Public education in the U.S. is facing what Diane Ravitch, former assistant in the Department of Education, has called “an unprecedented time in American history” where schools are facing “a radical, extreme break with the past” because of a “direct attack on public education.”
Many of these attacks have been directed specifically at teachers, and consequently one might assume that teacher unions, the preeminent instrument that was created to defend them, has executed its own break with the past by dramatically ratcheting up its weapons of defense in order to rise to the challenge. Remarkably, teacher unions for the most part have maintained a conservative posture, basically doing little more than the same old routine of electing Democrats to office – a routine that has resulted in one defeat after another since this historic attack has unfolded. Fortunately, parents and often teachers acting independently of their unions have stepped up and won some significant victories.
In order to understand why the response of the teacher unions has been so listless and self-defeating, one must understand the source of the attack and what is needed in order to launch an effective defense. At its core, government leaders and influential corporate heads have observed what New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has called the flattening of the world, meaning that globalization has forced economic and information barriers to come crashing down so that now, in order to succeed, American students must compete with students all over the world. Not only can capital move easily from one country to another, many jobs can be outsourced around the world, thanks to the Internet.
In explaining the contours of this new world, Friedman quoted an entrepreneur from India who insisted that for Americans, “There is no time to rest. That is gone. There are dozens of people who are doing the same thing you are doing, and they are trying to do it better… If there is a skilled person in Timbuktu, he will get work if he knows how to access the rest of the world, which is quite easy today.”
Friedman concludes his article by noting that when he was a child, his parents told him, “Tom, finish your dinner – people in China are starving.” Friedman, on the other hand, tells his children, “Girls, finish your homework – people in China and India are starving for your jobs.”
Because of this intense global competition, policy makers of both parties have jumped on the bandwagon and insisted that our schools must be radically reconstituted in order for our students to compete effectively in the new economy. Hence, the Obama administration, for example, has promoted teacher accountability, tying their employment and salaries to improvement in their students’ standardized test scores; it has championed charter schools in order to force public schools to improve by requiring them to step up and compete for students; it has raised expectations by forcefully encouraging states to adopt the high Common Core standards – all to make U.S. students more competitive in the global economy. The goal of promoting international U.S. corporate success has transmuted into an adoption of the entire corporate mode of operating – the “corporatizing” of education – in order to promote this goal.
Yet, there can be no question that these radical reforms are undermining education, diluting its quality, and demoralizing both teachers and students. Because of the incessant recourse to high-stake standardized tests to measure the progress of both teachers and students, teachers have been forced to narrow the curriculum and “teach to the test,” while students have been forced to put aside the process of discovery, which is essential to any real learning, and focus on the limited and shallow skill of navigating multiple-choice tests.
Meanwhile there is powerful evidence that conclusively shows that students’ classroom performance is far more correlated with their socioeconomic background than the teachers’ performance in the classroom. To hold teachers responsible for their students’ standardized test scores to a large extent amounts to blaming teachers for their students’ poverty, which tragically is on the rise thanks to the policies of both Democrats and Republicans that are allowing inequalities in wealth to surge. It was just reported that for the first time more than half of U.S. public school children live in poverty. Judging teachers by their students’ test scores has no rational basis yet is being forcefully imposed on our schools by the federal government.
Because their traditional allies from the Democratic Party have obsessively embraced these corporate-motivated innovations, teacher unions seem paralyzed, unable to respond with a new strategy. They criticize the overuse of standardized tests, but they keep electing Democrats to office who, once elected, more often than not join the corporate attack on education. The National Educational Association, the largest teacher union in the country, for example, has called for Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s resignation, but they supported Obama’s presidential campaigns both times, even though Arne Duncan is simply implementing Obama’s education policies. The American Federation of Teachers has also endorsed Obama’s campaigns and gone so far as to accept “merit pay,” another toxic ingredient in education but forcefully promoted by the Obama administration.
Meanwhile, parents, students and teachers who are often acting independently of the teacher unions have taken up the challenge to defend public education. For example, in 2014 thousands of Denver seniors refused to take the standardized test, “saying they’re a distraction as they work to get into college and a waste of time and money.” In Florida, where testing is rampant, parents have joined a national protest movement. “One father broke down as he said he planned to pull his second grader from school. ‘Teaching to a test is destroying out society,’ he said.”
Jesse Hagopian, who has edited the excellent book, “More Than a Score – The New Uprising Against High Stakes Testing,” identified the core of the problem. At an event celebrating the opening of a school his kindergarten-aged son was attending, all the children were assembled on the grass. The governor’s education aide came and, according to Mr. Hagopian, announced: “I want to congratulate you all for making the choice to come to this school because you are now getting ready to compete in the global economy.” In response, Mr. Hagopian noted: “Cheers did not erupt from the fourth-grade section.” Nor did anyone say, “Yes! My son can keep that kid down in China. My son will be ready to beat down that kid in Mexico.”
In a capitalist economy corporations compete with one another, and if the corporation does not compete successfully, it will not survive. But the logic that applies to corporations does not apply to the workers who are employed by them. When U.S. workers, for example, compete against Chinese workers, while it is admittedly important to have certain skills, the far more common factor that allows the workers of a particular country to win the job is that the corporation can get away with paying the workers in that country less money. That is the single most important reason why so many manufacturing jobs have left the U.S. for China, Mexico, Vietnam, and so on. In other words, when workers of different countries compete against each other, it turns into a race to the bottom, not Obama’s Race to the Top.
But importantly, Mr. Hagopian was also objecting to the lack of concern we display for our fellow human beings, regardless of their nationality, when we are prepared to “beat down” the workers in other countries. Unions were originally built on the principle of solidarity, and solidarity is entirely negated when it does not encompass workers of all countries. Yet international solidarity can result in all workers gaining. For example, when workers in one country strike for higher wages, workers in other countries can initiate sympathy strikes rather than allow the work to be shifted to them. In this way eventually wages around the world can be brought into close equality with one another, and then workers will no longer have to fear corporations moving to other countries to take advantage of lower wages.
Because teacher unions have often accepted the original premise of the corporate agenda – that students must compete successfully with all the other students of the world – they have not been able to develop an effective response to the corporatizing of public education. They are then condemned to continue to support Democrats who, along with Republicans, are allied to the corporations and to one degree or another committed to implementing the radical corporate agenda.
Given these powerful forces behind corporatizing our schools, the only effective response will require breaking with the Democrats and acting independently by creating a huge mass movement that would demand our education operate above all in the interests of the people, not the corporations. Parents, teachers and students have already taken the first step in this direction. But their strength would be multiplied many times over if the teacher unions would join them, throw their vast resources into the struggle, and encourage all the other unions to do the same. After all, everyone will benefit when we have an educational system based above all on the needs of people, not corporations. However, that decision will require that the teacher unions come to the realization that they must employ the kind of critical thinking that is completely absent in our corporate-friendly schools and cannot remotely be touched by a standardized test.