Friday, June 28, 2013

Corporate Education 'From Above' and the Trouble with Common Core

Corporate Education 'From Above' and the Trouble with Common Core

(Cartoon: Ethan Heitner / More at: isn't easy to find common ground on the Common Core. Already hailed as the “next big thing” in education reform, the Common Core State Standards are being rushed into classrooms in nearly every district in the country. Although these “world-class” standards raise substantive questions about curriculum choices and instructional practices, such educational concerns are likely to prove less significant than the role the Common Core is playing in the larger landscape of our polarized education reform politics.
We know there have been many positive claims made for the Common Core:
  • That it represents a tighter set of smarter standards focused on developing critical learning skills instead of mastering fragmented bits of knowledge.
  • That it requires more progressive, student-centered teaching with strong elements of collaborative and reflective learning.
  • That it equalizes the playing field by raising expectations for all children, especially those suffering the worst effects of the “drill and kill” test prep norms of the recent past.
We also know that many creative, heroic teachers are seeking ways to use this latest reform wave to serve their students well. Especially in the current interim between the rollout of the standards and the arrival of the tests, some teachers have embraced the Common Core as an alternative to the scripted commercial formulas of recent experience, and are trying to use the space opened up by the Common Core transition to do positive things in their classrooms.
"Common Core has become part of the corporate reform project now stalking our schools. Unless we dismantle and defeat this larger effort, Common Core implementation will become another stage in the demise of public education."
We'd like to believe these claims and efforts can trump the more political uses of the Common Core project. But we can't.
For starters, the misnamed “Common Core State Standards” are not state standards. They're national standards, created by Gates-funded consultants for the National Governors Association (NGA). They were designed, in part, to circumvent federal restrictions on the adoption of a national curriculum, hence the insertion of the word “state” in the brand name. States were coerced into adopting the Common Core by requirements attached to the federal Race to the Top grants and, later, the No Child Left Behind waivers. (This is one reason many conservative groups opposed to any federal role in education policy oppose the Common Core.)
Written mostly by academics and assessment experts—many with ties to testing companies—the Common Core standards have never been fully implemented and tested in real schools anywhere. Of the 135 members on the official Common Core review panels convened by Achieve Inc., the consulting firm that has directed the Common Core project for the NGA, few were classroom teachers or current administrators. Parents were entirely missing. K–12 educators were mostly brought in after the fact to tweak and endorse the standards—and lend legitimacy to the results.
The standards are tied to assessments that are still in development and that must be given on computers many schools don't have. So far, there is no research or experience to justify the extravagant claims being made for the ability of these standards to ensure that every child will graduate from high school “college and career ready.” By all accounts, the new Common Core tests will be considerably harder than current state assessments, leading to sharp drops in scores and proficiency rates.
We have seen this show before. The entire country just finished a decade-long experiment in standards-based, test-driven school reform called No Child Left Behind. NCLB required states to adopt “rigorous” curriculum standards and test students annually to gauge progress towards reaching them. Under threat of losing federal funds, all 50 states adopted or revised their standards and began testing every student, every year in every grade from 3–8 and again in high school. (Before NCLB, only 19 states tested all kids every year, after NCLB all 50 did.)
By any measure, NCLB was a dismal failure in both raising academic performance and narrowing gaps in opportunity and outcomes. But by very publicly measuring the test results against benchmarks no real schools have ever met, NCLB did succeed in creating a narrative of failure that shaped a decade of attempts to “fix” schools while blaming those who work in them. By the time the first decade of NCLB was over, more than half the schools in the nation were on the lists of “failing schools” and the rest were poised to follow.
In reality, NCLB's test scores reflected the inequality that exists all around our schools. The disaggregated scores put the spotlight on longstanding gaps in outcomes and opportunity among student subgroups. But NCLB used these gaps to label schools as failures without providing the resources or support needed to eliminate them.
The tests showed that millions of students were not meeting existing standards. Yet the conclusion drawn by sponsors of the Common Core was that the solution was “more challenging” ones. This conclusion is simply wrong. NCLB proved that the test and punish approach to education reform doesn't work, not that we need a new, tougher version of it. Instead of targeting the inequalities of race, class, and educational opportunity reflected in the test scores, the Common Core project threatens to reproduce the narrative of public school failure that has led to a decade of bad policy in the name of reform.
The engine for this potential disaster, as it was for NCLB, will be the tests, in this case the “next generation” Common Core tests being developed by two federally funded, multi-state consortia at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars. Although reasonable people, including many thoughtful educators we respect, have found things of value in the Common Core standards, there is no credible defense to be made of the high-stakes uses planned for these new tests.
The same heavy-handed, top-down policies that forced adoption of the standards require use of the Common Core tests to evaluate educators. This inaccurate and unreliable practice will distort the assessments before they're even in place and make Common Core implementation part of the assault on the teaching profession instead of a renewal of it. The costs of the tests, which have multiple pieces throughout the year plus the computer platforms needed to administer and score them, will be enormous and will come at the expense of more important things. The plunging scores will be used as an excuse to close more public schools and open more privatized charters and voucher schools, especially in poor communities of color. If, as proposed, the Common Core's “college and career ready” performance level becomes the standard for high school graduation, it will push more kids out of high school than it will prepare for college.
This is not just cynical speculation. It is a reasonable projection based on the history of the NCLB decade, the dismantling of public education in the nation's urban centers, and the appalling growth of the inequality and concentrated poverty that remains the central problem in public education.
Nor are we exaggerating the potential for disaster. Consider this description from Charlotte Danielson, a highly regarded mainstream authority on teacher evaluation and a strong supporter of the Common Core:
I do worry somewhat about the assessments—I'm concerned that we may be headed for a train wreck there. The test items I've seen that have been released so far are extremely challenging. If I had to take a test that was entirely comprised of items like that, I'm not sure that I would pass it—and I've got a bunch of degrees. So I do worry that in some schools we'll have 80 percent or some large number of students failing. That's what I mean by train wreck.
Reports from the first wave of Common Core testing are already confirming these fears. This spring students, parents, and teachers in New York schools responded to administration of new Common Core tests developed by Pearson Inc. with a general outcry against their length, difficulty, and inappropriate content. Pearson included corporate logos and promotional material in reading passages. Students reported feeling overstressed and underprepared—meeting the tests with shock, anger, tears, and anxiety. Administrators requested guidelines for handling tests students had vomited on. Teachers and principals complained about the disruptive nature of the testing process and many parents encouraged their children to opt out.
Common Core has become part of the corporate reform project now stalking our schools. Unless we dismantle and defeat this larger effort, Common Core implementation will become another stage in the demise of public education. As schools struggle with these new mandates, we should defend our students, our schools, our communities, and ourselves by telling the truth about the Common Core. This means pushing back against implementation timelines and plans that set schools up to fail, resisting the stakes and priority attached to the tests, and exposing the truth about the commercial and political interests shaping and benefiting from this false panacea for the problems our schools face.
Rethinking Schools has always been skeptical of standards imposed from above. Too many standards projects have been efforts to move decisions about teaching and learning away from classrooms, educators, and school communities, only to put them in the hands of distant bureaucracies. Standards have often codified sanitized versions of history, politics, and culture that reinforce official myths while leaving out the voices, concerns, and realities of our students and communities. Whatever positive role standards might play in truly collaborative conversations about what our schools should teach and children should learn has been repeatedly undermined by bad process, suspect political agendas, and commercial interests.
Unfortunately there's been too little honest conversation and too little democracy in the development of the Common Core. We see consultants and corporate entrepreneurs where there should be parents and teachers, and more high-stakes testing where there should be none. Until that changes, it will be hard to distinguish the “next big thing” from the last one.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Principal to Teach For America NY Hiring: Please delete me from this email list

...That is the message one NYC principal sent in response to this email:
Dear Principal,
I hope your school year went well!

I'm so excited to reach out regarding opportunities to connect with the new members of our incoming 2013 Teach For America corps. We are interested in partnering with you  and want to be sure you have an opportunity to meet our new folks. If you are interested in interviewing corps members for any available special education vacancies, in particular, I'd love to set up a time for you to speak with me or a member of my team to talk about your needs and the hiring progress.

