A Teachable Moment

PCT President Morty Rosenfeld periodically attempts to make sense of the increasingly senseless world of public education.

Forget the T-Word

Tenure has become a dirty word. The political right with the assistance of too many Democrats has masterfully succeeded in redefining tenure to mean lifetime employment for teachers without the possibility of being fired for cause. Thus, the narrative goes, there are hordes of incompetent, ineffective teachers standing in front of the nation’s public school classrooms effectively preventing the neediest students from achieving all that they are capable of becoming. So completely have the enemies of public education subverted the meaning of tenure that public discourse about the status of America’s schools is more focused on negative effects of tenure than on the real enemy of student achievement, poverty.

At the recent summer meeting of the National Council of Urban Education Associations (NCUEA), I listened to a legal update by NEA General Counsel Alice O’Brien. In talking about the about the recent Vergara decision that struck down California’s tenure law, O’Brien very conspicuously avoided the use of the word tenure, substituting “professional status” instead. That’s a much better, more positively charged expression than the current understanding of tenure.

A new teacher to a district serves a probationary period, in most place of three years duration. During that time they are carefully assessed and are essentially at will employees, meaning they can be fired in most places with as little as thirty days notice. After a three year period to prove their worthiness, they are awarded professional status. Having proven themselves worthy of professional status, they become entitled to due process before that professional status can be taken from them. Medical doctors accused of unprofessional conduct get a due process hearing as do most licensed professionals.

The battle for the public mind is often a linguistic challenge. O’Brien’s suggestion in this regard is a good one. Let’s start talking about professional status and forget the T-word.

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A Foolish Consistency?

When did it become the fashion to envy national systems of public education? When I began in this work, the joke was that in countries like France, every kid in the same grade was doing the exact same thing at any given moment of any give school day. We Americans thought that funny and far inferior to our locally controlled schools in which determined what was taught and when. I remember too my Peace Corps years working in Ghana with expats from the United Kingdom whose university studies, unlike our undergraduate education, were focused on one subject. How educationally stunted some of them seemed to me.

Central to the Common Core State Standards is an envy of this European homogeneity. Somehow the uniformity of the Standards is going to life the poor out of their poverty, make us more internationally competitive and probably cure cancer at the same time. Why is it then that the United States, with its locally controlled public schools, has been the world’s predominant economic power? Why is it that the dynamism of our economy is the envy of the world? Why is it that so many want to send their children to the U.S. for higher education? Are we really sure we desire homogenized mediocrity?

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NEA’s New President the Highlight of AFT Convention

For those of us who have watched the foolishness that has kept the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teacher (AFT) apart and often fighting one another, this morning’s session of the AFT convention was a truly unexpected and deeply appreciated experience.

Here was Randi Weingarten talking about seeking a new relationship with the NEA introducing Lily Eskelsen-Garcia, the newly elected President of the NEA, moving in and of itself. But then Lily, a gifted public speaker, starts talking about her life of doing what others never expected her to do, building on that theme to the climax of declaring that we ought to defy expectations – that we are NEA/AFT brothesr and sisters who are going to work together, arm in arm against our common enemies. In the tortured history of our two unions, that’s a very big deal.

If there is anyone in NEA leadership with the ability to move those in the NEA who have historically opposed cooperation with the AFT and who killed the last attempt at merger, it’s Lily. She takes office with the almost universal affection of the membership and an enviable ability to speak to their hearts. Should she begin to use the NEA presidency to move those who oppose the AFT and the AFL/CIO, should she undertake to target the NEA state affiliates who torpedoed the last attempt at merger, I’m betting she will succeed. Should she do so, her status as a heroine of our movement would be assured.

A convention that was otherwise notable for the timidity of the positions taken by the delegates, Weingarten’s decision to invite Eskelsen-Garcia to speak and Eskelsen Garcia’s call to work together “arm in arm” was enough for me to see this as the most successful union convention I’ve been to in a long time.

