Ballot Question in Boston Would Silence Teachers

As Rethinking Schools’ representative to the National Network of Teacher Activist Groups, I hear a lot of news about exciting organizing (and outrageous attacks on education). Recently, TAG Boston told us that Stand for Children has zeroed in on Massachusetts. That reminded me that last fall, Rethinking Schools published an investigative piece, “For or Against Children? The Problematic History of Stand for Children,” in which authors Ken Libby and Adam Sanchez described how Stand began as a parent-led organization with a progressive agenda, but has become a highly funded weapon in the attacks on teachers and teachers’ unions. I thought our blog readers would be interested in this update by Teacher Activist Group-Boston.

–Jody Sokolower, Policy and Production Editor

Stand for Children is at it again, this time in the state of Massachusetts. The self-proclaimed “independent social justice organization” has been organizing to curtail the rights of teacher unions across the country.

In Massachusetts, their recent and extremely complex ballot initiative, “Great Teachers Great Schools,” is focused on stripping due process rights, silencing the voices of child advocates, and forcing yet-to-be-tested evaluation rules onto school districts. The ballot initiative doesn’t mention children once and it’s quite possible that it will divide parents and teachers instead of bringing them together.

Why would any organization want to do this? After taking a closer look at who is on Stand For Children’s (SFC) advisory board these apparent contradictions make a little more sense.

In Massachusetts, the current board of advisors is composed of members who have more experience with running a business than a classroom. Members include the Managing Director at Spectrum Equity, a private equity firm, and a Vice President of Client Services at KGA who formerly worked for Fidelity Investments. Nationally SFC has received millions of dollars from The Walton Family Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the wealthy owners of Wal-Mart. They have been using their money and influence to lobby legislators all over America and convince them that cheaper, younger, unprotected teachers are good for corporations and good for our children.

Massachusetts is no different. SFC has already started using their cash and clout to collect more than 100,000 signatures in a matter of months. They believe our teachers need to be evaluated aggressively. SFC believes more expensive, veteran teachers who are historically the leaders of our schools shouldn’t be valued for their experience.

TAKING A STAND Members of the Boston Teacher Activist Group, who teach in public schools in and around Boston. The educators warn that a ballot question being pushed by Stand for Children would have a chilling effect on the ability of teachers to advocate for their students.

No teacher would disagree that there’s a need to better our current evaluation system in order to improve teacher quality. In fact, Massachusetts is already implementing a rigorous new teacher evaluation program that has been supported by AFT Massachusetts and the Massachusetts Teachers Association. Why then do voters need to weigh-in on implementing another system before the new one is rolled out?

Good question. It appears that the bill is really about weakening unions and local control. If passed, there is little motivation for school districts and unions to agree on issues of evaluation or possibly, in the future, agree on anything at all. School districts can ask the state to make all final, binding decisions. The result is an attack on unions that undermines collective bargaining, which in turn is an attack on teachers and the young people that teachers care about most.

What’s worse is that even if the initiative does pass, it is hard to see how it can improve our public schools. As Mary Ann Stewart, president of the Massachusetts Parent Teacher Association, explained: “This is a huge distraction from what teachers and parents believe is most needed to help students succeed. We need small class sizes, excellent preschools, support services for at-risk students, and high quality professional development for teachers. Instead, this ballot question gives us more top-down mandates and red tape.” In addition, both associations of Massachusetts principals and the Secretary of Education Paul Reville are opposed to the initiative.

Lastly, and most importantly, this initiative silences the voices of teachers and makes it harder for them to advocate for their students. It weakens protections for teachers and will leave many of them too scared to speak out against the injustices their students face. Without protection, teachers may be afraid to stand up for an English language learner or a special education student who isn’t receiving the supports they deserve. Instead of standing for children, teachers will be forced to stand for silence, regardless of where the children fall.

The Real Irish American Story

Saint Patrick’s Day is approaching, so it’s time for the all-too-brief attention that media and schools pay to Irish American history. Rethinking Schools editor Bill Bigelow has a new article posted at the Huffington Post, “The Real Irish American Story Not Taught in Schools.” Bigelow writes:

“Wear green on St. Patrick’s Day or get pinched.” That pretty much sums up the Irish-American “curriculum” that I learned when I was in school. Yes, I recall a nod to the so-called Potato Famine, but it was mentioned only in passing.

