School Beat: New Possibilities for Teachers Unions

by Lisa Schiff on April 4, 2013

In the midst of a protracted assault on public education, teachers unions have in front of them a tremendous opportunity to reprise their role. The need for strong leadership asserting child-centric approaches to education has never been greater–teachers and their unions can seize this moment to break the mold of the traditional union and expand that organization’s legitimate sphere of action to formally include the very structure and quality of students’ learning experiences. The historic purpose of a union to protect and advocate for its members is no less relevant today than it was in years past, but within the world of public education that mission is insufficiently ambitious, both for teachers and their students. The conditions of work are critical, but nature of that work is equally so.

Ideal conceptions of schools and classrooms can best come from those closest to that experience–teachers, students, and of course parents. But the drive to turn our children’s educational experiences into a mass commodity cares little for this first-hand expertise. Increasing class sizes, narrowing of subjects, standardization of curricula and testing, privatization, draining of resources, and the de-professionalization of teaching are efforts to make schools cheaper to run, not to make them offer better educational experiences for the beautiful diversity of our nation’s children. The most recent example of this comes from two formidable industry titans, Bill Gates and Rupert Murdoch, who have teamed up in a new venture that will use massive amounts of student data to provide “personalized” technology-mediated instruction. In a whiplash inducing contrast to the highly individualized, nurturing schools these folks consistently send their own children to, schools for other people’s children will be stripped down to essentially large groups of proctored students staring at the latest in electronic devices.

Despite the electronically-derived patina, the above scenario is just another variant of the factory model of education, though in some states it might be more aptly called the workhouse model. Legislators in Tennessee are revealing just how directly these strategies are targeting low-income communities and communities of color. While it seems too extreme to be real, Tennessee lawmakers are seriously deliberating over a bill that would significantly reduce a family’s welfare benefits if a child was not performing well enough on standardized tests. The bold disregard for the various reasons children struggle in school is astonishing. In this worldview, whether it’s from the factory or workhouse, elected and unelected decision makers perversely sidestep our teachers (as well as students and parents), pushing them into virtual straightjackets via standardized curricula and testing. But the community is beginning to resist as we’ve seen in Seattle with teachers boycotting invalid tests, parents in Texas organizing legislation to reduce testing, and new coalitions like the Network for Public Education bringing together public education advocates from all vantage points.

People are pushing back all across the country, but the most active center of change right now is in Chicago where right after that city’s teachers’ strike was resolved, Mayor Rahm Emanuel refocused his energies back towards a long-standing mayoral goal to turn as many of Chicago’s public schools into private charter schools as possible. In this latest salvo, the Mayor and the Chicago school district with its non-elected, mayoral-appointed school board were discretely lining up that handover as part of an effort to close a vast number of schools, even though the official decisions regarding specific schools have yet to be made. As is so often the case with these disruptive strategies, the major impact will be felt by communities of color.

Between the immediate school closure crisis and last fall’s strike, the current epicenter of national public education earthquakes truly is in Chicago. Inspiring both fear and hope for what the future might hold for the collective project of nurturing our children into adulthood, the struggles of Chicago parents and teachers in the face of regressive political leaders should be carefully studied. While it is true that these attacks on schools are motivated in great part by the financial possibilities they present, the fact that they are even considered as legitimate options speaks to the fact that there are very real problems in our schools today that our children urgently need addressed. This need is where the opportunity lies and is where we can learn from the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) in two particular areas. The first is in the development of their own vision of where schools should be, as articulated in their plan “The School’s Chicago’s Students Deserve.” As opposed to simply critiquing what exists, the plan is a solid first step towards something better, not yet the detailed plan for an entirely new approach to education, but still, critical movement forward.

The second is CTU’s formation of a community advisory board that was associated with dialogues with parents about what they are concerned with and what they want. According to CTU president Karen Lewis, these conversations weren’t always easy, but they are necessary for building connections between parents and educators.

These types of changes have been rightly identified by the publication Rethinking Schools as social justice unionism, which in turn a hallmark of the “new union movement in the making.” Adoption of both of these strategies by teachers’ unions across the nation could be transformative to the public education movement and would be welcome news to students and their families.

Lisa Schiff is the parent of two children in the San Francisco Unified School District and is a member of Parents for Public Schools of San Francisco.

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