The editors of the journal Monthly Review requested the following article and then decided not to print it. I reprinted their raggedy explanation letter in the previous post.
The balancing act between defending the Common Core State Standards and supporting member concerns about the amount of standardized assessments and national testing we and our students have had to endure has been a difficult trick for both the American Federation of Teachers and the larger National Education Association.
It is difficult because curriculum and assessment are not fundamentally divisible. It helps to understand the process if you conceptualize curriculum, instruction and assessment as a spiral rather than linear. The conceptual difference between a spiral and a straight line is the kind of thing that is more likely to be discussed in a university seminar than at a union convention.
For the two national teacher unions, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, the Common Core State Standards and the standardized testing that is used to assess it are two very different things.
The most extreme defense of Common Core State Standards came from New York’s United Federation of Teacher President Michael Mulgrew at the 2014 national convention of the American Federation of Teachers in Los Angeles.
Mulgrew stood at the microphone with sweat pouring down his face, looking more like a street corner bully than head of a union of professionals, as the AFT likes to call itself. He was debating an anti-common core resolution introduced and supported by members of the Chicago AFT affiliate, the Chicago Teachers Union.
“If someone takes something from me,” he growled, “I’m going to grab it right back out of their cold, twisted, sick hands and say it is mine! You do not take what is mine. And I’m going to punch you in the face and push you in the dirt because this is the teachers’!”
AFT President Randi Weingarten stood at the microphone, arms folded and smiling. She appreciated the efforts of her attack dog, Mulgrew. Engaging in that kind of belligerence, however, is not her style.
There are many factors to consider in understanding the AFT and the NEA’s defense of Common Core.
Corporate philanthropies like those of Eli Broad and Bill Gates have been generous in their contributions to both national unions. They don’t spend foolishly.
At the national level, the two unions have close ties to the Democratic Party. The national Democrats’ education agenda has been hijacked by corporate think tanks and organizations like Democrats for Education Reform (DFER).
The Common Core issue is also made complicated by the fact that it is supported by national Civil Rights organizations who see it as a way to level the field and hold public schools accountable for equity. It is also opposed by many on the extreme right who see it as a form of federal control and dictatorial power. They attack it on the basis of states’ rights. States rights have historically been code words for segregation and racism.
Standardized testing, however, is viewed as a different issue than curriculum by the two unions. Particularly since the results of the tests taken by students are now being used by states to evaluate individual teachers. Whatever the failings of standardized tests to assess student learning, the CCSS were never designed to be used as measures of teacher effectiveness. This turned standardized testing into a labor/management issue and not just a pedagogical one.
Even the union’s criticism of the misuse of individual test scores to evaluate teachers is confusing and sends mixed messages.
In 2011, Illinois applied for one of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top grants. The Democratic governor of Illinois at the time, Pat Quinn, appointed Audrey Soglin to chair the committee which would write the grant. Soglin was, and still is, the Executive Director of the Illinois Education Association. For years she worked alongside of the IEA Excutive Director who preceded her, Jo Anderson. Anderson left the IEA to work as a senior advisor to Arne Duncan.
There were four requirements for a RTT grant to be considered by the DOE. One of the requirements was that the states must have a common metric in place to measure teacher performance. The metric had to include a VAM, or Value Added Measure, as proof that the teacher increased student learning in some measurable way. The easiest, although least accurate and least ethical way, was to use the state standardized test scores of the students.
The problem for IEA Executive Director Soglin was that for Illinois to have value added measures in place for teacher evaluation and to qualify for a Race to the Top grant, the legislature had to pass a law. With her backing, and the backing of the IEA, the state passed PERA, the Performance Evaluation Reform Act. It required that up to 50%, and no less than 30%, of a teacher’s performance review use individual test scores as part of the evaluation.
The Illinois legislature did enact Soglin’s PERA .
Just in time for the November elections of 2010, Stand for Children came to Illinois. Stand for Children began in Oregon as a parent-based school reform group, but was soon taken over by corporate reformists with Jonah Edelman as its leader.
Arriving in Illinois, SFC identified nine key legislative races and dropped nearly a million dollars on those election contests. This got the attention of the long-serving Speaker of the Illinois House, Michael Madigan. The Speaker also serves at Chairman of the Illinois Democratic Party. He runs the House with an iron fist. Speaker Madigan is known for being more concerned with power than ideology. His greatest skill is in counting votes and building his campaign war chest.
Following the election, Madigan established the House Education Reform Committee as a platform for SFC, and only a massive email campaign by the state’s teacher unions and the legislative clock kept the General Assembly from passing a bill that would outlaw teacher strikes and end seniority rights.
That bill returned the following year when the General Assembly passed a bill drafted by a committee that included Edelman and the IEA’s Audrey Soglin. Senate Bill 7 diminished tenure and seniority rights, expanded the evaluation procedures established in PERA and demanded a 75% vote by Chicago teachers for strike authorization.
Of course, we remember that the Chicago Teachers Union received a 90% strike authorization vote of its members and walked off the job in September of 2012 in a historic and forceful challenge to the rule of corporate Democrat Rahm Emanuel.
One evening in 2011 I was surfing the internet and found a reference to a talk that Stand For Children’s Jonah Edelman had given at the Aspen Conference earlier that year. I immediately went to the Aspen site and there Edelman was.
In the video, Edelman told the story of SFC coming to Illinois and how he bamboozled the teachers union into supporting SB7, including the use of standardize testing to evaluate teachers.
