Friday, May 21, 2010

Let's Discuss Teacher Union Response to Ed Deform

I often get asked about the motivation and behavior of the UFT/AFT and even the NEA, which comes off as as a bit more in opposition to the assault on teachers, their unions and public education.

It may seem funny to those who know of him, but I had a bit of this conversation with NYC Charter honcho Jim Merriman when I ran into him at the Duncan fest in Brownsville the other day. (If I get a chance I'll get into more of this conversation where the two of us seem to agree on a bunch of surprising things.)

The answer is complex, requiring historical context and a deep political analysis. The simple answer is that union leaders' main mantra is to hold onto power at all costs. But it does go deeper. My other simple answer is that fighting back is just not part of their DNA. But then we have to drill down to find out why.

People in ICE and GEM have been talking about a forum that will drill, baby, drill into this issue. Maybe sometime in June. In the meantime, here is a section of a long article by LA teacher Gillian Russom (who I met in LA this past summer.) The article, Obama’s neoliberal agenda for education, is from the International Socialist Review. (You can read it in full here:

Gillian covers a lot of ground. I extracted a section on the behavior of the teachers unions vis a vis the attack on public ed. She concludes with:

in the absence of our own grassroots, democratic vision of school transformation (that also protects and extends union rights), these union leaders just end up picking and choosing which aspects of the top-down reform agenda to get on board with.

This is a start but I still feel we need to drill deeper.

Responses by teachers’ unions

National leaders of the AFT and NEA have accepted many of the assumptions of the neoliberal attack. “We finally have an education president,” said AFT President Randi Weingarten, following Obama’s first education speech that stressed “performance pay” and charter schools. “We really embrace the fact that he’s talked about both shared responsibility and making sure there is a voice for teachers, something that was totally lacking in the last eight years.” 39

In response to the same speech, NEA President Dennis Van Roekel said, “President Obama always says he will do it with educators, not to them. That is a wonderful feeling, for the president of the United States to acknowledge and respect the professional knowledge and skills that those educators bring to every job in the school.”40

Both unions initially voiced their support of RTTT. Weingarten said of the program, “The Department of Education worked hard to strike the right balance between what it takes to get system-wide improvement for schools and kids, and how to measure that improvement.”41 And Van Roekel said, “While NEA disagrees with some of the details surrounding the RTTT initiative, this is an unprecedented opportunity to make a lasting impact on student achievement, the teaching profession, and public education.”42

Weingarten has been supporting forms of merit pay and charter schools for years. When she was president of New York City’s United Federation of Teachers (UFT) from 1998 to 2009, the UFT opened two of its own charter schools and partnered with Green Dot to run a third where teachers are under separate contracts from the rest of the UFT. In October 2007, the UFT implemented “performance” bonuses for teachers at schools that improved their test scores.

Now, Weingarten is touting the new contract for New Haven teachers as “a model or a template” for the rest of the country. The contract implements performance bonuses for schools that improve their test scores; gives the school district the right to shut down and reconstitute low-performing schools as charters; and makes it easier for the district to fire teachers after a 120-day “improvement period.” New Haven teachers approved the contract by an overwhelming vote of 842 to 39.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the AFT “recently issued a batch of innovation grants to districts that are tying teacher pay to performance,” and the NEA “is taking similar steps to encourage tougher evaluations and to loosen seniority systems, moves that Mr. Duncan called ‘monumental breakthroughs.’”43

The NEA, which had largely refrained from criticizing Obama, did issue a critical statement after the release of the Blueprint:

We were expecting to see a much broader effort to truly transform public education for kids. Instead, the accountability system… still relies on standardized tests to identify winners and losers. We were expecting more funding stability to enable states to meet higher expectations. Instead, the “blueprint” requires states to compete for critical resources, setting up another winners-and-losers scenario. We were expecting school turnaround efforts to be research-based and fully collaborative. Instead, we see too much top-down scapegoating of teachers and not enough collaboration.

Nevertheless, the NEA has not put forward a clear strategy on how to shift education policy.

For the AFT, Weingarten has issued a strategy piece entitled, “A New Path Forward.”44 Her proposal for fixing public education contains four elements: 1) a new, more fair, and “expedient” process of teacher evaluation and for dealing with ineffective teachers; 2) a new fair and faster system of due process for teachers accused of misconduct; 3) giving teachers the “tools, time, and trust” to succeed; and 4) creating a trusting partnership between labor and management.

Although the document purports to challenge teacher scapegoating, Weingarten’s first two recommendations accept the logic that individual classroom teachers are what’s standing in the way of quality education. The piece makes no mention of the decimation of school funding nationwide. Most importantly, “A New Path Forward” stresses collaboration with politicians and school districts at a time when we need to be mounting a serious fight against them for funding and democracy.

Why aren’t the national unions taking a more aggressive approach to fight Obama’s anti-union agenda? Obviously, their close ties with Obama and the Democrats are a major factor. Moreover, it has been a long time since teachers’ unions in the U.S. waged any large-scale struggle for our rights, and there is the perception that the Obama agenda has such broad support that it would be impossible to challenge—so if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

In addition, the national unions’ approach is based on an underlying recognition that people are fed up with our public schools. Yet in the absence of our own grassroots, democratic vision of school transformation (that also protects and extends union rights), these union leaders just end up picking and choosing which aspects of the top-down reform agenda to get on board with.

