THE BLOG
12/11/2013 11:58 am ET Updated Feb 10, 2014

The Principles That Unite Us

During my two decades as an American Federation of Teachers member, I often worried that we were too moderate. Truth be told, I bet most teachers union members and leaders have shared such concerns. Each time I took a dispassionate look at the political facts we faced, however, I supported our leaders' willingness to remain team players and to compromise. Compromises, even painful ones that were likely to hurt our schools in the short run, were our only way to survive and protect our colleagues and students. As my AFT local president explains, "school improvement is a marathon, not a sprint."

The AFT, along with our NEA brethren and civil rights and community groups are launching a $1.2 million dollar counter-attack on corporate reform. The timing is perfect. The test-driven reform movement has spent its millions of dollars on scorched earth politics. The federal government has wasted billions of dollars on blame-the-teacher, market-driven reforms and coerced states into squandering tens of billions of dollars on the educational equivalent of Intelligent Design. Educators chafed, tried to contribute some realism to the accountability hawks' top-down micromanaging and tried to perform the adult role of tempering the true believers in "disruptive innovation."

The task of documenting their folly, however, often fell to Diane Ravitch and her followers. I was slow in recognizing the truth that Ravitch uncovered; A naïve crusade claiming that classroom instruction, alone, could overcome generations of poverty had morphed into "corporate reform."

Market-driven reformers oversimplified and personalized complex issues. Their high-dollar public relations campaign demonized teachers and unions, as well as school systems. Accountability-driven reformers once seemed on the verge of accomplishing their governance goal of destroying the educational "status quo," i.e. local school boards, education schools and collective bargaining. Their scorched earth tactics won political victory after victory.

Inside schools, their experiments produced twenty years of failure. By now, they should have learned that it is easier to kick down a barn than build one.

So, the time is right for educators to reintroduce our old-fashioned, sensible, evidence-based approach to school improvement. "The Principles that Unite Us" presents a balanced game plan for communities and labor to unite for educational and social justice. Wisely, it does not dwell on the "disingenuous strategies" of liberals, who had been our allies for justice, but who tried a doomed shortcut -- a bubble-in path to a supposed civil rights revolution.

They claimed that test-driven accountability could bring equity to neighborhoods with extreme concentrations of generational poverty and trauma. They had their twenty-year-long trial run. Nowadays, for instance, who in Philadelphia would believe that reform has benefited poor children of color? As "The Principles that Unite Us" explains, "Our most vulnerable children become collateral damage in these reforms."

After a generation of trying to impose "transformational innovation," output-driven reform has deteriorated into a one-trick pony. It is now corporate reform. You can say they want to impose corporate governance on public education. Or, you can say that they advocate for an extreme culture of competition. Either way, children are treated as the metrics that reformers hoped to use to defeat educators. The non-educators who sought to refashion schools in the own image now have a dismal record to defend. Today, patrons understand:

For the past 20 years, we have watched as corporate interests attempt to dismantle public education and create a new, market-based system of schooling. Their strategies include ever-expanding regimes of high-stakes tests, attacks on the collective bargaining rights of educators and aggressive school closures that pave the way for privately managed schools. The first targets for this approach have been urban African-American and immigrant communities. Yet despite dismal educational results, those advocating a corporate agenda are now also targeting rural and suburban school districts with their disruptive interventions.

The union is issuing a balanced diagnosis of the problem schools face. It opposes:

Strategies [to] take away the public's right to have a voice in their schools, and inherently create winners and losers among both schools and students.

The creation of charter schools for the purpose of privatization.

School closures [that] have become a strategy to transfer students from public to privately operated schools.

This community and labor coalition supports:

High-quality early childhood programs that nurture learning and social development.

Community Schools that provide supports and services for students and their families.

Expanded learning time, collaboration and whole-school reform, with all stakeholders at the table.

Teachers mourn the continuing dysfunction of too many poor schools. Experience has taught us the painful truth that there are no quick fixes for educational failure. Reformers came with the sword but now it is clear that divisiveness is not the answer. Perhaps we can convince some of the reformers who have attacked teachers for the last generation to rejoin us for the long haul.