Labor and English Language Teaching

The state of English Language Teaching (ELT) (and teaching content, electives overall) is going through a serious, almost radical, transformation.  Long gone are the days where union chapters, building reps and others who represent a teaching staff have the backing of their affiliate or parent union for support.  No more do we see teachers of all areas praised for working miracles with society’s problem students/children. Forever gone are the school days filled with bright eyes, smiling faces, recess, and an obvious love of learning.  What we see are bubble tests, exhausted and anxiety ridden students and teachers, and administrators and policy makers with little or no teaching experience making life changing decisions over the lives of people in a profession they know so little about.

The plight of the American worker (teacher) and student has epitomized the exploitation of labor.  Whether one works at a Wal Mart, McDonalds, GM plant or PS 234, the work force is no longer viewed as a crucial element in the growth or strength of the industry. Unfortunately, we now need to refer to education as an industry. We are all expendable cogs in which one’s labor is viewed as a means to enhance the profit margin of the few who do so little of the work yet reap the profits and accolades of ‘high society’ (government, media, etc.)

ESL teachers are unique in the work force of education. The motivation level of many of the students is often far higher than the general population.  Their backgrounds almost dictate they be placed in an educational survival mode. Either their families were well educated before coming to the US, they see that education actually is a key to further independence, or even the judge says stay in school or be deported, all contribute to a greater degree of determination amongst the ELL population to advance.

As teachers one is surrounded by colleagues who really love their job (not that others don’t!) and it shows everywhere, from the classroom to the department meetings. The motivational level of ELL teachers is readily viewed at the state conferences and international conventions. It’s very difficult for many teachers to even get time off from work to attend such conferences, but efforts are made and conventions, such as TESOL, are often quite successfully attended. At one count the attendees in 2014 was over 6900.

The morale of ELL teachers as members of the teaching profession is often high despite all the negativity surrounding them.  They have to deal with the same bureaucratic requirements, endless self-evaluative reflections, equal or even more amount of time devoted to testing and other time-wasting endeavors. However, the demands on labor are getting to be so endemically obtrusive, they’re even seeing ELL’s leaving the field to save their sanity, ethical standings, and health.

Below are three main categories that have negatively impacted — or been impacted — by the working conditions of the English language teacher, as well as so many others: minimal or lack of union support, excessive testing and tying teachers’ evaluations to student scores, and overall morale within the profession.

On the national level we see a clear connection between all that is coming down on teachers and students via Common Core and its support from the national union leadership. Randi Weingarten (AFT president) and Dennis Van Roekel (NEA president) have been strong advocates of the Standards and all that it entails.  One of Weingarten’s concerns is that states will not implement the standards properly, not that there’s anything fundamentally wrong with it.   “Growing numbers of teachers and parents across the country are very much in favor of the Common Core State Standards and want the implementation of these standards done right. As a result, they are calling on federal and state officials to put the brakes on the high stakes associated with Common Core assessments until the new standards are properly implemented and field-tested.”

According to educational blogger Mercedes Schneider, an untested, unpiloted set of standards is not NEA’s concern; its execution is.

What is often ignored regarding the Common Core State Standards is that this is a package deal. Again, according to Schneider, the National Governors Association promoted a set of “internationally benchmarked standards and assessments” as part of a larger reform package that includes teacher evaluation/pay for performance, “turning around” schools (i.e., handing traditional public schools over for charter operation), and building data systems.

A key element in the oppressive working conditions is the over-reliance on testing (see below). Union leadership should be at the forefront in the struggle to confront this behemoth but the ties between testing and Common Core is cemented and AFT/NEA are squarely behind the package. We see that the Executive Director of the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) is Chris Minnick. CCSSO is one of the owners of the Common Core State Standards.  Minnick’s background is with Pearson, involved with ‘the advancement and improvement of assessment’.

