Appreciating Organized Teachers and Their Unions in Teacher Appreciation Week

For over two decades our public schools have been trapped in a wave of massive education disruption—an effort to reform education by holding schools and teachers accountable for raising students’ aggregate test scores. But it didn’t work.  Overall test scores haven’t risen. When almost all U.S. public schools were on track to be declared “failing,” before the 2014 deadline when all American students were supposed to be proficient, Arne Duncan created waivers to blackmail states to agree to impose his pet policies if he would let them off the hook from No Child Left Behind’s accountability system. It is a truth universally acknowledged that No Child Left Behind left millions of America’s poorest children far behind.

In her new book, Slaying Goliath, Diane Ravitch defines recent decades as an age of education disruption: “Today’s Disrupters…. want to reinvent education, reimagine it, replace it with another approach, either through technology or a market-driven choice system in which government supplies the funds and parents send their children wherever they want. Not every Disrupter believes exactly the same thing…. Some believe that test scores are the goal of education… Others, like Betsy DeVos, believe that choice is an end in itself… The Corporate leaders of this campaign admire disruptive innovation, because high-tech businesses do it…. The concept of ‘creative destruction’ is derived from the work of Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter. Whether or not it is useful in the business world, it is not useful in the lives of children, who need stability, not disruption. Corporate Disrupters approve of schools hiring inexperienced teachers with little or no training, such as Teach for America recruits… Such teachers are paid less than experienced teachers, and few will stay long enough to expect a pension or expensive health benefits… Disrupters like to move fast and break things, including school systems, historic schools, communities, and the lives of students, families and education professionals. They take pride in disrupting established institutions and other people’s lives… Disrupters are unmoved when students and parents plead for the life of a community school slated for closure. Corporate Disrupters do not respect the teaching profession… Disrupters don’t like democratic control of education by elected local school boards…. They like mayoral control, where one person is in charge; the mayor can usually be counted on to listen to business leaders…. The Disrupters oppose teacher tenure and seniority, which they consider to be barriers to removing ineffective teachers. They prefer untenured teachers who are willing to work long hours without extra pay and who are likely to change careers after two or three years of teaching.” (Slaying Goliath, pp 27-50)

Ravitch concludes: “Years from now, historians will look back and wonder why so many very wealthy people spent so much money in a vain attempt to disrupt and privatize public education and why they ignored the income inequality and wealth inequality that were eating away at the vitals of American society.” (Slaying Goliath, p. 50)

Back in the early 1990s, education policy debates were more likely to focus on inequitable and inadequate school funding from state to state and on what to do about growing racial and economic segregation. Advocates worried about disparities in access to opportunity across neighboring school districts. School funding court cases were likely emphasize disparities in inputs—money spent on experienced teachers, money spent to achieve smaller classes, money spent for advanced curriculum, money for support staff and enrichments like art and music.  But after the mid-1990s the emphasis changed; court cases were now framed on how much funding would be needed to raise outcomes as measured by standardized test scores. As the entire conversation shifted to raising test score outcomes, so much that matters in education fall by the way.  And when test scores didn’t rise, privatizers were waiting to seize the so-called “failing” schools.  School accountability pushed the old injustices aside. Test score outcomes, not disparities in inputs, became the focus through the years of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. And fighting the privatization of public schools became a necessary endeavor.

In the past couple of years, before the coronavirus came upon us and before schools shut down to protect students, the narrative had begun to shift back to what is important: building the political will to guarantee every child opportunity in the public schools. That guarantee, of course must be defined in terms of inputs—public investment across the states. I give thanks to organized teachers for this shifting narrative.

Schoolteachers and teachers unions have been instrumental in forcing our society once again to see what have become outrageous resource disparities—inputs—in public schools across the United States.  In this Teacher Appreciate Week, I want to express my gratitude to the #RedforEd school teachers who went on strike through 2018 and 2019.  Striking teachers have forced us all to examine the implications of school policy that emphasizes test-and-punish school accountability overlaid upon an institution whose revenue base has fallen.  Public school teachers on strike in West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arizona, Colorado, Los Angeles, Oakland, and most recently Chicago have demonstrated the untenable conditions their schools have suffered as revenue has collapsed—children struggling in classes of 40 students, teachers pushed out of the profession when their salaries fall so low they cannot afford to rent an apartment, and schools lacking counselors, social workers, librarians, and school nurses.  The education budget crisis is widespread and deep.  But teachers have been willing to keep up the fight even when the gains are modest or slow to come.  When their states failed to live up to promises, teachers have been willing to strike again, and smaller strikes across other states have continued to reinforce the message.

