Teacher Unions

I got this from Diane Ravitch’s blog.

Here in Michigan, the Democratic legislature just re-affirmed our state’s longstanding commitment to working families by removing anti-laborprovisions from state law. The move doesn’t apply to teachers and other public employees, because the conservative U.S. Supreme Court sideda few years back with Right-wing activists in their efforts to hinder contributions to public sector unions, but it’s still good news for the labor movement overall.

And I wanted to use their effort—alongside Republican efforts in other states to threaten teachers for what they say in classrooms—to make a simple point. 

We need teachers unions. Other folks more prominent than me, like AFT’s Randi Weingarten, have made this pointrecently too. But I wanted to add my own voice as someone who has not been a union member, and someone who—although I’ve appeared with Randion her podcast and count many union members as friends—has never been an employee or even a consultant. 

If you want to talk dollars, The Walton Family Foundation once supported my research on charter schools to the tune of more than $300,000. Arnold Ventures supported my fundraising for a research center at Michigan State–$1.9 million from them. And the US Department of Education awarded my team more than $2 million to study school choice—while Betsy DeVos was secretary.

Think about that when I say school vouchers are horrific. And understand, I’m getting no support from teachers’ unions. 

Instead it is I who supports them. 

I’ve been studying teacher labor markets almost as long as school vouchers. Mostly my research has looked at teacher recruitment and retention. But I’ve also written about teachers’unionsspecifically. There’s a debate among scholars on what unions do and whether their emphasis on spending translates into test score differences. In the “rent seeking” framework economists use, the concern is that dollars spent on salaries don’t have direct academic payoffs. 

There is no question that spending more money on public schools has sustained and generational impacts on kids. Research has “essentially settled” that debate, according to today’s leading expert on the topic. 

But I want to branch out from dollars and cents and test scores to talk about teacher voice. 

And I want to do that by raising a few questions that I’ve asked myself over the last couple years:

Why should the voice of a billionaire heiress from Michigan with no experience in public schools count for more than the voices of 100,000 teachers in my state’s classrooms every day?

Why should the simple fact that they work with children made by other people mean that teachers surrender their own autonomy and judgment not just as professionals but as human beings?

Why should educators have to work under what amounts to gag orders, afraid to broach certain topics or issues in the classroom? Some states are setting up hotlines to report on teachers as if they’re parolees, and a bill in New Hampshire would essentially give the fringe-Right Secretary of Education subpoena power to haul teachers in front of a special tribunal for teaching “divisive concepts.” This, after a Moms for Liberty chapter put out a bounty on New Hampshire teachers who were likewise divisive on an issue. Read: an issue of race or gender. 

It’s not just threats to teacher employment. We know this. There are threats to teachers’ lives. How many teachers have died alongside their students—other people’s children—over the years in school shootings?

Why does the Right claim to trust teachers enough to arm them with gunsin response to those shootings, but not enough to let them talk about race, gender, or any other “divisive concept?” Even some conservative commentatorshave worried publicly that we’re asking teachers to do too much. Why are we asking them to be an armed security force too?

‘In her recent history of “The Teacher Wars”, The New York Times’ Dana Goldstein noted that teachers formed unions, and fought for teacher tenure, to protect themselves not just professionally but personally. For free speech. To prevent harassment from supervisors—then as now, teachers were mostly professional women—and to keep from being fired for pregnancy or marital status. 

So really, attacks on teachers are nothing new. Instead, teachers seem to be one of the few professions that it’s still acceptable in political conversation—even a mark of supposed intellectual sophistication in some circles—to ponder the shortcomings of the educators who work with our kids every day. 

There’s nothing sophisticated about attacking hardworking, thoughtful, and dedicated people. And the only result of doing so will be the further erosion of our public, community schools. And that’s really the point. Just a few days ago, we learned that the big data that I and many others have gotten used to working with finally caught up to the on-the-frontlines warnings of educators everywhere: teachers are exiting the profession at unprecedented rates

I’ve taken no money from teachers’ unions for any of the work I do. I’ve never been a member of a union—teachers’ or otherwise. Until now. Because after writing this today, I made a donation to my state’s primary teachers’ union and became a general member: a person “interested in advancing the cause of education…not eligible for other categories of membership.”

There’s a word for that in the labor movement. You hear it a lot here in Michigan, where I grew up and now teach future teachers in a college of education. That word is Solidarity. 

Sign me up.


Sadly, racist White mob violence has defined this country much more than progressive movements for most of US history.

