I have a concern: Teachers are getting pummeled. Too often, they are being demonized in the media and blamed by politicians for being the cause of bad schools. Right-wing governors, power-hungry mayors and corporate “reformers”—all ignoring root issues such as poverty and inequality—have scapegoated the people who have devoted their lives to educating our children. Moreover, these forces are seeking to destroy the collective organizations formed by educators: teachers unions.
The stakes for our country could not be more profound. The labor movement and the public education system are two critical institutions of American democracy. And they are two that go hand in hand. Teachers unions have played a critical role in advocating for public education, but you’d never know it from mainstream media coverage. Therefore, there is a great need to lift up this tradition and highlight the efforts of teachers to collectively push for top-notch public schools.
To figure out how we can push forward on this issue, I talked with Diane Ravitch, one of the country’s leading education historians and public school advocates. A professor at New York University, Ravitch is a former Assistant Secretary of Education and the author of several books, including 2010’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education.
What do you see as the role of teachers unions in preserving public education?
For many years, there has been an effort to diminish teachers unions and to blame them for all the problems of public education. I believe the reason, first of all, is that some people just hate unions. But there’s also a political reason that’s very specific. That is that if you silence the union, then there’s nobody at the table when the legislature or the governor wants to cut the budget, so they can hack away at will. That’s happening in states across the country. I was in Texas a few weeks ago, and there the legislature cut over $5 billion dollars from the education budget, but they did manage to squeeze out $500 million dollars for more testing. They have a weak union. They had no one at the table to say, “You can’t do this.” And no one cared what the teachers thought anyway.
This past summer, you championed the Chicago teachers strike as an example of teachers publicly transcending self-interest and pushing for better conditions in the schools. Can you speak about some of the victories have shown a different style of advocacy from teachers?
Well, the teachers’ union had a problem in that most of the things they were concerned about they’re not allowed to collectively bargain. The law says they’re not allowed to collectively bargain the teaching and learning conditions, but that was the essence of the strike. They had to say that they were striking over something that was legal and not over something that the law didn’t allow. I think that one of the things that they were able to accomplish—and it’s a small accomplishment but an important one—is that the mayor wanted the [teachers’ performance] evaluations to be based, I think, 40 or 50 percent on [student] test scores. They got it down to what was the legally required minimum. My own view is that the test scores should account for zero in teacher evaluation.
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