At the bottom of this message, please find a few questions to get us started. We're arranging interviews for this week (tomorrow, June 26 and Friday, June 27), as well as in days following July 9. If you're interested, please do respond straight away and you'll be top of the list to speak with a member of my team.

My team and I are looking forward to working with you!

Ron Augustin

Director, District and School Partnerships

Teach For America ·   New York

Counterpunch: The ISO, Caterpillar and Democratic Accountability

The ISO, Caterpillar and Democratic Accountability

I was dismayed to see a spat over Angelina Jolie’s surgery quickly degenerate into an idiotic war, with the International Socialist Organization (ISO) issuing an open letter warning the world about the degenerates running CounterPunch as if they had done something serious, like cover up a rape allegation, a crime that elicited only a lukewarm protest from the ISO as it ripped the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) apart.
Rather than privilege-bait the ISO’s leadership as Jeffrey St. Clair did or meander aimlessly over the irrelevant as Louis Proyect did in his “Inside the International Socialist Organization,” I thought I’d inject a bit of substantive criticism of the group’s inner workings based on my seven years as an ISO member. Like everyone else, I thought Proyect was going to bring some misdeeds to the light of day given the title of his piece. What follows is an excerpt from a lengthier critique ( of the ISO’s practices and methods.
On paper, the ISO seems to be democratic. The highest decision-making body is its yearly convention, made up of elected delegates from local branches. Any member can submit a resolution or a position paper for consideration. The Steering Committee is elected by the convention to lead and run the organization between conventions.
What these democratic forms amount to in practice is a different story.
There are no horizontal channels of communication between branches and the general membership; information and political arguments at the rank and file level therefore move in only one direction – vertically, upwards, through branch leadership committees, citywide leadership committees, the national committee (an advisory body to the Steering Committee elected by the convention), and the Steering Committee. Someone with an idea or proposal has to either fight for their view through these successive administrative layers either on their own as an individual or wait until the yearly pre-convention discussion period to propose it before the organization, but they cannot form a faction to fight for their viewpoint at convention because ISO members do not have a constitutionally guaranteed right to form factions. The most they can do is caucus.
This is a major reason why change in the ISO comes from above, not below.
Dissidents and deviationists face not an uphill battle but a veritable cliff to break through hardened groupthink just to gain a hearing; often an idea or proposal that is generally dismissed or derided when it comes from a rank-and-file member will be readily and eagerly adopted when that same idea or proposal comes from the Steering Committee or other leading personnel.
The organization’s conformist political culture is both a blessing and a curse, allowing it to persist and grow in the Reagan-Obama era while preventing it from fully prospering now that objective conditions are favorable for a mass-based radical left. Given the current political climate, there is no reason the ISO shouldn’t be growing exponentially and qualitatively to become a hegemonic force not only over the far left but the broad left. Thriving not surviving is the order of the day.
The ISO continues to use the British SWP’s closed slate system to elect its leadership, meaning the previous year’s Steering Committee submits the coming year’s Steering Committee to the convention as a single bloc for an up-or-down vote by a show of hands rather than a secret ballot. This makes it impossible for the membership to hold even one Steering Committee member accountable unless they can assemble 12 or more additional names for an entirely new slate. This practice is winner-take-all run amok, and the result is not a one-party state but a one-slate party; as far as anyone knows, the ISO has never had a competitive election for its Steering Committee since it was founded in 1977. Conventions are exercises in unanimity rather than a place where substantive differences are aired and ironed out in a vigorous and above-board manner.
The easiest way to understand any institution or organization in capitalist society is to do just one thing – follow the money. Doing so reveals how power and status is really distributed and how organizations actually function.
What is remarkable about the ISO in this regard is its lack of transparency. Dues are paid, money is raised, merchandise (books, magazines, and newspapers) is sold, but rare is the ISO member who knows that the organization’s 501(c)(3) – the Center for Economic Research and Social Change (CERSC) – bought and sold thousands of dollars in Caterpillar stock in 2010 in spite of the ISO’s support for the Palestinian boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign’s targeting of Caterpillar for selling Israel the bulldozers it uses to demolish Palestinian homes and kill activist Rachel Corrie.
Whether or not buying and selling Caterpillar stock in defiance of the BDS campaign is right or wrong is not my place to decide, it is for the ISO’s membership to decide, and they cannot do so when they have no clue what the organization’s assets or liabilities consist of and are denied any formal control over CERSC. They cannot discuss and decide how best to spend CERSC’s $1.5 million in yearly revenue on organizing projects when these matters are handled internally as a state secret and questions about them from members are viewed as a sign of disloyalty to socialism rather than what they actually are – a principled commitment to the basic democratic norms working-class people are entitled to in their organizations.
Unions run in this manner are criticized by the left for disempowering the rank and file thereby undermining labor’s ability to fight capital, but how does wrong become right when the same methods are employed by a self-styled revolutionary organization aiming not just to fight capital but to end it?
Pham Binh is co-founder of The North Star. His writings on the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, and socialism can be found at

Friday, June 21, 2013

Counterpunch: Inside ISO

Putting the Sect Into Sectarian

Inside the International Socialist Organization

Whenever I reflect back on my decade-long experience in the American Socialist Workers Party during the Vietnam War epoch, I feel like I am auditioning for the lead role in Samuel Beckett’s “Krapp’s Last Tape”:
Just been listening to that stupid bastard I took myself for thirty years ago, hard to believe I was ever as bad as that. Thank God that’s all done with anyway. (Pause.) The eyes she had! (Broods, realizes he is recording silence, switches off, broods. Finally.) Everything there, everything, all the– (Realizing this is not being recorded, switches on.) Everything there, everything on this old muckball, all the light and dark and famine and feasting of . . . (hesitates) . . . the ages! (In a shout.) Yes! (Pause.) Let that go! Jesus! Take his mind off his homework! Jesus (Pause. Weary.) Ah well, maybe he was right.
I suppose that the one benefit derived from my misspent youth was learning enough about “Marxist-Leninism” first-hand so that I could be credible to young people today about avoiding my mistakes. Fortunately, the weight of history makes it much more difficult for groups like the SWP to attract new members since the “Russian” paradigm that they are based on is extinct.

One of the more dynamic and attractive groups on the far left is the International Socialist Organization (ISO). The ISO’ers made a splash recently by going on a campaign to expose the editors of CounterPunch as a bunch of sexist frat boys in the “Animal House” vein with Jeff St. Clair and Joshua Frank reprising Bluto and Otter. My intention here is not to reopen the brouhaha but to take a look at the ISO from the perspective of Jeff St. Clair’s recent article on the Silent Death of the American Left. I will argue that there is a relationship between a left so badly in need of resurrection now and transcending the type of sectarian divisions associated with the “Russian” paradigm.

The ISO was born in 1976 as a result of a faction fight in a group called International Socialism (IS). Ideologically the IS rested on a theory called “bureaucratic collectivism” cooked up by Max Shachtman and that regarded the USSR as a kind of new society ruled by bureaucrats who were exploiting the workers in the name of socialism. Later on, there was a conversion to “state capitalism”, a theory that looked just as askance at the USSR but through a somewhat different ideological prism. For those with a taste for these kinds of Talmudic disputations, I would refer you to Barry Finger’s article “Bureaucratic Collectivism” as well as my own dissection of state capitalism. It is the sort of thing that I used to find interesting, when disco was king.

That was when I first encountered “state capitalist” theory–in the early 1990s. I had trouble understanding how the term capitalist could be applied to the USSR since the lash of market relations was nowhere to be seen, especially for a labor force that had little to worry about runaway shops and unemployment. If you read the Communist Manifesto, it will be clear that capitalism was ruled by a bourgeoisie that “cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society.”

But what in the world did this have to do with a Soviet Union that moved at a snail’s pace, particularly when it came to high technology? I was always reminded of Spalding Gray’s “Monster in a Box” monologue where he describes a visit to Russia. In attempting to explain in his own off-kilter manner why the USSR collapsed, he compares the communications system on an American battleship to its Soviet counterpart. It turns out that the Russian admiral uses an old-fashioned tube to speak to his men down in the engine-room.

The people who left the IS to form the ISO were given substantial support by the British IS’ers, who were in the process of forming the British SWP, a group now embroiled in controversy over a top leader not being punished for raping a young female member, a result of his crony ties to the investigating committee.

