Ugly Attacks on Teachers and Teachers Unions

As a candidate for President, Joseph Biden promised to appoint a teacher or someone experienced in public school education as U.S. Secretary of Education. Now as Biden is appointing the members of his Cabinet, we are reading opinion pieces filled with all the old conventional biases against schoolteachers in general and against the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers.

Many Republicans are suspicious of teachers unions, but a lot of the current attacks on teachers are coming from Democrats—from the supporters of the “corporate school reformer” education policies of President Barack Obama and his education secretary, Arne Duncan. These are Democrats who adhere to the neoliberal policies that endorsed school privatization in the form of charter schools whose operation is entirely private. Some of these Democrats are people who promote business school school accountability based on incentives and punishments said to increase teachers’ productivity. The current protesters are worried about the possibility that President Elect Biden will appoint Lily Eskelsen Garcia, NEA’s recent president, or Randi Weingarten, AFT’s current president, as the next U.S. Secretary of Education.

Over the weekend, the Wall Street Journal printed an extraordinary classist, sexist, elitist, and insultingly anti-teacher screed by Joseph Epstein, the former editor of The American Scholar.  Here is how Epstein begins his personal attack on Jill Biden: “Madame First Lady—Mrs. Biden—Jill—kiddo…  Your degree is, I believe, an Ed.D., a doctor of education, earned at the University of Delaware through a dissertation with the unpromising title, ‘Student Retention at the Community College Level: Meeting Students’ Needs.'” Mr. Epstein continues, “The Ph.D. may once have held prestige, but that has been diminished by the erosion of seriousness, and the relaxation of standards in university education generally… Getting a doctorate was then an arduous proceeding: One had to pass examinations in two foreign languages, one of them Greek or Latin, defend one’s thesis, and take an oral examination on general knowledge in one’s field.” Epstein extols the intense pressure on candidates in the olden days before, as he contends, standards collapsed and the comprehensive exams became less threatening: “Dr. Jill, I note you acquired your Ed.D. as recently as 15 years ago at age 55, long after the terror had departed.”

You will have noticed that Mr. Epstein does not attack unionized teachers directly. In fact, he does not even mention that Jill Biden, an English teacher at a community college and a former high school English teacher, is a member of the NEA.  But he manages to denigrate and insult not only women (“kiddo”) and the idea that a woman might have a life and career independent of her husband (“Mrs. Biden”), but also the fact that most school teachers earn advanced degrees by going to school part time at the local state university at the same time they are teaching.  Epstein also disdains the idea that today teachers earn advanced degrees by studying issues related to pedagogy, developmental psychology, or the conditions and needs of their students. Epstein’s bias is for the ivory tower and against what education writer Mike Rose names in the title of his wonderful book about the importance of community colleges: Back To School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance at Education, An Argument for Democratizing Knowledge in America.

A month ago the Wall Street Journal also published an explicitly anti-teachers union piece by William McGurn, a former speech writer for President George W. Bush: “During his campaign, (Biden) promised to appoint a teacher as education secretary.  Now the talk is that Mr. Biden will appoint not only a teacher but the head of a teachers union… Everyone has understood that a Biden Education Department would mark a change of direction from the past four years. But to elevate to education secretary someone whose career has been spent fighting any reform aimed at relaxing the teachers union’s stranglehold on the public schools would be an astonishingly bleak admission about whose interests come first.”

Then there was Jonathan Chait’s New York Magazine  interview last week with President Barack Obama. A devotee of Obama’s pro-school reformer–pro-charter school policies, Chait asks the former president why he chose not to discuss his education policies in his new 700 page book, A Promised Land.  Obama replies that he will be exploring education policy in a second volume.  He also hedges as he explains the Race to the Top Program in which Arne Duncan required states, as the qualification to apply for a grant, to judge teachers by their students’ standardized test scores:  “I think it has to do with the fact that our reform efforts were relatively complicated to explain to the public. It’s easy to talk about ‘We’re going to put more money into buildings’ or ‘We’re going to talk about buying more books or science labs or you name it.’  It’s harder to talk about how we’re trying to create a sense of accountability, but also one that is not loading up even more rigid standardized-testing approaches that I think a lot of teachers rightly feel are suffocating.” Obama tells Chait: “What is… true is that I was fully supportive of the idea of raising expectations, raising standards, encouraging states and local school districts not to give up on kids because it’s hard.  To not assume that money is the only problem.”