Don’t Give Employers a COVID Get-Out-of-Jail-Free Card!

This is by David Sirota and Julia Rock, published in The Guardian.

“Support from Democratic lawmakers for the liability shield legislation comes after the same healthcare lobby group that drafted New York’s law has poured more than $11m into House and Senate Democratic Super PACs.

“The party, though, doesn’t seem to want its own voters to know the details of the deal it is cutting with the Republican party: in a comically on-the-nose attempt at a bait-and-switch, the Democratic senator Joe Manchin touted the legislation as only financial aid for communities – leaving out the fact that it includes a liability shield for corporations.

“US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been one of the few Democratic lawmakers to spotlight what’s really going on. Last week, she tweeted: “If you want to know why Covid-19 relief is tied up in Congress, one key reason is that Republicans are demanding legal immunity for corporations so they can expose their workers to Covid without repercussions.”

“The bipartisan initiative aims to obscure its Dr Evil level of depravity by superficially depicting the liability shield as merely temporary. But that seems like a ruse, as indicated by private equity mogul and senator Mitt Romney of Utah, who said the federal Covid-19 liability shield provision “provides a temporary suspension of any liability-related lawsuits, state or federal level associated with Covid-19, giving states enough time to put in place their own protections”.

“Though full legislative language has not been released, the goal seems clear: to give state legislatures more time to permanently prevent workers from suing employers who endanger them, and to permanently block their families from mounting such lawsuits when the workers die.”

Notably, lawmakers announcing the proposal did not point to a spate of frivolous wrongful death lawsuits that corporations have been warning about as a rationale for the liability shield. Instead, as the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense recently noted, “of more than 4,100 Covid-19 related lawsuits filed, only 75 are for wrongful death or injury as a result of getting sick at work. Two-thirds fall into three categories – insurance disputes, prison cases and civil rights cases, including challenging shelter-in-place orders.”

Liability shields, laundered as a necessary Covid-19 salve, are really designed to permanently remove the last remaining deterrent to corporate abuse

“The liability shield legislation is not some standalone cause – it should be understood as the culmination of a much larger, long-term campaign to remove countervailing force and give capital supreme power over labor.

“Over the last few decades, the government – through legislation and court rulings – has weakened unions, which have used collective bargaining to protect workers rights; limited class action lawsuits and punitive damages, which are designed to punish corporate misbehavior; and gutted the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which is supposed to enforce the weak workplace safety laws still on the books.”

Freeloaders – a couple of well-financed anti-union teachers

Recently the NYT had an interview with two anti-union teachers in California, who are the faces (but not the funders) of the lawsuit before the Supreme Court on whether unions can charge their members ‘agency fees’.

If the wrong side wins this case, it will have a devastating impact on what remains of the pitifully small American labor movement.

Jersey Jazzman has a good article summarizing and demolishing the arguments made by those two right-wing teachers.

By the way, nearly everything Mark Weber (Jersey Jazzman) writes is excellent. (My goof: for some reason I imagined that the article was by Arthur Goldstein, another excellent writer and teacher.)

Published in: on August 12, 2015 at 7:06 pm  Comments (1)  
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John Merrow’s take on Vergara

John Merrow’s take is that the Vergara decision was correct, in that the seniority rules, in and of themselves, are indefensible. I recommend reading what he has to say here.


A few paragraphs:

Teacher union foes like Whitney Tilson and RiShawn Biddle could hardly restrain themselves, while union leaders Weingarten, van Roekel and New York City’s United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew complained that the decision diverted attention from social unfairness[5] and then attacked the man behind the lawsuit. Here’s part of Mulgrew’s statement: “What shocks the conscience is the way the judge misread the evidence and the law, and sided with a Silicon Valley millionaire who never taught a day in his life.”[6]

Judge Treu stayed the decision pending appeal and urged the legislature to fix the problems, but how likely is it that the California legislature will act to make earning tenure a more reasonable process, perhaps after three or even four years of teaching, instead of two?

That’s probably not going to happen because the CTA still wields great power. But if California needs a model, New York City’s approach to granting tenure seems to work well, as Chalkbeat explains here.

“Last hired, first fired”–using seniority as the sole factor in layoffs–is as indefensible as 2-year tenure, but it is alsocounter-productive because it alienates young teachers, some of whom are showing their displeasure by declining to support their national and state unions. That’s happened in Modesto, California and Wicomico, Maryland, where local chapters want to disaffiliate with their state association and the NEA itself. In neither case has it been pretty.

