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Massachusetts Teachers Association Takes On High Stakes Tests, School Takeovers

On Tuesday I shared news from Connecticut teachers who had succeeded in passing resolutions pushing back on high stakes testing and the Common Core. This came on the heels of a report from Michelle Gunderson of similar efforts by which members of the Chicago Teachers Union approved a resolution expressing their rejection of the Common Core State Standards. Today, we have a third report, this time from an activist named Mary Porter in Massachusetts. A single swallow may not make a spring, but here is the third one!  These stories reflect the experiences and viewpoints of the teachers who wrote them. Change seems to be in the air in our teacher unions.

Guest post by Mary Porter.

Activist rank-and-file movements are ramping up teachers unions' fight for justice, reason, and community solidarity by passing resolutions and winning offices across the country.  These are my personal observations on some of the historic changes at my own state's annual meeting. 

Five hundred first-time delegates attended the 2014 Massachusetts Teachers Association Annual Meeting May 9th and 10th, and I was among them.    I'd long been aware of the work of the Educators for a Democratic Union (EDU) caucus, which had worked tirelessly to organize in the past.     Nonetheless, I didn't imagine it was possible to change the actual course of my state's union until I picked up an EDU flyer on October 24, while attending a talk by Diane Ravitch about her book The Reign of Error at Memorial Church in the Harvard Yard. 

I went to the EDU caucus meeting with my husband, who teaches at University of Massachusetts at Lowell.

Over the months since, I've met many other new and old union activists from across the state, and we've spoken out more openly with our colleagues. Educators have shared their growing opposition to the disrespect we are experiencing under irrational evaluation and standardized-testing demands.  We were moved to action because indefensible nonsense was being imposed on us right in our classrooms by outside corporate interests, claiming the force of law because our MTA president, Paul Toner, had cut some kind of insider deal with the nonprofit advocacy group Stand for Children. 

With no feeling of support from the state leadership, working groups assembled to address the test-based attacks on teacher evaluations everywhere, and to assist teachers and communities in the New Bedford and Holyoke districts, where "level 4 and 5" schools were being "turned around" or taken over, and vulnerable students were being targeted with destructive corporate reform policies like "data walls".

With a nationally respected candidate for president in Barbara Madeloni, a floor strategy, and final drafts of our New Business Items, we converged on the Hynes Convention Center in Boston on Friday morning, May 9.  EDU participation was growing rapidly at the meeting itself.  While we caucused, dozens more of us held signs and handed out buttons by the hundreds to enthusiastic arriving delegates who crowded into our caucus room (memo: get a bigger room next year). 

 There was no actual scheduling for new business items, and no way of knowing in advance when or whether they'd come to the floor.  Madeloni's New Business Item 6, on "battling the abuses of high-stakes testing," did come to a vote on that first day, after a competing weaker resolution on testing timelines was called up first. President Toner clearly preferred the weaker item (NBI 2), which he characterized as "pushing to have more flexibility and time to do this work."   He casually suggested that if it passed, he might save us all some time by declaring NBI 6 moot. 

NBI 2 (Moving back the timeline)

MOVED: The MTA lobby the DESE Board and the Legislature to move back the timelines on the implementation of Common Core, PARCC, RETELL, and DDM.

After a yellow-sign challenge from the floor, Toner withdrew his threat because the items are really very different. NBI 2 passed easily by a show of purple cards, leaving a hollow feeling.  There was no great outburst of applause. The exchange highlighted how different the co-opted leadership position is from the rank and file.

Soon thereafter, Barbara Madeloni introduced her New Business Item 6 (it was my honor to second it), for the first decisive struggle on the meeting floor.  The arguments she made are outlined in the EDU annual meeting guide, on page 11. 

NBI 6: (Battling the abuses of high stakes testing)

MOVED: The MTA will:

1)    Send a letter to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education calling for a three-year moratorium on PARCC field-testing, the teacher evaluation system, and the use of any student test results to evaluate school or teacher performance.

2)    Establish structures through which every preK-12 local will organize member led community forums, inviting students and parents, in the fall of 2014 that address the questions of the impact of standardized testing policies in schools and communities.

3)    Set aside the January 2015 All Presidents' Meeting as a time for local leaders to report on the outcome of these forums, the impact of testing and the evaluations system on students, teachers and schools, and to determine a unified response and organized strategy to address these mandates.

4)    Provide active, vocal support and protection for teachers who voice concerns about high stakes testing, PARCC field testing, and the teacher evaluation system.