The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss bluntly identifies as the primary flaw in Obama’s education policies his failure to address school funding inequity and child poverty: “Race to the Top did not make systemic improvements in public education in part because it failed to address some of the most important reasons for low student achievement. It did nothing to tackle the fundamental inequity of America’s education funding, which has historically penalized high-poverty districts and rewarded wealthy ones. It also did not address out-of-school factors that affect how children perform in school—even though research shows that most of the achievement gap is driven by factors outside school.”

It was to address these two issues that candidate Joe Biden turned away from the education policies of the Obama administration in which he served as Vice President. What happened as Obama’s education secretary Arne Duncan was implementing Race to the Top is that state budgets collapsed during the Great Recession in 2008, and then in 2010 in state after state, Tea Party candidates took over and began further to cut taxation.

In their new book, The Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire explain that: “Of each dollar spent on education in the United States, just 8 cents comes from the federal government… The real spending action in education takes place at the state and local level. States pick up the tab for approximately 47 cents of each dollar spent on public education, while local communities contribute an additional 45 cents, primarily through property taxes. In an effort to starve the beast, then, conservatives have worked at all levels of government to reduce taxation…  Almost every state reduced spending on public education during the Great Recession, but some states went much further, making deep cuts to schools, while taking aim at teachers and their unions… Moreover, states including Arizona, Kansas, Michigan, and North Carolina also moved to permanently reduce the funds available for education by cutting the taxes that pay for schools and other public services.  In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker took aim at education through Act 10—what was first called the ‘budget repair bill.’  Act 10 is mostly remembered for stripping teachers and other public employees of their collective bargaining rights.  But it also made $2 billion in cuts to the state’s public schools. Though Wisconsin, like many states, already capped the amount by which local communities could raise property taxes to fund schools… Walker and the GOP-controlled legislature imposed further limits, including restricting when and how local school districts can ask voters for additional help funding their schools.” (A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door,  pp. 34-36)

One of the authors of The Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, Jack Schneider published a tweet last week that captures the truth of what has happened over two decades of education policy: “Most people, when talking about “good” or “bad” schools, are talking about schools they’ve never visited in communities they don’t know. Their judgments are rooted in status ideology, rather than knowledge. If we nod our heads, we are complicit in an ignorance that harms us all.”  I believe President Elect Biden has promised to appoint someone with direct public school experience, because Biden noticed that it took teachers themselves to show us the flaws in the movement for corporate school reform and school privatization.

In a new book, Schoolhouse Burning: Public Education and the Assault on American Democracy, constitutional scholar Derek Black reminds us what happened: “In the spring of 2018, teachers across the nation waged a full-scale revolt, shutting down public schools and marching on state capitals in the reddest of red states. From West Virginia and Kentucky to Oklahoma and Arizona, teachers went on strike over the condition of public education. Stagnant and depressed teacher salaries were the initial focal point, but as the protests spread, it became clear that teachers were marching for far more than their salaries. They were marching for school supplies, school services, class sizes, and more. They were marching for states to reverse the massive budget cuts of the past decade and stop funneling more resources into charters and vouchers.” (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 23-24)

President Elect Biden may or may not choose a member of a teachers union as the next education secretary, but it’s time to stop permitting the corporate-accountability school reformers and charter school privatizers to trash the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. And it is time for us all to examine the stereotypes by which we define school teachers. It ought to be utterly unacceptable to insult Jill Biden for teaching at a community college and for earning an advanced degree at night school at the University of Delaware at the same time she was teaching high school during the day in Wilmington.