Problems With The Labor Movement

This column was prompted by an exchange on the ConcernedForDCPS list-serve. I’m going to quote a bit here:

(1) RN wrote: “Things are looking worse for Black male high school dropouts.”


(2) RL responded: “so what do you suggest?”

(3) HT responded, in part, and in his usual nearly-inscrutable prose:  

“RN,  There’s nothing to stop you from posting here, and regularly, on the efforts and increases in efforts to find more effective ones, by the metro-area labor council and of individual unions, all to make a bigger difference. Just as Rhee and Henderson, squat is what I see. (Let’s call it as it is, after Easter.) “

Me again:

To continue the digestive analogy, the only way to produce something worth “squat” is to have a “movement” — and in our case, the “movement” needs to be one in which there are LOTS of people who feel strongly enough about to join and march on the streets and go to meetings and boycott and donate and go on strike. And such a movement also needs a leadership willing to devote essentially all their time to it, to the detriment of the rest of their lives.

(It’s quite different if you ‘devote’ your life to the Dark Side: you can easily make 6 figures for showing up in business wear, attending well-catered meetings in comfort, manipulating suspect “data” on spreadsheets, and writing inane drivel using whatever the latest corporate jargon is required this week.  If you join the Dark Side, the side of the one-hundredth-of -one-percent, the side of the billionaires and the Global Corporate Edu DEformers like Michael Milken, Bill Gates, and Rupert Murdoch,  you can look forward to 7-, 8-, or 9-figure salaries even if you aren’t the most TV-pleasing face out there. But you will be rich, as Michelle Rhee once told me and my fellow-teachers from my school who came to see her to complain about our local situation, “Rich Beyond Your Wildest Dreams”. And she said it like it was the last line in a fairy-tale come true… )

And it was the last line of the meeting before we teachers were dismissed (to a towed car, in one case).

I just wish I had done enough research on her shady history in Baltimore at the time to call her on it at the meeting.

One of the big problems is that we keep getting sold out by our own union leadership, over and over. We here in DC’s WTU local have had a horrible experience for decades now: one disastrous leader, then another, then a thieving crook, then a complete and utter traitor, followed by a nice enough guy who doesn’t seem to quite have enough fire under him.

I hope he’s not a disaster, a crook, or a traitor, but when does the public ever find out about that stuff? When it’s too late and the wrong type of smelly ‘movement’ hits the fan! Obviously I’m not a very good judge of character, because I never thought that any of those @#$%^’s would go that far, and I feel like I’m utterly inept as a leader of anything larger than a classroom of math students (and not always even then).

We also have a national WTU leader who has never, ever taught in a classroom.  Despite her occasional militant rhetoric, she trained as a lawyer. She was instrumental in shepherding in the “cage-busting” contract between Chancellor Michelle Rhee and Local 6 of the WTU, which directly led to the current whirlwind of labor givebacks and union-busting all over the country, along with condemning millions of inner-city kids to a stupid year-long regime of test prep for stupid tests that don’t help anybody except the corporations who print and score them and make tons of cash. Weingarten also has co-sponsored a number of things with, and sits on boards with, people like Rhee and Gates…

This sort of sell-out, criminal leadership that doesn’t share the interests of the rank-and-file, or of the public, is not new in the labor movement. Look it up in any history thereof. But there have been others who were great and who never sold out and achieved great success. They and the millions who marched with them directly or indirectly bequeathed us the Weekend and the 40-hour week; Medicare, Social Security, integrated work places, unions, pensions, integrated schools, Worker’s Comp,  Unemployment Benefits and OSHA… and an end to Jim Crow, and eliminated child labor… mostly. All of which are under attack today.

Guy Brandenburg, Washington, DC

Published in: on April 1, 2013 at 4:21 pm  Comments (1)  
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A Writer at Forbes Magazine Actually Supports Teacher Unions

A comment by ‘Lisa’:

Interesting that this was published in Forbes magazine which is a national business magazine.  When reading the article you have to remember that when it says “reform”  it really means “deform”!  

As a result, I added a few alternative wordings here and there. — GFB

Why I Support the Teachers Unions 

by E.D. Kain

Teachers’ unions are often portrayed by their opponents as standing in the way of efforts to reform [deform]our schools. Maybe this isn’t such a bad thing.

In February of 2011, tens of thousands of protesters descended on the capital, Madison, to protest an extreme union-busting bill aimed at reducing the power of that state’s teacher unions. Ultimately those protests failed, but they were  a remarkable display of worker solidarity and middle class organizing. Largely, this was because they involved teachers who remain one of the best organized workforces in the country.