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AFT Opens Its Convention

Like the NEA, the AFT has as its convention theme organizing, organizing to regain the promise of America. Yet also like the NEA, it’s not exactly sure of what it wants to organize. There must be a couple of thousand delegates here in Los Angeles. One would think that an organizing union would send them all home with some specific organizing tasks. How powerful would it be if the Common Core Standards were divided up among the state organizations and each asked to put together a panel of experts to re-write? That’s right. Let’s create a rival set of national standards, developed by teachers and informed by the experiences of people who have actual classroom experience. Get teachers across the country to field test them and then offer them to the nation, free of charged and standardized test free.

Too bold? Let’s do something simple. Let’s work with the NEA and get every teacher in America’s public schools to sign a post card demanding the resignation of Arne Duncan. But don’t waste the opportunity of bringing thousands of union together to talk about organizing without some organizing project for them to do.

On a more positive note, AFT President Randi Weingarten in her address to the convention referenced the recent passage by the NEA Representative Assembly of a new business item calling for Duncan’s resignation. Even more surprising was her call for closer cooperation with the NEA and her announcement that incoming NEA President Lily Eskelsen-Garcia will speak to the AFT on Monday. Maybe the attacks on unions and public education are finally causing our national leaders to recognize how much more should unite us than separate us.

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NEA RA – Some Thoughts

Some thoughts on the recently concluded NEA Representative Assembly. They’re more first impressions rather than carefully thought out ideas, but I know that I will be thinking and writing more completely about them in the future.

I both understand and am angered by what I see as the blind support of African American NEA leaders for many of the administration’s ed policies. They appear to broadly accept the Obama/Duncan view that the Common Core State Standards are going to significantly lift minority children out of poverty. How that happens, no one seems to articulate beyond repeating incessantly that if we hold all children to high standards, they will meet them.

When the teachers in my upper middle class district tell me that about a third of our students are floundering with the CCSS, how can anyone believe that children who begin school with a documented achievement gap are going to thrive academically when highly advantaged children aren’t? Where in the CCSS is the magic that is going to raise up the children who until now have been largely forgotten by society. This time, I fear, African Americans will be had by one of their own, not that that makes this stupidity any less revolting.

The RA passed a resolution calling for the resignation of Arne Duncan, something some of us tried to pass three times before only to be defeated by NEA leadership fearful of offending the President and losing their seat at the table, albeit at their master’s feet. The mood has clearly changed. What’s needed is leadership to galvanize the growing anger of the membership into a movement. Incoming President Lily Eskelsen Garcia has all the skills to do that. Whether she has the brains and heart to do so is unknown. If she like too many leaders becomes the mouthpiece for NEA Executive Director John Stocks, nothing good will happen. Stocks talks about organizing at every NEA meeting I’ve been at. The more he talks about it and the more I get to talk to staff who are assigned to his “organizing” priorities, the more convinced I am that he is in way over his head. With all of the talk about organizing, once again the NEA assembled close to nine thousand union activists to a meeting and did nothing to send each one home with a task to do around a national organizing drive. It’s enough to make people like me crazy.

Finally, there were several new business items that sought to investigate the magnitude of the contributions of people like Bill Gates to the NEA. Those efforts were beaten back, but I sense the members’ desire for transparency in this regard is growing. They know their leaders have essentially been co-opted and seem to want to expose the extent to which they have been sold pernicious ideas about testing and teacher accountability by corporate elites with no legitimate interest in improving the nation’s schools. Were I Lily, I might open the books on this issue to signal an abrupt, clean break with the policies of the past.

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No One to Vote For

While there is an election for president of the NEA this week, the result is a forgone conclusion, Lily Eskelsen Garcia being the only candidate for the job. There is one contested office, secretary treasurer, where two candidates, Princess Moss and Greg Johnson are vying for the position. Try as one might, he can’t get any idea of what any of the candidates will do if elected, not one publishing anything like an agenda. Thus, close to three million members send nine thousand delegates to Denver to vote for officers and members of the union’s executive committee and none of the delegates has the slightest idea of what any of these people will do. History suggests that they will do nothing to ease the burdens of a membership that is being reformed to death by the corporate interests that want to destroy their unions and drive them into the private sector where the invisible hand of the market can slap them around, driving down their wages and benefits. There will be a lot of talk about organizing this week, but not one speaker will offer an organizing agenda that taps into the rage seething in the membership.

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Partial Public Employees?

