A social justice movement is bringing sweeping change to teachers unions
When we last paid a call upon those nemeses of all things excellent, the teachers unions, we found them in a sad and sorry state. Exuding an odeur of mildew and mothballs, even their ability to stifle innovation and lower expectations seemed in doubt. But it turns out that whilst we were reading (every day and everywhere) about the unions’ demise, something rather unexpected, not to mention frankly exciting, has been happening within their ranks. In short: a social justice movement is bringing sweeping change to teacher unions. Will yours be next?
The first stop on our rank-and-file takeover tour: Massachusetts, where this weekend, Barbara Madeloni, an unabashed critic of over testing and privatization disguised as reform, was elected president of the state’s largest teacher union, the 110,000 member Massachusetts Teachers Association. Madeloni, who ran as part of a union reform caucus called Educators for a Democratic Union, is calling for a three-year moratorium on high-stakes testing (including field testing), a full-throated defense of public education, alliances with parents and students and a frank acknowledgement of the state’s deep racial and economic divides. Above all, though, Madeloni represents a challenge to the insider deal-making for which the MTA has long been known. But why let me do all of the talking? Let’s hear a little of the message that not only won over delegates from the MTA’s 400 + locals but inspired 500 members to become first-time delegates just so that they could vote for Madeloni.
Time and again, bad policies and dehumanizing mandates are handed down and our union leadership does not ask us if they are right, but only how best to implement them.
Massachusetts isn’t the only place to see big changes in a big union. In Los Angeles, a reform caucus known as Union Power swept elections this spring to take the helm of the 31,000 member UTLA, the second largest teacher union in the country. On Union Power’s agenda: transforming the UTLA into an active, organizing union that is integrally involved in the larger issues from which education is inseparable—like civil rights, housing, urban development and living wage jobs. And it isn’t just talk. Union power essentially won union power by treating the election as an organizing campaign, rallying members behind a call for the *schools L.A. students deserve.*
AP students will no doubt recognize that the UTLA upstarts were tipping their reform caucus caps to the Chicago Teachers Union. In 2012, the CTU released a white paper called *The Schools Chicago’s Students Deserve* that laid out the union’s vision of education reform beginning with this sentence: Every student in CPS deserves to have the same quality education as the children of the wealthy. [Note: I am not actually an advanced student but am cribbing shamelessly from Micah Uetricht’s new book Strike for America: Chicago Teachers Against Austerity, an invaluable resource for those seeking to understand the origins of the new union reform movement.] Suffice it to say that the similarly titled initiatives are not a coincidence. Both Union Power in L.A. and Educators for a Democratic Union in Massachusetts explicitly modeled their successful elections on the Caucus of Rank and File Educators or CORE, which took over the Chicago Teachers Union in 2010, emphasizing member engagement and partnership with community organizations.
Close readers of informational texts will note that Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, responding to word of the leadership change in Massachusetts, doesn’t exactly seem surprised by the news. That’s because activists within Lewis’ CORE caucus are helping to lead an effort to bring CORE’s same brand of grassroots, big picture change to teacher unions across the country. Under the auspices of the Network for Social Justice Unionism, dozens of social justice caucuses are forming within both NEA and AFT locals. What exactly is social justice unionism? I got a taste of it this spring while visiting Chicago, where seemingly any teacher you talk to can explain how school closures and *hyper accountability* relate to that city’s rapid gentrification, and parents, like those at two Chicago schools that boycotted the ISAT test this spring, see the union as a partner in the fight to keep neighborhood schools alive.
Meanwhile, back in Massachusetts, things just got a whole lot more interesting in edu-land. Barbara Madeloni, or BMad as I call her, made headlines back in 2012 by taking on Pearson over a national licensure procedure requiring students training to be teachers to submit videos of themselves to Pearson rather than being assessed by professors or the classroom teachers with whom the students worked. Students in the high school teacher training program at UMass Amherst, which Madeloni ran, refused to send their videos to Pearson, a protest for which Madeloni would ultimately lose her job. Her new position as president of the Mass. Teachers Association puts her on a collision course with the state’s chief career and college readiness officer, Mitchell D. Chester. Regular readers may recall Chief Chester’s rather unusual dual role when it comes to the state’s new PARCC assessments. To Chester’s multiple hats—the fedora of excellence and the readiness beret—we can now add a third: a Pearson party hat. Last month Pearson landed a contract of *unprecedented scale* to administer, score and analyze the PARCC tests, including here in Massachusetts where field-testing of the tests recently resumed.
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