More recently, in Tacoma, Washington teachers went on strike in order to secure slightly smaller class sizes and rebuke a pay cut aimed at closing a shortfall in the district budget. The strike ended recently, with both sides getting some of what they wanted.
I’ve wrestled a great deal with the question of organized labor, especially in the realm of public education. There’s a strong contingent on the right and the left that believes that essentially all of the flaws in our public school system stem from a combination of government inefficiency and union recalcitrance. Some people in the reform movement believe that the o nly way to affect reform is to sidestep or abolish teachers unions.

Many left-leaning [left-sounding] school reformers [deformers] believe this largely as a last resort. These are typically liberals who believe in public education but have become frustrated with what they see as union resistance to much-needed reforms [poorly-thought out fads]. There is no doubt that unions oppose many reforms [fads]. The question is, should they? Much of the time, I think they should.
Many right-leaning reformers [deformers], and some liberals as well, are simply in the business of union-busting, seeking to dismantle a powerful political opponent while ushering for-profit schools in through the side door, and handing out lucrative contracts to political allies in the private sector. For a good example of this second camp, go to Scott Walker’s Wisconsin. Or follow Michelle Rhee around the country – to Florida, Nevada, or voicing her support for union-busting in Wisconsin.

Right or left, this is essentially the neoliberal approach to school reform. Technocratic, choice-based, with a troubling dose of private, for-profit groups thrown into to the mix. Mayor Bloomberg’s New York schools are a perfect example of technocratic, anti-democratic leadership at the top, coupled with private contractors, high-stakes testing companies, and union-busting advocacy groups working from the ground up.

The Unreliable Promise of School Reform

Of course, the word “reform” when juxtaposed with “education” is not in and of itself a bad thing. I believe that some ideas in the school reform movement have potential. There is a real chance that experimenting with how schooling is delivered could have some real benefits.

If we can find ways to deliver education to the most underserved communities in this country, that alone would be a huge step forward. And as I’ve mentioned before, I don’t find every argument on the “anti-reform” side all that compelling either. Nobody is on the side of angels all the time.

Then again, a good charter school is more like a band-aid than it is a structural fix. Worse, some charters could serve as Trojan horses, chartered with the best of intentions, but then funded by donors with an anti-union agenda, and paraded in the media as reformer avatars.

A lot of money goes into these schools – quite a lot more than was being funneled from private coffers into the traditional public schools. This says nothing about the people running these schools who are more than likely doing it for the right reasons, but why have these very deep pockets suddenly opened up not to traditional public schools but to the charter school movement? Surely there’s a reason.

Nor do all school choice efforts live up to their promises. Vouchers have been met not only with public disappointment, but with few if a ny real benefits. Most charters haven’t fared much better. And for-profit schools come packaged with all sorts of other troubling implications for the future of our public – or should I say “public” – education system. Do we want to transform our elementary and high schools into little dopplegangers of College of America or the University of Phoenix?

Other ideas are equally repellent, such as high-stakes testing which seeks, in spite of claims to the contrary, to boil down education to learning by rote. When technocrats and businessmen take over the hard work of designing a system of education is it surprising that the result is a complex labyrinth of testing schemes aimed at only those subjects that can be measured, quantified, and pasted in to spreadsheets? Is it any wonder that professionals who care about education might see this as a threat?

Teacher Buy-In is Necessary for Sustainable Reform

If I could wave a magic wand I would graft Finland’s model of public education onto our own. And yes, I realize that even drawing close to Finland’s educational successes will take far more than any magic wand could provide.

One problem we face is that our reform movement has become defined by a very specific, narrow set of ideas: choice and testing and tinkering with teacher compensation and benefits. Very little attention has been paid to curriculum, infrastructure, or equitable school funding.

Most importantly, the very, very hard work of education reform will require teachers if we want it to succeed, whereas the current crop of reformers is intent on bypassing the teachers and especially the teachers’ unions. There are not many advocates for our public education system or for the welfare of children who have the organizational structure and commitment that America’s teachers have.

Parents are the only comparable demographic but they are fragmented and are often only temporary activists. No other group comes close.

Big charities, foundations, and other reform groups can leave the field at any time. They have no vested interest save their own interest, for better or worse.

