Standards Opinion

Michelle Gunderson: Teacher Union Conventions to Debate Common Core

By Anthony Cody — June 24, 2014 4 min read
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Guest post by Michelle Gunderson.

Sitting around the table in our teachers’ lunchroom a teacher said to me, “I didn’t go into teaching to be political.” I find this an amazing statement because no other human act is more political than teaching. As teachers we are charged in a democracy to educate a populace capable of self-governance.

And then there is the old saying - when you become disinterested in politics is when politics become interested in you.

This summer educators around the country will congregate in the political workings of our unions at the AFT and NEA conventions. This is no small business. The decisions at these conventions guide the work of two of the most powerful political voices teachers have.

Over the past several years we have seen a groundswell of social justice activists become increasingly involved in the democratic process of our unions. Social justice unionists believe in the power and structure of our unions, but we are disheartened by many of the decisions of our national leadership: namely, the wholesale endorsement of the Common Core State Standards, negotiating contracts with test-based teacher evaluation, and acceptance of funding from foundations that act against our interests.

The time to help guide our leadership away from policies and actions that harm our students and our professions is now.

Are you a delegate to the national conventions? Do you know the delegation from your union local? Have you started thoughtful conversations about your vision for our country’s education system and the directions you would like our unions to take?

In AFT, those of us who are delegates just received our packets containing proposed amendments and resolutions to consider. Having ushered a resolution now being considered by AFT through my local’s education committee and the Chicago Teachers Union, I know firsthand the groundwork, deliberation, and thoughtfulness that goes into building a resolution. We all need to open up our convention books and carefully contemplate the similar hard and intentional work that went into the other proposed resolutions by our brothers and sisters around the country.

The purpose of a national convention is for all of us to share our local context and the needs of our students and communities.

I look at several of the resolutions through my Chicago lens. The Promotion of Teacher Diversity resolution proposed by the Oklahoma City Federation of Classified Employees calls for the need for a committed, focused effort to ensure diversity in our teaching workforce. In Chicago alone we have gone from 45% of our teachers being African Americanin 1995 down to 19% today. There is another resolution submitted by the California Federation of Teachers raising caution regarding the money our unions accept. This money often comes with strings attached that are not in the best interests of students and educators. Our union accepted money from foundations to promote the Common Core, and many of us believe this was not a positive course. Next, the Chicago Teachers Union submitted a resolution for restorative justice programs in schools. The Chicago School System has seen a tremendous increase in the amount of suspensions and expulsions of our youth. Yet, there is no substantial evidence that suspensions and expulsions help students or schools.

Of special interest to all of us are the two resolutions that approach the Common Core State Standards. The first is a resolution on the role of standards in public education proposed by the AFT Executive Council which asks us all to continue to support the Common Core standards given corrective measures. The second is a resolution by the Chicago Teachers Union that fully opposes Common Core based on the philosophical purpose of education and the harm the standards created in our school communities. Both of these resolutions will encourage important and groundbreaking debate.

All of these resolutions represent the very real issues that are plaguing our classrooms, and many of them come from grassroots rank and file initiatives.

After considering all the work that has gone into bringing these resolutions to our conventions it is time to start having conversations. What do you and the members you represent believe about the promise and purpose of education? What experiences does your local context bring to our national picture that can enrich us all? How can we use our union to fulfill this vision?

Our national unions are not always flexible and are sometimes harder to turn around than an aircraft carrier, but we should be resolute that change can happen and take heart in the democratic process. Those of us who oppose corporate education reform and support a social justice framework do not yet fill the seats at our national conventions - but we can fill the hearts and minds of our fellow educators. Take time to engage in dialogue, educate others, and to listen.

I look forward to seeing my brothers and sisters at the AFT convention in Los Angeles, and you know that I welcome opportunities for dialogue.

What do you think? How will our teacher unions approach the debate over Common Core and other issues this summer?

Michelle Gunderson is a 27 year teaching veteran who teaches first grade in the Chicago Public Schools. She is a doctoral student at Loyola University in Curriculum and Instruction.

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.