A Primer for the Public Education Voter in this Fall’s Midterm Election

The midterm election is only weeks away. The airwaves are filled with attack ads that sensationalize and distort the issues.  Even in states where public education has not emerged as a central issue, it ought to be, because K-12 education and higher education are among the biggest lines in every state’s budget.  Without naming states and without naming candidates or particular ballot issues, today’s blog will serve as a voters’ primer about what to consider on November 6, if you think of yourself a public education voter. These reports present simple information about each state.  If a candidate for your legislature or governor, for example, claims to be an “education” candidate, having invested significantly in education, you can check his or her promises against the facts.  I hope you’ll take a look at how your state has been supporting or failing to support the mass of children who attend public schools and the teachers who serve them.

The Network for Public Education and the Schott Foundation for Public Education put the importance of public schools into perspective: “In fact, the overwhelming majority of students in this country continue to attend public schools with total public school enrollment in prekindergarten through grade 12 projected to increase by 3 percent from 50.3 million to 51.7 million students. This compares with a 6% enrollment in charter schools and a 10.2% enrollment in private schools, with the majority (75% of private school students) attending religious private schools.”

In 1899, the philosopher of education, John Dewey explained the public purpose of education: “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children… Only by being true to the full growth of all the individuals who make it up, can society by any chance be true to itself.” (The School and Society, p. 1)

Public schools are the institutions most likely to balance the needs of each particular child and family with a system that secures the rights and addresses the needs of all children.  Public schools are publicly owned, publicly funded, and democratically governed under law.  Because public schools are responsible to the public, it is possible through elected school boards, open meetings, transparent record keeping and redress through the courts to ensure that public schools provide access for all children. No school is likely to perfectly serve all children, but because public schools are subject to government regulation under law, our society has been able to protect the right to an education for an ever growing number of children over the generations.

Key Resources for Voters in Fall, 2018—Public School Funding

The current decade began as the Great Recession devastated state budgets. While some states have recovered, many have struggled, and some have further cut taxes.  The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ most recent update on public K-12 funding across the states is A Punishing Decade for School Funding, dated November 29, 2017.  This is the essential annual report comparing public K-12 investment across the states. The numbers remain discouraging: We learn that 29 states continue to provide less total state funding for public schools than they did in 2008, prior to the Great Recession. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities also just released its annual report on higher education funding: Unkept Promises: State Cuts to Higher Education Threaten Access and Equity, which notes that in 31 states, per-student funding for public colleges and universities dropped between 2017 and 2018, while average tuition has continued to rise. Along with its report on higher education, CBPP even provides an online tool by which you can call up a short, detailed brief on higher education funding trends in each state.

In May of this year, the American Federation of Teachers published its own fine report on funding of public education across the states, A Decade of Neglect, which concluded: “(C)uts states have made since the Great Recession have led to reduced student math and English achievement, and this was most severe for school districts serving more low-income and minority students, especially in districts that saw large reductions in the numbers of teachers.”  The report describes overall trends followed by a series of two page briefs summarizing and presenting graphically the public school funding trend in each state since the 2004-2005 school year.

Key Resource for Voters in Fall, 2018—Marketplace School Privatization Undermines Democracy and Robs Public Schools of Essential Resources

In his 2007 book, Consumed, the late political philosopher Benjamin Barber reflects on the commodification of public institutions: “It is the peculiar toxicity of privatization ideology that it rationalizes corrosive private choosing as a surrogate for the public good.  It enthuses about consumers as the new citizens who can do more with their dollars… than they ever did with their votes. It associates the privileged market sector with liberty as private choice while it condemns democratic government as coercive.” (Consumed, p. 143)

Not only is school privatization undemocratic, but it also drains state funding away from public school districts into charter schools and various kinds of tuition vouchers for private school. School privatization laws differ across the states along with the amount of money driven out of state public education budgets into the various school privatization schemes. In June of this year, the Network for Public Education and the Schott Foundation for Public Education jointly published Grading the States: A Report Card on Our Nation’s Commitment to Public Schools. The report’s introduction states its purpose: “States are rated on the extent to which they have instituted policies and practices that lead toward fewer democratic opportunities and more privatization, as well as the guardrails they have (or have not) put into place to protect the rights of students, communities and taxpayers. The report ranks the states by the degree to which they have privatized education.

