Towards A New Activism

History does not often repeat itself. While the gap between the wealthy and the poor has widened to a degree not seen since the Gilded Age, the reasons for those gaps each arose out of their own peculiar circumstances. This means that it is tough for those who want to fight back against what is happening today to look for historical models. Instead, a totally new approach must be conceived.

Start first with President Obama’s payroll tax “holiday” from this past Friday. Even though it does not destroy Social Security, it shows the way to its destruction. Social Security has always been self-funded. The only problem it ever faced was that it worked too well, causing the federal government under mostly Republican administrations to raid its surpluses in order to pay for the bonehead policies of today, like tax cuts for the wealthy and imperialist war. This “holiday” will temporarily cut off the revenue stream to social security, necessitating that Congress approve the funds to make up the shortfall at a later date. This gives Congress the authority, if they so choose, to deny those funds. In essence, it sets a precedent of putting the continuation of Social Security in the hands of Congress. The supposed “firewalls” that protected the program are being chipped away.

The fact that a Democratic president oversaw such a plan is blasphemous. Social Security is one of the last bulwarks of the New Deal, put into place by a president who shaped Democratic values for generations to come. Now we have a Democratic president who has sold those values out every chance he has gotten. It is tough to see what new values he has put in their place aside from those of the Republican Party.

The public schools in New York got another taste of Obama’s values this past Thursday with the new teacher evaluation agreements. These agreements arose out of New York State’s application for Race to the Top funds, the school reform program instituted by President Obama. Despite Obama’s assurances that RTT is a break from the Republican No Child Left Behind Act, it is merely an acceleration of its standardized testing, charter school-opening vision. The closing of 23 public schools in New York City will surely give birth to more privately run charters. The new teacher evaluation system will give rise to a massive testing and rating regime handled by private corporations.

That has been the common theme of everything Obama has done as president. Whatever benefits the corporate is good. What is good for workers, including the working poor, is destroyed.

Part of the condition of New York receiving RTT funds was that it had to institute new teacher evaluations. As of Thursday’s agreement, those evaluations will be based 40% on the test scores of their students. Subjects and grades that do not currently have testing will need to have them, a boon to the testing companies. The ratings of each teacher will need to be calculated and compiled by outside companies, like Rupert Murdoch’s Pearson, which will surely turn educational statistics into a new boom industry. This is the real Obama stimulus package: sell off parts of the public sector in order to create new industries in the private sector.

Despite the fact that only 40% of teacher ratings will be based on test scores, a teacher will be rated ineffective overall if found deficient on that 40%. Two ineffective ratings will be grounds for termination. You read that correctly. Thanks to Obama, not only is Social Security on the road to extinction, but tenure for New York teachers has been effectively destroyed. Seeing as how New York usually serves as a template for the rest of the country, this will surely mean the destruction of tenure for teachers in other states as well. Obama did what Scott Walker in Wisconsin was trying to do for so long. All Walker needed was a Democratic president to help him.

But of course, Obama could not have done any of this alone. He faces an intractable Republican opposition that has veered so far to the right that Mussolini himself would be jealous. In New York, his RTT could have never destroyed tenure the way it has done without the active complicity of the teachers’ unions. It was Michael Mulgrew, head of the UFT, who lauded the new teacher evaluations as a great deal. What he got for his teachers in that deal remains a mystery. For teachers in New York City, he agreed to allow only 13% of teachers rated ineffective to have access to any sort of due process. Those lucky teachers will most likely be chosen by the union, allowing the Mulgrews of the world to destroy any teacher that challenges the hegemony of his Unity caucus over the UFT.

The Democratic Party and labor unions, institutions that were supposed to have the backs of workers through thick and thin, have put a giant knife through those backs instead.

There really is no precedent for any of this in American history. Those of us who wish to fight back cannot look to historical models to guide a current plan of action. At a fundamental level, the protestors at Occupy Wall Street sensed this. They were not all about marching in the streets like the radicals of the past. Instead, they built a community from scratch based upon open debate, enlightenment and sharing of resources. Their method was an opting out of the profit system. As the walls close in on the American workers all around us, opting out is becoming their only option.

For teachers, a national opt out movement against standardized testing is already afoot. In their book Tinkering Towards Utopia, David Tyack and Larry Cuban sought to explain why so many education reforms of the past have failed. Their conclusion was that these reforms never had the support of classroom teachers. Even though laws were passed and policies were instituted meant to bring about reform, they went nowhere once they filtered down to the classroom level. Either they were impractical or so removed from reality that teachers had no choice but to opt out of them. This, I think, is the only hope of the new teacher evaluation regime being defeated.

The new regime promises to put all curricula and all ratings (students, teachers and schools) in the hands of private companies. Instead of ceding this type of power to the Murdochs of the world, what if teachers threw their bodies on the gears, so to speak, and said “No”? What if they refused to prep their children for standardized exams in favor of teaching kids how to think? What if they told their students and parents to stay home on test days? What if, instead of building the data factories that Obama has mandated, teachers turn their schools into the types of places of learning that they want to see? What if the testing companies had no answer sheets to scan and, therefore, no way to compile data on “effective” and “ineffective” teachers?

