Tag Archives: MORE (Movement of Rank and File Educators)

The DOE’s Future and MORE’s Winning Strategy

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I became a tenured teacher in 2003. Between September of 2000 and June of 2003, I would walk into the main office of my school to see my name on the list of probationary teachers. These were the teachers who had yet to receive tenure. Then, at the start of the 2003 school year, my name was off the list. I did not throw myself a party nor did my principal make any type of to-do about it.

However, I think receiving tenure in the New York City Department of Education today is an accomplishment that calls for the throwing of a party, like a Bar Mitzvah or Confirmation. In fact, I cannot remember the last time a teacher with whom I have worked has received tenure. There is an excellent and dedicated teacher at my school who is in her 4th year and, not surprisingly, got her probation extended another year last year.

This is a trend happening all over the city. Teachers are being denied tenure one or two years in a row before they are unceremoniously herded out of the system. How dedicated or effective a teacher is matters not. Principals are obviously under pressure from the DOE to deny tenure as much as possible. Even worse, tenure is not what it used to be, especially with the Race to the Top evaluation system now in place.

Many veteran teachers, myself included, have expressed outrage over the lack of ownership demonstrated by NYC teachers over their profession and their union. The vast majority did not even bother to cast a vote in the most recent union elections.

Yesterday I ran into a former colleague who retired last year. She looked very rested and happy. I saw on her face the joy she must have felt for not having to be evaluated by exam scores or implement a set of ill-conceived standards. My words to her were “you got out at the right time” and she totally agreed.

This is a teacher of the baby boom generation, that massive sector of the American workforce who is starting to collect Social Security and Medicare. Many baby boomers in the DOE must feel as if they are sprinting through a mine field, hoping to make it to retirement safely before a bad evaluation hobbles their chances of a peaceful dotage.

With the exodus of the baby boom generation, as well as the revolving door of Gen Xer and Millennials brought about by the rampant denial of tenure, we should wonder no more as to why teachers in NYC are not taking ownership of their working conditions. The fact of the matter is very few teachers in the system look into the near and distant futures and see themselves working inside of a DOE school building.

So voting in union elections, going to union meetings, attending protests of the Panel for Educational Policy and the rest of the things that activist teachers do must seem like a whole bunch of useless work to young and veteran teachers alike. They cannot be blamed for this. There surely are many young teachers who intended to make education their life’s work, or many older teachers who would have wanted to stay on just a little bit longer, but cannot do so due to the efforts of Pharaoh Bloomberg and his Queen Consort, Dennis Walcott, to turn public school teaching into a temporary gig.

And then there is that other group of younger teachers who are working on their administrative licenses. Generally speaking, they tend to teach non-core or non-academic classes, tend to not be very dedicated to what they do inside of the classroom and tend to not be very good at whatever it is they do inside of the classroom. This is just what I have seen from my experience. I am sure there are plenty of exceptions. This young crop, many of whom are more likely to get tenure if they do not already have it, may not be longed for the DOE either.

With the prospect of a Bill de Blasio mayoralty starting in 2014, many people are expecting big changes to Department of Education headquarters at the Tweed Courthouse. De Blasio has never really been a fan of Tweed. I hear stories everyday through the grapevine of Tweedies and people from the various DOE networks jumping ship to other jobs in anticipation of the de Blasio era. There seems to be a general sense that he is going to clean house once he inhabits Gracie Mansion, which is certainly welcome news to teachers who care about public education. If this is indeed the case, where will these young people with administrative hopes go?

Years ago there was a young teacher at our school who fit the description of the bureaucracy-climber described above. He taught with us for one year before getting an assistant principal’s job somewhere else. He was an AP for around one year before going off to work at Tweed doing God knows what. From what I saw of him, the only skill he mastered was the ability to kiss the right posteriors, and he mastered this better than most anyone I have ever seen. What will become of him and those of his ilk? Will the ass-kissery that is their stock-in-trade be less of an asset (no pun intended) in de Blasio’s DOE?

