The Quest for Quality Education

By Lorenzo A. Canizares

Finland is the world’s shining example in education. Its test scores are by far the best in the world. Davis Guggenheim in “Waiting for Superman” made a point of using the Finnish system as an example for us to follow. Fair enough. It’s also fair to mention that in Finland almost all the teachers are unionized, and this experience concurs with our experience in America where students best performance in standardized tests correlates with their teachers being in strong teachers union.

Nonetheless, Guggenheim zeroes his film into an indictment of teachers unions as the villains in the struggle to close the achievement gap, despite the unions’ long history of advocating for more school funding, smaller class sizes and better school resources and facilities. It is also fair to say that “Waiting for Superman” has generated some concerns that could lead to positive results. Amongst them is the recommendation made by Dennis Van Roekel, President of America’s largest teachers union the National Education Association (NEA), of launching a “Commission on Quality Teaching” made up of “Teachers of the Year” with the idea of accentuating teachers’ voices in the debate about the future of the profession.

But, we have a very different economic situation in comparison to that of the Finnish people. The teachers in Finland, in the main, are teachers that do not have to deal with the deep levels of poverty that are found in many American cities. Teachers in Finland do not have to deal with teaching millions of kids that are considered racial minorities, many of them segregated in their own communities, coming from communities and households that perceive themselves to be victims of racial discrimination, already starting the education process in a defensive posture. Recognizing this reality has led Alex Caputo-Pearl, an eighteen year veteran of the Los Angeles public school system in an interview with Dana Goldstein published in her excellent article in The Nation 10/11/10, to conclude “If teachers unions don’t make a turn toward the social justice union model, along with fighting for more funding, it’s going to mean not just a fundamental weakening of the union but frankly a real possibility of unions passing into history, it’s a necessity to fight with and for a broad sector of society that includes teachers, but also the families and the kids we serve. Otherwise, unions, and more significantly, truly public, accessible and equitable education, will go out of existence.” To emphasize the point that Caputo-Pearl is focusing on, it is important to note that according to the former U.S. Census Bureau Chief, Steve Murdock, by 2023 over 50% of children in America will be Non-Anglo, and by 2050, one half of the labor force will be so-called minorities.

Caputo-Pearl sees unionization as key to his work as a teacher. He is a member of the Progressive Educators for Action (PEAC), an organization that works for education reform within the United Teachers of Los Angeles. Caputo-Pearl says “What we are promoting is the idea that teachers unions need to become social justice unions. There certainly are parts of the union leadership and bureaucracy across the country that would argue the public schools are basically doing what they need to do right now and there’s not a need for basic reform within the system, other than more funding. PEAC has never believed that is the case, especially in the communities of color, and has been in the lead of trying to promote reform models, whether it be around small learning communities or around schools partnering with trusted outside organizations to have more autonomy.”

Going back to “Waiting for Superman,” Dana Goldstein adds the film doesn’t acknowledge that Bill Gates, who began his philanthropic career deeply skeptical of teachers unions, has lately embraced them as essential players in the fight for school improvement. Gates’ foundation finances a program in Boston called “Turnaround Teacher Teams,” which works with the District and its teacher union to move cohorts of experienced, highly rated instructors into high-needs schools, while giving them extra training and support. In July, Gates spoke at the American Federation of Teachers convention in Seattle, and he said, “If reforms aren’t shaped by teachers’ knowledge and experience, they’re not going to succeed.”He received several standing ovations.

Amongst other examples of management labor-cooperation mentioned by Dana Goldstein they are in Memphis, where the teachers union there has worked alongside the New Teacher Project to move some of the best teachers into the highest-poverty schools. In the small city of Evansville, Indiana, the local affiliate of the National Education Association (NEA) worked with the superintendent to craft a turnaround model for three low-performing schools that includes a longer school year and a professional development academy for teachers working with high poverty kids.

There are high hopes in the horizon. On 10/14/10 Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education and the presidents of the national teachers unions announced 10/14/10 that they will hold a summit to embark in a cooperative agreement between unions and managers to help our kids. The event will take place early next year, and will be called the National Education Reform Conference on labor-management collaboration. As per Alyson Klein, from Education Week, it will showcase examples of collective bargaining agreements that show that unions and districts can collaborate on education redesign.

My experience as a Labor Community Organizer for the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) has shown that the net can be thrown wide in regards to Quality Education. Who can be against Quality Education? The need is to recognize the importance of all major stakeholders (students, parents, teachers, administrators, community at-large, support staff); what they respectively bring to the table, and the benefit of them all working together to educate our children in this most difficult of times.

Lorenzo A. Canizares

Labor Community Organizer

Board of Directors Keystone Progress

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