Barber summarizes privatization’s corrosive role—fragmenting and undermining our society: “Privatization is a kind of reverse social contract: it dissolves the bonds that tie us together into free communities and democratic republics. It puts us back in the state of nature where we possess a natural right to get whatever we can on our own, but at the same time lose any real ability to secure that to which we have a right. Private choices rest on individual power… personal skills… and personal luck.  Public choices rest on civic rights and common responsibilities, and presume equal rights for all. Public liberty is what the power of common endeavor establishes, and hence presupposes that we have constituted ourselves as public citizens by opting into the social contract. With privatization, we are seduced back into the state of nature by the lure of private liberty and particular interest; but what we experience in the end is an environment in which the strong dominate the weak… the very dilemma which the original social contract was intended to address.” (Consumed, pp. 143-144)

As you vote in this fall’s election, please consider the resources suggested here as well as the principles that define public education’s public role in our society.

NCLB Reauthorization Debate Focuses on Role of Testing, Ignores Expanding Opportunity

Test-and-punish, the strategy of the federal testing law No Child Left Behind, has not been working. The goal of the law, drafted right after the attacks on the World Trade Center in September of 2001 and signed into law the following January, was to close academic achievement gaps by race and family income. Even though the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) version of the law, formally known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), has been in operation for 13 years now and NCLB has utterly failed to close achievement gaps, Congress has never been able to agree on a reauthorization. Now our new Congress—both houses dominated by Republicans—has been talking about a reauthorization and has even been scheduling hearings.  In the past week advocacy groups have rushed to take sides on its central mandate: annual standardized testing for all children in grades 3-8 and once in high school.

However, because there is not another compelling educational vision to replace test-and-punish accountability, it looks as though a compromise reauthorization of ESEA may move forward, but that any new version will be unlikely to change the direction of federal policy in public education.

Last Sunday, in coordination with a speech planned by Education Secretary Arne Duncan to follow on Monday, a group of 19 civil rights and advocacy organizations issued a statement insisting that any new federal education law require annual standardized testing.  The statement demands that any ESEA reauthorization include, “Annual, statewide assessments for all students (in grades 3-8 and at least once in high school) that are aligned with, and measure each student’s progress toward meeting the state’s college and career-ready standards…” These organizations assert that annual test scores reported by demographic groups have shone a bright light on the persistent achievement gaps.  They advocate for the retention of annual testing as a way to continue to hold public schools accountable for addressing the needs of all children.

Then on Monday, in a major policy address, Education Secretary Arne Duncan also insisted on the retention of annual testing.  Duncan has not threatened a veto by President Barack Obama but he has pretty much made the retention of annual standardized testing non-negotiable, despite that in the past he has criticized “too many tests that take up too much time.”  Alyson Klein reports for Education Week that “Duncan…. wants any ESEA rewrite to continue teacher evaluations through student outcomes, the targeting of resources to the lowest-performing schools, and—most relevant to the current debate over updating the law—the law’s current regime of annual, statewide assessments.”

On Tuesday, Senator Lamar Alexander, the new Republican chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, released a discussion draft of a new ESEA. Senator Alexander advocates reducing the federal role in education and substituting what is called “grade span” testing for annual testing.  Under Alexander’s grade-span proposal, schools would continue to be held accountable through testing, but students would be tested only once in elementary school, once in middle school, and once in high school.