“And so this was the strategy led by the IEA. The Illinois Education Association has a history of pragmatism and they led on this negotiation. They really kind of brought the other unions along. Jo Anderson, the former head of the Illinois Education Association, now works with Arne Duncan in the Department of Education, and his son Josh is the head of Teach for America in Chicago, and the new (IEA) director, Audrey Soglin, is very pragmatic. I doubt this tape will ever get to her, but I would say that I’m interested in talking about whether or not she at the end of the day was happy to get these issues resolved. I don’t think she liked defending a seniority-based system.”
I posted a link to the Aspen site and to the Edelman video. Within hours the video was taken down. Nothing is really taken down from the internet and it didn’t take long for my techie internet friends to find it and copy it. I posted it on my blog site and soon it went viral. It was a huge embarrassment to Edelman and the unions.
Edelman was forced to send me a long apology that I posted to my blog.
“I was wrong to state that the teachers’ unions “gave” on teacher effectiveness provisions when the reality is that, indeed, there were long productive negotiations that led to a better outcome than would have occurred with them.”
An Amtrack train departs from Union Station in downtown Chicago at 7AM, if you’re lucky. It arrives at the state capital in Springfield about four hours. The station is walking distance from the capitol building.
Because I was riding on a senior ticket, I didn’t have to wait in line in the station. I get to board early, along with those who are handicapped. It pleased me that on that early Spring morning I was required to show photo I.D. as proof of my age.
Once on board I ran into others who were going to Springfield to lobby for HB306, the opt out bill It was the very first bill introduced by the newly elected reform Democrat, Representative Will Guzzardi.
We were all riding the train bound for Springfield for a Lobby Day organized by the parent activist groups, Raise Your Hand and More than a Score.
There were no representatives from the teachers unions on the train, although the Chicago Teachers Union and the state union it is affiliated with, the Illinois Federation of Teachers, both support the legislation.
The larger of the two state teachers unions, the Illinois Education Association, was formally neutral, but has serious concerns about the Guzzardi bill. Since the IEA is neutral, its large staff of lobbyists will do nothing to support the bill, which is read as opposition by most legislators.
Those of us who came by train walked over to the Capitol to meet up with other parents and a few teachers from around the state to plan out the day of lobbying efforts. I spotted an IEA Region Chair from downstate sitting across the room. Otherwise we are a group of parents with a few retirees mixed in. The orientation meeting was led by the tireless Chicago school activists, Wendy Katten and Cassie Creswell.
We were organized into teams and handed lists and maps of office locations of state reps. For two hours we dodged and weaved among swarms of men and women in business suits who are lobbyists or legislative employees, kids on field trips and dozens of those in wheel chairs in bright orange t-shirts in town for another Lobby Day issue. We were seeking out co-sponsors for the opt-out bill
In one conference room I noticed Skokie Representative Laura Fine sitting in a committee meeting. I waved and hand signaled, mouthing if she could come out of the meeting and meet some of us. In the past Laura and I argued over state public employee pensions, but she comes over and warmly greets the parents, promising to put her name on the bill. Later I find that she did. Other Democrats who had promised they would, didn’t.
In the end, HB 306 did pass the Illinois House. It remains bottled up in a Senate committee as I am writing this. Even if it passes the Democratic Party controlled Senate, Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner will likely veto it.
At around noon, Representative Guzzardi and Democratic State Senator Willam Delgado, a long-serving progressive Democrat from Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood held a press conference along with parents from Raise Your Hand and More Than a Score. I pull out my cell phone and called the head of Government Relations for the IEA, Jim Reed. I told Jim that I am in the Capitol with parents and I asked if he could come talk with us.
He agreed and we met by the statue in the Capitol rotunda.
When he arrived I introduced him to the parents and I jokingly asked him if, as chief IEA lobbyist, had ever been lobbied by parents and teachers before. Jim laughed and admitted that he had not. His explanation for the IEA’s refusal to support the parent opt-out bill is one I had heard before. He explained that the IEA had fears of losing federal funding, even though not one state that had failed to meet the 95% testing requirement established by Obama’s Department of Education had been punished with the loss of federal education dollars.
What Jim did not bring up was other discussions I have had with him and other local and national union leaders. How should our unions respond in the face of the accountability demands of corporate school reform.
Neither the American Federation of Teachers led by its President, Randi Weingarten, nor the National Education Association, presently led by its President Lily Eskelsen Garcia have been willing to fully break with the dominant education policies of national Democrats. It would appear that the positions of the two unions on standardized testing and a national curriculum has less to do with what is good for teachers and students and more to do with loyalty to the national Democratic Party.
The leaders of the two unions will chip away around the edges with a critique of what the NEA calls toxic testing. They remain supportive of the Common Core curriculum agenda, even as those on the right who were early supporters such as the Fordham Foundation, pull back from the Common Core State Standards.
Over the past four years, the position of the two national unions has become a little sharper in opposing what NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia calls toxic testing.
Each year the NEA national meeting, the Representative Assembly, passes resolutions condemning the misuse of testing for purposes of teacher evaluation and supportive of the parent opt-out movement.
Yet when I and other Illinois union members went to the floor of the state convention to ask IEA support for the Guzzardi opt-out bill, we were ruled out of order and the union’s official position of neutrality stayed in place.
“When we go out on strike we ask for, and often receive, parent support. Now parents are asking us to support their efforts to end the mania of standardized testing. If we don’t support them now, how can we ask them to support us later?” I asked from the microphone.
Our words fell on deaf ears and we could not bring our motion to the floor.
The mixed message coming from the two teacher unions on testing and opt-out is a symptom of a larger problem. The teacher unions, like all public employee unions, are under assault. The leadership’s response has been from a position of being on the defense and reaction. In order to defend themselves they have felt the need to strengthen their ties with the Democratic Party and corporate philanthropies when that has not been the best thing for members and students.