Sunday, December 8, 2013

Teaching, Unions and Social Justice

Giving of course my humble opinion, I believe we are at the high water mark of the anti-union, pro-market-force, evaluation-by-testing mania that's gripped education. Or I could be seriously deluded and education is going through a profound change that will see radically different protocols for years to come.

Monday is the National Day of Action, where schools and community organizations are rallying to focus public attention on how to improve schools and promote social justice. There is a set of principles behind this, and it represents a concerted effort to fight back against the corporitization of schools that started on the far right, but has been moving to the center for a few years. Even President Obama supports the principle of more testing and teacher evaluation models that erroneously support it.

But a larger issue is also part of this debate, and that's the role of unions and associations in public education. Perhaps it is true that teachers unions are facing a moment of truth and that they will need to adapt to the changing landscape rather that being able to pull the country back to a position that supports the idea of collective rights. Many people who should be supporting unions and what they've won for workers are in fact opposing them on the grounds that everyone should suffer in a free-agent world, not that they should demand the rights that unionized workers have. Employers have gained the upper hand in salary negotiations and with the coming of the new health care landscape, will most likely be able to stop offering insurance and tell employees to buy on the exchanges. Teachers generally have better protections because they have representation, but that's led mostly to resentment, not mobilization by other industries.

Another challenge, and perhaps the biggest, is that the teaching staff population is getting younger. Far younger. Most teachers have been on the job for less than ten years. More importantly, they grew up in a nation that didn't value unions. Yes, Ronald Reagan did say that he supported unions, but his actions in firing the air traffic controllers in 1981 is a far more potent reminder of the power of the president to shape the national agenda through actions rather than words. Most of the newest teachers were young during the 1980s and 90s when the anti-union rhetoric became louder and there were fewer steel workers, miners, and automobile workers to remind them what unions could do. The technology economy rendered union protections less important when the ethos was that you could create your own wealth. It's still a powerful message. The problem is that it only applies to a few workers. Evidence is showing that many of these younger teachers are not as committed to unions or at least want them to change in ways that unions might not want to. The NEA and AFT will need to adapt, and at the moment it's unclear what direction they will take.

The infusion of right wing money into the privatization and testing movement has also undermined effective education because it essentially said that teachers were to blame and that unions were anti-reform because they stood in the way of change. Yes they did, and for good reason; using tests to evaluate teachers and students is a terrible strategy. It saps energy from the system because teachers are tethered even more closely to a curriculum that defines what's important to learn, what's on the test, and discards everything else.

My subject, history (not social studies by the way; HISTORY) has been left in the educational dust for years as math and language arts skills have become the de facto national curriculum. Then science was added. I have no problem with this. But we are raising a nation of students who have limited historical knowledge because they have limited access to ideas because history is not a tested subject, therefore it must be less important. The same goes for the practical, industrial, visual and performing arts. This is the legacy of the corporate influence in education. Will the Common Core Standards help? We'll see, but if they don't, we'll have wasted time that could have been better utilized.

Monday's National Day of Action should be a day that reminds us of what effect the power of people can have when it's channeled for social justice and education. These are the bedrocks of solid citizenship and point to a return of a society where all people, not just those who can pay for SAT Preparation classes, have access to a quality education and control over their own lives. The promise of corporatization and testing is a false hope that will leave students on the sidelines and teachers in a system that rejects the basic premise of effective schools that have a collegial staff and a collective ethic meant to educate every child.

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