A Wrong TURN for Teacher Unions

That the teacher unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, are in need of change is clear enough, even to their top leaders, who keep campaigning for their six-figure jobs in the name of reform. Now comes Education Week coverage of the Teacher Union Reform Network (TURN), a cluster of second-tier union leaders who want to claim the mantle of "genuine agents of change."

What are the principled differences between these reformers and those who are already on top of the unions? Both seem to support the notion of "New Unionism," defined by NEA president as a recognition of the commonality of interests of unions, government, and business, as exemplified by the labor relations strategies of the Saturn Corporation. Both worry that their members are disengaged, alienated from the leadership. Both think that peer review, merit pay linked to student test scores, standardized curricula, high-stakes exams, and grade retention are key factors of school reform.

So, if Adam Urbanski is right in his claim that, "there are no progressive unions, only progressive teacher union leaders;" how are we to distinguish one from another? 

The only element of real difference we see between the TURN leadership and the Chase-Feldman management is that the former are not in power, although in many cases they represent interests, not powerless, but frustrated. Urbanski, for example, has held the top post in his Rochester local for about 20 years. He may never get to the top of the AFT, given a reasonably long life expectancy for Feldman, and the union's habit of anointing people through a caucus system-for life. His TURN counterparts in the NEA face the same dilemma. Current NEA-VP Reggie Weaver is a near lock for the next presidency, then comes Dennis Van Roekel, now the NEA treasurer. What appears to us is at work here is not an effort to really overturn what is, but an endeavor to wiggle upward when there just is not much wiggle room. 

The crisis in schooling and our society, a turning point at the intersection of inequality and authoritarianism, demands more than the wiggle TURN offers. In fact, we believe the unions which represent educators are now structurally incapable of meeting the challenge for these reasons:

The unions do not unite people, they divide them. Both the AFT and the NEA split school workers from the communities they serve, educators from parents and kids, people of color from white people, teachers from other school workers. These artificial, if profitable, divisions cannot serve the needs of democracy and equality in a period when nothing less is acceptable.

The unions are undemocratic, structured to stifle action and dissent. The long terms of the TURN leadership, and the $300,000 plus perks salaries of the leaders of the NEA combine as evidence. Given the AFT structure, democratic reform is simply not possible, and the NEA has moved slowly to eradicate that possibility as well. The reform efforts that do exist within the unions are likely to reproduce the same authoritarian relationships that are already in place, with new personifications of privilege on top. 

The unions are focused on seeking the narrowest forms of privilege, over and above solidarity along rational lines. The calls for Saturn-model reforms, unity with corporate interests (profit), exemplify the short vision of the leaders of both TURN and the unions. Real solidarity recognizes the competing interests of business and all working people, urging in education the unity of all school workers and the people they serve, in defeating irrationalism and those who gain from it. 

The Whole Schooling Consortium is a rapidly growing school reform model that stands in clear contrast to the wrong turn TURN represents, signaling left but turning right. These are the principles that the WSC represents: 

1. Empower citizens in a democracy: The goal of education is to help students learn to function as effective critical citizens, social agents, in a democracy.

2. Include all: children learn together across culture, ethnicity, language, ability, gender & age.

3. Teach and adapt for diversity: design instruction for diverse learners that engages them in active learning in meaningful, real-world activities; develop accommodations and adaptations for learners with diverse needs, interests, and abilities.

4. Build community & support learning: use specialized school and community resources (special education, title I, gifted education) to build support for students, parents, and teachers; build community and mutual support within the classroom and school; provide proactive supports for students with behavioral challenges.

5. Partner with Families and the Community. Partnering is rooted in notions of equality, mutual respect, and common goals. 

Standing alone, there is not much new about any one of these principles. Tied together, the principles represent a serious effort to change school and society. This is why the rank and file of the Whole Language Umbrella, the Rouge Forum of Social Studies Professionals, and the WSC are building the International Education Summit for a Democratic Society, June 26 to 28 at Wayne State University in Detroit. This is a growing movement, already representing federally funded research projects, newsletters, book clubs, and hundreds of rank and file educators, parent, children, and community people all over the U.S. and Canada. 

Early this year, the workers as Saturn Corporation overthrew their long-term union leadership, replacing them with leaders who recognize the fundamental opposition built into an employer-employee relationship. For educators interested in real change, this is mildly heartening. But, given the nature of deindustrialized America, it is school personnel, not industrial workers, who will need to take the lead in social reform. More than ever, what teachers do counts. We need to make the appropriate turn.

Michael Peterson
Wayne Ross
Rich Gibson

To Rich Gibson's Web Page