It’s Not Just About Us

In his latest entry on the Huffington Post, Hofstra professor Alan Singer takes issue with the ESSA, highlighting the many areas in which the law falls woefully short of its stated goals. It is, as usual, a great piece, with one glaring exception.

Almost as an aside, Mr. Singer essentially accuses teachers unions of acting in pure self-interest without regard to what’s best for students. Noting that unions supported ESSA, he says they praised “new federal flexibility but mostly they welcome changes in how their members will be evaluated.” He follows this with his suspicion that “they will abandon opposition to high-stakes testing once teachers will no longer be penalized.”

This is the argument we hear from folks who want to marginalize us and shut us out of the debate – the same folks who like to claim that the opt-out movement was started by teachers unions.

We know that this isn’t just about us; it’s about the students in our classrooms now and those who will be coming through our schools in the next 5, 10, 20 years, etc. But the “teachers are just looking out for themselves” trope is an easy argument to make. And if this thinking takes hold it will become very difficult for us to work together with parents and the public at large to get real changes enacted. It’s not enough to make a commitment to continuing the fight, it’s important that this commitment be visible.

My response to Mr. Singer is below. If he writes back, I’ll follow up with another post.

Dear Alan,

I don’t know if you remember me, but we met this past spring when we both spoke at the “Teaching and Learning in the Age of High Stakes Testing” forum at Hofstra.

I found your talk that evening engaging and enlightening, but was taken aback by a statement you made suggesting that teacher opposition to testing would wane once the connection to evaluations was removed. I was extremely disheartened to read your latest post and see that you are doubling down on this notion.

There are two sentences in that piece that are particularly troubling. You write “Teacher unions endorsed ESSA praising new federal flexibility but mostly they welcome changes in how their members will be evaluated.” On what do you base this? Statements from the AFT, NEA, and NYSUT have laid out numerous reasons for supporting ESSA that go far beyond evaluations. So since the word “mostly” is not supported by unions’ words or actions, it seems you are claiming to have insight into what they are really thinking, and thus suggesting that their public statements are deceptive. While you may believe this to be true, it is still your opinion and should not be presented as fact.

The second sentence (“I suspect they will abandon opposition to high-stakes testing once teachers will no longer be penalized.”) is on safer ground journalistically since it is clearly presented as opinion, but it is nonetheless gratuitous and harmful. You must be aware that this statement reinforces negative (and false) stereotypes of teachers unions – that they are concerned solely about the well being of their members and not at all about the students they serve. 

I can assure you that I, along with every other rank and file teacher I know, am opposed to high-stakes standardized testing whether they are tied to evaluations or not. This is a position that we have held consistently, and our level of advocacy has risen in recent years because the tests themselves have become more intrusive and damaging and it has become harder and harder to shield our students from their negative effects. 

In fairness, although I, and others, will push for continued attention to this issue, I cannot personally guarantee what response union leadership will have regarding testing if the connection to evaluations is severed. Certainly there are decisions that have been made by our umbrella unions that many of us disagree with – this is the nature of large democratically run organizations. 

You might have said that you are worried that in the midst of the multi-front battle against teachers, unions, and public education as a whole, that there is reason to fear that the testing issue might drop in importance; and you might have expressed hope (and a plea) that this wouldn’t be the case. Had you written that, I would agree wholeheartedly. But your statements, without any context or nuance, come across as little more than union bashing.

To be clear, this is not about hurt feelings, it is about the big picture. If you are truly dedicated to the cause of repairing what’s really wrong in public education (i.e. eliminating inequity, removing corporate influence, beginning a discussion of what is important for students to know, etc), then you need to recognize that we must all be together in this fight. None of these goals can be accomplished by driving a wedge between the various groups who are fighting for them – and that is exactly what those two sentences do.

Thank you for taking the time to read this. I enjoy reading your posts and I am hopeful that future discussions of this issue will present teachers unions in a more fair and accurate light.

Rob Verbeck

2 thoughts on “It’s Not Just About Us

  1. Here is Alan Singer’s response:

    Wording is always hard. I have been a member of UFT since the early 1970s and have often been at odds with the leadership. Many times the union formed coalitions with parents and education advocates to fight on educational issues and pulled out once they had a contract. The problem is not teachers, but leadership in an undemocratic union. I left UFT as an active member when I went to Hofstra in 1993. In 2012 I officially retired as a teacher and since then I can vote in union elections again as a retiree. In the last UFT election the Unity slate was basically elected by retirees who cast more ballot than working teachers. Because representation in NYSUT and the AFT is based on local size, the UFT retirees essentially elect the state and national officers as well, which keeps in office people who always decide based on narrow “trade union” issues rather than principles. Unions are under attack across the United States. If the teachers union abandons serious struggle on opt-out after being a major supporter it will discredit not just the teachers union by unions in general. I am deeply worried.

    Thank you for the extended comment. I hope this response addresses your concerns.

    Alan Singer, Director, Secondary Education Social Studies
    Teacher Education Programs


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