You can’t do that.
All the fear, frustration and mounting rage of public school teachers amounts to that short declarative sentence.
You can’t take away our autonomy in the classroom.
You can’t take away our input into academic decisions.
You can’t take away our job protections and collective bargaining rights.
You can’t do that.
But the state and federal government has repeatedly replied in the affirmative – oh, yes, we can.
For at least two decades, federal and state education policy has been a sometimes slow and incremental chipping away at teachers’ power and authority – or at others a blitzkrieg wiping away decades of long-standing best practices.
The latest and greatest of these has been in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Earlier this week, the state-led School Reform Commission simply refused to continue bargaining with teachers over a new labor agreement. Instead, members unilaterally cancelled Philadelphia teachers contract and dictated their own terms – take them or get out.
The move was made at a meeting called with minimal notice to hide the action from the public. Moreover, the legality of the decision is deeply in doubt. The courts will have to decide if the SRC even has the legal authority to bypass negotiations and impose terms.
One doesn’t have to live or work in the City of Brotherly Love to feel the sting of the state SRC. For many educators across the nation this may be the last straw.
For a long time now, we have watched in stunned silence as all the problems of society are heaped at our feet.
Nearly half of all public school children in the United States live in abject poverty. This is not our fault. We did not pass the laws that allowed this to happen.
We did not crash the economy and then allow the guilty parties to get away Scott free – in most cases to continue the same risky financial practices all over again.
We did not cut funding to programs designed to help the poor – public assistance, childcare, counseling , job placement, etc.
We did not slash state and federal taxes for the wealthiest Americans, corporations and big businesses resulting in less public money to do the jobs we give the government.
We didn’t even get to provide more than the most minimal input into the dominant education policies of the land. School Choice, No Child Left Behind, Common Core, Race to the Top – those were written and enacted by bureaucrats, politicians and billionaire philanthropists.
But somehow we’re to blame.
Teachers dedicate their lives to fight the ignorance and poverty of the next generation and are found guilty of the very problem they came to help alleviate. It’s like blaming a doctor when a patient gets sick, blaming a lawyer because his client committed a crime or blaming a firefighter because an arsonist threw a match.
The Philadelphia decision makes clear the paranoid conspiracy theories about school privatization are neither paranoid nor mere theories. We see them enacted in our local newspapers and media in the full light of day.
Step 1: Poor schools lose state and federal funding.
Step 2: Schools can’t cope with the loss, further reduce services, quality of education suffers.
Step 3: Blame teachers, privatize, cancel union contracts, reduce quality of education further.
Ask yourself this: why does this only happen at poor schools?
You never see a rich school dissolve its contract with its teachers. You never see a rich school declare it will become a charter to increase educational outcomes.
Why is that? Is it because rich schools are so poorly managed they can’t see the benefits of these excellent strategies – or is it because no one cares about the poor?
Poverty has been the driving factor behind the Philadelphia Schools tragedy for decades. Approximately 70% of district students are at or near the poverty line.
To meet this need, the state has bravely chipped away at its share of public school funding. In 1975, Pennsylvania provided 55% of school funding statewide; in 2014 it provides only 36%. Nationally, Pennsylvania is 45th out of 50 for lowest state funding for public education.
Such chronic neglect by the state left poorer Philadelphia neighborhoods unable to make up the difference financially. In 1998, exasperated school administrators threatened to close the district unless the state paid its fair share.
The matter went to the courts with the district suing the state for not providing “thorough and efficient” funding and discriminating against the district’s largely non-White population. After a long series of negotiations, in 2001 lawmakers quickly created contentious legislation to take over management of the district.
Since the schools were in distress (read: poor), the state decided it could do the following: put the district under the control of a School Reform Commission; hire a CEO; enable the CEO to hire non-certified staff, reassign or fire staff; allow the commission to hire for-profit firms to manage some schools; convert others to charters; and move around district resources.
And now after 13 years of state management with little to no improvement, the problem is once again the teachers. It’s not mismanagement by the SRC. It’s not the chronic underfunding. It’s not crippling, generational poverty. It’s these greedy people who volunteer to work with the children most in need.
