September 13th, 2012

Is denial of workers’ rights “inevitable”? Chicago’s teachable moment

A Chicago Tribune editorial today declared

Chicago Teachers Union officials aren’t merely fighting City Hall. They’re fighting the inevitability of education reform. They are denying the arc of history.

We challenge the inevitability of the erosion of workers’ rights. Let’s start with some history. What brought us to the point where the public sides with anti-union forces?

Gutting School Finances

The abandonment of teaching young people critical thinking skills, exposing them to the arts and music in addition to sports, tailoring learning to different individual styles and replacing those goals with an unwavering impersonal obsession with scores on standardized tests is what angers school teachers. Not only in Chicago. Schools have faced dire financial times since California passed Proposition 13 on the 1978 ballot, caught up in a property tax cutting zealotry. Schools rely on property taxes. Bleeding them dry became a trend that swept the country.

The Guv’ment

Public school employees are government workers. President Reagan’s anti-government rants, begun in 1980, are amplified today by Republicans who add a “fear the government” component. Democrats have abetted the destructive message by failing to defend government as capable of serving people in ways that corporations will not or can not. For 32 years, we heard “government is the problem.”

Thars Money in Thum Thar Kids

Many groups want to shutter public schools. Private charter schools are able to get paid taxpayer funds allocated to students. Non-union teachers in private schools can be paid less than when compensation is negotiated as part of a collective bargaining agreement. To undermine the venerable and democratic institution of public education, opponents utter the simple phrase — our failing schools — which goes unchallenged by the media.

Another source of attacks comes from the student testing industry. Lots of money can be made when testing is mandated at regular intervals. The No Child Left Behind (Republican) laws that threaten to cut off federal funding when scores fall below a threshold reformed school curricula everywhere. The Democratic education secretary under Pres. Obama is Arne Duncan, former CEO of Chicago schools. Duncan not only did not eliminate NCLB, he extended it with his own test-driving Race To The Top program.

Test scores are the priority because they impact a school’s budget. Teachers now “teach to the test.” And when teacher evaluations are tied to student test performance, teachers are pushed to extremes to generate results. Cheating incidents are reported with greater frequency. Hence the demonization of teachers has gained traction from combining the bashing of government and public education.

Thinning the Union Herd

Parallel to the anti-government mantra — which has gone unchallenged by media reports so people tend to believe what they hear — is the concerted anti-union initiative by Republicans who thwart efforts to unionize workers in their cities, counties and states. I say concerted efforts because it is a well-funded drive to enact legislation that reverse unionization of workers by corporations. Republicans drive the effort because union members typically voted for Democrats. It’s a way to eliminate the competition. Sadly, “new” democrats gladly side with union busters to curry favor from corporate donors to their election coffers.

The long campaign has been successful. Only 6.9% of private sector workers are union members. Counting government workers, the national rate is 11%. When the global recession hit in 2008, it began to bankrupt cities, counties and states. The federal government did not provide needed funds to stabilize budgets, so massive layoffs of government workers followed. Most of the new post-recession unemployment has been the loss of government jobs. Is is plausible that the Republican majority in the House that refused to provide stimulus money to states had an ulterior motive? Who knows?

Cutting the number of government workers (draconian austerity packaged as “achieving efficiency”) also gutted government unions, the last stronghold of unionized workers. Teachers were part of the massive cuts. Several hundred thousand teacher jobs have been eliminated, unions weakened.

Admiration for Teachers Soured into Contempt

This really took some doing (and gall). Everyone has a favorite teacher story. Someone has touched our lives and told us we could do something we doubted we could do. A teacher inspired us early in life that built the foundation for confidence. Parents do it more often, but when a stranger at school does it, the compliment seems more earned.

Something happened along the way since 1980 that made attacks on teachers possible. Because public schools were government and unionized and “failing,” someone had to be blamed. Instead of attacking those most highly paid in the system — district superintendents ($200,000 – $500,000 in ordinary districts and much more in the largest systems) — the opponents targeted teachers. They practiced an unprecedented loathing of professionals we love to love. Soon, the public jumped in. Teachers, whose average pay is quite modest considering what they do were branded as pigs at the public trough. Their 9 months work was redefined as a cakewalk, and a fixed pension to boot!

