Changing of the guard

Jessica Tang says she’ll bring a different style, but no change in values, as the new president of the Boston Teachers Union

Photograph by Frank Curran

What will be different about the Boston Teachers Union under your leadership? One thing that I’ve brought to the union is a focus on organizing and working with students, families, community members and coalition building. But we’ll also continue to do a lot of what I guess you would call the important bread-and-butter things. We’re still committed to public education, we’re still committed to fighting for a strong contract that’s good for students and fair to teachers. So it’ll be different in that my predecessor and I have different leadership styles, but we also share a lot of the same values and that doesn’t change.

What is the biggest challenge you’ll face? Right now I think there are two major challenges. One is getting our contract settled, of course. The second one is what’s happening on the federal level in terms of anti-union legislation and what impact that will have on public sector unions.

Do you favor legislation filed on Beacon Hill that would end the requirement that students pass a statewide standardized test to graduate from high school? Yes, we have endorsed that. It’s very comprehensive—from addressing concerns of the Foundation Budget Review Commission to also taking a more holistic look at what type of education we want for our students that’s not narrowly focused on high-stakes tests. Not being in favor of a high-stakes test does not mean that teachers are not in favor of accountability. We just think that if we’re going to have a measure of student growth and learning, it should actually be an accurate and valid measure of student growth and learning, and high-stakes tests do not do that.

There’s been a lot made of the fact that you’re the first person of color to lead the BTU and you’re the first member of the LGBTQ community to do so. I was struck by the fact that you may be the first person to lead the union who didn’t grow up in Boston. That also seems to say a lot about ways that the city and its institutions are changing. I think that might be a reflection of the changing demographics. But I took the time to grow roots in Boston and learn the history and learn from people who I call elders, who’ve been activists in this community for such a long time. I’ve lived in Boston for 17 years, and it’s far longer than any other place I’ve lived.

The Globe and Herald both had editorials recently criticizing the “excess pool” in which some Boston public school teachers who lose positions due to school restructuring or other changes are continuing to earn their regular salaries even though they have not been hired in another school for a classroom position. Are they wrong to criticize that? They are not criticizing us based on the facts. Both of those editorials had statements that showed me that they didn’t understand the issue. We have actually given thoughtful responses to the situation. On the record, I can’t get into the details [because they are the subject of contract negotiations].

One of the editorials said that last fall there were 82 teachers in the excess pool and that about a quarter of them didn’t apply for any positions. Why should we continue to pay people who haven’t applied for a single position? A lot of these teachers can’t apply for positions because there’s not an opening for them. They have to apply in their licensure. If you’ve been a computer teacher for 20 years, you can’t apply for an ESL [English as a second language] job, for example, or a special needs job. Part of our solution has been to give opportunities for some of these teachers to get new licensures. A lot of these teachers have also applied for jobs and have gotten zero interviews. I think this population has been stigmatized. The vast majority of these teachers have gotten proficient or exemplary evaluations their whole career, and now are having a really hard time getting a permanent position in the district, and it’s not because they’re not really good teachers.

In 2011, school leaders in the city formed something called the Boston Compact. The idea was a commitment to sharing effective practices and cooperation around facilities planning among the city’s district schools, charter schools, and Catholic schools. Are you committed to that effort? Well, in the past, a number of our teachers have been involved in some of the best-practice professional development collaboration, and from what I’ve heard those have been very helpful. But I am concerned with some of the new initiatives that the Compact has been working on.

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

Such as? Unified enrollment. I look at everything through a lens of equity and access and opportunity. Is this going to help the majority of students? Is this going to help our most vulnerable students? Or is this going to end up limiting opportunities for some of our most vulnerable, high-needs students?

Why wouldn’t it be good? My understanding of unified enrollment is that families could, through a single application, rank their school choices from options that include district or charter schools. It addresses the criticism that charter schools draw from more involved families and evens the playing field in that way. How does it harm equity? Well, it gives the charter schools more access to our students. Is this then going to be a situation where later on the charter schools are going to inflate their waiting list numbers again and say, look, see, there’s all this demand for more charter schools. That’s one way that it could be used politically to advance the expansion of charter schools’ agenda versus how do we serve all students and make sure all students have what they need. I’m always trying to focus on what are the policies that impact all students and help all students, particularly our most high-needs, vulnerable students, and I’m not sure that that’s the answer.