Teachers' Unions

Bloody Awful       
Some bloody thoughts on the current war against unions in Wisconsin and elsewhere.
First, teachers’ unions have unwittingly helped to bring this attack on. While they have succeeded in slowly increasing teacher compensation, and have wisely defended public education from the misguided market-based “reforms,” they’ve never championed an alternative plan to radically transform schools--leaving the impression they’re merely a self-interested impediment to change. Teachers’ unions have essentially slit their own throats.
This has made it easy for Republicans to take advantage of our economic crisis to eviscerate unions, beginning with those of public employees. After all, unions tend to support Democratic candidates and causes. In addition, they’ve been among the few remaining organizations with enough wealth and power to take on corporations.
Recall that the Supreme Court ruled recently that corporations may spend unlimited, secret fortunes on elections, thus converting The United States from a republic into a corporatocracy. Once the unions are gone, the corporations will rule virtually unopposed.
And, make no mistake: Those corporations and the small oligarchy of obscenely wealthy individuals who control them have been undermining our republic for a generation, insidiously destroying the foundation of any democracy, a strong middle class. They’ve shipped jobs overseas, forcing American workers to compete with exploited ones in developing nations. And they’ve rewritten tax laws to amass this nation’s wealth into the hands of a very few, themselves.
So, truly, middle class Americans who voted Republican and who support the current assault on unions are essentially slitting their throats, too. (Of course, the Republicans have always been masters at manipulating people into voting against their own economic interests.)
And then there are the ever-diminishing stature and morale of educators.
Teachers in the United States have long been treated with disdain (unlike in the nations that, supposedly, outperform us on standardized tests). Perhaps this is due to the fact that, until recently, most grade and middle school teachers were women. Or, maybe it’s because teachers tend to come from the bottom percentiles of our college graduates. Meanwhile, the profession has become so stressful, so laden with isolation and frustration that most educators flee within five years. (Too often, the best ones.)
In the last decade, we’ve thickened this depressing morass with high stakes standardized testing--thus, narrowing curriculum, strangling all the depth, creativity, engagement, nobility and fun that made altruist individuals want to become educators. Then, we’ve targeted the “hoards of lazy, incompetent teachers” who dare to nurture our most needy youth, publishing their dubious “value-added” score to root them out and humiliate them.
Meanwhile, although we insist on holding teachers accountable, we let everyone else off scot-free. We forgive governments for under-funding education while increasing the ranks of poor kids; and we absolve so many parents for their own irresponsibility and neglect.
Why not, since teachers make such convenient scapegoats?
We all know, deep down, that the first step to true reform would be to get outstanding teachers into every single classroom. But, rather than raise the education profession on high, making it among the most selective, well-remunerated, and, therefore, prestigious of all, we’re demeaning it as never before. As our coup de grace, we’ll destroy the profession’s and public education’s last (albeit imperfect) defense, unions.
Let’s be honest with ourselves, though: Essentially, by doing so, we’re also slitting our children’s throats.
It’s bloody awful, indeed. 