The National Education Association, or NEA, was founded as a professional association of educators in 1857 and evolved into the largest teachers union in the country. The American Federation of Teachers, or AFT, was founded decades later in 1916 and is affiliated with the AFL-CIO. Both organizations have worked to improve school conditions both for teachers and students for decades. This is important to think about. They are not newcomers to the field. They’ve had their hands deep in the dirt for much of the history of public education.

Yes, we hear stories of unions and union members behaving badly, and these stories will be forever regurgitated to prove that the institutions themselves are to blame. What institution is exempt from this critique? What group of people does not have such members?

A sustained effort to improve and reform our schools will not only require the commitment of the labor force in the here and now, it will require the long-term commitment of teachers both in the field now  and those who will come later. Some portions of our education system may need to be reformed, this is very true. Reform should never stop. Progress doesn’t magically happen whilst we twiddle our collective thumbs. But without teacher buy-in no reforms will stick.

Furthermore, without the participation of teachers in the reform process, we risk sacrificing . An even lower-paid teaching force, with fewer benefits and less job security, is what the neoliberal approach to education reform actually offers. It’s not what’s promised: reformers often honestly want to make a grand bargain between job security and teacher pay, offering more of the latter for less of the former. But we know how these things work. Once they take away job security and collective bargaining rights, what’s to stop them from taking away pay, benefits, and everything else?

Democracy in Education

The teachers unions are not always right. No group is. But they represent a democratic approach to our public education system, and if we push them out and usher in an age of for-profit online schools, cheaper labor, and funnel all those saved tax dollars back in the pockets of the wealthiest Americans, we may as well kiss our public schools goodbye.
I support teachers unions not because they are a model of efficiency or because they are always right or because I think there is no need for reform – I believe that the unions can be inefficient, they can be wrongheaded, they can oppose change unnecessarily.

No, I support teachers unions because they are the best chance this country has to improve and strengthen public e ducation for the long haul. No other organization will step in to protect teachers from political blowback and the reform-trend-of-the-moment. The Gates Foundation may have its heart in the right place, but the big foundations can’t protect teachers from slashed budgets or political retribution. Charity-propelled education reform may very well be a sincere effort, but in the process its leaders have offered up a lot of bad choices for teachers. Too often charity reform translates into little more than corporate reform.

Teachers are on the front lines of the fight to keep America’s egalitarian system of public education public. Faux privatization schemes and for-profit schools threaten to undermine the system itself in the name of choice. But what about democracy? What about a system built around the ethic of society rather  than that of the individual?

Certainly our public school system could be better. Nobody is suggesting otherwise. Maybe there are radical ideas out there that really would work if given the chance, and I do support experimentation which was the original purpose of charter schools. Let’s keep trying things. Let’s keep experimenting, innovating, and learning from our mistakes. But let’s not do this on the backs of our teaching workforce without bothering to include them in the process.

Teachers are one of the last bastions of workplace democracy left in the country, and once they’re out of the picture anything goes. Including public education.Even if you believe that public education itself is wrong and would prefer a voluntary education system, or a system of teacher/parent cooperatives, or an entirely private or voucher-based system, you still need teachers. In any of these systems teachers should still have the right to form a union, to bargain and negotiate for wages and working conditions, and to find voice and agency in the in the loud cacophony of common cause.

Union Membership and Test Scores

Bill Gates, like many other educational Deformers, makes the assumption that having a strong teacher union is a Bad Thing for students, because the union supposedly runs the evil bureaucracy that does its level best to avoid teaching anything to students.

From my viewpoint, having taught for over 30 years in Washington DC, that assumption is so wrong it’s laughable. At best, the union can negotiate pay scales and can represent teachers (good or bad) so that they get some sort of due process when the school administration goes after them. However, much of the time, teachers are too frightened even to speak up, and even with due process, many teachers do get canned or forced out quietly.

In any case, I wanted to look at a particular paragraph where the supposedly highly intelligent Gates compares Florida and Texas, on one hand, with Massachusetts and New York on the other.

Gates makes the assumption that Florida and Texas, which are “right-to-work” states and whose politicians have famously taken a leadership role in the current educational Deform movement, should have students who do better on various standardized tests.

Here’s the quote:

“Asked if the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers have any incentive to back school reforms that help kids but also diminish union power, Mr. Gates responds by questioning the scope of that power. “We have heavy union states and heavy right-to-work states, and the educational achievement of K-12 students is not at all predicted by how strong the union rules are,” he says. “If I saw that [right-to-work states like] Texas and Florida were running a great K-12 system, but [heavy union states like] New York and Massachusetts have really messed this up, then I could draw a correlation and say it’s either got to be the union—or the weather.””

