The passing of the January 17 deadline for a new evaluation agreement is not an ending but a beginning. Now the DOE will work overtime to spin doctor the failure to reach an agreement on new teacher evaluations, mandated by New York State’s version of Race to the Top, as the fault of Michael Mulgrew and union leadership. This despite the fact that every indication shows it was Bloomberg who failed to negotiate in good faith.
While we applaud the UFT leadership for standing their ground, the MORE Caucus has no intention of giving up the fight to prevent our teachers and students from being given over to the standardized testing regime. We know there will be efforts in the future to convert our schools into low-level thinking factories and our teachers into low-skilled, low-paid bureaucratic functionaries.
So, why did the evaluation deal fall through? We believe there is no one particular reason. Instead, there were a variety of reasons all working in concert to torpedo this deal. Understanding these reasons will help us understand what the post-non-evaluation DOE will look like:
Reason #1: Race to the Top is Bad Policy
Probably the most fundamental reason why there was no deal is because Race to the Top is bad policy. This goes beyond anything the UFT, city or state did. This has to do with the Obama Administration’s embrace of standardized testing as a way to measure teacher effectiveness. Obama and his Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, often describe themselves as leaders bent on rolling back the Bush-era No Child Left Behind system of testing. However, their RTTT program merely means more testing and, in many ways, an expansion of the NCLB system. Students, parents and teachers have been steadily crushed by high-stakes tests over the past 12 years that are turning education into a stultifying affair. Both NCLB and RTTT erode creativity, free-thinking and openness in our public schools. This fact leads into the second reason why the deal fell through:
Reason #2: A Growing Backlash against Education Reform
PBS recently ran an hour Frontline special on Michelle Rhee. Despite the fact that Frontline barely scratched the surface on criticizing Rhee’s tenure as D.C.’s school chancellor, the fact that a major national media outlet was critical of her to any degree is quite a development. We have come a long way from the days of when she graced the cover of Time Magazine as the hero education reformer.
At the start of the current school year, the Chicago Teacher’s Union went out on strike against Mayor Rahm Emmanuel’s Obama-inspired school reform agenda. They took to the streets to call for a better school day for children and work day for staff. By all indications, the parents of Chicago stood on the side of the teachers and against Emmanuel’s leadership of the Chicago school system. Again, this represented a change in previous actions by the CTU, whose previous leadership stressed compromise and conciliation with so-called reformers like Emmanuel.
Most recently, the teachers of several Seattle schools opted out of that state’s MAP exam to protest the high-stakes testing regime that has rolled over every school system in the land. Just like the Frontline story and the CTU strike, any type of organized opt-out of an exam would have been unthinkable a few years ago.
People across the country are beginning to realize that the so-called education “reformers” are really the status quo. They have had their way for over a decade and the backlash seems to be afoot.
Reason #3: High-Handed and Un-Democratic School Leadership
Both Michael Mulgrew and Leo Casey have stated that the evaluation deal fell through because of Mayor Bloomberg’s “my way or the highway” approach. This is the type of approach Bloomberg used when he demolished the Board of Education which, for all of its faults, was at least subject to a democratic process. In place of the BOE, Bloomberg created a Panel for Educational Policy whose votes he largely controls. The PEP has been the body that has decided to close over 100 city schools at the behest of the mayor. They have done so over massive protests of parents and community leaders who know how devastating school closures can be to a community. When UFT leaders say the mayor has a “my way or the highway” approach at the negotiating table, we are inclined to believe them.
Unfortunately, the same forces that have given rise to dictatorial mayoral control schemes around the country are also responsible for our own union’s lack of democracy. Since these education reform policies are wholly unpopular, and since our union leaders do not want to be seen as obstacles to “progress”, they have been forced to take a “conciliation” approach with “reformer” mayors who run school districts. In turn, they have been required to turn to increasingly un-democratic means to silence their members who understand that these reforms are harmful to our schools.
Therefore, while we applaud and stick by our union leaders in their resistance to the RTTT evaluation deal, we also understand that most of the work lies ahead of us. This rejection of school “reform” is part and parcel of a wider nationwide backlash against what has passed as “improvement” in education over the past 10 years. This is a backlash that has taken place as a popular movement, not a top-down one.
MORE is on the frontlines of this popular backlash. Our goal is to appropriate the title of “reformer” from those that have it now: Rhee, Bloomberg, Duncan, Emmanuel. The people are beginning to see that these reformers are actually some of the most retrograde and centralizing forces in education today.
The future of school reform is here. It is the democratic voice of the true stakeholders in the education system.