In a its most recent, 2019 report that compares states’ spending on education to where it was in 2008 prior to the Great Recession, The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities credits teachers’ strikes with forcing some reluctant states to address urgent but long overlooked school funding needs: “Last year, teachers struck or engaged in other protests in five of the 12 states that cut formula funding particularly deeply after the last recession—Arizona, Kentucky, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and West Virginia. Lawmakers in four of those five states—all but Kentucky—boosted school formula funding last year, at least partially in response to the protests. The funding boosts were substantial, especially in Oklahoma, where lawmakers increased formula funding per student by 10 percent, after adjusting for inflation. Arizona, North Carolina, and West Virginia also increased funding substantially, with the hikes ranging from 3 percent to 9 percent per student after inflation.”

And teachers showed us, in Los Angeles and Oakland particularly, that school districts have been devastated when an out of control charter school sector sucks money out of the local schools. In research released in conjunction with the Oakland strike, we learned that the school district loses $57.3 million every year when students take their funding to charter schools.

This year, organized teachers were leaders in another urgently important effort. When by mid-December, nobody had raised the needs of public schools in any of the debates held among a big field of Democratic candidates for President in 2020, teachers unions were instrumental in bringing 7 of the candidates to Pittsburgh for the Public Education Forum 2020. The National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers deserve thanks not only as primary funders of the event but also as conveners of an astounding partnership of sponsors, who brought organized urban parents, organized teachers, organized education support staff, civil rights organizations, philanthropic organizations, public school students and advocacy organizations to be part of an open conversation with the candidates for President. This was the most diverse and inclusive event I have ever attended. Organized teachers and the dues they pay were essential for bringing 1,500 representatives of an incredible coalition—the Alliance for Educational Justice; the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; the American Federation of Teachers; the Center for Popular Democracy Action; the Journey for Justice Alliance; the NAACP; the National Education Association; the Network for Public Education Action; the Schott Foundation for Public Education-Opportunity to Learn Action Fund; the Service Employees International Union; and Voto Latino—together in common purpose.

Jitu Brown, executive director of the Journey for Justice Alliance, described state takeovers and school closures and declared, “We don’t have failing schools, but we have been failed…. People are fighting for justice (in their public schools) all over the country.”  One questioner—a public school student from Camden, New Jersey, plaintively asked the candidates why his school doesn’t have a librarian or a music teacher when he knows about other schools near his which have a library and a music program. A participant in the 34 day hunger strike which, in 2015, saved Chicago’s Dyett High School from closure asked a candidate, “What will you do to help local schools avoid closures forced by privatizers?”  Several questioners asked candidates to support full-service, wraparound Community Schools, voiced support for culturally responsive curriculum, and asked candidates to address the school to prison pipeline with restorative justice programs.

At the Public Education Form 2020, several candidates including Joe Biden went on record to promise that if elected, they would prioritize tripling the investment in Title I, the federal education program whose purpose is to provide additional funding for public schools serving high concentrations of very poor children. Candidates were asked by participants to address the federal government’s chronic failure to live up to its promise to pay 40 percent of the cost of programs mandated by the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, while this year, Congress is paying less than 15 percent.  And there was discussion of the outrageous lack of oversight in the U.S. Department of Education’s Charter Schools Program.  Not one of the candidates for President endorsed standardized test-based school accountability.

I know that this spring teachers deserve all the praise they are receiving for staying in touch to support their students and helping children transition to online learning while schools are closed during the pandemic. But my special thanks this year in Teacher Appreciation Week must go to the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, along with all of their state and local affiliates and also to independent teachers’ organizations for their policy leadership. Organized teachers speaking on behalf of children, not merely for their own financial interests, have been instrumental in shifting the national conversation away from test score outcomes and back our collective responsibility for equalizing resource inputs.

One of my biggest worries during upcoming months is that with schools closed, with the media attention focused on the medical and business implications of the pandemic, we’ll all lose track of what public school educators have been teaching us all through the strikes and the incredible December forum in Pittsburgh.  A deep recession will inevitably follow the economic shutdown due to the pandemic, and the collapse of state budgets will inevitably threaten public school funding.

