Sunday, September 05, 2010

Lois Weiner and Karen Lewis Democracy Now Transcript

See links to video at ed notes: 

Lois Weiner and Karen Lewis on Democracy Now as Educators Push Back Against Obama’s "Business Model" for School Reforms

JUAN GONZALEZ: It’s back to school, and as millions of children around
the country begin a new school year, the Obama administration is
aggressively moving forward on a number of its education initiatives.
On Thursday, federal education officials announced that forty-four
states have joined a new $330 million initiative to replace year-end
English and math tests with new national exams. The funds are drawn
from the Obama administration’s $4.35 billion Race to the Top fund.
The new testing systems are scheduled to be rolled out in the 2014-15
school year. The tests are a part of an effort to create a new set of
national academic standards known as Common Core Standards, which
nearly forty states have already agreed to adopt. Critics have
suggested that national standards would erode state and local control
of schools.

Meanwhile, through Race to the Top, Education Secretary Arne Duncan
has also pushed states to lift caps on charter schools and link
student achievement to teacher pay. The initiative has come under fire
from civil rights organizations, community groups and teachers’

Before being appointed Education Secretary, Arne Duncan was the head
of Chicago’s Public Schools, the nation’s third-largest school system.
During that time, he oversaw implementation of a program known as
Renaissance 2010. The program’s aim was to close sixty schools and
replace them with more than a hundred charter schools. This year, the
Chicago public system is facing a $370 million deficit. Hundreds of
teachers and city school workers are facing layoffs as part of cost
cutting measures and budget cuts.

Well, for more on the Obama administration’s education initiatives,
we’re joined by two guests. Lois Weiner is a professor of education at
New Jersey City University, and Karen Lewis is the president of the
Chicago Teachers Union.

I welcome you both to Democracy Now!

KAREN LEWIS: Thank you.

LOIS WEINER: Thank you.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to start with Karen. Arne Duncan comes from your city.

KAREN LEWIS: Yeah, sorry.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And he is now basically heading up education policy for
the Obama administration.


JUAN GONZALEZ: Your sense of his legacy in the Chicago public schools?

KAREN LEWIS: Well, Arne’s legacy was—you know, let’s look at the fact
that he’s not an educator, never had any experience. As a matter of
fact, he would be arrested if he went into a classroom and tried to
teach, because he’s uncredentialed completely. So his legacy is: "I
don’t know what to do. Let me just give it over to the privatizers.
Let somebody else do"—I mean, basically, under his aegis, the Board of
Education abrogated their responsibility towards education and gave it
away, because he literally had no idea, and still doesn’t have an
idea, of what to do.

The problem is the system is obviously broken. I don’t think anybody
will argue with that, that the system is broken. It is—it has not
basically changed since the 1900s—1800s, for that matter. And as a
result, it has never been able to absorb real innovation. And the
problem is it’s just a lot easier to test, test, test children. Our
curriculum has narrowed in Chicago. If you look at the average day for
an elementary school kid, it’s reading, reading, reading, reading,
reading, reading, math, math, math, reading, reading, reading,
reading, math. I mean, kids are bored to tears. They’re hating school
at an early age. There’s no joy. There’s no passion. And the results
show that. They’re very indicative of that.

JUAN GONZALEZ: But now, what’s wrong? The supporters of Arne Duncan,
superintendents like Michelle Rhee in Washington, DC, Joel Klein in
New York City, and others around the country, are saying, what’s wrong
with having higher accountability standards for teachers? What’s wrong
with encouraging experimentation and entrepreneurship, in terms of how
you deliver public education to the millions of children who so far
have not been served by the public education system? So what’s wrong
with that?

