Tag Archives: New York City Schools

New York City and its Teachers Want MORE

New York City’s teacher union, the United Federation of Teachers, has been dominated by a caucus known as Unity. This was the caucus formed by Albert Shanker that rolled all of the old, independent teacher unions in NYC into one (hence the name, “Unity”).

And Unity has had a stranglehold on the UFT since Shanker. The UFT is the largest single chapter of the American Federation of Teachers and, it is commonly assumed, as the UFT goes, so does the AFT.

Randi Weingarten’s tenure as UFT president reflects what Unity’s strategy has been for the past 30 years. She took the lead when the teacher-bashing campaign started kicking into high gear. Bloomberg and Klein were floating the meme that teachers were overpaid union bums whose bloated pensions were burdening government coffers. They had fresh ideas for “reform” and bums like Randi were barriers to “progress”.

Instead of fighting Bloom-Klein head-on, she decided to compromise with them on the 2005 contract, giving them much of what they wanted. It is this contract that created the Absent Teacher Reserve crisis and denuded the tenure rights that Shanker had helped institute decades earlier. In short, Unity in 2005 backpedaled on what Unity throughout the 1970s had gained.

Randi is not stupid. She did this because the atmosphere in 2005 was toxic for teachers, much like it is now. The union she led was the bad guy in the public’s mind. Giving back many of the hard-fought rights of teachers might help rehabilitate the reputation of the union, Randi must have thought. At the very least, it would cause the reformers to call off their attack dogs in the media.

Well, none of that happened. Randi gave back those rights and the attacks merely intensified. Meanwhile, Randi catapulted to the leadership of the AFT. I believe she now has her eyes on national office, maybe Secretary of Education. If Obama is inclined to dump Arne Duncan in his second term, who better to mollify the teachers’ unions than Randi? After all, they will not be able to criticize his Race to the Top program if one of their own is on the inside. Although, it is not like the AFT or the NEA have been overly critical of RTTT as it is.

This explains why Randi was recently quoted praising Joel Klein as a man of “integrity”. She seems to feel bad that Joel Klein’s parent company is embroiled in a wire-tapping scandal. “It can’t be fun for him” she explained in a Clinton-esque display of feeling other people’s pain.

Can she feel the pain of all the teachers who are suffering under a contract she negotiated seven years ago?

So, while I recognize that it was the UFT and Unity that had earned the few rights we have left as NYC teachers, I also recognize that it was Unity who gave most of them back. As symbolized by Randi, Unity will do what is good for Unity.

I have been in contact with teachers in urban school districts across the country and they all sing the same song about their unions: they are collaborators in education deform. Los Angeles, Chicago, Newark and all points in between have produced teachers who feel sold out by their unions.

We might not mind so much if there was some give-and-take. Randi collaborated to improve the union’s image, not to mention her own, but it has not stopped the screws from being put to us in the court of public opinion. Randi still comes off as a shrill union hack on the television screen and teachers are still lazy bums living high on the hog.

Then the Chicago teachers made their move. They deposed their collaborator caucus and replace it with the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators. They got rid of all the bloated union salaries at the top; the sinecures occupied by burnouts who have not taught since the Reagan Era. Maybe this is why they are now able to stockpile money to prepare to sustain their members in the case of a strike?

More importantly, they have drawn a line in the sand against their dictator mayor, Rahm Emmanuel, and his Bloomberg-esque plans for ed reform. They have learned that collaboration gets teachers nowhere. Now is the time for resistance.

It is time for teachers in America’s first city to take cues from the second city.

That is why the Movement of Rank-and-File Educators has been formed. Caucus elections are coming up within the next year. There will be a new box to check, next to which will be the acronym MORE.

NYC teachers, when the new evaluation system gets put into place by the start of 2014, the one that will determine your career and the future of your students by value-added, high-stakes testing; the one that will force you out of the system with virtually no due process if the results of those tests are found lacking; the one that will have principals check little boxes on observation reports which judge you on your bulletin boards and the way you dress; never forget who negotiated that system: Unity.

It was Unity whose brass sat in a smoke-filled room with ed deform officials for days hammering out that system. It was Unity who then turned to us and promoted it as the greatest thing since sliced bread. Their line was, “if you think this is bad, you should see what they’re doing in Tennessee.” In other words, this is the best we could hope for in the age of ed deform. In other words, we collaborated so as not to look like barriers to “progress”. In other words, it was Unity business as usual, the same business that saw Randi sell us out in 2005.

Contrast this to MORE. MORE represents that era, hopefully not too far in the future, when people’s patience with “compromise” comes to an end. Compromise has been the Trojan Horse that has destroyed public education over the past 10 years.

No more Trojan Horses. It is time for us to launch a thousand ships against education reform instead.

Or, for now, we will settle for 9:

MISSION STATEMENT (as adopted April 21, 2012)
A – Who we are and why we are forming
1. We are members of the UFT and members of school communities and their allies.