Privatizers and Disrupters—people who are unlikely to give up easily—are sure to seize the pandemic months as a time to restore their agenda in the public mind.  In his 2011 book, The One Percent Solution, political economist Gordon Lafer explains why business interests and privatizers are likely to push back: “The teachers’ union is the single biggest labor organization in most states… Education is one of the largest components of public budgets, and in many communities the school system is the single largest employer—thus the goals of cutting budgets, enabling new tax cuts for the wealthy, shrinking the government, and lowering wage and benefit standards in the public sector all naturally coalesce around the school system. Furthermore there is an enormous amount of money to be made from the privatization of education—so much so that every major investment bank has established special funds devoted exclusively to this sector.” (The One Percent Solution, p. 129)

This week, to organized teachers who have been teaching us all how we have failed our public schools and our children, and to the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, I say thank you!  Please keep on keeping on.

AFT Sums Up Ten Years of Public School Underfunding and Neglect with Details from Each State

The new report from the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), A Decade of Neglect, is one of the most lucid explanations I’ve read about the deplorable fiscal conditions for public schools across the states.  It explains the precipitous drop in school funding caused by the Great Recession, temporarily ameliorated in 2009 by an infusion of funds from the federal stimulus (a financial boost that disappeared after a couple of years), compounded by tax cutting and austerity budgeting across many states, and further compounded by schemes to drain education dollars to privatized charter and voucher programs all out of the same budget.

The report delineates the conditions tangled together over the decade: “While some states are better off than most, in states where spending on education was less in 2016 than it was before the recession, our public schools remain nearly $19 billion short of the annual funding they received in 2008, after adjusting for changes in the consumer price index… The recession ran from December 2007 through June 2009 and prompted a crisis setting off a chain of actions that resulted in significant budget cutting by our state governments. When the recession hit, it devastated state budgets. Job losses, lower wages, the crash in housing prices and the panic in the financial markets all worked to lower state tax revenues, while the demand for government services in the form of unemployment benefits, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and housing and Medicaid assistance drove up expenditures.  The Brookings Institution estimated that by the second quarter of 2009, income tax collections were 27 percent below their prior-year levels, and total state taxes were 17 percent lower… The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s annual report of education indicators recently found that U.S. spending on elementary and high school education declined more than 4 percent from 2010-2014…. Over this same period, education spending on average, rose 5 percent per student across the 35 countries in the OECD.”

Many states also adopted an ideology promising that tax cuts would bring the economy back. Sam Brownback’s Kansas experiment in supply side economics, however, exemplifies the failure to confirm these hopes. In Kansas the economy didn’t improve and state revenues collapsed.  Only in the past two years has the legislature there raised taxes—beginning an effort to undo the damage.  Overall, according to AFT’s report: “In 2016, 25 states were still providing less funding for K-12 schools than before the recession, after adjusting for inflation… Eighteen of the 25 states that provided less funding for k-12 education reduced their tax effort between 2008 and 2015.”  The eight states that cut taxes most deeply were: Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Virginia.  And, “In 38 states, the average teacher salary in 2018 is lower than it was in 2009 in real terms… According to the Economic Policy Institute, teacher pay fell by $30 per week from 1996-2015, while pay for other college graduates increased by $124. The gap between teachers and other college graduates has continued to widen and deep cuts in school funding leave states unable to invest in their state’s teacher workforce… In 35 states, between 2008 and 2016, the ratio of students to teachers grew.”

Here is an example of the result: “(W)hile some states are doing better than others, no state is really doing well enough.  California is a leader on many of the measures used in this report.  But there are less than one tenth the number of school librarians as is recommended.  Most school districts don’t have a nurse and there are only about a quarter of the recommended number of school counselors.”

One result is growing inequity: “Our system is upside down. The Education Trust finds that districts with the highest poverty are able to spend $1,000 less per pupil than the districts that are the wealthiest.. (T)he school districts ‘serving the largest populations of Black, Latino, or American Indian students receive roughly $1,800, or 13 percent, less per student in state and local funding than those serving the fewest students of color.’  Research from the Education Law Center and Rutgers University similarly finds that there are only 20 states which, on average, devote more resources to high poverty districts than districts without poverty. Only seven states provide ten percent or more.”

Schemes to add marketplace school choice, at public expense, financially burden the public school districts where choice is expanded: “(W)hen money leaves a public school because a student has enrolled in a different system, it is difficult for that school to cut services without affecting the programs for students who remain… Second, (charter and voucher) schools can react to incentives in the marketplace and the school finance system by configuring their programs to encourage or discourage certain enrollment.  To the extent that the traditional public school system is expected to accept all children, districts disproportionately bear the costs of these shifts.  For example, we know that charter schools tend to enroll fewer high-cost special education students than traditional public schools… Moody’s Investors Service, the bond rating agency, found that not only do charter schools tend to proliferate in areas where school districts already are under economic and demographic stress, but that charter schools tend to ‘pull students and revenues away from districts faster than the districts can reduce their costs.'”

