Teacher Power: Labor and the Fight for Freedom in Schools and Society

Earlier this month, Republican presidential candidate and Ohio Governor John Kasich joked that he hoped to “abolish all teachers’ lounges, where they sit together and worry about ‘woe is us.'”  Similarly, in the first GOP debate, Govs. Bush, Christie, and Walker emphasized their fights against teachers’ unions, and in a recent campaign speech Gov. Christie stood by his previous statement that teachers’ unions deserve a “punch in the face.”

These comments reflect a broader trend among U.S. politicians to target teachers’ unions, alongside public education and the labor movement as a whole.  They also highlight the tenuous and often untenable position of educators across the country in the era of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top.  Nevertheless, in targeting teachers’ unions as the greatest impediment to their agendas, Bush, Christie, and Walker remind us of the tremendous power of teachers.

Teachers have the power to recognize and cultivate the unique gifts of every child in their classroom.  They have the power to create spaces where students can practice democracy, analyzing the world around them and determining how they want to reshape it in the future.  They have the power to work together to rethink both schools and society, developing curricula that honors their students’ interests, backgrounds, and experiences.  As we are reminded by the incredible Dyett hunger strikers, they also have the power to work alongside parents, students, and other community members as they envision and fight for the schools their students deserve.

In these and other ways, they have the power to engage in what bell hooks (1994) calls “education as the practice of liberation”: “the opportunity to labor for freedom, to demand of ourselves and our comrades, an openness of mind and heart that allows us to face reality even as we collectively imagine ways to move beyond boundaries, to transgress” (p. 207).

In honor of Labor Day, this post will explore some of the ways teachers are using their power to labor for freedom both inside and outside of the classroom.  In recognizing the revolutionary potential of teachers working in solidarity with other workers, this post will also point to some of the many organizations and workshops supporting the fight for public education in the U.S.

Inside the Classroom

School-education-learning-1750587-hThis week, educators across the country have been planning lessons, setting up their classrooms, reaching out to parents, and meeting the students they will have the opportunity to spend their days with this year.  Many of them have been doing this work in their free time, with their own money, and even without a salary or fair contract.

In the face of increasing pressure to spend precious class time delivering standardized curricula and tests, teachers are leading the fight for public education from within their classrooms and schools.  They are setting aside time for play, creativity, project-based learning, and child-centered instruction, recognizing that these forms of learning are central to students’ growth and development.  They are working with colleagues and community members to design lessons that build on students’ interests, stories, and backgrounds.  They are building safe spaces where students can analyze, discuss, and challenge the inequalities they see and experience in their daily lives.

This is important work, and it lies at the heart of the struggle for public education.

The Durham Association of Educators has captured some of this work on their blog, highlighting the stories of educators in sixty schools.  In a post on Hillandale Elementary, DAE argued demonstrated that “[v]eteran teachers, and the stability that they provide, are an essential element to a successful school.”  This blog serves as a reminder of what we are fighting for: schools filled with joy, led by experienced teachers who care deeply about their students.

Unfortunately, this is not the reality for many students, teachers, or families in communities across the country.  Schools that have been the center of their communities have been closed, exacerbating inequalities and destabilizing the lives of students and teachers. Veteran teachers – especially teachers of color – have been pushed out of their school systems as part of corporate-sponsored “turnaround,” closure, and privatization plans like this one from the Broad Foundation.  Students thrive in stable learning environments that emphasize joy and creativity, yet these traits are often under-emphasized in favor of competition and standardization.

Outside the Classroom

2011_Wisconsin_Budget_Protests_1_JOFor these and many other reasons, the struggle for public education continues after the school day ends. Teachers in communities across the country have worked with their colleagues, neighbors, and unions to fight for the schools our students deserve.  Some teachers have collaborated with community members through grassroots organizations, supporting the opt-out struggle and campaigns for community schools. Others have collaborated with their colleagues to fight for a fair contract, knowing that better working conditions mean better learning conditions for their students. Others have engaged in public scholarship through education blogs and articles, waking at dawn and staying up past midnight to share information about what is happening in schools nationwide.

The 2015-2016 school year has only just began, and educators have already gained national media attention for their work in the fight for public education.

