1) New Unionism Five Years Later: The Talk Vs. The Walk. The tenure of NEA President Bob Chase is coming to an end. He has been making the rounds of state affiliate conventions, giving what amounts to his farewell speech. And since he will be remembered primarily for the concept of new unionism, spelled out in a speech before the National Press Club in February 1997, it is only natural he should return to the topic on his way out the door. Excerpted here are remarks Chase made to the delegate assembly of NEA New Mexico on March 16, interspersed with items detailing the current “state of the union.”
The Talk: “(New unionism) essentially broadens our agenda to make school quality a ‘labor issue.’”
The Walk: The Clark County Education Association announced that it had reached agreement with the school district on a number of issues as contract negotiations continued. Among these were a provision to increase union leave days from 200 to 250, and an amendment that allows teachers returning to the classroom after serving in the Nevada State Legislature to do so under the normal leave of absence provisions.
The Talk: “If teachers are going to be happy and successful on the job, if public schools are going to receive the public support and resources they really need, if children are going to learn, than our union has got to do more than be protective. We have to be proactive.”
The Walk: The Brevard Federation of Teachers in Florida informed its members that “You cannot be required to attend anything after hours with the exception of two yearly parent-teacher conferences, which are specifically named in the contract.”
The Talk: “Lobbying for things like pensions and health care simply aren’t enough anymore.”
The Walk: Of the 15 items still under negotiation in Clark County, 12 directly involve pay and benefits. The other three involve teacher discipline, union input into development of the district calendar, and extra duty teaching assignments.
The Talk: “We’ve got to try and build relationships with administrators and lawmakers that are more cooperative and less combative, so that we can work together as a team on behalf of our schools and our children.”
The Walk: “We cannot allow administrative greed to interfere with the proper allocation of the public’s money.” — California Teachers Association President Wayne Johnson, in the March 2002 California Educator.
The Talk: “(The traditional union agenda) alone does not serve the interests of America’s children, the children we teach, the children who motivated us to go into teaching in the first place, the children who have always got to be our bottom line.”
The Walk: Number of contract articles on which the Clark County School District and the Clark County Education Association have reached agreement – 17. Number of those articles that mention children, students or instruction – 0.
The Talk: “Because schools can’t be improved in a vacuum, we are forging greater partnerships with the community-at-large — with parents, politicians, and businesses wherever and whenever possible.”
The Walk: Today the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association is encouraging all schools in the district to turn off all lights and electricity to protest charitable contributions by Florida Power to a private scholarship program.
The Talk: “New unionism compels us to take some risks — like new approaches to collective bargaining and school reform.”
The Walk: “The (NEA) resolution is not in sync with my vision of and hopes for charter schools.” — Robert M. McClure, who co-directed the now-moribund NEA’s Charter School Initiative, expressing his feelings about the union’s current charter school policy. He retired from NEA last year and is now a consultant whose clients include a DC charter school. Quoted by Education Week reporter Bess Keller in “Unions Turn Cold Shoulder on Charters,” March 27.
Bob Chase is a genuinely nice man, and EIA wishes him well with his new paperback book from Penguin USA, The New Public School Parent: How to Get the Best Education for Your Child. May he have more luck influencing the direction of American parenting than he did influencing the direction of his union.
2) Read Why Public Schools Are “Another Planet.” “Come with me and work in that school environment for at least a week. Not a day, not a morning, not a couple of days, but at least a week, to truly understand what teaching is all about and what education is all about.” — NEA President Bob Chase, September 6, 2001.
Former Miami Herald journalist Elinor Burkett didn’t visit for a week, she stayed every day for the entire 1999-2000 school year at Prior Lake High School in Minnesota. The results of what she learned are in her book from HarperCollins, Another Planet: A Year in the Life of a Suburban High School. If at all possible, stop reading this communiqué, go immediately to your local bookstore, purchase a copy, and open it. If you’re like me, you won’t put it down until you have finished it seven hours later. I got up only once, early on, to get my highlighter.
For anyone who feels teachers and students are the opponents in the battle for education reform, Burkett provides the heartening news that they are just as aware of the lack of academic rigor as anyone. The school’s union rep, Joe Goracke, is also the staunchest advocate of a classical education with associated discipline and no excuses. “Politicians and bureaucrats are trying to raise standards because there aren’t any,” he said “Or, there are, but we don’t hold kids to them because we’re hung up on protecting their self-esteem or rewarding them because they say they are trying. So we’re part of the problem. We’re a dysfunctional community.”
Burkett chose Prior Lake specifically for its upper middle class demographics and high test scores. Nevertheless, students had no idea who was running for president in 2000, what Roe v. Wade was, who Margaret Thatcher is and where Pearl Harbor is. One in three were unable to name even one of the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution. Four of five couldn’t multiply two three-digit numbers together without a calculator. “After twelve years of education,” Burkett wrote, “they didn’t know much of anything.”
Burkett nails two key points, largely unexamined in the world of education policy. First is the lack of any expectation of self-discipline from the students. “It feels to me as if teachers have been worn down, that they’ve stopped being outraged at how little the kids know,” said English teacher Mara Corey. “The kids are spoon fed. Everything has to be fun. They whine if you give them homework every night. They’re incredibly intellectually lazy.”
After spending a year at Prior Lake, Burkett comes to a similar conclusion. Discussing her own educational background, she says, “No one had ever suggested to me that education should be fun. As a consequence, I learned a discipline of mind and a wealth of knowledge no germane divertissement could have afforded me.”
So why don’t schools instill the values of hard work and delayed gratification? Burkett identifies the problem with laser-like accuracy. She calls it the breakdown of “the alliance of grown-ups.” Parents, teachers and administrators, whatever their personal differences, once spoke with one voice concerning expectations and behavior of students. Disagreements were settled in private, and children perceived a united front that demanded they apply themselves to their studies. That alliance is gone, replaced by a world in which parents act as attorneys, defending their children’s misbehavior and lack of effort and advocating for looser grading and easier standards. Faced with explicit demands for higher standards from the public, and at least tacit demands for lower standards from parents who want little Johnny to go to college with a 3.9 GPA, teachers are stuck in the middle.
Agree or disagree with its portrayal of American public education, Another Planet is the kind of in-the-trenches journalism we need to encourage. It’s worth 100 policy books.