The new report is extensive and organized to make it readily searchable, state by state.  It also explores states’ diminishing investment in their colleges and universities.

What the report cannot answer is why our society has permitted such a significant drop in our financial commitment to educating our children. Have we lost track of the importance of education funding overall as revenue has dropped across the states and as other services, also suffering from lack of funding—health care, social services and housing support programs—compete for scarce funding? As the students attending public schools are increasingly poor, Black, and Hispanic, and as the wealthy have increasingly isolated themselves in exclusive enclaves which can fund their schools with ample local tax dollars, have we stopped caring as much about our responsibility to the millions of children and adolescents enrolled in the public schools of poorer communities?  The report paints a worrisome financial picture.  What it suggests about our values and perhaps our diminishing sense of public obligation is deeply troubling.

It’s Not OK to Hate Teachers

“It’s not OK to hate teachers.”  Those are the words of the Rev. John Thomas back in 2010, four years ago, right after he retired as General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, joined the staff at Chicago Theological Seminary and started a blog.

“What’s going on here?” asked Thomas. “Certainly union busting is part of what’s going on.  Public officials see a rare opportunity to diminish the power of teachers’ unions in this climate and are doing what they can to discredit organizations that have done much to ensure that teachers are rewarded and protected at a level commensurate with other professions… And let’s be honest, for most people passionate interest in public schools begins when the first child enters kindergarten and ends when the last child graduates from high school.  How many of us know much of anything about what’s going on in our public schools when we don’t have our own children or grandchildren attending them?”

Well… on the cover of its November 3, 2014 issue, Time Magazine is trying to develop some passionate interest.  Or maybe that is not what’s happening.  What is Time really trying to accomplish on the cover of its new issue?  Here is what the text says: “Rotten Apples: It’s nearly impossible to fire a bad teacher. Some tech millionaires have found a way to change that.”  The picture that accompanies this text is of a judge’s gavel poised above an apple.  That’s a hint.  This must have something to do with former CNN anchor Campbell Brown’s new cause: to file Vergara-type lawsuits across the states to outlaw due process job protection for school teachers.  This blog has covered the California Vergara lawsuit here.  It has covered Campbell Brown’s new endeavor to organize a legal attack on teachers unions here and  here.

This is actually the second time that Time Magazine has attacked teachers with a picture on its cover.  Valerie Strauss, in the Washington Post, reminds us that back in December of 2008, Time pictured Michelle Rhee—then chancellor of the schools in Washington, D.C.—poised to sweep out bad teachers with the broom she was holding.  “Rhee was,” according to Strauss, “the vanguard of a wave of ‘corporate school reform’ that has used standardized test scores as the chief metric for school ‘accountability,’ promoted charter schools and vouchers, and sought to minimize or eliminate the power of teachers unions and change the way teachers are trained.  Rhee was chancellor from 2007-2010, during which she fired hundreds of teachers and principals and started a program that used test scores to evaluate every adult in the building—including, for several years, the custodians.  She also collected enormous sums of donations from private philanthropists to start a merit pay system for teachers (even though merit pay systems in education have a long history of failure).”  Any test score gains during Rhee’s tenure were later shown to be related to gentrification; the racial achievement gap widened during Rhee’s years; and she left the District under the cloud of allegations of a massive test score cheating scandal that was never fully investigated.

Many have pointed out that Time‘s new article  (which is unfortunately behind a paywall), by Haley Sweetland Edwards, is fairer and far more nuanced than Time‘s cover.  Sweetland analyzes, for example, not only the likely impact of the California Vergara case, but the series of lawsuits anticipated by Campbell Brown and her funders including California’s David Welch (who bankrolled the Vergara litigation): “(Judge) True’s decision (in Vergara) holds no precedent-setting power and won’t affect any California law unless an appeals court upholds the ruling sometime next year.  Both the state and the teachers’ unions have appealed and are waiting a trial date.  But on another level, the Vergara case is a powerful proxy for a broader war over the future of education in this country.  The reform movement today is led not by grassroots activists or union leaders but by Silicon Valley business types and billionaires.  It is fought not through ballot boxes or on the floors of hamstrung state legislatures but in closed-door meetings and at courthouses.  And it will not be won incrementally, through painstaking compromise with multiple stakeholders, but through sweeping decisions—judicial and otherwise—made possible by the tactical application of vast personal fortunes.”