The reasoning of Justice Alito in the Harris v. Quinn case should give Americans pause. Finding that the home health care workers, while paid by the state, are really the clients of the patients they serve, thereby making them only “partial” public employees. The union representing them, therefore, is not entitled to the agency fee for those who choose not to join the union but who enjoy all of the benefits. Partial public employees?

The home health care workers in question are paid by the state, work according to the terms and conditions of their union’s contract with the state. Yet Alito sees them as less than whole. His reasoning brings to mind the three fifths compromise written into the Constitution in 1787 which rendered slaves as three fifths human.

While most public sector unions are breathing a sigh of relief today, that relief will be short lived. Alito sees agency fee as having a “questionable” basis in law and appears to be looking for a case to shoot down agency fee altogether. For now, his opinion, joined by four other justices hostile to labor unions, will only impact the ability of the unions representing the home health care workers to extend the pay and benefits of these low wage workers. We shouldn’t be surprised that a court that sees corporations as having the same rights as human beings doesn’t give a damn about the needs of the working poor.

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A Sign of Hope?

I’ve been attending the summer meeting of the National Council of Urban Education Associations (NCUEA), a caucus within the National Education Association (NEA). The support of NCUEA for a new business item or resolution is often a harbinger of its success at the NEA Representative Assembly. Among the new business items discussed was a pair of new business items which taken together call for the resignation of Arne Duncan, partnership with the American Federation of Teachers and other organizations to end the scourge of high stakes testing and the organizing of a national day of protest against testing and the conditions that it furthers.

Much the same item failed at past meetings, union leaders uncomfortable attacking the Obama administration, an administration it helped to elect. This time, however, it passed by a substantial, suggesting that NEA leaders have had enough and are willing to buck their national leadership and organize to fight back. It will be interesting to see if the NEA Representative Assembly feels the same. That vote comes later this week.

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Duncan’s Ignorance

“It’s not enough for a state to be compliant if students can’t read or do math. We must have a system that will do more than just measure compliance.” So said our illustrious Secretary of Education on announcing a move by the federal government to force states to demonstrate that their special education students are making progress towards becoming proficient in reading and math.

Let’s recognize that there are places where special education students are not held to reasonable expectations and that minorities bear a special burden in this area. Realistic efforts to correct this problem are laudable. But let’s also recognize that Duncan’s belief that if we just have high enough expectations and “a robust curriculum,” special education students will excel is a distortion of reality. Put more bluntly, it’s just plain stupidity raised to national policy by a man whose ignorance in these matters has become a cruel joke.

I spent half my teaching career in an affluent school district known for the richness of its special education program teaching spec ed kids in the mainstream. I taught basically the same language and literature curriculum to these children as the regular education kids received, but I taught it differently, very differently and with different expectations. Contrary to Duncan’s belief, and despite my best effort, they didn’t excel in the sense that Duncan uses that word, most of them passing the state English examination, but just passing, many of them having had to make a herculean effort to do so.

Once again, data driven dunces like Duncan set schools up for failure. I saw progress almost every day I taught, but it often was not the kind of progress that shows up on standardized tests. To people like Duncan and the crowd that spends its days talking college and career ready gibberish, that progress has no meaning.

I’m off to the NEA and AFT conventions. I’m told there will be a No Confidence vote in Duncan at NEA. Such a motion failed once before. It will be interesting to see if the delegates have finally had enough. I’ll be blogging periodically during these meetings. Stay tuned.

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From California to New York

We knew it wouldn’t be long before the Vergara decision declaring California’s tenure law unconstitutional would prompt law suits in other states, particularly in ones with high profile unions. With the “reformers” notching a victory in California, the obvious next place to achieve a dramatic impact was New York, and, sure enough, it’s in the works.

Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal announced that former news anchor turned education reformer Campbell Brown has found some plaintiffs to bring a challenge to the tenure and seniority laws of New York. The big lie impelling these suits is that but for tenure and seniority statutes, school managements would be free to fire the hordes of incompetent teachers standing in front of our nation’s classrooms preventing our youth from succeeding academically. These law cases are just one prong in a carefully designed strategy to attack and cripple teacher unions which have been the frontline defense against the privatizing profiteers who are hell-bent on turning our public schools into profit centers.