The British SWP was the mother ship of a worldwide movement in the mold of Leon Trotsky’s Fourth International, which was itself modeled on the Comintern. While Leon Trotsky was a very astute critic of Stalin, his party-building methodology yielded nothing but sects and cults. By the 1950s there were almost as many “Fourth Internationals” as Elvis imitators in Las Vegas, each with its own batty pretender to the throne. For example, Juan Posadas was the genius at the helm of his own International based in Latin America. He argued that UFO sightings were an indication of advanced socialist societies in outer space and advocated a preemptive nuclear strike against the USA by the USSR, so that socialism could arise out of the nuclear ashes.

Tony Cliff was the founder of the British SWP. Born Yigael Gluckstein in 1917, Cliff was a charismatic figure with a particular appeal for intellectuals such as Christopher Hitchens who joined the movement during the Vietnam antiwar movement. One major intellectual who has stuck with the party through thick and thin is Alex Callinicos, the author of 30 books and countless articles and now Professor of European Studies at King’s College London.
Jim Higgins, who died in 2002 at the age of 72, was a chastened ex-member of the British SWP and author of “More Years for the Locust: The Origins of the SWP”, a witty and knowing account of what it was like to belong to such a sect, especially its tendency to live in the past:
It does not require a particularly profound knowledge of the Trotskyist tradition to notice certain similarities between Marxist obscurantism and an addiction to Christian arcana, together with shared fissiparous tendencies. There is Trotsky, like Peter, the first and the best of the disciples and then there is the ever-growing proliferation of sects, sectlets and insects claiming direct descent from the master. Each one of them has a cast iron reason for standing against the rest. If the class nature of Stalinist Russia seemed of vital import to Trotsky in 1940, then it must be at the centre of our thoughts in 1996. Never mind that country no longer exists; the maintenance of the argument is the maintenance of the tradition, it has become an end in itself. So powerful is this yearning for the certainties of the past that even the way some of us talk and write is redolent of Comintern jargon of the 1920s, freshly translated from the Russian by an incompetent.
Somewhere along the line friction developed between the ISO and the mother ship. In early 2001 there was a bitter divorce between the two groups over a number of issues, with the British SWP accusing the Americans of not understanding “the lessons of Seattle”, which meant having a different take on the anti-globalization protests of 1999. How dare they? Plagiarizing Dreiser, Callinicos referred to his former comrades as an “American Tragedy” in a 2001 article that complained among other things about how his tiny group of his supporters were being treated by the party’s overwhelming majority: “The ISO’s December 2000 convention in any case marked a further qualitative stage in the group’s sectarian degeneration. In an almost hysterical atmosphere, a minority within the ISO that defended the analysis of the anti-capitalist mood shared by the rest of the IS Tendency were subjected to vilification, bullying, and intimidation.”

This of course is par for the course in such organizations. When you are in the minority, you get bullied, vilified and intimidated for not recognizing the brilliance of the leadership of the moment. A couple of months ago a sizable minority of the SWP walked out after realizing that trying to bring the leadership to account over the rape scandal and overcome a general lack of democracy would lead to them being treated like pork-eaters in a Mosque. Among the dissidents were the gifted Verso author Richard Seymour and science-fiction maven China Mieville. I strongly suspect that any left organizing they’re involved with will bear fruit and serve as an inspiration for the left in the USA. That’s just my opinion.

Once the ISO was unmoored from the SWP, it went from strength to strength. It threw itself into the antiwar movement as well as many campus-based struggles. During my 21-year tenure at Columbia University, I ran into them at a campus literature table on many occasions. Their success was an inspiration to two old friends who like me had broken from the Trotskyist movement. One was Sol Dollinger, the husband of the UAW Flint Women’s Auxiliary leader Genora Dollinger. The Dollingers followed Harry Braverman and Bert Cochran into the Socialist Union of the mid to late 1950s. Known as the “Cochranites”, the group had the audacious idea that unity rather than sectarian divisions on the left was necessary. As anybody old enough to remember the 1950s can attest, these were not good times to start any kind of new left group—sane or batty. So they fell apart in 1959. Braverman, of course, went on to write “Labor and Monopoly Capital”, a classic study of changes in the American economy.

Peter Camejo was another old friend who grew to respect the ISO’s work on the Nader campaign and what he regarded as their respect for democratic rights. Peter had problems with any group that adhered to the “Russian” model but saw them as a kind of butterfly struggling to break through the confines of the chrysalis they had inherited from the British SWP.

To some extent, the ISO’s growth must be attributed to the sorry state of the competition. My own group—the American SWP—had 2000 members in the year that the ISO was formed but drove most of them out over the next thirty years because they were not “Bolshevik” enough to go from one crappy factory job to another in search of a revolutionary proletariat, like Captain Ahab looking for Moby Dick. The only other sizable group on the left was the Workers World Party that suffered a walkout from the people who went on to form the Party for Socialism and Liberation. They were far more important to the antiwar movement than the ISO but have failed to capitalize on their accomplishments, probably because of the generally crude nature of their party organs that read like they were written for a kindergarten class and their ingrown culture.

In 2008 Lars Lih wrote a book titled “Lenin Rediscovered: What Is to Be Done? In Context” that posed a fundamental challenge to the way that groups like the ISO was organized. Lih claimed that Lenin did not create a party of a new type but simply tried to copy the example of the German Social Democracy of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, a pluralist and transparent organizational model that had little to do with the “vanguard” conceptions that allowed Alex Callinicos to give the boot to his American comrades.

If you are not that familiar with the German socialist movement of 100 years ago (who can blame you?), it might make more sense to think in terms of Eugene V. Debs’s Socialist Party or the IWW, organizations that sprang from the native soil. There is little question that once groups in the USA began imitating Lenin’s party in a mechanical fashion, the road to ruin was guaranteed.

The ISO is trying to give Lih his proper due (Haymarket Books, their publishing house, has put out a paperback version of his book) but continues to insist that a new type of party did come into existence in 1917. This involves putting a positive spin on the questionable initiatives of the Kremlin (mostly cooked up by Gregory Zinoviev, who was played to perfection by Jerzy Kosinski in Warren Beatty’s “Reds”).

Paul Le Blanc, an ISO member who has made explaining the Comintern as relevant to our tasks today a high priority, has twisted himself into a virtual pretzel trying to make its early history look sensible. At a conference sponsored by Historical Materialism that took place at NYU in April, Le Blanc tried to put a positive spin on the “21 Conditions” that had to be met in order for a working-class organization to get stamped as kosher by the Kremlin in 1919. Condition number ten called for the formation of “Red Trade Unions”, a totally idiotic measure that would have divided the working class and made it more vulnerable to attacks by the bosses and the cops. Condition twenty-one made sure that anybody sitting on the fence would get the message: “Those party members who fundamentally reject the conditions and Theses laid down by the Communist International are to be expelled from the party.”

After Peter Camejo had been expelled from the American SWP along with hundreds of others including Le Blanc, he went to Venezuela to read Lenin and figure out what went wrong. When he returned, he met with me and pointed out that in the entire history of the Bolshevik party, only a single person had ever been expelled—namely Bogdanov, the author of a third-rate science fiction novel and some distinctly odd philosophical notions. Who knows, maybe Edmund Wilson was right that things went downhill from that point?

Le Blanc went even further out on a limb on May 31 at the “Dangerous Ideas for Dangerous Times” conference in London organized by Tariq Ali and other independent radicals, and even seemed ready to saw it off. Speaking on the topic of “Leninism for Now”, he tried to somehow make Morris Lewitt seem reasonable. Lewitt was a top leader of the American SWP who died at the age of 95 in 1998 and was some kind of inspiration to Le Blanc. Goodness knows why.

In 1944 Lewitt gave a report to the American SWP that included this super-sectarian formulation: “We can tolerate no rivals. The working class, to make a revolution can do it through only one party and one program… We are monopolists in politics and we operate like monopolists. Either through merger or irreconcilable struggle. We have proved this by the whole history of our movement.” When I first came across this howler in the early 1980s, everything fell into place. No wonder the SWP went from 2000 members to about a hundred. But why would anybody see it as anything else except a sectarian rant? Le Blanc justifies it, or at least tries to put it into context, by stating that the Trotskyists were up against “authoritarian Stalinism”.