How does union support of the Common Core and its lack of support for teachers’ manifest itself in the classroom? What are teachers facing as employees that are being ignored by union leadership? First, isn’t the primary role, other than to engage in collective bargaining, to help relieve onerous, unfair, intimidating working conditions set upon by either the administration of a school or even a school board? Why are teachers being left out to dry with no union backing? What is going on in the classroom that is being ignored by Weingarten, Van Roekel, and the lower echelon of leadership at the affiliate level?

A major point of contention is tying teacher evaluation to student performance on standardized testing. In some places it’s called VAM (Value-Added Model), in other it’s SLO (Student Learning Objectives). The flaws regarding VAM are innumerable. Pearson’s, who claims itself to be “the global leader in education and education technology”, own White Paper says, “… little consensus exists within the research community about which value-added models are most appropriate or the manner in which they should be incorporated into accountability systems.”

As an ESL teacher in Prince George’s County MD, whether we’re ‘on cycle’ or not for observation that year, we must complete an SLO. These make up 17% of our evaluations at the end of the school year, yet there is no real clarity on this issue. (Furthermore, the governor of Maryland, Martin O’Malley, has just signed into law a moratorium for 2 years of applying such data to teacher evaluations. Our union president, however, is adamant in his refusal to intervene and stop the SLO’s for this school year.- See below) As one who currently teaches a Language of Math class for 9th grade newcomers, I had to select a particular number of students at the beginning of the year, give them a ‘diagnostic’ test, and re-test them at the end. The flaws in this process might be obvious, but to point out the highlights: the diagnostic test and the make up of the students.

What test is given? For us, it was of our own making to determine the basic understanding of math operations. This is a language class yet language concepts are not included.

The pool of students chosen was also of a dubious scientific approach.  The diagnostic test was given to all in the class. It makes sense to see where students are in August and assess what improvements they made by the 4th quarter. I don’t see anyone objecting to this. However, being that the test is not given on the very first day, we as teachers have the opportunity to use our professional judgment to quickly assess how students may do given a familiar routine of both the class and acclamation with the teacher. I know that “Edgar” is a smart kid, he plays around when appropriate, but is serious about his school work. I hope he does miserably on the initial diagnostic test! Fortunately, for me, he did not pass. As I see him progress during the early parts of the school year, it is he that I include in the final assessment to determine growth within the SLO rubric.  As a professional, it pains me to have to rig such an evaluation. I’m going to be looking like Jaime Escalante by the end of the school year. What a marvelous math teacher for one who struggled through Dummy Math in college, just to get that one class out of the way.

On the surface, SLO’s are our friend, no? What is not taken into account for ELL teachers is the nature of the student. How long will they be in the class? Will they be there in April as they were in August? Will they move out of one class to another and we can no longer count their scores? Will the family be deported or have to go underground?

If one is a lousy math teacher but the same student excels in music, who’ll get credit for imparting mathematical wisdom? I would argue the music teacher but s/he (if that position even exists in the school) gets no recognition for this student’s mathematical advancement.

The stress related to conducting the tests is enormous for the teacher. Not just in administering the tests, but teachers go through hours and hours of first trying to understand all that the SLO is required of us to complete, and then to have to revise it because of miscommunication ‘from above’ on how to complete it. Additionally, much of the confusion my colleagues in particular were faced with coincided with end of semester/quarter grading, unit testing, etc.

When teachers’ evaluations are based on dubious data, the sense of professionalism goes out the window. Not just at my school, but in any school teachers in the clique of the principal’s domain will be asking for the best possible classes to teach when it’s their turn to be ‘SLO’d’. English Language Teachers who teach the lowest levels of English proficient students will, by the very nature of the class, not likely to show the kind of growth compared to their peers. English language acquisition can take five to seven years. Teacher evaluations are based often on just one year’s worth of formal education. I mention ‘formal’ as so many of our particular students have interrupted education or lack any formal education whatsoever.

However, both the AFT and NEA endorse tying teacher evaluation to student performance, even though there is no data to show its effectiveness. In fact, our NEA affiliate, PGCEA, has been conspicuously silent to the cries of its union members regarding this haphazardly executed SLO demand on them. Ken Haines, President of this association, responded to the opposition coming from the rank and file with, “PGCEA does not have a position of opposition to Student Learning Outcomes.”