Curb collective bargaining, challenge public sector agency shop laws, attack tenure and seniority, spread the big lie that teacher unions exist only to defend mediocrity and encourage the belief in exploited minorities that their children can only be saved by a privatized system in which they are empowered to choose where and how their children are educated. Spread this anti-public education venom through a multi-media bombardment of the public financed by billionaire bankrollers engaged in what amounts to predatory giving, or as my friend Dave Linton calls it “giving to get.” That’s what we’re up against. I wish I saw our strategy as clearly.

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I’m getting Greener Every Day

Sunday, I attended a house party for Howie Hawkins, the Green Party candidate for Governor of New York. I voted for Hawkins last time, unable to pull the lever for Andrew Cuomo even before he had a chance to damage public education in our state. I’m going to vote for him again, this time with more enthusiasm.

I’m tired of voting for Democrats who aren’t members of the party I grew up in, one that represented working people. The party I grew up in believed in the ideals expressed by Franklin Roosevelt in his 1944 State of the Union speech in which he argued for a second Bill of Rights for Americans. Roosevelt asked Americans to believe it possible for people to be guaranteed a job at living wages, decent housing, medical care, education and enough income to provide adequate food clothing and recreation. He looked forward to a system in which farmers would be able to earn a living from their crops and business people were free of predatory monopolies. Mind you, he talked about all of this amid World War II. Successive generations of Democrats would champion civil right and respect for the environment. I used to be proud to be a Democrat. The party stood on high the moral ground of trying to make our economic and political systems work for the betterment of its citizens. The party that used to believe in these ideals helped to create and grow the middle class.

As Hawkins says it, Democrats today appear to want to repeal the New Deal, not extend it. In most elections we are given a choice between them and today’s Republicans who seems to want to repeal The Enlightenment. Some choice for working people.

I don’t think for a minute that Hawkins is going to be elected governor of New York, but what I know is his ideas are more like mine than any other candidate’s. He believes in a living wage for workers and supports a $15 per hour minimum wage indexed to the productivity of the American worker. He believes in progressive taxation – you make more, you pay more. He supports single payer health care for all. He believes that the unemployed who wish to work should be able to do so, if need be in a state funded WPA-style jobs program. Hawkins and the Green Part support the idea of our being 100% clean energy by 2030. Finally, and most importantly for an education union leader like me, he stands for an end to high stakes testing, the Common Core State Standards and the full-funding of public education, K through college.

Political positions are one thing, character another. What I like most about Howie Hawkins is that he works for a living. He’s a good union member working for UPS. He lives in the heart of Syracuse. When you listen to him talk, you realize that here is a man who has spent his life working for progressive causes, not building a political resume. The battles of working people for justice punctuate his almost every sentence. I love the idea that he has to take an unpaid leave of absence from his UPS job to run for another that he knows odds are he can’t win. It’s important to him to keep progressive ideas alive.

While Howie Hawkins may not win the governorship of New York, if I and progressive people like me who think it is possible to build a better more just society cast our vote for him, we just might breathe some life into the Democratic Party and turn it back towards its roots. My union colleagues who were so disappointed at the Working Families Party endorsement of Cuomo have a logical and comfortable place to go. There is nothing of significance in the platform of the Green Party and Howie Hawkins that doesn’t match up well with the principles and policies of our unions. It’s time to put our money, resources and votes behind the things we believe in instead of behind people we know will betray us after Election Day.

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A Small Step Forward

So New York now has a moratorium on the consequences of the Common Core high stakes tests for both students and teachers where student scores cause a teacher to be judged “developing” or “ineffective.” That’s not a small thing to the teachers in some districts who were clobbered last year.

However, it is, as NYSUT President Karen Magee suggested, a first step in what has to be a process of finding a teacher evaluation system that hold teachers accountable for what they can be reasonably expected to do. This legislation does nothing to stop the absurdity of forcing all children to meet a set of standards that take no account of what children are able to do at various stages of their development. Neither does it give us a sane testing policy, one aimed at informing instruction rather than disciplining and punishing.