We could try increasing services for those students. We could give management of the district back to the people who care most: the citizens of Philadelphia. We could increase the districts portion of the budget so students could get more arts and humanities, tutoring, wraparound services, etc. That might actually improve the educational quality those children receive.
Nah! It’s the teachers! Let’s rip up their labor contract!
Take my word for it. Educators have had it.
There will come a time – that time may have come already – when teachers refuse to be the scapegoats for poor policies made by poor decision-makers to fleece and rob the poor.
It all comes down to standardized tests. Bureaucrats don’t know how to measure educational achievements without them. After all, they’re not, themselves, educators. That’s why every major educational “reform” of recent years requires more-and-more of these fill-in-the-bubble falsely objective, poorly written and cheaply graded tests.
In fact, standardized test scores are used to determine whether a school is “failing” or not. It was, after all, one of the chief justifications used for the state takeover of Philly schools.
However, educators know the emperor has no clothes. We know the best predictor of high test scores is a student’s parental income. Rich kids score well, poor kids score badly. Standardized tests don’t measure knowledge. They measure economics.
That’s why parents across the nation are increasingly refusing to let their children take them. It’s why colleges are increasingly lifting the requirement that applicants even take the SAT.
Teachers, too, have begun refusing to administer the tests. However, this is risky because in doing so they are in jeopardy of being fired for insubordination.
But times are changing. The two biggest teachers unions in the country recently came out in favor of protecting educators who take this principled stance.
Alice O’Brien, head of the NEA Office of the General Counsel:
“NEA supports parents who chose to exercise their legal right to opt their children out of standardized tests. When educators determine that a standardized test serves no legitimate educational purpose, and stand in solidarity with their local and state association to call for an end to the administration of that test in their schools, NEA will support those educators just as it did in the case of the teachers who protested the administration of the MAP test at Garfield High School.”
AFT President Randi Weingarten:
“We supported teachers at Garfield High School in Seattle when they refused to give redundant tests. We supported early childhood teachers in New York when they shined the light on how abusive it is to give bubble tests to 5-year-olds. On the testing madness that’s sapping the joy from our classrooms, teachers are the canaries in the coal mines, and we support their advocacy. Ultimately, though, it’s up to parents to make the decision whether to opt out.”
It follows then that educators should refuse to administer standardized tests across the country – especially at poor schools.
What do we have to lose? The state already is using these deeply flawed scores to label our districts a failure, take us over and then do with us as they please.
Refuse to give them the tools to make that determination. Refuse to give the tests. How else will they decide if a school is succeeding or failing? They can’t come out and blame the lack of funding. That would place the blame where it belongs – on the same politicians, bureaucrats and billionaire philanthropists who pushed for these factory school reforms in the first place.
This would have happened much sooner if not for fear teachers would lose their jobs. The Philadelphia decision shows that this may be inevitable. The state is committed to giving us the option of working under sweatshop conditions or finding employment elsewhere. By unanimously dissolving the union contract for teachers working in the 8th largest district in the country, they have removed the last obstacle to massive resistance.
Teachers want to opt out. They’ve been chomping at the bit to do this for years. We know how destructive this is to our students. But we’ve tried to compromise – I’ll do a little test prep here and try to balance it with a real lesson the next day. Testing is an unfortunate part of life and I’m helping my students by teaching them to jump through these useless hoops.
But now we no longer need to engage in these half measures. In fact, continuing as before would go against our interests.
Any Title 1 district – any school that serves a largely impoverished population – would be best served now if teachers refused to give the powers that be the tools needed to demoralize kids, degrade teachers and dissolve their work contracts. And as the poorer districts go, more affluent schools should follow suit to reclaim the ability to do what’s best for their students. The standardized testing machine would ground to a halt offering an opportunity for real school reform. The only option left would be real, substantial work to relieve the poverty holding back our nation’s school children.
In short, teachers need to engage in a mass refusal to administer standardized tests.
“But you can’t do that,” say the politicians, bureaucrats and billionaire philanthropists.
Oh, yes, we can.