KAREN LEWIS: Well, the problem is that the whole idea of the business
model doesn’t work in education. In the business model, you can select
how you want to do something. You have an opportunity to innovate in a
way that discriminates. It’s very easy to do. Whereas in a public
school system, where we do not select our children—we take whoever
comes to the door—what we need is actually more resources and more
support for the people that are there and the work that’s being done.
However, again, Arne Duncan, Michelle Rhee, Joel Klein—I don’t know
about Joel Klein—none of these people are superintendents. You have to
have, again, credentials for that. These are business folks. Look, the
business model took this country to the brink of Armageddon in 2008.
And yet, we want to follow a failed business model and imprint that on
top of public education? No. And these things are not innovative. What
they are is they’re terrorism. They’re "my way or the highway." And
they’re still not producing, quote-unquote, "results."

Nobody disagrees with accountability. That’s not the issue. The issue
is, what do you use? We still know that high-stakes testing basically
tell us more about a student’s socioeconomic status than it does
anything else. And until we’re honest about that and want to deal with
the fact that we have neighborhoods in our cities and across the
nation that have been under-resourced, have been devalued for decades,
and for some reason or other, the schools are supposed to fix all that
and change that.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Lois Weiner, you’ve been, in your research, conducting
what I would, I guess, call a macro analysis of the education reform—


JUAN GONZALEZ: —comparing not only what’s happening here in the United
States, but around the world, in terms of these so-called reform
initiatives. Could you talk about that?

LOIS WEINER: Absolutely. And I think it’s important to understand that
Race to the Top is not unique to the United States, and what Arne
Duncan did in Chicago is not unique to Chicago. And in fact, the
contours of this program were carried out first under Pinochet in
Chile. And this program was implemented by force of military
dictatorships and the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund
in Latin America. And the results have been verified by researchers
there. They produced increased stratification. So I think what we’re
seeing right now are the results of that increased stratification, a
stratification, inequality of results, because if you think about it,
No Child Left Behind is almost a decade old. And what are the results?
The results are a growing gap between poor minority—achievement of
poor minority kids and those kids who come from prosperous families
who are—who live in affluent suburbs and in those suburban schools.

And I think it’s also very important to understand that this focus on
educational reform is replacing, is a substitute for, a jobs policy.
We need to understand that. Education can democratize the competition
for the existing jobs, but it cannot create new jobs. And when most
jobs that are being created are by companies like Wal-Mart, education
cannot do anything about that. So, we need to—we really need to look
critically at Race to the Top and understand the way that it fits into
this new economic order of a so-called jobless recovery and that
what’s really going on is a vocationalization of education, a watering
down of curriculum for most kids, so that they’re going to take jobs
that require only a seventh or an eighth grade education, because
those are the jobs that are being created in this economy.

And so, I think that while we—while it’s important to look at the
particulars of each state and each city, each school district, it’s
also important to see this large picture, because almost anything that
you can point to me that’s being done in Chicago or New York or San
Francisco, we can find another place in the world that it was already
done, and we can look at those results. And the results are not good.

JUAN GONZALEZ: But those who are at the forefront of this so-called
reform movement—


JUAN GONZALEZ: —say that the charter schools that they’re creating,
the small schools that they’re creating, are doing a better job, by
the testing model of educating children, especially minority children,
than has occurred in decades past under the existing public school
system. What’s your response to that?

LOIS WEINER: My response to that, first of all, is that I want to see
the evidence. And what’s really incredible and disastrous is that this
enormous social engineering that’s going on to transform—I would say
destroy—public education has not been accompanied by government
funding for serious, objective evaluation. We have this so-called
Institute for Education Science, but if you look at the sorts of
research that they’re funding, they are not funding the kind of
large-scale evaluative studies that we need to determine whether these
reforms are going to be effective. And we shouldn’t permit that. We
should identify this as what it is, which is an ideological venture
that does not have a scientific basis, and it doesn’t have a basis in

JUAN GONZALEZ: You’ve also taken a look at the impact of No Child Left
Behind on teachers. Could you talk about that?