I’m sure Governor Cuomo thinks NYSUT now owes him an endorsement for his generous easing of the consequences of high stake testing on our members. I hope we’ll be smarter than that. I hope we’ll put time, money and effort behind a candidate who will offer a vision of a real, developmentally appropriate education for every child in our state, an education that prepares our children to learn, not to qualify for the next school or job, one that enables them to be engaged citizens of a society in which the quality of life improves with each generation.

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Mired in Stupidity

Teachers in New York are anxiously waiting to see if their elected representatives in Albany can find their way out of a gross stupidity of their own making. In their budget agreement this year, they lifted the consequences of the state’s high stakes tests said to be aligned with the Common Core State Standards, while leaving teachers to be evaluated in part on the basis of student results on those same examinations. Reports for days have talked about intense negotiations over this issue. Reportedly, our friend Arne Duncan is sending the message that if we untie student test results from teacher evaluations even for a year or two, our Race to the Top money could be in jeopardy. So there we are. Mired in stupidity and hoping that by the wee hours of the morning, one of our elected clowns will have an idea.

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Been There- Done That

When I was in 8th grade, someone in the leadership of New York City’s schools decided that it would be a good idea to combine the instruction of English and social studies, calling it Core. While I remember a great deal about 7th grade English and social studies, I remember nothing about 8th grade except for the fact that I was stuck in an excruciatingly boring class for what seemed an eternity each day.

About 15 years later, after I’m an established English teacher, I’m asked by a respected colleague in the social studies department to consider teaching a parallel course in American literature to her honors American history section. Although skeptical about blending the two disciplines, such was my respect for Pat that I decided to give it a try. In those days, we required no approval by the superintendent of schools or the board of education. If we could convince the principal to give us the same kids for one period each day, we were free to try something new. Imagine being able to do that today. That’s a whole other post.

Pat and I gave it our best shot, working many extra hours to coordinate our lessons. From my perspective, I hated having teach the curriculum as a chronological survey course, it being more important to me with young students of English to teach them how to read literature critically than it is to demonstrate how it emerges from a particular moment in intellectual and artistic history, or a writer’s imaginings of that time. The pace of the class was determined by a historical timeline rather than my perception of what my students needed at the moment. Pat seemed to like it more than I, but it turned our she was just more reluctant to voice her concerns.

At the end, we talked about the year among ourselves and our students. Neither of us thought it was worth doing again. Neither of us felt we had done as good a job with our subject as we could have independently. Both of us felt that an interdisciplinary approach had more meaning with students who already had enough knowledge to draw the kinds of connections the course was designed to elicit. Unlike most experiments in k-12 education, ours was not doomed to success.

I found myself thinking about my experiences with interdisciplinary education as I listened to a presentation to our board of education by our middle school principals who want to do some block scheduling in 6th grade to combine the teaching of English and social studies and math and science. This decision appears to have been prompted by the desire of some teachers for additional time for math, time made necessary by the implementation of the Common Core State Standards. Somehow, a perceived need on the part of some teachers for some additional math time got morphed into the Core I experienced as a kid.

I hope to be around when the next innovators suggest that we go back to traditional 6th grade class in which one teacher taught most everything in her own way, in her own rhythm.

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New York’s Superintendents Wimp Out

I’ve repeatedly said that if New York’s superintendents of schools were to speak out at the chaos that is passing for education policy in New York State, the positions of the Chancellor and Commissioner would be unsustainable. If through their association they would, as NYSUT has done, issue a carefully argued critique of what the botched implementation of the Common Core State Standards and the high stakes testing regime integrally connected to them are doing to public education in our state, their collective voice combined with that of the teacher and parents opponents of the Tisch/King corporate agenda would leave our education leaders no choice but to resign, no group having any confidence in their leadership.

What we now have instead is a so-called vision statement by the superintendents association that amounts to little more than a nauseating compilation of pusillanimous platitudes about what education should be in our state. Here’s a taste what passes for criticism of current education policy. “Although the goal has been embraced by many educators, the rushed and problematic implementation of the reform has contributed significantly to the emotional tide of discontent sweeping New York State. “ Their statement appears to argue that if we just went about the corporate reform agenda in a more “systematic” way, all would be well. They have to know that’s not true. I wonder how many meetings it took for the “Visioning Committee” that wrote the document to come up with this intellectual gruel.

