The Future of Our Schools

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Teachersolidarity interviewed Lois Weiner the author of an important new book from the US: The Future of Our Schools

The book,which is sub-titled  "Teachers Unions and Social Justice" is a major   contribution to the most pressing question facing global teaching unions - how to resist the tide of neo-liberal education policy and develop and fight for a new vision of public education.

TS: You have called your book ‘the Future of our Schools’, can you explain why you chose that title?

LW: I think that throughout the world we are at a crossroads in terms of whether we will have mass public education that tries to advance the goals for which the founders of these systems said they were created. Will we try to provide working people with the opportunity to improve their lot in life? Will we try to educate all children to be productive members of society? Do we want our children to be informed citizens who will participate in the civic life of the society?

Whether intentionally or not (and I examine this prickly problem of intent in my book), the elites who push policies that privatize education, control what is taught and learned with standardized tests, disempower local school authorities and parents, and de-professionalize teaching, are destroying educational opportunity for millions of children. We have to do our best to stop this process if we want schools to be beach heads for building a socially just, democratic society.

 TS: You talk about Social Movement Teachers Unions – can you outline what you mean by this?

 LW:  The first half of my book is really an extended essay on this topic, and it will be hard to summarize in a few sentences, but I would say that “social movement unionism” for all workers means making  trade unions more like social movements than the contract-bound organizations they have become. Collective bargaining has given trade unions stability and has opened the door to winning vital economic benefits but it has also diminished our capacity to struggle on issues that fall outside the purview of the contract.  Another factor is  how a teachers’ union should differ from, say, a union of bus drivers, in the way we organize our members and the way we relate to parents and students.  I think we need to rethink almost every aspect of union life because we live in a political, social, and economic environment that is vastly different from even what existed a decade ago.

 TS: In your book you include articles about past leaderships of the AFT and their baleful influence on teacher unionism. Is this still a problem today for teacher unionists in the US and if so how can it be countered?

 LW: Though I discuss the AFT more than I do the NEA, the two national unions operate in tandem, rather like the “good cop/bad cop.” Neither union is willing to challenge the premises of these terrible reforms, because that would require that they mobilize their members. Both have accepted the idea of linking teacher pay to student performance on test scores because they assume that we can’t defeat this politically. Rather than taking a principled position and doing the hard work of reaching out to parents to explain why these policies will hurt their children (as the British Colombia Teachers Federation in Canada has done), the AFT and NEA accept this destructive policy in the name of practicality and then nibble at the edges. So in New York State the AFT affiliate boasts (!) about its legal agreement limiting test scores to count no more than 40% of the teacher’s evaluation. The union sold out students – and teachers – and traded the capacity to fight the harm done by the tests for a place at the table in negotiating the amount of harm that would be done. In other words, they won’t oppose the lynching and instead opt to dicker over the size of the noose.  Often they get us a slightly larger noose but at the price of agreeing to the lynching. The noose is shrinking fast. 

We need a social movement of teachers that transforms the unions, starting in the schools, creating a vibrant, democratic union presence with solid working relationships with parents, rather like what the Anti-Academies Alliance is doing in the UK.  This movement can be the starting point for creating reform caucuses in both unions.

TS: Given the bureaucratic nature of teaching unions in most countries – how do we stop that from preventing us reaching out to other groups like youth protestors or community groups?

 LW: I think there is no “get rich quick” scheme to substitute for the hard work of transforming the unions. That means rethinking the union’s organizational structures, democratizing the union, starting at the school level, reaching out to parents and students, listening to what they say, regarding them respectfully as partners. We have to move beyond the “I scratch your back; you scratch mine” coalitions with parent and community groups and really learn from and with one another, in common struggle.  It’s a tall order, I know, but I think the Chicago strike shows us the direction.

The project of creating social movement teachers unions is embedded in  creating a new social movement of teachers. An essential element of this movement is teachers who are committed to work with oppressed communities and social justice in their pedagogy - and won’t have anything to do with unions. We have to listen carefully to what these teachers tell us, learning from and with them, at the same time that we share what we know about the potential power and ideals of labor unions, in particular solidarity and collective struggle.

 TS: You talk about the global nature of the threat to democratic education through neo-liberal reform. How do we go about building a global movement to counter it?

 LW: The contributors to the book we co-edited (The global assault on teaching teachers and their unions: Stories for resistance) have taught me a great deal, as do the short postings about current struggles of teachers globally on www.teachersolidarity.com. Perhaps I’m showing my bias as a researcher, but I think we need first and foremost to share information and analysis. We also need to create networks of activists, as has been done with the Trinational Coalition (http://www.trinational-usa.org/home.htm) and the IDEA Network, which has been supported by the British Colombia union (http://bctf.ca/SocialJustice.aspx?id=6292) as part of its international work.  Part of this project is finding ways to show our members the connections between what’s occurring in their schools and struggles elsewhere in the world. It’s quite stunning to see precisely the same issue affecting teachers  5,000 miles apart, for instance yearly contracts replacing civil-service protections and tenure. Another real-life connection we have in understanding the global dimension of this project  is considering the situation of our immigrant students and their families.

