A Respectful Revolution: Questioning Union Practice as an Act of Loyalty

Originally posted on @thechalkface

By, Bianca Tanis

The most revolutionary act one can engage in is to tell the truth. -Howard Zinn

Does loyalty to one’s union require blind faith? Must one eschew raising questions and concerns to demonstrate solidarity? Over the past few weeks, I have asked myself these questions. Certainly, any organization worth protecting is worth holding up to a high standard and can withstand tough questions, even when such questions are made in the public eye. In recent months, I have found it increasingly difficult to defend, let alone maintain faith in the current state union leadership in NYS, yet I believe steadfastly that the union can and will remain a powerful force for worker protection and student advocacy.
The union is a critical phenomenon that has raised the American standard of living and created protections for workers that are too numerous to list. New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) in particular is responsible for many of the rights and protections that we as educators enjoy in NYS. However, collective bargaining is only one of the important functions of our teacher unions. Teacher unions wield tremendous power to advocate for students, in addition to educators. The hot button topic of tenure reminds us that in addition to guaranteeing educators due process, tenure allows teachers to speak out on behalf of their students. Over the past year the importance of this protection has been evident as teachers have spoken out against controversial, poorly constructed, and inappropriate high stakes testing based on the Common Core Learning Standards.
Under these conditions, many rank and file teachers were shocked and dismayed to read in an August 14th Newsday article that after reviewing the fifty percent of 2014 ELA and Math test questions for grades 3-8 released by the NYS Department of Education, NYSUT found the questions to be appropriate overall. “The vast majority of questions do appear to be age- and developmentally appropriate,” said Carl Korn, spokesman for New York State United Teachers.
While NYSUT continues to call for 100% test transparency before judging the overall quality of the tests, one has to wonder why and how they arrived at this assessment of the released test questions in the face of overwhelming teacher and parent concerns. In New York State, upwards of 60,000 parents refused CC testing in grades 3-8 and following the 2014 administration of the NYS ELA tests, teachers protested in the streets, despite being silenced by a legal gag order that does not permit to speak about the tests. Liz Phillips, a principal based in Brooklyn, NY wrote a passionate Op-ed about the ELA tests in the New York Times. She writes:

In general terms, the tests were confusing, developmentally inappropriate and not well aligned with the Common Core standards. The questions were focused on small details in the passages, rather than on overall comprehension, and many were ambiguous. Children as young as 8 were asked several questions that required rereading four different paragraphs and then deciding which one of those paragraphs best connected to a fifth paragraph. There was a strong emphasis on questions addressing the structure rather than the meaning of the texts. There was also a striking lack of passages with an urban setting. And the tests were too long; none of us can figure out why we need to test for three days to determine how well a child reads and writes.

In addition to parents and teachers, some of the staunchest supporters of Common Core based education reforms harbored significant concerns. One such supporter, Robert Pondiscio of the Thomas Fordham Institute, admitted to finding the released 50% of the test questions and related text passages “confusing.” You can read more that here.
Upon release of the test questions, I personally wrote to NYSUT leadership imploring them to undertake an expert evaluation of the released questions and provided examples of my own concerns regarding specific questions. While emails and tweets to the highest level of union leadership have failed to illicit a single response, I did have a chance to speak personally with NYSUT’s Director of Communications and ask how NYSUT came to the determination that the released questions were appropriate. I learned that NYSUT relies on comments that are conveyed via a listserv although the details are extremely vague. While NYSUT does have an educational research department that has in house capabilities of conducting scientific “benchmark polling” of educators, it does not appear that this was used to truly assess and give voice to the experiences and opinions of rank and file educators. Despite requests for information, it is also unclear as to whether or not any developmental psychologists or other experts capable of designating the test questions age and developmentally appropriate were consulted.
In light of the fact that students and teachers are evaluated based on these tests, and NYSUT ‘s recent protest of NYS’s contract with Pearson, the creator of these tests, commissioning an expert review of the released 50% of the questions would seem like a wise allocation of resources. Yet, it seems that this has not taken place and NYSUT has neither clarified nor provided evidence to support its contention that the released questions were “appropriate.” This kind of silence should not and will not be tolerated by dues-paying members.
In a union that claims to be a representative democracy it is simply not acceptable for state leadership to remain silent or fail to engage in due diligence on issues that have a tremendous impact on teachers and students. Admittedly, NYSUT represents hundreds of thousands of educators and a diverse array of opinions. While this is true, I cannot imagine that there is a single 3rd grade teacher that would expect their students to attend to a lesson for 70 minutes without breaks or movement, let alone consider this an advantageous situation to assess learning. Yet the union has been relatively quiet on this. I doubt that there is a special education teacher in NYS who believes that it is appropriate for a 5th grader with a disability to sit for testing sessions of 180 minutes for three days in a row, twice in once semester (I’ll do the math for you, that’s 18 hours.) Again, crickets.
Teacher unions are different from other unions in that their members have the esteemed privilege of educating children. Many would go so far as to say that teaching is a noble profession that comes with responsibilities above and beyond a job description. Therefore, it is incumbent upon the union to support teachers who advocate for educational assessment practices that are developmentally appropriate and pedagogically sound. In recent months, NYSUT has failed to carry out this mandate.
As someone who is “just” a teacher with no aspiration to union leadership or ties to political factions within NYSUT, my motivation to raise these questions is simply out of concern for my children, my students, and my profession. These questions must also be raised to highlight and underscore the fact that educators can and will speak out about concerns regarding the leadership of their unions and that this form of advocacy does not call their loyalty, solidarity, or the value of teacher unions into question. To the contrary, holding our unions accountable IS an act of loyalty. Those who say otherwise are engaging in a bait and switch that is all too reminiscent of the concentrated, non-representative power characterized by backroom dealings and unapologetic lack of transparency that we see at the highest levels of government. As members of teacher unions, we must be better than that – we must hold ourselves and our union to the highest standards of representative democracy and I am sure that NYSUT leadership expects no less from those they represent.



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