Friday, July 22, 2011

Endless war with the unions

I had a very interesting lunch today with an old friend who's done a great deal of consulting/advising to the NEA over many decades.  He told me about a recent experience during which he presented to a number of state NEA leaders and told them that they were wrong to oppose all accountability and that they needed to develop their own, fair, rigorous systems or else they were going to lose and have a system they didn't like imposed on them.


This seemed so reasonable that I thought the next thing he was going to say was that he got a good hearing and they really engaged, but noooooo…  Instead, he said: "In my 30+ years of giving hundreds of speeches and presentations, I have NEVER had a more hostile reaction.  The NEA leader of the largest state there – an old friend of mine! – literally stood up and shouted at me for five minutes.  Interestingly, however, as I was leaving, a couple of leaders from smaller states grabbed me outside and whispered to me, 'You're right and we agree with you, but we don't dare say so publicly.'"


This story is so disheartening.  Every once in a while (when I'm feeling really naïve I guess), I harbor the hope that the unions – especially the NEA – might stop behaving like the longshoreman's union and work to reform a broken, dysfunctional system that not only screws kids, but is bad for most teachers as well!  But that would require a total paradigm/culture shift (similar to what Tom Friedman wrote about Greece today: that I think is extremely unlikely. 


Instead, I am resigned to the reality that reforming our schools so that they do right by ALL kids, not just a lucky few, is going to require yet more decades of brutal, bloody battles, where the unions only give an inch when faced with certain defeat.  This is why, while I thought Wisconsin Gov. Walker was going too far in breaking the WI unions, I think what he did will have many positive effects because it (rightly) scared the pants off the unions across the country.  Speaking of the war we're engaged in, here is what I wrote last August:


For many years, we reformers were a guerilla group, so totally outmanned and outspent that we had no choice but to engage in sporadic hit-and-run tactics.  But just in the past couple of years (I'd cite the DFER-organized event at the Democratic National Convention as a key tipping point – see links below), we now have enough power in many place to fight to a stalemate, so instead of looking like the Revolutionary War, this is beginning to look more like the trench warfare of WW I ( – a bloody war of attrition in which neither side is powerful enough to advance, but both sides are powerful enough to stop their opponents from advancing. 


So what broke the stalemate?  A key factor was the Allies developing tanks (  Race to the Top is our tank.  We deployed it, it totally changed the battlefields in many, many states, and we need to make sure that RTTT and similar competitive, reform-oriented initiatives are not only preserved, but expanded. 


Using this analogy, it's easy to see why the critics are so wrong when they say, "Tanks break down a lot (a chronic problem in WW I) and, by themselves, they can't win a war, so therefore they're lousy and let's abandon them."  The correct answer, of course, is that we need to improve them and deploy them more widely, but also recognize that they're only one of many elements that are necessary for victory.


I'm damn proud to have backed (and cheered on) many of the key people and organizations that conceived of, designed, built, and are driving our tanks.


(Sorry for all of the war talk – it's not pleasant, but we ARE in a war and those defending the status quo will stop at nothing…)

 Subscribe in a reader