The Future of Our Schools: Some Reflections

I was very excited to receive Lois Weiner’s new book, The Future of Our Schools: Teachers Unions and Social Justice, in the mail.  Here’s my review of it for Socialist Worker.  Read my review, then read the book.  Then, get all your friends to read it, and discuss how it applies to your situation.

That’s what I want to do now, with this blog post: beyond what I already wrote in the review, I want to talk about the relevance of Weiner’s outlook to Rhode Island.  Some of this will apply to the work done by the Coalition to Defend Public Education and the Teachers for a Democratic Union in Providence; some of it will apply narrowly to my own suburban context.  I hope you’ll bear with me through this; I invite your comments on any aspect of what follows.

The Parameters of the Assault

“At the same time, teaching has become more demanding that it was just a few years ago, due to larger class sizes, cuts in support services, and more autocratic administration.  Working with young people is harder because of the social devastation caused by unemployment and increased poverty.  Teachers are worried, tired, and often frightened.”  (18)

“Laws requiring children’s compulsory attendance at school make children captive in classrooms.  When I say this to teachers, they are startled, and understandably so.  They don’t view their students as prisoners.  However, it’s critical for union activists to remember that students are indeed captive and if teachers are not doing their jobs well enough, students can be harmed.”  (22)

“Neoliberalism has succeeded in making many schools that serve children of working and poor families little more than training grounds for the factory—or prison.  It’s both morally essential and practical that teachers and unions stand up for children’s human needs.”  (25)

When I read the first quotation, I thought that Lois Weiner must have been spying on my professional life for some time already.  All of the above apply to my suburban district, and I’m certain it applies in the urban districts as well.  It’s a description of an institution under attack, and all the people inside it are under attack and have to learn how to work together.  I fear that much of what we’ve seen prior to September 2012 consists of the tightening of the screws and the taking out of the pressure on each other.  In my building, I certainly have seen the pressure applied to teachers, who then take it out on the students in the form of harsher discipline and more punishing pedagogy.

Of course, there are promising signs that this tide is about to turn.  The Chicago Teachers’ Strike and now the teachers at Garfield HS in Seattle are fighting back not just in their own interests, but for their students as well.  The Seattle example is striking because here is a relatively small group of teachers in one school, whose action—not initiated by their union, only endorsed after the fact—has shifted the terms of the national debate around standardized testing.  By their own direct action in the school, “on the shop floor” if you will, they are taking on an aspect of the neoliberal attack that affects teachers and students differently, but both negatively.  It lays the basis for solidarity between teachers, parents and students.  And, it’s a question of the way that testing provides an avenue for private interests to get their hands on public schools’ money.

 “NCLB’s purported aim of increasing educational opportunity masks its key purpose: to create a privatized system of public education that has a narrow, vocationalized curriculum enforced through use of standardized tests.” (148)

“NCLB’s passage follows on the failure of the civil rights movement’s reforms to equalize educational opportunity.”  (151)

“NCLB definitively breaks this pattern by presuming that if children are not succeeding in school, responsibility rests with the school—and not the children.  But in so doing, it destroys the structure and organization of a publicly funded and ostensibly publicly controlled system of education begun more than a century ago.”  (152)

These three short quotations encapsulate the pedagogical program of neoliberalism.  It’s precisely this that Antonio Gramsci criticizes about Mussolini’s fascist education reform in Italy in the 1920s in his essay On Education.  That should give us some perspective!  I think it’s worth recalling one of Gramsci’s points from this essay: he argued in favor of the classical curriculum, which featured the teaching of Latin.  In many ways, it seems a conservative argument, akin to the arguments made by neoconservatives in the 1980s (and today in Arizona, among other places) against women’s and ethnic studies programs.  But Gramsci’s point was quite different.  His notion was that the classical model, through the study of Latin and its evolution over time, gave students an opportunity to explore the rise and fall of the Roman Empire.  They gained insight into the foundation of great civilizations, and how they’re ruled.  This made sense for the education of the rich men (and it goes without saying—European) whose future was to be the rulers of society.  Gramsci makes the point that this type of education—the complete opposite of the narrow, vocational curriculum Weiner criticizes—is essential to the training of students to become rulers of society.  And he himself is a proponent of making all students ready to become rulers of a society that is governed collectively and thoroughly democratically.  You can see why reactionaries from Mussolini to the Walton family would tremble at this thought.

