Tag Archives: unions

In Need of (Real) Dialogue

Finally, I’m diving into this topic, now that the strike’s over — in part on purpose, actually, because I’m always a little afraid to comment mid-stream, as things are unfolding and changing so quickly. I needed time to ruminate and absorb.

Sometimes, I worry that I’m too much of a cynic when it comes to charter schools and the privatization of education in this country. I hear condemnations of teachers’ unions as a bunch of whiners who have no actual solution to the problem, and I worry — is that true? Is that me? I don’t want to be a whiner — I want to inspire and support positive change. Thus, such rhetoric has always made me pause, always made me listen to both sides, always made me check myself at the door and question my own beliefs.

So I clicked on a link to an op-ed piece entitled “Unions are an Impediment to Change.” I wanted to hear the other side of the story, and what I got instead was an assumption-laden condemnation of how unions are standing in the way of “real change.” An excerpt, so you can see what I mean:

The evidence of this “solution-phobia” is on full display this week in Chicago, where the local union has already won considerable concessions from the city, including generous raises and other protections. In return, the city has asked for reasonable and necessary reforms that benefit children, like the implementation of a teacher evaluation system that would help identify whether teachers are actually succeeding at elevating student achievement. The union balked and took to the picket lines.

The assumptions abound: 1) that the union was after money to begin with, 2) that the reforms asked for by the city are indeed “reasonable” and “necessary” and “benefit children,” 3) that the evaluation system actually evaluates quality teaching, 4) that the union finds reform of any kind something to “balk at.” My bet: none of these assumptions are valid. Here’s a shocker: the writer is the CEO of Success Academy Charter Schools in NYC.

A little peeved, I clicked around some more and found a response critiquing the existing power struggle between business-based models and education. Lipman, professor of educational policy studies at UIC, points out that the charter system has not shown any particularly impressive results, and that business models are promoting the very top-down models that education doesn’t need — not when the ones at the bottom are the ones who are most knowledgeable about what students need. She closes with:

After absorbing 15 punishing years of these policies, they have had enough. Compensation is not their biggest concern. They are fighting for respect and for a vision of public education that is grounded in equity, respect for teachers, a rich well-rounded education for all students, and the financing priorities to realize it.

Here’s a link to Lipman’s entire piece, if you want to read it: “A Battle Between Education and Business Goals”.

I come away from these two pieces exceedingly disheartened. I was watching Rock Center earlier this week and Brian Williams spent an entire segment pointing out the extreme partisan BS that happens on cable news shows. Well, it happens in the written/online news media, too, and as Williams pointed out, it doesn’t get us anywhere. No one is listening to anyone on the other side, and these two pieces are evidence of that. Do I agree with Lipman? You betcha. But neither Lipman nor Moskowitz are taking what the other believes to heart, or reconsidering/revising their stances or their approaches to the problem. Which gets us nowhere but into this deadlock, wherein there’s a “dialogue” NYT’s website between these people, but there’s no real talking going on.

I’d love to see some real dialogue — teachers sitting down with our country’s educational leaders, everyone with open ears and open minds. Too much to hope for? Probably.

Teachers Aren’t to Blame

Thanks again, Paper Graders, for a fabulous find, this article from a journalist not far up the road from me in Flint, arguing that maybe the teacher-bashing rhetoric of our political machine could probably be pointed in other directions (say, at said political machine).

Heller (click here to read his piece) argues that on the one hand, we acknowledge the importance of teaching as an essential and noble profession in our society, but on the other hand, (sorry for the lengthy quote, but I couldn’t decide what to cut out):

All you hear these days – particularly from politicians who know an easy target when they see one — is how teachers are paid too much, do too little, aren’t smart enough and need more training.

And that’s when people are being nice. The worst among us lump them all in one boat and call them lazy, greedy louts who are draining the public coffers dry at a time when we can least afford it, all while getting the summers off. How dare they!

Then a week later a new study will come out saying kids in China, Japan or Botswana are miles ahead of American kids, and we cry, “Fix that! … oh, but do it for less money with more students in increasingly substandard buildings, all while we yell at you and test you to make sure you’re up to snuff.”

That’s nuts. And hypocritical. You can’t say teachers are vital then turn around and cut their salaries and benefits. Just can’t do it.

It is nuts. It is hypocritical. The binary (saint/devil) keeps the general public from understanding, seeing, or needing to acknowledge the complexity that is teaching. This is a binary I have analyzed, argued against, and now conduct research on in an attempt to combat, and it’s good to hear others argue that the binary makes absolutely zero sense. How can we acknowledge the importance of teachers and at the same time continue poking holes in every aspect of their profession?

Thanks to Heller, and TPG, for the link and the reminder that just because politicians are attacking an “easy target” doesn’t mean everyone takes what they say at face value.


Waiting for Waiting for Superman

I finally watched it. I had been waiting to watch Waiting for Superman.

Waiting for what? Not sure. I knew it would “angry up my blood” (the words of my partner as he hit play last night). Waiting until I had adequately prepared myself? Waiting until I could try to watch it with an open mind? Waiting until I had a pen and pad of paper nearby so that I could write down every false statement made about teachers, teachers’ unions, and the role of context in schooling? This is the problem with research that has anything to do with popular media — your brain never shuts off.