Well, yes and no. Just three years later in 1947 Bert Cochran and Harry Braverman would defend working with the Communist Party in the UAW against the Walter Reuther bureaucracy that was about to impose a loyalty oath on the union. The “Stalinists” were ready to join forces with the Trotskyists, who had sizable auto union representation in Detroit and Flint, including Ernie Mazey who would eventually become part of the union bureaucracy along with his Socialist Party brother Emile. For the time being, the radical members of the UAW believed that anti-Communism had to be resisted. There had to be a united front against the gathering McCarthyite tide.

However, James P. Cannon, the leader of the SWP, and his top lieutenant Morris Lewitt would have none of this. They ordered the UAW members to bloc with Walter Reuther. Since Stalinophobia ran so deep in the Trotskyist movement, the Cochranites felt that they had no other recourse except to form their own organization based on a more inclusive approach.
In May 1954 Bert Cochran wrote an article titled “Our Orientation” that includes words as germane today as they were back then:
Our purpose is to bring our ideas into the mass movement, and to gradually raise the consciousness of the ranks to the historic tasks. But the last thing in the world we should attempt is to inculcate the ranks with the necessity of adopting our specific tradition, and impressing upon them the truth of all the evaluations and proposals broached by Trotsky from 1923 on. The thought that in the coming period of our activity we have to go out of our way to mention the name and work of Leon Trotsky, and the name and the existence of the Fourth International, shows how far all of us have become infused with narrow group thinking, and organizational fetishism, how far we have traveled from the outlook of Frederick Engels, who warned the Socialists in America not to publish the Communist Manifesto, as it was based on old-world experiences, and that the American labor movement, developing under different conditions, would not understand it, and would not know what Marx and Engels were talking about. Why isn’t it possible for us to take this simple thought of Engels and apply it to ourselves and our work? If Engels didn’t think this was putting a question mark over his revolutionary integrity, why should we?
Probably I am the last person in the USA that the ISO wants to take advice from. But I will give it anyway. To start with, I think they should really think about using a new name. Practically anything would be better than International Socialist Organization. It would also be a good idea to dump the visual clich├ęs like the clenched fist. I suppose that they have a handle on these sorts of problems inasmuch as nary a hammer-and-sickle can be found on their website. Smart people internationally are beginning to think hard about these questions. Naturally the folks who left the British SWP are on the leading edge as indicated by Tom Walker’s contribution on May 2nd:
Intervene. Build. Cadre. Recruit. Centralism. Discipline. Indiscipline. Smash. Oppositionist. Comrade. Purge. Bourgeois. Layer. Expel. Vanguard. Front. Turn. Propaganda.
All these words and more are part of the very particular jargon we have been used to, both in the Socialist Workers Party and on the wider revolutionary left. Taken together, they are certainly evocative – and not in a good way.
Now I have no ideas on what words should replace this hoary lexicon but I am sure that the bright young things in the ISO can come up with something better.

Finally, and on somewhat of a more challenging basis, there really has to be a rethinking of the whole “democratic centralism” question. I think that most people understand that the ISO develops its strategy and tactics internally and then “intervenes” with them in the mass movement as indicated in Tom Walker’s note above.

I think that ideas have to be considered on their own merit in the mass movement independent of who is articulating them. My own experience in the American SWP is that people hated our guts even when they agreed with our ideas. It was quite off-putting to see every single SWP’er at an antiwar conference in the late 60s voting in the same way no matter what other people had to say. What was the point of having a conference? You could just invite one SWP’er to the conference who had been assigned 5 or 6 hundred votes and put an end to the charade.

On my own Marxism mailing list of 1500 subscribers, I have debated Cuba over the years with ISO’ers (they think it is a totalitarian dungeon) with an ever-increasing sense of futility. Even if what I say makes sense, they won’t buy it. The simple truth is that intellectual conformity in such groups is not a function of bureaucratic measures such as expulsion (although it obviously comes into play during sharp debates). It is all about peer pressure. Who would want to get on the other side of a heated debate with the people you hang out with all the time and who you consider to be the smartest people on earth? Of course, there are people like Jeff St. Clair, Joshua Frank, and me who don’t mind thinking and speaking for ourselves.

Just call us CounterPunchers.

Louis Proyect blogs at and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Salon: Rahm Emanuel, the Murder Mayor

Rahm Emanuel is losing control of his city

As his disapproval rating soars, he’s getting tagged with names like the “murder mayor.” Here’s how it fell apart

