I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Summer of Our Discontent

Once again, let's play Spot The Pattern™! Can you spot the pattern in these education stories [all emphases mine]?

Story #1 is from Newark, NJ:
Eight months after negotiating “performance bonuses” funded by a Facebook fortune, Newark Teachers Union President Joseph Del Grosso was re-elected Tuesday by a margin of nine votes. A challenger slate that’s drawn inspiration from the Chicago Teachers Union captured seventeen of the twenty-nine seats on the NTU’s executive board, while barely falling short in its bid to oust Del Grosso. The new and old union officers will be sworn in together this afternoon, setting the stage for further conflict over the union’s orientation towards a nationally ascendant education reform agenda.
“There was no overwhelming mandate for either slate,” Del Grosso told The Nation Thursday. He charged that his opponents “gave out a lot of bad erroneous information to the members” during the campaign, and said that having captured a majority of the board, “they’ll learn about unionism from the inside. So sometimes it’s nice to have people who like throwing rocks at people that are on the inside, actually be inside” themselves. Teacher Branden Rippey, a leader of the competing NEW Caucus who was Del Grosso’s opponent in Tuesday’s election, countered, “I think he and other union leaders like him feed right into the corporate reform agenda, if they have not collaborated with it.”
As I reported for In These Times in October, the Newark contract deal was celebrated by Republican Governor Chris Christie and by American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, who called the deal “a system of the future” and an example “that collective bargaining really works.” In contrast, Rippey told The Nation that the deal “basically is a complete capitulation to the corporate agenda.” 
Tuesday’s NTU election follows April’s leadership election in the AFT’s largest local, New York’s United Federation of Teachers. In both cases, incumbents survived challenges from caucuses demanding more aggressive opposition to the mainstream “education reform” agenda backed by billionaires like Zuckerberg. Both Newark’s NEW Caucus and New York’s MORE Caucus have taken inspiration from the Congress of Rank and File Educators, a caucus that seized control of the Chicago Teachers Union in a 2010 election and then mounted last summer’s week-long strike.
Like Chicago’s CORE Caucus, Rippey said NEW plans to use its foothold on the executive board to push for greater democracy in the union, to re-engage members and to build deeper ties to the broader community in Newark. “We’re not trying to just be a bread-and-butter union,” said Rippey. “We’re trying to make society better for everyone.” Rippey said that he sees “little bubbles” of such teacher unionism “starting to bubble up in different parts of the country.” But “I think we’re only about 5 percent of the way to building a movement.”
Story #2 comes from Washington, D.C.:
Washington Teachers’ Union members voted Monday evening to unseat their incumbent president in favor of a candidate who promised to more forcefully challenge school system management.
Veteran teacher and WTU activist Elizabeth Davis defeated Nathan Saunders with 55 percent of the vote in what both candidates said would be a game-changing election for the union, which is negotiating a new contract.“It was a referendum on many fronts,” said Saunders, who received 380 votes to Davis’s 459. “They want more aggressive change than what I was dishing out.”
Saunders was elected in 2010 after accusing then-WTU President George Parker of being too cozy with management. In office, Saunders sought to strike a cooperative relationship with Henderson, an approach he said was necessary to stay relevant and push for teachers’ interests at a time of nonunionized charter schools’ quick growth.
Davis, a longtime WTU activist, said Saunders ignored teachers who wanted a stronger voice pushing back against some of Henderson’s decisions, including her closure of 15 schools and her use of “reconstitution,” in which all teachers at a school must reapply for their jobs.
We do not plan to be a roadblock to school reform or play to the stereotype of a union that blocks improvements, but we do not plan to be silent” on such issues, Davis said.
Story #3 is Anthony Cody's report on the National Education Association's Representative Meeting last week in Atlanta, where implementation of the Common Core was a hot topic:
But the biggest reservation I have about the approach the union leaders are proposing is that it does not seem to be working in the very places where the unions are the strongest. Yesterday a report was published, written by Sarah Jaffe, that describes the contracts negotiated in New York, where the AFT is very strong.
We learn that teachers have 20 to 25% of their ratings based on state test scores, and another 15 to 20% from school-based measures, which are likely to be more tests. The worst part is that the state test scores trump all other factors. If a teacher is rated ineffective based on these tests, they MUST be rated ineffective overall.
And this has been negotiated in a state where the AFT is, so far as I understand, been pursuing the strategy now being embraced by the NEA. 