Sadly, today’s high school textbooks continue to largely ignore the famine, despite the fact that it was responsible for unimaginable suffering and the deaths of more than a million Irish peasants, and that it triggered the greatest wave of Irish immigration in U.S. history. Nor do textbooks make any attempt to help students link famines past and present.

Bigelow analyzes several of these corporate-produced textbooks and offers some thoughts on what should be taught about the Great Irish Famine, including a role play, “Hunger on Trial,” that he has used with his own students, and that is posted at our Zinn Education Project site.

In this role play, as Bigelow describes in his Huffington Post article, “students investigate who or what was responsible for the famine. The British landlords, who demanded rent from the starving poor and exported other food crops? The British government, which allowed these food exports and offered scant aid to Irish peasants? The Anglican Church, which failed to denounce selfish landlords or to act on behalf of the poor? A system of distribution, which sacrificed Irish peasants to the logic of colonialism and the capitalist market?”

This is the Zinn Education Project’s first “If We Knew Our History…” column for the Huffington Post. The more people immediately read, comment, and share the article, the more likely Huffington Post is to give us prominent placement for future posts.

Please read, comment and share today!

Rethinking ‘The Lorax’

By Bill Bigelow

On March 2nd, Universal Pictures is releasing the 3-D animated film, The Lorax, based on Dr. Seuss’s classic “environmental” book of the same name. The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) recently sent out a “Save the Lorax” alert about the incredibly inappropriate marketing partnerships timed to coincide with the release of the film.

Despite the book’s lament about environmental ruin, CCFC reports that corporations are rushing to link their products with the film. For example, the Mazda CX-5 SUV now sports the “Truffula Seal of Approval.” IHOP child menus will offer choices such as Rooty Tooty Bar-Ba-Looty Blueberry Cone Cakes and Truffula Chip Pancakes. And companies like Comcast Xfinity TV, Target, IHOP, and HP will feature online Lorax games and sweepstakes for kids. Save the earth, kids: Buy more stuff!

As CCFC points out, the corporate rush to tie products to a book with a non-consumerist message is “cynical and hypocritical.”

But at the risk of sounding like a grumpy old so-and-so, let me also point out that The Lorax is not without its problems. For example, the book reduces the causes of environmental ruin to individual greed, which does not help children think clearly about the roots of today’s ecological crises. This narrow single-greedy-bad-guy focus does not help readers think about the much scarier prospect of an entire society organized around the quest for profit. And the chief environmental exploiter, the Once-ler, hires all his brothers, uncles, and aunts as workers, which makes it appear that the interests of workers and owners are identical, and that they are all inherently part of the problem. Again, this is not a helpful message for children. Instead of allowing his Swomee-Swans and the Bar-ba-loots to fight for themselves and for their environment, the only opposition comes from the Lorax—who advocates for, but actually disempowers other creatures by sending them off. Finally, in the end, the Once-ler repents, suggesting that there is hope for today’s rapacious Once-lers of the world—if only we can make them see the light.

These problems notwithstanding — or perhaps because of them — The Lorax makes a fine teaching resource. At the Zinn Education Project website, we’ve posted an article of mine that Rethinking Schools published in the early 90s, The Lorax: Revisited and Revised,” and which was reprinted in our 1995 book Rethinking Schools: An Agenda for Change.  In the article, I describe using The Lorax with an after-school class I taught for several years, Literature and Social Change. Students critiqued the book in class and then re-wrote it, in an attempt to re-imagine how we might present environmental problems and their possible solutions. The article also includes excerpts from a delightful and astute “alternative” Lorax, written by students Holly Allen, David Berkson, and Becky Willner — all of whom, many years later, are still doing important social justice work.

Stories like The Lorax are valuable resources to help children develop a critical literacy. Being able to evaluate both the strengths and the weaknesses of a piece of literature—or a political position, or a law, or almost anything else—is an important academic and life skill. And our students are going to need those skills in a world filled with IHOP Truffula Chip pancakes.

Related Resources

 Rethinking Popular Culture and Media, edited by Elizabeth Marshall and Özlem Sensoy. This anthology includes outstanding articles by elementary and secondary public school teachers, scholars, and activists who examine how and what popular toys, books, films, music, and other media “teach.” The essays offer strong conceptual critiques and practical pedagogical strategies for educators at every level to engage with the popular.

Cover, Rethinking Schools volume 23 issue 4 Rethinking Schools Special issue: Teaching for Environmental Justice, Volume 23 Issue 4 — Summer 2009