fresh voices from the front lines of change







If you’ve noticed lately the tendency in car commercials to show the vehicle against a background of an empty city street, you can assume it’s likely due to the abundance of empty city streets available in the place famous for being home to the major automotive companies — Detroit.

While many of America’s biggest cities are experiencing large influxes of new residents, Detroit stands in stark contrast, losing a staggering 25 percent of its population from 2000-2010.

During the day, the city’s still-grand architectural feats are silent sentinels towering over sparsely populated sidewalks. At night, pockets of bright lights — a constellation in a darkened cityscape — mark the few destinations where families and revelers can come to dine, drink, and gamble.

This past weekend, the American Federation Teachers staged its annual convention amidst this twilight landscape.

When AFT decided to locate its meeting in Detroit — likely some time ago — they probably knew about the vacant buildings and empty parking lots. But it’s doubtful they anticipated they’d be descending into the epicenter of the most vicious attack, so far, on American public education.

Welcome To Detroit’s Education New Normal

The Huffington Post’s ever-useful Joy Resmovits has the necessary background on the situation in Detroit. But the nutshell is that Detroit schools have lost 100,000 students in the past decade. The district faces a $72 million deficit due in no small part to the state’s conservative governor Rick Snyder having stripped away roughly $1 billion from statewide K-12 school funding. And a state-appointed Emergency Manager — a position conceived by Republican former governor John Engler but imbued with dictatorial new powers by Snyder — now rules “with near carte blanche power over education,” according to Resmovits.

Teachers belonging to the local AFT in Detroit find themselves caught in a powerless situation in which the current Public Schools EM, Roy Roberts, has bypassed the collective bargaining process and unilaterally determined the terms of employment for teachers. His mandates include shuttering 15 schools, laying off hundreds of teachers, and increasing class sizes in K-12 “up to 61 students each in grades 6-12 and 41 students in grades kindergarten through 3.”

AFT president Randi Weingarten devoted a good chunk of the conference to confronting Roberts and demanding fair contract negotiations.

But it must be understood that what’s happening to Detroit’s teachers is just the most extreme example of how pressures on teachers to be more “accountable” are ratcheting up at the same time that teachers are being given fewer and fewer resources.

Teachers’ objections to these circumstances have been labeled by influential reform enthusiasts, such as Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute, as “self-pitying tantrums.”

But the fact of the matter is that teachers and their unions are being put into an untenable place. Regardless of what politicians and Beltway pundits espouse, teachers and their unions believe themselves to be the victims of a relentless, draconian attack.

Of course there are those who contend that unions like AFT don’t really represent the views of “all teachers.” This is absurd. As Matt DiCarolo reasonably concludes, at his domain at the Shanker Blog, because “teachers’ unions are comprised of members who are teachers . . . when you hear ‘teachers’ unions,’ at least some part of you should think ‘teachers.'” (emphasis original)

The Republican Assault On Public Education

So teachers in general feel under attack. In fact, if the AFT meeting was a website, a keyword search would reveal the word “attack” to be the number one search term. And the primary “attackers” were identified as Republicans.

Leading the effort to tag Republicans as education’s “chief assailer in charge” was general session speaker vice president Joe Biden. Saying it plain, as he is known for, Biden declared that Republicans ” don’t think public education is worth the investment.”

Biden invited people who care about their children’s education to, according to a reporter picked up by USA Today, to “look at Republicans’ spending plans to see how much Republicans value education.” A close look, in fact, would reveal that Republicans want to take a meat cleaver to education.

According to the reporter, David Jesse from The Detroit Free Press, Biden declared:

“‘Don’t tell me you value education and don’t invest in it,’ he said during his remarks, launching into a litany of spending on education he said the Republicans in Congress had voted down.
‘The reason they make all these cuts . . .” is so they can afford tax cuts on the richest Americans, Biden said.”

A reporter with The San Francisco Chronicle added icing to the cake by noticing that “Biden says Mitt Romney’s doesn’t treat public education as a priority and distrusts the hardworking teachers who struggle to create opportunity for the nation’s young people.”

Totally overlooked by these reporters, though, was Biden’s incessant reminder that teachers hold high a commitment to the children and families they serve.

Who is there when children struggle with learning, don’t have school supplies they need to participate in class, come to school without lunch money, need help with school work because their parents have to work two jobs and are rarely at home? “You!” Biden told teachers, “You . . . you . . .you!”

