Now Is the Summer of Our Discontent

I’ve attended sixteen NEA Annual Meetings. Two seem to me to have been more important than the others; both took place in New Orleans.

  • In 1998, NEA delegates rejected the “Principles of Unity,” which would have set us on a path toward a merger with the American Federation of Teachers. Along with a majority of the Ohio delegation, I supported the Principles, and it’s possible that the RA’s failure to adopt them helped set the stage for the second.
  • This year, RA delegates finally began to confront three uncomfortable truths that we should already have known. First, support of any candidate is a marriage of convenience: any office-holder will sacrifice virtually any ideal if it means being re-elected. Second, many Democratic officeholders have accepted the three basic tenets of Republican doctrine on public education: accountability, school choice, and the obstinacy of teachers’ unions. Third, public educators can rely on no one but themselves to understand and support their issues.

This RA was the least hopeful and the most angry of the ones I’ve attended. The delegates’ discontent is fueled by two realizations.

  • We are politically alone. The Democratic Party uses us and the Republican Party hates us.
  • We have so far been unable to energize our enormous membership base and realize more than a fraction of its political potential.

I don’t believe for a moment that we are wrong. Accountability and school choice are disastrous doctrines that, left unchecked, will destroy American public education. The teachers’ unions, far from blocking their members’ desires for reform, are accurately voicing concerns shared by the overwhelming majority of public educators.But I do believe that wishful thinking has dominated our internal dialogues and delayed our actually doing anything about the critical issues I have outlined here. In the weeks ahead, I am going to post an analysis of the issues I have raised here. I invite interested readers to come back from time to time and to post their own comments.

Thoughts upon Leaving New Orleans

I’ve just returned from nine days on the road attending the National Education Association Annual Meeting, which was held this year in New Orleans. If you’re reading this blog for the first time, or you have no idea what on earth the RA is or why it matters, I suggest you take a look at the first few paragraphs of my comments on last year’s RA in San Diego.

Full disclosure: I work for an NEA affiliate, and as part of my work there I post a daily journal from the host city, typically covering the last six days of the Annual Meeting, including the four-day Representative Assembly. While I hope that the journal is valuable for my members and delegates, I attempt to confine it to observations and leave my own personal opinions or reactions out of it. If my members and delegates want to write their own comments and have those comments appear on the blog, they can put them there; but my opinions there would likely to be seen either as official positions of NEOEA or as an attempt to misrepresent my opinions as NEOEA’s official positions.
So, like RMN, “just let me say this about that”: Nothing I write in the “Oh, Contrarian” blog is the official position of anybody but me. (Should it be? Obviously.) I’ve linked to the NEOEA blog above, but it’s not reciprocal: it doesn’t contain any link to this one.
So where are the opinions? They’ll be expressed in future postings. If you’ve received this message in an email, don’t expect that I’m going to be emailing to scads of people every time I post something here. (Bulk mail filters start to get activated when you do that.) Just stop back here from time to time.
The Contrarian

Pressure on Schools, Unions Misplaced

In “Ohio urges school districts, teacher unions to sign up for Race to the Top money,” Edith Starzyk writes in The Plain Dealer about the pressure being applied to school districts to enter the federal sweepstakes for additional funding under specific circumstances. Both school districts and teacher unions are right to consider carefully what they’re being urged to agree to.

For over twenty years now, Ohio education has been increasingly driven by high-stakes testing. Originally aimed at graduating students, it now drives instruction at every grade level in every public school.

It was wrong then, and it is wrong now. At a time when knowledge is multiplying, high-stakes testing reduces what is taught. While students need to learn material of greater complexity, it forces concentration on simpler, formulaic learning. As students need access to a broader curriculum, high-stakes testing restricts it. And perhaps most insidious of all, it diverts resources (time, money, and people) from instruction to measurement, making it harder to accomplish its well-intended goals.

Because high-stakes testing is flawed from the beginning, it’s especially wrong when it’s being used for purposes for which it wasn’t intended. The tests do a poor enough job of measuring student learning: they are even less appropriate for making salary, retention, and transfer decisions regarding teachers, the one group of people who can do something to mitigate the disaster.

In her recent book The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Diane Ravitch points out that both Democrats and Republicans have subscribed to the myth of high-stakes testing as an accountability tool. How ironic that this pressure is coming from a President and a Governor who were supported by teachers!