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John Thompson: Time for our Unions to Lead Reform

Guest post by John Thompson.

Mark Simon's "High-Stakes Progressive Teacher Unionism" is a must-read. Simon's contributions to I Used To Think... And Now I Think.... are the reflections of a pioneer in the "new unionism" of the 1990s. Even back then, he realized that if the union did not advocate for "reforms that preserve the integrity of good teaching and real learning," that the alternative would be "Taylorist teacher-proofing." Now he knows that data-driven "reformers" attacked us with more self-righteousness than could have been expected. "Today," writes Simon, "the antiteacher and antiunion reform approach has hit with such a vengeance that it is clear, with hindsight, that progressive union leaders, always in the minority, moved too slowly."

I think Simon is too self-critical. We have seen an amazing increase in teachers coming over to his position that, "the teacher union is the organized voice of teachers," and it must be "focused as much on curriculum, instruction, assessment, and evaluation issues as on pay and hours."

I hope that non-teachers will read Simon's piece in conjunction with another contribution to the anthology, Deborah Meier's "Rethinking Trust." The first step towards achieving Simon's vision is to build the trust within schools to allow for the hard conversation that it requires. As Meier explains, teaching is "so personal and raw" that we often seek to close our doors and just concentrate on on own classes. The second step requires a deeper trust where we agree to take risks by cooperating with people outside of our schools who are not necessarily as trustworthy. It is a tribute to union leaders that they have been able to encourage the rank-in-file to take so many risks on both fronts in only one generation.

Simon also admits that he was once one of "the well-meaning, enthusiastic, do-gooders" who taught before getting "a real job." Now, he thinks that the "mythology" that "anyone can teach if you just believe that all students can learn may be the biggest lie undermining teaching." Those with the "hubris" which claims that "blind enthusiasm" is enough "are just kidding themselves."

Now Simon thinks that the union must have a plan that envisions better schools, and "correctives to misdirected accountability strategies - and then fight like the dickens for that teacher vision." He emphasizes that our vision must be tough on teachers. We must be like 19th century craft unions that were "the guardians of quality control in the face of employers' tendency to try and cut corners."

Simon's vision means that teachers must ask the toughest questions of what it takes to overcome the legacy of generational poverty, and then we must, "talk truth to power." We must resist the temptation to circle the wagons in the face of teacher-bashing. After all, the next generation of teacher leaders are likely to face threats that are even more complicated.

What do you think? Have teachers moved quickly enough to modernize our unions? What is the best approach to resisting the attacks on our profession and our schools?

John Thompson was an award winning historian, with a doctorate from Rutgers, and a legislative lobbyist when crack and gangs hit his neighborhood, and he became an inner city teacher. He blogs for This Week in Education, the Huffington Post and other sites. After 18 years in the classroom, he is writing his book, Getting Schooled: Battles Inside and Outside the Urban Classroom.

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