In other words, this is MORE than a caucus. It is a movement in which everyone who has a stake in public education is welcome.

2. We insist on receiving professional dignity and respect, and we insist on a strong, democratic union emerging from an educated and active rank and file. We oppose the lack of democracy and one-party state that has governed our union for half a century. It has conceded to our adversaries’ agendas and has collaborated with their attacks on us, leading to the terrible situation we find ourselves in.

Unity domination means collaboration. This collaboration has been carried out by Unity in an undemocratic way in order to achieve undemocratic ends. It is perfectly in step with the corporate coup that has seized this country over the past three decades. MORE is perfectly in step with the coming backlash against this corporate coup.

3. We insist on a better educational environment for ourselves and for the students whose lives we touch.  Because of this resolve, we have established the MORE Caucus, which will educate, organize and mobilize the UFT membership.

Teachers, through the denuding of tenure and the exaltation of high-stakes testing, have been silenced. This has hampered our ability to speak up for the children, mostly poor and minority, who we teach. In an era when third world poverty is becoming the norm in America’s inner-cities, this is a scary prospect, one that must be resisted at all costs.

B – For an improved contract
4. It is time to end the UFT’s concession to the language and assumptions of the so-called reformers and the wave of concessions and givebacks that result from conceding these assumptions.  We must be prepared to take collective action, if necessary, in defense of our interests, and to achieve a decent contract.

No more Randi Weingartens who, because she has an eye on national office, shares in the data-driven discourse that frames all the discussion around education. Instead of self-aggrandizers who use the union platform to enrich their prospects for power, we need a union that believes that what happens to one of us happens to all of us. Instead of corporate unionism that celebrates individual gain, we want MORE social justice unionism that celebrates solidarity,

5. We seek a contract with retroactive pay, that is not obtained by selling off what few protections remain. We insist on defending tenure, due process rights, pensions, and an immediate end to the arbitrary denial of tenure to probationary teachers. We oppose any teacher evaluations based on standardized tests.

When Randi gave away many of our rights in 2005, she tried to soften the blow by saying that we had received raises. Yet, these were merely cost of living increases that we had been forgoing for years. There was a time when COLA was just part of the deal and did not have to be bought by giving up something of ours. It was an abandonment of one of the hallmarks of public-sector unionism.

And these give-backs put us under the thumb of administrators, from principals on up to the mayor, so that they could lay the ground work for corporate ed deform: ending tenure, perpetual probation for new teachers and high-stakes testing.


C – For quality curricula
6. We stand for a union that recognizes that teacher working conditions are student learning conditions and that, after parents, teachers are best situated to understand the needs of young people.

In the world of education reform, non-educators like Andrew Rotherham and Salman Khan are looked to as experts. People from elite universities who have never taught a day in their lives or spent an hour in an inner-city area have set the standard for what poor children should be learning.

Teaching is a profession to which people dedicate their lives, at least this is how it should be. Just like you would not take medicine that an economist prescribes for you, children should not have to attend schools where the major policies are determined by educrats with no education experience at all.

7. We insist that high stakes tests no longer deprive New York City’s children of exposure to foreign language, science, social studies and the arts.  We insist that curricula taught in our schools be mindful and respectful of the needs and backgrounds of our students, that they nurture in them the potential for active, reflective citizenship, and is committed to racial and gender equity, democracy and economic justice.

High-stakes testing is for public school students. Those are the students that just so happen to be disproportionately poor and minority. Staking everything on exams for a limited number of subjects limits the curriculum. Art, history and English are fading away because math and science are seen as the subjects that will “prepare kids for the 21st century”.

The result of this is that the poorest students will never be exposed to the subjects that would cause them to think critically about the world around them, especially the world of oppression and poverty in which they remain mired. Narrowing the curriculum narrows the horizons of children and is a perfect recipe for the perpetuation of what can be deemed a lumpenproletariat.

D – Our communities, our schools
8. We reject the corporate takeover of the public schools, and the wave of school closures in the city, which have particularly affected poor communities with high proportions of people of color.  We insist on a moratorium on the opening of new charter schools.  We seek to end the cuts to education which have led to increasing class sizes as well as inadequate social, health, guidance personnel and services.

Most of the school closings past, present and future have been accompanied by more charter school co-locations. This means that buildings that were once totally dedicated to public schooling are being eroded away to make room for corporate charters. At the same time that public schools are seeing their budgets slashed and vital programs jettisoned, more and more public funding has been made available to charter schools. When you consider that charters skim the best public school students of a community and are able to expel the ones that give them the most problems, it means that more resources are going to kids that do not need it as much as the kids from whom they are being taken.

This is the latest form of segregation. Charters segregate based on family background and ability within communities that are already segregated by race. It is hyper-segregation.

9. The schools should be the people’s schools.  We stand for democratic governance and popular control of our school system that fully reflects the needs, aspirations and diversity of those who make up its parent and student body. Mayoral control, which is inherently undemocratic, must be abolished, and be replaced by an elected people’s board of education which represents the interests of teachers, students, parents, and community.