Toward the end of her piece, Sweetland calls into question the very kind of Value Added Measure (VAM) testing on which the Vergara lawsuit was based.  Sweetland lists several  significant pieces of research that challenge the very notion that Value Added formulas based on students’ test scores have validity for evaluating teachers—from the American Statistical Association last April, from the American Educational Research Association last May, and even, in July, from the U.S. Department of Education, whose study, according to Sweetland, “found that VAM scores varied wildly depending on what time of day tests were administered or whether the kids were distracted.”

If you are one of Time Magazine‘s 3,289,377 subscribers, consider carefully the cover of Time‘s November 3 issue.  Why would a major news magazine make an editorial decision to promote the scapegoating of an entire profession?  Why is Time Magazine urging you to fixate on what it calls “the bad apples”?  The American Federation of Teachers urges us all to sign its petition demanding an apology from Time Magazine“Time’s cover doesn’t even reflect its own reporting. The Time article itself looks at the wealthy sponsors of these efforts. And while it looks critically at tenure, it also questions the testing industry’s connections to Silicon Valley and the motives of these players.  The cover is particularly disappointing because the articles inside the magazine present a much more balanced view of the issue. But for millions of Americans, all they’ll see is the cover and a misleading attack on teachers.”

Four years after his column, It’s Not OK to Hate Teachers, Rev. John Thomas just last week published a new column lamenting the corporate attack on public school teachers, on their unions, and on public schools as democratic institutions: “Control and management of our public schools is being systematically removed from parents, teachers, and ordinary citizens, and placed in the hands of mayors, their political allies in state legislatures and governors’ offices, their wealthy donors, the operators of charter schools, and politically well-connected entrepreneurs and vendors eager to make money from contracts for things like technology or maintenance with the charters they themselves have invested in. Local school boards are vanishing and the collective bargaining rights of teachers, one of the few remaining countervailing power bases able to challenge the privatization of our schools, are under assault. Is this what democracy looks like?”

Delegates at AFT’s Convention Denounce Arne Duncan

In the second such action in two weeks, yesterday the delegates of a national teachers union at its national convention passed a resolution repudiating U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

Yesterday the American Federation of Teachers, meeting in Los Angeles, formally disdained the policies of Secretary Duncan.  On July 4, the National Education Association passed an even stronger resolution demanding that Duncan resign.  The NEA and the AFT represent over 4 million school teachers across the United States.  The AFT”s resolution—ironically commenting on Duncan’s relentless focus on evaluating teachers by econometric formulas and holding them accountable—demands that President Barack Obama hold Duncan himself accountable, put him on an improvement plan and—if he can’t improve—fire him.

Because teachers unions are democratic institutions, the drafting of, debating about, and voting on such resolutions—whatever their actual wording—is important because such actions move and shape the national conversation about education policy.  Such strong resolutions coming from both of our largest teachers unions put pressure on the leaders of NEA and AFT, leaders who have tried to work with a Democratic administration in Washington, despite that this administration’s policies have been anti-teacher.

Despair, demoralization and rage among school teachers—growing from the lack of respect that has been consistently expressed by the Secretary of Education and President Obama for teachers’ dedication, for their credentials, and for the nation’s need for a stable and qualified teaching profession—has deepened into widespread bitterness.  Such resolutions are a gauge of the morale of the nation’s school teachers and the willingness of delegates—who are in this case our neighbors and our children’s teachers—to name their pain from being blamed—scapegoated as a class of people— for failing quickly to raise test scores in our poorest communities and thereby to compensate for our society’s appalling inequality and institutional racism. Such resolutions mean that teachers have taken a formal stand, finally, against policies that directly affect them and the children they teach.

The AFT’s resolution is really a demand not only that Duncan change course, but that the President should take notice and reject the policies his administration has firmly supported despite some rhetoric to the contrary.  The resolution asks President Obama to hold Duncan to the standards of a report issued last year by an Excellence and Equity Commission established by Congress, a report that called on the President to address the vast inequity of resources available to school districts—opportunity gaps that inevitably cause achievement gaps.  The Excellence and Equity Commission report, For Each and Every Child, declared: “Accountability for equity and excellence should focus on opportunities and resources, as well as on student outcomes…. Actors at every level should be empowered and held responsible according to their role, from students and teachers all the way up to state and federal policymakers.”

The AFT resolution also demands that President Obama and Arne Duncan turn away from the test-and-punish model of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top and instead invest in a “support-and-improve” model that would help teachers address the needs of the children in their care.

Stephen Sawchuk of Education Week, quotes Randi Weingarten’s comment on the resolution: “Make no mistake about it: There’s a lot of hurt that has been expressed from the floor—the feeling that the secretary of education doesn’t walk in the shoes of public educators or provide the support and resources necessary to ensure all children have a high-quality public education.”  Weingarten is president of AFT.

