As a member of the opposition to the United Federation of Teacher's ruling Unity Caucus since 1995, I am used to disappointment. The UFT has set up an electoral system that all but guarantees that the ruling party will remain in power until the union is dissolved.
After spending this past school year fighting against the repulsive new teacher evaluation system that will rate teachers on unreliable student test scores that have huge margins of error (junk science), while waiting in vain for a decision on a lawsuit that the UFT filed in 2011 to save my school and many others from being closed, and also running in yet another futile UFT election bid, I decided I needed a couple of weeks to recharge my batteries this summer before thinking about going back to school to figure out how to deal with being rated based on Commissioner John King's junk science and the sadness of being in a 121 year old school that will be in its final year.
Unfortunately for teachers and other working people across this country, the news this summer has been quite gloomy.
Philadelphia is laying off thousands of school employees including many teachers. Chicago mayor Rahm Emmanuel is exacting revenge on the Chicago Teachers' Union, who had the audacity to exercise their right to strike last year. Rahm is closing many schools and laying off 4% of the teaching staff. He is blaming pension obligations but the Chicago Teachers Union argues that the pensions are not the cause. North Carolina's legislature reached a deal that would end teacher tenure (NY has weakened tenure but some protections still exist). To top it all off, Detroit is in bankruptcy proceedings. This is the largest city in the US to go under.
Michigan's constitution is supposed to protect pensions but federal bankruptcy law may supersede the state constitution so Detroit may be leading the way for the greedy elite, who are out to destroy the public sector, to set a precedent by cutting public worker pensions. This country has virtually eliminated defined benefits pensions in the private sector and now the austerity crowd has their eye on the public sector.
I don't think our public sector pensions in New York are in any imminent danger. I agree with economist Paul Krugman that the state and local government pension problem is totally exaggerated for political purposes. In addition, we are not facing layoffs in New York City as in other places however it is clear working people across the land are under a vicious attack and our unions are the best hope for a unified push back.
Since New York City is still somewhat of a union town and teacher unions, while far less powerful than in the past, could potentially have some real sway if we mobilized our collective strength properly. Is our union at the local and/or national level, leading that fight for dignity in the workplace?
In a word the answer is no.
About ten years ago when I was on the UFT Executive Board, then President Randi Weingarten took to the podium at a meeting and from the chair launched a nasty tirade directed at my friends Ellen Fox, Ed Beller and me. She told us that we didn't understand the forces we are up against. She chartered a course for the union to be conciliatory so we would not be crushed. Ten years later teacher unions are being annihilated and unions in general are weaker than they have been in my lifetime but Randi, now heading the national American Federation of Teachers, is still trying not to alienate the teacher bashing crowd. On Monday, she told an AFT gathering in a speech that we have to get rid of bad teachers. How about defending us Randi?
As for her successors at the UFT, they continue to rave about how wonderful it is for New York City teachers to be rated on junk science in the new evaluation system. Jackie Bennett, who I was lucky enough to win an award with in 2011, is now the person designated by the ruling Unity Caucus to defend the indefensible teacher evaluation system.
She spends many paragraphs in a UFT's Edwize blog piece telling us how having ineffective scores from 0-12 out of 20 points total is a great gain for NYC teachers from Commissioner John King's recent decree on evaluations because in the rest of the state the ineffective scores are 0-2 points on the two 20% parts of our annual rating that will be based on student learning measures. 40% of our rating in theory will be based on student test scores or other growth measures; the other 60% will be based on multiple observations. Then Jackie writes this paragraph:
"One last question remains: Why did the state set the problematic cut scores for the rest of the state in the first place? Basically, the state wanted cuts that would make it impossible for teachers who were rated Ineffective in two different learning measures to overcome that rating, even if that teacher received all 60 of the observation points. The statewide cuts do that, but they also create the potential for many additional Ineffective (ratings) that simply can't be justified in any system. For NYC, all of those additional Ineffectives have been eliminated, but the state has still included language to the effect that a teacher who was rated as Ineffective both learning measures must be considered Ineffective overall, regardless of the score. That is an outcome that would have affected us in the previous system and would affect us in this one as well."
Translation: If the students do not do well on the tests, the teacher will be rated ineffective for the year but that teacher will get more points in NYC as compared to the rest of the state. 12+12+60= 84 which will still be ineffective. 65 was supposed to be a passing grade.
Our national union leader is telling us that bad teachers should be fired while locally the union hierarchy is defending rating teachers based on junk science. Is a bad teacher someone who is rated poorly based on King's garabage? We need new union heads for sure, which as Reality Based Educator rightly points out, does not guarantee victory, but at least we would be fighting back. Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis, in spite of the setbacks, recently was reelected overwhelmingly by her rank and file. Teachers in particular and workers in general will step up if given the opportunity to fight back.
The UFT should be following the example set by the Buffalo Federation of Teachers led by Phillip Rumore. They continue to do everything they can to prevent teachers from being rated based on unreliable student test scores. The UFT, and our state union NYSUT, should be looking to California for advice on how to defy the Obama administration on education policy. The golden state is skillfully pursuing policy that recognizes that poverty, not bad teachers, is the main cause of the achievement gap in education.
When we arrive back at school in September and our UFT officials from the Unity Caucus tell us how lucky we are not to be in Detroit, Philadelphia, Chicago or North Carolina, tell them how fortunate we would be if we had union representation like they do in Buffalo, Chicago and California instead of our appeasers.
Finally, since Norm Scott wrote about how he spent last week, I'll show you the highlight of my week below. I don't think I have to explain that this was my daughter Kara's birthday party.