LOIS WEINER: Well, I think it’s important to understand that there
are—No Child Left Behind is part of this global project to
deprofessionalize teaching as an occupation. And the reason that it’s
important in this project to deprofessionalize teaching is that the
thinking is that the biggest expenditure in education is teacher
salaries. And they want to cut costs. They want to diminish the amount
of money that’s put into public education. And that means they have to
lower teacher costs. And in order to do that, they have to
deprofessionalize teaching. They have to make it a revolving door, in
which we’re not going to pay teachers very much. They’re not going to
stay very long. We’re going to credential them really fast. They’re
going to go in. We’re going to burn them up. They’re going to leave in
three, four, five years. And that’s the model that they want.

So who is the biggest impediment to that occurring? Teachers’ unions.
And that is what explains this massive propaganda effort to say that
teachers’ unions are an impediment to reform. And in fact, they are an
impediment to the deprofessionalization of teaching, which I think is
a disaster. It’s a disaster for public education.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, you know, one of the—I’ve been, for several years
now, looking deeply into these charter schools, and especially their
tax forms. And one of the things that has struck me as I look at their
various audited financial statements is that, generally speaking, the
pay levels of the teachers in the charter schools are far lower than
they are for normal public school teachers, but the pay of the



JUAN GONZALEZ: —of the charter schools is far higher—

KAREN LEWIS: Higher, yeah.


JUAN GONZALEZ: —than it is for superintendents. So you’re, in essence,
creating a much bigger wage gap in the schools through the charters—


JUAN GONZALEZ: —between management and the employees who actually
cover the work.


JUAN GONZALEZ: I’m wondering what you found.

LOIS WEINER: Well, that’s part of the—you know, that’s part of the
thinking here, that teaching really is not—does not have to be a
skilled profession, because we’re not going to teach—we’re not going
to educate kids to do anything more than work in Wal-Mart or the
equivalent. They only need a seventh or an eighth grade education, at
most a ninth grade education, and so we don’t need teachers who are
more than, as Grover Whitehurst, a former Undersecretary of Education,
said, "good enough." That’s all we need is teachers who are "good
enough" to follow scripted curriculum and to teach to these
standardized tests. And if you only need teachers who are good enough,
you don’t have to pay them very much. And that’s the project. And
regardless of the rhetoric, regardless of the intentions of some of
the people who are supporting these reforms, people like the Education
Trust, whose work I respect, I think it’s important that we look at
something beyond the intentions and the rhetoric, and we really look
at this project as being a project that’s global in its nature.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Karen Lewis, you led basically an insurgent
movement within your own union to win the presidency of the UFT—


JUAN GONZALEZ: —of the Chicago Federation of Teachers.

KAREN LEWIS: No, Chicago Teachers Union.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Teachers Union, I’m sorry.

KAREN LEWIS: Yes, that’s OK.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And could you talk about how you did that and the
relationship of the teachers with the community, in general, in terms
of dealing with these education reforms?

KAREN LEWIS: Well, the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators, or CORE,
spent two years basically organizing with parents and community groups
against school closings, against the turnarounds, and against the
Duncan policies. We did not have an electoral strategy, to be
perfectly honest with you. We just wanted to see a change in this
whole idea of privatizing schools. And what we found was that, in
general, there is this animosity between teachers and parents and
communities, because we haven’t been working together. And yet, we are
still seeing the devastation of our communities based on the fact that
our institutions have been underfunded.

So, what we ended up doing was spending a lot of time talking to our
members across the city. And the more we got ready to speak—and in
addition with that, we changed the way the Board of Education does
business. They would put schools on a hit list, and they were closed
down, and that was it. We forced the board to start coming to these
community meetings. They had never shown up. They just basically
rubber-stamped whenever Arne Duncan wanted. And, of course, when Arne
Duncan left, the guy that came in, equally as unqualified, had a
slightly different vision. So six schools were taken off the hit list.
That had never happened. But in addition, our union leadership was
nowhere to be found during these hearings. We went to every school
closing hearing, every charter school opening. And in addition, we had
data that showed that these charter schools not only did no better,
but that in some cases actually did worse than the neighborhood
schools. And the problem is that those studies never get publicized,
and certainly not in mainstream corporate media. So we had an uphill
battle, because nobody would talk to us, nobody paid any attention to
us. But, school by school, building by building, that’s how you build
consensus. That’s how you build capacity for change.

