In the streets of Madison, and in solidarity events around the country an old song is being sung, one I have not heard for many years. I stood last night at the State Capitol building in Sacramento, California, and sang with several thousand others,
When the union's inspiration through the workers' blood shall run There can be no power greater anywhere beneath the sun Yet what force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one But the union makes us strong
Solidarity forever, Solidarity forever Solidarity forever, for the union makes us strong!
And solidarity seems in short supply these days, everywhere but at these rallies. When Governor Walker in Wisconsin sought to strip public workers of their right to collectively bargain, he drew on divisions between ordinary folks. A few decades ago, a decent pension was expected for every person who worked their whole lives. But in recent years, as industries have shipped jobs overseas for higher profits, and our manufacturing base has dwindled, middle class jobs and the secure pensions that went with them have evaporated. Not coincidentally the portion of private sector workers in unions has greatly diminished. Why should these public employees get good pensions when the rest of the country lives in constant fear? Solidarity has been turned on its head. Instead of all aspiring to a secure retirement, those who lack it are resentful of those who have it.
Divide and conquer - the oldest trick in the book.
And now Michelle Rhee is about to bring another variation to state legislatures around the nation, with her group, Students First.
In a letter sent to members of her group, she writes:
Right now in schools across the country, the last teacher hired has to be the first teacher fired, regardless of how good they are. A teacher's performance plays no role in who stays and who goes. This policy, based on seniority rather than effectiveness, is referred to as LIFO (Last In, First Out) -- and it is crippling our schools.
We can't afford to pull highly effective teachers out of America's classrooms. This is just the beginning of a very important campaign. In the next few weeks, we will ask you to take specific actions to engage with your legislators. We need your help to save great teachers.
According to Rhee, it is not the cruel budget cuts that are crippling our schools - she takes these as a given. No, it is that familiar villain, the “bad teacher,” who manages to cling to her job as a result of union rules that protect teachers by honoring their years of dedication, by an objective and fair system that says if you were hired first, you will have seniority. What does she propose instead? A system based on “effectiveness.” And of course that means test scores.
Let’s take the time to play this scenario out. Let’s assume she has her way - as she very well may in some states, given the current climate. The school administrators will presumably be required each year to complete an evaluation which prioritizes a teacher’s ability to improve test scores. This evaluation will then be used to RANK every teacher in the school in order of effectiveness - because we must have a ranking in order to use this for determining who will be laid off. Not only are teachers being placed in jeopardy every year based on unstable test scores, but they are placed in direct competition with one another. I find it hard to imagine anything we could do that would be more destructive than this.
It must be said that solidarity does not mean we blindly defend any and all of our colleagues, regardless of their ability to educate our students. We must support fair and open processes - like the Peer Assistance and Review programs in operation in many districts, that help identify and either improve or remove those who are ineffective.
When teachers design performance pay and evaluation reforms, we always find ways to ensure that competition is removed from the equation. If we are to be paid more for student gains, at least make it school-wide, so we can encourage collaboration. If we want to improve evaluation, lets do it together. Increase peer observations, and build on a culture of sharing and learning from one another. We want to work together - just as we want our students to learn from each other. And research shows this sort of collaboration is what drives real improvements in learning. Solidarity is not just for our unions. It is a fundamental stance that allows us to cooperate and improve together.
But we are seeing an ideology drive these reforms that is the polar opposite of this approach. Our answer must be clear. We must stand together as teachers young and old, veteran and novice. We who are true advocates of our students do not focus on fighting over who has the last handful of jobs in classrooms of fifty students. We go to our parents and community and say, “if we are for students first, we must fund our schools!” And we seek solidarity with others who have lost their pensions and secure jobs. These are things which everyone ought to have, so let’s get together and aim for a higher common ground - rather than sharing a fate of misery. And let’s bring this message to Washington, DC, next summer, at the Save Our Schools March and National Call to Action.
What do you think? Is solidarity a useful tool these days for defending and improving our schools?
The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.