Lindsey Layton reports in the Washington Post that Patty Murray, the ranking Democrat on the Senate HELP Committee, endorses Duncan’s insistence on annual testing:  “Murray said Monday she wants to keep the annual testing mandate but wants to eliminate the myriad other tests states and local school districts administer.”

The National Education Association has reiterated its support for grade-span testing (once in elementary, once in middle school, once in high school) and its reasons for rejecting No Child Left Behind’s mandate for annual standardized testing.  NEA’s president, Lily Eskelsen García, released a statement on Monday that explains: “We are pleased the Administration is calling for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act… Our focus is on providing equal opportunity to every child so that they may be prepared for college and career… In order to do this, we must reduce the emphasis on standardized tests that have corrupted the quality of the education received by children, especially those in high poverty areas… We support grade span testing to free up time and resources for students, diminish ‘teaching to the test,’ expand extracurricular activities, and allow educators to focus on what is most important: instilling a love of learning in their students.”

In a surprise on Wednesday, the American Federation of Teachers, which has historically opposed annual testing, joined with the Center on American Progress, whose education priorities generally mirror the policies of the Obama/Duncan Department of Education, to propose a compromise: retain annual standardized testing for diagnostic purposes but use grade-span testing to hold schools accountable: “We propose that in order to inform instruction, to provide parents and communities information about whether students are working at grade level or are struggling, and to allow teachers to diagnose and help their students, the federal requirement for annual statewide testing in grades 3-8 and once in high school should be maintained… However, we also believe it is critical to relieve the unintended yet detrimental pressure of high-stakes tests by basing federal accountability on a robust system of multiple measures.  While these systems should include assessment results, states should only be required to include tests taken once per grade span… in their school accountability systems.”

The debate about the long-overdue reauthorization of ESEA seems to have been reduced to a conversation about annual versus grade-span standardized testing.  Some pretty basic things are missing from this conversation.  Our society tolerates an alarming child poverty rate well over 20 percent, among the highest among industrialized nations. On top of segregation by race and ethnicity, our society is experiencing rapid segregation by economics and isolation of the poor and the rich.  This growing segregation by economics is mirrored by a widening income inequality achievement gap that is even greater than the racial achievement gaps.  A drop in state budgetary allocations for public education means that 30 states are spending less on public education than in 2007 before the great recession.  Children who live in racially and economically marginalized communities where schools are poorly funded by state legislatures are the victims of enormous opportunity gaps.

These days politicians in both political parties pretend they are addressing the real problems posed by child poverty, widening inequality, growing segregation by income and race, and the collapse of school funding in budgets across the states with a regime of standardized tests and accompanying punishments for schools and school districts whose test scores do not rise quickly.  The punishments—prescribed by No Child Left Behind and also embedded the competitive programs such as Race to the Top initiated by the Obama administration— include blaming teachers and their unions, compulsively collecting data, closing so-called “failing” schools, and expanding charters and privatization.

Our most urgent educational priority as a society must instead be to invest in improving public schools in communities where poverty is concentrated.  The paucity of ideas being discussed in Congress and important advocacy groups about an alternative to No Child Left Behind’s “test-and-punish” strategy demonstrates that right now there is a lack of public will and a lack of political leadership to invest in addressing the opportunity gaps that cause achievement gaps.

Campbell Brown and Joe Nocera Trash Teachers; Education Experts Respond

Again in the past week, two prominent media personalities—neither one a school teacher by profession or training and both with an ax to grind—have attacked school teachers, the programs that train teachers, and the teachers unions and due process rights protected in union contracts.

