Friday, July 18, 2014

This Is How We Win

I've written a lot here about the scourge of corporate education "reform," how dilettantes with deep pockets, people who believe they understand education because they were students at one time, like the way I'm a ballet expert because I once held season tickets to the Pacific Northwest Ballet, are forcing high stakes standardized testing, a stripped-down standardized curriculum, longer school days, and larger classes on our public schools, all with the end game of fully turning our children over to the hands of private, often for-profit, corporations. And each time I write about this Dickensian future, readers respond, "But what can we do?"

Sometimes it reads like a question filled with despair. Other times it's from someone full of political zeal who wants to push back, but doesn't know how. It seems daunting, this idea of going up against the wealthiest man in the world who has allied himself with other wealthy people and both the executive and legislative branches of our federal government. At some point, it seems to me, the winning combination will have to include an alliance of parents, teachers, and students, but as things now stand there is a rather splintered opposition comprised of many different stakeholders including parent alliances (some of which I linked to in this post) and a variety of teacher's groups, including unions.

Although opposition is growing, one of our great disadvantages has been that we've only begun to organize ourselves relatively recently compared to the decades our opposition has had to plot and plan, largely behind the scenes, especially since Democrats have controlled the White House. I'm certain there are those who have been eagle-eying this all along, but most of us first caught wind that something was up back in the early naughts when the unfunded Bush administration initiative No Child Left Behind began to see the light of day. But even then, the shape of the whole corporate scheme as revealed by Diane Ravitch in her bestselling book Reign of Error remained largely invisible to the public at large. When the Obama administration assumed office in 2008, they simply took up the initiatives, giving them a buff and a new dress. Republicans, who have been quite noisy about everything else this president has done, have been largely silent on the issue, and why not? This Democratic administration was implementing Republican plans, which is why the media has barely covered the matter, and when they do they've tended to praise it as a rare instance of Beltway bi-partisanship. This, coupled with the fact that the fed's corporate allies are notoriously uncomfortable with the transparency required by democracy, has given our opponents a huge head start. In fact, many of us have only recently become aware that anything was amiss in the federal government's role in education as they now enter their endgame

Lately, however, with the incompetent introduction of their signature national Common Core curriculum, people of all stripes are beginning to rise up. For instance, conservatives are growing increasingly upset that the federal government has violated the spirit, if not the letter, of our Constitution, meddling in the rights of individual states to control their own schools. Progressives are beginning to call for Congressional hearings to investigate the smokey back room nature of how most of these initiatives were created. The "opt out" movement is growing as parents are exercising their rights to not subject their children to high stakes tests, with some schools reporting as many of 80 percent of their families rejecting this sort of testing. And the media, finally figuring out that there is something important and controversial going on here, are starting to ask pointed questions of people like Bill Gates.

And now, in the past couple of weeks, the nation's two largest teachers unions have voted to censure US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, the National Education Association (NEA) calling for him to resign:

People who don't know what they're talking about are talking about increasing the use of commercial standardized testing in high-stakes decisions about students and about educators . . . when all the evidence that can be gathered shows that it is corrupting what it means to teach and what it means to learn . . . We know what is at stake, and it is why we are who we are. It is why we are fearless and why we will not be silent when people who, for their own profit and political posture, subvert words like "reform" or "accountability."

The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) did not go quite as far, calling on the president to put Duncan on an "improvement plan" that holds him accountable for his job performance. If he doesn't improve, they too want him fired.

This past winter, I drove over to Spokane, Washington, to present to a group of teachers. This is in the proverbial "red" part of our state and I hail from arguably the "bluest" legislative district in the bluest city in the nation. I thought about tailoring my talk to this audience, perhaps removing some of the more radical things, but came down on the side of speaking my truth and letting the chips fall where they may. Most of the more controversial stuff comes in the beginning of my presentation, so when it came time for a break, I was more than a little nervous to mix with the audience, some of whom were eager to talk with me one-on-one. Most were complimentary and supportive, but as I got to the back of the room, I came to a man who said, "I can't believe they let you speak aloud in this state."

I couldn't tell if it was a compliment or a challenge so in the spirit of civility I prepared myself to be conciliatory as he went on. "I'm a conservative and I can tell you're a liberal, but I think you're one of the smart liberals." That was definitely a complement. We chatted for a bit. He helps his wife run a private preschool and has been actively involved in both local and state politics. He said, "Normally, I'm against unions, but they're right about this . . . I can't even believe I said that."