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The Tenure Wakeup Call

The billionaire financed law suit nullifying California’s teacher tenure law will obviously have ramifications for the rest of the nation. The outfit that brought the suit is already looking to the East. Good and bad things have a way of starting in California and working their way eastward. Where once the California public education system was the envy of the nation, Proposition 13 began the process of its decay to the point where it is now among the worst. The Prop 13 tax cap idea has now reached New York and has begun to destroy some of the best schools in our nation.

I and others have written on how abolishing teacher tenure will do little, if anything, to improve the education of the nation’s children, but we’ve seen little to nothing from the teacher unionist other than lamenting the court’s decision. What shall teacher unionists to in response to the legal attack on teacher tenure?

To be sure, we will seek to overturn decisions like Vergara v. California. What is also clear is that our political elites and the courts believe they can do as we please with us, our “movement” having absorbed attack after attack without any consequences for our enemies. To the extent that we have had a strategy is has been one of appeasement. Give the enemies of public education and teachers a little of what they want and maybe they will let us alone. The “reformers” want to tie teacher evaluations to student test scores, let’s argue about the percentage the tests will count towards. We’ll get the number as low as we can and declare victory. We enthusiastically embrace the Common Core State Standards and accept huge amounts of cash from the billionaire behind that endeavor, knowing full-well that the teachers we represent had almost nothing to do with their development.

Politicians we have supported have literally spit in our faces, but we support them for re-election anyway. Last year at the NEA Representative Assembly, my friend Phil Rumore introduced a new business item calling for a vote of no confidence in Education Secretary Arne Duncan and demanding his resignation. Do we have a clearer enemy than Arne Duncan or Bill Gates? NEA leadership literally implored the convention to vote the motion down for fear of offending an administration that has made war on us and is clearly in bed with those who wish to privatize public education. A couple of years ago, Bill Gates gets invited to be a featured speaker at the American federation of Teachers convention to talk to us about test based teacher accountability. Most sat respectfully and listened to this outrage.

Both national have recently rediscovered the value of organizing, albeit they have some difficulty defining the issues around which to organize. Organize around the preservation or the demand for due process rights is a natural. No one who has ever worked in a public school is unaware of the extent to which absent due process rights, teachers are just a parent complaint away from being terminated. It doesn’t take much for the average teacher to realize that as they climb the salary schedule, it’s in management’s interest to be rid of them. A teacher in most districts on maximum salary makes twice what a beginner makes. We need to take this decision as a wakeup call to organize around due process rights. We ought to encourage locals to have plans to bargain due process clauses into their contracts. We need to stop supporting politicians of whatever party who do not have clear positions in support of public education. We need to demonstrate that we care about our work and the students we teach. The laws that gave us the right to collective bargaining were made in the streets. The Brown decision and the civil rights laws that followed were not a gift of enlightened political elites. They were demands of organized people that those elites could not deny.

Update: A few hours after writing this post, I received a copy of a letter AFT President Randi Weingarten wrote responding to Arne Duncan’s praise of the Vergara decision in California. It is the latest example my point about union appeasement of the ‘school reformers.” In her letter, Weingarten invites negotiations that would diminish our current due process rights in New York.

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The Latest Hit on Public Education

Judge Rolf M. Treu wrote in his ruling declaring California’s tenure law unconstitutional, “The evidence is compelling. Indeed, it shocks the conscience.” What is compelling is the big lie perpetuated in this outrageous decision – the lie that it is the inability of school districts to fire incompetent teachers that is responsible for the poor academic performance of minority students in urban school districts, a lie that the mainstream press repeats to the point where it obliterates other possibilities.

Tenure laws provides that before a teacher may be dismissed, there has to be a good reason, a good reason for which there is a preponderance of the evidence. What sort of legal mind finds it appropriate to sever an individual from his employment, from his ability to earn a living and feed his family, without a preponderance of evidence to support that decision? It shouldn’t be easy in any workplace for the boss to simply fire someone without cause. In my years as a union officer, I’ve handled a handful of cases in which non-tenured teachers who have no due-process rights in New York were slated for dismissal without a jot of evidence to support their firing. One was motivated by racial hatred on the part of an influential member of the board of education another by the union activities of the teacher and the others by factors I never could determine, but demonstrated incompetence was clearly not the issue. We were able to save these individuals, but most teacher unions wouldn’t even try. It’s simply so hard to do without due process rights. The fact it that employment decisions are sometimes made with bad intentions by bad people, and only a mechanism based on establishing a factual basis for a decision to terminate an individual prevents these life-altering decisions from happening.

