November 2012, Week 2


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Tue, 13 Nov 2012 22:46:42 -0500
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How Teachers Unions Lead the Way to Better Schools

     Diane Ravitch upends the "bad teachers" narrative.

 By Amy Dean

 November 12, 2012 
 In These Times - Web Only Feature


 I have a concern: Teachers are getting pummeled. Too often,
 they are being demonized in the media and blamed by
 politicians for being the cause of bad schools. Right-wing
 governors, power-hungry mayors and corporate "reformers" -
 all ignoring root issues such as poverty and inequality -
 have scapegoated the people who have devoted their lives to
 educating our children. Moreover, these forces are seeking
 to destroy the collective organizations formed by educators:
 teachers unions.

 The stakes for our country could not be more profound. The
 labor movement and the public education system are two
 critical institutions of American democracy. And they are
 two that go hand in hand. Teachers unions have played a
 critical role in advocating for public education, but you'd
 never know it from mainstream media coverage. Therefore,
 there is a great need to lift up this tradition and
 highlight the efforts of teachers to collectively push for
 top-notch public schools.

 To figure out how we can push forward on this issue, I
 talked with Diane Ravitch, one of the country's leading
 education historians and public school advocates. A
 professor at New York University, Ravitch is a former
 Assistant Secretary of Education and the author of several
 books, including 2010's The Death and Life of the Great
 American School System: How Testing and Choice Are
 Undermining Education.

 What do you see as the role of teachers unions in preserving
 public education?

 For many years, there has been an effort to diminish
 teachers unions and to blame them for all the problems of
 public education. I believe the reason, first of all, is
 that some people just hate unions. But there's also a
 political reason that's very specific. That is that if you
 silence the union, then there's nobody at the table when the
 legislature or the governor wants to cut the budget, so they
 can hack away at will. That's happening in states across the
 country. I was in Texas a few weeks ago, and there the
 legislature cut over $5 billion dollars from the education
 budget, but they did manage to squeeze out $500 million
 dollars for more testing. They have a weak union. They had
 no one at the table to say, "You can't do this." And no one
 cared what the teachers thought anyway.

 This past summer, you championed the Chicago teachers strike
 as an example of teachers publicly transcending self-
 interest and pushing for better conditions in the schools.
 Can you speak about some of the victories have shown a
 different style of advocacy from teachers?

 Well, the teachers' union had a problem in that most of the
 things they were concerned about they're not allowed to
 collectively bargain. The law says they're not allowed to
 collectively bargain the teaching and learning conditions,
 but that was the essence of the strike. They had to say that
 they were striking over something that was legal and not
 over something that the law didn't allow. I think that one
 of the things that they were able to accomplish -  and it's
 a small accomplishment but an important one -  is that the
 mayor wanted the [teachers' performance] evaluations to be
 based, I think, 40 or 50 percent on [student] test scores.
 They got it down to what was the legally required minimum.
 My own view is that the test scores should account for zero
 in teacher evaluation.

 One of the historical roles of the labor movement is that
 unions have been a symbol of high standards of quality. If
 you have your electrical wiring done by a union electrician,
 for instance, you don't have to worry about fires in your
 home. In the same way, teachers' unions played a role in
 forming teaching as a profession with high standards for its
 practitioners. Can you point to examples where teachers are
 taking the lead on issues of accountability and evaluation?

 The nature of being a professional involves self-regulation.
 Professions are supposed to set [their own] standards. That
 involves a certain amount of autonomy, but it also means
 that you meet professional standards. Lawyers set standards
 for lawyers, and doctors set standards of good practice for
 doctors. Then there's a certain amount of self-policing.

 I think that if there's any way in which unions could be
 faulted, it's that they have ceded that to management.  So
 over the years, unions have come to see their role as
 defending their members and not setting the standards of
 practice, and so that's management's job. They have ceded
 that role. And I think that now they find themselves in a
 bind because there's been this mass of publicity campaigns
 to make unions seem evil.