Is there something I am missing in how this strategy will unfold? 
It seems to me that if we embrace the Common Core, and position ourselves as expert implementers, we cannot help but legitimize these standards as a solid set of benchmarks for student performance. Once we make that commitment, aren't we stuck with the judgment that is reached by the tests when they arrive? Or we must make the difficult argument that the standards are perfectly fine but the tests are flawed. Given the momentum behind the Common Core, and the full court press we are going to see, with even the National Public Radio chiming in with experts demanding that we stop "hiding" low performing schools, this seems as if it sets us up in a very defensive posture.
I think we would be better off taking a position that exposes the Common Core standards and associated tests for what I believe them to be. Get off defense and mount a strong offense that exposes what is going on here. An effort to refresh the phony indictment of our schools as failures, in order to open up the market for semi-private charters, virtual charters, and vouchers for private and parochial schools. Collaborating on implementation with the promise of a fight when the tests arrive is like buying a lemon and hoping the mechanic can fix it later.
Anthony references Fred Klonsky, who posted some rather tart pieces on his blog about his experiences down in Atlanta at the NEA-RA. For example:
From the preliminaries I was concerned that a push by the national leadership and President Dennis Van Roekel of the Common Core standards would cause a big unfortunate fight.
I had written earlier about his unscripted belligerent speech to the Retired Conference where he seemed to surrender the union’s core mission of collective bargaining in favor of pushing the Common Core.
In his keynote address to the RA this afternoon DVR was back on his pre-conference intended scripted message. Now there was no mention of collective bargaining. It was all about “educator-led reform and student success.” And read from a teleprompter.
He offered the now-required and expected criticisms of those like Michelle Rhee and other corporate reformers. “We are going to take charge of our own professions…we want to move beyond the old debate that has been defined by others—and replace their kind of solutions with our solutions.”
However there was little mention of school closings or the 300,000 teachers – NEA members – who have lost their jobs over the past three years.
Or the loss of collective bargaining rights in states like Michigan and Wisconsin.
The Wisconsin delegation is located next to the Illinois delegation, right in front of the podium. Milwaukee teachers lost all collective bargaining rights last week. Van Roekel did not mention it.
It was as if the current struggle in education is only about curriculum, instruction and evaluation.
Not jobs, contracts, pensions or privatization.
Let's start with this: I like Fred's blog a lot, and I trust him (hope we can meet some day, Fred) - but I wasn't there. I have no idea what Dennis Van Roekel said at the Retired Conference, and I wouldn't care to guess. Frankly, I have a very hard time believing Van Roekel would ever give up the fight for collective bargaining; but I also have a hard time believing Fred got this wrong. I'm inclined to believe this was a misunderstanding that escalated out of control and just leave it at that.


It's clear that Fred's doubts were occurring within the context of a larger debate about the role of teachers unions and the strategies and tactics they should use going forward. The NEA and the American Federation of Teachers have two big fights on their hands: the traditional struggle to secure good wages and working conditions for their members, and a fight to save public education itself. The current stage of what is an arguably a never-ending war has been waging for several years, and it's clear that teachers are looking at their unions and taking stock.

We can basically divide the folks engaged in this debate into two camps: insiders and outsiders. The insiders, represented by the traditional union leadership, are relying on relationships and lines of communication built up over the years to work the system and get what they can for their members. In their view, you can't represent your interests if you aren't at the table, and it would be foolish to simply throw away the access they've worked so hard to get.

The outsiders, in contrast, think the problem is the system itself. If you sit down with the people who are destroying public schools, you become complicit in their corruption. There's no point in trying to negotiate with these people because they don't want to work out a deal with the unions; they want to destroy them.

This is obviously a continuum, and most everybody sees at least some benefit in the other side's point of view. Readers of this blog know that I tend to be more sympathetic to the outsiders, but I've been around long enough to know that it's foolish to win a battle if it costs you the war. Litmus tests for politicians, for example, can get us into a world of trouble, especially when giant, reformy campaign money funnels stand poised to slosh a torrent of cash down the throats of "liberal" politicians the unions may abandon. We've got to fight, but we've got to fight smart.

So unions are going to have to find the sweet spot here: sometimes an open palm, sometimes a fist. Union leaders are going to have to acknowledge the frustration their members are feeling, and show them that they are ready to engage in battle when needs be. At the same time, the more combative members of the unions will have to understand that sometimes it's worth it to give up a pawn if it means you protect the king.

This debate, by the way, is perfectly healthy. Unions are democratic (small-d) institutions and we should have these conversations out in the open. But let me be very clear about one thing I see every now and then that I think is potentially toxic:

Let's not go down the road of questioning the motivations of union leaders or their critics. When the Newark teachers contract was being debated, you would have been hard-pressed to find anyone who found more flaws with it than I did. And I was none too happy when Randi Weingarten appeared with Chris Christie on national television to sing the praises of this agreement. But I never questioned her loyalties to her members, and I never questioned Joe Del Grosso's motivations.