Of course Campbell Brown, the former CNN anchor, has launched her new organization, the Partnership for Educational Justice, whose mission is to bring lawsuits across the states to get rid of due process protections for teachers.  This week her organization filed a second Vergara-type lawsuit in New York state, and Campbell Brown went on The Colbert Report to promote her new cause.  (This blog has covered Campbell Brown here, and here.)  Earlier this week, Valerie Strauss published an analysis of Campbell Brown’s interview with Stephen Colbert.  Strauss’s guest columnist is Alyssa Hadley Dunn, a former high school teacher and now assistant professor of teacher education at Michigan State University.  Hadley Dunn fact-checks what Campbell Brown had to say; I urge you to read her careful analysis.  She concludes: “Ms. Brown… I wholeheartedly concur that educational policies should be determined by what is best for children.  What I remain unconvinced about, however, is how eliminating teachers’ rights is what is best for children.  We know that teacher working conditions are student learning conditions…. What research actually shows is best for children is teachers with long-term and sustained preparation in content and pedagogy; an equitable education that is not segregated by race and socioeconomic status; and student-centered, hands-on pedagogy that sustains students’ cultures and challenges them to be critical thinkers and engaged citizens.  None of this has anything to do with teacher tenure laws.”

And Joe Nocera (on the op ed page of the NY Times) has once again been attacking college training programs for teachers.  Last December Nocera praised the almost universally discredited report from the National Council on Teacher Quality, an organization established by the Thomas Fordham Foundation in 2000 to promote alternative certification paths outside the teachers colleges.  As the education writer and UCLA professor of education,  Mike Rose wrote in response to Nocera’s December column, “Much has been written about the problems with this report, particularly about the significant limitations of its analysis, built primarily of one kind of information: syllabi, course descriptions, and other program materials.  Because of NCTQ’s well-known animus toward teacher ed programs, only a small number of programs willfully complied with requests for this information, so the Center filed open records requests, litigated where it could, searched the Internet, queried students and districts, and so on—setting up a contentious dynamic that suffuses the Teacher Prep Review.  At several points, the authors appeal directly to readers to pressure their institutions to comply with NCTQ.  The gloves are off.”  Rose criticzes those, like Joe Nocera, who equate “good teaching with technique,” and who discount the value of  more theoretical coursework in philosophy and psychology of education, for example.

Nocera’s recent article repeats his bias for teacher training based on finite techniques and tricks. Nocera also attacks young teachers without backing up his accusations. He describes new teachers who “are basically left alone in the classroom to figure it out on their own.  In America, that’s how it’s always been done.  An inexperienced teacher stands in front of a class on the first day on the job and stumbles his or her way to eventual success.  Even in the best-case scenario, students are being shortchanged by rookie teachers who are learning on the job.”  He celebrates a professor at the University of Michigan who has broken down the practice of teaching into discrete practices, and writes, “Bell is pushing the idea that teachers should be prepared to teach—that they should have the tools and the skills—when they walk into that classroom on the first day on the job.  That is rarely the case right now.” How does Nocera know this is rarely the case?  He provides no evidence to back up this contention.  What about the  guided practicum experiences regularly provided and required by colleges of education including semester-long student teaching under master-teachers backed up by college professors?

You wouldn’t know it by reading Nocera or listening to Campbell Brown, but both of the nation’s large teachers unions endorse programs to support new teachers as they improve their practice.  The National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers also explicitly support accountability through formal peer assistance and review programs, and are underwriting grants to help their locals strengthen such programs.  When school districts fail to provide strong programs to support new teachers through mentoring and time for collaborative planning among teachers across grade level teams, it is not because teachers unions oppose such programs.  In fact union locals regularly work to get planning time and mentoring included in their contracts.  When school districts balk, it is virtually always due to financial constraints in communities where state and local funding has continued to drop since 2008.  Programs to support teachers, to improve school climate, and to implement fair, high quality professional evaluation are uniformly endorsed by the national teachers unions and their locals.

