There’s a John Sterling (a radio announcer for the Yankees) quote my husband likes to shout through the house while the rest of us ignore him. It starts out: “And the Yankees, on the preci- pice of defeat…” The imagery in this phrase is fantastic. You can feel the impending doom. It’s exciting, unless the precipice of defeat that’s looming is your own—or your profession’s.
This past weekend, I was given the opportunity to attend NY- SUT’s regional leadership conference. While there, I went to a workshop entitled “Connecting the Dots: Understanding Educa- tion Reform”. The workshop was presented by Jim Henck of NYSUT and Jamie McNair, a New Hartford science teacher and our region’s PAC (Political Action Committee) chairperson. Since I already have some knowledge of the cloud hovering over education, I was less surprised than others as, over the course of the next day, the presenters detailed exactly how close to the edge public education truly is.
During our Friday night session, which is typically a quick intro- ductory session, the presenters showed us the beginning of a documentary called “The Reformers”. The documentary was made by a parent of school age children in the Douglas County, Colorado school district. The filmmaker had become increas- ingly alarmed as he watched teachers in the district start to leave in droves. He heard that morale was low for those who had not left, and he set out to find out why. At the outset, he did not aim to take sides, but to tell the whole story of what was going on in education in that county. The story ended up taking him in one direction. I won’t give away the whole documentary, especially since I purchased it and will be offering to share it as soon as it arrives. I’ll sum it up with a quote from Jim Henck: “Your pro- fession is being hijacked, and it’s for profit.”
It’s easy to lay blame on individuals nearby when it comes to the ropes that are tightening around us—the common core state standards, the new APPR regulations, the modules, and the threats to tenure that ring out constantly. And the onus should lie on these individuals, but not on them alone. It’s much bigger than our city and, in fact, even our state. From the Reagan ad- ministration on, a storm has been brewing in education. As far back as 1981, reports started to come out belittling public educa- tion. Initiatives started to pop up trying to “fix” education. Fast forward to No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top and our presidents have all but served us up on a platter to big business.
Savvy business people, as a result, started to ogle the education field as a place to make their next million/billion, and they are working hard to make that happen. Just look at this quote pro- vided to us during the workshop: “…it (the next generation as- sessments) will unleash a powerful market of people providing services for better teaching. For the first time, there will be a large, uniform base of customers looking at using products that can help every kid learn, and every teacher get better.” My first question for this speaker, Bill Gates, is: why do I need to get better when I’m not sick? Of course, I jest, as I know what he meant. What I find problematic is the insinuation that teachers are comfortable in their mediocrity and we need the help of peo- ple outside of our field to ‘cure’ us. I am just fine on my own, thanks. I seek out professional development on a regular basis, and I collaborate with my colleagues—people much more quali- fied to give me advice than Mr. Gates. My second problem with this statement is the idea that there is a need to create a customer base. I’ve known for quite some time that the tests given are more of a money making opportunity than an actual assessment, but it’s shocking to see someone admit to it so freely.Mr. Gates and his wife are not the only ones suddenly interested in education, though. The Walton family (of Wal-Mart), have started financially backing reforms and charter schools at a rate that, if the money were directed toward the public school system instead, would have already solved many problems in education. Add to the list Eli Broad, Eva Moskowitz, Campbell Brown, and more. These individuals all spout platitudes that would have one convinced they are going to save education by offering choice, and thereby, superior education. But here’s the kicker: choice does not always mean better. More and more we are seeing that charter schools do not really outperform public schools, even with their ability to hand pick the student body. As far as I’m concerned, these people ought to go back to their own fields of expertise and leave us to ours.
What most concerns me, though, is the state of education in Douglas County, Colorado. Why? Because it could be us in a heartbeat. Parents and teachers organized in Colorado to elect school board candidates that would slow reform and advocate for students and teachers. Those candidates lost, though, be- cause they were outspent in their campaigns ten times over by reform candidates backed by wealthy individuals outside of the county. Add in to that a lack of education law designed to pro- tect teachers, and you have a board that does what it wants (or what its investors want) and teachers who are afraid to take a stand. As a result, good teachers are leaving, classes are being cut, and education is suffering. This is not exactly the promise reformers make, is it?
If New York moves along in this same manner, and that of Wis- consin, we are in trouble, and soon. So how do we make that not happen? How do we protect our teachers so that they don’t have to be afraid to stand up for themselves and their students? This is an overwhelming and increasingly scary time. We must not sit in the dark and pretend everything will be okay once the sun shines again. We need to stand up for what we believe in. The first step is to get informed and involved. We cannot live in ignorance now and complain when the fight is lost. Another step is to increase our contributions to Vote Cope. Our dues money cannot be used to combat political acts against teachers in this state. It is all done through Vote Cope. The easiest way to give to Vote Cope is through payroll deduction. Having a dollar or five taken out of twenty paychecks during the course of the year would be almost unnoticeable. It doesn’t have to create a hardship for the person donating; I myself have four dollars taken out of each paycheck, and despite my lack of funds, will be upping my contribution yet again. If everyone could commit to at least one dollar per paycheck (twenty dollars total) this year in addition to what you’ve given in the past, we would double our contribution as a local union. That would be amazing, be- cause this is the fight of our lives. Most importantly, though, be the voice of your profession. Correct people when they com- plain about tenure and teacher’s salaries. Inform them and cure their ignorance. As Jamie McNair stated, “You are the antidote to lies. You need to spread the truth.” We all do. Dangling on the edge is no way to live–let’s band together and pull ourselves back from the precipice.
In solidarity, Kirstin Vivacqua