Teaching the education deformers a lesson

November 7, 2013

Dana Blanchard, a teacher in Berkeley, Calif., argues that teachers unions have a central role to play in saving our schools from the corporate "reformers."

AT A moment when the failed policies of corporate reformers are coming to light, teachers unions are beginning, in small but determined ways, to reinvent ourselves amid the fight to defend public education.

The setbacks for the corporate education agenda are still few and far between. But they show a potential to begin to push back against an ideology that our schools should be run like businesses.

The examples I will present in this article represent a small but growing sentiment in the teachers union movement that is transforming the way we do things. Proof of this change is evident in the increased use among teachers of terms like social justice unionism--an approach that links organized labor's cause to wider working class issues. There's also growing interest in class struggle unionism, an older term for a militant labor approach that sees the boss as an adversary with different interests than workers.

These ideas get a hearing because they fit reality: While the national leaders of teachers unions continue to describe school administrators and politicians as "partners," they are in fact out to decisively weaken our unions or get rid of them entirely, as part of their drive to privatize public education.

Chicago teachers march with thousands of supporters during their strike
Chicago teachers march with thousands of supporters during their strike

Thus, at the heart of this work to reclaim public education is building solidarity with our community allies to battle corporate reforms in our schools.

The dialogue in teachers' unions around social justice and fighting to reclaim our schools is certainly not new. As long as I have been a teacher, we have talked in our unions about our two biggest challenges: chronic underfunding of public education and No Child Left Behind policies. What is changing now is the degree to which these kinds of conversations are translating into actual strategic plans and organizing efforts.

In my own union, Berkeley Federation of Teachers/American Federation of Teachers Local 1078, we have begun to organize our external political work and our internal member organizing around fighting for quality education. The shift is that in a year of busy contract negotiations, we are putting resources into pushing a progressive educational reform agenda. We view see this as essential to building real partnerships with our families and allies in the community.

Laying the foundation: The Chicago Teachers Union, the Seattle test boycott and the AFT

The Berkeley Federation of Teachers, though I am intensely proud of the work we are doing, did not invent the idea of fighting to reclaim our vision of public education.

In fact, it was Jesse Sharkey, vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), who proposed a model for us to think about organizing our work in a new way--first as a speaker last fall in Berkeley, and again as the keynote speaker at the California Federation of Teachers convention in the spring.

The CTU strike has become a call to action for many teachers union locals--in particular, the way the union was able to create deep community support for its vision, outlined in the often-used and recreated document "The Schools Chicago Students Deserve."

Today, there are an astounding number of teachers union locals creating documents of their own, with similar themes. The number of meetings and workshops I have attended about how to organize support in the community and build strong relationships with parents and families is too many to count.

This is a big change. Five years ago, the conversation in many union meetings was about how to give the fewest number of concessions and save as many jobs as possible during an era of drastic cuts to our schools. Now the tone has shifted from one of simply "we need to defend our jobs" to "we need to take back our profession and change the policies that are devastating our schools and the lives of our students."

Similarly, the widespread Seattle teachers' boycott of the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test showed that parents, teachers and students together can stop one of the biggest cash cows and keystones of the corporate accountability agenda: standardized testing.

The MAP boycott has launched a national conversation about the role of testing in dictating school policies and curriculum choices. As a result, parents across the country are being increasingly won to the idea of opting students out of these kinds of tests. In my own district, we are looking at a year with virtually no state standardized testing as a result of a state law that halts the use of the California Standards Tests, typically given in grades two through 11.

This means the first three weeks in May will not be dominated by testing across the district, and the months before won't be filled with endless hours of test preparation. But after a huge sigh of relief, teachers and families are now holding our breath as we prepare for new tests being created to assess the new Common Core standards. It's not enough to stand aside and celebrate a win. We must understand that if we aren't pushing forward, the corporate education reformers will push us back.

In our district, we're using the small space we have without standardized tests to start a real conversation among teachers about what we need to teach and what are the best ways to figure out what our students are learning.

It's a myth that teachers are against assessment. Most teachers rely heavily on constant assessments--mostly informal but some more formal--to determine what our students know and what we need to teach.

What we are opposed to is testing used to punish kids and schools. We are against testing that isn't linked to what we are teaching. We are opposed to tests that are summative, not formative, and that present a final judgment on learning, rather than a blueprint for how to move forward. The richness of this conversation is refreshing, given that so much of assessment is dictated to us from forces beyond the classroom and schools where we teach.

Meanwhile, the American Federation of Teachers is trying to catch up with some of this shifting political momentum. The AFT has a less-than-stellar record--to put it mildly--on challenging even the most egregious acts of corporate education reform.

Even so, the union has begun to issue documents that show it's adapting to the changing political moment. In a speech in July and a subsequent press release, AFT President Randi Weingarten laid out a plan for reclaiming the promise of public education. This has since translated into a series of community town halls led by the AFT around the country, which produced a progressive education platform document, "The Principles that Unite Us."

The document is both fairly aggressive in ideologically attacking the corporate reform agenda and clearly emphasizes the need for partnership between teachers and the community in this fight. This document is most likely an example of the AFT sticking its finger up to test the political wind, reflecting the realization that in a post-CTU strike era, we needed to get serious about creating an alternative narrative to the ruling class agenda for education. Regardless of how it came to be, this is a tool we can use to build our own educational platforms locally.

How we begin to use these AFT documents and the call to build community alliances is going to depend completely on our work and forces on the ground in each of our locals. Progressive policy statements do not become organizing plans automatically, and it would be naïve to think that the AFT is suddenly going to become a hub of grassroots, member and community-driven organizing. Nevertheless, the AFT's shift is an example of the political space that has opened, giving us some opportunities to challenge the corporate education agenda and reclaim our schools.