For a more substantive approach to issues of education policy including issues around the training of teachers, I recommend a good book for end-of-summer reading.  Public Education Under Siege, edited by Mike Rose and the historian Michael B. Katz—a collection of wonderful essays on public education published by the University of Pennsylvania Press—was just re-released in paperback at an affordable price under $20.  Chapter 3, Targeting Teachers is one of my favorite essays.  Here David Labaree, a professor of education at Stanford University, describes exactly the kind of learning that teachers undergo in their first years in the classroom.  It isn’t as Nocera describes, that new teachers stumble along because they don’t know what they are doing.  Well trained teachers across the country do know how to teach and they know what to do, but they likely haven’t yet had an opportunity to fully develop the teaching persona that will enable them to function comfortably in the classroom day after day, year after year:

Teachers need to develop a teaching persona to manage the relationship with their students.  Teaching means finding a way to get students to want to learn the curriculum.  And this requires the teacher to develop a highly personalized and professionally essential teaching persona.  That persona needs to incorporate a judicious and delicately balanced mix of qualities.  You want students to like you, so they look forward to seeing you in class and want to please you.  You want them to fear you, so they studiously avoid getting on your bad side and can be stopped dead in their tracks with the dreaded ‘teacher look.’  You want them to find your enthusiasm for learning the subject matter so infections that they can’t help getting caught up in the process and lured into learning.  Constructing such a persona is a complex task that takes years of development.  It’s part of why the first years of teaching are so difficult, until the persona falls in place and becomes second nature.  The problem is that there is no standard way of doing this.  The persona has to be a combination of what the situation demands—grade level, subject matter, cultural and personal characteristics of the students—and what the teacher can pull together from the pieces of his or her own character, personality, and interests.” (p. 35)

So… to answer Joe Nocera, a professor of education describes the importance of technique and also much more.  And, to confront Campbell Brown… we learn why experience matters and developing strong committed professionals is far more central to building the profession than weeding out a handful of bad teachers. Professionals working in our schools along with the professors who prepared them agree that we  need to create a supportive learning climate  to enable teachers to continue to develop what they know how to do and to help children enjoy learning.

Departments of Education and Justice Endorse Restorative, not Punitive, School Discipline

On Wednesday, January 8, Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan issued new guidance to reduce zero tolerance discipline policies in the nation’s public schools and to encourage schools to handle routine, non-criminal infractions inside schools instead of turning students over to police.  The goal is to make the climate at school safer and more welcoming and significantly to reduce what is known as the school to prison pipeline, as young people find themselves in the criminal justice system for what are often minor infractions.

Special thanks for years of advocacy leading to this change in policy must go to an active coalition of national education and civil rights organizations who have worked doggedly for changes in particular school districts and in federal policy.  They include Advancement Project, the American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, the NAACP, the National Opportunity to Learn Campaign, the Justice Policy Institute, and the Civil Rights Project at UCLA.  The American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association have endorsed these changes.

This effort was made especially urgent when, after the December 2012 school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, more schools began  hiring police guards, called “school resource officers” (SROs) on the assumption that police are needed to protect the well-being of children.  Advocates have continued to point out that increasing police presence at school criminalizes children by escalating the involvement of the police in matters that could be (and have in the past have been) handled by school personnel.

On January 12, the NY Times editorialized on the change in federal guidance: “The guidance documents included striking data on racial inequities.  For example, African-American students represent only 15 percent of public school students, but they make up 35 percent of students suspended once, 44 percent of those suspended more than once and  36 percent of those expelled.”  “The treatment of disabled students should be a source of national shame: They represent 12 percent of students in the country, but they make up 25 percent of students receiving multiple out-of-school suspensions and 23 percent of students subjected to a school-related arrest.”

In a press release celebrating the change in federal guidance, the American Federation of Teachers noted that in addition to developing better training for school personnel, it will be essential to restore staff whose positions have been eliminated due to cuts in school funding.  In 34 states, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, state expenditures for education have not recovered their 2008, pre-Recession levels.  AFT recommends widespread restoration of critical school personnel including counselors, psychologists, nurses, and school social workers.

Watch Keynote Address by Rev. William Barber, North Carolina NAACP

Here is a link to a video, just posted, of Rev. William Barber’s prophetic keynote address delivered at an  early October collaborative conference of the American Federation of Teachers, the National Opportunity to Learn Campaign, the National Education Association, Communities for Education Reform and many of their allies. The Rev. Dr. William Barber, a Disciples of Christ pastor and president of the North Carolina NAACP, has been leading Moral Mondays in Raleigh throughout this year to protest the regressive policies of the North Carolina legislature.