Something as bold as this cannot be done through the union. They will never allow teachers to organize communities to this end. Instead, teachers must work outside of the union. They must build their own apparatuses and institutions that allow a grassroots type of organizing. They must build a regime within a regime, one more in touch with the needs of students, teachers and even administrators, so that the union itself becomes irrelevant. Throughout the past 35 years, the Democratic Party and labor unions have been shaping circumstances that leave workers behind. The only solution is for workers, starting with teachers, to shape circumstances of their own in order to leave the people who have sold us out behind.

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11 responses to “Towards A New Activism

  1. I am just wondering how this will play out. I would like to know how they will evaluate a teacher effectiveness, when students are on roster for whatever reasons , and does not show up for class are will not come even if they are getting a million.What about foreign students who shows up three months before the examination , and are expected to pass the American History examination in three months .. Will teachers be held responsible for these students ,and how will the teacher
    be evaluated? … I think the solution is to have your money to pay a private lawyer.. The union wants people to cop out..

    • Those are good questions and, I’m afraid, not even the union has answers to them yet. It is one of those grey areas that have yet to be ironed out. Maybe teachers can create a lawyer’s fund for some sort of class-action suit against the union for selling out tenure rights.

  2. The test companies are making huge profits from this movement. They’re donating millions to the conservatives to push legislation which leads to more testing.

    What if test proctors and/or students could remember just one question from their respective tests, then mail/email that anonymously to a WIkiLeaks-type site which would post the questions? Questions could even be posted on the respective DOE social media page.

    Kids are already talking to their parents about questions on the tests as they drive home from school on test day. So, mom calls her friend who has a child in another district and discusses the question with her. The questions are out there already.

    Since the tests are closely guarded, releasing questions before the test windows/sessions are closed would, effectively, invalidate those questions/tests.

    Also, perhaps the unions/teachers can attack the ethics (or lack thereof) of test administration. Who proctors the tests? The teachers! In fact, the tests are proctored by the teachers who are being evaluated/compensated based on the results of those tests. That seems unethical to me. Add in the fact that test companies use computer software to track “erased and changed” answers. Test sessions with abnormal numbers of changed answers are flagged. In turn, those teachers are investigated.

    I’m not saying I have the answers… just thinking.

    • Those are all interesting proposals. I wonder if there is some civil rights lawsuit to be had here as well, especially concerning the cultural sensitivity (or lack thereof) of these exams for minority and poor students.

      • I would like to believe that the privitization of education has finally made it’s way through the door of NYC schools. Thanks to Mr. Bloomie. Your friends such as Techequiptment, Pearson and the others will get the opportunity to make millions form the DOE and do nothing for the kids. Sorry I forget we will see a surge in assistive technology for all the students who need them as well as those who does not need them.. I am envisioning some similarities of the private companies who give client devices only because it provides a market for the manufacturer and no help for the students.. Teachers will be like registered nurses. There sole purpose is to do the paper work, that is collect data and it will be the school aid that will administer the test.. I think it’s time for educators and parents to fight back or bite back and work deligently to detour this predator that will destroy the very ability their child may have to think… NYC public school system is the largest in the nation so it’s best to destroy the leader and the other schools systems will crumble.. Last but not least I think our many colleges that offer teaching degree are sitting back not realizing that soon there will not be one teacher that will be willing to be trained…

      • As grim as it sounds, I am afraid you are correct. Unless someone (can’t expect the union to do it) can file some sort of lawsuit or teachers and parents can somehow opt themselves out of the new regime totally, the schools in New York City are done for. The teaching profession looks like it is done for as well. As you say, as goes NYC, so goes the rest of the country. Thanks to all of the fake Democrats and union leaders who sold out the children and teachers of New York.

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  6. Cuomo and the rest are completely off base. Has the man ever set foot in a poor, public, rural school district (other than for a photo op)?
    All of the teachers I know would embrace frequent, intensive and fair observations. But the operative word is FAIR.

    Governor Cuomo,
    Is it fair to evaluate me on the student who missed 30 days of school so far this year because he is called out of school to babysit his younger siblings while his mom gets high? Is it fair to evaluate me as a teacher on the test scores of a kid who smokes marijuana before school with his dad and then has his class with me first period?
    My children go to school and, trust me, I want them to have great teachers and a solid education that will allow them to compete – but this is not the way. You are effectively discouraging the best and brightest from entering the field and encouraging your top teachers, especially your STEM, teachers to seek employment in the private sector rather than be subjected to such demeaning and SHALLOW performance reviews.
    Please, be the advocate for kids you claim to be. If you are, you will do what is right for kids and right for the public school system – not what is right for your political career and future presidential aspirations.

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