Rahm Emanuel is losing control of his city (Credit: Benjamin Wheelock/Salon/Reuters/Jeff Haynes)
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel cakewalked into office, from his former position as the White House chief of staff to President Obama, to succeed the two-decade reign of Richard M. Daley. Like Daley, Emanuel faced weak opponents who grumbled at his supersize war chest, thickly padded by financiers from Hollywood to Wall Street. But unlike Daley, Emanuel promised two things Chicagoans do not hear often: pledges for more government transparency, and to make “tough choices” to fix the city’s ballooning budget deficit.
Now, midway into his inaugural term, the honeymoon is over. Emanuel faces scrutiny from groups Daley never alienated: public sector unions, liberal progressives and minority coalitions on the city’s South and West side. Since his election, Emanuel’s approval numbers started dropping, and some are charging him as racist — a “murder mayor” deaf to the marginalized swaths of Chicago suffering from escalating street violence, inadequate transit and the largest mass school closing in U.S. history. While he reigns as mayor in a city traditionally ruled by Democrats, many consider him a Republican in donkey blue clothing, who, like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R), swept into office and immediately hauled out the budget cleaver.
“Daley didn’t make enemies of labor unions, but now, the police, the fire, everybody essentially is now in opposition to Rahm and that didn’t have to happen,” says Dick Simpson, a former Chicago alderman who now teaches political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
To the surprise of no one familiar with his Washington reputation, many see the mayor as combative, refusing to take public input seriously, and allied so closely to his tight pool of corporate benefactors that the nickname “Mayor 1%” and Twitter hashtag #OneTermMayor have gone viral. Even some members of his party — a tribe that rarely breaks ranks — are scratching their heads in public. Most notable: Cook County board president Toni Preckwinkle, who told the Chicago Reader two weeks ago that his decision to close so many schools was “a terrible idea” and “demoralizing.”
“The closings are going to take place almost entirely within the African-American community, and given the problems we already have with violence, I think it’s very problematic,” she said.
In any other city, the insurgency might suggest Emanuel’s chances for reelection are in trouble, especially with two more years of drumbeating by his opponents. But this is Chicago, where term limits go to die, and where incumbents luxuriate in the home rule advantage.
Still, a Chicago Tribune/WGN-TV poll from early May shows a growing unrest. On the bright side, a healthy 50 percent of Chicago voters still approve of his job performance versus 40 percent who disapprove. But, a year ago, those numbers were 52-29. And among black voters, the problems are more acute. Just 40 percent approve of his performance while 48 percent disapprove; last year, that disparity was the other way around, at 44-33.
The numbers reflect the many confrontations Emanuel has faced these past two years: his proposal to reduce public library hours and staff; a contentious teacher strike that was the city’s first in 25 years; escalating gun violence that entered national headlines since last summer; a five-month renovation project that will shut down a major transit line on the South Side, primarily affecting black commuters; lackluster efforts to better the city’s unemployment rate that remains above 10 percent; and conflicting agendas on spending priorities, like the controversial announcement that 50 public schools will be shuttered in the city’s neediest neighborhoods to help shore up funds. That announcement happened to come the same week as another to spend $300 million in public money to build a new basketball arena and renovate Navy Pier, projects Emanuel promises will create 10,000 construction jobs, but others are calling white elephants in the making.
“He’s been an excellent CEO, he gives orders and things happen,” says Dick Simpson, a former Chicago alderman who now teaches political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “His weakness is that he’s not so good on democracy.”
In his campaign for mayor, Emanuel was scrutinized by his opponents as not being “from Chicago,” a technicality that his legal team ultimately dismantled, but a contention that still lingers as the mayor strives to show that he feels the pain of his constituents, even if a growing number may not fully believe he feels as sharp a sting.
Example: Daley left office on the heels of a $1.15 billion privatization deal involving selling the city’s 36,000 parking meters to a consortium owned, in part, by Morgan Stanley. The deal was not only later debunked as a financial catastrophe for the city — the city’s inspector general later said it was valued for $974 million more — but one that became a hot button issue for residents, as it cost them nearly triple to park on city streets, and made parking costly in some neighborhoods where meters previously didn’t exist. Since day one in office, Emanuel made it clear he understood the political liability of not doing something to rectify the situation. But critics say what he is proposing feels shaky.
After Morgan Stanley delivered the city a bill for an extra $49 million in fees — it turns out few city council alderman read the fine print that mentioned being charged for lost revenue from street festivals or disabled parking — Emanuel is proposing a new deal that once again made Sunday parking free, in exchange for allowing the company to extend parking hours, up to 10 p.m., in some neighborhoods. Emanuel’s talking point for selling the swap is “trying to make a little lemonade out of a big lemon.” But many aldermen, spurred by local media reports that Emanuel’s numbers were flawed — and worried their constituents will run them out of town on a rail — are demanding hard data from city hall to determine if, indeed, the numbers add up in their favor.
It doesn’t look good: A recent Tribune analysis concluded that Morgan Stanley would actually reap more under Emanuel’s new deal, to the tune of $517 million in additional revenue above meter fees. John Arena, a freshman alderman in the city’s 45th Ward, has been one of the few in the city council to demand accountability for the new deal, and he says the parking meter fight is an example of the mayor not coming clean about whose side he’s ultimately on.
“Transparency is the one thing the mayor was very vocal about in his campaign, and that’s been something he’s not fully lived up to,” Arena says. “Of course, when you’re in power, some of those promises may change, but my point of view is, transparency is more important now after the Daley years when it was a very closed circle of confidants and advisers and it’s led us into a bad place.”
Politically, the swap has the potential to test the patience of an electorate that the Tribune/WGN-TV poll shows is already on the wane: 52 percent of voters believe Emanuel has not kept his campaign pledge to rid government of insider deals, an increase from 39 percent last year.
If there is a legacy issue that may determine whether Emanuel’s reform agenda is best for Chicago, or a debacle in the making, it’s likely his decision in May to permanently shutter 50 public schools. Among his top reasons why: The school district must close its $1 billion deficit and the number of schools is disproportionate to the district’s population loss.
Again, many dispute his data. Between 2000 and 2013, the city says it lost 145,000 students according to census data, an 18 percent drop; however, school enrollment dropped much less, just 6 percent. Also, the $1 billion in savings the city says it will generate from the school closings is not likely to happen considering the district admits that the majority of that money will get redirected into the receiving schools as capital investments — which means the budgetary nightmare will still remain as frightful.
“The numbers are certainly going to be debated because we have different resources coming up with different data and that certainly is going to fuel both the defense and the distrust that some are feeling the system is putting forward,” says Steve Tozer, a professor of education and director of the Center for Urban Education Leadership at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
While Tozer agrees with Emanuel that the school district is woefully underfunded by the state, he says that Emanuel’s solution to close so many schools was unusually bold, given that he could have looked elsewhere for deep cuts — such as programs, personnel or operating costs.
“Any time you’re talking about closing even 10 percent of schools in any district, that’s pretty significant. No doubt this is going to be deeply disruptive,” he says.
Politically, the situation is disastrous, and some are (perhaps wishfully) taking it as the first real sign of vulnerability for his reelection chances. The Chicago Teachers Union is already spearheading a registration drive to turn a constituency that is already against the mayor into voters, and union president Karen Lewis labeled Emanuel “the murder mayor” because of all his cuts to vital services. Multiple lawsuits are also pending from families and the union who both say the mayor is violating the civil rights of special needs children and those living in poorer, marginalized neighborhoods. They say the closures are really a veiled attempt to weaken the union and expand the privatized charter school system.
No matter who wins the public relations war, the fight is ultimately rooted in how Chicago governance operates. On paper, the school board is an independent body, armed with the power to bypass city hall politics and do what it perceives as right for the children — even if it means raising taxes, which the board also has the right to do.
But this is Chicago. And no sitting mayor is going to let a group of appointee hacks stifle his chances at reelection. Which means that although the school district is in a separate building, operates under different rules, and is chartered to serve the children first, the reality is that, under Emanuel, the board is a politicized body that serves at his bidding.
“Chicago Public Schools pays a lot of money for benefits for board members and salaries for public administrators whose real job seems to be answering the phone when city hall calls and try to find a way to implement the dictated policy. They’re not setting the agenda so far as following the agenda,” says David Morrison, acting director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, an advocacy group. “They don’t seem to play an independent role, so why are they there? Again, it comes back to the control that the fifth floor mayor’s office has.”
Business leaders are more forgiving of Emanuel’s no-nonsense style because they perceive him as a strong leader emboldened to do whatever it takes to drag Chicago out of the red, and develop long-term strategies to curb its financial crisis. Summing up this perspective is a quote by United Airlines CEO Jeff Smisek, in a current Time magazine cover story on the mayor, who described Emanuel as “just what the doctor ordered.”
Lawrence Msall agrees. As president of the Civic Federation, a government research organization in Chicago, Msall says Emanuel “has begun a lot of the heavy lifting that’s been needed in Chicago,” considering it faces a financial crisis largely compounded, he says, by an unfunded liability of $32 billion in the 10 Chicago-area public employee pension funds.
Msall blames much of the bungling of deals like the parking meters, not on the mayor’s office, but on the city council — which he says is too big, and lacks the authority to effectively analyze complicated financial legislation. The solution, he proposes, is an Office of Independent Budget Analysis that will vet all contracts and provide the council the analysis needed to make smart budgetary decisions.
So far, Msall says Emanuel is showing he is serious about confronting areas Daley hesitated to touch. One example is his plan to phase out the city’s subsidy of retiree healthcare by 2017 and moving the coverage under the Affordable Care Act.
“Whether we have any money for more government services, it is directly related to these legacy issues of unfunded pensions and other areas that continue to put financial pressure on the city,” Msall says. “That’s why a strong leader like Mayor Emanuel is attractive in dealing with the issues that were avoided or viewed as unworkable.”
Whatever its merit, this kind of talk is unusual in Chicago, where Republican challengers are extinct and mayors have traditionally maintained power through their patronage armies — which have consisted mainly of city workers and unions, the same groups that complain they are feeling the squeeze under Emanuel.
But in recent years, the Democratic Party in Chicago has operated much differently from its counterparts in other cities. Having zero opposition from Republicans has allowed it to adopt some core Republican principles, and push back harder against traditional constituent groups without fear of retaliation. In essence, this hybrid Chicago boss — corporate-friendly and anti-union, but progressive on traditional social issues like gay marriage — seems to thrive here, making it quite difficult for a serious challenger to rise up, either from the corporate sector or among the progressives, and pose a serious threat.
“So there is this remarkable void on the left and the right, which allows mayors like Emanuel and Daley to steer this middle of the road course. There isn’t much of a risk, even if Emanuel is seen as broadly unpopular,” says Larry Bennett, a political scientist at DePaul University in Chicago. “Chicago has been a one-party city for so long that there’s very little infrastructure for running against an incumbent.”
Indeed, while more in his party feel emboldened to publicly criticize Emanuel than they had Daley, none are likely to mount a serious campaign to knock him out of his seat in two years. One reason is political: He still rules what remains a rubber stamp council. The second is money: He has way more than they ever will see in their lifetime. The third is time: For progressives, a traditionally unorganized group, two years to coalesce into a political majority is slim to none.
“You can’t be somebody with nobody. You have to have a viable candidate and they have to have a movement behind them and some fundraising capacity,” Simpson says. “Most aldermen aren’t there yet.”
Still, while Emanuel’s war chest may ensure his political future, money can’t buy him love. “Daley had a charm to him that endeared him to residents of Chicago, even though he was making decisions that hurt their interests,” Arena says.
“But Rahm is different. He wants to squeeze. But the problem is, the more you squeeze, the more things run through your fingers. That’s going to be a challenge for him. You have to keep the city. The city has to love you.”
Mark Guarino is a staff writer with the Christian Science Monitor. He lives in Chicago.