For the past nineteen days, twelve teachers, parents, and community members in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago have been leading a hunger strike to demand an open-enrollment, locally-controlled high school for their neighborhood.  These incredible community leaders have decided to continue their hunger strike after the Mayor’s office decided unilaterally to reopen the school with the district’s own plan, largely ignoring the community organization’s proposal and circumventing the district’s own RFP process.  In a Washington Post article on the school’s reopening, Kenwood Oakland Community Organization (KOCO) organizer  Jitu Brown noted, “Yes, reopening the school is a victory. But the real victory would be listening to the neighborhood’s voice.” In standing up for their right for a community-led school, Dyett leaders are demonstrating that “the fight for Dyett High School is a fight for democracy,” as Jeff Bryant argued in a recent blog post.

Educators and community members have spoken out in solidarity with the Dyett hunger strikers, as well as leading struggles within their own cities and states.  In New York state, educators and grassroots organizers continue their fight against standardized tests and the privatization of public education through the opt-out movement.  According to state officials, 20% of New York students opted out of standardized tests already, and organizers are working to help even more students opt out in the coming year.

In Seattle, teachers and students are fighting against cuts to public education, transportation access, recess time, and teacher pay.  Rank-and-file members of the Seattle Education Association voted unanimously to go on strike beginning the first day of school, September 9th, if they cannot come to an agreement with the Seattle school board before that date.  As SEA VP and bargaining chair Phyllis Campano notes on the SEA website, “The Seattle School Board has rejected most of our proposals around competitive pay, reasonable testing, guaranteed recess, student equity and workloads.”

Supporting the Movements(s) This Labor Day

2012ChicagoTeachersUnionStrikeMarchIn honor of Labor Day, I’d like to end this post by highlighting a few ways to support the struggle for freedom and equitable public education in the U.S.

Whether online or in person, in the classroom or at city hall, this is work that is best done collectively and in solidarity with other teachers. For anyone looking for (new) ways to get involved, here are a few relevant resources and conferences:

Social Justice Pedagogy and Curriculum

One way to get involved is to attend one of the many grassroots education curriculum fairs and workshops taking place in cities across the country this fall, including:

Teachers for Social Justice (SF) also maintains a list of ally networks that includes social justice-oriented grassroots curriculum organizations across the country.

There are also incredible resources on teaching labor history on sites such as  Teaching Tolerance, the Zinn Education Project, and Rethinking Schools!

Social Justice Unionism

Teachers’ unions and social justice caucuses have also provided important spaces for teachers to organize for public education, connecting teachers and supporting such struggles as the #FightforDyett and the #SeattleStrike.  This seminal article from Rethinking Schools is a great introduction to the struggle to support public schools and social justice through teachers’ unions.  Likewise, Lois Weiner’s latest essay in New Politics reminds us of the importance of “taking sides” and placing social justice at the center of all union work.

In cities such as Chicago, Portland, and St. Paul, the elected union leaders focus on supporting social justice unionism, and there are union committees and campaigns that depend on the support and organizing of rank-and-file members.

In these and other cities, it is also possible to get involved with social justice caucuses, which are groups of rank-and-file members supporting social justice unionism within and outside of their local.

Some of the many caucuses engaged in this work are:

As Michelle Gunderson noted in a recent Labor Notes article, these and other social justice caucuses and unions are organizing throughout the country as part of the United Caucuses of Rank-and-File Educators or UCORE.

National Networks Supporting Public Education

You can also show solidarity by engaging in conversations in anti-corporate reform networks such as the Badass Teachers Association, United Opt-Out, and the Network for Public Education.  Each organization hosts an annual conference, which is a great opportunity to meet other education activists and organizers in person and learn new strategies to bring back to your school.  Likewise, as struggles such as the #FightforDyett and the #SeattleStrike continue, there are plenty of opportunities to show support by signing petitions, sharing information, and posting messages of solidarity.

Each of these networks and organizations provides a space to use our teacher power to collaborate with other educators, share resources and ideas, and fight for freedom within our schools and our communities.

And so, this Labor Day and every day: solidarity with every individual engaged in the “labor for freedom” and the fight for the schools – and communities – our students deserve.