Unless and until you can present me with real evidence that a union leader is corrupt, I am not about to say they are self-dealing. I may question the wisdom of their tactics and strategies; I may express displeasure at the company they keep. What I won't do (again, in the absence of evidence to the contrary) is call them sell-outs because their way of working doesn't match up with my predilections.

In the same way: dissent is not disloyalty. If people don't like the way their union is being run, the correct response - as in the case of the Newark's NEW Caucus, Chicago's CORE, NYC's MORE, and other opposing slates - is to run for office and make your case to the members. If the NEA-RA doesn't like the way the leadership runs things, they not only have the right to say so - they have a duty. Dissent toughens up leaders: it forces them to answer for what they've done, and it holds them accountable. No one should be afraid of criticism if it's made in good faith.

As regular readers know, the person I most admire in the American labor movement right now is Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union. Karen has run tough campaigns for her union position, and she is not afraid to go toe-to-toe with her rivals. But Karen doesn't waste her ammo on internal squabbles; she has, instead, targeted those who would see her union and her city's public schools be destroyed. She leans toward the outsiders, but she knows when to let off the gas.

Karen leads by example, and she gets results; that's why she's earned the trust and respect of Chicago's teachers. She's not afraid to be held accountable, and she doesn't question the motivations of her challengers because she doesn't need to. That's the way a union should be led.

I've been optimistic lately about the rising opposition to the reform agenda, but this fight is far from over. So let's have the debate about how unions should proceed; let's hold our union leaders to account.

But let's not lose sight of who the real enemy is.

Great minds, thinking alike.


Unknown said...

Jazz...do you know why the American auto industry is in such bad shape? Its because the union leaders went to bed with the corporate bankers and stabbed the rank and file in the back. Now the same thing is happening to education.

I trust DVR about as far as I could toss him (which at my age is only inches!) Friends of mine in ATL told me that he was arrogant as hell and wouldn't respond to pleas from Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, or Penn delegates about collective bargaining, Arne Duncan, or loss of jobs...it was all "Corporate Core". You can't even put in a negative response on the NEA website about it...you will be purged!

Its time for all teachers to move away from the Democratic party and form a Socialist Workers Party.

Priscilla said...

I will be anxious to see what you have to say in a couple of years when the massive firings caused by VAM decimate the NEA and AFT rank and file, leaving no one to doubt the motives of leadership.

CCSS testing is a tsunami heading towards us that no one seems prepared accept. Every day more reports are released telling us that the CCSS assessments are going to result in massive drops in scores which means teachers being rated ineffective. Period.

The laws on the books of the states that accepted the RTTT and NCLB Waivers say that teachers must be fired after receiving 2 ineffective ratings. The Title I teachers will be the first to go but the rest will not be safe except in the most white, upper middle class schools and districts.

I guess the majority of teachers think that somehow their students will pass these tests and they will be safe. Or that somehow the legislatures and state departments of education will undo the mess after that majority of teachers are let go and their careers as public school teachers have ended forever.

That's one possible scenario, however unlikely it seems given that they have been gunning to destroy the union for generations.

At that point whatever the leadership of the NEA and AFT have decided to do you can bet your next paycheck that Dennis Van Roekel and Randi Weingarten will not be frantically trying to figure out how to pay the rent or buy food.

Their families will not be desperately scrambling to survive like thousands of teachers are right this minute, laid off and excessed around the country and soon to be joined by their still-employed colleagues on the unemployment line.

But we have to defend the leadership and trust them because SOLIDARITY! Funny how that solidarity doesn't endanger anyone at the NEA or AFT headquarters so of course we should just trust them and take our time in years-long efforts to replace them through byzantine internal election procedures.

Chicago and Washington are small rays of hope. I salute them for taking back their unions. Would that the rest of the rank and file could or would do the same.

ed notes online said...

I appreciate your thoughtful comments. Do we have democratically run unions where there is open debate on the issues? I can only speak from the point of view of being in the belly of the beast here in NYC where the Unity Caucus has controlled the UFT for 50 years and where after our recent election in which 18% of the classroom teachers voted and 52% of the total vote came from retirees and where 100% of the exec board were endorsed by Unity. The AFT is under the control of the Unity Caucus. It is hard to defend a union leadership under such conditions. Ed Notes over the past 16 years has reported on how the ed deform movement has been aided and abetted by this union leadership -- the seat at the table concept turned the union into the handmaiden of ed deform.
The rise of Karen Lewis' CORE in such quick time was a response to such a union leadership in Chicago, Washington and Newark. Let's not call them sell-outs if that is offensive but from the inside it is hard to find the right words.
Finding the fault lines in building an insurgency inside a union that functions this way is the difficult terrain we here in NYC are trying to navigate. No matter how optimistic you are - as I am too - about the rising opposition to the deform agenda, until more unions -- especially the NYC operation take a strong stand in opposition to that agenda -- join in the battle with the considerable resources they have instead of straddling the fence -- that optimism can only go so far.