Monday, June 17, 2013

WSJ: New York City's New System for Rating Teachers Could Be Tougher Than Previous Approach

Glimpse of New Teacher Ratings Is Offered

New York City's New System for Rating Teachers Could Be Tougher Than Previous Approach


New York City's new system for rating teachers could be dramatically tougher on educators than the previous one, according to new data released by the city last week.

About 6% of the city's fourth- through eighth-grade teachers were rated ineffective based on their students' scores on state tests last year, the most controversial portion of the new evaluations.

The scores released on Friday won't count for city teachers, because the Department of Education and the teachers union, the United Federation of Teachers, couldn't reach a deal on the details of the new system in time for this year. The state Education Department imposed a system in June and it will take effect in the fall, helping the city and state qualify for hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding.

But the rankings provided a quick snapshot of how the teacher-evaluation system imposed by the state in May could work in real life. Teachers could be fired if they are deemed ineffective on both state test scores released Friday and on a separate set of school-based tests for two consecutive years.
In the current system, less than 3% of teachers are flunked by their principals, and the firing process isn't as swift.

David Weiner, a deputy chancellor of city schools, said it was "impossible to tell at this point" how many teachers would be rated ineffective. But he said the new system would do a more fair and accurate job of "recognizing teachers that actually, probably shouldn't be teaching anymore."

City officials have said that, under the city's current teacher-performance system, far too few were flunked by principals, who had only two choices: a rating of satisfactory or unsatisfactory. In 2011-12, under the old rating system, 2.6% of the city's roughly 73,000 teachers received unsatisfactory ratings, and the rest were rated satisfactory. It was once common for less than 1% of teachers to be rated unsatisfactory.

The new system, which will take effect this fall, ranks teachers in four categories: ineffective, developing, effective and highly effective. The scores will generally be based 20% on state tests, 20% on school-based tests and 60% on classroom visits by administrators.
Teachers who are rated ineffective on the two test-score portions will flunk the evaluation, no matter how well they do during their classroom observations. Principals and the Department of Education will have some discretion in deciding whom to start termination proceedings against.
It is unclear how many teachers will ultimately receive the lowest rating, but data related to the 2011-12 state tests released Friday by the city Department of Education provides a glimpse of what could come.
The statistics are drawn from 10,544 city teachers who received what are called "growth scores"—a calculation of how well students did on state tests compared with similar students. About 6% were ranked ineffective, 10% were developing, 77% effective and 8% highly effective. The breakdown for the city's teachers was nearly identical to those across the state, though slightly more city teachers were ranked highly effective.
Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, said that just because 6% of teachers received the worst rating based on state test scores, doesn't mean that so many will be rated ineffective in the long run.
"You cannot extrapolate," he said. "Very few people will be ineffective…When it comes up, the numbers will bear it out."
Mr. Mulgrew said the teachers' scores were unreliable from one year to the next.
When the city experimented with a similar method of analyzing student test scores, teacher rankings swung wildly from year to year.
The growth scores are designed to show how a teacher's students perform on state tests from one year to the next, comparing students with others who have similar disability, poverty and English fluency status.
Experts on these types of statistics have said that the most accurate method of grading teachers would be to calculate an average of many years' scores over time.
Write to Lisa Fleisher at

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette: Momentum gathers to counter school reforms

Numerous groups have been formed to counter the message of so-called education reform groups:
Indiana Coalition for Public Education:
Northeast Indiana Friends of Public Education:
The Network for Public Education:
Class Size Matters:

Illustration by Gregg Bender | The Journal Gazette

The worm is turning

Momentum gathers to counter school reforms

How much does Indiana love school reform? So much that the American Legislative Exchange Council, the corporate-controlled group drafting boilerplate laws for state legislatures across the country, named its education package the “Indiana Education Reform Package.”

So much that a campy “Education Reform Idol” contest conducted by the right-leaning Fordham Institute crowned Indiana the “Reformiest State” for 2011.
So much that the defeat of state schools chief Tony Bennett last November slowed but didn’t stop education measures in the last session of the General Assembly.

But make no mistake: Indiana’s love affair with so-called school reform is cooling. Serious cracks are showing in the relationship between lawmakers and anti-labor, pro-privatization forces that have fueled the so-called reform with millions in campaign contributions.
Some clues:
•Efforts to dilute the authority of Superintendent Glenda Ritz, Bennett’s successor, were quickly doused by a handful of legislative leaders early in the session. Whether it was a genuine effort to recognize the electorate’s wishes or a plan to delay until attention wanes in the next session, the newly elected state official was afforded a chance to be heard on legislation.
•A full-out rebellion against the Common Core State Standards resulted in Indiana’s becoming the first state to delay instituting the national standards. It took opposition to the standards from the GOP’s far-right flank to catch lawmakers’ attention, but continuing scrutiny now has tea party groups questioning the reform movement overall.
•Disruption of ISTEP+ testing last month was met not with the usual acceptance by Indiana educators, but with widespread complaints. Wendy Robinson, superintendent of Fort Wayne Community Schools, announced the district would not accept test scores without third-party validation. Evansville Vanderburgh School Corp. Superintendent David Smith questioned the validity of scores even for those students who did not lose computer connections during testing.

The signs of reform pushback come as no surprise to Phyllis Bush, who retired from South Side High School as an English teacher and department chair in 1999. She became a vocal critic of the school reform movement about two years ago after attending a town hall meeting by an area legislator who seemed to know little about the bills being pushed on schools and instead deferred to one of Bennett’s assistant superintendents to respond.
“A roomful of teachers asked some pretty good questions about charters and vouchers,” Bush said. “I was completely appalled by his smugness.”
After attending a Washington rally for public schools, she mobilized a group of Fort Wayne residents to establish the Northeast Indiana Friends of Public Education. Energized by education historian Diane Ravitch’s appearances in Bloomington and at IPFW’s Omnibus Lecture, the group jumped in to help elect a new state superintendent. Since Ritz’s election night upset, they have continued to monitor so-called reform measures and kept up a relentless letter-writing campaign.
“Whether it’s vouchers or charters or ISTEP, people are beginning to see it’s all about money,” Bush said. “I think that’s where some are missing the boat. Hoosiers care about taxes. If you put the emphasis on the fiscal responsibility – how the reformers are sending money to out-of-state corporations, how they are using our kids to make money – that’s how you get people’s attention.”
The full brunt of the reform movement has fallen on those training future teachers and administrators. John Jacobson, dean of the Teachers College at Ball State University, has overseen efforts there to adapt to curriculum demands, teacher licensing changes, school choice initiatives and more. He’s trying to determine how big a role the changes have played in decreasing undergraduate enrollment in teacher-preparation programs, an effect seen not just at Ball State but at other Midwest schools of education. The college surveyed students, recent alumni and school principals to ask how it was doing in preparing teachers, with feedback overwhelmingly positive.

“So the question is: Why is there a decline in our region? That still has to be answered,” Jacobson said. “Is the perception of our young people that education is not an attractive field?”

He pointed to results of a Gallup/Phi Delta Kappa poll that showed increasing numbers of respondents agreeing that they would encourage a young person to study education, but acknowledged that something seems to be turning students away.
“When they start getting to high school, they start hearing the rhetoric,” he said. “You can’t count it out. In Indiana, teachers in the last few years have been pretty demoralized. Since the election, they are sort of holding their breaths. … I hope we can put aside our differences and devote the appropriate resources to education.”

A new direction in Indiana education policy, initiated by Ritz’s election, seems to be developing along with the growing national backlash. John Tierney, writing for, predicts a revolution.
“Fueled in part by growing evidence of the reforms’ ill effects and of the reformers’ self-interested motives, the counter-movement is rapidly expanding,” he wrote in April. “I predict it will continue to gain strength and gradually lead to the undoing of these market-based education reforms.”

