Monday, July 14, 2014

Memo to Working Teachers: Ignore Your Union Leaders

As the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) sideshow convention sputters to a finish in Los Angeles, one thing should be clear to working teachers around the country: our leaders are escorting us into the mouth of privatization while admiring its teeth. Look no further for examples of this than the two most controversial resolutions passed overwhelmingly by delegates on Sunday which address the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

Though the CCSS have grown more toxic than Chernobyl on a windy day, the adopted AFT resolution describes the "potential and promise" of standards that are threatened by, among other things, a "political agenda to privatize education." The union acknowledges the existence of an insidious agenda to privatize public education, an agenda which paradoxically must be stopped before we can fix the CCSS. That's like saying we need to breakup monopolies before we can turn Walmart back into a mom and pop store. They are one and the same. Whether teachers love them or hate them, the Common Core brand has so polluted the air of meaningful progress in education that an exorcism may be necessary before AFT members can start distributing those "resource kits" meant to strengthen the standards and their twisted tests.

Yes, standards must be embraced, improved and utilized, but only at the most local of levels with experienced administrators and teachers monitoring their fruition throughout daily activities with students. And no, we don't need another brand name that polls better than the Common Core; standards should always begin with a lower case "s" and be incorporated into the curriculum based on how the professionals see fit. The AFT and others must stop propping up corporate brands like the Common Core; even Arne Duncan doesn't refer to them by their proper name anymore.

Duncan has said a lot in recent weeks, however, dismissing the National Education Association's (NEA) resolution that he resign as "local union politics" which he and most teachers stay out of.  Sadly, he may be right, as how many working teachers realize that their union's "resolutions" carry about as much weight these days as this blog post? Moreover, how many working teachers even know what happens at a union convention?  
What didn't happen over the weekend was the AFT echoing the NEA’s insistence that Duncan free up more time in his hoops schedule.  Delegates bizarrely called on President Obama to implement a "Secretary Improvement Plan" (SIP), stating that Duncan should resign if he does not improve.  After all, his "due process rights” will have been “upheld." Ignoring the obvious false equivalence and the imaginary timetable for Obama’s imaginary plan, what has Duncan, as Secretary of Education, done to earn tenure in the eyes of the AFT? According to the resolution, for the past five years (two years longer than the new teacher probationary period in New York, by the way) Duncan has:

...aligned with those who have undermined public education, with those who have attacked educators who dedicate their lives to working with children, and with those who have worked to divide parents and teachers. He has failed to bring parents, students, teachers and community members together to improve the quality of public education for all children, and he has promoted misguided and ineffective policies on deprofessionalization, privatization, and test obsession:

What reads like a warrant for Duncan's arrest is merely another lame attempt to keep the AFT's seat at the kiddies table in the White House, at once seeking to placate and punish Obama. The only way Duncan's first five years could have been more disastrous is if he had also taught a class or two along the way. Unions should call for nothing less than the immediate resignation of this "promoter of privatization" and organize daily rallies outside his office until he leaves with his bag of basketballs bouncing on his back. If the AFT wants the president and politicians of all parties to take them seriously, they must unequivocally hold political leaders accountable by standing in solidarity with the NEA instead of passing toothless resolutions that at most will make the president's press secretary chuckle at the reporters who remember to even ask about education.

Messages to leaders can and should assume many mediums, but as the AFT emphasizes in writing, there is an overt and covert attempt to undermine teachers unions in the United States today, and big money has a comfortable seat at the table. Duncan, Obama, Cuomo, Walker, and Christie are just some of the leaders who've pushed in its chair. Unions must shout louder than big money if they expect to be heard. Tongue-in-cheek jabs at Duncan's due process only muddy the issues even more. The AFT holds its convention every two years anyway, so if and when Duncan's SIP is up for review, he'll already be weighing job offers from charter schools with the scales tipping further in favor of privatization.

As Duncan observed, unions have their own politics. Just like Obama, union presidents have voters to answer to. However, part of the problem is that not enough members are engaged in political action both outside and within their unions, with many teachers ignoring politics at all costs under the assumption that someone else will fight for them. These teachers may continue ignoring politics, however, as long as they proceed as follows:

-Ignore NYSUT President Karen Magee's fear of the New York press; you are the best and loudest messengers for students. (And feel free to scream your hatred of the Common Core, since a looming loss of due process rights could soon make this impossible anyway.)
-Ignore UFT President Michael Mulgrew when he threatens to beat people up over the CCSS and mocks members who question the involvement of Eli Broad and Bill Gates.  Our devils cannot get the better of us. Mulgrew's Revive slate is hoping we'll also ignore their platform leaflet from the NYSUT election just over three months ago:

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-Ignore AFT President Randi Weingarten when she stands with the likes of Duncan and Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy; you don't need a seat at their table to be heard.

-And to teachers in New York, ignore all of the above leaders as they push a Cuomo endorsement in this year’s gubernatorial election; you should vote for Zephyr Teachout or Howie Hawkins anyway.

Ignore your union leaders and follow what you believe is the best course for the profession. After all, your leaders are doing a splendid job ignoring you.