The Economic Policy Institute’s published “Problems with the Use of Student Test Scores to Evaluate Teachers”. In part, they conclude:

For a variety of reasons, analyses of VAM results have led researchers to doubt whether the methodology can accurately identify more and less effective teachers. VAM estimates have proven to be unstable across statistical models, years, and classes that teachers teach. One study found that across five large urban districts, among teachers who were ranked in the top 20% of effectiveness in the first year, fewer than a third were in that top group the next year, and another third moved all the way down to the bottom 40%. Another found that teachers’ effectiveness ratings in one year could only predict from 4% to 16% of the variation in such ratings in the following year. Thus, a teacher who appears to be very ineffective in one year might have a dramatically different result the following year. The same dramatic fluctuations were found for teachers ranked at the bottom in the first year of analysis. This runs counter to most people’s notions that the true quality of a teacher is likely to change very little over time and raises questions about whether what is measured is largely a “teacher effect” or the effect of a wide variety of other factors.

When asked of the President of PGCEA (Prince George’s County Education Association, an NEA affiliate) why this association has shown so little support to the teachers in addressing this serious concern, Ken Haines was non-responsive to one written request and hostile to a Faculty Advisory Council (equivalent of a union chapter in a school) by quoting from the handbook what a FAC can and cannot do, thus attempting to shut the door on this particular group of teachers’ fight over the end of year SLO’s.

Although touched upon above regarding SLO’s and VAM’s, one aspect of public education that has truly turned this noble profession into an unrecognizable industry is the excessive use of testing of the students and how the teachers must be complicit in it.

In Prince George’s County (Maryland) alone 52 days (of 180) are scheduled for High School Assessment testing. This includes make-ups and on-line testing. This does not include FAST tests (Formative Assessment Systems Tests), MUST (Mandatory Unit Systems Test), AVID testing (Advancement Via Individual Determination), SATs, PSATs, and teachers’ own assessments. I like to think that we do have one week in February where we actually can teach but it snowed this year.

Teachers are professionals but are also workers/employees, part of the labor force and the labor that goes into educating our youth. The excessive testing has been responsible in part for creating a very oppressive work environment, not just for the students. It pains us when we are not permitted to teach in order to get the next series of tests out of the way. It pains us when we are scripted in how we teach and how we prepare our students for high stakes tests. One recent workshop regarding the new PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) tests to replace the High School Assessments had one teacher saying, “I don’t think our AP (Advance Placement) students could do this.” We also had a variety of answers from the teaching staff, nearly all holding Masters’ degrees and above. It doesn’t seem to bother those legislating PARCC exams to examine the fact that there is no data that shows that the Common Core curriculum even prepares our students for college.

Morale amongst the working staff at not just my school but across the country is at an all time low. Why is teacher attrition so low? According to a 2004-2005 Met Life Survey of the American Teacher, “new teachers reported being greatly stressed by administrative duties, classroom management, and testing responsibilities, as well as by their relationships (or lack thereof) with parents.”

Attempts to retain teachers in spite of the harsh working conditions have not met with great success. An approach has been that of merit pay. One would think that if one bases their salary on the progress of students, than that would boost retention of a teaching staff. It should be no surprise that teachers by and large are always doing the best they can for their students and additional money does not make a better teacher. The National Center on Performance Incentives of Vanderbilt University and the RAND Corporation have determined that merit pay has no effect on teacher performance.

To some, the only advantage of merit pay is extra pay.  The same Ken Haines of PGCEA argued on behalf of merit pay when he was a teacher at a neighboring high school before ascending to the presidency. His argument was simply he wanted more money.  The fact that merit pay pits teacher against teacher, destroys collegiality and invites disunity amongst the teaching staff held no sway for him and other teachers who take that position.