Well, in fact, in general, Texas and Florida generally score LOWER on the NAEP, the only national test we have outside of the SAT and ACT, than do New York and Massachusetts. In fact, students in Massachusetts consistently scores well above all other states in all of the reading and math NAEP tests given in 2009 at the 4th and 8th grade level.

I prepared some graphs using publicly available data comparing 2009 math and reading NAEP scores and percentage of union membership among all employees in each of the 50 states plus DC. I have picked out some of the very highest-scoring states and some of the very lowest-scoring states. (No surprise, when you compare the city of DC versus the states, DC is last.)

Here is a graph showing the 4th grade reading NAEP scores in the y-axis versus the average total percentage of union members, in each state.

Dots that are close to the right-hand edge of the graph represent states with relatively high percentages of workers that belong to labor unions. In each of these graphs, New York has the very highest percentage of union members of all of the states. The state with the very lowest percentage of union members is North Carolina, at about 3.1%, but I didn’t mark it. Can you figure out which one dot represents NC? It’s the dot a bit to the left of the one for Texas.

Dots that are towards the top edge of the graph are the ones with the highest average state-wide 4th grade reading NAEP scale scores, and the ones towards the bottom are the ones with the lowest scores. I labeled the dots for Massachusetts and New Jersey, which are two of the highest-scoring states; they also have pretty high rates of union membership.

The two lowest dots are for Louisiana and the District of Columbia, which also have relatively low percentages of union membership as well.

I drew two red lines. The vertical one represents the median of the percentages of union members among all employees in each state: about 10.8%. So any dot to the right of that line has a higher-than-median union membership level, and conversely for those to the left of that line. The horizontal line represents the median 4th grade scale score for all of the states and DC: 221. Any state scoring above that line has higher-than-median NAEP scale scores for 2009 in reading for the 4th grade, and vice-versa.

When I look at this graph, it almost looks as if higher percentages of union members in a given state seems to be correlated with somewhat higher grades on the NAEP. But the correlation is not very strong.

Here is another graph, this one for 2009 fourth-grade math NAEP scale scores versus union membership in 2009.

Once again, the two lowest-scoring states are ones with low-to-middling percentages of union members: DC and Alabama. The two states with the highest scores are those with high-to-middling percentages of union members: Massachusetts and New Hampshire. NY, FL and TX have middling scores, but are mostly differentiated by their very different percentages of union members. (Frankly, I am not sure how teachers in rural Texas can pay their rent or mortgages without second jobs…)

Here’s another graph, for 8th grade NAEP reading against percentages of union membership in 2009:

Once again, you see that Bill Gates’s assumption that unions are bad for students doesn’t appear to hold water. Both Florida and Texas, states where very few workers belong to labor unions, scored below the median on the 8th grade reading NAEP. Once again, Massachusetts and New Jersey, with higher-than-median memberships in labor unions, scored at or near the top. New York scored about the same as Florida. The bottom scoring states were DC and Mississippi.

Last graph, for 8th grade 2009 math NAEP scores versus union membership:

Again, if anything, the assumption that he made, that union membership is bad for students, is shattered.

Source for union membership is here.

For the various NAEP scores, you have to go to the main data exploration page for the National Assessment of Educational Progress and look around.

Published in: on July 26, 2011 at 11:42 am  Comments (2)  
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A Modest Proposal: NRFEL

I have a modest proposal.

The lower a student performs on the various tests, obviously the more resources it takes to get that student up to par (however you define “par”).

Obviously, right now, regular public schools, especially those in low-income areas, have disproportionately large percentages of those such low-performing, high-needs students.

The current, popular accusation is that the school teachers in those inner-city schools are deliberately sabotaging the learning of those students (and causing that low performance), under union protection.

It is charged that if schools were privatized in general, and/or if teacher union organizations were smashed, then freed-up non-union public schools, and also charter and private and parochial schools, would do a better job.

But today, let’s be honest. All of those high-performing schools are selective. And/or, they put out the low-performers, and the ones they consider ‘rotten apples.’

There has to be some place for housing the kids who are put out of, or simply not allowed in to, more-exclusive schools (be they charter, boarding, magnet, ritzy private, ritzy public, etc., etc…). And guess where that is?