A Bed Unions Have Made
        In its opinion of July 6, 2010, The Argus endorsed SB1285.The Teachers’ Unions are fighting to defeat it.
        If made law, SB 1285 would address the fact that, amid devastating state-wide teacher layoffs, schools with the highest number of disadvantaged students may lose the majority of their faculty, while other schools with wealthy students will dismiss but a small fraction of theirs.
       “The reason for the huge disparity,” The Argus explained, “is state law that forces districts to lay off their least senior teachers first. Often low-performing schools have a higher percentage of new teachers, who are the first in line to be laid off. As a result, those schools endure the most disruption, which makes it more difficult for them to improve student performance.”
       The real, underlying issue, of course, is not that disadvantaged schools face the highest number of layoffs, but that they’ve been saddled with so many inexperienced teachers in the first place.
       In fact, the most unconscionable moral injustice in public education is that we’ve nearly always sent our least qualified educators to the children most desperate for a good teacher and a great education.
       Consider the fact that, since teacher salaries comprise the vast majority of school budgets, and since experienced teachers receive substantially higher salaries than their novice peers, Oakand hills schools, for example, often spend thousands of dollars more per pupil than their hapless flatland counterparts, even though they’re in the same district.
       Rather than redress this heinous crime, we’ve chosen to “reform” education with high stakes testing. Then, when the very schools we’ve so shamelessly shortchanged don’t measure up, we feign shock, even outrage, and we punish them with escalating sanctions. (Haven’t we punished them and their children enough already?)
       The current plague of teacher layoffs has finally brought this disgrace into the limelight--a most disturbing silver lining.
       SB1285 is but a long-overdue if imperfect remedy. First, it would require parity in teacher layoffs, resulting in districts having to fire many experienced teachers while keeping many novices—yet another dubious reform, I fear. But, which is far more important, the bill would also mandate parity in future teacher placement. At last all schools would begin to share both experienced and new teachers. This part of the bill is revolutionary.
       Teachers’ unions, however, are apoplectic. You see, SB1285 threatens teacher seniority, which they hold sacrosanct.
       Thus, although their names end with the word “Association,” as with the National and California Teachers’ Associations (of which I am a member), they reveal themselves to be little more than unions—concerned primarily with protecting contracts, the welfare of teachers, and the status quo.
       True professional educational associations would have long ago denounced the hoarding of the best teachers in the most affluent schools, and led a fierce, relentless campaign to end the practice. They would have passionately put the interests of children first, especially those most in need.
       Teach for America has brought some of this nation’s best and brightest college graduates to inner-city and poor schools, but the unions have decried that, too.
       So, yes, SB1285 is a hard slap in the face to teachers’ unions.
       I hope it will serve to wake them up to the fact that, in these dire times, public education requires courageous leadership and radical change.
       Teachers’ unions claim they are the last defense for public education. I agree. But, if they refuse to come up with a bold plan for the most pressing educational issues, then one will be forced upon them, as with SB 1285. If they persist in condemning misguided attempts at reform without proffering real alternatives, then they will increasingly be seen as the problem, not the solution.
       It will mean the end of both teachers’ unions and public education. And it will be a bed the unions, themselves, have made.

Not Large Enough

“I have never seen a strike as large as this or as successful—not only in Hayward, but across the state,” gushed Kathleen Crummey, president of the Hayward Education Association, a week ago Thursday.
Lately it seems few districts anywhere can ratify a new contract without rancorous negotiations dragging on for months, always with a strike looming, and sometimes, as with Hayward, actually occurring.
The issues if not the particulars remain the same, year after year, district to district. Teachers fight to protect their health care and to obtain a decent wage. Trustees and administrators struggle to balance a shrinking budget amid declining enrollment, while preserving student programs.
My experience has been, although both sides claim the moral high ground, neither occupies it. Teacher leadership often strips itself of its professional-association fig leaf, stooping to the worst union tactics of misleading propaganda and personal vilification. Meanwhile, administrators cunningly shuffle funds around, pleading poverty while nonetheless hiring new administrators or granting raises to existing ones.
Of course, no matter who “wins,” it’s the kids who lose.
So does public education, especially in light of two obvious but little acknowledged facts. First, the real monetary decisions affecting every single California school district take place, not locally, but in Sacramento. Ever since Proposition 13 passed in 1978, the California legislature has under-funded public schools. In fact, a comprehensive school finance study released in March revealed the state should, among other reforms, increase annual education spending by a minimum of 40%, or $17 billion.
How effective is it, then, for local educators to tear each other and their districts to ribbons every few years, clawing over meager scraps of educational funding? What is ever resolved?
Second, we are in the midst of a conspiracy to discredit public education. Its well-placed, sanctimonious perpetrators plot to enact vouchers, and so transfer billions of public dollars to private and religious institutions. Anyone who doubts should read The Manufactured Crisis: Myths, Fraud, and the Attack on America’s Public Schools by David Berliner and Bruce Biddle (1995); or What You Should Know About the War Against America's Public Schools, by Gerald Bracey (2002).
Every time districts like Hayward wallow in yet another episode of ugly labor strife, those who plot against them wring their hands with glee, chuckling that parents and law-makers will lose faith, become increasingly exasperated, ever-more open to vouchers. Thus, educators unwittingly but oh-so-effectively do the bidding of their common enemy. It really is pathetic.
It’s high time teachers, administrators, and trustees everywhere declared a truce, took a breath, and realized there is a better way: Interest Based Bargaining. All could agree to deal with each other respectfully, honestly, and to never lose sight of the fact that their shared goal of great public schools makes them colleagues, not enemies.
With the resulting new-found trust, they could dispense with the rigid rules governing collective bargaining and, instead, place their various concerns on the table, and collaborate as best they can. They’d grudgingly accept upfront that, given the paltry budget available, most decisions will be excruciating—both harmful to children and unjust for teachers.
Then, united in their rage, they should take the battle to where it belongs, Sacramento.
If there is to be a strike, let it be a state-wide one, a day when every school in California closes, when students, parents, teachers, administrators and trustees, arm in arm, hundreds of thousands strong, descend upon the state legislature and demand adequate funding for our schools.
Kathleen Crummey called the first day of Hayward’s strike a success. I don’t believe any single-district strike can ever be anything other than a disaster. Crummy thought the strike was the largest ever. The trouble is, like most public school educators, she doesn’t think large enough.

