Thursday, June 02, 2011

Teachers Aren't the Enemy - By Pedro Noguera and Michelle Fine

Teachers Aren't the Enemy - By Pedro Noguera and Michelle Fine

The good Pedro Noguera.

Published in *The Nation *Magazine (

Teachers Aren't the Enemy
By Pedro Noguera and Michelle Fine | April 21, 2011

Public school teachers and their unions are under a sustained assault that
is still unfolding. In 2010 Michelle Rhee, former Washington, DC, schools
chancellor, announced the creation of a multimillion-dollar lobbying
organization for the explicit purpose of undermining teachers unions. She
has charged that “bad teachers” are the primary cause of the problems that
beset America’s schools. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has asserted that
effective teachers need no experience. Romanticizing the young, energetic,
passionate (read: cheap) teacher, he has made eliminating seniority
preferences in layoffs (*aka*, last in, first out—or LIFO) his pet cause (it
has been stymied for the time being by the state legislature).
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has slashed school aid by $1.2 billion
while refusing to comply with a court-mandated formula for school funding
equity. He has become a right-wing hero by demonizing teachers, lambasting
unions, challenging tenure rights and introducing a crude teacher-evaluation
process based on student test scores. Christie is also pushing what he calls
a “final solution�—$360 million in tax credits for a tuition voucher system
that would permit any child in New Jersey go to any school, public or
private, and would include state subsidies for some students already
attending parochial schools and yeshivas.
It’s hard to think of another field in which experience is considered a
liability and those who know the least about the nuts and bolts of an
enterprise are embraced as experts.

The attack has diverse roots, and comes not only from Republicans. Groups
like Democrats for Education Reform have dedicated substantial resources to
undermining teachers unions. With Race to the Top, the Obama administration
has put its weight behind a reform agenda featuring charter schools, which
employ mostly nonunion labor, as its centerpiece. A disturbing bipartisan
consensus is emerging that favors a market model for public schools that
would abandon America’s historic commitment to providing education to all
children as a civil right. This model would make opportunities available
largely to those motivated and able to leave local schools; treat parents as
consumers and children as disposable commodities that can be judged by their
test scores; and unravel collective bargaining agreements so that
experienced teachers can be replaced with fungible itinerant workers who
have little training, less experience and no long-term commitment to the
In this atmosphere of hostility to public schools and teachers, it has
become nearly impossible to have a rational discussion among educators,
parents, advocates, youth and policy-makers about what should be done.
Honest analyses suggest that removing ineffective teachers is an excessively
slow and arduous process, though unions are often blamed when administrators
have failed to document problems systematically. Likewise, the LIFO system
for layoffs does need reform because it contributes to high turnover in the
most disadvantaged schools. These schools are the hardest to staff, and in
cities like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, many veteran teachers have
found ways to avoid being assigned to such schools. But candid conversations
about how to solve these problems are extraordinarily difficult when any
comment critical of unions is likely to be used as a weapon by the right.
None of the reforms on the table address the inequality and opportunity gaps
that plague our schools. Raging debates over LIFO, seniority, teacher
evaluation and test-based school closings do little to improve schools and
much to distract from the real challenges. Moreover, because current reforms
have been designed to promote school choice and weaken the unions, they have
been exacerbating the challenges rather than fixing them.
* * *
But teachers unions and their allies are fighting back. Trade unionists,
civil rights activists and educators have rallied with the Wisconsin
protesters and put Governor Scott Walker on the defensive. To have the
greatest impact, the unions must find a way to mobilize parents, young
people and communities. Without their support, teachers will not succeed in
countering these assaults. Getting that support will not be easy, because it
requires educators to acknowledge that the school status quo is untenable
and to join labor rights to educational justice.
In a small but growing number of school districts, teachers and their unions
are taking the lead rather than waiting for policy-makers to act. At
Columbus High School in the Bronx, teachers are working with students and
parents to resist the district’s efforts to close the school by addressing
the causes of student failure. In the South Bronx, parents, labor, educators
and community organizers, united as CC9, have designed a strategy to reverse
teacher turnover by providing new teachers with support from veteran lead

In Chicago, Karen Lewis, of the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE), is
presiding over the Chicago Teachers Union with a platform to reverse
Renaissance 2010, a program to close many schools serving poor children of
the South Side and timed to coincide with the demolition of housing projects
pushing great numbers of poor people out of the city. CORE is focused on
much more than salaries and benefits. It is challenging the use of
high-stakes testing to punish students, teachers and schools, organizing for
greater equity in school finances and mobilizing with parents against school
In Milwaukee, longtime education activist Bob Peterson, editor of *Rethinking
Schools*, is running for union president. Peterson worked with a broad array
of local activists to defeat mayoral control of the schools and co-founded
an educator/parent task force on responsible assessment.

And in California, the California Teachers Association sponsored the Quality
Education Investment Act (QEIA), which has targeted funding toward reducing
class size, hiring more counselors and providing professional development
for teachers focused on the sharing of best practices. Schools that have
enjoyed QEIA support have shown marked student improvements, particularly
for low-income young people of color and English as a second language
learners. This activism will culminate in a national Save Our Schools March
in Washington on July 30.

We can begin to feel the rumble of solidarity, with parents, teachers, labor
and youth taking back what is rightfully theirs—public schools and
democratic public education.
Pedro Noguera
Pedro Noguera, a professor of sociology at New York University, is the
author of *City Schools and the American Dream* and co-editor of *Unfinished
Business: Closing the Racial Achievement Gap in Our Schools*
Michelle Fine
Michelle Fine is a Distinguished Professor of Psychology at City University
of New York.

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