High-Stakes Testing and Equity in Schools: A Critical Feminist Perspective

8165522990_6fde64b26b_oOn May 5th, twelve major civil rights organizations signed a statement detailing their opposition to “anti-testing efforts” such as the opt-out movement.  Among those organizations was the American Association of University Women (AAUW), an organization that has a history of supporting both gender equity in the workplace and ethnoracial equity in schools.   Other critical educators have offered compelling arguments for the importance of “anti-testing efforts” for communities of color, pointing out how this statement was crafted and promoted by a white TFA alum. I will further argue for the importance of testing resistance to the women represented by the AAUW and other civil rights organizations.  I am making this argument out of great admiration for the twelve civil rights organizations signing this letter, as well as the grassroots organizations responding to it.  By offering my own perspective on these issues, I hope to join an ongoing dialogue about the relationship between high-stakes testing, equity, and intersectional oppressions in the U.S. education system. More specifically, I hope to offer a critical feminist perspective on the relationship between high-stakes standardized testing and gender equity in schools.

Daytona_School_with_BethuneTo begin with, high-stakes standardized testing has not been demonstrated to support equitable education for all students, despite the importance of having some means of measuring equity in schools (such as the National Assessment of Education Progress or NAEP).  In fact, a recent study by Anjalé D. Welton suggests that schools focusing on high-stakes standardized testing decrease the college readiness of their students. Furthermore, education researchers such as Prudence L. Carter and Kevin G. Welner have rightly argued that standardized tests are often used in ways that widen – and distract from – the opportunity gap in schools.  Most recently, Jesse Hagopian and the editorial board of the Network for Public Education issued a statement in support of testing resistance. In this statement, the authors noted that students and communities of color have organized large-scale demonstrations against standardized testing.  They further argue that standardized tests do not support equity, but rather “have been used to rank, sort, label, and punish students of color.”  Their statement also discussed pervasive problems with the overuse, cultural bias, and privacy violations associated with standardized testing.

In addition to these problems, high-stakes testing policies often work against gender equity for the many 5278030021_36c0ca33b9_owomen who choose to enter the teaching profession.   Teaching has historically been understood as a “feminized” profession and, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES), women made up at least 76.3% of public school teachers in 2011. Nevertheless, women are disproportionately underrepresented in leadership positions in schools, accounting for less than 35% of school principals and 18% of school superintendents as of a NCES 2003 study.   Moreover, as Catherine Marshall and Michelle Young powerfully demonstrate in their research on “Policy Inroads Undermining Women in Education,” recent education policies have undermined equity in schools, disproportionately and negatively affecting the work of female educators.

Gender inequities such as these have characterized U.S. public schools since their inception. Historically, female teachers have been targeted, poorly compensated, and terminated for their gender, marital status, and decision to have children.  As David Tyack shows in The One Best System, these inequities did not always go unchallenged, and women teachers such as Mary Abigail Dodge spoke out against the undervaluing of female educators.  According to Tyack, Dodge noted that her fellow teachers were “forced to obey, paid less than men for the same work and often barred from advancement because of their sex, [and] bullied by superintendents and school board members” (p. 163). While collective bargaining has in many cases closed the gender gap in terms of teacher compensation, there remains a gap between predominately female teachers and predominantly male education administrators.

7977379505_f072ab1b63_oFurthermore, as collective bargaining rights and salary scales are undermined in states across the country, new avenues open for the undercompensation and mistreatment of women teachers.  This “sea change” is inextricably linked to the national obsession with student achievement measured by standardized test scores.  As sociologist Ruth Milkman notes, “starting in 2011, a wave of state-level legislation weakening collective bargaining rights for public sector workers has directly targeted teachers and other unionized female-dominated occupations.”  These laws were largely based on copycat legislation written by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an organization that advocates for limiting collective bargaining, increasing test-based accountability, and promoting school choice. For ALEC and affiliated corporate reformers, evaluation models based on high-stakes standardized tests and administrator ”flexibility” should replace teacher tenure and other collectively bargained rights in determining teacher hiring and retention.  While this might be an example of the “misuse of test data” alluded to in the civil rights organizations’ statement, there exist few examples of high-stakes testing and accountability models that are not linked to invalid and unreliable measures for teacher, school, and – increasingly – student evaluation.  These changes are alarming given the fact that women make up the majority of the teaching profession, especially if we understand that collective bargaining is linked to higher and more equitable pay for women, as noted by the National Women’s Law Center.

BETH RANKIN | DAILY KENT STATER Marisa Beagle, a history major, and her daughter, Noelle, sit in the parking lot of the Salem Campus, where she attends school 45 minutes away from her home in East Palestine, near the Pennsylvania border. Marisa and Noelle, 18 months, live with Marisa's parents. A single parent, Beagle says it's tough to attend school and raise a daughter simultaneously, but with the support of her family, she's able to make it work.

