By John Rogers
Published Oct 1, 2014 8:00 AM
After teaching in the L.A. area for 24 years, Alex Caputo-Pearl M.A. '97 is the new president of the 31,000-member United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), the second-largest teachers' union local in the nation. UCLA Education Professor John Rogers discussed with him some current issues facing teachers and students.
Q: What are you most proud of about your years of teaching?
A: My engagement with the community, and parent and community organizing. For example, at Crenshaw High, we built the Extended Learning Cultural Model in collaboration with parents, faculty, student leaders and the community. Teachers created interdisciplinary units of study relevant to students' lives. The units culminated outside the classroom, where students demonstrated what they had learned through small-business development plans or paid internships in community organizing or community advocacy.
Q: Why is it important for students to connect the classroom to the community?
A: First, students who have felt alienated by school, or whose families don't support them in school, need to see that school connects to their community or their family or cultural interests. Second, particularly in Los Angeles, where most students are from low-income families and marginalized communities, the school can serve as a hub for building a movement around broader community needs. The school can help develop leaders — among students, parents and teachers — to play a role in improving the community.
Q: In two decades, what changes have you seen in L.A.'s public schools?
A: One of the biggest is a trend toward racial and economic segregation. Many more schools receive public funding now — and in many cases, public space — but don't serve all the public. On the positive side, many teachers are involved in community action and a drive to make schools relevant.
Because of the bottoming out of the economy and California's per-pupil spending crisis, educators in general are working much harder. They have much more on their plates. It spreads people very thin in a job that already requires full emotional investment.
Q: What is the union's role in addressing that?
A: It's two inextricably connected roles. One is to look out for the profession's bread-and-butter issues, such as how much people are paid, which affects who you recruit and retain and the working conditions. Do the conditions enable people to use their professional expertise as we want them to? Do they have enough time? Do they have enough support? Things like benefits, making sure people can take care of their families and themselves after retirement. When you fight for a system that's good for educators so they can do what's good for kids, you're part of fighting for a much broader educational and social-justice agenda. Fighting for well-funded schools with the resources and staffing they need — as well as the time to develop an engaging curriculum — and making sure that the schools serving the highest-needs populations have what they need and that some kids won't drop out because we're continually suspending or expelling them.
Q: How can the union address those stressors, which seem related to growing economic inequality outside schools?
A: By joining broader movements that challenge the foundations of economic inequality. For example, some of the first big community campaigns I worked on were with the bus drivers' union. We fought for a major redistribution of resources and ultimately won, in large part. Billions of dollars that would have gone to private contractors involved in transportation projects instead went toward a new fleet of clean-fuel buses. They replaced a dilapidated system and were more reliable in getting kids to school on time.
We know poverty plays a critical role in educational performance. So we've got to join a much broader movement that tries to reallocate resources to the majority of the population. We can model some of what we want to see the school district, and agencies affiliated with the school district, do. In the Extended Learning Cultural Model I mentioned, students got paid internships in the 11th grade and paid apprenticeships in the 12th grade and could have jobs in community advocacy or organizing when they graduated. That was a huge deal for their families.
Q: What is a quality teacher, and how do we ensure quality teaching?
A: A quality teacher [is someone who] works with students each day, using the knowledge she or he has accumulated through study and interaction with colleagues to try to meet the needs of the class and individual students, and who can point to progress points. And I don't mean standardized tests, which have proven very unreliable in showing any connection to teacher quality. We want teachers to be able to point to things their students are doing that show growth.
How you produce quality teachers is no mystery. You pay them right. You give them paid time to collaborate with each other and with those from universities who might guide them. You pay for college students to prepare to go into teaching, taking care of loans, etc. And then you invest in schools so you can provide decent working conditions.
Q: Are we close to that right now?
A: No, because of all the things we've been talking about: the underfunding of the system, etc. We've got some truly excellent, incredible teachers; a very small group of folks who probably shouldn't be teaching; and a huge middle area. We need a system that helps the very few who shouldn't be teaching leave with dignity, helps the middle group get support to better meet students' needs, and enables the truly excellent ones to mentor the middle group to help them improve. We need to invest in more professional development that is properly compensated and led by either educators themselves or educators working in partnership with others to zone in on what teachers at that school need. And we need to train administrators to give constructive feedback.
Q: Concerns get raised about how much teachers understand young people's culture and experiences so they can tap into their students' interests. Can those skills be developed?
A: At Crenshaw, we had community leaders, church leaders and parents come in and lead sessions on what their lives are like, what's important to them, what cultural values they want to see stressed in school. We have to help educators understand the community, the students and beneficial ways to approach families and young people.
Q: How do you respond to the claim that the biggest problem is bad teachers and the bad unions that protect them?
A: Obviously, I disagree. We can be a part of a systemic effort to help us all improve at what we're doing. I was retaliated against in 2006 when I had been organizing with my colleagues and parents and community organizations at Crenshaw High, but also at some other South L.A. schools, for more resources for lower class sizes, more counselors, more school psychologists and technology the kids could use in the classrooms. We got dozens of millions of dollars put into South L.A. schools. The superintendent didn't like being forced to do that, so he transferred me. I got back to Crenshaw High because the community demanded that I come back. When you invest in training a teacher, seniority helps you hold onto that investment by holding onto that teacher, and it protects the teacher's investment because seniority may mean you can continue teaching a class in whose curriculum you've already invested.
Q: Is this a new moment whereby UTLA can forge coalitions with community groups?
A: A teachers' union alone can't win what we need for our schools, our kids or our profession. Fighting for more resources for schools of the highest needs is part of the work UTLA has always done, but hasn't trumpeted enough. When UTLA was formed in the early 1970s, some of its first demands were for a much higher percentage of funding and resources for the highest-needs schools. Fighting for the urban classroom teacher program, which put extra funding into afternoon tutoring at high-needs schools, was something UTLA incorporated into our contract. But we haven't been involved enough; we haven't actively sought opportunities to unite with community organizations. But now teachers and community allies are building the kind of community connection you're talking about. Many neighborhood councils are involved. The Coalition for Educational Justice is involved. I do think UTLA is much more actively seeking opportunities to win things that are good for kids and unite with whoever is behind it and figure out how to move forward together.
Q: In the coming year, is there any one change you'd like to help make to move L.A. schools closer to the schools you envision?
A: It's a constellation of things. We need more counseling support and social worker support to help students figure out their social and emotional issues. We're currently not equipped to help students refine and sharpen the assets they bring in, nor to meet their needs. We've got schools that have a nurse one day a week. Some schools have counselor loads way beyond the national average.
Staffing needs to include particular people — maybe educators who receive an additional stipend, whose specific job is to help create community connections so that whatever the school is doing is guided in part by community voices. You've got to actually make that someone's job.
What I would pair with that is that teachers need to know they're being treated with some basic respect.
So those twin things — schools having the staffing they need and educators feeling respected — are the core items we need to see some progress on this year.