This blog covered the resolution passed on July 4 by the delegates to the National Education Association’s 2014 convention in Denver here.

Community Schools: The Basic and Radical Way to Address Child Poverty

Trip Gabriel’s story in this morning’s NY Times, 50 Years Into the War on Poverty, Hardship Hits Back, describes tiny towns left behind by years of jobs lost in the coal mines, the ravages of meth addition, and families bereft of opportunity in McDowell County— West Virginia’s poorest county.  Education has long been one of the sole paths for escape from the towns and villages of Appalachia, but the fact that those who can make it do leave has only compounded rural isolation and poverty.

Toward the end of Gabriel’s article, however, we learn about a Community School effort being developed to coordinate social services and family supports with the public schools: “Reconnecting McDowell, led by the American Federation of Teachers…  is working to turn schools into community centers offering health care, adult literacy classes and other services.  Its leaders hope to convert an abandoned furniture store in Welch to apartments in order to attract teachers. ‘Someone from Indiana or Pennsylvania, they’re not going to come to McDowell County and live in a house trailer on top of a mountain,’ said Bob Brown, a union official.”

On May 18, 2013, Reconnecting McDowell was approved by the state board of education of West Virginia.  In West Virginia, according to a press release from the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) the Community Schools plan became possible in 2012 after the state legislature established “collective innovation zones.”  Commenting on the formation of Reconnecting McDowell, AFT President Randi Weingarten declared, “The evidence is clear that Community Schools greatly improve disadvantaged children’s chances of success because the services and programs help overcome the ravages of poverty that affect academic achievement.”

In McDowell County, the Community School collaboration will include the West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition to visit homes of new parents, IBM to increase the number of computers at school, Shentel Communications to reduce internet rates for families with children at school, and several job expansion efforts including a National Guard materials-repair program and a retraining effort of the United Mine Workers.  A Community Schools “vision” reflects the reality that parents’ employment helps children thrive.

According to the National Center for Community Schools, a division of New York City’s Children’s Aid Society, Community Schools are defined by three “interconnected support systems: a strong core instructional program designed to help all students meet high academic standards; expanded learning opportunities designed to enrich the learning environment for students and their families; and a full range of health, mental health and social services designed to promote children’s well-being and remove barriers to learning.” Community Schools are formal contractual arrangements among agency partners.  Usually a lead partner coordinates the services that surround the academic program and that secures and coordinates the funding streams that support all this activity.  Community Schools are open before and after school, on weekends, and during the summer with expanded learning experiences; they set out to engage the family in myriad ways.

In early April, the Washington, D.C.–based Coalition for Community Schools held its national forum in Cincinnati, Ohio, a school district that has worked closely with AFT to transform local schools into what Cincinnati calls Community Learning Centers.  (In Ohio, the legislature chose an Orwellian term for privatized charter schools—community schools—which has caused the Community Schools movement thriving today in Cincinnati to choose the name Community Learning Centers instead of the name used in the rest of the country for full-service, wrap-around schools.)  In a Cincinnati Enquirer column, Marty Blank, director of the Coalition for Community Schools, describes what has been quietly happening in Cincinnati: “During the 2012-13 academic year, 34 Community Learning Centers in Cincinnati mobilized more than 445 community partners to provide support to 17,898 students.  Extra personalized supports have gone to 3,290 students who demonstrated one or more risk factors, such as chronic absence, behavior problems or poor academic performance.”

Blank describes what he understands to be the core mission of the Community Schools movement: “provide a focal point for states, counties, cities, and private-sector agencies to work together with school districts to use resources more effectively, coordinate fragmented services, and break bureaucratic silos and gridlock to help children and youth succeed.”

Last Saturday in the Washington Post, Valerie Strauss reprinted a fascinating column by Brock Cohen, a California teacher and researcher who participated in the recent Cincinnati national forum on Community Schools.  “As a doctoral student and former Los Angeles high school English teacher, I had already become aware of the ways in which a child’s learning trajectory is acutely impacted by social, emotional, and environmental factors.  Seeing the intentionality with which schools in high-poverty rural and urban communities were leveraging partnerships to cultivate programs and interventions for children gave me hope.”  Cohen doesn’t underestimate the challenges, however: “But working with schools across a tumultuous urban school district as an academic coach has given me a broader view of the systems and attitudes that impede positive change and, thus, threaten to undermine the movement.”