 What I've seen in state after state is that the teachers are
 losing their collective bargaining rights. I'm not sure that
 anything they could have done as a union would've changed
 that because in so many of these states, the governors,
 whether it's Ohio or Indiana or Texas, the governors are
 just very, very right-wing and don't want unions, period.
 Nothing they could've done would've changed the governors'
 and the legislatures' desire to strip the unions.

 I agree. But in Democratic states and some strongly pro-
 union areas, we still hear a trope about teachers not
 stepping up on issues of accountability and evaluation. Do
 you see some hesitation here?

 I think that this is where peer review comes in, and I think
 that in places where there are peer review systems, then the
 union does step up.

 Part of what I object to about in this whole line of
 discussion, not from you but nationally, is the assumption
 that somehow the problems in American education are all tied
 up with teachers. The teachers are causing low performance,
 and if we could just find the ideal teacher evaluation
 system, we would be the highest performing nation in the
 world. I think that's a false narrative that's been promoted
 by a combination of Bill Gates and Arne Duncan and lots of
 right- wing groups who want to say we don't need to spend
 anything more on poor kids, we don't need to do a thing
 about poverty, we just need to weed out those bad teachers.

 I also agree that poverty and inequality are core issues
 that are not being addressed, and that teachers cannot be
 held accountable for these. Can you identify some of things
 that are within teachers' field of control, around which
 unions could help create just systems of evaluation?

 Knowing your subject, being able to communicate your subject
 to the students, giving assignments that students
 understand, that are thought-provoking, encourage and enable
 students to produce good work -  and reviewing the quality
 of that work so it shows that the students are really
 engaged and are really learning. The metrics would not be
 hard metrics like a test score, but they would be meaningful
 metrics. These would be professional judgments.

 We have very high-performing schools both in the US and
 overseas in places where there are strong teachers' unions.
 In these schools, union strength and quality of education
 are going hand-in-hand. How are these examples relevant to
 the discussion?

 Everybody likes to point to Finland. Finland is a great
 country, and they have a wonderful school system there. It's
 100 percent union, and the principals and the teachers all
 belong to the same union.

 You find the same thing in the US. The highest performing
 schools in the US are in union states. What are the three
 highest performing states? Massachusetts, New Jersey and
 Connecticut. they're all union. The lowest performing states
 are either right-to-work states or nonunion states, places
 with weak teachers unions.

 If you look at the highest performing districts, public
 schools districts in the US, they're all union -  and
 they're in suburbs. It's because the relevant factor is not
 union or non-union but wealth and poverty.

 Politicians often refer to the high pay of teachers and
 imply that somehow it's not a good investment. How, in your
 opinion, taxpayers should view teacher pay, and what role
 should unions play in trying to influence public perception?

 The national media is so anti-union and anti-teacher and
 anti- public education that you will see it frequently. That
 the average teacher's salary in Chicago is around $75,000 is
 supposed to be a big black eye for the union. Well, that's
 ridiculous. Why shouldn't a professional be paid $75,000?
 The people who are complaining about this are usually paid
 many multiples of $75,000. I don't see that as something the
 union should be embarrassed about. They should be proud of

 Part of what unions have done has been to create a middle-
 class. You don't become a teacher and go through four years
 of college and then get a master's degree or even higher in
 order to work for poverty wages. you're supposed to be a
 professional. Why shouldn't professionals be paid as

 [Amy Dean is a fellow of The Century Foundation and
 principal of ABD Ventures, LLC, an organizational
 development consulting firm that works to develop new and
 innovative organizing strategies for social change
 organizations. Dean is co-author, with David Reynolds, of A
 New New Deal: How Regional Activism Will Reshape the
 American Labor Movement. Dean has worked for nearly two
 decades at the cross section of labor and community based
 organizations linking policy and research with action and
 advocacy. You can follow Amy on twitter @amybdean, or she
 can be reached via http://www.amybdean.com ]



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