We can also see evidence that standardized tests and evaluations are now used to legitimize the historic practice of firing women based on their parenting status.  In a federal lawsuit against Chicago Public Schools (CPS), the district was accused of violating the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act in its discriminatory evaluation scores of eight pregnant teachers fired by a CPS-awarded elementary school principal between 2009 and 2012.  According to the lawsuit, this termination demonstrated that “there existed a regular, purposeful, and less-favorable treatment of teachers because of their sex (pregnancies).” In one case, a female teacher was berated by her principal for having to go on leave “right before [mandatory] testing.”

High-stakes standardized testing and evaluation policies also disproportionately affect women of color within the teaching profession.  In 2012, three Chicago teachers filed and won a lawsuit claiming that the CPS school turnaround model discriminates against teachers of color by targeting the schools where they teach.  According to the lawsuit, the percentage of African American teachers in the district dropped from 41 percent to 29 percent in eleven years as a result of the district’s use of standardized test scores to evaluate and close schools.  In 2013, the district fired another 120 teachers within “turnaround schools,” 70% of whom were African American.  Similar patterns can be seen in cities with historically representative populations of teachers of color, such as Washington D.C. and New Orleans, both of which have seen significant decreases in their percentage of black educators and increases in their percentage of white educators.  This is a significant problem given the welldocumented importance of hiring and retaining teachers that share the racial and ethnic background of their students.

Taken as a whole, high-stakes testing policies further undermine all teachers – and, even worse, their students – by creating a toxic learning and working environment.  This is especially true for teachers working in the historically under-resourced schools that serve students of color.  As James D. Kirylo argues in a press release from Southeastern University, high-stakes testing and evaluation policies have worked together to create “an incredibly toxic environment in our schools and in our discourse about education, ultimately turning schools from learning centers to testing factories.”  Moreover, as Michael Apple argues in Teachers and Texts: A Political Economy of Class and Gender Relations in Education, this toxic working environment has profound repercussions for the predominantly female teaching force.  For Apple and other critical scholars, neoliberal education reform has shifted the blame for inequality from the economy to the state, with the historically female teaching corps serving as a scapegoat for social inequalities.

With this in mind, the AAUW would better serve its constituents by advocating for the resources, training, and support schools need to serve all students.  This is a fight that has been led by grassroots organizations such as the Badass Teachers Association and United Opt Out, teachers unions such as the NEA and AFT, social justice caucuses such as MORE and CORE, superintendents in chicago_teachers_union_strike_by_dannymanhattan-d5v6g8sstates such as Maryland and Massachusetts, community organizations such as Parents United for Public Education and Parents United for Responsible Education, and the incredible student unions in Newark, Philadelphia, and other cities across the country.  These voices should be recognized for their contribution to the fight for civil and human rights, even if their positions differ from those of AAUW and the other national civil rights organizations signing the statement in question.  Moreover, their call for a shift toward focusing on supporting schools – rather than testing, punishing, and closing them – should be recognized as a proposal that has the potential to benefit both students and educators.

In their work for social justice, the AAUW and other civil rights organizations might find considerable common ground with these students, educators, and community members.  With this in mind, it would be encouraging to see new, democratic spaces develop online and in cities across the country: spaces that allow for a dialogue between civil rights organizations, grassroots organizations, unions, policymakers, and education researchers.  As advocates for equity, we have the potential to work toward consensus on the role of assessment in our schools and communities.  Even more so, we have the potential to develop and advocate for a shared vision for educating the children we serve.

Share Your Resistance Story in Teachers on the Front Line

Over the past two decades, corporate reformers have dramatically changed the nature of teaching and learning in the U.S. While these reformers promoted accountability and choice as the way to eliminate the “achievement gap,” educators know that it is precisely these policies that have exacerbated inequalities. In response to these policy changes, teachers across the country have worked independently and collectively to take a stand against state disinvestment, mandated tests, and privatization.unnamed copy

This edited collection will highlight the voices of teachers who have resisted privatization through their individual leadership, union involvement, or grassroots activism. By highlighting the oral histories of teachers engaged in this resistance, this book will contextualize and share the on-the-ground experiences of educators working against privatization throughout the U.S. It will also serve as an organizing tool for teachers, parents, students, school board members, and citizens committed to genuine public education.