In the October keynote, Barber declares: “When we stand together, our diversity is our strength that can help this nation move closer to what our founding documents say on paper.” Noting that today’s political battle is one of “extremism vs. those who believe in the Constitution,” Barber challenges the crowd: “We are in a soul-changing moment as a nation.” “There’s been too much progress in America for us to go back now!”

At the October conference the two teachers unions and their community and civil rights allies launched a joint collaboration around a set of Principles That Unite Us.  Your organization can still endorse the the principles in solidarity with the sponsoring organizations by contacting Eric Zachary at the American Federation of Teachers: ezachary@aft.org

Teachers Unions and Their Allies Proclaim Core Value of Public Education

Tonight 400 members of the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association, the National Opportunity to Learn Campaign, Communities for Education Reform and allies of these organizations joined AFT’s Civil, Human and Women’s Rights Conference in Los Angeles where the sponsors released a new set of principles on which they have agreed.  When AFT and NEA along with allied organizations agree on joint principles, it is an indication of deep concern and broad consensus.  There are well over 3 million public school teachers in the United States, the vast majority of whom belong to one of the unions.

Event keynoter, the Rev. William Barber, the prophetic leader of North Carolina’s NAACP, declared: “When we stand together, our diversity is our strength that can help this nation move closer to what our founding documents say on paper.” Noting that today’s political battle is one of “extremism vs. those who believe in the Constitution,” Barber challenged Friday night’s crowd: “We are in a soul-changing moment as a nation.” “There’s been too much progress in America for us to go back now!”

For 20 weeks, Rev. Barber has been leading “Moral Mondays” in North Carolina. Marchers have been protesting North Carolina legislative actions this year that have eliminated the earned-income tax credit for 900,000; cut Medicaid coverage for 500,000; ended federal unemployment benefits for 170,000 in a state with the country’s fifth-highest jobless rate; cut pre-K for 30,000 kids while shifting $90 million from public education to voucher schools; and slashed taxes for the top 5 percent while raising taxes on the bottom 95 percent.

Endorsed by AFT, NEA and allies, The Principles That Unite Us, is a statement of seven primary values that address what is happening due to federal incentives for states to impose punitive school reform in the context of austerity budgeting across many states: closing schools, rating teachers according to students’ test scores, and privatizing schools—all policies that target the poorest communities.

  • Public schools are public institutions, while, “The corporate model of school reform seeks to turn public schools over to private managers and encourages competition…”
  • Voices of teachers administrators, school staff, students, parents and community members matter.
  • Schools are community institutions that should help coordinate services for students and families to address poverty and other challenges children bring with them to school.
  • Assessments are critical to help teachers guide lesson planning, but are “misused when teachers are fired, schools are closed and students are penalized based on a single set of scores.”
  • “Teaching is a career, not a temporary stop on the way to one.”
  • Schools should be welcoming and inclusive.  Schools must not push out vulnerable students or treat parents as intruders.
  • Schools must be fully funded.  “We have not come far enough.  Today our schools remain segregated and unequal. When we short-change some students, we short-change our nation as a whole”

And from the introduction that frames the principles:  “We believe that the only way to give every child the opportunity to pursue a rich and productive life both individually and as a member of society is through a system of publicly funded, equitable and democratically controlled public schools… Our interest is in public schools that serve all children.  We need schools that are rooted in communities, that provide a rich and equitable academic experience and model democratic practices.  We want schools where those closest to the classroom share in decision-and policy-making at all levels.  We need schools where students feel safe, nurtured and empowered to become productive adults—that provide an alternative to the prison pipeline that too many of our children are caught in.  We believe that the only way to achieve these schools is by strengthening the institution of pubic education.”