Chances are, the field of administrative sinecures at the DOE will greatly decrease in the near future. That means these young teachers either have to be really lucky, really connected or really dedicated to making things work as a classroom teacher. Barring these things, they will have to find another profession or another school system.

That means that the next few months and years will be a time of great flux in the DOE. Current and aspiring Tweedies are going to be jumping ship. Principals will be trying to weed out the probationary teachers to whom they have refused tenure. More baby boomers will retire once they get the chance. And, finally, if the recent Daily News and New York Post hit pieces are any indication, Bloomclot is on one last push to get those teachers awaiting termination hearings out of the door.

So who is left in the system that has the most vested interest in improving our students’ learning conditions? First, there are teachers like me, the veteran 30-somethings to whom retirement is a distant prospect. Second, there are the first-year teachers who have come out of traditional teacher education programs (that is to say, not Teach for America), whose prospects for tenure might be better in three years under a de Blasio DOE than they are now in the Bloomclot DOE. Finally, there are the teachers of the Absent Teacher Reserve, the ATRs, who generally are veterans who continue to rotate from school to school without classes of their own.

If MORE wants a shot at winning the next UFT elections, these are the groups to whom they must appeal. These are the people who will most likely hunker down in the DOE for the long haul. If recent history is any guide the younger generation, the ones who elected Obama and de Blasio and started Occupy Wall Street, will be receptive to the “social justice” aspect of MORE’s platform. Social justice, however, must ride the coattails of bread-and-butter union issues and not the other way around.

MORE must paint for teachers a picture of what the teaching profession can look like. Solid workplace protections, small class sizes, a deemphasizing of standardized testing and a respect for the autonomy of educators as professionals, these are the things that will matter in the upcoming union elections. Thanks to a crop of new principals who have imbibed the Bloomclot method of systematic workplace bullying; thanks to the budget cuts that have swelled the size of our classes; thanks to the Race to the Top evaluations that have institutionalized the standardized testing regime; thanks to the prospect of Common Core that takes so much of the joy and creativity out of education, the imprint of over a decade of reformer philosophy will be felt in our schools for some time. MORE must attack each of these things head-on with an alternative vision of what the teaching profession in NYC can be.

Doing these things will paint MORE as a stark and highly desirable contrast to the Unity leadership of our union that has been complicit in this reformer legacy. They can paint the Unity method of caving to the reformers as the stuffy old status quo. Seasoning their rhetoric with the right amount of social justice will set them up to be the next wave of civil rights leaders, much like the reformers started using the language of civil rights over a decade ago to give their destructive policies a pious sheen into which the general public bought. MORE, by properly tailoring their message what promises to be the backbone of our union in the decades to come, can become a legitimate threat to the Unity stranglehold on power.

MORE will take a step towards building this new union coalition tomorrow with the “Win Back Wednesday” rally tomorrow at 4:00 pm outside of UFT headquarters at 52 Broadway. I will be there and hope to see you there as well.

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A DEFENSE OF SOCIAL JUSTICE UNIONISM

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Social justice unionism, from what I understand, is a philosophy which holds that bread-and-butter union issues are inseparable from wider issues of equality for all people. The union and the society are symbiotic. A setback in the union’s working conditions is a setback for equality everywhere. Increasing inequality somewhere else is a setback for the union’s working conditions.

My understanding of what social justice unionism means could be off but this is how I have understood it up until now. Something like this, I believe, is what MORE means when they claim to be the social justice caucus of the UFT. Again, feel free to correct me if I am mistaken.

Recently, some fellow bloggers I respect have raised questions about MORE’s strategy of social justice unionism. One of them has been Chaz of Chaz’s School Daze. I respect Chaz. We are blogroll partners and always will be. In fact, I encourage everyone to visit and follow his blog.

