A Teachable Moment

Former local teacher union pesident Morty Rosenfeld periodically attempts to make sense of the increasingly senseless world of public education.

Union Communications

Last weekend, I answered a tweet by AFT President Randi Weingarten in which she expressed relief that Bill Gates was not abandoning his public education philanthropy. My response was to observe that Gates has had a profoundly pernicious influence on public education. In a tweet of my own, I further observed that the leadership of the NEA and AFT just don’t understand the negative impact Gates has had on the lives of teachers and students as they attempted to accommodate to a series of ill-fated reforms birth by his billions.

That experience reminded me that I had not looked at the webpages of either national education union in a long time. I monitor them from time to time hoping to find some evidence that either organization understands what is happening to the teaching profession. One would think that in an environment in which U.S. teachers are severely underpaid in so many areas that there would be some evidence of a campaign to improve those miserable salaries. One would think that national unions would be talking about the staggering workloads too many teachers bear. One would expect national teacher labor unions to be hammering away at the data driven teacher evaluation schemes that cheapen the work of teaching and rob students of a meaningful education. One would hope to find a consistent, focused critique of the poisonous effect testing is having on public education.

I could go on and on about the kind of content that might appeal to teachers. I can’t imagine that too many find anything of interest in the current offerings. It’s hard to imagine a young high school teacher, carrying a student load of 150 students, working two extra jobs to support his family finding any hope in these union communications for a brighter future. There is no discernible connection between the communications of our national unions and their leaders and what is happening day to day in the classrooms of America’s public schools.

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments

Promise Money in Their Pockets

I’ve written many times about the irony that while the NEA has in recent years talked endlessly about organizing, it is completely unsure as to what to organize around. To the extent that they have an organizing message, it seems to be that the NEA exists to help teachers with their professional concerns, whatever that really means. Yet, I strongly suspect that regardless of what their market research consultants are telling NEA leadership, they would do much better organizing around the deplorable salaries and working conditions suffered by many of our members across the United States.

When I began my public school teaching career, the rallying cry of local unions on Long Island was a starting teacher salary of ten thousand dollars a year. It was impossible then for teachers in most places to earn enough to support a family. Extra jobs after school, weekends and summers were commonplace. Those conditions still exist in most places in the United States. Yet, at the recent NEA representative Assembly, I don’t recall hearing a word about salaries and working conditions. Imagine if the NEA undertook a highly public campaign promoting a living wage and professional working conditions for teachers in every town in America. What if as part of that campaign they advanced the notion that we under-value teaching in this country because it is a profession in which seventy-five percent of the practitioners are female.

To join a union requires a belief that one’s lot will be improved as a result. Staying a member requires a clear understanding that one’s economic security is tied to one’s colleagues and their solidarity. A union that doesn’t have this as a core organizing principle is not really a union at all. We need to stop selling professional assistance and get back to talking about putting money in members’ pockets, members whose wages have been stagnating like those of too many Americans.

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments

Likeability is not Leadership

Lesson two to be drawn from the recent NEA Representative Assembly is that NEA elections continue to have little to nothing to do with ideas. With only token opposition to the three executive officers, there was almost no activity around the officer elections. The only printed election materials I saw were from from the opposition slate of left radicals who clearly presented an agenda, albeit one that has no chance of being adopted by the right of center NEA delegates who tend to cringe at the thought organizing for direct union action. NEA elections throughout my participation in them have always been about popularity. Secondarily, they have been about the ability to make crowd-pleasing speeches that while tickling and charming are essentially devoid of thoughtful articulation of union policy objectives or strategy. One would like to think that the largest labor union in the country would produce contestants for its highest offices who had some ideas as to where they wished to take our union.

Historically, while NEA leaders have amply demonstrated the finely honed social skills to get others to like or even adore them, they have shown almost no skills to lead, to articulate a vision of how the world of the membership might be better and how that better world might be attained. Although likeability is an important component of leadership, it is not in any way a substitute for the ability to convince people to become active participants in improving their lot.