Bush, the retired Fort Wayne educator, is involved in its undoing at the national level. Her grassroots activism here caught the attention of Ravitch and Anthony Cody, a California educator and Education Week blogger, who asked her to serve as a director for their newly formed Network for Public Education, established to “protect, preserve, promote and strengthen public schools.”
The national group is a powerful answer to organizations like Stand for Children, StudentsFirst and the American Federation for Children, which have funneled millions in contributions to candidates – from sources obscured by insufficient campaign finance reporting requirements.
The public education supporters are showing success in pushing back. A fifth-grade teacher named Monica Ratliff raised only $52,000 but managed to win a seat on the Los Angeles Unified School District board last month. Her opponent had $2.2 million in campaign contributions from the pro-reform groups and their wealthy funders.
News coverage is beginning to take a more critical look at so-called reform. John Merrow, a veteran education reporter for PBS and NPR, chronicled Michelle Rhee’s stormy tenure as chancellor of the District of Columbia schools, joining many others in affording her more attention than her accomplishments warranted. Now, after uncovering a memo that linked the divisive “Waiting for Superman” figure to the district’s cheating scandal, Merrow is calling out those who have supported Rhee and declined to investigate her involvement.
Parents are beginning to join the fray, as well. A growing number are joining opt-out movements, keeping their children at home on testing days to protest high-stakes assessments. Look for more resistance as word spreads about inBloom, an education data portal funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation and federal grants. Some Common Core critics are complaining that it represents the next step in creating a national database, with student privacy at risk.
Those questioning reform measures might come from diverse quarters, but they shouldn’t be labeled as resistant to change. After all, they mostly accepted the changes until the ill effects of reform became too great to ignore.
Instead of rejecting the concerns of experienced educators like Bush, Jacobson and many more who have pointed to flaws, state and federal policymakers would be better served by listening to and incorporating their ideas.
If they don’t, overreach by the reformers and the growing resistance is likely to stop all changes dead in their tracks.
Karen Francisco, editorial page editor, has worked at The Journal Gazette since 2000 and for Indiana newspapers since 1982. She can be reached at 260-461-8206 or by email,

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Lee Sustar on Chicago TU and Emanuel


Lee Sustar looks at the challenges facing the Chicago Teachers Union after Rahm Emanuel carried out the largest-ever round of school closures in any U.S. city.

June 5, 2013
CLOSING 50 schools while doling out millions in taxpayer dollars to real estate developers landed Rahm Emanuel on the cover of Time magazine [1] under the headline "Chicago Bull."

Journalist David Von Drehle portrays Emanuel as a tough guy who steamrollers the opposition, but all for the greater good of the city. But to teachers and growing numbers of working people fed up the mayor's pro-business agenda, Emanuel is just Chicago's biggest bully--and they want to get rid of him.

The day after Emanuel's handpicked Board of Education voted on May 22 to approve the largest round of school closures in a single city in U.S. history, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) hosted a voter registration meeting [2] in which several union members were trained to be deputy registrars, enabling them to register people to vote.

"We need to figure out a way to change the hearts and minds of the voters, the people to whom the mayor is accountable," Lewis said at the meeting. "We have to let people know 'your vote means something.'"

Of course, the CTU has already gave the bully in City Hall a lesson last September, when a strike shut schools for nine days and defeated Emanuel's effort to break the union's power. The CTU fought not only to preserve pay and working conditions, but also to defend public education from budget cuts and privatization through the expansion of charter schools.

That fight continued as the union organized against the mass school closings--and in the middle of that campaign, Chicago teachers reelected their union leaders by an overwhelming margin.

Now the question for the CTU--and for people across the city fed up with Emanuel's corporate agenda and bullying tactics--is where the voter registration effort will lead. Could the emerging grassroots movement for educational justice be dispersed into a mayoral campaign for a moderate Democrat who will challenge Emanuel in the 2015 election? Or is it possible that an electoral campaign could be used to build the movement through an independent, pro-worker platform that would draw new people into activism?

Lewis spoke about the pro-corporate character of the Democratic Party and the need for an alternative in her speech to the Labor Campaign for Single Payer national meeting in January [3]. "Unfortunately," she said, "there's really only one party in this country. It's the party of money, and there are two branches. So we have to work with our allies to develop new coalitions."

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

IN THE near term, the CTU is continuing to organize against the closures.

The union worked with a group of Chicago parents to file several lawsuits [4] to stop the shutdowns. The suits argue that the board violated its own guidelines by ignoring the recommendations of independent hearing officers in a number of cases; that the closures are concentrated in predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods; and that the city's plan doesn't take into account the needs of special ed students. There are also discussions about further protest actions at the affected schools.

The board's final decision on closures came just days after the incumbent Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE) was was returned to office with 79 percent of the vote [5].

But CORE members barely paused to celebrate. At the caucus' reelection party on May 17, congratulations and toasts were immediately followed by the question: "What march are you going to tomorrow?" The next morning, CTU organizers were to join with student, parent and community activists to begin the three-day March for Educational Justice as part of the fight to keep schools open. Thus, the victory party thinned out early so CTU officers, staffers and activists could get some sleep before hitting the streets a few hours later.

In the end, the closures were approved--voted on by the school board "in less time than it takes to boil an egg," as the Chicago Sun-Times put it [6].

Despite that heavy blow, the three-day march--which capped months of organizing and activism--achieved some gains. Barbara Byrd-Bennett, the CEO of Chicago Public Schools (CPS), took four schools off the closures list. Two of them, Mahalia Jackson Elementary and George Manierre Elementary, had seen high levels of parent and community opposition to the closures.

Manierre, in particular [7], highlighted the gentrification-driven agenda behind some of the closures, since it sits in a neighborhood where million-dollar townhouses stand across the street from public housing developments populated largely by African Americans.

Moreover, Emanuel paid a high political price for carrying through the shutdowns, which were increasingly seen as racist since 88 percent of the students affected are African American. Chicago Tribune poll, six in 10 of those surveyed disagreed with Emanuel's closure policy. The poll also found that 41 percent backed the CTU's positions on school policy, while just 19 percent backed the mayor.

The shift in public opinion prompted Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle to publicly criticize Emanuel and CPS for ignoring the recommendations of the independent hearing officers [8], who recommended that 13 of the targeted schools remain open.

"What was the point of having public hearings?" Preckwinkle told the Sun-Times. "Was it all a charade? If you weren't going to pay any attention to the outcome of the public hearings or the recommendations of the public hearing officers, why would you bother to waste everyone's time?"

Chicago dominates surrounding Cook County, so this was an uncharacteristically sharp criticism by Preckwinkle, who has often cooperated with Emanuel, although occasionally taking issue publically with his policies. As the city's most prominent African American politician, Preckwinkle was reflecting the growing discontent with Emanuel in Black Chicago. She faces reelection in 2014, a few months before Emanuel.

Several African American alderman also felt enough pressure to speak at the Board of Education meeting and plead to keep schools in their wards open--even though they made it clear that they still support the mayor.

It was left to Alderman Bob Fioretti, an outspoken white liberal who has been targeted for political elimination through a radical redistricting of his ward, to declare that the board meeting was just for show, since the school closures were a done deal. "I wasn't going to testify today because I feel that so many decisions are made without any input," Fioretti said. The closures, Fioretti said, were an "inequitable burden on African American and Latino communities. Substantial research shows that closing schools and moving students increases the dropout rate and the incidence of street violence."

Parents, teachers and community organizers also challenged the board and CEO Byrd-Bennett for ignoring community voices.

CTU President Lewis pointed out that the board didn't have the guts to take a roll call vote on the schools, instead using a parliamentary maneuver to record a unanimous "yes" for all 50 shutdowns.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

THE ARROGANCE of Byrd-Bennett, the school board and, above all, Emanuel has fueled sentiment for an electoral challenge to the mayor.

Weeks before the final decision on school closures, Lewis declared that the CTU would be at the center of an effort to register 100,000 new voters. At the final rally against school closings May 20, she upped the number to 250,000. But the question still to be answered is: vote for which candidate and on what political program? In a city that is run almost entirely by Democrats, what's the alternative?

Cook County Board President Preckwinkle's criticisms of Emanuel has raised hopes that she might challenge the mayor. As the former alderman for the Hyde Park neighborhood--where Barack Obama lived before moving into the White House--Preckwinkle had progressive positions on many issues. But a look at her record shows that while she's on the liberal wing of the Democratic establishment, she's very much tied to the political machine.

Preckwinkle, a former teacher, collaborated with CPS's Renaissance 2010 plan [9], which is supposed to attract middle-class families to the public school system through magnet programs that can squeeze out the children of residents in a particular neighborhood.

