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Advice for Teachers' Unions

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In Shaun Johnson's latest blog he wanders into the minefield surrounding teachers' unions. Like Shaun, I support the idea of unions. However, at this point in time I think we need to openly criticize the unions for their inability to counter the "adults first" narrative and how -- at the leadership level -- the teachers' unions are complicit in the corporate takeover of our public schools and therefore selling out both children and teachers.

First, teachers' unions have been absolutely horrendous in demonstrating how collective bargaining benefits children.

Second, the teachers unions have sold out to the corporate reform movement that will eventually dismantle our public school system.

Last year, after governor Walker took away collective bargaining rights for teachers and Wisconsin exploded, the local media (here in Central PA) contacted me to set up an interview to discuss the issue of collective bargaining. They wanted to know why teachers should be "entitled" to a contract that was collectively bargained. It was a very simple interview for me. I explained how collective bargaining allows teachers to negotiate for the conditions that create an environment that supports learning. Such things as working conditions, class size, teaching resources, aids, and planning time all benefit children. Even when it comes down to salary and benefits the ability to bargain for a fair wage benefits helps children. Teachers (in order to teach powerfully) need to have some feeling of economic stability. This should be common sense. Teachers that have the resources, time, small class sizes, and economic stability make better teachers. What parent doesn't want a better teacher?

However, what I am dumbfounded by the most is the almost 15-year reciprocal relationship the unions and the corporate reformers have cultivated. Think about not advocating for what's best for teachers and children. This is what our unions have done by supporting the Common Core curriculum and Value Added Measurements (VAMs).

The Common Core curriculum will usher in an era of testing and teaching to tests that will make the last ten years of NCLB seem like recess. And as many others have pointed out, there is absolutely no evidence that doing this will make teaching and learning more powerful. In fact, the Common Core curriculum and the "next generation assessments" will create an atmosphere of paranoia and anxiety that will damage the entire teaching and learning process. This is not good for children and teachers.

What about VAMs? What do we know about these statistical models that are supposed to show how much "value" a teacher adds to a child's learning? According to the experts (not the reformers) they just don't work. They have a reliability problem and some have error rates that exceed 40%. Why would the union support using VAMs in teacher evaluations? Isn't it obvious that this is just wrong? Think about the conditions that will exist in our classrooms when teachers start to look at children as data points instead of learners in need of a caring teacher. This is not good for children and teachers.

So what should a supporter of unions do when the unions fail to communicate effectively with local communities and endorse corporate driven reforms that will simply devastate public schools? It is going to take individual stands from union rank and file members -- openly challenging union positions that do not support children, teachers, and communities.

Rank and file members must first help their neighbors understand that collective bargaining benefits the children and the community school. When children and schools benefit, the entire community thrives. Union members must insist that union leadership take a strong stand against the Common Core curriculum and the use of VAMs. These corporate reforms will not only hurt the profession, they will hurt children and community public schools. Union members must then insist that the unions protect members that take these individual stands.

If the unions don't protect individual stands, then what good are they? Along with good working conditions, we need to be focused on the principles associated with powerful teaching and learning. We need to reclaim our schools for the children and families they serve. When we do this, our neighbors that don't get it might come to understand that a strong teacher's union means a strong community school in which powerful teaching and learning thrives. How is this not a benefit for children?

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