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments

Lessons to be Learned

I’ve now been to my last NEA Representative Assembly. I’ve managed to get trough thirty some odd of them with little damage to my nervous system or cognitive capacity. While most of these yearly meetings are notable for accomplishing next to nothing, they do afford an opportunity to take the temperature of the organization and gain some insight into the state of its health and the health of public education in America. In the next series of posts, I’ll try highlight what I see as the lessons to be learned from this gathering of over seven thousand NEA activists.

Lesson one is that despite the fact that the NEA faces an existential threat from several Supreme Court cases that seem sure to ultimately wipe out agency fee arrangements and more importantly require public sector unions to sign members up each year, the convention was almost devoid of any discussion of this threat or any obvious plan to foil or mitigate this impending legal attack. Sure, here and there our national leaders worked in a line or two about our urgent need to organize, but with thousands of the members who will be vital to withstanding this attack in one place, absolutely nothing was done to organize them and provide them with a plan and tools to give us some hope of winning. In fact, the one substantive new business item designed to address this issue, an item calling for a substantial expenditure to hire numbers of professional organizers was referred, I believe, to the Executive Committee with the obvious intent of killing it.

If talking alone could repel the powerful attacks on our education union, the NEA would surely survive. It is a core belief of the NEA that if we talk about a problem we have taken action to solve it. Unfortunately talking about organizing and organizing are two fundamentally different things.

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments

No Surprises

I’m at the NEA Representative Assembly. In a post I wrote a few days ago, I predicted that little, if anything, of importance would be accomplished. So far, I was on the mark. As expected, the three officers were re-elected, no serious opposition having been mounted.

There is clearly a good deal of leftover anger from the Clinton/Trump election. A new. Business item that would have required the direct participation of the membership before the endorsement of a candidate while handily defeated exposed the extent to which our Bernie and Trump supporters are still angry over the early Hillary endorsement.

I’ve attended over thirty of these meetings. Not once has an NEA President used the opportunity of an assembly of over seven thousand activists organized them to go home and take direct action on an issue. Not once! Yet, there is always a great deal of blather about how we have to organize. This year will clearly be no exception.

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments

Anti-Union Bastards

The number of low-life scum who spend their days seeking to abridge the rights of teachers to have a voice on public policy by working together with colleagues in a labor union continues to grow. The Indiana legislature just passed a law that would require the state labor relations board to inform teacher of their rights to choose not to be represented by the unions in their districts. It further seeks to publicize the number of union members in each local union with the aim of promoting votes on decertification in districts where less than fifty percent of the teachers are union members. I wish I were a believer so I could tell myself that there is a special place in Hell for those who seek to destroy unions. I wish I could believe that some union leadership will come along that will create a Hell on earth for these bastards. I keep hope alive, but believe? That’s another matter.

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments

Our Own Inequality Issue

Labor unions are notoriously poor at dealing with their own employees, employees who are usually organized into union bargaining units. This has certainly been true of the national and state affiliates of the AFT and NEA. While our organizations have railed against the growing economic inequality in our nation, they have conspicuously failed to observe the same phenomenon in their own organizations where many elected officers and staff make salaries many times those of the average members they represent. Their pension and welfare benefits also tend to significantly outpace those of the members they serve. In my experience, they come to look and sound more like our adversaries than they do the members. The first time I walked into the headquarters of NYSUT, my state organization, I was struck by the corporate feel of the place. I would come to feel the same way about much of the staff. They neither look nor talk like union people by and large. At the risk of sounding naïve, too many of them are just working jobs. Too many are without any noticeable visceral commitment to the labor movement.

Our state and national union need an approach to the remuneration of staff and officers that ties salaries and benefits in some meaningful and transparent way to the compensation of the people they represent. When I was on the board of directors of NEA/New York, I argued for paying our president at the rate of the highest paid teacher we represented, adjusting for the fact that the job was for twelve months, not ten. I was met with a very sincere, albeit ignorant, response from the overwhelming majority of our board. All I was suggesting was that everyone rise with the ranks, not have officers and staff rise above the membership. One fellow, whom I genuinely liked and respected, said, “I want my CEO paid like a CEO,” obtuse to the irony of referring to the head of a labor union as a CEO.

