Friday, January 24, 2014

My NEA Dues at Work-- for USDOE

This week, the NEA proudly announced the first round of recipients for its new Great Public Schools grant program, a program so awesome that it prompted the NEA to shake down its own members raise dues to help fund it. This is the greatest idea since sliced bread. Or since requiring condemned prisoners to buy the rope for their own nooses.

NEA delegates in Atlanta last year voted 54-46 percent (not exactly a landslide) to approve a dues hike for "a special fund to help support projects by state and local affiliates to improve teaching and learning." Turns out that means funding projects to support the spread of CCSS.

That is not me reading between the lines. Here's the NEA's description of the purpose of one grant: California Teachers Association (CTA) was awarded a $250,000 NEA Great Public Schools grant to ensure the successful implementation of the Common Core Standards (CCSS) in the California. (That's cut and paste; the original appears to have dropped a word). Virtually every single grant listed by the NEA is centered on the implementation of CCSS.

Illinois is going to train some CCSS trainers. Local school districts in Maryland will embark on full scale implementation of CCSS because "a key to success in implementing the CCSS, and ensure student success, is to provide teachers with support, training, and resources to assist in instruction." Ohio Education Association will use their grant to "strengthen educators' voices in school improvement while advocating for the effective implementation of Ohio's New Learning Standards" (a rose by any other name). The Massachusetts Teachers Association will engage teachers in helping shape the implementation of CCSS, particularly in helping define the policies around the effective measure of student achievement. And if they get to do that in any meaningful way, they can also open a grooming shop for sparkly unicorns.

Many of the grants are described in that fuzzy kind of bureaucratic arble-garble that would have earned you an F in lesson plan design back in that methods class that Arne Duncan thinks you barely passed. And many of them involve "partnering" with state DOE's or groups with nifty names like Public Education Business Coalition or TeachPlus. One grant is going to a uniServe office.

Only one mentions students. 25K went to Stadium View School in Hannepin County Juvenile Detention Center (Minnesota) for, among other things, publishing the work of students and placing it in the local library. All other grants are aimed at bureaucratic CCSS implementation.

Dennis Van Roekel's love for the CCSS is already well documented. Reporting on a January 23 forum in DC, Stephen Sawchuck quotes DVR, "We created campfires of excellence. What we need is a brushfire." It's an interesting choice of metaphor, and it makes me curious-- what does DVR imagine would be burned up in this brushfire? Who or what, exactly, is the brush? Because in the brushfire that is CCSS, I'm pretty sure we're immolating public school teachers and students. Personally, I would much rather hunker down around a campfire for some S-mores of scholarship.

Sawchuck notes that previous brushfire attempts have not really caught on. A panelist attributes that to the realities of trying to steer such a large organization. Well, yes. Particularly if you're trying to steer it in a direction that it doesn't want to go and which is not in the best interests of its members.

I've been a union president on the local level, and not in soft, easy times. I get that leading a teachers union is not unlike trying to herd cats made out of jello with a ten foot pole. People want to know what's going on, but they don't always want to pay attention. Some union members are like that person who walks in for the last ten minutes of the movie and wants you to explain everything that has happened so far.

It is absolutely necessary to get out ahead of them, to show some leadership, to say, "Look, follow me this way" and not just wait for them to choose a direction on their own. But it comes really seductive to start just viewing them as a faceless mass to be manipulated into whatever form you decide is best for them.

All the signs are there for the national leadership to read. The miles of angry responses on facebook pages and nea site articles. The shrinking membership rolls. The GPS site itself, which is like a cyber-ghost town, all set up to foster dynamic conversations between stakeholders but instead featuring a handful of posts here and there by shills assigned the thankless but not terribly time-consuming task of monitoring the community, like being the sheriff of Wolf Hole, Arizona.

Most of all, the gazillion words written by writers who have done the research, read the documents, heard the speeches, parsed the implications, watched the boots upon the ground, and generally collected all the evidence that tells us plainly that the current wave of reformy goodness is toxic to public school teachers. Careers are being crushed, students are being discarded, and a tradition of great public education is being dismantled for parts in this country, and in this most critical of times, NEA has decided to go to work for the feds.

I cannot think of any time, ever, in US history when a union or professional association took dues from its members in order to help the government implement a program intent on destroying the profession of its members. I am, frankly, flabbergasted. We cannot even call it being sold out anymore, because at least when you are sold out you don't pay for the sale yourself!

I would like to believe that when DVR's tenure as president ends this summer, that will mark a change, but I don't for a minute believe that he has single-handedly engineered the handover of NEA leadership to Arne Duncan. We NEA members had better start educating ourselves, now, about which of our leaders really work for the USDOE, the Gates Foundation and Pearson, and which of our leaders actually represent teachers.

In the meantime, I will mull over just how far I will let the NEA push me before I finally leave the union. It seems I'm angry at them most the time. I've calmed down enough to change the name of this piece. Originally, I was just going to call it "Bite me, NEA." I'm not sure I won't still use that title some time.

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