One last aspect of the plight of labor conditions in our public schools is over the role of the teacher in society. To our English language learners, the role of the teacher takes on a higher status in society for many reasons. However, to the American public at large, one can’t seem to ‘sink’ any lower than that of a teacher. Gone are the accolades at the grocery store when people would say thank you and ‘I could never do what you do’ to what we are witness today to be nothing short of public shaming.

The story of Rigoberto Ruelas, Jr. is an unfortunate human tragedy most likely related to such shaming.  He was an elementary school teacher in LA who chose to take on a challenging elementary school. “Based upon the test scores of 149 students, Ruelas was dubbed “ineffective.” Although the ratings were attacked as being imprecise, unreliable, and inconsistent, Ruelas was understandably humiliated and depressed over being called ‘ineffective’ in the media. Just over a month after the publication of the ratings, Ruelas’s body was found in a ravine…The coroner determined that Ruelas committed suicide. Although a direct correlation cannot be made, this anecdote ought to highlight one likely consequence of such shaming.” 1

In the May 8, 2011 edition of the Los Angeles Times, one could go on to their database and see the ratings of all teachers and schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

The New York Post on February 25, 2012 reported how the city of New York had just released the performance grades of over 12,000 teachers. Included in their subheadings were of teachers receiving a zero and another that only 32 teachers overall received a 99% rating.

At the highest level of the federal government, we see other cases of how society treats the teaching profession with disdain and public humiliation. President Obama joined the chorus of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and others in their praising of the wholesale firing of the teaching staff of Central Falls High School in Rhode Island in January 2010.  This was a poorly performing school that was also in a very poor district.

A survey conducted by Deborah Lynch of Chicago school teachers during the 2011-12 school year showed why morale was so low.  “When asked about the most serious challenges facing them today, the urban teachers in the study reported that public perception was their most serious problem—far more serious than even student behavior or school safety.” The survey included space for comments. One read, “We are being used as scapegoats for a lot of problems…Nobody can figure out how to solve the problems of poverty, broken families, lack of role models…hard problems to solve and it’s just easier to that teachers are all bad.”

So what can be done to improve the morale, return sanity and perhaps reverse course, with union leadership trying to catch up with the rank and file?   Badass Teachers Association is one such organization that has taken teacher advocacy to new heights. Started in the summer of 2013, by April of 2014, it had reached 42,000 + members. Its stated mission and goals are:

MISSION: Badass Teachers Association was created to give voice to every teacher who refuses to be blamed for the failure of our society to erase poverty and inequality through education. BAT members refuse to accept assessments, tests and evaluations created and imposed by corporate driven entities that have contempt for authentic teaching and learning.

GOALS: BATs aim to reduce or eliminate the use of high-stakes testing, increase teacher autonomy in the classroom and work to include teacher and family voices in legislative decision-making processes that affect students.

This organization bridges the political divide. Made up of leftists, libertarians, Democrats and even Tea Partiers, BATs are joining with Opt Out (of testing) organizations, parent groups and other advocates for public education. Bats are pro-union, certainly at the consternation of some of its more conservative members, and pro-public schools. Contrary to media, congressional and White House hype, our public schools are indeed popular and supported by the general population. It is the power of the educational ‘advocates’ like Bill Gates, Michelle Rhee, President Obama and Arne Duncan, who have done much to hurt public education. Their promotion of merit pay attacks the collegiality and professionalism of teachers who must now fight to have their students, and their scores, out-perform other teachers’ students. They point out how awful we are on international tests, not acknowledging that we have never been very high to begin with nor disaggregating for poverty that would then rank us near the top. But poverty is not an issue any elected official, Democrat or Republican, likes to even acknowledge.

Badass Teachers are now helping to change the narrative on public education. Hopefully, the union affiliate leadership as well as national figureheads will get behind them, rather than watching them go by, taking charge, and fighting for public education in America.