There is about to be an officer election in my state organization. In nothing that I have seen is there any serious plan for how to go about addressing this issue. I don’t mean to suggest that this is an easy task. Years of growing the bureaucracy have yielded it more power in many ways than the elected officers and board of directors. Speaking of the board of directors, perhaps step one would be to end the substantial stipends members receive. I came to call those stipends hush money, in that to my perception fear of losing them determined how many of the directors voted on controversial issues. A board of members who are there because they wish to renew our movement would be a significant improvement. Candidates with an agenda to address the misallocation of members’ dues to salaries and benefits would take a significant step towards our waning solidarity.

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments

What’s the Plan?

I spent some time this morning looking at the webpages of each of the slates running to lead New York State United Teachers (NYSUT), our state union, affiliated with both the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) Both the Unity and Stronger Together slates are clear on what they oppose. Both are also clear on wanting a stronger, more united, more effective and democratic union. Both are abysmally short on how they propose to accomplish these noble aims. Unity does have a plan to more precisely define the responsibilities of each of NYSUT’s officers which it claims will bring greater efficiency. They way they talk about it, the president will be in charge of representing us with the governor and legislature, while the other vice-presidents will each take responsibility for other aspects of the operation. If they really intend to operate in the way they describe, I suspect we will have a compounding of a problem that has existed for a long time – officer turf battles that are not resolved because the president lacks the political clout to be the final arbiter. I don’t know for certain, but I suspect that at least part of Karen Magee’s downfall came from trying to have too much of a say about NYSUT’s political operation, Executive Vice-President Andy Pallotta’s turf. It certainly was part of Dick Iannuzzi’s fall.

Neither slate offers any detailed plan for what should be the central concerns of anyone looking to lead NYSUT – the ever increasing irrelevancy of the organization to the rank and file members it exists to serve and the failure of the NYSUT service model to build power from the ground up. Stronger Together knows this, but they have yet to offer anything but platitudes about more democracy, educating the membership and organizing. Frankly, some of their positions are hopelessly naive. They appear to believe that we can build an organization in which New York City’s United Federation of Teachers (about 200,000, members) and the Plainview-Old Bethpage Congress (700 members) can have the same clout in NYSUT because power should come from ideas not membership numbers. Good luck with that.

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments

Why Bother to Meet?

I’ve taken a few days to think about late week’s NEA convention before writing about it. I found myself unsure of whether it was the most boring and inconsequential NEA convention I had ever attended did I see it that way for some reason owing to my recent retirement. The more I think about it, the more I’m sure it’s the former.

For an organization under attack from many quarters, for a union that has bled substantial membership in recent years, there was surprisingly little in the way of calls to action. If this had been one’s first national meeting, one would think that all is so well that all we have to talk about are the rules by which we run our conventions. It was truly alarming to listen to speaker after speaker offer some suggestion about how we might change our rules to facilitate our meeting, speakers who ironically clearly had nothing on their minds of substance to talk about.

NEA Executive Director John Stocks offered up an impassioned speech the theme of which was that we have to listen to the needs of our newest members of the profession. While his manner bespoke serious business, the content of his remarks were almost humorous by comparison. Is our teacher union movement in such bad shape that the activists of the organization have to be reminded to listen to the members? What a missed opportunity to send people home from the convention with a serious mission.

I would hazard a guess that a majority of the delegates came from local unions that do not have one hundred percent membership. Imagine if someone in leadership had worked the crowd up to have each one go home and recruit one new member this year, one new member. What if the 10,000 or so activists were asked to go home and make an immediate visit to the office of their Congressperson to demand that the recent ESSA legislation be implemented as written and not as Secretary King has interpreted it? I’m always amazed that we gather our union activists at great cost to meetings and send them home with nothing specific to do, all the while talking about the need to organize.

Hillary spoke to a wildly enthusiastic crowd. While some in the press suggest that she signaled a pronounced break from the education policies of the Obama administration, I found her comments so nuanced as to be unsure of exactly what her positions are other than we will have a seat at the table and that she has our backs. Clearly no one in NEA leadership pressed her before hand to explicitly repudiate the corporate education reform movement. If they warned her about saying anything positive about charter schools, she certainly paid them no heed, drawing some loud boos from the audience when she alluded to them positively. Our organizations demand so little in exchange for our support.

