Standards Opinion

2013 in Review Part 4: Teachers, Unions, and the Best Path Forward

By Anthony Cody — December 28, 2013 2 min read
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As I bring my review of the year 2013 to a close, the last theme to emerge is a poignant one. I have shared my concerns about Common Core, corporate reform and the poor policies promoted by the Gates Foundation. But there was another side to the debate. Organizations and leaders that we count on to defend our profession, and to act on genuine expertise and reject phony reforms, repeatedly left us shaking our heads. Here are the posts where I challenged these leaders and their rationales.

In March, AFT President Randi Weingarten signed alongside Gates Foundation officer Vicki Phillips on a short article describing reforms to teacher evaluation. I wrote:

While Phillips and Weingarten take the Goldilocks approach to test scores - that we should use just the right amount, not too much or too little - the Gates Foundation has strongly pushed for the expansion of the use of test scores in evaluations. While they may voice vague concerns about some states moving recklessly, advocacy groups they sponsor have led the charge across the nation.

A much bigger issue, however, was the decision by both AFT and NEA leaders to embrace and support Common Core standards. I pointed out several problems with this strategy:

The NEA and AFT have positioned themselves as the "expert implementers" of the Common Core. That essentially means the unions are standing by Duncan's side and saying "we are the professionals. You just tell us what to do, and we can do it better than anyone." That renders us politically powerless. We have given up our opportunity to advance an independent vision for accountability and school reform.

At the end of April, Randi Weingarten suggested that high stakes tests attached to Common Core be delayed a year, to give teachers a better chance to prepare for them. Here is what I wrote:

We have this entire project based on the premise that raising the bar will bring up those on the bottom, and make them better able to compete. In fact, when you raise that bar, you create huge obstacles for those at the bottom, and in effect, rationalize and reinforce their own sense of worthlessness, and society's judgment that they are subpar. You further stigmatize these students, their teachers and their schools, based on their performance in this rigged race. The tests aligned to the Common Core are already yielding proficiency drops of 30% or more. These tests are supposedly the best ever made, closely aligned to what has been determined to be of value to our society. And the results will show that even more of our schools are "dropout factories." Even more of our students are incapable of intelligent thought. And of course these indictments will continue to be highly class and race based. Our English learners, and the schools they attend, and the teachers who teach them, will be stigmatized. African Americans and those in poverty will find their schools condemned as failures, subject to closure, as we are seeing in Chicago, DC and Philadelphia. In effect, the Common Core tests will refresh NCLB's indictment of public schools and teachers, with supposedly scientific precision. Teachers - and union leaders -- may feel as if they should get on board, to try to steer this process. However, I think this is a ship of doom for our schools. I think its effect will be twofold. It will create a smoother, wider, more easily standardized market for curriculum and technology. This will, in turn, promote the standardization of curriculum and instruction, and further de-professionalize teaching. The assessments will reinforce this, by tying teachers closer to more frequent timelines and benchmark assessments, which will be, in many places, tied to teacher evaluations. And the widespread failures of public schools will be used to further "disrupt the public school monopoly," spurring further expansion of vouchers and charters and private schools. We must move beyond not only the bubble tests, but beyond the era of punitive high stakes tests. Only then will we be able to use standards in the way they ought to be used - as focal points for our creative work as educators. I would be glad to have a year's delay for the consequences of these tests, but I think we need to actively oppose the entire high stakes testing paradigm. The Common Core standards should not be supported as long as they are embedded in this system.

I wrote of the bind corporate education reform puts Democratic politicians in as well, as they seek grassroots support from teachers parents and students, yet embrace increasingly unpopular corporate reform policies. With the growth of the Network for Public Education, and wider understanding of the dangers of privatization, 2014 may be the year that education truly emerges as an issue in statewide elections. (disclosure: I serve as the treasurer for the Network for Public Education.)

In June, I offered some suggestions to our leaders - built around the idea that the best defense is a good offense.