The lessons learned from organizing in the Berkeley Federation of Teachers

I am currently both a site representative on the executive board and a member of a five-person organizing team in my union, the BFT. We have around 900 members in our local.

Although we just ratified a contract last June, it expires in the spring of 2014, so we're already in the midst of negotiations for our next contract. As my union president often says, in today's world of perpetual budget changes and machinations (like the new Local Control Funding Formula in California) and the era of austerity, we will most likely be in permanent contract negotiations for the foreseeable future.

That means the older methods of waiting until the contract fight is upon us to go out and win support in the community just won't cut it anymore. Yearly contracts mean that campaigns never really go away--they just have different levels of intensity. In my union, we talk about our activities in terms of low, medium and high heat or pressure, but we agree that the stove must be on at all times.

This new type of union contract campaign requires a new way of organizing, given limited resources and time. Below, I lay out some of the key shifts my union has made to be able to work simultaneously on a political fight around a quality education agenda and, at the same time, build the organizational fights needed to win a decent contract.

Lesson 1: You have to have a vision with clearly articulated goals that everyone in leadership believes in and that you can use to inspire others.

This is where documents like "The Schools Chicago Students Deserve" and "The Principles that Unite Us" become important tools. They are critical reading for leaders and activists in local teachers unions. I know my union is unique in that we have a very progressive leadership, and we're small enough to have a clearly articulated strategic plan that can be carried through all levels of our membership.

However, I think no matter how large your local is or how reactionary your union leadership might be, these tools can and must be used. The people in your organizing core--whether in the union leadership or part of a reform caucus--need to buy into and organize around a vision for what we want education to look like in the future. We need to get better at appealing to our members' hearts with a vision for public education--and then backing up that vision up with some real organizational plans.

In the BFT, we developed a strategic plan that flows out of our document, "The Quality Education Agenda," which outlines our ideas for what Berkeley public schools should be. This document was created with input from our members. It underwent many revisions based on feedback from key allies about how we can connect with them around specific local issues.

A dedicated group of people is needed to create and work on such a plan. But larger layers of local union members need to hear those proposals and believe in the vision it puts forward. To that end, we're in the midst of bringing our education agenda and strategic plan out to all our school sites. It will be a focus of our daylong site representative training and part of outreach to our key community allies.

Moreover, whenever we talk about nuts and bolts of our union work we also remind people of the bigger picture--our quality education agenda. We're also working closely with our affiliate, the California Federation of Teachers (CFT), on developing statewide plans to implement a quality education agenda and create some larger plans on progressive taxation, fully funding public schools and providing services for all our students.

The CFT has itself supported community outreach statewide through its joint meetings with the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE). I went to a meeting with ACCE allies and got to sit in a small group with an anti-foreclosure activist from San Francisco and talk about what we think public schools should look like.

Lesson 2: You need to do your homework on the corporate education agenda, and your local and state budgets, and also figure out where your community stands on these issues.

Once we began creating our vision of quality education reforms, we needed to know what we're up against. We instituted study groups and began reading about educational reform, both from our side and the corporate reform camp. We also realized that we need to know a lot about the state and local budgets. The new Local Control Funding Formula in California is a whole study project unto itself, as it means big changes for how local budgets are going to work and who has decision-making power.

Our local union, with a lot of help from statewide affiliate CFT, is at the very beginning of figuring out what this new funding formula will mean in our district, but we are dedicating resources and time to that effort. This painstaking work of becoming experts on these issues is critical to building real power in our community and family partnerships. If we can build our own knowledge, and then help to explain to our community where the money is actually going, we can begin to build alliances around our shared educational goals.

One of our next steps with our quality education agenda is to bring it out to our community, and get their ideas and input. We want to hear from parents and activists about what they want to see in Berkeley public schools and then try to build a shared campaign around the visions we share.

We know that we may not always agree with community members and parents. But if we keep coming back to the foundation that our working conditions are their children's learning conditions we will have good start. We need to make the time to really engage with the community, not simply bring them a copy of our packet and ask them to come on board.

Lesson 3: It's time to go on the offensive.

All of these openings and the potential for a fightback will mean nothing if we don't get organized and put these ideas out there in an aggressive way. A document that outlines our vision for public schools is useless unless it drives real demands that make changes in our schools for the better and connects with groups of people beyond our union.

We are in a moment where some of the worst aspects of the corporate education agenda are being questioned. We need to be on the front lines with parents and our community, demanding something better. While this will mean taking the time to build deep relationships with our allies in the community, it also means standing up to the corporate bullies every chance we get.

It's time to break out of the haze of passivity that has dominated the labor movement for far too long. We need to be louder and better organized--and to take the fight to the streets every chance we get.

We need to channel CTU President Karen Lewis when she said, during last year's strike, "How dare they act like they care more about our kids than we do?" The "they" referred to the politicians and school administrators who tried to blame the lack of decent facilities for kids during the strike on the teachers who had walked out. If more of us in teachers unions adopted that "how dare they!" stance when confronted with some of the most ridiculous claims of the educational reform movement, I think we would find many people joining us in the fight.

There has been no better time than now to shame the corporate education reformers and push for something we know our kids actually deserve. When the school district administrators and politicians say we need to increase class sizes, adopt a more corporate-produced curriculum and drill kids for still more standardized tests, we need to say "no"--and be organized enough to actually stand our ground.

We need to present an alternative narrative of our own. Teachers unions can help lead the movement to create schools that live up to the real promise of public education. None of this will happen unless we start to fight. But all the ingredients for this fight are really beginning to come together.

Further Reading

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