I continue to be bitterly disappointed by the performance of Lily Eskelsen Garcia, our NEA president. With personality traits that at once make people like her, this person of enormous political talent has essentially frittered away her time in office. She is ideally suited to be the face of the anti-corporate reformers. Yet she and the NEA she leads always appear to be reluctant to take them on, often opting instead for engagement with them in the hope of convincing them of the errors of their ways. I’m all for keeping hope alive, but……

If big, expensive meetings like the national conventions of the NEAand AFT are not to be about inspiring and motivating the unions’ activists to build the organization in some way, enlarging its power and prestige, if after we have met there is nothing specific for the attendees to do to build and energize our movement, must we not consider some better use for the resources put into organizing these meetings?

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments

Hillary and the NEA RA

Getting ready to go to the NEA convention in D.C. next week. No doubt Hillary will be the featured speaker. While the hall will give her a thunderous reception, she has to speak to the many Bernie supporters, most of whom will be back home. She needs to tell them that she strongly opposes high stakes testing, that she has come to understand the damage it is doing to America’s public schools. She needs to make clear that that she believes the linkage of student test scores to teacher evaluations is without merit and destructive of teacher morale. She needs to make clear that her administration will seek an end to that connection. She needs to make clear that her administration will cancel the federal regulations that threaten school districts with loss of federal funds if 95 percent of their students fail to participate in the examinations. If she does most of that in clear unambiguous language, most Bernie’s supporters who cling to the belief that she is a supporter of the corporate school reform movement will rally to her support. They will be able to take some pride in claiming that their support for Bernie forced her to support their education positions. Hillary has everything to gain from a pronounced move in their direction and nothing to lose.

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments

I’m Voting for Bernie Tomorrow

This primary season has offered an opportunity to understand why the message of a large part of the labor movement fails resonates with the American people. It has become a movement that shuns idealism. In no segment of our movement is that clearer than in our public education unions who leaders have ridiculed Bernie Sanders for his call for tuition free college education at state supported schools, universal health coverage, breaking up too big to fail financial institutions and even more disturbing pooh-poohing the possibility of a political revolution to substantially change an economic system heavily rigged in favor of a kleptocratic elite. They are obtuse to the reality that there is no future for our unions in the current system. They have lost faith in the promise of America becoming a better society, one in which education, health care and economic security are the rights of all Americans.

I’ll vote for Bernie Sanders tomorrow because I continue to believe that it is possible to reverse the 30 year trend of stagnating wages of the American worker. I believe that all citizens should have an opportunity to receive as much free education as they are able to absorb. While I applaud the Affordable Care Act, there are still too many Americans who do not have access to quality health care. I don’t understand, and never will, why they can’t have the same Medicare that covers me. I will vote for Bernie because he is as outraged as I that so many American children are stunted by poverty in the richest nation the word has ever known. We have a system that is literally shortening the lives of millions of our citizens. The movement Bernie Sanders seeks to build wants to change that. How can I not be a part of that noble goal?

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments

We Must become the Movement We Claim to Be

In our NEA New York days, Judi Alexanderson, Mike Lynch and I used to do a workshop many summer for union officers on how to build stronger locals. The goal was to reduce the dependence of local on the state organization, with the even larger goal redirecting resources from Albany to the locals out of a strong belief that the best possible work for a local is by well- trained local leaders. While I believe we helped some locals to become more independent, the vast majority are as weak today as then. Being a part of NYSUT now for a dozen years or so, to many resources still flow towards Albany rendering locals weaker than they have to be. That reality is embedded in the structure of our state union rather than in the conscious efforts of our state leaders. To be sure, NYSUT too makes some efforts to empower locals, but the fact that a looming Supreme Court decision in Friendrichs terrified us is stark testimony to that fact that we are not any way near as organized and resourced on the local level as we should be.

My own local is not perfect, but we had no fear of Friedrichs nor do we fear the cases that are sure to follow it. Had the decision in Friedrich’s gone against, we were already insulated from it, having signed our members up for next year. The yearly sign up process will now become a part of our yearly routine. Our teacher labor movement has largely failed to organize its local unions to be able to easily accomplish things like this. The extreme political right has located this vulnerability and is exploiting it from every direction. Were we the movement we claim to be, and I believe we could be, they wouldn’t have a chance against us.

