Teachers Unions Protect Teachers: Will Chancellor Rhee '92 Listen?
October 14, 2009
By Andrew Wolf
"Everyone remembers that special teacher who touched his or her life. We all have had that teacher who would go the extra mile to help usindividually - a teacher who dug into his or her own pocket book to buy colored pencils for our art projects.
We remember this teacher because he or she did not just make us feel cared for, but also made us feel capable. Due to his or her skill, we were empowered; we were motivated. This teacher clearly did not become a teacher for fame, for glory and certainly not for fortune. This special teacher picked his or her profession because of a desire to help our
country reach its full future potential.
In public schools in most states that special teacher was probably in a union. Furthermore, I bet that special teacher of yours loves his or her union because it empowers him or her to fight to improve the quality of your education. Teachers unions are democratic expressions of teachers and their values. Each teachers union is not comprised of external forces but is instead comprised of the teachers themselves. As such, the goals of teachers unions are the goals of teachers. That special teacher used his or her voice in his or her union to fight for you; teacher unions fight for small class sizes, for more computers and for the right of every American to receive a high quality education.
What does that teacher expect in return? As we all know, teachers have never been paid at a level that matches the amount and quality of their of work, so clearly pay is not their motivation. Basically, in return for their service, teachers ask for a basic degree of fairness. They ask that if they are laid off or fired, that it be for a just cause and not because of discrimination.
Above all, they ask for respect and the right to be included the shaping of their classroom. Who would know better how to improve the delivery of education than those who do just that day in and day out? People become teachers because they want to improve students' lives and they use their unions to help them accomplish this goal.
The Cornell Organization for Labor Action, of which I am a member, protested Michelle Rhee's '92 talk last week because it does not believe she respects the important role teachers and their unions play in shaping the future of education in this country. We feel that Chancellor Rhee, instead of working with teachers to fix the problems afflicting our education system, has presupposed that the problem is teachers themselves. Our quarter card, which was criticized in The Sun last week in both a column and editorial, outlined the ways in which Chancellor Rhee denies teachers the right to participate in the education reform debate.
First, my fellow members of COLA and I take issue with the fact that Rhee wields layoffs as a key component to education reform. While layoffs are an unfortunate result of our current economy, Rhee often uses layoffs to fire experienced teachers based on the unfortunate assumption that youth and vigor is always better than experience.
Second, COLA disagrees with Chancellor Rhee's belief that standardized tests hold the key to education reform. Furthermore, we disagree with Rhee's attempts to evaluate teachers based on these standardized scores. In a 2008 report "Grading Education" by the Economic Policy Institute found that measuring teacher and school performance by these tests was an utter failure. The study found that these tests forced teachers to "teach to the test," stifling creativity and vastly under serving top-performing students. It found that such programs result in teachers fighting with each other to keep successful techniques hidden instead of encouraging cooperation. Overall, the study found that these tests narrowly focused on reading and math, while ignoring the whole growth we should expect from our students. Perhaps most horrifying, though, the EPI report found that schools, fearing that under-performing children would drag their schools funding down, often stuffed these children into special education classes or falsely suspended them on the day of the standardized test. The EPI report concluded that measuring performance solely on standardized test scores can in no way properly evaluate the success or failure of schools or their teachers. Yet, Chancellor Rhee wanted to institute this type of policy and she tried to do it unilaterally without anyone else's input. COLA disagrees with these actions.
Third, COLA, myself included, disagrees with the arbitrary nature of Rhee's policies. In 2008, the US Congress, worried about Rhee's approach, asked the Government Accountability Office to investigate her practices. The Government Accountability Office found Rhee at fault and criticized her for instituting policies without clear guidelines and without consulting teachers, parents or the community. COLA joins in this criticism as we find the exclusion of teachers, parents and the community in shaping education reform counter-productive.
Fourth and finally, I demand more accountability from Rhee in regard to her policies. Last year, Rhee fired numerous principals without explaining her criteria or evaluation process. This was troubling because many of these principals were from the District's top-performing schools including the Oyster-Adams Bilingual Elementary School where Rhee's children attended. My fellow members of COLA and I worry that without transparency, Rhee abuses her authority to silence her critics.
These were the four points outlined on COLA's quarter card, which I helped to compose last week. COLA believes these issues directly relate to the future of education reform. We believe that Rhee denies teachers their right to participate in the process of reform where their voices and commitment are so deeply needed. Instead, she silences them and vilifies them through firings. COLA believes this is counter-productive and we again ask Chancellor Rhee to include teachers in the process of education reform.
Every year, Cornell sends more students to Teach for America than any other university, often including a COLA member. These students enter TFA excited at the prospect of making a difference in young peoples' lives. Hopefully, many of you who join Teach for America will become teachers in the long term. I know that those same values that drove you to service will drive your efforts in your union and in reforming our education system. The only question, then, is: Will Rhee listen?
Andrew Wolf '10, a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations, is a member of COLA."