What sticks in my memory from watching the film last night, though, aren’t the baldfaced lies about teachers and their work (though there were many), the misinterpretations of the charter system and its false promises (though these were countable), or the uncritical comments about what counts as “achievement” for students or “success” for teachers (though these were rampant). What sticks out in my memory? I watched the movie with my partner-in-crime, my husband of five years. He was able on more than one occasion to point out how the producers made correlational claims sound causal, how the film would argue something about the role of teachers without taking into account context and resources, and how the documentarist often contradicted himself. Without knowing who all of the featured “reformers” were (I knew all of the ones he interviewed by name prior to watching), without being part of the educational system (aside from knowing me), and without having children, he was able to poke holes in the film’s argument about public education in our nation from start to finish.

This gives me hope. Hope that perhaps others, others who are also not educators but are smart people capable of looking at many sides of an issue, haven’t watched this film and immediately blamed “bad teachers” for our nation’s “educational issues” (which I happen to believe are more than a little overinflated by propagandistic media like this). That perhaps not everyone believes that high test scores equal intelligence, that teaching kids how to memorize facts via cute little rhymes doesn’t actually help them become better thinkers, or that teachers care about their students and need support from the administration in order to be the best professionals they can be.

What did I like about the film? Very little. It wasn’t worth the wait. But there was one message (not the primary one, mind you) that I did appreciate — kids want to learn. I’ve been chanting this from the rooftops since I started teaching. It gets easy sometimes — I know I was guilty of this more than once — to blame the kids for not studying, to blame parents for not encouraging studying, to blame everyone but ourselves as teachers for students’ disengagement. While I hate the media chant that “bad teachers” are to blame for “bad results” because the “results” are poor measures to begin with, I do believe that teachers and administrators should be introspective about their role in making learning worth it for our students. One thing I learned during my few years of teaching was that students do want to learn. They crave knowledge about the world, how it works, and how and where they fit within it. They crave challenge. On those occasions when teaching gets tough because kids are disengaged, disinterested, or disempowered to learn, it’s time for teachers and administrators to look to the curriculum and look to the systems in their own schools to find ways to make learning matter for their students. This message did not ring loud and clear through the film, but it was there as an undercurrent, which I appreciated.

Done waiting to watch Waiting for Superman. Now I’m just waiting for the day our media decides to cut the crisis rhetoric.


Fired up on a Sunday

I should really unsubscribe from the Schools of Thought blog. All it does is rile me up. I tell myself I’m going to post on something from somewhere else and yet I still get drawn to the headlines in my RSS feed, click, and it’s downhill from there.

This story about Chicago Public School’s recent decision to extend the school day for students but not for teachers makes teachers sound lazy because they don’t want to stay at work for another few hours every day. Both parties “got their way” — the teachers don’t have to stay for an extra few hours, and the school day got extended. What bothers me isn’t the decision — it makes sense to me. None of the teachers I’ve ever known have days that start at 8 and end at 3 — teachers work at home, plan at home, and occasionally wind up in the classroom on a weekend. I certainly did. And that “vacation” in the summer isn’t a paid vacation, nor is it usually much of a vacation. Adding one more class period to my day? No way. That’s another 30 papers to read, AND it takes away an hour’s worth of time to get that assessment done! No, what bothers me about this post is the rhetoric. The headline, “In Chicago, Longer School Day for Students, but Not for Teachers” somehow makes the decision sound “unfair” to students, or “too lenient” for teachers.

Later in the post:

The school board president says the increased hiring could cost the district between $40 and $50 million per year, but neither the board nor the mayor’s office has yet to determine where the additional funds will come from.

This decision would cost the district that amount ANYWAY, because teachers aren’t going to do extra work for free. It’s literally illegal to ask them to do that. This makes it sound as though the teachers, by asking the school board to honor their contracts and compensate them for extra work or not give them the extra work to begin with, are making the district spend an extra $40-$50 million that they don’t have. Keeping kids in school for an extra few hours necessitates spending extra money, no matter how you slice it.

It shouldn’t bother me this much. Or should it? Maybe it should bother more people…

Chicago Teachers Vote to Strike

Back in Chicago this past weekend for a familial gathering and a White Sox game (a-hem, go Cubs), I heard on the radio that the Chicago Teachers’ Union was voting this week to authorize a strike. The radio announcers didn’t seem too convinced that the vote would actually pass, because new rules require a 75% vote (which is ridiculously high).

But they did it.

According to this post by Diane Ravitch, union members not only voted in favor of the strike, they voted overwhelmingly in favor of it. Ravitch writes:

Nearly 90% of the members of CTU voted to authorize a strike to protest Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s policies of more work for no more pay, privatization of public education, and increased class sizes. To be exact, 89,73% of the CTU voted to authorize a strike, 1.82% voted “no,” and 91.55% of members cast a vote.

After all the fights teachers’ unions have lost lately, this is a big win.

I have confused and mixed feelings about teachers’ unions. On the one hand, I lost a job I absolutely loved because of the seniority rules held in place by most teachers’ unions. That was really painful and really frustrating. However, unions protect teachers from the very things that are being upheld as positive — but aren’t — in today’s standardization age. Unions protect teachers, for example, from being laid off because their students’ test scores go down one year. They require due process for a teacher, and protection against wrongful termination. Unions bargain for fair pay and fair benefits. Things professionals deserve. Things that aren’t denied to auto workers or construction workers. Why would we deny teachers, who go through years of schooling (and many of them have graduate degrees), these same professional privileges?

As teachers’ professional judgment and knowledge continue to be undervalued, as textbook companies churn out scripted curricula and technologies that make the teacher irrelevant, I become more concerned about the lost battles of teachers’ unions. I admire those Chicago teachers who refused to sit  idly by. Good for you, sweet home Chicago teachers’ union.