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments

Hillary

Without a calendar, I can tell we are getting close to the end of the school year as the pace of union work picks up. This year I’m especially harried in that I have announced my decision not to run for re-election as president of my local, and so I’m desperately trying to clean my plate before I turn things over to my successor. One of the things that has suffered as a result, is what has been daily postings to this blog, an activity that I hope to continue in retirement.

Last week I attended the NYSUT convention. I’ve been a NYSUT member since the merger of NEA/New York and NYSUT about a dozen years ago or so. Each year I’ve gone to its convention, only to wonder afterward why I bothered, so much of the time devoted to speeches from a predictable cast of political characters, characters who all love us, are behind us and have a deep and abiding respect for the invaluable work we do. This year at least, the monotony was broken by Hillary Clinton’s appearance. While I will vote for Bernie Sanders in next week’s primary, I have to say she made a moving speech focused on education issues that she knew were of interested to us. Should she be the democratic nominee, I will have no trouble working for her election. While she is not the system changer that Bernie would be, neither is she like the Republican contenders, clear enemies of working people, those who rely on government to protect them to some degree from the power of corporations and wealthy elites who rig our economic system in their favor.

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments

It’s Outreach Time for NEA and AFT

It’s certainly clearer this morning that while Bernie Sanders can and will stay in the race for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States, there won’t be enough voters feeling the Bern to put him over the top. It’s not too soon for the leaders of our two national education unions, full-throated supporters of Hillary Clinton from the very beginning, to begin the fence mending process with the many rank and file members who are passionate supporters of Sanders, support that for many got all twisted up with their alienation from and resentment of what they see as the policy failures of their unions and the coziness of their leaders with a Washington establishment that has supported education policies that have been detrimental to the work of teachers and the students they teach.

In her victory speech last evening, Clinton took care to embrace some of Sanders’ themes, a significant step to begin a uniting process and recognition of the extent to which Bernie has pushed Clinton leftward from her comfort zone to the right of center. Many of my colleagues in the education labor movement don’t feel that the NEA and AFT treated Sanders fairly, both in the process of their endorsements of Clinton and in some of the ridiculously thoughtless criticism of Sanders. If our leaders, like their preferred candidate, will take a few steps to the left, if will reach out to the Sanders supporters, maybe even finding subtle ways to admit that their early Clinton endorsement was heavy-handed, it should be possible to bring our membership together for the challenge posed by Donald Trump. Hillary is going to need the passion and energy of the Sanders members. The effort to bring them into the fold must start today.

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments

How Did Idealism Become a Bad Thing?

I realize that having decided to endorse Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary, NEA and AFT leadership need to try to organize membership support for their endorsed candidate. Being a practical man, I’m prepared to work my ass off for Hillary should she become the party’s candidate for the presidency, even though I’m a strong supporter of Bernie Sanders and the program he advocates. What I don’t get, is their line of attack against Sanders.

For labor leaders, for union leaders who represent hard working, underpaid people, people who find themselves being squeezed out of the middle class and robbed of their profession by a corporate led school reform movement to attack Sanders for being idealistic, an unelectable socialist is to ironically betray what real leaders do – offer those they would lead a vision of a better world than the one they inhabit. Bernie is attacked for unrealistically believing it possible for our public colleges and universities to educate for free the children of the taxpayers who fund these institutions as is done by most of the world’s industrial democracies. Bernie is attacked and ridiculed for not wanting to settle for the Affordable Care Act but wanting to continue to work for the day when quality healthcare is no longer a commodity but a human right. Paid family leave, absolutely essential to the people I represent, is yet another example of Bernie’s hopeless idealism and evidence for his not being qualified to be president. It’s just weirdly unsettling to have the national leadership of our teacher unions attacking a life-long defender of working people, a man with the temerity to attack the corporate elites of our nation, the very elites who have financed the attack on public education.