Duke said...

Norm, as usual, I think you make very good poinst, and you find the right words to say so. You've been doing the heavy lifting in NYC, and you've been keeping your union's leaders honest. If they have a problem with that, then shame on them.

I realize I'm walking on dangerous ground here, and some of my readers aren't going to agree. I'll say this:

If I were a teacher in NYC, I'd have voted for Brian and Julie. But not because they trashed Mulgrew (from my side of the Hudson, they really didn't), but because they took positive, proactive steps like "The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman" to meet the challenge of corporate reform head-on.

The NYCORE meeting I was honored to attend this past winter - the one you wrote so well about - was exactly the sort of unionism I happily endorse:


I think Mulgrew should be held to account for how he's run UFT. Same with Randi and Dennis and Karen and everyone else.

I just think there's a difference between saying someone's wrong and saying someone's a sellout. In the same way I have no patience for disrespect toward the loyal opposition. I just find the attitude - on both sides - to be toxic and unproductive. Brian and Julie can win on ideas; Karen did. That's what it should be all about.

Yeah, so maybe I'm naive. But I've really got bigger fish to fry, and I'm saving my invective for the real enemy. Tomorrow, hopefully, I'll have a story on charter schools so corrupt it'll make your head spin. The worst part is it's all legal. And I have a dozen more stories I could persue if I had the time.

That's where I'm taking the fight. And if the powers that be don't come along... well, when the next leadership election?

Ken Derstine said...

If you are in an army about to go into battle and you find your General is collaborating with the enemy, would you meekly follow that General into battle?

Valerie Strauss in the Answer Sheet in the Washington Post has documented the millions that the AFT and NEA have received from the Gates Foundation to promote Common Core. http://tinyurl.com/bpelh34
American Federation Of Teachers Educational Foundation 2012 College-Ready US Program $4,400,000
The NEA Foundation for the Improvement of Education 2012 College-Ready US Program $99,997

Randi Weingarten has been collaborating with the Broad Foundation and Gates for over ten year.

See the "The Broad Foundation and the unions" in the later part of the article "Who is Eli Broad and why is he trying to destroy public education?"


Mrs. King's music students said...

There are WAY more than two sides to the union issues in Camden. For example, in my case, I received a letter of termination on June 14th, after reading I had been renewed in the May Board Minutes. I texted my prinicipal immediately, and she texted back “it didn’t come from me”. This launched a trail of investigations that revealed a new dimension on the role of the NJEA and ed. admin in preventing ed reform in New Jersey.

On June 17th, my principal finally admitted in a text, that she had requested my termination, and was either too chicken to tell me, or she had another reason for keeping her actions secret. To find out which, I interviewed other non-tenured teachers in the bldg. to find out if they had been approached by union reps and urged to write a letter accepting employment before June 1st. They replied that union reps had done this last year, but did not do it this year.

Why would they do that? By ‘negotiating’ with OUR union reps to neglect non-tenured membership, my principal (and MANY other admins like her) can put all of the untenured teachers in a bldg. at their mercy, and then pick and choose those they like for renewal, and terminate those they dislike –
REGARDLESS of performance, highly qualified status, test results, attendance, or any other thing with significance for true ed reform.

This is the real reason many South Jersey teachers (not limited to Camden) hate their own union. Until the NJEA and ed administrators are held directly accountable for the 47 and ½ % rate of teacher attrition, no reforms can happen in education.

walt sautter said...

"Get off defense and mount a strong offense that exposes what is going on here" - If you really think this will ever happen you are delusional. NJEA is too busy cowering on West State Street.http://teachersdontsuck.blogspot.com/

Mrs. King's music students said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mrs. King's music students said...

I’m not in the least convinced that anyone on the outside can fix this for us. At best, the state might hold the BOE and other Camden Elite at bay for up to 3 golden years. After that, the new SUPERintendent will be dispensed with if he’s worth anything, and the old crowd will ooze back into power. Trenton is a magnificent example of this where Rodney Lofton was King for a Day for cleaning out CAB to keep teachers in classrooms, and then he was gone and Priscilla Dawson was back on top, instead of in jail where she should be.

But I would love a crack at the 3 golden years, when 6 year olds turn 9, and 9 year olds turn 12. These are pivotal years in their lives that might sustain them through whatever is going on over at Creative Arts HS where hand-picked students enjoy the lion’s share of resources intended for the whole district and still suffer a 44% graduation rate.