Who Will Push Back? Without Strong Democratic Teachers’ Unions, We’re All Screwed

by David Kaib

Flickr Creative Commons Cybrarian77

Flickr Creative Commons Cybrarian77

Kindergartner students in the deep blue state of Massachusetts are being shamed by publicly posting their test scores. Here’s Sarah Jaffe reporting on “data walls”:

Last year, K-12 teachers in the Holyoke, Massachusetts school district were told to try a new tactic to improve test scores: posting “data walls” in their classrooms. The walls list students by name and rank them by their scores on standardized tests. This, they say administrators told them, would motivate children to try harder on those tests.

Teachers did so, many unwillingly. Agustin Morales, an English teacher at Maurice A. Donahue Elementary School in Holyoke felt pressure to comply, but finds the data walls cruel. One of his top students did poorly on a standardized test in November and found her name at the bottom of the data wall. Afterward, in a writing assignment for class, she “wrote about how sad she was, how depressed she was because she’d scored negatively on it, she felt stupid.”

“So why do I hate data walls?” he continued. “Because of how she felt that day. She felt worthless. She felt like she wasn’t as good as other people.”

Morales isn’t alone in opposing the data walls. They’re widely seen as just the latest front in a war being fought by educators, parents and students nationwide against what teacher educator Barbara Madeloni calls “predatory education reform.”

Earlier, Jaffe wrote about the difficulties of kindergartners given standardized tests  in New York , which “pit children against one another instead of teaching them to share, which can turn even a kindergarten classroom into a den of hyper-individualistic bootstrappers.”  And indeed, like the data wall and the shaming it facilities, “This is a feature, not a bug, of the testing regime.”

These sort of stories should not be dismissed as outliers.  They are part of the same drive to relentlessly rate the relative merits of students, teachers, and schools, to place them in competition with one another, to address education problems by mass firings of teachers or mass closure of schools, to devalue the contributions of experienced teachers as well as traditional (or more accurately, real) public schools.

“Accountability” is also an excuse for treating children cruelly while claiming to improve the behavior of parents. Melinda Anderson  wrote about a case in Utah where students’ food was taken from them and thrown in the trash because parents have not paid for school lunches. Anderson noted that while this case, involving a largely white and non-poor student body had made national news and led to an outcry, earlier incidents had not.

What could possess any adult to even consider this an appropriate action? And again, I come back to the institution inflicting this harm: schools. This is a place where kids come to learn. How can they do that if they’re hungry?

School districts insist this measure is to hold parents accountable. But it punishes students, not parents. Not too many first-graders have control over their parents’ checkbooks. Instead of finding ways to shame and stigmatize children, the adults that implement these policies should put attention and energy toward finding ways to make sure children can get affordable or free meals. Educate parents on financial assistance available to them. Find effective methods to communicate to a child’s family that the lunch account has gone dry. Most delinquent accounts are likely caused by an oversight, not abuse.

Yet as Anderson notes, close to a quarter of American children live in poverty. And the Republicans in Congress recently refused to extend unemployment insurance and Democrats joined them to cut SNAP. Further efforts to address poverty and joblessness are unable to even get taken seriously. (I don’t count the president’s recently announced “Promise Zones” since I don’t believe too much regulation is the cause of poverty).

Sadly, harsh punishments, which disproportionately target the most disadvantaged, are all too common in our schools, as Robert Ross and Kenneth Zimmerman noted.

But too many schools still use severe and ineffective practices to address student misbehavior. Large numbers of students are kicked out, typically for nonviolent offenses, and suspensions have become the go-to response for even minor misbehavior, like carrying a plastic water gun to elementary school or sometimes simply for talking back. The Civil Rights Project at U.C.L.A. found that the number of secondary school students suspended or expelled increased by some 40 percent between 1972-73 and 2009-10.

Rather than teaching kids a lesson, these practices increase dropout rates and arrest rates — with severe social and economic consequences. They also disproportionately affect students of color and students with learning disabilities. A study of nearly one million Texas students found that those suspended or expelled for violations at the discretion of school officials were almost three times as likely to be in contact with the juvenile justice system the following year.

