It was billed as the fight of the century.
Or at very least – the weekend.
Lily Eskelsen Garcia vs. Randi Weingarten.
National Education Association vs. American Federation of Teachers.
Union president vs. union president.
All moderated by education historian Diane Ravich.
“Oh snap!” cried six hundred voices in tandem at the Network for Public Education conference in Chicago.
“It’s goin’ down!”
No soft pitches coming from Diane, either. These were going to be tough questions. No politicking. Only candid truth.
And the interview actually seemed to live up to its hype in one shinning moment.
Will you both commit to no longer taking any money from the Gates, Broad and Walton Foundations?
Ravich’s question hung in the air a second before the crowd erupted into a standing ovation.
We cheered so loudly at the question, we didn’t hear the answers – two quick short yeses.
When it quieted down somewhat, Lily nodded and Randi cupped her hands around her mouth and shouted “YES!”
At the time, I was overjoyed. But in retrospect something keeps bugging me.
That wasn’t as candid and organic as it appeared.
There’s no way the heads of the two largest labor unions in the country could commit to something like that off the cuff. They were expecting that question and they had already agreed in private on the answer.
Does it matter?
Maybe not. If the NEA and AFT actually follow through with this promise, who cares if the presentation was staged?
But there were other cracks in the facade along the way.
It started well enough. Both women said some really supportive things about teachers and our unions.
ROUND 1: LOVEFEST
-Teachers are first responders to poverty. Never say I’m just a teacher. (NOTE: activist parent Rosemary Vega says she used almost the exact same words to Randi in a private conversation.)
-All middle class workers have to realize we’re all in it together.
-The other side lives in an evidence free zone. We need to keep pushing the truth.
-Privatizers have to get people to distrust teachers. This is hard because most people naturally trust our profession.
-It’s strange that some celebrities want to make the world a better place by making it easier to fire more teachers.
-People who say teachers go into this profession for a cushy job are “idiots.” (Randi then countered that these folks are “morons.”)
-Teachers need tenure so they won’t be fired for helping kids.
-We talk about the progress gap – what about the resource gap?
-They say if kids had better teachers, they wouldn’t need resources!
-There are three pillars of corporate school reform:
3) delegitimize (teachers)
RESULT: Lily takes it. She came off more eloquent and genuine than Randi who seemed a bit strident and defensive. Judging by the mediocre applause and even outright hissing Randi earned from the audience, New York teachers may still blame her for Gov. Cuomo who she supported in the last election.
ROUND 2: STANDARDIZED TESTING
-We need to get rid of high stakes tests. We need tests that are diagnostic. I took tests when I was a child, but they were about ME – not my teacher.
-We wanted three things from the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) rewrite – no federalization of teacher evaluations, school closings or Common Core.
-If we have standardized testing at all – and I’m not sure we should – we should use them for general trends. Not to fire teachers, close schools, etc.
-The NEA is against annual testing in the ESEA rewrite. Instead we want informational grade span testing at the state level. That means testing reading and math once in elementary school, once in the middle school and once in the high school.
-Lawmakers say you need to test kids every year. They think we need the data. However, the NEA told them that we don’t test that much even now! We only test kids in grades 3-8 every year. We test high school students only once. So we already have grade span testing in the high school. If that’s working, why not do the same in the elementary and middle schools?
RESULT: Yuck and yuck. Are these really the same rabble rousers from Round 1? They both agree on grade span testing. Yes, it’s clearly better than annual testing but it leaves so many unanswered questions:
1) If we had grade span testing, would our test-obsessed country really only test once at each academic level? Right now, standardized tests aren’t required in Kindergarten, first or second grade – yet in most schools WE HAVE THEM! To paraphrase Lily – we already have literally annual testing through 8th grade! Prove to me that grade span testing won’t be that!
2) How can you be sure grade span testing will actually remove high stakes? Just because you say something doesn’t have high stakes doesn’t mean it isn’t actually de facto high stakes. I can call a cat a “dog,” but it still won’t use the litter box.