Evolve or Die

Teachers unions are earning an increasingly bad rap, while time for them and for public education is running out. Even so, there may now exist a unique opportunity for redemption.
The December 8th Time Magazine cover, for instance, features Michelle Rhee, “the new, bold-talking chancellor running the District of Columbia Public Schools system.” She stands in a classroom grim, determined, dressed in black, wielding a broom—a prop representing her campaign to clean up DC’s schools by sweeping out bad teachers. She’s sacked 270 so far. And the headline, “How to Fix America’s Schools,” emphasizes how Rhee’s battle has national implications.
Rhee also wants to make Washington’s best teachers the highest paid in the country. In exchange, however, those teachers need to give up tenure, their hitherto sacrosanct job security.
The villains according to this and other stories dealing with both Rhee’s crusade and other school reform efforts are teachers unions. Syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts minced few words in his scornful November 15th Argus piece, “The [DC] teachers union apparently exists in some alternate universe where everyone is rewarded equally regardless of the quality of their work. So it has fought Rhee with bitter tenacity, seeking to block her at every step.”
It is true that both the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers have long been on the defensive, decrying most recent school reform efforts, such as No Child Left Behind, vouchers, charter schools, and merit pay—with very good reasons too many and complex to elaborate here, although I’ve explained quite of few of them in previous columns.
The trouble is, the unions have not proposed any real alternatives. For example, to foster teacher quality, the California Teachers Association (NEA’s state affiliate, of which I am a member) recommends improving teacher training, professional development, and work conditions—which are fine and important goals. Nonetheless, they alone fail to adequately address the fact that more than a few educators are incompetent, and a hugely disproportionate number of them end up “teaching” in our inner cities.
Legislators, the public, parents, and even Chancellor Rhee have every right—in fact, a responsibility—to make accurate teacher evaluation and fair compensation one of the cornerstones of education reform. Great teachers deserve to be acknowledged, rewarded, and strongly encouraged to help the children who need them most. Struggling teachers must be supported and, if they fail to improve, dismissed—without it costing in excess of $100,000 per teacher to do so.
The good news is that Barack Obama will likely end the attacks on and misguided reforms for public education. Indeed, rumors abound that he will nominate Stanford University’s Linda Darling-Hammond for Secretary of Education—a clear sign that research and not ideology will finally guide federal education policy, with a huge emphasis on both teacher quality and social justice.
Now, then, is the critical moment for teachers unions to step out from behind their barricade, to join with instead of opposing those who would reform public education; to, in fact, lead the way. Given that teacher efficacy is the single most important factor in a child’s academic success or failure, such leadership has to include a bold re-visioning of teacher recruitment, training, evaluation, compensation and tenure.
Without delay, teachers unions must design then fight for the radical change in public education that is so urgent. American’s survival as an economic power and a thriving democracy depends on it, as does the fate of the unions themselves. After all, as the Times article underscored, in Washington DC more than a third of the city’s kids have fled to charter and private schools—so far. The Darwinian writing on the wall is clear: evolve or perish.
I pray our nation’s maligned teachers unions will very soon evolve into the prestigious professional associations they were meant to be; and our public schools into similarly respected institutions where the President and everyone else will eagerly send their children.