I'm not a union member, nor have I ever been, but as anyone who reads here regularly knows, I am a union supporter. That said, I know that many, even many otherwise progressive people are not. I often wonder if that may have something to do with my age. When I was in high school, we studied the history of the union movement as part of our civics education, spending a lot of time on the historical and economic context in which they arose. Union workers fought and died for many of things we take for granted today like safe workplaces, child labor laws, and weekends. I don't think there can be any question that labor unions played an important, positive role in pulling us out of the Great Depression and ushering in a four decade era during which the US grew the largest, most prosperous middle class in the history of the world. There are those today, however, including my friend in Spokane, who feel that unions have outlived their usefulness, that they are perhaps anachronistic or even dangerous to prosperity and fairness.

I'm not here to assert that unions are perfect. Like all human institutions, they are prone to both flaw and failure. Union influence and membership has dropped dramatically over the last four decades, due in part to self-inflicted wounds, but I don't believe it's an accident that the decline in unions has coincided exactly with the decline in our middle class, which is why I continue to support unions, viewing them as democratic alliances of workers, and seeing them as a natural, necessary outgrowth of a capitalist economy.

I speak with many people who have bad feelings about unions, and teachers unions in particular. And if there is one thing that sticks in the craw of even fellow lefties, it's the popular myth that unions protect bad teachers through tenure, a subject that has been in the news recently as a California judge ruled that teacher tenure laws violated the civil rights of students. In my discussions I've come to learn that there is a great deal of misinformation out there about what tenure means, much of which was evident in the judge's decision in California. The basic objection is that tenure makes it virtually impossible to fire incompetent teachers by "guaranteeing jobs for life." This is wrong. Tenure merely means that a veteran teacher has the right (generally after 3-4 years) to due process before being fired. In other words, teachers can be and are dismissed for being incompetent, just not for personal, political, or other non-work related reasons. Teachers are not "given" tenure automatically either: they must earn it via a track record of success. Not all teachers are capable of doing that. From where I sit, tenure is a basic fairness made available to people who have dedicated their lives to educating children in a profession in which no one gets rich. It exists to protect both good teachers and academic freedom. Everyone, including unions, want incompetent teachers fired. I'm not arguing that all teachers are good teachers, of course there are poor teachers, just as there are incompetent practitioners in every profession, but I am saying that tenure is not what many people seem to think it is.

For those of us who oppose corporate education "reform" efforts, it's a big deal that the nation's two largest teachers unions, representing nearly 5 million teachers, have stepped to the fore. And even if you can't yet bring yourself to buy what I'm selling about the importance of unions in general and tenure in particular, perhaps you can at least join my "anti-union" friend in Spokane and accept that the unions are right about this. And there can be no question that unions remain a powerful political force, which is something we need on our side in this political battle for the future of our schools and our children.

I am finding myself, in this, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with folks with whom I generally disagree. And as much as I may find myself holding my nose in the coming months and years, I see this as a harbinger of success. It's an alliance that may not survive beyond this particular issue, but the fact that this secretive, anti-democratic corporate-federal takeover of public education has disgusted and alarmed folks right across the spectrum is just further evidence we are right, they are wrong, and it gives me confidence that we will prevail.

This is how we win.

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C Miller said...

The myth of a bad teacher is a powerful - but in reality a bad teacher (by that I mean one that doesn't have engaged students or any control of the classroom) would find the job so awful they wouldn't continue for long. I am a second career teacher (after investment banking) in kindergarten and the job is way harder than I ever thought it would be.

Love your blog - wish I had found it sooner. said...

Wow! My daughter in Edmonds sent me this link. I just retired from 31 years in public education, twenty-four in S. CA teaching 7 and 8 language arts, all levels. Let's just say, it used to be a LOT more fun. Your conclusions are so true. The "evil unions" and "lazy" teachers are not the culprits on this issue. Tenure is the only reason and protection to teach as a long-time career while enduring local politics, crabby or inept parents, uncooperative students, etc. in addition, public education exists to promulgate our democracy, not fund corporate profits and charter schools which limit enrollment. Keep your comments coming!!!

Unknown said...

The tenure excuse just let's lazy administrators off the hook for not doing their job. It's time for all of us to insist on improving public education through research-based strategies that are adequately funded and help children learn, not strategies based on monetary profit.