3) Do we really need any of this “demographic”, “purely informational,” nothing-to-see-here-folks data? Do we? Why? To prove kids are learning? We give them grades for that. To prove kids are getting the proper resources? We do audits for that.
So let’s call this one a sloppy and ugly draw with few punches thrown.
ROUND 3: COMMON CORE
Randi: Standardized testing is ruining the potential of the Common Core. (Ravich responded that it is an outrage that so few kids pass Common Core tests who passed the tests they replaced.)
Lily: Many Common Core standards can’t be evaluated on standardized tests. They ignore the best parts. Organize a project, give an opinion, do a multi-media presentation. You can’t assess that with a multiple choice fill-in-the-bubble test.
RESULT: They agree again. The rank and file hate Common Core. The majority of teachers are against it or uncertain, but our largest union leaders think it’s just swell. It’s so gosh darn great, but toxic testing is ruining it. Are you freaking kidding me!? Why are the leaders of our biggest unions – who are supposed to represent us – defending standards that were not developed by educators, are developmentally inappropriate and have never been proven to work!?
Standardized tests are bad, but standardized curriculum is good!?
Once again light starts to shine through the cracks here. Somewhere, sometime ago, a decision was reached between these two ladies and parties unknown to make a compromise. Save Common Core by lightly ribbing standardized tests. Champion a slight decrease in testing (that may not actually reduce testing at all) in exchange for saving standardized curriculum.
I’m sorry. I’m calling the fight. No winners here.
OFF THE TOP ROPES COMES RANK AND FILE UNIONISTS FROM THE BREAKOUT SESSION ON SOCIAL JUSTICE UNIONISM!
Michelle Gunderson chaired an incredible session about the need to transform our labor unions around the issues of social justice.
-Get Up! Get down! Chicago is a union town!
-After Gov. Walker, there weren’t supposed to be any unions. But WE’RE STILL HERE!
–Rosemary Vega: true leaders don’t make more followers. They make more leaders.
-Everyone is a worker. Everyone deserves rights – whether you’re in a union or not.
-Fighting for social justice is key to building strong unions.
-Do you want a service union or an activist one? Associations shouldn’t just be about salary and benefits. They need to be about Justice.
-People of color used to be banned from joining unions. Now they’re leaders.
-You’d never know how much our unions had to fight for the rights we have today. We don’t pass that on to the next generation. We should.
–Michelle: Union members aren’t friends. They’re brothers and sisters.
RESULT: Randi and Lily are teetering on their feet! They’re almost down! Somehow they’re still standing! How can they still be standing!?
OH! IS THAT KAREN LEWIS ENTERING THE RING!? NO WAY!
Diane had a brief talk with the Chicago Teachers Union president to end the entire NPE conference. Karen didn’t say anything revolutionary.
In fact, she deflected any kind of praise back to someone else. When Diane said Karen was her hero, Karen said she felt the same way about Diane. When Diane asked her about being attacked in the media, Karen thanked the Badass Teachers Association for coming to her aide on Twitter.
She was poise, finesse and grace.
The strength she demonstrated! The power! The integrity!
RESULT: Boom! It’s all over! It’s all over! Ring the bell! Ring the Bell!
Unions still have an important place in our fight as teachers. But it’s not top down. Unions work best when they’re bottom up – just like any Democracy.
Lily and Randi seem like very nice ladies. In many ways they DO stand up for teachers and students. But there is more to their stories. They have seats at the table in the smoke filled rooms where decisions are made at the highest level about how our country will be lead. And to keep those seats, they have to make compromises. They have to sell these compromises to you and me as if these were their own ideas. They want to convince us that these are really OUR ideas.
But it’s not true. It’s showmanship.
We have to be smart enough to see through it and call them out on the bullshit when it comes.
Unions have always been about people power – and what powerful people we have on our side!
The audience at NPE was full of these courageous, big hearted activists and organizers. I’m so honored to have been included in this tremendous event.
Power to the people!
NOTE: This article also was published on the Badass Teachers Association blog.