Teachers Have No Love Affair With Democrats Either

Despite Biden’s ringing endorsement of the values teachers represent in our society, and his declaration about the Republicans’ disdain for these values, it would be a mistake to assume that the AFT meeting was some kind of love fest with the Democratic party.

In fact, the day before Biden spoke, Diane Ravitch delivered a blistering critique of the current education policy enforced by the Obama administration.

With loud applause punctuating nearly every single sentence of her address, Ravitch railed against a “reform” agenda that elevates the values of high-stakes testing and diverts to testing companies and data consultants billions of dollars that should be used to reduce class size and teach well-rounded curriculum.

Declaring that teachers are under attack from people who want to turn their professionalization into testing technicians, Ravitch leveled a salvo against the Obama administration’s devotion to using “junk science” to measure student education attainment, evaluate teachers, and close schools on the basis of test scores.

In resounding agreement with Ravitch, the AFT conference delegates passed a resolution objecting to the emphasis on standardized testing.

Coincidentally, while the AFT meeting was taking place, a new study came out casting even greater doubt on the accuracy of the state tests.

The study maintains there is “a glitch embedded in the DNA of the state exams that, as a result of a statistical method used to assemble them, suggests they are virtually useless at measuring the effects of classroom instruction.”

Adding to this uncertainly over the validity of high stakes testing, an article appeared, in The Washington Post, recounting yet another example of an exceptional teacher being fired because of the erroneous value placed on student test scores.

Teachers Reject Cognitive Dissonance

If all this is starting to sound conflicting to you, you need to understand this:

The definition of cognitive dissonance is to simultaneously uphold two opposing propositions as if they were in agreement.

Currently, American public education policy is replete with cognitive dissonance:
* Teachers get their resources drastically cut, and then they’re attacked for not delivering the services they are charged to do.
* Teachers are told that test scores are essential measures of education, determining whether students pass or fail, whether teachers get fired or paid more, whether schools get closed or stay open. Yet they are admonished to never “teach to the test.”
* Teachers are told they’re essential in advancing the care and wellbeing of the nation’s children and youth, yet they’re increasingly treated as replaceable cogs that can be judged on the basis of test “data.”

What aloof Beltway pundits dismiss as “whining” is the refusal of teachers to accept this cognitive dissonance.

Teachers And The Detroit Syndrome

One wonders, given this situation, why teachers don’t give up and go along quietly with “the new normal” demanded of them.

Perhaps the citizens of Detroit — who have been thrown into a calamity every bit as difficult as the nation’s teachers find themselves in — can shed light on that.

Back in the Motor City, amidst the decay, AFT members saw signs of resiliency that are testament to why the people in this place just won’t give up and leave.

On a Sunday afternoon, families strolled along a sparkling, new river walk lined by flowered gardens and outfitted with fountains and a brightly painted carrousel. At Cadillac Square, a free summer concert at a new amphitheater sent music up into the nighttime sky. Here and there, nightspots beckoned with hip-hop and jazz.

In one of those spots, the LIV Resto Lounge, in the city’s Bricktown neighborhood, the bartender, Chris, gave testament of this resiliency. A statuesque African American woman with a shaved head and large, almond-shaped eyes, she explained, “People in Detroit feel very loyal to the city. If you’ve lived here all your life like I have, you’d understand. Some of my relatives have left, but I don’t want to be one of those who gave up. It’s hard to explain.”

A nearby patron at the bar couldn’t quite explain it either. “I had to move away to Cleveland to find a job,” he confessed, “But I come back every two weeks to build up my real estate business so I can move back. I love this place”

One can call this kind of commitment irrational. But it’s certainly human and essential for community and progress in the direst of circumstances.

Not everything about education can be explained either. Republicans use this as an opportunity to decimate the entire institution of public schools. And the “reform” movement elevates the value of test scores to make up for their uncertainly. Unable to fit education outcomes cleanly into a spreadsheet, economists and think tank operatives have justified their dismissal of teachers’ opinions and the dismantling of our public schools with piker calculations.

Taking a stand in Detroit — a city peopled with citizenry who refuse to be wiped off the map — teachers are asking us to trust them based on what they know to be true — the evidence — and based on the values that they hold. They’re asking us to take a stand for an institution that binds us together just as closely and fiercely as the citizens of Detroit hold to each other. Let’s hope more Americans do.

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