But it also points to something important: the failure of the last round of radicalization.  I don’t see this as a failure of individuals, but rather a) a failure of politics: much of the momentum from that radicalization was absorbed by a Democratic Party that was never much of a friend, and that abruptly followed the right-wing march of the GOP from the mid-1970s to the present day; and b) a failure of momentum.  I’ve written about this last part a bit in a piece published on this blog—one of the most frequently viewed as well.  In sum: As the mid-1970s approached, the last battle of the civil rights movement was fought out in Boston, where the Democratic Party organized racist white mobs to stop the integration of Boston schools through busing.  They were ordered to integrate the schools by a federal judge, but it was the last pro-civil rights ruling from a federal judge in that era.  The next ruling forbade the formation of “mega-districts” so as to integrate the cities with the suburban districts for the sake of racial integration.  Shortly thereafter, the right-wing attack on affirmative action kicked into high gear, accompanied by the massive assault on unions.  The economic attacks went hand-in-hand with the racist attacks. And our side was adequately prepared to face neither.

The last point: NCLB undermines the basis of public education.  The focus on the collective responsibility for education may resonate with liberals—hence the reason that so many ed reformers are liberals.  Note that there’s a Democrats for Education Reform, but not a Republicans for Education Reform.  But it’s also a failure of the US political system to adequately represent the real politics of our society.  I’m convinced that a large number of people who call themselves “liberals” believe that the government should take care of the society, and that public control of sectors such as education is appropriate.  These people are actually social-democrats (in an era when the Social-Democrats of Europe have become neoliberals).  But we never even had a social-democratic formation in the US to represent this portion of the population.  The emergence of a left alternative to the Democratic Party—even one that took this simple social-democratic step—would be a major breakthrough for the fight to defend public education.

Social Movement Unionism

“No small group of officers, however intelligent or conscientious, can by themselves, or with the help of the dwindling number of politicians who support public education, substitute for the informed involvement of a mobilized membership.  Democracy seems inefficient because it can be messy.  Decisions take longer because more ideas and voices are involved in the process.  However, the democratic process yields decisions that are often wiser, precisely because the problem has been seen from different, even contradictory perspectives.  And in the end, the process generates decisions that will be more strongly defended—by more people.”  (35)

“…social movement unionism is at the heart of that struggle.  It is the alternative to the service or business model.  A social movement union casts the union’s strength as a function of its ability to mobilize its members to struggle on their own behalf.  Union power comes from the bottom up, as it does in social movements.  Union leaders offer direction and support for organizing, rather than telling members that their role is to let union officials set union policy.”  (36)

“I use the term ‘social movement’ union rather than ‘social justice’ union, which may be more familiar to some readers, because I think ‘social movement’ union addresses the need for unions’ internal transformation, especially the need for union democracy.  Social movement unionism gets at the relationship between the union’s organization and its vision of social justice.”  (36)

This portion of Weiner’s book is truly visionary.  We all know that the union movement in this country is in a deep crisis.  But part of that crisis was the effort of politicians—aided and abetted by union leaders—to paint the union movement as antithetical to the civil rights movement, to movements for women’s liberation, and to movements that saw the importance of international developments (most crucially in the last radicalization, the movement against the American war in Vietnam).  Absent the connection, the unions collapse back in on themselves, becoming even more isolated from the rest of American society, easier for the bosses to attack.  And they become complicit in all the oppressions fomented by capitalism—most notably the racism that keeps teachers of color out of the profession, that keeps non-white children in substandard schools; and the sexism that sets the terms for a profession dominated by women.

But I also can’t help but think that this portion of the book is also something of a distillation of the experience of progressive union activists.  In particular, the first quotation is so reminiscent of the way the Chicago Teachers Union, instead of ramming the agreement with the CPS down members’ throats, instead stayed on the picket line for two additional days so that members could read and digest and discuss and debate the new contract.  And when they voted to end the strike and accept the contract, the attitude of the leadership toward the no-voters was not one of hostility; rather, the message was: we understand why you’re voting no, and we look to you as some of the readiest and best fighters to uphold our contractual rights.  The CTU experience is foretold/studied/recapitulated again in the following lines:

“It’s critical for parents to feel that the union is not putting teachers’ personal interests ahead of their children’s well-being, and one way to do that is to formulate bargaining demands that take into account what we hear from the people we are serving.”  (47)

“The commonsense advice here is that preparing for work stoppages of any duration means building deep support among members and the public.  Teachers unions cannot ‘go it alone’ and win.”  (58)

“The ideal of social movement unionism relieves you from needing to know all the answers when you are elected to union office.  Your job is to mobilize the membership and revitalize the union’s organization so that members tell officers what to do.”  (66)

This set of quotations speaks for itself.