We must be prepared to actively fight, using every tool at our disposal. Those advancing corporate reform use the power of money and the political influence it purchases. They have allies in government, in the media, in the publishing/testing industry, and in the field of technology. We have a very different set of tools, and allies. We have our unions, our communication tools, and large numbers of teachers, parents and students who have direct experience in the schools, and very personal stakes in what happens to them. We also have potential allies in higher education, if they can get out of their own rut of defensiveness. Similarly, elected school board members, often dedicated to the public schools, are figuring out that education reformers often are seeking to displace them. Democratic control of our schools is becoming a relic of the past in many places. School board members are important community leaders, who can help defend our schools. Of these, our unions are our greatest reservoir of potential strength - but they are largely ineffectual, because of their defensive stance. So we need to elect leadership capable of educating and activating the membership. We also need to be willing to use all the tools in the union toolchest. We should act together as teachers, and refuse to give tests, as they did in Seattle. We need to be willing to strike, as teachers did in Chicago. That means preparing by organizing our union members from the grassroots up, and building strong relationships with our parents and community leaders, making it clear teachers are not just after narrow interests, but want what is best for our students. Our power comes from our capacity to act, and we can only act if we are well organized and united, and have strong ties to our allies.

In July, I raised questions about the songs of praise a Colorado teacher union leader was singing for inBloom. I wondered if the Gates Foundation grants the union had received were having some influence there, since I could find little evidence to support the promises being made on behalf of the as-yet unproven data systems.

In September, NEA President Dennis Van Roekel published a column with the headline “Why the Common Core Could Bring the End of One-Size-Fits-All Learning.” He wrote:

Some teachers are wary of the Common Core. In most cases, I believe their anxiety arises from a fear of the unknown, because we haven't yet determined how to assess student learning under these new standards. Many teachers understand the what of Common Core, and now need to understand more of the how to implement it in the classroom.

I responded:

I truly do not understand. Are we not already getting tests based on the Common Core? This is hardly "unknown" to teachers, students, administrators and parents in the state of New York. I think what we have here is a fear of the known, and a fear of the what and the how as well. Our union leaders have suggested that we can praise the standards and condemn the high stakes tests that are being abused in our schools. In this column Mr. Van Roekel seems to be in denial about the fact that tests are already being implemented - this is no longer some unknown out there. The tests are very real, and our political leaders like Governor Cuomo are making it clear that they will be used to further stigmatize and punish teachers, students and schools.

In December, I wrote about the way the ASCD seems to be moving towards a neutral position in regards to the privatization of public education, as evidenced by their selection of Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute as keynote for their legislative action conference. I also questioned their acceptance of Gates funding and enthusiastic embrace of Common Core.

Organizations like ASCD are being directly paid to "support implementation" of Common Core, which in effect converts them into advocates for the controversial standards. These organizations are also directly benefitting from the bonanza associated with professional development and curriculum made necessary by the shift to the Common Core standards. Is the organization capable of taking an independent stance, once it has accepted grants such as these? The ASCD's Legislative agenda is silent on the issue of privatization of public education, or on the expansion of vouchers. It is silent on the spread of low-quality virtual charter schools. It is silent about the expansion of testing that is coming with the new Common Core tests, or the diversion of billions of education dollars into technology these tests will require. I have perhaps a fanciful vision of what professional organizations like ASCD should be. In the absence of genuine public debate about the adoption of the Common Core, I wish that our professional organizations would create space for that debate to occur. Of course that is hard to do once you have accepted millions of dollars to promote the project! As the very institution of public education is threatened by the push to privatize, I wish that ASCD would provide some real debate over this trend, and the effects of market-driven systems on public schools. I would like to see organizations like ASCD step forward as advocates for policies that serve all children, and against the transformation of schools into profit centers. But choosing a keynote speaker from the American Enterprise Institute will not deliver this debate. As we step forward into implementation of Common Core tests, I think it is the absolute responsibility of leaders of organizations like ASCD, who have the expertise to understand the terrible effects that high stakes tests have on children, to take a clear and public stand against the consequences attached to them. That includes their use as one of "multiple measures" of teacher performance, and as justification for the closing of low-scoring schools. Otherwise the transition to Common Core will have accomplished one of its tacit goals - the conversion of critics of NCLB into backhanded promoters of the next generation of high stakes tests.

The coming year will see a sharpening of these issues within our unions and professional organizations. There is already some movement within the teacher unions to begin to confront corporate reform and take a more active stand. In December, John Thompson shared here the Principles that Unite Us, offered by a coalition led by the AFT.

Our unions and professional organizations will best respond when they get clear signals from an organized and informed membership, so our work is clear.

See also:

2013 in Review Part 1: Charter Schools, Public, Private or Parasitic?

2013 in Review Part 2: The Year the Common Core Began to Unravel

2013 in Review Part 3: Gatesian Reforms Rejected

What do you think? Have our unions and professional organizations been effective advocates for our profession and our students? What can be done to make them more effective?

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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.