At the conference Cohen comes to know Eddy Estrada—also from Los Angeles,  a student at a Community School, and in Cincinnati to speak about his own experience as part of a panel.  “Our conversations over a three-day span—2,000 miles away from our home—made me realize that Community Schools can be impactful in ways that are almost impossible to see…  Because of countless hardships and setbacks, both of Eddy Estrada’s parents were unable to progress beyond elementary school; nonetheless, Eddy will be attending Cal-State Northridge next fall, where he plans on majoring in music education…  Skeptics might dismiss Eddy’s story as yet another case of a gifted outlier defeating the odds, but he’s had a good deal of help along the way.  Specifically Torres (high school’s) Community Schools coordinator Christina Patricio, has been a nurturing, unwavering, force in Eddy’s life.”

I urge you to read this column to learn more about what Cohen believes are the almost intractable challenges for public schools in very poor communities and to explore with Cohen how Community Schools can help.

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

Education-Labor Collaboration Marks Important Beginning

What makes the tide of public opinion turn against the conventional wisdom?  It can happen.  I remember the nation slowly turning against the war in Vietnam.  The struggle involved rancor and violence. One reason opinion shifted on Vietnam is that the military draft ensured that most families were personally touched by the war.  The media played an important role, and major political leaders took sides, which created a very public debate.

Turning the tide today against the test-based accountability movement in public education brings a different kind of challenge.  Less than a quarter of households have children in school with the rest less personally connected. The conversation is being driven by federal policy, and yet we know that education is low on list of issues that preoccupy the President.  Neither any member of Congress nor a governor of any of the states has made improving the public schools a signature issue.

Despite these challenges, there has been some shifting of opinion.  Although in 2002, the federal testing law No Child Left Behind passed with wide bipartisan support, today most people will at least quietly admit what data demonstrates: the law failed to improve student achievement overall or close achievement gaps.  Many of us who have worked hard to discredit the law can tell you about the succession of white papers, joint sign-on statements, studies, and resolutions prepared, presented, and passed that have pushed this change along.  Masses of articles and blog posts and books have helped, culminating perhaps in Diane Ravitch’s 2010, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, in which the author told the story of her own transformed thinking.

Now, three years later and five years into the Obama Administration’s competitive Race to the Top and School Improvement Grants and the No Child Left Behind Waivers that demand punishments for so-called “failing” schools, many public school supporters continue to try to turn the tide.  The Obama policies remain grounded in the same business-accountability philosophy that drove No Child Left Behind, a strategy that emphasizes punishments for public schools that struggle, blames school teachers, and posits that privatization can more efficiently raise test scores.

Three weeks ago, Diane Ravitch published a new book, Reign of Error, a casebook for this effort.  And last weekend in Los Angeles, the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association, and the National Opportunity to Learn Campaign pulled together their allies from organized labor, the education community, and community organizations in a very significant event.  By bringing over 400 advocates and community organizers from across the states, the sponsors sought to begin weaving an effective protest against the proliferation of state legislation being spawned by the competitive grant programs of today’s U.S. Department of Education.

The Obama Administration’s programs—Race to the Top, School Improvement Grants, and the No Child Left Behind waivers that help the states escape from the  requirement that test scores rise perpetually each year or schools be labeled “failing”—require states to establish their own laws and regulations that close schools, encourage privatization, and base teacher evaluations on students’ test scores.  These are the conditions which states must enact into law before they can qualify for the Department of Education’s competitive grant programs.  The reforms happening across the big city school districts that qualify for federal competitive grants may be similar, but they appear in each case via state laws while the hand of the federal government remains hidden. Creating a strategic movement to protest policy that appears so scattered is the logistic challenge last weekend’s planners sought to undertake.

The American Federation of Teachers, National Education Association, and National Opportunity to Learn Campaign brought together just the sort of coalition that can work at the state and local level where the policies are playing out and at the same time address the federal competitions that are the source of the state-by-state policies.  The Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network, and the Philadelphia Student Union can collaborate to protest the school funding crisis and rash of school closures in Philadelphia, just as the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, Pilsen Alliance, and Chicago Teachers Union can work in Chicago to protest school closures, and as the United Federation of Teachers, New York City Coalition for Educational Justice, New York Alliance for Quality Education, and Urban Youth Collaborative can join to protest co-location of public and charter schools in New York City.  Together these groups and dozens of other local, state, and national partners from across the United States who participated in last week’s conference can push back against the competitive grant strategy at the federal level.