In this section Gillian offers some ideas for the future which dovetails with some of the concepts we have been talking about here in NYC. Her point about the unease between left activists who ignore radical school reform movements and the distrust by radical/progressive reformers of union activists has been echoed here at times where ICE and TJC represent the former and NYCORE the latter. One of the ideas behind the formation of Teachers Unite was Sally Lee's attempt to bring these 2 movements closer. Some members of ICE and TJC worked with Sally over the past few years on various projects. GEM over the past year has turned out to be the place where some fusion with NYCORE and other groups has taken place. Lately we have started looking at joint projects with the Coalition for Public Education, a broad based group has roots in some communities.

Grassroots, democratic reform versus top-down, corporate reform

We also need to be deeply involved in putting forward our own vision and concrete plans for transforming our own schools. The left within the teachers’ unions has always fought back against cuts, but for the most part has been hesitant to get involved in reform projects to transform individual schools. We have been clear about what we are against, but much less clear about what we are for.

At the same time, radical education reformers whose focus is creating alternative school models have mostly been working at a distance from the teachers’ unions, which they see as uninterested in questions of school transformation.

If our goal is to build a mass movement for public education, radicals in the teachers’ unions need to reclaim the terrain of education visionaries and combine it with our struggle for school funding and stronger union rights. We need to be part of the small struggles to improve schools in the here and now, because these will help build the community coalitions and power to fight for the massive increase in resources that we need. Of course, meaningful, progressive school reform is unsustainable without adequate funding—and that struggle must continue. But developing a vision for the changes we want to see at each school can bring more teachers, students, and parents into our struggle and lend urgency to the fight for more resources.

In other words, we need a dual strategy to confront the dual attack of budget cuts and top-down reform. Progressive teachers in several cities have formed organizations to take on this challenge: The Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators in Chicago, the Grassroots Education Movement in New York City, Educators for a Democratic Union in San Francisco, and Progressive Educators for Action in Los Angeles.


  1. I do think you identify the problem, though "radical" activism in the current economic/political climate will not succeed. What we need is simply a more balanced discussion of the problems of education and a more equal distribution of accountability and problem solving. To me, the basic problem we teachers face goes even deeper, at least in NYC. Mulgrew is giving concessions without, at least in the media, gaining anything in return. Not even recognition from Klein/Bloomberg that the teachers' union is not the enemy. Not that the administration is also protected by a union. Not that there is shared responsibility and accountability for any student's failure. NOTHING. Every time Mulgrew says or does something they want, he must get them to say loudly and publicly and in press releases something that we want. Our union leaders don't just lack a big picture. Our union leaders don't have any vision at all. Klein has even indicated where he would concede in his email during Teacher Appreciation Week (just before the announcement that 6700 would go). He opened the door to greater freedom that accompanies greater accountability. GOOD, get the number of "observations" reduced, get criteria for observations standardized so that admin cannot randomly target teachers, demand "observations" are done by non-U rated admin that have current certification in the curricular content area, get teachers evaluating teachers, get the student and parent surveys to include feedback on individual teachers and admin at secondary school level to count in ratings, get the duties of teachers (pedagogy) separated from admin (facilitation of classroom instruction, i.e. discipline, equipment, and true support) and guidance (student outreach, home intervention, ACS involvement, truancy) and deans (behavior and discipline, inc. records and phone calls), create more lead teachers and teacher "inquiry" teams and fewer assistant principals that cost more, more paras and support staff to monitor hallways, move furniture, call for deans/security, potty patrol, manning the SAVE rooms (that often do not exist), giving required help to ISS/ELL students, etc. Imagine the savings!!!!!!! Imagine the improvement in teaching if teachers were free to focus on pedagogy during their prep periods and department meetings to lesson plan, create curriculum maps and pacers, monitor student progress, align curriculum, etc. One asst principal costs about 5 support staff positions, or 1-2 teachers on avg. Why does our union ignore these simple facts? Why can't they get more balanced media coverage? It isn't just about money to buy ads. When they rub shoulders with the Washington big-wigs they need to convey a clear vision and solution. And demand an end to the current teacher bashing attitude if they want to negotiate in good faith. Someone needs to tell Obama that he will usher in the next 20 years of Republican domination if he continues pursuing policies that the data is beginning to show are no better or worse than previous reforms. (Remember Carter's mistakes in placing ethics/policy ahead of politics in his decision making that led to not only his downfall but the still unrecovered loss of progress on social equality).

  2. I think you missed my point. While the major ed deformers may consider the union the enemy, more sophisticated ones like BloomKlein full well know that in the long run people like Randi and Mulgrew are necessary. Watch what happens in Chicago were a battle may be shaping up between the radical reformers and the Unity caucus like party in power. All the antiunion people will jump in on the side of the Unity-like party. Watch even the press which had been jhammering them start urging people to vote for them because they "cooperate."

    It is also not about convincing Obama of anything. There is a neo-liberal attitude running through this worldwide assault on teachers, the unions and public ed. But they would always rather have a union that cooperate than not have one at all since that opens the door to radical elements to organize one without having a Unity like group to stop them.


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