Bellevue teachers battle "curriculum cops"

Vicky Jambor reports on the issues at stake in a teachers strike in western Washington.

BELLEVUE, Wash.--Bellevue School District teachers have been on strike since the start of classes on September 2.

The strike was called over three main issues: compensation, health care and control over classroom curriculum. The district is proposing a 1.5 percent salary increase over the state cost-of-living adjustment (COLA), which is 4.4 percent. The union is asking for a 5 percent increase on top of COLA over the two-year contract.

But the critical sticking point for the Bellevue teachers, who haven't been on strike in nearly 30 years, is the district's Curriculum Web.

For years, Bellevue teachers have had district mandates for student benchmarks and assessments. During the last year, however, frustration has been building as the district tried to tighten its control even more by instituting scripted daily lessons. It bubbled over when district curriculum coaches, or "curriculum cops" as they have been called, were instructed to make sure that teachers were following the daily scripts.

Adherence to the scripts, which were developed over the summer on the pretense of being an online resource, was enforced unevenly and produced a climate of fear that drove some teachers to cover up classroom windows if their lesson strayed from the approved script.

"If they would allow it to be a collaborative resource, it could be a tremendous teaching tool," said Kim Driscoll, an English teacher at Newport High School. "The problem is that it doesn't allow for adjustment on an individual or daily basis." Changes to the scripted lessons need to be pre-approved by a board, making it next to impossible for teachers to make on-the-spot adjustments to the individual needs of students.

In June, 94 percent of teachers voted to strike at the beginning of the school year if there was no contract. On August 27, 800 teachers gathered for a rally outside the school board meeting, chanting "No contract? No school!" and on September 5, more than 500 teachers and supporters rallied at the district's central office to demonstrate the teachers' resolve as administrators came to attend a normally scheduled school board meeting. The board decided to cancel the meeting.

Morale on the picket line has been high, with students and community members turning out to show their support.

Stephanie Lawrenson and other members of the Newport High School cheer squad showed up with cookies, despite Parent Teacher Association requests that students stay away from the pickets. "The set curriculum doesn't help," said Lawrenson. "It's not fun. It's like you're learning from a book, there's no room for a teacher's instruction."

About 200 students have joined a new group called Students for Teachers' Rights to show solidarity with the strike. "The student body supports the teachers," said Taylor Moe, a spokesperson for the group.

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WHILE THE Bellevue Education Association (BEA) has scaled back its original request for an 11 percent pay raise, the school district has been unwilling to compromise, asserting that the money isn't there.

What's more, district officials came into negotiations claiming to have found an "accounting error" that showed they had been overpaying into the teachers' benefits pool and would be including the "correction" in their offer by freezing the contribution at the current level, thus passing rising monthly premiums onto teachers.

In addition to playing hardball on compensation and benefits, the district until recently posted false information on its Web site home page regarding the illegality of strikes by Washington state public employees.

Rick Kilcup, a Bellevue teacher for 35 years, said that the drive to make schools comply with No Child Left Behind requirements was behind the changes. "[The Curriculum Web] is not a resource teachers can use to meet common targets," said Kilcup. "They want the curriculum to be teacher proof."

James Burke, a member of the BEA negotiating team, called on the district to let teachers do their jobs. "The district needs to trust teachers to be professionals and use best practices in their own classrooms," said Burke.

Teachers in nearby Seattle will be watching the Bellevue strike closely as their contract expires in June. Seattle's new superintendent, Dr. Maria Goodloe-Johnson, also has ambitious plans to standardize the curriculum and is having trouble finding the funds to implement some of her plans already.

"This is a working-class issue," said Cynthia Vera, a teacher at Robinswood High School. "We're challenging the industry standard of increasing our contribution to health care costs. It's like at Boeing where they are trying to downsize their pensions into 401(k)'s. Teachers need to be stewards of the working class."

Dan Troccoli contributed to this article.