Union-Busting on Labor Day

This was a hard summer for Philadelphians.  Our school district faces an unprecedented funding crisis and both our Democratic mayor and Republican governor have proved unwilling to put public education ahead of private, corporate and penal interests.  (In a widely contested decision, the state refused to fill a $304 million school funding gap, deciding instead to allocate $400 million to the construction of a controversial new state prison.) This crisis did not jump fully formed out of the belly of the beast.  The District has long been a test rat for all kinds [of] education ‘reform’ experiments since the state took control of the District in 2002.  Many of these experiments were explicitly intended to create opportunities for privatization efforts.  In 2002, a third of the District’s schools were farmed out to private managing companies.  Far less successful than either traditional public schools or charter schools, most (all?) of these “privatized” schools have since been closed or given back to the District. This has not slowed the assault on public education in this city.

I am a spectator to this drama–not a student, parent, teacher, administrator or politician.  But I am a voter, a District alumna and a concerned citizen.  And I am deeply disturbed by the vicious and unrelenting attacks on District teachers.  For years, career teachers have been demonized by politicians and ‘reformers’ as lazy ‘welfare mother-types’ intent on collecting cushy pensions while urban students are left to languish in a cesspool of illiteracy, ignorance and violence.  We’re meant to feel sorry for young, energetic teachers who are discouraged by jealous older teachers and administrators.  We’re supposed to feel bad for hard-working young teachers who get fantastic results, but who are under-compensated due to archaic union pay scales.  To my mind, the only thing that is really sabotaging relationships between younger and older teachers is a very strategic effort to take down the union.  Younger teachers are being told that they will benefit once merit pay is introduced [and the union is dismantled].  This makes no sense on multiple fronts:

No professional is excellent from Day 1.  If one is lucky, one will quickly become proficient, but true excellence is hard won.

Teaching is a difficult job that demands a diverse skill set.  Many skilled educators have difficulty controlling students’ behavior.  Many personable disciplinarians have skimpy teaching skills.  Few teachers have “the whole package” and no teacher–no matter how outstanding–will ever have a positive impact on every student.  Like all good professionals, teachers strive to improve upon their natural talents and develop their lesser skills.  Collegiality is critical to this kind of development.  Teachers should not be made into competitors for merit pay–this will never be in the best interest of students (or teachers).  The union pay scale may not be perfect, but it encourages both the professionalization of teaching and the growth of teacher mentor relationships.  When pay increases are predictable (and linked to experience and continuing education), teachers can better support and relate to each other and to the development of their profession.

Teacher performance is student performance (which is not quantifiable).

Teacher performance is most frequently measured by student performance on standardized tests.  Standardized tests measure neither knowledge nor acquisition of skills and creativity; they measure a student’s ability to unlock the rules of a very specific game.  When students suddenly improve markedly on standardized tests[,] this is generally because a teacher has started ‘teaching to the test,’ has taught the particular questions that will appear on the test or has changed student answers on the test.  None of these teacher behaviors warrant merit pay.

We need teachers–not soldiers.

We need teachers who will not only impart knowledge and skills, but who will teach our students how to think.  Our classrooms don’t need ‘teachers’ who can accept teaching from a script.  Students present a wide range of abilities, experiences and situations; we need nimble and creative educators who can respond to students’ unique challenges and give those students the particular skills they need to overcome those challenges to the best of their abilities.

I am worried at how the state’s politicians have pitted younger teachers against older teachers.  In the long run, younger teachers with aspirations of long teaching careers will never benefit from merit pay–and they will only be left more vulnerable if they lose their rights to collective bargaining. Our students will never benefit from a steady stream of inexperienced teachers who dream of teaching just long enough to pad their resumes.

I am worried at how the state’s politicians have pitted citizens and students against teachers.  The governor is now holding hostage $42 million in promised funds to the District until the Philadelphia teachers union makes satisfactory concessions.  The state is demanding that teachers give back 5-13% of their income (an average of $7,000 per teacher) before it will release the funds.  Who is the beneficiary when teachers are denigrated?  How does this help our students?  Who do we expect to teach our students when teaching is no longer a reliably middle class profession?  Why don’t we want our teachers to make a middle class living?

It’s Labor Day and we’re poised at the start of a new school year. It’s outrageous that our politicians who preach shared sacrifice offer nothing to our students or teachers.  Why aren’t we demanding that our politicians volunteer to give back 13% of their salaries? Until they provide the funding that our students need for the public education they are entitled to, we must continue to make noise and continue to make clear that we will be replacing all of our politicians who stand against teachers and education.


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