If you are reading this, you probably know about Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst campaign, framed around the idea that teachers put teachers’ needs first and ignore the needs of their students.   I can report that while two of the prominent sponsors of last weekend’s conference were the teachers unions, I did not experience any workshops, presentations or conversations that suggested putting teachers first.  The event’s focus was how better to equip public schools to serve children.  I sat in one workshop after another where teachers and parent community organizers grieved together that public school closures and privatization hurt children, undermine neighborhoods, and destabilize schools where staff are making an earnest attempt to educate children.  And I heard seasoned organizers training less experienced groups, organizations talking about how to work together, and educators working hard to engage community groups from city to city and state to state to advocate for enough school funding to provide the staff, services, and programs that children need—need desperately in many public schools where counselors, libraries, nurses, the arts, and music have been slashed and class size has shot upward.

For the first time the teachers unions, other national organizations, and a coalition of state and local organizations have been able jointly to negotiate a statement, The Principles that Unite Us, that pushes directly against today’s crisis: “the corporate model of school reform that seeks to turn public schools over to private managers and encourages competition—as opposed to collaboration—between schools and teachers.” Many of the organizations participating in last week’s event sent representatives to regional town halls and a national drafting meeting earlier this year, a grassroots process by which the statement was developed.  Close to a hundred national, state and local organizations— representing education, labor, and community—have endorsed the statement, thereby declaring their belief “in strengthening, not dismantling public education.”  “Our interest is in public schools that serve all children…. schools that are rooted in communities…. schools where those closest to the classroom share in decision-and policy-making at all levels.” (I blogged about the statement itself last weekend here.)

The Principles that Unite Us is an inspiring document. I urge you to read it.  The sponsors invite additional organizations—national, state, and local—to endorse the statement. If your organization will sign on, please contact 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.”

Parents’ Consensus on Public School Policy Challenges the Status Quo

Education writer Mike Rose and historian Michael Katz conclude the wonderful collection of essays they recently edited by regretting that, “there does not seem to be an elaborated philosophy of education or theory of learning underlying the current (education) reform movement.  There is an implied philosophy, and it is a basic economic/human capital one; education is necessary for individual economic advantage and for national economic stability.”

According to a new national poll of American parents of school children, a poll commissioned by the American Federation of Teachers by Hart Research Associates, parents share a belief in a far more expansive philosophy of education.  The short report of the survey’s conclusions is fascinating, and I urge you to read all of the results, but for me the survey’s most important news is that parents agree that schools should accomplish several core goals.   Seventy-eight percent of parents believe school should ensure that, “all children, regardless of background, have the opportunity to succeed.”  For their own children, parents want schools to do four things:   “1) improve their knowledge and critical thinking abilities;  2) provide them with a safe learning environment;  3) educate them about their rights and responsibilities as citizens of a democracy; and  4) address their social, emotional, and health needs.”

This is, of course, not a fully elaborated philosophy of education, but it comes closer than the economic rationale being promulgated by policy makers.  Parents want equity (though we know they will frequently make housing choices, for example, that promote their own children’s interests over those of other children), and they enthusiastically endorse education that forms the child intellectually, linguistically, emotionally, and ethically.  A whole child philosophy of education.

This new opinion poll points to the need for political leadership to build on parents’ named willingness to use public schools to serve children who are currently being left behind.  Instead, as Rose and Katz describe the conversation among education policy makers, “Poverty is mentioned, but in a variety of ways it is downplayed.  So all the damage poverty does to communities and to households, to schools and to other local institutions is rarely addressed.  And it’s hard to find discussion of the economic, political, and social history of poverty, leading to an oddly antiseptic and ahistorical treatment of community, schools, and achievement.”

Among policymakers, what we have, according to Rose and Katz, is, “a rough consensus which crosses political lines, blames poor teaching, ineffective teacher preparation programs, teachers’ unions, the lack of accountability for results, and monopolistic public systems for the failures of student achievement measured, primarily, by test scores. In mainstream reform discourse, teachers and their unions emerge as the major villains, the primary stumbling blocks to assuring every child an adequate education.”

It is fascinating that in this week’s public opinion poll of parents, teachers are not the villains.  Parents take a constructive view of improving teaching; parents advocate for better support and training including mentoring.  Eighty-eight percent want smaller classes, and 81 percent would like to see more community, neighborhood-hub schools that include health services and community services right at school.  Eighty percent  would like to see high-quality preschool for all three and four year olds.

Parents demonstrate wide consensus about what needs to happen to improve opportunities for their own and other people’s children.  But that consensus has not been transformed into the political will to challenge growing residential segregation by economics and race. Neither has political leadership surfaced to challenge the anti-tax, austerity budgeting across the states and in Congress that is denying to public schools precisely the services parents say they want.  How to make that happen is the question for our times.