Friday, June 27, 2014

NEA Gives Unencouraging Assembly Preview

The NEA issued an open letter on behalf of itself and "the educators of America." It says something about my tortured relationship with my national union that when they speak, I become anxious. Are they going to say something useful, or are they going to embarrass me again? Let's see how things go this time.

We start with a history lesson. NCLB was a thing. It involved testing. The testing was swell insofar as it provided information "regarding students who struggle with basic math and reading skills." Really? It comes a little close to the whole "teachers don't know how students are doing without standardized tests to guide them" thing, but let's move on. "Test, label and punish" have failed. NCLB did not bring us any closer to edu-nirvana. And now, a video clip.

It's Dennis Van Roekel, trying to sound angry in a somewhat lifelike manner. As usual, he seems to shoot for "I'm angry and outraged that our profession is under attack" and comes up short, landing somewhere between "What do you mean, we're out of cucumber sandwiches" and "I am told that when humans get angry, they often exhibit some of these particular behaviors." 

The clip puts us in the context of the upcoming NEA assembly. DVR opens with the NCLB history lesson, declaring that we don't want any more of this bad testing. "We want a new path. We want high standards for all students no matter where they live or their family background." Dammit, Dennis. There is certainly nothing wrong with that on the face of it, other than it borrows the rhetoric of reformsters in general and the Vergara plaintiffs in particular. 

"We want assessments that help us truly understand where our students are struggling, but we are all tired over testing that now requires almost a third of our time." He follows up with more of the better testing complaints. Tests on materials that haven't been taught. Teachers evaluated on test scores of subjects they don't teach and students they never had in class. 

"It is time to end this toxic testing and implement real accountability for our public education system." I appreciate the sentiment. I actually like that after decades of punting on the issue, the union finally wants to get involved in accountability. But the very structure of this sentence supports the premise that student testing and teacher accountability are inextricably linked.

"As educators, we know what works." Along with "toxic testing," I think this is a sting of words we can expect to hear repeated many times. It's a nice line, but we're going to have to figure out what comes after it. What is it we know? 

DVR follows with an odd sentence about kindergartners and assessment, then jump-cuts to how race and class too often determine the line between "those who receive a quality education and those who do not." No. No no no. DVR here reinforces the reformster narrative that schools in poor and difficult areas just have a delivery problem, and not a cultural problem or poverty problem or readiness problem. Again, DVR isn't saying anything that the Vergara paintiffs wouldn't sign off on.

DVR would like us to join him in a national campaign to put the focus "back on student learning." Wait! What? Where else does he think the focus has been? That's not the problem-- reformsters will swear up and down that their whole focus is on student learning, or "outputs," or what we used to call "learning objectives (TSWBAT)." Everybody on all sides of the issues is focused on student learning (or at least pretending they are). The problem here is that some folks think a standardized test on a couple of subjects is the be-all and end-all of measuring student learning.

"We must call on leaders such as secretary Arne Duncan to start leading the effort to---" Wait!! Wait just a minute! Maybe some efforts could be lead by someone like, I don't know, the union leaders who represent millions of the teaching professionals in this country. Maybe they could be leaders!

All right-- this has degenerated quickly, but DVR has a list of things that somebody else should lead us in pursuing, so let's see what that list is, shall we.

     -- bring an end to excessive toxic testing
     -- provide equality of opportunity for each and every student
     -- develop new accountability system that prioritizes learning over labels
     -- provide best possible learning environment for our students

1 & 2 are swell. 4 is harmlessly broad. But 3-- what is that supposed to mean, exactly?

DVR is calling on everyone to sign on to this national campaign something. Also, parents and civil rights community and everyone who is a friend and supporter of public education. "Too many people want to isolate and divide us." So DVR would like us to join in a national campaign for student success. Meanwhile, the chyron touts a national campaign against toxic tests. So, something. 

For a finish, DVR reminds us that together we can reclaim our schools, our profession, and the future of our students. Did we already forget "the promise of public education," which was a really nice line.

The remaining text of the letter is a sort of different draft of DVR's speech. It actually has some better lines, like 

It is now 2014, the year that NCLB declared that all our students would be proficient. They are not.  What they are is tired of testing, and we are too.

It also expands on some of the parts of the speech, like explaining more clearly why poverty marks the line between educational haves and have-nots. This is a problem I've noticed with DVR (or his press flack) before-- when needing to edit for length, he does the job with a chainsaw and invariably cuts critical bits.

Remember DVR's list of four goals? In the text, it's three

      -- end the excessive and toxic testing in our schools
      -- develop a real accountability system that prioritizes learning over labels
      -- ensure that each public school is a place in which every student thrive

Sort of the same, sort of not. It's like this release was prepared by a committee of people who only communicated through e-mail, and not very often.

The letter ends with an opportunity to sign on in support.

It is nominally a step forward in the NEA stance, but still amounts to shuffling deck chairs, challenging some of the specifics of the high stake standardized tests corporate status quo, but not challenging any of the premises that create the foundation for everything else. I can support resistance that focuses on testing because high stakes testing is glue that holds the rest of the reformster complex together. But let's actually oppose standardized testing as a measure of all education. NEA is taking the stance that we object to being punched in the face too hard and too often; let's just come out against face-punching entirely.

Likewise, I would like to believe that NEA's use of reformster language is clever. After all, reformsters sold many of their programs by co-opting the language of civil rights, thereby presenting proposals that their opponents couldn't really oppose. It's a rhetorical ju-jitsu that has been alarmingly effective. So it would be cool if NEA were cleverly doing the reverse and presenting programs in language that reformsters couldn't object to. Sadly, at this stage of the game, I don't think the NEA is that clever. I'm inclined to think that the NEA proposals sound like something that reformsters wouldn't object to because they are something that reformsters wouldn't object to.

I hope that this years RA assembly will not be as disastrously anti-teacher as last year's, but there's not a lot to grab onto here. "Not as bad as last year" is a pretty low bar to set; clearing it would not be a great achievement, but it beats the alternative. 

1 comment:

  1. This guy cannot possibly be on the side of teachers. He's not co-opting reformsters' language. He has ceded both the language and the agenda to them. smh...