It was the “data walls” that drove Agustin Morales, an English teacher at Maurice A. Donahue Elementary School in Holyoke, Massachusetts, to speak up.
Last February, Morales and some of his colleagues, as well as parents whose students attend Holyoke public schools, spoke at a local school board hearing against a directive from higher-ups to post students’ test scores on the walls of their classrooms, complete with the students’ names. Paula Burke, parent of a third grader at Donahue, called it “public humiliation.” Some teachers questioned whether posting data publicly violated the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. The superintendent tried to turn the tables on teachers, saying that they were never told to use students’ names and that the directive did not come from the administration. But Holyoke teachers released a PowerPoint from their training session that clearly showed photos of sample data walls, with first names and last initials.
‘Protected Union Activity’
Now, Morales thinks standing up to the administration on this issue is what cost him his job. And a preliminary finding from the Massachusetts Department of Labor Relations backs him up. In September, the board found probable cause that the non-renewal letter Morales received in June from the district was the result of his protected union activity.
Morales says that for the first two and a half years he taught in Holyoke, the western Massachusetts town where he grew up, his evaluations were stellar. But after the school committee meeting last February, his evaluations “just got so unbelievably negative.” He was elected president of the Holyoke Teachers Association, a local chapter of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, in May as a reform candidate, part of the Educators for a Democratic Union (EDU) caucus that also elected Barbara Madeloni president of the statewide union. A month later, he was fired.
“All of a sudden I start speaking out and [they say] I can’t do anything right,” Morales recalled. “I can’t write good lesson plans, I can’t control my classroom, I’m doing everything possible wrong. All of a sudden, the writing for me was on the wall.”
Dan Clawson, a member of EDU and a prominent labor sociologist at UMass-Amherst, connects Morales’s firing to the larger struggles nationwide around teacher tenure. In June, a California judge ruled in Vergara v. California that teacher tenure and seniority laws were unconstitutional. Though legal experts questioned the basis of the decision, anti-union education reformers declared victory and announced plans to move on – Campbell Brown, former CNN anchor turned professional anti-teacher campaigner, is leading a similar lawsuit in New York despite sending her own children to private school.
“In some sense, Morales is the poster child for why teachers need tenure,” Clawson says. “Without tenure, we are all Gus Morales: if we speak up for students, we will be fired, even if what we are pointing to are violations of the law by the school system.”
A Guarantee of Due Process
In Massachusetts, a teacher achieves “professional teacher status,” equivalent to tenure, after three years with a good record in one school district. Morales, who has been teaching for seven years, was just on the cusp of attaining this protection in Holyoke. It’s worth noting that tenure or its equivalent are not what Brown and other campaigners like to call it, a guaranteed job for life: a school district can still fire a teacher with tenure; they’re just required to show cause. In other words, public-school teacher tenure is a guarantee of due process – an element of fairness that Morales has been denied.
Morales finds the attack on him frustrating because, he says, by speaking out he hoped to make things better. “Even in some of my speeches, you can go back and listen to them, I said, ‘This is not about any one person or any one policy, it’s about a system that’s broken,’” he says. “I’m doing my job as a teacher; but because of my extracurricular activities speaking against some reforms, all of a sudden, my livelihood gets tied to my extracurricular activities and that’s just so inappropriate,” Morales insists. “Here you have kids that are in front of me, and if I witness bad things, am I not supposed to report those things?”
The initial finding from the Labor Department was a relief for Morales, though he says he never doubted that his firing was a case of retaliation. “Even though people were very supportive of me, still there was that doubt in the air,” Morales explains. Now, he says, “a third party that has nothing to do with Holyoke Public Schools and has nothing to do with the Holyoke Teachers Association...found the probable cause after both sides presented their case – a completely, unbiased party.”
While the ruling is not final, it bolsters Morales’s position in both substantive and procedural terms. The Department of Labor Relations complaint finds “probable cause” that a violation of the law occurred and lists the possible violations to be discussed at the hearing, including the charge that “the School Committee has discriminated against Morales for engaging in concerted activity protected by Section 2 of the Law in violation of Section 10(a)(3) of the Law.”
Parents, other teachers from the district and across the state and the Pioneer Valley Labor Council all came out to support Morales at a press conference after the State Labor Department’s announcement. The full hearing is to be held before the end of the year. Morales notes ruefully that without the income from his teaching job, he’s had to sell his house and move into a smaller apartment. Still, he says, “You don’t get into a fight like this and not expect to get hit. This is a hit for me, but I’m still standing.”
Meanwhile, he says, he’s got his hands full as president of the union. Teachers and students are constantly stressed out over high-stakes testing, and poorer districts like Holyoke face the brunt of the “reforms.” “From my district alone, we’re losing teachers, and not just teachers that are being bullied either,” Morales says. “We’re losing good teachers who are being left alone for the most part, but they just can’t witness it anymore. They can’t deal with all the crying, they can’t deal with all the stress, they can’t deal with the anxiety.”
He continues, “I get emails constantly from teachers saying, ‘I’m looking for another job; I can’t do this anymore.’ And it bothers me because I know they love their job, they really do, they love teaching. What they don’t love is the bureaucracy that has been intertwined with teaching.”
Around the state and around the country, teachers are standing up and getting more support from parents as it becomes clear that education “reform” based on endless testing rather than equitable funding is not helping children.
For Morales, there’s no other choice.
“If we don’t stand up to any of these dangers – data walls is just one of them, high-stakes testing is another one – if we don’t start fighting back, my biggest worry, the thing that keeps me up at night, is that there’s not going to be a teaching profession in five years. It’s all going to be minimum-wage employees basically running the schools with scripts. That’s the biggest danger posed to us.” And if educators “don’t start questioning what’s going on,” Morales says, “we’re all done.”
Prior version of this article published at Salon.com.