Check Out this Fine New Book on Social Justice Unionism: “Teachers Unions and Social Justice”

Rethinking Schools just published an excellent new handbook, Teachers Unions and Social Justice: Organizing for the Schools and Communities our Students Deserve.  I call it a handbook because it was written as a guide for teachers union social justice advocacy and organizing. But it is also a handbook for activists, writers, and bloggers strategizing to confront the recent collapse of public education funding, the alarming growth of school privatization at public expense, and the message, spread for too long, that holding schools accountable according to business principles is more important than educating children.

         The beloved former president of the Chicago Teachers Union and a pioneer in social justice unionism, Karen Lewis died on Monday.  Please read this wonderful tribute to Karen Lewis by Chicago education journalist Sarah Karp.

The editors  have assembled more than 60 short compelling articles and stories by union activists and many of the nation’s prominent advocates for education justice, all telling the story of organized teachers confronting the blindness of the privatizers and the business-accountablity hawks. There is a 2012 interview with the great Karen Lewis, whose loss we mourn this week. And we hear from teachers union justice champions including Jesse Hagopian in Seattle; Jackson Potter and Michelle Gunderson in Chicago; Mary Cathryn Ricker in St. Paul; David Levine in Cincinnati; Eleni Schirmer in North Carolina, Arlene Inouye in Los Angeles; and Michael Charney in Cleveland.

The editors, Michael Charney, Jesse Hagopian, and Bob Peterson, introduce the collection of writings: “More than two decades ago in the first edition of this book, Transforming Teacher Unions: Fighting for Better Schools and Social Justice, we promoted a vision of social justice teacher unionism. We argued that such a vision was essential to improving our schools, transforming our unions, and building a more just society. Since then much has happened. Public schools, the entire public sector, and the basic notion of the ‘common good’ have come under severe attack. Wealth inequality has reached an unsustainable level. The scourge of white supremacy has been intensified by rampant xenophobia… But within our schools and the larger society, seeds of struggle have sprouted and grown.” (pp. 13-14)

In the decade since the Great Recession, the Education Law Center documents states’ collective disinvestment in public school funding at $600 billion—a trend following widespread tax cutting that has been exacerbated by alarming diversion of public school funding to charter schools and publicly funded private school tuition vouchers. From the points of view of teachers who led and participated in the Red4Ed strikes of 2018 and 2019, we learn, in Teacher Unions and Social Justice, the stories of the strikes that taught America what all this austerity has meant for our public schools: crowded classrooms of 40 students, shortages of counselors, social workers, librarians and nurses. Newspaper reporters and the rest of us don’t have an opportunity to go into schools to observe the conditions first-hand, but this book tells the story from inside the public schools in many places.

Stan Karp and Adam Sanchez summarize what happened in the widespread 2018-2019 walkouts: “The West Virginia strike began in late February 2018 when some 20,000 classroom teachers and thousands of other employees shut down schools across all 55 counties… By May 2018, walkouts in Colorado and North Carolina followed statewide actions in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, and Kentucky… the protests were more than red state revolts. They were rebellions against the austerity and privatization that has been driving federal and state economic policy for decades. The dynamics and political landscape are different in each state. Almost all of the places where statewide actions initially occurred, however, were right-to-work states, which have seen the steepest cuts in school funding and the sharpest erosion of teacher pay and benefits…  But other common factors underlying these grassroots protests kept the rebellion spreading to ‘purple’ states like Colorado… and North Carolina… and, beyond 2018 to blue states like California, where Los Angeles teachers won a landmark victory in January 2019, and Illinois, where teachers staged a bitter 11-day walkout in September 2019… Nationally, the number of public K-12 teachers and other school staff has fallen by 158,000, while the number of students rose more than 1.4 million.  The cuts in public education mean larger class sizes, old textbooks, and in Oklahoma and Colorado, a  four-day week in many school districts. And in addition to lower salaries, teacher pensions and health benefits, where they exist at all, have been slashed…. (T)he key question for teachers everywhere is whether they are organized enough to channel the energy sparked by West Virginia into fighting for greatly expanded support for public education and a broader political turn away from austerity and privatization.” (pp. 81-87)

While many of the short articles in the new book are written by teachers, the editors also collect resources for teachers—pieces about communication strategy as well as resources about practices for justice which have been modeled by teachers in particular school districts. Contributors describe union efforts to support restorative justice practices as alternatives to punitive discipline; unions introducing racial justice, African-centered, and Black Lives Matter programming across their schools; and unions collaborating to establish parent-teacher home visits and Community Schools with wraparound social and medical services right at school.

Each section ends by suggesting additional resources on teaching practices as well as recommended background materials about such issues as ameliorating opportunity gaps among students, confronting school privatization coming from state legislatures, and pushing back against high-stakes standardized testing.

The editors of this ambitious book are Michael Charney, a 30 year social studies teacher in the Cleveland Public Schools and Cleveland Teachers Union vice president; Jesse Hagopian, ethnic studies and English language arts teacher at Seattle’s Garfield High School, member of the Seattle Education Association, and author of several books including the recent, Black Lives Matter at School; and Bob Peterson, a fifth grade Milwaukee teacher for over 25 years, and the founding editor of Rethinking Schools magazine.  He has also co-edited several books.