Ironically, if the complainers think that K-12 education is a career for the lazy, why didn’t the whiners flock to fill vacancies? Get in line if it is something you think you can do. They didn’t and they don’t because they know it’s all a lie. Teaching, which is actually the development of young humans to achieve their potential, is hard work.

Anyone Can Run a School: Business People, Lawmakers

As schools were encouraged to drop their unproductive methods of teaching young people, a corporate business model, in which students are products and commodities, became fashionable to impose on school districts. Superintendents came from the business world and skipped learning how to teach and snagged the highest paying jobs of all — with NO experience. This is especially true in big cities like New York.

State legislatures have passed laws, with overwhelming approval from both Republicans and Democrats, that represent the perfect confluence of anti-public schools, anti-union, anti-government, and anti-teacher sentiment. The laws mandate the most heavily weighted single factor in evaluating teachers to be test scores of their students. These laws are politically motivated for all of the above reasons but sold as non-partisan. Who would not want their kids taught by the highest quality teachers? Illinois passed such a law.

However, educational researchers strongly oppose linking teacher pay to student test scores, also called VAM, the value-added model. Mathematician John Ewing wrote a May 2011 article summarizing the research demonstrating the errors in basing teacher pay on test scores. Here are four of his major points:

(1) Test scores are affected by many factors, including the incoming levels of achievement, the influence of previous teachers, the attitudes of peers, and parental support. One cannot immediately separate the influence of a particular teacher or program among all those variables. (2) Like polls, tests are only samples. They cover only a small selection of material from a larger domain. A student’s score is meant to represent how much has been learned on all material, but tests (like polls) can be misleading. (3) Tests (especially multiple-choice tests) measure the learning of facts and procedures rather than the many other goals of teaching. Attitude, engagement, and the ability to learn further on one’s own are difficult to measure with tests. In some cases, these “intangible” goals may be more important than those measured by tests. (4) Inflation. Test scores can be increased without increasing student learning. This assertion has been convincingly demonstrated, but it is widely ignored by many in the education establishment. In fact, the assertion should not be surprising. Every teacher knows that providing strategies for test-taking can improve student performance and that narrowing the curriculum to conform precisely to the test (“teaching to the test”) can have an even greater effect. The evidence shows that these effects can be substantial: One can dramatically increase test scores while at the same time actually decreasing student learning. “Test scores” are not the same as “student achievement.”

Some parents groups recognize the science and complain about pay based on test scores. On March 26, 2012, a letter “Misconceptions and Realities about Teacher and Principal Evaluation” signed by 88 professors and researchers who specialize in education from 15 different universities throughout the Chicago and surrounding areas described concerns regarding Chicago’s implementation of legislation for the evaluation of teachers and principals. The group, CReATE, made clear that tests were developed to assess student change, not teacher efficacy, so to use the models for a different purpose should first require more field-testing and development.

I was most impressed with the argument that teaching to the test that VAM creates tends to make less time to deal with students with special needs. Any time-intensive investment in students as humans is likely to be abandoned in the hell-bent drive to crank out suitable scores on tests of dubious validity and meaning. Read what the scientists have to say instead of the politicians fronting for greedy corporations waiting in the wings.

Right at the time of the strike comes the anti-school, anti-union movie “Won’t Back Down” (in theaters Sept. 28) showcasing a “parent trigger” law that enables disgruntled parents to take over public schools (which later become privatized).

Against the Tide

So, the Chicago Teachers Union has its hands full standing up to the heavily financed forces committed to destroying public schools and the teachers along with the bricks and mortar.

The snarky Chicago Tribune editorial declared the fight over and done.

Nationwide, this fight is over. Reforms that hold teachers and principals accountable for student growth won. What used to be the status quo has … lost.

That declaration conjures, for me, the image of a rich man stepping on a poor man’s throat and declaring victory. What arrogance!

This is a teachable moment. Strikes give the public to show it understands the plight of the downtrodden and bullied. Principals bully teachers. If the CTU loses, principals will be granted even greater powers to arbitrarily purge teachers they dislike. As for quality of teaching, it’s an art difficult to assess. If we don’t get off the test score obsession, we doom our kids and belittle the noble profession of educating young people.

Let’s hope defeat for the CTU and all teachers unions that fight in the future is not “inevitable.”


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This entry was posted on Thursday, September 13th, 2012 at 5:19 pm and is filed under Commentary by G. Namie, Fairness & Social Justice Denied, The New America, Unions. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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