She also urged the University of Chicago's Center for Urban School Improvement to set up charter schools [10] in her area, bankrolled by the Gates Foundation. " I'm very grateful to the Center for Urban School Improvement and to the University for committing resources to the communities I serve. They currently operate a first-class charter school in North Kenwood, and we are fortunate to have another coming into Oakland [near Hyde Park]," she told a reporter.

Preckwinkle is also a proponent of Tax Increment Financing (TIF) [11], a scheme pioneered by former Mayor Richard M. Daley that that diverts tax revenues from schools and libraries. Like other alderman, Preckwinkle sought to use TIF money to develop her district, even at the cost of bleeding the budget for public education and other needs.

Despite this record, many opponents of Emanuel hope that Preckwinkle could follow the example of Harold Washington, Chicago's first, and so far only, African American mayor, who was elected back in the 1980s. But even if Preckwinkle swings further left and challenges Emanuel, she's unlikely to repeat Washington's success.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

A QUICK look at history shows why. Washington, while certainly a liberal, was nevertheless a product of the Democratic machine himself. Even so, his campaign galvanized the African American working class in Chicago, which was fed up with segregation in housing and the schools, and poor social services.

Washington also reflected the aspirations of the Black middle class, which was excluded from managerial jobs in the public sector and denied business contracts brokered by longtime Mayor Richard J. Daley, the father of Emanuel's predecessor. Washington also forged an electoral alliance with Puerto Rican politicians and leading activists in the fast-growing Mexican immigrant population.

The Democratic machine had been in turmoil following the elder Daley's death in 1976. Washington's triumph over an openly racist opposition in the 1983 election and the defeat of the racist old guard in a special election three years later for City Council based on redrawn districts transformed the political atmosphere in the city. Prominent jobs in the city bureaucracy that had been long reserved for "white ethnics" were now available to African Americans and Latinos.

However, the hoped-for social changes never materialized. Federal budget cuts under the administration of Ronald Reagan led to a squeeze on city finances and layoffs of public employees. Chicago was no exception. The squeeze on school budgets provoked the longest-ever CTU strike in 1987 while Washington was in office.

When Washington died suddenly in 1987, the alliance he created fractured immediately. Eugene Sawyer, one of the African Americans who competed to succeed him, was elected mayor by allying himself with the white racist aldermen who opposed Washington down the line. Two years later, Richard M. Daley, the son of the former mayor, won office by reconstituting the old Democratic machine.

Daley crafted an electoral appeal to liberals and forged a deal with Latino politicians to pre-empt the Black-Brown electoral alliance of the Washington years. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, then an alderman and one of Washington's trusted allies, endorsed Daley in what was widely seen as an act of betrayal [12] by what was known as the "Washington coalition." Ever since, the Democratic machine has relied on its growing Latino base.

Over the years, Daley used his powers to appoint alderman to replace those who resigned--or were indicted. As a result, a number of African American aldermen owed their political careers to Daley, rather than the community groups that had propelled Washington into office. "They used to call it plantation politics," Alysia Tate wrote in the Chicago Reporter in 1999 [13]. "A handpicked group of Black politicians won elected offices, but lacked any real power."

In his 22 years in office, Daley did the bidding of real estate developers and finance capital as he remade Chicago as a "world city." Democratic machine hacks now coexisted with technocrats who took over social policy, targeting city services for privatization. The white flight that had panicked Corporate Chicago was halted in the 1990s, thanks to pro-gentrification policies.

Meanwhile, the demolition of public housing led to Black flight. According to census data [14], of the 200,000 people who moved out of Chicago between 2001 and 2010, some 180,000 were African American.

Daley's other social policy innovation was school "reform," which consisted of mass firings of teachers at "underperforming" schools--and, later, school closures, concentrated, then as now, in African American and Latino neighborhoods.

The political machine was retooled with a growing Latino voting base through the Daley-dominated Hispanic Democratic Organization and the nonprofit group UNO, which thrives on housing contracts and charter school operating funds, with allegedly corrupt insider dealing [15]. The old machine, based on municipal patronage jobs, has given way to new political alliances based on contracts to run privatized city services.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

BY 2010, having left the city broke, Daley decided to quit while he was ahead--or perhaps, according to the swirling rumors, before he was indicted. Enter his former aide, Rahm Emanuel, whose rising political fortunes allowed him to bag more than $18 million during a two-and-a-half-year stint as an investment banker [16], before moving on to Congress and chief of staff in the Obama White House.

As mayor, Emanuel has accelerated the property development drive and the privatization of schools and city services. As he curtailed library hours and shut down mental health clinics and schools, the mayor boosted Chicago's profile by hosting a NATO summit, wooing more corporate investors, and locking up Occupy and antiwar protesters.

Emanuel--dubbed "Mayor 1 Percent" by the left--has suffered sharply declining approval ratings over the last year [17], with 50 percent of respondents supporting him and 40 percent expressing disapproval. That's raised the hopes of many people that he can be run out of office in two years.

But as former alderman and University of Illinois-Chicago professor Dick Simpson says, "You can't beat somebody with nobody."

So who is the potential challenger--and how could they unseat Emanuel, who enjoys the backing of the president of the United States? The usual political logic of the union leadership in such circumstances is to find a Democratic candidate who moderate enough to be considered "electable"--and tone down labor's message to fit that campaign. That strategy failed utterly in Wisconsin, where union-busting Gov. Scott Walker easily survived a recall election against Democrat Tom Barrett, who had an anti-labor record of his own as mayor of Milwaukee.

There won't be a repeat of the Harold Washington years, either, when the rising African American middle class tied its fortunes to his campaign or were pressured by voters into backing him.

These days, a new generation of African American politicians, representing a shrinking Black electorate, have close ties to City Hall. They are prime examples of a wide class divide in Black Chicago. The same can be said of the new Latino Democratic establishment, which takes liberal positions on issues around immigration, but prefers to angle for political patronage and city contracts, rather than lead a political insurgency.

Emanuel's electoral fortunes could get worse if the economy sours and if opposition to his policies continues to rise. But he has plenty of political and financial resources at his command, a record of ruthlessness in squashing political opponents and the devoted support of the city's capitalists.

And even if a challenger to Emanuel does emerge within the mainstream of the Democratic Party, the pressure would be on for the candidate to conform to Democratic Party polices that are far to the right of the party's positions in Harold Washington's day.

Public education is a prime example. The Secretary of Education under Barack Obama is Arne Duncan, who was promoted to the top job nationally after presiding over the Chicago Public Schools and pushing a corporate school reform agenda. Given the bipartisan consensus on austerity and neoliberalism, even liberal Democratic mayors are compelled to administer cutbacks.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

SO DOES all this mean that the growing opposition to Rahm Emanuel has to sit out the 2015 election?

Not at all. An independent campaign backed by labor, community organizations and social movement activists, could build on the widespread support for the CTU during its strike and for the parents, students and teachers fighting school closures. The idea has already been circulating for months: At a rally during the strike, several teachers and supporters shouted for Karen Lewis herself to run for mayor--but she waved them off with a smile.

A teacher--or another unionist or community activist--would be an ideal figure to lead an electoral challenge to Emanuel that's independent of the Democratic Party. While mainstream political commentators would deride such a campaign as "symbolic," the effort could be a powerful organizing tool for building the movement for social justice. It's even possible that one or two independent candidates for alderman could be elected, potentially creating a platform on the City Council for labor and the left to challenge Emanuel's agenda.

At a time when newspapers and other media outlets have slashed their staffs and narrowed their focus, activists are using their own publications and social media to reach a new and growing audience. That's a big reason why the Chicago teachers' strike was so popular, despite the outrage from editorial boards and Emanuel's political hacks. And it's a renewed social movement--not a new face in City Hall--that can resist the austerity drive.

Such a project would be challenging, but the potential to revitalize the left and progressive movements is real. If Rahm is determined to be Mayor 1 Percent, then the 99 percent should have a candidate of their own.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Published by the International Socialist Organization.
Material on this Web site is licensed by, under a Creative Commons (by-nc-nd 3.0) [18] license, except for articles that are republished with permission. Readers are welcome to share and use material belonging to this site for non-commercial purposes, as long as they are attributed to the author and