The Importance of Democracy

“Teachers are victimized, as their students are, by the absence of democracy in the schools, which robs them of the autonomy they need to respond  creatively to their students’ needs.”  (116-117)

“Spurning activism outside the union goes hand in hand with crushing it within the organization.”  (119)

“…many of the movement’s errors can be encapsulated in the notion that democracy is a luxury that we can separate from economic struggles.  A consistent struggle for democracy is, in fact, essential to win the battle to protect public education.”  (188)

If it isn’t already obvious, the thread running throughout this book is the primacy of democracy in education.  We in the system are all deprived of democracy by an increasingly autocratic and top-down modus operandi on the part of the rulers of the system.  And those rulers are increasingly beyond even the limited system of formal democracy in this country.  The other aspect here is this: the process of our unions collaborating with the bosses is deeply intertwined with the process by which our unions have become profoundly undemocratic.

“Most Americans have more immediate, sustained contact with the schools than they do any other governmental institution, unless they are incarcerated.  Schools generally have some neighborhood ties, even those in monolithic urban systems and communities that are so fragmented that they are barely identifiable as being communities.  These two factors together can make educational reform a classroom for the Left to learn how to build a popular, democratic movement that can help challenge the premises of American capitalism, as well as improve the lives of millions of teachers and children.”  (129)

This is a fantastic vision of what could be, of the role that the struggle to democratize public education could play in the transformation of the society at large.  It’s also why the right wing is so paranoid about “social experiments with the schools”, even as they perform plenty of those experiments of their own (to the detriment of teachers and students!).

And, it’s an important consideration about society under neoliberal capitalism: the system has so deeply rearranged the economic life of this country in the private sector, that the old bonds that held communities together have been torn asunder.  We could wax idyllic about this in an unhelpful way.  Remember the company towns?  Remember the ethnic enclaves of cities like Boston that provided the basis for racist resistance to school integration?  That said, the old urban neighborhoods with a close-knit culture could also provide a basis for organizing, for example when the Communist Party organized neighbors to fight evictions through direct action in the 1930s.  And the potential for union organizing in a company town looks very different from the prospect of organizing Wal-Mart, with its reputation for destroying the economies of small towns.

Given this, we can see quite clearly the opportunity provided by public education for organizing to take back what should be the common property of the society.  The schools provide a base from which to organize and to take up broader demands.  Wayne Au makes the point that standardized testing essentially measures what we already know about the socio-economic status and challenges of students in different schools—but that paradoxically, this knowledge is turned on its head, and testing heralded as the means by which to eliminate social inequality.  Now imagine that instead, we start with the struggle to push back standardized testing—whether in Seattle or in Providence or wherever—and then use that as a springboard to raising broader demands about funds for early childhood education, the need for play and recess in the elementary grades, the need for school breakfast programs, etc.  And from there: the need for significant public investment in public and social services for the poor, and the demand to racially equalize (and integrate) these services.

That all sounds well and good, the skeptic may say, but what about the current sorry state of the schools?  What about the fact that buildings are deteriorating, that the testing craze is turning schools more directly into prisons, that teachers are increasingly pitted against their students through evaluations based on “value-added measures”?  How can we defend public education when we don’t agree with much of what’s going on in public education?  Weiner’s answer is sharp:

“The more accurate and politically effective response is that schools can do more and better if we have well-prepared and well-supported teachers at work in well-resourced schools, and yet, even with these conditions, schools are hostage to powerful forces that depress achievement—factors that are beyond their control.  This more nuanced defense of public education and teachers undercuts one of the most difficult problems we face in defending public education, neoliberalism’s exploitation of historic inequalities in education.  This is especially true in the United States, where the rhetoric of the civil rights movement has been totally hijacked in defense of charter schools and improving ‘teacher quality’ by eliminating seniority and tenure.”  (191)

Beyond the Urban Core: Suburban Districts and the NEA

“The crisis in education is at its core the same for prosperous and impoverished school systems: their isolation from democratic control and domination by political elites and bureaucracies, which reduce parents, students, and citizens to passive recipients of a service.  Excellence and equity are not at odds with each other but are rather ‘irreducible conditions of each other,’…” (114-115)

“…the NEA lacks the ideological sophistication of other progressive unions in the United States and of its counterparts in Europe that are connected to social democratic parties… The NEA’s failure to name the problem [acceptance of the "there is no alternative" neoliberal mantra] has kept it from generating a class-conscious, anticapitalist critique that would guide development of the program needed to derail NCLB and the neoliberal program for education.”  (166-167)

These two quotes put so much into perspective for me.  On the first: being a radical in a small, suburban district can be a stultifying and frustrating experience.  We are facing a crisis that is far larger than any solution we can think up within the confines of our district.  I’m often stunned at how provincial people are in my district, just 12 miles from Providence.  Despite the awesomeness of the people I worked with locally, it made for a very unsuccessful attempt to organize against the budget cuts in the district.  It’s a funny situation: all the major pedagogical decisions are made by people at the top of US society, but the structure of “local control” in suburban districts reduces “democracy” to an exercise in tightening the purse strings, and attempting to squeeze even more blood out of the rock called the town council.