But these patterns can be reversed, in innovative school districts and with help from teachers’ unions.

Not long ago I heard Diane Ravitch suggest that our public school system in the United States was nearing a tipping point. We see a push for harried charter school expansion along with the continued defunding of public schools, which makes existing long-term funding disparities between city and suburb–and more importantly black and white–even worse. We see accelerated teacher firings and school closures in urban areas.  All of these developments are pushing public schools in many cities towards collapse.  In its place would be charter schools of wildly varying quality, almost entirely non-unionized, largely unregulated, which have actually increased segregation, which is no small feat given how segregated schools in these areas were to begin with. But what happens if public schools are wiped out in places like Philadelphia, or New Orleans or Chicago or Washington, DC?  The two parties largely work together to impose corporate ed reform, while teachers unions try simultaneously to prevent GOP victories and push their supposed Democratic allies to attack them with a little less vigor.  Teachers unions have been the most important force trying to put the breaks on these developments, and despite supporting other fundamental changes, they are often tarred with being ‘anti-reform’ or ‘pro-status quo.’ Leave aside for a moment, but only a moment, what happens when all those jobs disappear, when people are robbed of a neighborhood school–with its impact both on students and the community as a whole, when people of color are displaced  in these cities as ed refomy mayors like Rahm Emanuel try to entice wealthy white people into the city.  What happens when unions are decimated by this process?

Unions are one of the few countervailing powers trying to stop all this and reverse it. If there are no countervailing powers, if the corporate reform agenda can be imposed without limits, what becomes of public schools then? What becomes of what’s left of the protections of the New Deal and Great Society?  How do we ever reach the promise of quality education for all? How do we defeat the folks at the top who think we’re all lazy, undeserving grifters, no matter if you’re disabled, a veteran or a kindergartner? (Don’t forget that ‘ed reform’ heroes like Chris Christie and Andrew Cuomo undermined efforts at addressing educational  funding equity in their respective states. They have other spending priorities, like opening more charters and more high stakes testing.)

The fight against the data walls is being spearheaded by Educators for a Democratic Union (EDU), a caucus within the Massachusetts Teachers Association. Like CORE, which successfully took over the Chicago Teachers Union and MORE, a similar group that has yet to achieve that sort of success in New York City, EDU advocates for a more aggressive approach in opposing corporate ed reform, that places a heavy emphasis on “choice”, competition, and measurement. As Jaffe notes, progressive caucuses have found “it is indeed possible [for teachers unions] to gain traction with parents and communities, particularly by focusing on broader issues of inequality.”  In some places, like Philadelphia, a key part of the community has been service union workers like those who staff public school cafeterias who are also under attack and have in turn joined forces to protect the public schools and advocated for a more equal education for the students they serve. (For those teachers interested in joining the fight, Jacobin recently released Class Action: An Activist Teachers’ Handbook, a project with the CORE caucus and other allies). Aside from the political value or such an approach, and the appropriateness in a democracy of placing equality at the center of our thinking on education, it strikes me that building strong alliances with teachers, parents and students requires taking their concerns and perspectives seriously, which would be a good thing on its own.

There was a time when equality was the watchword for the federal government’s role in education, and real (yet too limited) progress was being made.  But in the last few decades increasingly the push has been away from equity as a concern towards a crisis narrative that insists that public schools as a whole are “failing,”  necessitating the adoption of corporate inspired and influenced policies. This despite the fact that the crisis narrative ignored that poor schooling was not provided to children of all races and classes and heavily influenced, where it existed, by the related problems of concentrated poverty and a funding system guaranteed to provide all the resources needed for the most privileged students and to not provide even the basics for the most disadvantaged.

The solution to this problem is a revitalized union movement, one that takes seriously our collective commitment to the worth of everyone, and it willing to challenge the forces arrayed against that ideal.  Without that, we’re all screwed.

David Kaib is a political scientist who blogs at Notes on a Theory, where this post originally appeared.

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