JUAN GONZALEZ: You are a veteran chemistry teacher.

KAREN LEWIS: I am, yes.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Could you talk about the impact of these so-called
reforms on your own ability to teach chemistry?

KAREN LEWIS: You know, I’m going to be honest with you. Being a
veteran teacher, I have basically ignored them, to be real honest. But
I’ve had that ability because of the fact that I’m so passionate about
teaching and that I care about what I do and that the results I get,
which are not test-driven, as far as I’m concerned, are what speak for
themselves. I mean, ultimately, administrators want to know how well
you relate to your students, how well you relate to parents, and I’ve
always had that ability to do that. So, as far as I’m concerned, these
so-called reforms—just get out of my way, as far as I was concerned.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Lois Weiner, could you compare what’s happened in
Chicago with the teachers there to some of the bigger unions, to the
United Federation of Teachers, to what’s been happening with the NEA,
in terms of confronting some of these changes?

LOIS WEINER: Well, you know, I think that CORE’s victory is really a
watershed. and I’m just delighted. And I have to say that I spoke at a
rally of CORE earlier this year, and I heard Karen speak to teachers
in the audience. And what struck me in the way that Karen talked about
the reforms and what’s going on in public education was her passion
about teaching. And I think it’s—the fact that CORE contains teachers
who are committed to social justice, they’re committed to a new form
of teacher unionism, and they’re committed to facing racism, it really
makes it a model for what we want to do in unions elsewhere, I have to
say especially the UFT here in New York.

But we’re beginning to see in other large city locals a renaissance of
activism among young teachers, because, unlike Karen, they’re not
protected. And these reforms, they’re losing their jobs. They’re being
terrorized by principals. Their schools are being shut down, because
very often they teach in the most vulnerable schools, because they’re
new and that’s where the jobs are. And they want a union. They want a
union that’s going to fight for them. And the message that we have to
bring them is, I think, that CORE does, is "You are the union. Nobody
can do it for you."

And I think in New York City we’re beginning to see that. I’ve been
working with this group called Teachers Unite, and I think it’s a
ginger group for a new—the kind of reform that we need in New York
City. Los Angeles already has a reform leadership. Detroit has a
reform leadership in the AFT. And I think that that’s going to
pull—those changes are going to be—pull, I’m hopeful, the national
unions to more progressive, more militant, and more pro-parent and
pro-education stances.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Let me ask you also about the intervention of other
elite forces on this education reform debate—


JUAN GONZALEZ: —the right-wing foundations, the Walton Foundation, the
Eli Broad Foundation, as well as all of the hedge fund and Wall Street
people that have gotten involved in funding schools and creating
charter networks. What do you analyze is behind this?

LOIS WEINER: Well, I mean, their effect has been, really,
all-encompassing and quite pernicious. And we have a great deal of
research about what’s going on with this, if we want to take a look at
it. It’s never—it’s never mentioned in the popular media, in the
corporate mass media. And they are controlling the education agenda.
They are controlling these new core curriculum standards. And if
people really looked at these core curriculum standards, I think they
would be aghast. You know, vocationalization of the curriculum is
beginning in first grade. They’re doing career education in first
grade, if you look at these standards. What is that about? That we’re
preparing kids for the workforce when they’re in first grade? And the
foundations, the right-wing foundations, including the Gates
Foundation, they are absolutely driving this. They’re funding it.
They’re funding the media campaign to persuade people that this is
necessary. And they are funding the—

KAREN LEWIS: Research.

LOIS WEINER: They’re funding the research.

KAREN LEWIS: They’re funding the research, mm-hmm.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us. Karen
Lewis is president of the Chicago Teachers Union. Lois Weiner,
professor of education at New Jersey City University. And we will
continue to follow this story.

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