In a deeply troubling way, the manner in which our national union leaders, and to be fair many other liberal elites, are treating Bernie Sanders is a manifestation our union movement’s lack of motivating idealism. Our leaders would do well to learn from Bernie, particularly his appeal to the young. They might gain some insight, stimulate what’s left of their imaginations, to come up with an agenda for re-inventing the education labor movement for a new generation of members. A little idealism would go a long way in the battle against the forces arrayed against us.

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments

Paid Family Leave

Could it be that the stars are aligning toward the passage of paid family leave legislation in New York?

A few weeks ago, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio granted twelve weeks of paid family to over 20,000 City employees by executive order and with the further promise to negotiate with the unions for the remainder of the City’s workforce. Not to be out done by his rival for supremacy in New York’s Democratic Party, Governor Cuomo featured a proposal for paid family leave in his State of the State speech the other day.

People in public education need many fixes to the state’s laws, but paid family leave would be a real boon to the people I represent, people who can’t currently afford to settle in their new born children, deal with the unexpected illness of a family member, often a parent who lives in retirement thousands of miles away. A week doesn’t go by that I don’t receive a phone call from a desperate member seeking help with maintaining her income while meeting her obligations to a member of her family. Too often, management is indifferent, sometimes even hostile to the member’s need. It would relieve so many to know that in such time of need, the law of New York was there to support with up to twelve weeks of paid family leave.

II intend to make passage of paid family leave a major focus of my local’s lobbying efforts this year. I hope and trust that my NYSUT brothers and sisters will do the same. Both the NEA and AFT need to get very publically behind legislation introduced by New York’s Senator Kirsten Gillibrand that would make paid family leave a national entitlement. It’s surely time for the United States to join the rest of the civilized world and take the welfare of families seriously.

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments

Making Our Own Justice

I’ve always found it curious that most people recoil at the statement that the law is often made in the streets. Social unrest, or the threat of it, has historically been a powerful motivator of justice. The Brown Decision, the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of the 60’s came to be thousands and thousands of citizens, united beyond race and social class by their belief in equality, demonstrated in the streets of our nation, demanding justice and an end to the oppression of people on the basis of their race.

I read a piece by Shamus Cooke this morning of this lesson that I learned long ago. Cooke reminds our union brothers and sisters that we don’t have sit back and let the reactionary majority of the Supreme Court use the Friedrichs Case to eviscerate public sector unions, the only part of the American labor movement that has been growing in recent times. He calls on us to do what those who engineered all social justice movements have done. Get organized and take to the streets. I fear it’s a challenge we won’t accept to our everlasting shame. We may have forgotten how to make our own justice.

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments

Our Kick in the Ass

One can almost hear the teeth gnashing of public sector union leadership following the reports of the argument at the Supreme Court yesterday in the Fredrichs case. Simply stated, Friedrichs and ten other California public school teachers are challenging the right of the California Teachers Association and its affiliates to collect an agency fee from individuals who choose not to belong to the union, an agency fee currently legal and paid in recognition that whether or not a person belongs to a union, he profits from their work in negotiations and contract enforcement. All reports indicate that the argument did not go well for the unions. Want to know more about the case and argument? The best coverage I’ve read is in the SCOTUSBLOG.
What I don’t hear from the national or state unions is a coherent plan in the event that agency fee is completely struck down by the high court, a likely event given what the media coverage seems to indicate. My local, currently at 100% membership, will shortly be asking members to sign membership renewal cards authorizing dues deductions for the 2016-17 school year. We want to know who is with us and who’s a freeloader seeking to profit from our work. Then, if the Supreme Court wants to be the agent of the right wing that seeks the destruction of organized labor, we will be prepared to resist. I can’t understand why the national unions are not promoting a similar plan. Enough moaning and groaning. Both the NEA and AFT talk about organizing. Let’s actually do it now in anticipation of the worst possible outcome of the Fredrichs case. Let our fear of what the court will do be our kick in the ass.

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments

Teach Strong

The other day, a colleague drew my attention to Teach Strong, a coalition of organizations interested in public education who want to work to make teaching a more attractive career. Both the AFT and NEA are participants in this venture, a venture premised on the belief that the quality of America’s teachers is poor and that changing the way we recruit, train, support and pay teachers is key to having a great teacher in every public school classroom.