This book will be co-edited by Carol Anne Spreen and Lauren Stark, with chapters by critical educators including Molly Tansey and Shannon Finnegan.  To add your story to the project, please contact Lauren at laurenwstark [at] gmail.com

Testimony Against Testing

This week, I’ve been reviewing testimonies from teachers in Delaware against the proposed Priority Schools Plan, which would entail breaking the contracts of teachers and administrators at six Title I schools and using testing and evaluation techniques to try to improve instruction.  Teachers and community members have spoken out against this plan, calling instead for the opportunity to democratically design a plan that meets the needs of these schools and their students.  I am continually amazed by these teachers’ and parents’ individual and collective engagement in education policy, as I am with the engagement of the incredible students in the nearby Philadelphia Student Union.  When I hear their speeches, I am reminded the power of teachers, students, and community members to work collectively for social justice, even in times when policies are designed by the powerful and the rich.

These testimonies remind me of the experiences driving my own research, in particular the opportunity I had almost two years ago to speak out against testing in a testimony at the Texas State Capitol Building.  So, in solidarity with Delaware teachers and my colleagues back in Texas, I’m christening this blog with the transcript from that testimony.  There are certainly things I’d change after a year and a half studying social justice education full-time; most of all, I wish I had refrained from using the deficit language of policy talk (“minority,” “underprivileged,” “achievement gap,” etc.)  It’s a humbling reminder of my own continual learning as a white educator in a deeply inequitable system, especially when compared to the beautiful testimonies by radical educators across the country.

Nevertheless, I remain grateful for this first opportunity to add my voice to the struggle for our public schools, which was a step in the journey that would lead me to researching and writing about the resistance of my fellow educators:

Transcript of Testimony before the House and Senate Education Committees

February 26, 2013

Good morning, members of the House and Senate.

My name is Lauren Ware and I am an eleventh-grade English teacher at Manor High School in Manor, TX. Like many teachers, I entered the profession with hopes of supporting social justice through education and empowering students to become lifelong learners who think critically and independently.

When the 9th grade End-of-Course exam was introduced last year, my colleagues and I found that this test did not accurately assess our students’ writing or critical thinking skills. Instead, we found that the writing prompts were confusing even to experienced teachers. We collaborated to develop strategies to help students learn to meet the requirements of the prompts, but still over half of our ninth-grade students failed the Writing EOC. These results placed great pressure on my colleagues and our students, as it did in schools throughout the state. Following accepted school reform practices, we used targeted methods to improve student performance, such as continual data analysis, practice essays, and triweekly assessments. In doing so, we had no choice but to seek out expensive outside resources. We also had to increase classroom time teaching to the test and decrease classroom time on more rigorous performance-based assessments.

This problem is not unique to our district or our state. The national school reform movement has had an erroneous idea at its heart: the idea that increased testing will improve student performance and that evaluating teachers based on these scores will improve teacher performance. There is no data to support these claims. We know from current research that standardized tests are poor measures of students’ ability to think deeply or creatively. We know that tests are often culturally biased and that minority and underprivileged students are more likely to underperform in high-stakes testing environments.

So, where do we go from here?  I believe that we must shift attention away from testing and toward designing strong curricula that empower students to think critically and independently. I support House Bill 5 and its proposal to reduce the number of tests to four exit-level tests, for this would open up ample time for schools to create more meaningful opportunities to support and assess student growth. We can also offer more rigorous performance-based assessments, such as writing portfolios and senior projects.  

Most crucially, I believe that we as a state and a nation must focus our efforts on recruiting, training, and supporting excellent teachers. Comparative education studies consistently show that student success is driven by teacher training and support. Two top-ranked countries in education, Finland and South Korea, were able to move students forward by attracting teachers from the top of their class and taking the time to train and support them as professionals. Right now, I believe that some of the best and brightest minds in America are already in the teaching profession. Yet, we as a state and a nation are losing almost half of our new teachers in their first five years. We must give our new teachers the room to grow into excellent teachers, and we will only do so if we move on from the misguided reform initiatives that drive so many promising new educators away from the education system.

This is the time to have productive conversations as legislators, educators, and parents about how to better support the instructional and developmental needs of all students in the state of Texas. If we are to truly close the achievement gap in education, we must address inequalities head-on and do everything that we can to give every student a fair chance to succeed. Public education is the greatest of all public goods, and we must do what is right on behalf of Texas children, in part by restoring the $5.4 billion dollars cut from education funding in our state. Please support us by allowing districts the flexibility, funding, and guidance necessary to make Texas schools the most innovative and supportive schools in the nation.