Right. The regular, comprehensive public schools. Especially in poor rural areas and the inner city, there are lots of kids with lots of serious deficiencies, which take a LOT of work to overcome. But many of these schools are totally overwhelmed — I’ve seen it. I’ve seen schools in total chaos, where much of the time, nearly no teaching and learning can possibly take place. Or else it takes an absolute Superman or Wonder Woman to accomplish some teaching in one corner of the school, and only with lots of administrative support, which is denied to the rest of the school…  I’ve seen that, too.

OK,  If those other schools do so much better, let’s try a truly randomized experiment to see if that’s really true. Or else let’s give all of our kids the opportunity to go there.

But what if we turn that on its head? And actually use the ONE positive proposal that Michele Rhee, ever came up with?

Here it is: In four words, it’s this:


Use a real lottery for all.

I will call my proposal the Non-Revokable Full-year-long Exchange Lottery (NRFEL for short).

Under NRFEL, in every officially designated ‘failing’ public school, all of the low-performing students would be placed in a lottery. Based on the outcome of the lottery, those students would be selected either to :

(1) stay at their regular school, or

(2) to attend a randomly-selected high-performing school; said school would be either…

(a) located within a two-hour bus ride of the home of the student, or

(b) be a boarding school located anywhere in the USA.

Important terms:

(3) All this would be for no extra taxpayer dollars. Yup.

(4) None of these exchange students could be denied entry, for any reason.

(5) None of these exchange students could be subsequently be put out by the receiving school, FOR ANY REASON until the end of the school year, and the students and their parents would know that. (6) Re-assessments would take place exactly once a year, during the summer break, to discern whether the exchange should continue. If the student then is performing adequately, he or she would return to his or her original school. Let me repeat: those high-performing schools would include ALL high-performing schools within a 2-hour bus ride. Oh, and they also include ALL boarding schools in the nation. For no additional money.

Don’t worry about overcrowding the receiving schools. NRFEL takes care of that. as follows.

(7) Each student in each high-achieving school is also placed in a lottery.

(8) Every school that receives one of the low-achieving or handicapped students from a ‘failing’ would simply send back one adequately -performing student, chosen at random in this second lottery. It could be worked out later whether there would be exact, one-for-one exchanges, or whether all students being moved would be put into a general “pool”.  This is a 1:1 exchange ratio: one kid in, one kid out. So class sizes, overall, wouldn’t rise. But there might be need for physical therapists, mental health and social service professionals, reading and math specialists, as well as security guards in some cases. None of which the school district shall be liable for funding.

A very good question arises: what if the receiving school receives so many low-achieving students that it is overwhelmed and enters the category of “failing school” because they are unable to work enough of a miracle in one year? Well, then they can enter the lottery the next year on the other side of the tracks (so to speak).

One aspect I haven’t decided on yet for NRFEL is whether there should also be a similar randomized exchanges of teachers and staff and administration between high-achieveing and low-achieving schools. So I will put this is up for debate. Perhaps this feature could be a separate experiment in geographical region. (Imagine teachers and staff at Sidwell, Holton-Arms, and BCC randomly exchanging places with teachers at schools in deepest Anacostia or inside the near-DC PG County Beltway area.)

I know what you are thinking: NCLB has something like this, but often there is no room in the ‘receiving schools’. In fact, this has happened a lot in DCPS already. NRFEL takes care of this. First, it’s random, so it’s not merely selecting the kids with the most-motivated parents. Second, it’s ALL schools, no matter what denomination, ownership status, or jurisdiction. The exact numbers of exchange students and their distribution could be debated in committee hearings. I propose that each geographical region (think, Washington Metro Area, or Greater Washington, or Delmarva Peninsula, or Greater New York) would take a census of all youth, and their academic levels, to decide how to allot those students among high-and-low-achieving schools. After all, just about all of our public school students have to take lots of standardized tests. What better possible use could we make of this data? NRFEL’s goal is equalizing educational opportunity for all youth, and isn’t that supposedly what America is based on?
Let me emphasize one thing. None of these receiving schools would have the right or capacity to send any of these students back, nor to expel them. They would have to keep them and deal with them for a full school year, whether they are sick, incarcerated or hospitalized, or truant, or  whether they come to school each and every single day and join the rugby or football or hockey or computer-tech club at their new school. For no extra expense, remember.

What ever could we use to ‘persuade’ parochial and private schools to go along? Public charter schools and magnet schools are funded by public money anyway, so they would have to comply. But think of this: private and religious schools get substantial benefits and subsidies from society and government. I will just mention one public subsidy for these schools: tax exemption!

(BTW: have you recently noticed the bill for tuition at the high-flying local private schools?)