Why the hell members are paying dues to the NEA and AFT to have their leadership run down their abilities is beyond me. Much of the bullshit that passes for serious discussion of teacher quality references SAT scores of ed-school students and draws conclusions about their intellect and teaching abilities on the basis of a standardized test that is increasingly coming to be understood to essentially be a fraud. Are there some dumb teachers? Sure! Just as there are some incredibly dumb physicians, dentists, lawyers etc. Here’s the interesting thing from my experience, however. I’ve met numbers of teachers over the years who are not intellectual giants, don’t see themselves as belonging to an intellectual elite, but who are, nevertheless, fantastic teachers, teachers who any sane person would want their children exposed to.

Even the name Teach Strong is offensive, the implication being that we have been teaching weakly. Why is it that we can’t face the fact that talent in any field is unequally distributed so that to expect there to be a “great teacher” in every classroom (whatever that means) is ludicrous. Beyond any reasonable doubt, we could staff every classroom with honors Ivy League graduates, and we wouldn’t have a great teacher in every classroom. We might even be surprised to find that we had made matters worse. The real problems facing America’s public schools have little to nothing to do with the quality of the teacher workforce. We would gain much more from halting the denigration of America’s teachers than we will from raising the bar for entry into the job.

America’s teachers are teaching strong. Many work in places where salaries are so low they must work multiple jobs to maintain themselves and their families. Even in our best schools, places where teachers make considerably more than the median American salary, teachers meet the challenges of working in an hostile environment, one in which they are essentially isolated from other teachers, asked to individualize instruction to over 120 students, evaluated in part on the test results of student scores on high stakes tests, required to respond to the most outrageous complaints with complete equanimity, infantilized by administrators who increasingly have had little teaching experience and where they talk increasingly about career change. Hardly a week goes by that one of our members doesn’t tell me about a conversation she has had with her child who has express interest in becoming a teacher. With guilty looks on their faces, these members tell me how they discouraged their kids from following them into teaching. Like all good parents, they want better than they have for their kids.

We’re already teaching strong. What we need is for people to notice, especially our national union leaders.

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments

Fredrichs Might Just get Us Back to Organizing

There is justifiable fear in public sector labor ranks of an adverse decision by the United States Supreme Court in the Friedrichs Case to be decided by the end of the court’s current term. The case turns on the claim of a California teacher that that her constitutional rights are being violated by having to pay an agency fee to her union, a union she does not belong to and which she does not support. Until now, the Supreme Court has held that while public sector workers have a right not to belong to the union in their workplace, they nevertheless have an obligation to pay for benefits they enjoy as a result of the union’s work. They do not, however, have to pay for the political or ideological work the union does. Fredrichs claims that she should not have to pay anything to an organization to which she does not belong and that doing so violates her constitutional rights. Should she prevail, our teacher unions project a severe loss of revenue, the belief being that many members will opt out of membership if they do not have to pay an agency fee instead.

Frightening though a union loss in this case will be, the shock just might be what’s necessary to breathe some energy into a movement that for too long subordinated organizing to political action. Local unions like mine, that have tried to maintain their organizing capacity while many around us disarmed, are already planning for an adverse decision. We will prepare for the worst possible decision, one that does away with agency fee and requires us to sign up our membership each year by signing them up in advance for next year. In doing so, we will have a twofold purpose. Most of our members will have no problem signing, thereby ensuring that the flow of dues necessary to support the essential work of our union will be uninterrupted. We have staff and bills that must be paid. Those who balk, and there may be some, will self-identify as the people we have to talk more to and win over to our cause. In those conversations we will no doubt learn of grievances these people have with our union and its leaders, grievances that often could be fixed if we only knew about them. While we always try to engage the members in the importance of our union, we are doing so now with a new sense of urgency. Those unions that don’t will not survive an adverse Supreme Court decision. Yesterday, I attended a meeting at which some local leaders expressed the opinion that their local unions would lose forty percent of their membership. If that’s true, they have not a second to lose.

While I’m on the subject of organizing, I came across a very interesting interview with Jane McAlevey a noted labor organizer. Her thoughts, particularly those related to the centrality of our education unions to a revitalized labor movement will be of interest to many of my readers in our movement.

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments