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The Fundies on Our Side: teachers’ unions, liberals and fundamentalist culture

paid Hell vs. heaven

For me, as a Democrat, one of the weirdest things about working on education reform has been the never-ending fundamentalist flashbacks.

You see, I spent my first 22 years among the Baptists –-and  yes, we’re talking the no-drinking-no-dancing-go-to-church-four-times-a–week kind. My parent taught at a Baptist college. As part of their job benefits, I had free tuition at a handful of conservative Christian schools.

Which is how I ended up at Wheaton College in Illinois as one of the lone liberals in a sea of young Republicans. At the time, Wheaton was a school so conservative that its president once told me he didn’t believe that “anyone could have an authentic relationship with our Lord Jesus Christ and still be a member of the Democratic party.”

How to respond? Smile and nod. Get the degree. I graduated in 1979—the same year Jerry Falwell launched The Moral Majority, a political group which symbolized the merger of the Christian Right with the Republican party.

Even then, I knew this marriage wouldn’t end well. Because a healthy political group needs to be able to adapt to a changing modern world, which includes:

a) New ideas and data

b) Nuance and paradox;

c) Genuinely listening to people of different views and hues and being willing to compromise.

And alas, fundamentalists—whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim or Hindu–mostly can’t do these things. Hell, they’re fundies, precisely because they don’t want to adapt to modernity or compromise with anyone.

The very nature of fundamentalism tends to create a toxic political culture. When I was growing up,  issues were usually framed as good vs. evil; saved vs. damned; heaven vs. hell. And if that wasn’t enough drama, the Apocalypse also loomed as we, the faithful, were under siege by secular forces bent on destroying faith, family and freedom.

There wasn’t a lot of room for honest questions or discussions. You were either either in or out of the pool. People who challenged the system were quickly demonized.

Which, according to researchers, is a classic trait of fundamentalism: one’s opponents can’t just be wrong about things—they must have evil intent too. Hence, gays are trying to destroy the family; feminists hate men; liberals want everyone’s hunting rifles and so forth.

These conspiracy theories are helped by the fundamentalist tendency to dismiss data or evidence that doesn’t line up with their worldview. Which is why many fundies still believe evolution, global warming and President Obama’s citizenship are all unproven.

All of these traits make it hard to have reasonable or nuanced discussions with fundamentalists. Which is why most of us stop trying. Instead, we talk about our kids, dogs and sports.  I still love my fundie relatives and family friends—they can be such kind, generous people. But as a group, they create deeply dysfunctional political cultures.

After college, I thought I was done with fundamentalism. As a Democrat, I spent decades feeling smug that the fundies were making the other party dysfunctional and not mine. That is, until I started working on education reform.

Man, it was like “Jaws 2.”…just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water…WHAM BAM and OMG, it’s fundamentalism all over again. Only this time, it’s coming from fellow Democrats, specifically the teachers’ unions and their allies.

Don’t get me wrong. As individuals, teacher unionists can be as kind and generous as my fundie relations and friends. But like the religious right, the teachers’ union tends to:

1) Frame issues as stark series of either-or choices with apocalyptic endings. Either you support every clause in the union contract or you’re trying to bust the union. Either you support teachers or you’re “bashing” them. Either you support public schools or you want their destruction because that apocalypse is always drawing nigh.

2) Demonize opponents. In the union narrative, ed reformers aren’t just wrong about educational policy—they must have evil intent as well. So reformers are typically cast as vague “corporatists” bent on the equally hazy “privatization” of public schools; Teach for America recruits are crass resume-polishers; and the Gates Foundation is to the teachers’ union what George Soros is to the Right, i.e. the funding source of all evil.

3) Deny or dismiss data that challenges their worldview.  For example, ten years after Katrina wiped out the New Orleans school system, students in that city’s new system of public charters have made remarkable gains in reading and math scores, high school graduation and college acceptance rates.

Is the new system perfect? No. Are students getting better results? Absolutely.

Yet union leaders and their allies have gone out of their way to deny or dismiss this data. And can we be real? If a traditional, unionized school district had been able to produce these results, union leaders would be shouting this data from the rooftops and claiming the total vindication of their traditional system.

4) Resist any change to tradition, even if this means disenfranchising entire groups of people.

Fundamentalists insist that Marriage Is Between a Man and A Woman, so same-sex marriage is an attempt to destroy the family. In a similar vein, teachers’ unions basically insist that Public Schools Are Between A Union and Its District, so any change in this tradition—i.e. charter schools– is an attempt to destroy public education.

Neither of these statements makes sense. Same-sex couples are creating families, not destroying them. Charters ARE public schools, funded by the state and open to all.

Right now, the public schools that are getting the best results with low-income black and Latino children are mostly charters. But because charter schools are mostly non-union, the teachers’ unions are attempting to limit these schools —-even though this would disenfranchise entire groups of children.

5) Represent a constituency that is mostly white, middle-class, middle-aged and nostalgic for a supposedly better past that should be “reclaimed.”

Even though they represent different sides of the political spectrum, both the teachers’ union and religious conservatives are quick to blame alleged poor parenting and the culture of poverty when faced with racial disparities. GOPers often do this with sense of fury; union leaders with a sense of pity. But ultimately, it’s the same message:

Our systems are fine. It’s the brown kids and their parents who are screwed up.

Both groups call for a return to a simpler, better times–before all this talk about racial equity and federal accountability. The religious right holds “Reclaim the Dream” or “Reclaim the Constitution” rallies. The American Federation of Teachers has its “Reclaim the Promise” campaign.

I could keep listing traits, but you get the idea.

And yes, I know. Comparing the teachers’ unions to Christian fundamentalists is pure heresy among Democrats. Which is why I spent years trying to ignore the similarities. I was so committed to the idea that my political tribe should be fundie-proof.

But if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck….If the teacher’s union frames issues like fundies; if it demonizes foes, denies data and tries to disenfranchise people like fundies….well, the union is certainly acting like a fundamentalist movement. And even though the union operates on the left side of the political spectrum, it’s getting very similar results to what’s happened on the Republican side.

For example, in Minnesota, the state teachers’ union is the single largest contributor to Democratic candidates and causes. Education Minnesota sets the tone and parameters of our education debates. And alas, our discussions have become predictably toxic, rigid and scripted.

There are so many taboo topics, so many things that cannot be said for fear of setting off our funders; so many conspiracy theories; so much dismissal of data and evidence. And for Democrats, this is happening on an issue that takes up 40 percent of the state’s operating budget; affects hundreds of thousands of children and has shamefully racialized results.

Instead of leading on education issues,  our elected Democrats, from school board members to legislators, act a lot like—-God, this is painful—Republicans trying to placate their fundie base.  Our side ducks, dodges and mostly dissembles. We block change and innovation. We defend the traditional system no matter what. And low-income people of color pay the biggest price.

How do you change a fundamentalist culture?  It’s damn hard because the whole point of fundie culture is shut down discussions and block change. But the first step is acknowledging how nutty it is… and then start building an alternative one.


——Lynnell Mickelsen, Sept. 8, 2015


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Four great ideas from the teachers’ union as contract talks begin

credit to mortgagebrokernews.ca

credit to mortgagebrokernews.ca

The 2015-17 Minneapolis teacher contract negotiations have started. Last week, yours truly was once again there as public observer.

A brief background for those who may need it: In Minnesota, teacher contract negotiations are open to the public (as are all negotiations involving the government and public employees unions) under the state’s Open Meeting Act. Which is good  because the public is paying for the salaries of both sides of the negotiation table.

About six years ago, a small group of progressive parents and citizens, including moi, began watching teacher contract negotiations under the theory that if our elected school board was going to negotiate agreements that were so wildly-tilted to the needs of adults at the expense of children, they should have to do it in public view.

(Note to Black Lives Matter activists: this same law means people can also show up at police contract negotiations which, among other things, have made it easy for certain cops to regularly shoot or beat the crap out of unarmed civilians and still keep their jobs.)

Okay back to the present: I showed up last week with low expectations for anything of substance happening during this round because the Minneapolis district has an interim superintendent and Minneapolis Federation of Teachers President Lynn Nordgren is probably on her last term before retiring. So I figured neither side would want to rock the boat or do much.

But I was wrong. The union spent the first two hours proposing some cool ideas that could make teachers happier AND more effective. Here are four that I think are worth considering:

1) Give teachers two hours a day instead of the current one hour to do all the stuff we ask them to do; which they’re willing to do, but there’s not enough time in the school day to do.

Under the union’s proposal, classroom teachers would spend one less hour a day teaching kids and one more hour looking at student data, consulting with social workers, school counselors, fellow teachers, updating the parent portals, running off extra copies of whatever, organizing the next field trip, preparing for the next lesson and the 10,001 other things we want them to do.

Teachers would still have to do hours of work at home in the evenings. But at least they’d have a shot of completing some of the work that needs to be done at the school site during the day.

To come up with the extra hour, the union would have to be flexible.  As Lynn Nordgren said, teachers might have to work in shifts—with some starting early and some starting late. And the district would have to hire more teachers to create more art, music and gym  classes—which also happens to be something parents keep clamoring for.

So I see this as a win-win solution for everyone. Teachers could feel saner and get more done. Kids could get more art, music and gym.

It won’t be cheap.  But teachers have been complaining about the increasing workloads for decades. So what if we actually took them seriously and tried to do something about it? Because the union will also be asking for smaller class sizes across the board which– can we be real?—is not going to happen because:

a) Neither the union nor our Democratic legislators nor our governor (not to mention the GOP) seems willing to honestly talk about how much it will cost to reduce class sizes and ask the taxpayers to pony up the costs. 

b) The data doesn’t show lower class size makes a significant difference in academic achievement;

So until these two things change, I say let’s at least try to deal with the teacher workload issue. Along the same lines, the unionis also proposing to…

2) Hire Playworks to run recesses in K-8 schools. Playworks is a non-profit company that hires people who specialize in creating and supervising fun recess games aimed at different levels of activity and ages. Anyone who’s ever dealt with Playworks comes away converted to the whole idea.

In most district schools in Minneapolis, kids get 20 minutes to eat lunch and then 20 minutes of recess. Teachers get 20 minutes to eat and then supervise recess. Which isn’t a disaster, but the majority of our teachers are middle-aged women who do many things well, but coming up with an endless supply of new running-around games for active kids, especially boys, in all kinds of weather, is usually not one of them.

So if Playworks did recess, teachers would get another 20 minutes to prepare for classes and kids would have a lot more fun running around at recess. Schools that use Playworks say there’s less fighting, less bullying and kids come back to the classroom far more recharged and ready to learn.

So I think the union is proposing another win-win solution here. I mean, hell, if we’re talking about about health and productivity, most companies should hire Playworks for lunch breaks for their adult employees. Seriously.

Playworks costs money. But if the business community wanted to step up…..I’m just saying, ”this recess is brought to you by…… Target or Blue Cross or Health Partners,” etc could endear corporations to parents, kids and teachers.

3) Create roving teams of star substitute teachers who specialize in cool, supplementary lessons—poetry in the schools, two-hour long science experiments, etc. These teams could come to schools three or four times a year and allow a team of classroom teachers to watch other star teachers teach…..or do a day-long professional training on site or elsewhere.

Right now, when teachers are called to do training and/or development work during the school day, they prepare lesson plans for the substitute teachers.  But substitutes often can’t effectively do another teacher’s lesson plans and this isn’t necessarily the fault of either the classroom teacher or the sub.

Teaching is complicated and highly dependent on the relationships between the students and the teacher. Which is why substitute days are often wasted time for students and developing lesson plans for subs is a waste of time for teachers.

The union’s plan could be another win-win solution—although it would depend on the quality of the substitute teams coming in.

4) Require less one-size-fits all training sessions for teachers held at district headquarters during school days.

The union said some of the district –mandated training is great (math and science trainings were singled out for praise), but there were still too many lousy ones that wasted their members’ time.

Great teaching inspires great teaching, Nordgren says teachers should come out of these trainings inspired by the level of teaching they’ve just received as opposed to having endured another series of powerpoints.

As any long-time reader knows, I’ve disagreed with the union on plenty of things.  I mean, don’t get me started.  But give credit where credit it due—these are good ideas, so good on the MFT.

—Lynnell Mickelsen

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Cops, teachers and reform: same issues, different allies.

Ferguson plastic tags

Photograph: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty, Guardian

Awhile back, I heard a BBC report on “Why do US police keep killing unarmed black men?”  and I was struck by the similar issues when we’re talking about cops, teachers and reform.

In both cases, we’re dealing with public employees who:

  • tend to be mostly white, middle-class and living outside of the communities they serve;
  • raised in a media culture that views black people as often dangerous and criminal;
  • see their job as controlling, “taming” and/or teaching black youth that many of them seem to fear;
  • represented by powerful unions who make it nearly impossible to dismiss low-performers or  “bad apples” no matter how ill-suited they may be for the job.

I mean, heck, given all this, what could possibly go wrong when people of color deal with their police or schools?

Anyhow, here are the BBC’s four main points on police violence followed by my comparison to what’s happening in education.

1) Ferguson and Baltimore are not isolated incidences. 

On MappingPoliceViolence.org there’s a map with a red, glowing dot for each of the 304 fatal police shootings of black people in 2014. If you click on the link, it looks like much of the country is on fire. If you mapped out districts where children of color were failing en masse, you’d see the same thing.

2) Many police have an implicit bias against blacks, although in fairness, it’s not just cops, it’s our whole culture. Computer-simulated studies show people are far quicker to shoot an unarmed black men than unarmed white man. And study after study shows that schools are far more likely to suspend black boys than white boys as well as refer them to special education .

3) Police have created a “warrior” police culture which is willing to maim or kill innocent civilians rather than risk injury to a single officer.

This is both fascinating and harrowing.  Seth Stoughton, a former cop-turned-University of South Carolina law professor, explained to the BBC how police culture has become even more extreme than the military when it comes to tolerating civilian casualties.

“”When the military is designing a mission, they have in mind the fact that they’re going to lose soldiers, “ Stoughton says. “The police profession has strongly repudiated that notion. No officer fatalities are acceptable.”

Instead, Stoughton says, police now see a high civilian death as an acceptable price to pay for police safety although I’d add the caveat….as long as those civilians are people of color. (Witness the different way police responded to the Baltimore protests vs. the white biker shoot-out in Waco.)

On the education front, we see a similar dynamic except since teaching is overwhelmingly female, the culture is more Besieged Martry  than “warrior. ” But if you add up implicit bias + Besieged Martyr culture  + powerful unions who make it nearly impossible to dismiss anyone for poor performance, you get school districts where high black failure rates are an acceptable price to pay to insure sure no teachers lose their jobs.

As with police shootings, the demise of children of color in the classroom has been going on for so long that most white people have basically normalized it. Yet if police were  killing unarmed white suburban kids at the rate they kill urban black ones, we’d have demanded a wholesale re-working of policing in this country. Just as if white boys were failing at the same rate as black boys, we’d have already remade our schools to work better for them.

So we’re looking at similar issues although they tend to attract very different political allies. Politicans are mostly loathe to criticize either group. Republicans/conservatives will defend the police over teachers.  Democrats/liberals  are more prone to defend teachers over the police.

4) “We have to fix the wider social problems first.”  The BBC’s last point came from Charles Ramsey, who heads both the Philadelphia Police Department and Obama’s new Presidential Task Force on 21st Century Policing, and said. “”We live in a society where everybody wants to point fingers, but we have a lot of deeply-rooted societal problems: poverty, education, poor housing stock. We’ve got to deal with the issue of extreme poverty.”

Yep. We hear the same thing about the equity gap in education.  As a progressive ed reformer, I agree with Charles Ramsey: I think poverty and poor housing and the rest are all huge issues and we need to make serious public investments in these areas. However, I do take issue with that little word: “first”.

Because we need to fix poverty AND we need to change our police and education systems.  We don’t have to choose. We don’t have to fix them in a chronological order. If Black Lives Matter, they matter in both the street and the classroom. So it would be nice if both Republicans and Democrats—and their various allies– would stop treating them as entirely separate issues.  As a Democrat, I’m especially interested in Democrats getting this right.

—–Lynnell Mickelsen, May 29, 2015

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