 TS: What do you see as the role of Education International (EI) in this struggle?

 LW: Currently the EI is far too bureaucratic and has the same problems of the AFT and NEA, which dominate the organizational machinery. I think we have to be honest about these problems and stand up to the charge that  we’re not “team players.” While the EI takes on some excellent projects, like educating members about the assassinations of Colombian teacher union activists, as is done in well-documented research it commissioned (http://download.ei-ie.org/Docs/WebDepot/EI_ColombiaStudy_eng_final_web.pdf),  this fine work is undercut by the AFT and NEA control over EI policy and practices.  One problem is that the needs of teachers in the global south are subordinated to the desires of the US government.  The EI needs to become more dynamic and democratic, a  network that supports the projects of its member organizations. I see an important role for the Western European unions in crystallizing a current, maybe even forming a caucus, that would articulate basic demands about the EI’s functioning, especially at its conferences.  The EI is so sclerotic, I’m not persuaded that in its present state national unions should belong to it.

 TS: As teachers and education activists we have to acknowledge –as you correctly say – that there are many things wrong with public education both in the US and globally – particularly for low income or disadvantaged groups. What would be your vision for education in public schools for instance in the US?

 LW: I’m putting on my hat as a researcher in urban teaching to answer this, but you’ve asked a question that I think teachers unions have to consider. The  conversation in the unions needs to focus more on our vision for public education. I think there’s no one formula, no magic bullet, no single way to teach that works best with all children. We need a respectful discussion among teachers, researchers, parents, and citizens about what kind of schools we want and need. Still, there is much we have learned about “what works” that we could be doing now. The problem is not our lack of knowledge but rather the absence of political will for using what we know.  In the US we need to shift how schools are funded, expanding the national government’s contribution and eliminating the use of  local property taxes.  We need enforcement of strong laws that protect and extend racial and social heterogeneity in classrooms and schools. We need to support teachers and schools with the conditions that allow all children to learn. Hungry, homeless children cannot learn as well as well-fed children who have a warm bed and quiet place to read. I think as we struggle with allies, the details of the vision are clarified.

TS: You talk about new forms of struggle, citing the example of the municipal workers in Cali in Colombia – what new forms of struggle can teachers engage in which will similarly engage local communities?

LW: Public employees and their unions have less legitimacy now with the people we serve. Our weakness is a product of the success of the massive propaganda campaign that’s been conducted by financial elites who have hijacked the rhetoric of “making services work for poor people” to push forward an agenda of privatization and service cuts.  Teachers have been harmed by this, of course. There’s another factor as well, which we have to put on the table. Often poor people who earn less than unionized public employees receive low-quality service. In education this translates into the fact that the school provides a sub-standard education, one we would not permit our own children to have. While teachers are not responsible for the constellation of factors that are responsible for the poor quality of education,  they need to grapple with how to win parent support, especially if there is a social divide between teachers and the community.

Municipal gas and electrical workers in Cali realized they had to build public support in communities where service had been lacking. To do so, they volunteered time to help residents with energy issues, went to public meetings, participated in community events. They cemented their social relations with the community so that when the time came for a job action, the workers had strong roots – and support.  The question that we face as teachers is how to nurture those positive networks and relationships with parents in light of the fact that schools are organized in ways that impede this.

TS: I suppose the same lessons could be learned from the Chicago teachers’ strike?

 LW:  Yes – they saw that they needed to build a vital union presence at the school site, by empowering their members and finding ways to build strong alliances with people who rely on public education. Being a good ally means being present for your partners in their struggles, not only expecting them to support you. We need to focus on making education what it should be for all kids, placing our economic demands within that framework.

 TS: What do you see as the role of critical academics like yourself in furthering the struggle against neo-liberal education reform, transforming teaching unions and promoting democratic education?

 LW: Barbara Bowen, President of the faculty union at the City University of New York, (who was elected as part of a reform caucus), wrote an essay for her union newspaper that lays out the answer to this question and I’ll refer readers to her piece: http://www.psc-cuny.org/clarion/february-2011/viewpoint-researchers-world-unite .  Researchers in education have a special responsibility in this regard, and it starts with upholding the ideals of the research community.  Many of the studies on which national and international policies are based is based is stunningly poor, much of it speculative, based on very small samples.  It’s quite shocking, actually, that the people who are making policy get away with using such shoddy evidence. Another responsibility we have is to write for popular audiences and not just scholarly publications. I’m seeing more of the research that we in education have known about for many years seep into the mass media. Ebony magazine, for instance, carried a fine story by a researcher about the dissolution of the Philadelphia school system and the closing of dozens of schools. The protests of teachers and parents about these harmful policies have created space for researchers to step forward with evidence and analysis that contradicts the reforms being carried out by elites who are certain they know what’s best for us.  I think there’s new understanding on the part of many educational researchers that teachers unions are important. It’s  up to the unions to seize this moment by inviting researchers to join with them in thinking through the challenges we face.

United States
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