An experienced chapter president from a wealthier, not-very-liberal town took a green sign to ask whether we might separate the NBI into four separate items, and a flurry of purple cards decisively answered no.  So, she took a red sign and got back in line.  It wasn't until after the resolution had passed (457 - 354) that her objection really became clear.  Because so many activist teachers work in at-risk districts, we see social justice unionism as central to our mission.  We feel an urgent need to communicate with parents, students, and our communities so they can defend their own public schools.  By contrast, a call for presidents to involve parents and students in a wealthy town might sound like an outrageous and unnecessary pain in the neck. Structures still need to be worked out so all communities can participate in these important education policy discussions, without overburdening MTA officers.  Barbara asked to introduce a friendly amendment to formulate our call for community participation more carefully but it was procedurally impossible at that point, because the item had already passed. The goal of deepening cooperation with our parents and communities is worthy of pursuing flexibly in every public district.

The vote was the first test of EDU's support at the meeting, and it visibly shook many people on the stage.  As the news filtered out of the hall, the expensive suits without credentials who clustered in the lobby took on an apprehensive expression. A little later, Barbara Madeloni's candidate speech aimed high, and encompassed both our most visionary aspirations and our challenges as a union. 

 The next morning, we gathered again in the banquet hall to finish our business, and wait for the vote count. Suddenly, NBI 13 came to the floor just as Governor Deval Patrick arrived in the building to accept his President's Award.

NBI 13  (Challenging the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education's "failing school" formula)

The MTA will:

1)    Direct its legal staff to explore a court challenge to the methodology of DESE formulas for determining 'failing' schools;

2)    Direct its legal staff to work with the Opportunity to Learn Campaign and the ACLU, to determine the constitutionality of the Massachusetts DESE's claim for authority to unilaterally remove local schools from civic control;

3)    Direct appropriate MTA staff to research--based on members' reports--instances of racial and income bias in DESE actions against vulnerable communities, and to produce a written report presenting members' experiences and the research findings;

4)    Convene a group of MTA educators and statisticians to work with the Boston Opportunity Learn Campaign's data resources, to track the funding of schools that have been removed from local control in order to compare the funding as locally controlled schools and the funding of the same schools after they are stripped from the communities; 

5)    Guarantee active, vocal MTA support and protection for teachers who voice concerns about removal of schools from civic control; 

6)    Designate staff to work with preK-12 locals who are facing this crisis of takeover to address questions of how school takeover impacts students and teachers in the short-term and long-term; and

7)    Provide legal assistance and active protection to teachers who are displaced or fired due to a school becoming the domain of the state. 

NBI 13 was written and submitted by Holyoke teacher Dorothy Albrecht.  Every word is full of determination to act decisively, and the members who lined up at the microphones with green signs had passionate arguments they were resolved to voice at last. Very few red signs appeared, but many yellow ones were raised. Wouldn't there be an additional staff cost for step 3? Dorothy quickly proposed a friendly amendment to strike it.  Does the legal staff find steps 1 and 2 realistic?  An MTA lawyer took the microphone, not knowing yet who would win the election, and said they could work with those instructions. Then, teacher after teacher described the actual effects of DESE take-overs on their students, schools, and communities while our outgoing governor listened gravely just off the stage to what should have been his own stand.  I was saddened for him, and for the low-income communities who had given him their trust in two elections.  We rose to our feet and raised a roar of agreement to NBI 13, leaving no doubt as to the eventual vote.  It would have encompassed Patrick, too, if he had only chosen that path. Instead he took the stage to somewhat restrained, polite applause and accepted the President's Award from outgoing MTA President Paul Toner. 

The Boston Globe's report of these events was striking in itself. "Patrick is honored by teachers group: Governor hears concerns during annual meeting".

The governor arrived in time to stand offstage and hear union members raise concerns about some failing schools in poor, immigrant-heavy communities, like Holyoke and Lawrence, being replaced by privately run charter schools. Some teachers said they believe schools are being unfairly evaluated, drawing applause from the crowd of delegates. 

Patrick did not directly address the issues in his 3½-minute remarks, but called the discussion part of "vital debates of policy and organization."

The Globe reporter goes on to attack Massachusetts' public employee pensions, and to report some remarks Governor Patrick apparently made privately after his speech.  "People often go about education reform by doing it to the profession. We've done it with the profession. And the MTA's been critical to that," he said. My hope is that NEA delegates in Denver this summer will keep that nugget in mind, and decline to vote Paul Toner onto the governing board.

That was then.  This is now, and the MTA is preparing to challenge the doctrine of corporate test-based control of public education resources in court, in our state legislature, in community forums, and at the ballot box. Watch for summaries of all the 2014 New Business Items, coming online soon here.   Join us, brothers and sisters in other unions.

What do you think? Is this beginning to look like a trend? How will this energy be felt at the national teacher union gatherings this summer?

Mary Porter teaches at a Massachusetts public high school. She was a first-time delegate at the mta annual meeting this May.

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