At one point, Chaz made the following prediction for the 2013 UFT elections:

Union Election: Look for Michael Mulgrew and Unity to easily win the election.  Their only competition will be the newly formed caucus MORE.  However, MORE seems to be drifting more and more to the left, no pun intended.  More’s emphasis seems to be “social justice”and not teacher based issues which will cause many teachers who have been disenfranchised by “Unity” to think twice about voting for MORE. Personalty, I would never vote for TJC because of their emphasis on the “social justice” issues.  However, as ICE and TJC have now merged, the “social justice” issues of TJC appears to have won out over the more teacher-centered ICE as the main platform for MORE. I predict that many teachers will probably sit out the election and result in another landslide victory for “Unity” and that is too bad. It will be interesting to see if those “fifth columnists” E4E actually runs in the elections.  It will be even more interesting to see how many real supporters they have?

To start from the end, I totally agree that the misleadingly named “Educators4Excellence” caucus is a “5th column”. They are the resident astroturf group funded by Democrats for Education Reform who, if they had their way, would immediately hand over the school system to the privatizers. Considering their agenda involves inundating our children with high-stakes tests and a revolving door of inexperienced teachers, there is nothing excellent about the way they wish to “educate”. Most E4E people are rookies themselves. One of them should put their money where their mouth is and show the world how “excellent” they are at teaching.  Why not have a teach-off competition with yours truly? I would put my veteran, professional, “sage on the stage” teaching style up against any E4E rookie.

Chaz is also right to assume that E4E will barely register a blip on the radar in the upcoming elections. Unfortunately for E4E, dollar bills cannot cast ballots. Despite their material advantages their message consistently fails to resonate with the rank-and-file. This makes E4E little more than a rump group of social climbers scattered sporadically throughout our sprawling education system. Their inevitable flaccid showing in the upcoming election will be their death knell. If they don’t make headway this year, then when will they ever do so?

So that means the biggest players in this election will be the establishment juggernaut Unity caucus and the plucky upstart MORE caucus. Chaz believes, with some justification, that Unity will dominate. Why wouldn’t he? Unity always dominates. These elections have traditionally acted as rubber stamps for Unity’s stranglehold on power.

Yet, I believe Chaz underestimates the social justice unionism for which MORE stands. Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that Chaz is correct about MORE’s social justice platform outweighing their concern for the bread-and-butter  issues of teacher rights and working conditions. Even if this was the case (which I don’t think it is), MORE still has a stiffer pro-teacher platform than Unity can ever hope to have. For example, MORE has consistently opposed the Race to the Top evaluation framework to which Unity agreed in negotiations at this time last year. This framework, as I think Chaz would agree, was designed to effectively short-circuit tenure with its “two years in a row of ineffective ratings and you’re out” policy. On top of this, MORE was fundamentally opposed to the un-democratic manner in which Unity handled this whole teacher evaluation fiasco. Not only did they not seek out the input of the rank-and-file, they explicitly stated that the rank-and-file’s input was not welcome.

I think MORE beats Unity hands-down when it comes to standing up for our working conditions and professionalism.

However, I disagree with Chaz’s contention that the social justice unionism aspect of MORE is eclipsing their bread-and-butter stances. Like I said at the start of this piece, social justice unionism is also bread-and-butter unionism. From my perspective, the two work symbiotically and not against each other.

For example, MORE is adamantly against charter school co-locations. In fact, MORE is against the opening of any new charter schools whatsoever. Not only do charter schools drain resources from the public schools with whom they share buildings (taking up classrooms, gym space, auditoriums, offices, etc.), charter school teachers are at-will employees with absolutely zero union protection. A stance against charters entails both a stance against taking resources away from the neediest children and a stance against turning the teaching force into low-skill, low-wage employees. Contrast this to Unity’s support for charter schools, their refusal to fight against co-locations and their inability to unionize even a fraction of the charter school teaching force.

