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Educating for Democracy: A Split in the Teachers Unions

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At its representative Assembly meeting in New Orleans on July 3, NEA President Dennis Van Roekel was critical of the Obama administration's use of standardized test scores to evaluate the success of public schools. He asked the 9,000 delegates to put pressure on their representatives to get the law changed so that other factors could be included in evaluating the schools for federal education aid. By forcing educators to "teach to the test," Van Roekel stated, subjects other than math and English are given less attention and that using these tests to discredit public schools can lead to shifting their funds to private schools through vouchers. Some of the speakers called for Duncan's resignation.

When Obama ran for President, both major teachers' unions supported him as an "education reformer." What the NEA seems to feel is that Obama's program is basically a newly branded version of Bush's No Child Left Behind agenda with some more money added on a competitive model, not the kind of arrangement favored by teachers who believe far more in collaborative efforts.

This public criticism of Obama's education program is in contrast to that of Randi Weingarten, president of the AFT (American Federation of Teachers) who has stated that

to call for more frequent and more rigorous evaluations of public schoolteachers, and . . . standardized test scores and other measures of student performance should be an integral part of the evaluation process.

Faced with accusations of "union obstructionism" both by conservatives and elements in the Democratic party that support Obama's program, Weingarten decided to get what she must have felt was "the best deal" both in NYC with Mayor Bloomberg and with the growing trend toward "accountability." What is on the horizon, according to a report first appearing the The Buffalo News on July 14, is that a new study by Daniel Koretz and Jennifer Jennings that was commissioned by Board of Regents' Chancellor Merryl Tisch and State Education Commisioner David Steiner seems to indicate that Mayor Bloomberg's "miraculous rise in test scores" is not an outcome of genuine improvement in student learning but by manipulation of tests and test scores. I believe that this is a reflection of the entire "accountability" movement, but intend to deal with the issue in a wider context when the report is finally released later in the year.

However, if we go by past precedents, facts don't seem to have the desired impact when it comes to educational "priorities." When Rod Paige was Secretary of Education in the first years of the Bush Administration, he was hired in part on the basis of his successes in the Houston school system where he was superintendent of schools. His emphasis on high-stakes testing and other elements of "accountability" were adopted by Bush as part of his No Child Left Behind "reform" of the educational system. A 60 Minutes report exposed many dropout rates touted in the "Houston Miracle" as false. Not only were dropout rates falsified, but Houston area teachers admitted to raising test scores (for which they received cash bonuses) by cheating. Paige resigned a few months later.

These same problems are happening in schools around the country under the Obama plan, "Race to the Top," but I fear that the Koretz-Jennings report will have little impact on the President's program. It would be encouraging for the future of public education if the AFT were to disavow the methodology of "Race to the Top" as a similar fraud when the report comes out, or at least demand that the program needs to be halted and offer alternatives of which there are many. It is for posterity to judge and future generations to suffer the consequences when teachers are no more highly regarded than well-programmed robots and public education is no longer associated in any sense with the word "quality." I can only hope that the AFT will realize that it is going down the wrong path and make common cause with the NEA for the sake of the future of young learners.

For those of you who might be interested in my take on "high-stakes testing," I invite you to my YouTube link, called "The Lessons."