The Providence Journal reports today that Rhode Island Education Commissioner Deb Gist is back at it, announcing a major attack on teachers’ seniority rights. She declares that any district that uses seniority in placements, layoffs and promotions will face retribution from RIDE.
The arrogance of this tyrant knows no bounds. Since Gist arrived in Rhode Island almost four years ago, teachers here have lived under a reign of terror. Gist’s modus operandi has been to announce a new policy, stunningly reactionary in nature, and then to act as though RIDE policy has more weight actual law. Certainly district contracts are minor impediments to her; state labor law is to be blatantly disregarded; and really any mildly democratic process for determining educational practice in this state is inferior to her magisterial will. It’s particularly stunning to me that she has announced this renewed attack on seniority even as the Portsmouth lawsuit on teacher seniority is still pending. Clearly, even the legal system has no validity in Gist’s eyes.
What is so bizarre about this woman is the extent to which she gives the air of being blissfully unaware of the interests she’s working for, downright scandalized by the suggestion that she’s undermining public education for the sake of corporate profit. But look at her background: a graduate of the Broad Academy, a recipient of funds from right-wing organizations, this woman is no joke. She is the deliberate tool of the corporate education “reformers”.
I was unfortunate enough to have a personal conversation with her in September 2011, when the Board of Governors first voted down the Achievement First application for the school in Cranston. She came up to me before the meeting and tried to shake my hand, which I refused. Stunned by my rebuff, she tried to explain to me that she and I believe in the same things: quality education, support for top-notch teachers, a program to increase student achievement. I think she was genuinely confused by my assertion that we stood for diametrically opposed policies in public education. She denied my claim that her Race to the Top application was all about supporting private companies who were invading the public sector. Completely lacking in cynicism, utterly convinced of the righteousness and universality of her outlook, Gist is the most dangerous type of corporate reformer: the True Believer.
Let me say what Rhode Island teachers have been thinking since she arrived: Gist Must Go.
Now let’s turn to the question at issue: seniority. I’d encourage everyone to read this excellent defense of teacher seniority. Every point this teacher makes is completely applicable to Rhode Island. To be clear: Gist’s edict is simply a union-busting attack. If bad or incompetent teachers persist in Rhode Island schools, this is not because of seniority, but because of administrative incompetence or malfeasance. Rhode Island school districts have long had their own evaluation systems and mechanisms for removing teachers who are harmful to students. If substandard teachers have persisted, it’s because they’re protected by the administrators they kiss up to. Now imagine if good teachers—those that advocated for their students against the wishes of their administrators—had no protections!
As the defense linked above states, seniority was put in place even prior to the growth of teacher unions in the 1960s, precisely for reasons of preserving academic freedom and constitutional rights, and guarding against favoritism and corruption. This protection takes on even more significance in the current climate, where teachers—those who know best and have the greatest interest in protecting their students—have been undermined, demonized, turned into the “problem” with public education. What happens when we refuse to administer damaging and pointless standardized tests to our students? What happens when we oppose parts of the Common Core Standards, particularly those that emphasize “informational text” and “correct interpretation” and instead expose our students to literature, interpretation and debate? Our working conditions are our students’ learning conditions—and the drive to undermine our employment security leaves our students vulnerable to the whims of unaccountable bureaucrats.
This danger is compounded by the utterly ridiculous state evaluation system now demoralizing teachers all over. Does Gist mean for districts to lay off teachers on the basis of these evaluations? Here’s the trick: the evaluation really depends almost entirely on the “student learning data”, i.e. test scores. If you’re unfamiliar with the evaluation system, check it out on RIDE’s website. Here’s the Final Effectiveness Rating Matrix, found on p. 58:
“PP” is Professional Practice, determined by classroom observations; “PF” is Professional Foundations, the measure of how much extra stuff a teacher does beyond the classroom (e.g. involvement in committees, student mentoring, curriculum initiatives, common planning, etc.). Notice that in order for these aspects of teaching to really impact a teacher’s rating, they have to come out to a “1”. What really matters is the test score data: if that data is not sufficient, even the teacher who gets a “4” on the “PPxPF” rating will be rated Developing. In reality, even the best teachers, if they happen to teach disadvantaged and challenged students, will face the chopping block before those teachers whose students have greater socio-economic advantages. Even the claim that the student achievement data is based on “goals” set on the basis of baseline data and expectations, there’s still far more chance that the teacher of socially disadvantaged students will not make the goal. And that’s not to mention the cases where the “student learning objective” goals are imposed on teachers by administrators!
I want to raise one more clarifying question about Gist’s latest declaration. Does she intend to take action against those districts that have replaced seniority in placement, promotion and layoff with a hybrid system? I’m talking about “criterion-based hiring”, the system of “speed dating” that Providence put in place in 2011 after Taveras fired the teachers. In my district, we have a modified form of this process in place now. Rather than asserting seniority rights, teachers now have to put in an application for a transfer or promotion. Seniority is included in the determination of who gets placed where, but it’s only 25% or so. Is this reduction of our rights to one-quarter still too much?
And my last point: the attack on seniority has often relied on the argument that seniority protects the “old bad” teachers from layoff, while subjecting “good, young” teachers to the budget axe repeatedly. But let’s be clear: it’s not teachers who decide to lay off teachers, ever. It’s the administration and the school committees who decide that. And why do they lay off teachers? Because public education has suffered from a chronic crisis of funding practically from its foundation. So when Gist gets Race to the Top funds and then immediately declares that the funds will not solve budget crises in the local districts, she simply gives her blessing to the conditions that have resulted in a massive decline in teacher employment in the years since the global financial crisis led to a years-long push for austerity and cuts in all public sector services.
I want to close with one last point: this is why we need a political alternative to the Democratic Party, and to bourgeois politics generally. Remember, it’s Democrats for Education Reform. More specifically to Rhode Island, we’ve seen a failed strategy on the part of our union leaders to “play the game”, prostrating ourselves before opportunist politicians in the hope that they’ll return the favor. We were all-out for Obama in 2008 (and 2012!), and we got Duncan and Race to the Top. We were all-out for Chafee in 2010, and we got pension “reform” and more of Gist. In fact, right after the 2010 election, my Uniserv Rep informed us that despite our “victory” with Chafee, we would be overplaying our hand if we called for Gist’s ouster! We win—so let’s not enforce our real demands!
The alternative to this losing strategy is to rely on ourselves. Look at the Chicago Teachers: their strike did more to advance the struggle against Rahm’s corporate reform agenda than any Democratic Party election campaign (oh, and Rahm’s a Democrat, too). Look at the Seattle Teachers: their boycott of the MAP test has electrified teachers around the country, and posed the question of teacher and parent control over education very clearly. It’s the struggle from below that transforms the terms of the discourse around public education (or any area of public concern, for that matter). So why not a petition calling for Gist’s firing? Why not a mass mobilization that reaches out to parents’ groups for support? Why not a one-day strike against this union-busting attack?
And then, long-term, as we fight against these attacks, we need to formulate our own program for public education: democratic, well-funded, and controlled by the public and not the Walton family and Bill Gates. We need to be in a position to put our people up for the top spots, not supporting turn-coat careerist politicians. And in the end, we need to abolish the system in which there are top spots, in favor of all power to the teachers, parents and students. Whose Schools? OUR SCHOOLS!