The notion that the reason minority students suffer a very significant achievement gap is ineffective teachers is untrue. It’s really shocking to learn that none of the plaintiffs in this case attend schools that have ineffective teachers. Some even go to charter schools in which teachers are not apparently covered by the tenure laws. We know that too many poor students begin school already behind their more well-off peers, although we haven’t as yet found a way to blame public school teachers for this fact yet. We know too that poverty is much more than not having money. It often blights people’s souls, tightly circumscribing their hopes and dreams, leaving them with a sense that no matter what they do, they can’t better themselves.

On NPR’s Leonard Lopate show the other day was an African American businessman and author John Hope Bryant who while talking about his book made the following statement about poverty that I’ll paraphrase. He suggested that if one went into an impoverished community and administered a clinical depression survey, 60 percent of the population would turn up clinically depressed. If Bryant is right, and my experience teaching in an alternate education program suggests he is, then the almost religious belief of some of our leaders that if we only had more effective teachers the devastating effects which express themselves as an achievement gap in our public schools is like the ignorance of the religious fundamentalists who despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary insist that dinosaurs and human beings co-existed on the earth a few thousand years ag0.

More on the ramifications of this decision for teacher unions tomorrow.

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Polls Not a Substitute for Leadership

Why is it that both the NEA and AFT have membership polls that claim a large majority of the membership supports the Common Core State Standards, yet I hardly ever meet a teacher that does? I met a few at a meeting of the National Council of Urban Education Associations this fall who when I spoke to them said, “Yeah, I support the Standards because we’re going to have to follow them anyway.” I listened to another at a NYSUT demonstration in Lake Placid who as she defended the Standards to the 500 or so members in attendance was literally hooted down. What questions are these polls asking? Is it support they are picking up or resignation at the powerlessness of their unions to do anything to stop the train? Every time Randi Weingarten or Dennis Van Roekel how the membership favors the Standards, the members serve wonder how that can be.

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Geen Now Is Better Than Green later

Some of our friends in the opt-out movement to end high stakes testing in New York are pushing for Zyphyr Teachout, the defeated candidate for the Working Families Party’s nomination for governor, to challenge Andrew Cuomo in the Democratic primary. She stands no chance of winning, and, when she loses, progressives and pro-public education forces will be left with Green Party candidate Howie Hawkins as the only place they can. Our goal is to depress Cuomo’s numbers. We have a better chance of doing that by putting our resources into the Green candidate now rather than in September when we are literally weeks from the election.

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Meeting Anger and Frustration

Yesterday, I met with a group of union members who had summoned me to talk to them about how some aspects of their work were being changed without any serious consultation with them. While I think that by the end of the day a process was in place to solve the problem I was called to address, I’ve been absorbed by the views about their jobs that were expressed during our meeting.

One way or another, they all expressed feelings of being harried, of not having any control of their work, of working to rhythms imposed from above rather that what come naturally from the work of teaching. The expression used so often that my mind became riveted on it was, “They want,” their expression of faceless forces making demands on them that can’t be engaged or confronted. The group conveyed a palpable sense of being distracted from what they considered to be important for the children they teach by the dictates of people who are oblivious to what children need. Discernible to anyone who cares to listen to them is an anger and frustration at the perceived need to suppress one’s professional judgment because to publicly disagree is to be marked as not a team player.

I don’t believe for a moment that there is anything unusual about this group of teachers. In fact, when feelings like this exist in a staff whose union is known for its militant defense of its members’ rights and conditions, it’s clear to me that it is probably even worse elsewhere where unions don’t take on the issues my local does. My challenge as their leader is really the challenge of all unions, to organize that anger into a potent force to save public education and our rights to our profession from those who wish to extinguish public education and our union movement.

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