Saturday, July 19, 2014

Picking Your Fights

"It's easy for the AFT to tell teachers not to shop at Staples. It would take guts to tell teachers, 'Don't give the tests!' How can you condemn the tests--and continue giving them? Wasn't 'just following orders' soundly discredited long ago? "
—Susan Ohanian, Hemlock on the Rocks, July 14, 2014

This quote has been bouncing around the eduwebs for almost a week, and it has engendered quite a discussion, and it's a discussion worth having.

Susan Ohanian is someone who deserves to be taken seriously, if for no other reason than she started ringing the alarm bell on the modern era of school reform well before most other people were even paying attention. It has been over a decade since she won the National Council of Teachers of English Orwell Award for Distinguished Contribution to Honesty and Clarity in Public Language, and she is still crystal clear when she writes. Her site should be on your list.

Simply put, I have huge respect for Ohanian and what she has to say. But this time, I disagree.

I don't disagree with the notion that AFT and NEA have failed to provide strong and courageous leadership in these challenging times. From Van Roekel's 2013 "Well, if you don't like Common Core, what should we do instead" to Weingarten's 2014 "Well, then, just rewrite the Core yourself to show them how the standards should look," the national unions have not been champions of American public school teachers.

But this advice would be irresponsible. Worse, in some places, it would be useless to teachers and helpful to their opponents.

For instance, in Cleveland, where the district is already trying to get rid of teachers to make room for racks of TFA temps, a direct refusal to administer tests would have reformsters cheering. The teachers could all be fired for insubordination, and the replacement process greatly simplified and accelerated. The teachers would lose their jobs, and their replacements would gladly continue with the testing before the seats were cold.

One of the challenges we face  on the national level is that different districts are in different stages and present different climates. What is a bold and important stand in one district is a foolish way to shoot yourself in the foot in another. What might engender public support in one location might draw public scorn in another.

One of the things we're fighting against is One Size Fits All Schooling. Does it not make sense that we will not best oppose it with One Size Fits All protesting?

I am not suggesting that we all sit fat and happy and comfortable. If you aren't doing something at least a little bit uncomfortable in this struggle, you probably aren't helping. If your technique de resistance is to sit at home and wait for the day when the people in power wise up and make everything okay again, you are part of the problem.

But for most of us who are not in the big marquee districts like NYC or LA or Philly, the national unions are not going to be our salvation. Yes, it sure would be nice if they were supportive and helpful, but we're all going to have to develop our own strategy on the local level.

Yes, refusing to give the test is a great, great move-- IF you are in district where you will not immediately be fired for insubordination. You may have an administration that is allied with the foes of public ed, some TFA stooge who wouldn't know pedagogical idea if it bit him on the butt. Or you may have an administration that is just as frustrated and angry with the high-stakes test-driven status quo as you are. Your parents may be clueless and unaware of anything that's going on ("So what's that Common Core thingy?") or they may be fully educated and ready to fight. It makes a difference.

In a way, I can see an up side to the utter uselessness of the national unions at this point. If they were involved and leading, I suspect many locals and teachers would be sitting comfortably, waiting for the national to save the day. But we know that Superman not only isn't coming, but might well not be on our own side if he did show up. So we need to depend on ourselves, and our allies and resources, and we need to fight wisely and pick the battles that would do the most good where we are. And we need to pay particular attention to marshaling, saving and preserving those resources, because this is a marathon, not a sprint, so we need to stay tough for the long haul, and not flame out in the first mile.


  1. I'm wondering if there would be any point in fighting #edreform cos it violates Article 26 (2) & (3) of the Declaration of Human Rights .... also, wondering if #teachers should fight for unionisation in all states because Article 23 (4) of Declaration of Human Rights gives everyone right to unionise ... and then we might consider if we should take US to World Court cos its violating so many of the Articles contained in Declaration of Human Rights esp Article 25


    2. This is all well and good, but we are talking Congress here, Paul. Come on.

  2. Parents need to help by opting out. Teachers can be fired, as you said, and I believe teaching licenses can even be revoked for refusing to give the test.

    That said, I don't think I could stomach giving the test myself (I taught K and 1 before the test was expanded to those grade levels this past year).

  3. My experience has been that the only people who want to test are usually the ones who haven't been in the classroom in years or have never taught in one. Time after time, I've spoken to educators who feel their hands are tied, even though they know it isn't best practice. And those who argue or fight feel the noose tighten.