The people who sing the praises of school “choice” are the same people who applaud big city mayors around the country who dissolve popularly elected school boards in favor of corporate-style, CEO management from the top. It is telling how the whole movement for “choice” has seen a new generation of educational leaders who exercise more power over public education now than at any other point in our history. When is the last time any Secretary of Education exercised as much power as Arne Duncan?

The term “choice” is a subterfuge that masks the fascistic manner in which education reform has been instituted.

MORE is where the real education reform is.

New York City and the “School to Prison Pipeline”

The most recent issue of Rethinking Schools has sparked debate on how the education system criminalizes children. The issue features an interview with Michelle Alexander, author of the important book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindess. In part, she blames zero tolerance policies in many schools, where small infractions on the part of students are met with heavy punishments like suspension or prosecution. These policies prematurely end up introducing children to the justice system by criminalizing behaviors common to many young people. Inspired by this piece, Alan Singer of The Huffington Post has run a few articles (here and here) about the prison-like atmosphere in many New York City public schools. He talks about how students are introduced to the criminal justice system early for fairly trivial transgressions on school grounds.

They are mostly right. As a basketball coach, I get to see the inside of dozens of different schools in New York City. School Safety Agents, who work for the New York City Police Department, often bark at us as soon as we get through the door. They want everyone to sign in, show ID and go through metal detectors. While my boys only have to endure this for the moment they are visiting the school (our own school does not have metal detectors), the students who attend these schools have to do this every single day. I can imagine how demoralizing it must be to empty your pockets and be scanned every time you walk into the building. Once the kids are inside, there is no coming out until the end of the day. There is certainly something prison-like about this atmosphere.

However, as a high school dean of many years, I have to take issue with the entire zero tolerance issue. There has been no zero tolerance policy in any school in which I have worked. Most principals around the city are actually afraid of suspending kids or calling the police, since that all goes into the School Environment Survey that impacts a school’s report card grade. The schools that have the lowest rate of violent incidents are the ones who best underreport those incidents, not necessarily the safest. In my old school, there would be times when students would assault teachers, bring weapons or sell drugs without it resulting in any disciplinary action at all. Charter schools are a different story, since they have the weapon of automatic expulsion at their disposal, something regular public schools do not have.

There need not be a zero tolerance policy in place for a school to feel like a prison. There was an incident that occurred when I was a dean of a particularly violent and troubled boy assaulting one of his teachers. The police were called and they asked if the teacher wanted to press charges. The teacher refused, perhaps out of fear of sending the young boy back to juvenile hall, at which point the police washed their hands of the matter. We asked the cops what could be done and they advised me to search the boy every day as he arrived at school. Having a naïve concern for civil rights, I asked if that was not a violation of improper search and seizure, prompting the police officer to say “it’s your school, you can search whoever you want. You don’t need a reason” Nothing brought home to me more the type of netherworld schools can be than that statement. It was quite chilling.

The truth is, zero tolerance is just one path in the school-to-prison pipeline. What New York City does is very different, yet the result is the same. When kids are welcomed by metal detectors every day, when they are subject to arbitrary search at any time, when surveillance cameras are installed, they are subject to the same type of unfreedom that exists in the prison system. At the same time, when learning standards are eroded, when standardized testing becomes the engine of all instruction and when the small schools provide no enrichment opportunities, you make it clear that the only thing that is expected of children is criminality. There is very little left that resembles a place of learning. Children of the inner cities already come from a world of limited horizons where they only know their five-block radius. Our schools do nothing to expand those horizons. Our schools merely confirm the culture of low expectations that already exist in the inner cities.

In fact, the utter lack of discipline in New York City schools, through education law and through the underreporting policies of many principals, ensures that children develop a very keen criminal nature. The only enrichment activity that is allowed is criminality. There are no other outlets for children and nothing else is expected of them. Zero tolerance policies criminalize students and introduce too many of them prematurely to the criminal justice system. Our schools in NYC are already prisons. Like all prisons, the end result is not rehabilitation of the criminal nature, but a refinement of it.

To some extent, schools have always had this resemblance to prisons. Only the individual teacher, through providing a nurturing and inquisitive classroom environment, or through establishing enrichment activities, could mitigate the impacts of this prison structure. But today, in the era of education reforms that destroy the power of individual teachers, this type of nurturing classroom environment is tougher to come by. By harassing the most veteran teachers out of the system and replacing them with Teach for America mercenaries from the suburbs, the cultural understanding that veteran teachers used to provide is vanishing. These things, combined with the increasing obsession with standardized testing, turns the teacher into a correctional officer who barks out arbitrary orders to the people in their charge. “Sit down. Answer this question, You need to know this. If you do not pass this test, you do not graduate. No excuses.”

So while Alan Singer is essentially correct in positing that our schools resemble prisons, zero tolerance policies have little to do with it. Instead, our schools are set up to anticipate and foster criminality in children.