The same types of things can be said for most of the rest of MORE’s platform. As urban teachers, Chaz and myself both see how poverty hamstrings many of our children’s efforts to learn. Both Chaz and myself understand that ameliorating poverty would greatly improve the ability of our children to learn. Therefore, MORE’s stance against the specter of childhood poverty in general would also improve our working conditions as teachers. We would not have to compensate as much for the basic materials, skills and knowledge our children lack due to poverty.

Again, not to continually put words in Chaz’s mouth, but I think he would agree with most of what I said here. It seems as if Chaz’s criticism is that MORE has gone so far “left” that they have lost sight of the importance of protecting our rights as teachers. On the other hand, I say that the best way to improve our rights and conditions as teachers is to go in that so-called leftward direction, although I do not subscribe to the notion that MORE is a leftist group.

Finally, there are two other reasons why it might be wise for us as teachers to hitch our wagons to the star of social justice unionism.

First, as a practical matter, MORE’s social justice stance allows them to say that they are truly putting students first. Michelle Rhee and other so-called reformers in control of school systems around the country have been able to gain traction with the public by clothing their reforms in the rhetoric of putting “students first”. Yet, any real insight into the matter reveals that “students first” is just that: rhetoric. The explosion of a billion-dollar edu industry over the past 10 years, manifested in the form of firms like Pearson and Wireless Generation, demonstrates exactly who has benefited from the age of Rhee-esque school reform. Children mired in poverty still struggle in school as badly as they ever did while edu-biz has ballooned exponentially.

So, if “students first” has worked for Michelle Rhee, why can it not work for MORE? MORE has the added advantage of actually meaning it when they say “students first”.

Second, I think teaching is a social justice act by nature. Teachers play a vital role in a complex socioeconomic system. Their influence can either help children accept the world as it is (including the inequalities by which those same children are victimized) or it can give children the foundation necessary to question the world as it is and the audacity to envision something better. In short, teachers who refuse to see their role as part of a larger, unjust system merely end up perpetuating that system by transferring its assumptions to the next generations. As teachers, we all have a duty to defend social justice.

This does not mean that I believe Chaz is unaware of any of this. Quite the opposite, it is obvious Chaz is keenly sensitive to his role as a teacher and cares deeply about the well-being of his students. Honestly, I think the issue here is one of semantics. It is understandable that some teachers might be put off by the language of “social justice”. It conjures up imagery of angry young idealists breathing fire against “the system” or mohawked anarchists shattering windows in a fit of childish “rage against the machine”. Who wants their union run by people like this? Not me and not Chaz.

However, social justice unionism is nothing of the sort. Indeed, it is a rational, reasonable, sensitive, pragmatic and just approach to unionism. Just like Chaz, it understands that the lives of teachers and the lives of students are inextricably linked. It understands the realities of poverty being the number one determinant in scholastic achievement.

While I understand that many of my union brothers and sisters might be put off by some of the language of social justice unionism, I think many of them have far more in common with the cause of social justice than they want to admit.

And what is the alternative? The same conciliatory, top-down, corporate unionism that has seen our rights, our working conditions and our schools deteriorate over the past decade? Not only have the corporate unionists who have wielded power for so long seen this happen, they have helped make this happen.

I readily admit that our union has gained for us many rights over the past few decades for which we should be thankful. The bulk of those rights were won during the 1960s and 1970s, when the political consciousness of the nation was more awakened. There would be no way the union could act corporate and get away with it. But now it is 2013, the dystopian future of urban wastelands and dumbed-down electorates that was predicted in many a 1960s novel. The union no longer has to fear the wrath of a shrewd people. They have taken advantage of this situation by enriching themselves and selling us out in this modern age of reform. In order for the union to make a comeback, to gain the kind of traction it had when it won all of those rights for us, it must help awaken the population again, even just a little bit.

If yesterday’s rally at UFT headquarters was any indication, that awakening is happening. This is why I support social justice unionism