Oh, and the low-performing schools can’t put their high-performing return-exchange students out, either. Though those schools might just find that those students will hold their own pretty well, forming substantial fractions of the school’s student government, athletic teams, and other clubs, not to mention their honor roll…

Waddaya say?

How do we organize in FAVOR of improved public education?

All those in favor of promoting and improving free, public, integrated, comprehensive, universal public education are fighting against a very well-organized, heavily funded, and powerful opposition.

We have all of the right-wing think tanks and major media editorial boards against us. (Don’t believe me? See an article by the late Milton Friedman, in the Washington Post, from 15 years ago. )  NCLB was planned and implemented precisely to destroy the public schools, and is working quite well. We have both the national Republican and Democratic parties vilifying teachers and trying to eliminate free, comprehensive, universal, public education. Public schools appear to be more and more racially segregated, and the charter schools are even worse. We have “philanthopists” representing untold billions in private wealth (essentially stolen from the public) who are trying to privatize public education, and to eliminate some of the few remaining areas of union organization left in the US.

But what are WE going to do about it?

Well, we can do some research to point out the lies and distortions put out by the pro-privatization side. My blogs have mostly been research articles, in which I have been attempting to use facts and statistics to refute the lies peddled by the pro-privatization, anti-public-education, anti-union crowd that is exemplified by Rhee. I have used data from the websites of NAEP, OSSE/DCPS/NCLB,  S.H.A.P.P.E. and the 21st Century School Fund among others. The American Federation of Teachers employs some well-intentioned professional researchers and statisticians who have come up with some very interesting and useful data over the last decade or so.

But don’t expect any union leadership these days to actually be on the side of the rank-and-file. The term “sellout” is still a correct description of the vast majority of union leaders. For example, the current and past leadership of the Washington Teachers Union  have been a pretty sorry lot. Some of them have been too busy lining their own pockets (and hiding this from the teachers) to fight for reform, no matter what they proclaimed publicly.

(Of course, the theft of a few million dollars by Bullock and company didn’t bring down the entire economy, unlike the thefts by CEOs at ENRON, AIG, Bank of America, and so on.  But it did severely weaken the labor movement by showing how corrupt our leadership can be, giving ammunition to the right-wing anti-union crowd.)

George Parker was so far inside Rhee’s corner, for quite a long time, and had drunk so much of her Kool-Aid, that he actually thought that teachers would buy the Red-Green plan, until he found out, probably much to his surprise, that the vast majority of them wanted no part of it. At which point he had to change his tune and his ostensible direction by almost 180 degrees. But don’t depend on him to actually DO anything about it. Notice that Parker has apparently had no executive board meetings or membership meetings for several months – and this at a time when teachers (and the public) should be very actively organizing to oppose the plans of Rhee, of the WaPo editorial board, and all of the billionaires who want to eliminate comprehensive, universal, free, rational public education.

The skills needed to research and analyze that material, to comb the public record for lies by the educational privatization crowd, and to write coherent articles about that, are quite different from the skills needed to actually organize large numbers of people into a cohesive, well-organized, progressive, social movement that achieves positive gains. Having both types of skills is useful, but they are rare in the same person.

(Don’t look at me. I like to think I write OK,  I have experience doing research, and I know a little math, but I know from bitter experience that I suck at organizing, am pessimistic by nature, can’t plan a successful course of public action, am not a good public speaker, and can’t think on my feet.)

Plus, time spent in library stacks or on-line looking up data is time that is NOT spent telephoning or meeting with people to make plans for demonstrations or whatever other type of effective public action is needed. There are only so many hours in a day; and there are very few hours available for any of that stuff if you happen to be employed. And if you are a teacher in the DCPS, why, then, virtually every single one of your waking hours needs to be devoted to the mostly useless rigamarole and BS that is required of you under IMPACT, if you hope to keep your job. (I only have time to do this column because I retired last June!)

We really need to be an active organization in FAVOR of improving public education that has the potential to organize masses of peple. I wish there was one, but I am not aware of any. The Democratic Party, nationally and locally, seems to spout the same line as the privatizers (look at Adrian Fenty and Arne Duncan, for example). Barack Obama has got to be a severe disappointment to anybody who actually believed he was going to make a difference. The various microscopic left-wing splinter groups haven’t amounted to anything for about three decades.

The saying: “The people, united, will never be defeated” is still true. But the “united” part is very hard to attain. If anybody has solid suggestions or plans, or knows of an effective, real-life organization that has potential, I am all ears. We need to find a way out of this crisis.
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