This is where the question of democracy—real democratic control of all aspects of education by the people most directly affected—emerges.  The school system is undemocratic in so many routine ways that we no longer notice it.  I joke with my students that school is about “shut up and obey”, and they laugh—until I explain how I must “shut up and obey”, and enforce that on them.  Another example: I recently surveyed my upper level class, and asked which of four possible units they’d like to study.  We don’t have time for more than three, and maybe not even that much.  But then one of the students told me that she was so used to being told what she was going to learn, that the concept of being asked her opinion in the matter was completely foreign.  If the lack of democracy is so thorough-going in my school, it is all the more so in schools where the majority are non-white—in other words, just about every urban school in segregated America.

Last point: the NEA in many ways paints itself as the more liberal of the two teachers’ unions.  It’s also by far the larger.  Yet when it comes down to it, the NEA is constantly hamstrung, tied down by whatever the AFT has decided it will go for, no matter how contrary to teachers’ interests that may be.  Perhaps because NEA locals tend to be in the areas that are not at the heart of the US economy, they tend to be much more removed from the realities of working-class America.  As a result, the NEA gets dragged along by whatever current trend in US education—and we are the more powerless as a result.

Diane Ravitch

“Ravitch’s defense of teacher unionism and public education is constrained by an ideological commitment to defending US capitalism at any cost.  Because she can’t or won’t acknowledge what has been wrong with US society and public education, she can’t devise a compelling alternative to the neoliberal reforms.”  (194)

One last note about this book: Lois Weiner has been doing this for a long time, and as such, she has what Utah Phillips called “The Most Dangerous Idea in America”: a long memory.  Today, Diane Ravitch is a hero for her condemnation of the corporate education reform movement, and rightly so.  But this was not always the case.  In the 1970s and 80s, Ravitch was on the neoconservative end of the scale, advocating for a very traditional (i.e. white, western, bourgeois) approach to the humanities.  Though she identified as a Democrat, she had no qualms accepting the post of Deputy Secretary of Education under Bush I.  Her defection from the Dark Side is only a very recent occurrence, and so it should not surprise us that she still holds to a number of reactionary or suspect ideas.  I may be putting words in Dr. Weiner’s mouth, but I can imagine her saying: if Diane Ravitch is a hero for our side, it simply means that it doesn’t take much to be radical these days.

After all, reality itself is becoming more radical by the day.

About riredteacher

I'm a foreign language teacher and socialist in Rhode Island.
This entry was posted in Books, Musings and Questions, Union Reform. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Future of Our Schools: Some Reflections

  1. Over the years, I have consistently warned against the lure of ‘the royal road to learning,’ the notion that some savant or organization has found an easy solution to the problems of American education. As a historian of education, I have often studied the rise and fall of grand ideas that were promoted as the sure cure for whatever ills were afflicting our schools and students. In 1907, William Chandler Bagley complained about the ‘fads and reforms that sweep through the educational system at periodic intervals.’ A few years later, William Henry Maxwell, the esteemed superintendent of schools in New York City, heaped scorn on educational theorists who promoted their panaceas to gullible teachers; one, he said, insisted that ‘vertical penmanship’ was the answer to all problems; another maintained that recess was a ‘relic of barbarism.’ Still others wanted to ban spelling and grammar to make school more fun. I have tried to show in my work the persistence of our national infatuation with fads, movements, and reforms, which invariably distract us from the steadiness of purpose needed to improve our schools. In our own day, policymakers and business leaders have eagerly enlisted in a movement launched by free-market advocates, with the support of major foundations. Many educators have their doubts about the slogans and cure-alls of our time, but they are required to follow the mandates of federal law (such as No Child Left Behind) despite their doubts.

  2. The odds against us seem overwhelming, but we cannot afford to do nothing. We must take action. At present, the Obama administration is embarked on a course of action that many find repugnant. The Race to the Top is built on the foundation of No Child Left Behind. It emphasizes high-stakes testing, judging teachers by their students’ test scores, closing low-performing schools instead of helping them improve, and promoting a huge increase in private management of public schools. These approaches will narrow the curriculum and promote teaching to the test, which will rob children of the opportunity for a good education. Furthermore, none of these strategies has a solid research base, none has been proven effective in practice, all have the potential to disrupt students’ education, demoralize teachers, and shatter communities. The burden of these policies will fall heavily on low-income, minority communities, but many other communities will be affected as well.

  3. riredteacher says:

    The two comments above this were marked as spam by wordpress. If Lizzie McFarland and Christina Huffman are indeed real commenters, please comment again and confirm.

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