Bob Peterson describes the history of the movement for social justice teacher unionism: “In 1994 we issued a call for activist teachers to build social justice unions, contrasting them with what we called industrial and professional models of unionism… We asserted, ‘Without a better partnership with the parents and communities that need public education most, we will find ourselves isolated from essential allies.  Without a new vision of schooling that raises the expectations of our students and the standards of our own profession, we will continue to founder.'” (pp. 99-101)

Arlene Inouye of the United Teachers of Los Angeles describes what social justice unionism and the dedication of the local’s members accomplished in the January, 2019 Los Angeles teachers’ strike: “UTLA’s strike shifted the narrative locally, statewide, nationally, and even internationally. We boldly fought for the schools our students deserve and the respect and recognition that public educators have been longing for. What did we win? In addition to a 6 percent salary increase, we got enforceable class size caps for the first time and a class size reduction program. We won more nurses, librarians, counselors, funding for community schools, a reduction in standardized testing, and resources for ethnic studies. We won improvements in special education loads and itinerant workspace. We won a greater voice for educators in schools targeted for charter colocation.  We won an LAUSD resolution calling on the state for a charter moratorium, improvements in adult and early education, the elimination of random student searches, expansion of green space and the removal of unused bungalows (portable classrooms) on our campuses, legal support for immigrant families, and the will to fight for more state and county funding.” (pp. 252-261)

Teacher Unions and Social Justice is available from Rethinking Schools.

“Rethinking Schools” Magazine: Standardized Tests Disguise Privilege as Merit

Our federal testing law, No Child Left Behind, passed under President Bush, and the programs of the Obama Administration that have amplified its dire consequences in poor communities of color—Race to the Top, School Improvement Grants,  No Child Left Behind waivers, and college and career-ready standards and accompanying tests (that are taking the form of the Common Core in most states)—all rest on a foundation of high-stakes, standardized testing.  These days standardized tests determine who can be promoted to fourth grade, who can graduate from high school, which teachers get a raise, which teachers are terminated, which schools are ranked as “excellent” or A,  which schools are “failing” or F, which schools will be closed, and which schools will be turned into charter schools.

While the majority of parents view the tsunami of standardized testing through the lens of their children’s experiences at school, the implications are more complex than too much test prep, too much practice testing, and too many weeks of learning set aside for the administration of tests.  The editorial in the new, spring 2014 issue of Rethinking Schools addresses the complex ramifications of test-based accountability in American public schools and makes the plea for advocates to become more inclusive as they organize to pressure policy makers to reduce testing.

While the majority of parents opting their children out of testing have been white and middle class, the editors caution us to recognize other kinds of protest—against rampant school closures in big cities, for example—as facets of the anti-testing movement.  “And yet, for this movement to truly fulfill its potential, it needs a deeper understanding of how different communities are being affected by these tests.  If the power of solidarity is going to reclaim our schools, more affluent, predominantly white activists will need to develop an anti-racist understanding of the movement against standardized testing and the barrier that communities of color face to joining—including the very real fear from parents of color that their children’s schools will be shut down if they don’t encourage them to score well on the tests.  In some instances, parents of color have expressed support for standardized tests as a way to hold school systems accountable for the education of their children who have far too often been systematically neglected, disproportionately disciplined, and left to cope in the most under-resourced schools.”

Rethinking Schools‘ editors continue:  “Because the stakes attached to these tests are different for different communities, this new movement against standardized testing would do well to embrace a multifaceted approach.  Opting out and boycotting tests can be exemplary individual acts of resistance.  But this tactic becomes most powerful when it grows beyond individual to collective action and becomes part of a mass movement of resistance and protest that includes many entry points and expressions.”  Parents will benefit by allying with teachers.  For example, the Chicago Teachers Union has been organizing with groups across the city and Karen Lewis, CTU’s president, has launched the “Let Us Teach!” campaign. “A multiracial fightback against the testing industrial complex—one that is explicitly anti-racist and takes up issues of class inequality—has the potential to change the terms of the education reform debate….”

In Ohio, my state, I feel personally hurt every time our state’s school rating system (based entirely on standardized test scores) is trotted out—something that happens routinely in newspaper reports and comments by politicians.  In the fall of 2014, Ohio will go to an A-F school rating system, but for years the press and even public education advocates have often just accepted without question that our schools and school districts fit into a system that classifies them as Excellent (Some are even Excellent with Distinction.), Effective, Continuous Improvement, Academic Watch, and Academic Emergency.   People will tell you their school district is “Excellent with Distinction” without adding that it is 99 percent white and 100 percent affluent as an outer-ring suburb.  This system feeds the belief that teachers in the wealthiest suburbs know how to teach and “produce excellent results” while city school teachers and teachers in Appalachian rural areas don’t know how to “produce results.”  In Ohio’s metropolitan areas this system has been feeding white flight to outer suburbs for several years now, and it also feeds the stereotype that poor children and children of color cannot learn.

My own personal experience with test-based rating and ranking of schools—and their teachers—and their children—makes me especially gratified to see the following analysis in the Rethinking Schools editorial:

“The United States has a long history of using intelligence tests to support white supremacy and class stratification.  Standardized tests first entered the public schools in the 1920s, pushed by eugenicists….  High-stakes standardized tests have disguised class and race privilege as merit ever since.  The consistent use of test scores to demonstrate first a ‘mental ability’ gap and now an ‘achievement’ gap exposes the intrinsic nature of these tests: They are built to maintain inequality, not to serve as an antidote to educational disparities.”