an alternative high school that focuses on dropouts, partner on an early childhood learning center, and replicate a successful tutoring program.
This is what is possible when school leaders and teachers act in the best interest of children.
Collaboration Has to Be the Rule Not the Exception
We need more of these examples—adults who set aside their differences to improve their own skills and, by extension, their schools. Our focus should be on children and how we best meet their educational needs—whether that’s in a district, charter or parochial school.
If MTA members won’t even vote in support of a congratulatory resolution, I wonder if we can ever expect widespread efforts by district teachers to learn from their charter school colleagues. If MTA members refuse to listen to the National Teacher of the Year even for a few minutes, there’s no way they’ll take feedback from a charter school teacher on effective teaching strategies.
Under the leadership of Barbara Madeloni, the Massachusetts Teachers Association has moved aggressively to reshape public education in spite of the state’s track record of success. Massachusetts routinely finishes first on a variety of educational measures and is the envy of the nation.
That success masks a dark reality for too many students, especially those in urban, low-income families. Massachusetts has the third largest achievement gap in the nation based on family income, a gap that is growing. Massachusetts has some of the best charter schools in the nation, and urban charter schools are closing achievement gaps, often dramatically.
The MTA’s vote rips the veneer off the idea that district teachers want to learn from charter school teachers, if only charter school teachers would be more cooperative.
Maybe those charter school leaders back in 2009 were right about their district peers—maybe most district school teachers really are unwilling to learn from anyone working in a charter school and that collaborations are the exception not the rule.
Rather than being role models as teachers should be, MTA members demonstrated the exact opposite of what parents teach their children about good sportsmanship. In sports, players know they will congratulate members of the winning side at the end of the game. They also know they’ll congratulate a player who demonstrates exceptional skill, no matter whose team the player is on.
I’d like to think the MTA’s approach isn’t our new normal, that we have not totally ceded the middle ground where reasonable people can find common cause. But in an era when President Trump insults with impunity and refuses to show even the slightest respect to someone he disagrees with, the Massachusetts Teachers Association may have more in common with the president than it thinks.