Sunday, October 28, 2012

Open Letter to Newark Teachers

The Newark Teachers Union is facing a critical contract vote that was supposed to be Monday, October 28th although the hurricane is pushing back the date. It's a particularly interesting vote in light of the emergence of the NEW  (Newark Education Workers) Caucus as a group within the union opposing the contract and the current NTU leadership, along with Randi Weingarten, AFT President and Republican Celebrity Governor Chris Christie supporting it. Hear more about it here:

Unlike the AFT leadership and the annoying head of state of New Jersey, I don't think it's right for me to presume to know what's best for the educators of Newark--they certain can and must figure that out in vibrant, democratic and grassroots fashion.

On the other hand, it's vital to show support for fellow educators and to remind them that they are not alone in the fight to defend public education, so:

October 28, 2012
Dear Newark Teachers:
You stand at the crossroads of an immense and democratic decision. Many may try to make you feel like you are making a horrible mistake if you don’t vote a certain way, but I want to ensure you that it is far more important to engage in your profession, union and the policy that governs the daily learning of your students than to vote one way or another.
As a recently returned striking Chicago Teacher, I can tell you that there are plenty of things worth striking over. It’s worth standing up and saying what needs to be improved in your working conditions even if a single strike or contract negotiation cannot address all of them. I cannot think of a time in my teaching career when I was prouder than standing on the picket line to fight for smaller class sizes and humane classroom conditions with my fellow educators, students and parents.
Like in Chicago, I’m sure there are many challenges in Newark Public Schools, and some of them are unique to your situation. However, I’m quite sure that we share many similarities. We work extremely hard. We are under-appreciated  We often put our students and their families ahead of the needs of our own families. Most of all, we are under attack by the same corporate forces that seek to blame us for the problems they've created in our public school system and use that as an opportunity to divide us. They intend to take full control of the resources of our schools.
They are spending billions of dollars to sell us policies that studies tell us will hurt our students:
  1. Districts controlled by the richest of the rich who do not send their own kids to the schools we teach in
  2. Evaluations dictated by the employer and predicated on inaccurate high stakes tests not intended for this purpose
  3. Charter and turnaround schools that contextually underperform their counterparts
  4. Multi-tiered employment that will cast us as unequal based on when we were hired
  5. Merit pay
  6.  A continued erosion of our voice into the conditions of our own profession.
  7. Extended work hours without the necessary resources or adding more employees so that we are stretched more thinly
  8. Destruction of our retirement plans, so once we’ve given our all to students, we get nothing in return

You’ll recognize many of these corporate goals in the contract you are being asked to vote on. You’ll also recognize them as policies that serve a corporate purpose but in no way help your instruction. Now you are faced with a decision to make: “Would voting for this contract help or hinder my teaching and the quality of life for my students and my own family?”
It is a shame it has come to this—I, like many of you, wish I lived in a time where I could just close my classroom door and be an awesome teacher to my students—but it’s also an opportunity. Heroic battles are not waged and won by superhuman heroes, but by every day people inspired to do what they never thought themselves capable of.
So go forth and vote what you feel to be best for students, but look beyond that too. The fight for our profession, the public school system and our very American democracy is at hand. The bigger question is not whether or not Newark teachers should accept this contract. It is whether we as educators will continue to allow the super-rich to fund and push separate and unequal education or we will force them to step aside so with our parents and students voices combine we can shape our schools and classrooms in the ways we know to be best.
Be courageous, and stand up for what you know to be right. This is a glorious teaching moment, and you are just the educator to shine in it!

Xian Barrett, Law and Chicago History Teacher, Gage Park High School, Chicago Public Schools
2009-2010 U.S. Department of Education Classroom Teaching Ambassador Fellow
VIVA Teacher Leader

Saturday, October 6, 2012

"Real parents"

The director of Education Reform Now which is a differently named part of Democrats for Education Reform, Ms. Nieves Huffman recently wrote an article on Catalyst: "Real Parents Have Been Standing Up" to respond to a thoughtful piece from Wendy Katten, director of Raise Your Hand for Public Education.

I'll try to avoid snark until the last paragraph as I respect that we can have reasonable discussions within our differences about educational policy. We can be polite. We can be respectful. That is, until the last paragraph, then we get to treat each other and all bets are off.

I think Ms. Nieves Huffman's story illustrates exactly why CPS should be expected to adhere to state law and common decency into major facilities decisions. I would include attendance boundary changes.

What she describes is exactly why hedge fund managers should not dictate policy in Chicago; parents and students should and educators should be supported to implement that policy.  It sounds like Ms. Huffman-Nieves agrees in her emphasis on the need for parents and key stakeholders (like students and educators) to be involved in the process.

I expect that she will stand by that conviction and testify with us at future Board meetings, run expensive television ads and use her thoughtful, Broad reaching voice to contest CPS' atrociously bad school facilities process which has been excoriated by a honorable state panel of educators, community organizations and educators.

Furthermore, I hope that she will reconsider using an illegally obtained list of parents' private contact information to spam parents to watch a non-veiled piece of corporate funded propaganda that is rapidly emerging as one of the worst movies of all time. (#1 Worst Box Office Showing of the Last 30 years.)

I would not to presume to know better for her and her funders' organization than she does, but given her stated goals, I would advise the convening of some non-hedge fund connected parents who don't have the means to choose selective schools (charter or otherwise) and ask them where the ample dollars they have ought to be spent.

After all, that would be democratic parent voice, which would deliver better decision-making and may have helped avert the strike in the first place.

Finally, in reference to the titles of the pieces, I'd say that Huffman doesn't really address the key issue here at all: There's a difference between an independently formed advocacy group that builds itself from the ground up and a well financed organization that obtained its money and chose its positions before it spoke to its first grassroots parent voice. "Selected voice" is not the same as "grassroots voice" and is infinitely less useful for creating good policy. If I can find 200 parents to take $1000 to make their kids smoke cigarettes, that doesn't count as a grassroots parent advocacy group for child smoking, it's just me being a terrible person.

Xian Barrett
Prime Minister, Chicago Barretts for Billionaires Not Getting to Run Rabbit Proof Fence Experiments on Other People's Children

Postscript: What I hope is not lost in the playful sniping is that we do have an obligation to fight for true democratic voice. I know that may sound presumptuous, but I'm not saying that I have the right to define what is "true" voice. I think that everyone has a pretty good understanding that the law that lets billionaires buy elections and run constant and misleading ads through groups like DFER does not promote a fair marketplace of ideas. On the other hand, Raise Your Hand's labor of love has brought together people across communities and led to the development of new ideas that with advocacy and implementation will lead to a better education for Chicago students.

Why should we care? Because I believe that when we push aside these money groups and really get the voices of those who experience the daily indignities of our school system, that's when we'll finally have the opportunity to reform our schools for the betterment of kids, not moneyed folks.