Other attempts at finding solutions to the assault on public education are still through the unions. In spite of so many county associations seemingly bending to the demands of school board management, there is still hope in the unions. Karen Lewis is now president of the Chicago Teachers Union. Her grassroots organization CORE (Caucus of Rank and File Educators) took on the very established UPC (United Progressive Caucus) and won with a majority vote (60%) in their run-off election. Union leadership under Lewis has openly challenged the mayoral administration of Rahm Emmanuel and the city’s establishment leaders on saving veteran teachers from closed schools, preventing merit pay and lessening the negative impact of teacher evaluations.

There have been other examples of unions fighting back.  When the teaching staff of Garfield High School in Seattle boycotted their MAP test (Measures of Academic Progress), the AFT supported them. Additionally, the Washington Teachers Union has passed a motion supporting parents and students for opting out of state tests. (April 2014) In Baltimore County, Maryland, TABCO (Teachers Association of Baltimore County) filed a workload grievance against the school board in December of 2013 due to initiatives issued by the board.

There are other grassroots organizations involved in ending some of the more pernicious attacks on public education and its students. Testing is clearly one of the main focal points of contention. Whether it be tying teacher evaluations to student performances on standardized testing (VAMs, SLOs) or other tests that are considered to be of little value but may be part of a contract (Maryland State Assessment for middle schools that will be replaced the following year with no alignment), organizations are taking the lead in a variety of ways. The Network for Public Education has called for Congressional hearings.

The state of teaching English language learners has gone through radical changes over so many decades. There have been much to learn about second language acquisition, teaching methods, the politics of teaching ELL’s, etc. What also has changed has been the nature of the ELL teacher as a professional worker. ELL teachers are no different than content teachers in demanding and expecting rights as workers that all are accustomed to.

As we see drops in union enrollment amongst teachers overall, NEA membership dropped 16% from 2010-2014, we see also a decline in the effectiveness of such teachers’ unions in dealing with initiatives that come from non-educators but mandated by law to be carried out down to the classroom level.

In spite of the weakness of teachers’ unions, they have been instrumental in delaying or slowing down some of the initiatives like merit pay, evaluating teachers based on student performance on standardized tests, etc. However, this has only been a slow down. Teachers’ unions throughout the country are not permitted to call a strike, the only real power a union has, denying one’s labor. Unions would be de-certified. This is, of course, a goal of many of the so-called reformers who openly call for the busting of unions or their complete emasculation.

Every day teachers (ESOL, content, and elective) are finding more and more ways to see their roles in the classroom delegitimized. We’ve seen above how easily one can be terminated based on ‘voodoo’ metrics of accountability.  Co-teaching models used throughout our schools are relegating ELL teachers to that of para-professionals. Pass the PRAXIS and in a morning one can be on their way to be certified in ESL. Once teaching was that magical relationship between a student and a teacher. In today’s public schools, a very large part of one’s time is administering or proctoring for standardized tests.

It is no wonder that the morale of the ELL teacher, along with most others, has been reduced to the point that attrition rates have plummeted and the numbers of new teachers applying as well.  Union busting programs such as Teach For America are adding to the ennui and malaise where inconsistency of employment is rewarded and supported even with tax dollars.

What the future holds is anyone’s guess. There has been a strong push-back against the excesses of the education ‘reform’ movement. Teachers are organizing, with or without their union support, parents are seeing the potential of their power, and students are speaking at public hearings and demonstrations. In a way, the public school system really does work when we see such divergent populations coalescing around common themes of ‘mis-education’. The Common Core is now under attack in many states, with many states withdrawing from the PARCC consortium of testing. The Allendale Columbia School in Rochester, a private N-12 school, has advertised itself as “The Cure for the Common Core.” The idea is catching on and ELL teachers may soon find themselves back in the classroom unhindered by such rules and regulations dictated by non-educator policy makers and doing what they do best, teach.

  1. Frank G. Barile, B.Y.U. Education and Law Journal, “Making Enemies Out of Educators: The Legal and Social Consequence of Disclosing New York City Teacher Data Reports”, 2013 []
Myles Hoenig is a veteran of the Prince George's County Public School system in Maryland, USA. He's a long time activist for social justice. He lives in Baltimore. Read other articles by Myles.