To New Bedford's School Teachers:
Great schools make great communities. As you know, great schools can be established only when teachers, administrators, parents and community leaders engage in an honest dialogue about today's challenges and our mutual hope for a better tomorrow.
We missed an opportunity for open dialogue last Friday when the head of the New Bedford Educators Association chose to deny me the chance to share my thoughts with you at the City Hall rally. With the widespread changes taking place in our schools right now, I believe you are entitled to hear directly from me, the chairman of the School Committee, about the direction and pace of change in the district and how that change may affect our teacher corps. I say this because it is important that you know all the facts. It is troubling that a major source of information about the changes in our schools is the NBEA blog, whose entries are usually submitted anonymously and are subject to the pre-approval of the NBEA leadership. As you well appreciate — and as you teach your students — censorship has no place in a democracy. The NBEA leader's refusal to allow me to speak begs the question: What does he not want you to hear?
This is what I would have said to you: I have enormous respect for the work you do. You get up early in the morning every day to take on the profoundly important task of cultivating in children the intellectual tools that will enable them to become successful, productive and responsible citizens. You are in the business of building the future of our community and our nation. Without teachers, there can be no free society.
Yours is as demanding and stressful a job as there is, and yet all too often, your vital work goes underappreciated. The rest of us rarely see the little things you do: remaining after school to tutor and counsel students, staying up late to correct papers, and spending your own hard-earned money to buy classroom materials that should be provided by the school system. You also deal with some parents who don't fully appreciate their role in their children's education. I believe that in exchange for 13 years of free schooling for their children, it is not too much to ask parents to send their children to school ready to learn and to behave properly. Unfortunately, some parents expect teachers to serve as surrogate parents, and that's not your job. And then there's the persistent drumbeat of criticism from purported education experts, many of whom claim to know exactly the solutions to "fix" public education but who themselves wouldn't contemplate sending their own children to public schools.
So it is understandable that in the face of all this, reforms like the ones now being implemented can be difficult to accept. If I were a teacher in our district, I, too, would feel like all the blame for the state of our schools was being laid at the feet of teachers. Like you, however, this son of two public school teachers understands that the heart of the problem lies elsewhere.
You know more than anyone that teachers don't work in isolation. In your job, being your best requires not only a combination of your personal skill and effort, but reliable support from the school administration and the entire school system. And the reality is that New Bedford's teachers haven't gotten that support.
For too long, the political leadership in our city failed you. It had been unwilling or unable to face up to the challenges in our schools and make hard, necessary decisions. The former leadership opted instead for easier courses, either to deny the existence of problems or to blame the MCAS system, pretending as though New Bedford's students were the only urban students in the state who took the MCAS test. The former leadership hoped the public would ignore the fact that other urban school districts were doing much better, including Brockton, a city with more intense demographic challenges than New Bedford, but which graduates 75 percent of its students on time, compared to 55 percent at New Bedford High School.
Problems tend to worsen when not confronted. So it was with our schools. The lack of political will to confront challenges produced weak central office leadership that proved incapable of supporting teachers and managing the district's finances. The systemic breakdown had reached a point that at the time I entered office two years ago, the state took the extraordinary step of threatening a takeover of our school district.
As the elected leader of our city, it is my job to confront, rather than shy away from, our major challenges. I firmly believe, as do you, that New Bedford can do much better. But it is imperative that we enter into an honest dialogue about our reality and be willing to depart from the old ways of doing business.
Many urban mayors today who undertake school reform have adopted the current fashion in education policy circles of simply throwing open the doors to new charter schools. That has not been my approach. I note that no one, including your union leadership, fought harder than me to oppose the low-performing City on a Hill school's effort to establish a charter school in New Bedford. I am convinced rather that we have what it takes to turn around our school system without having to blow it up first.
The superintendent and School Committee stand ready to listen to and work with our teachers so that we can build a school system that supports what they do in the classroom. Our success depends more than ever on an open dialogue. Clear, civil communication — in both directions — will establish a common understanding and strengthen a sense of teamwork. And, I hope it will reveal that we are more or less on the same page. It turns out that, for instance, both the superintendent and the School Committee agree that the requirement of a 50 percent turnover in staff at the High School under the school Turnaround Model is unrealistic. In its zeal to inflame the public controversy around the turnaround plan, however, your union leadership has glossed over what it has known for some time, that is, thanks to the superintendent's advocacy with the state, last year's layoffs will count toward that figure, lowering the requirement to approximately 29 percent. Teacher retirements this year likely will lower that figure significantly further.
An open dialogue could avoid misunderstandings like this, and build the trust necessary to go about the hard work ahead. By coming together, we can build a school system that supports you, and does right by our city's children.