by Chuck Hoven
(Plain Press, February 2014) Sociologist, author and public education advocate Pedro Noguera spoke to a group of community activists and educators at Cleveland State University on January 23rd calling for teachers unions to step up and articulate a vision for educational reform. Noguera says he has been troubled over the past few years to see teachers under attack and “to a large degree, unions not being effective in articulating a different vision for reform.”
Noguera said public schools play a major role in preparing citizens to participate in democracy. He called public schools the foundation of democracy. He warned that public schools in our major cities are in crisis because of the growth in charter schools.
Noguera said the educational reform agenda now embraced by both political parties is steadily dismantling public education, particularly in cities. He noted the educational policies being pursued by the Obama administration are largely a continuation of the policies that began in the Bush administration with No Child Left Behind. The policies emphasize firing teachers and closing schools that don’t perform well on standardized tests.
The educational policy being promoted by both Democrats and Republicans undermines public education by siphoning off students and resources from public schools and promoting privately administered charter schools. He said the charter schools are largely an urban phenomenon.
Noguera said an Equity Commission Report commissioned by Congress recommended that attention should be paid to the huge disparities in children. The report was largely ignored by Congress, said Noguera, however New York’s new mayor, Bill de Blasio, has an educational reform agenda which looks at disparities and aims to address inequality and poverty. Noguera urged those present to watch what happens in New York City.
Emphasizing the importance of teachers’ unions in counteracting the failing educational policies that are undermining public education in cities across the nation, Noguera said, “no other organization is strong enough.”
Offering a prescription for reform to be let by the teachers’ unions, Noguera suggested the reform should address three issues: teacher evaluation, working conditions and a vision for capacity building in schools.
Noguera recommends teachers challenge their performance being measured by student test scores on standardized tests. While rejecting this type of measurement, teachers can’t say, “don’t evaluate, ” said Noguera. Instead he suggested, “Peer evaluation done correctly could be an alternative.”
In addition he suggested that teachers’ unions should develop professional standards to evaluate the stature of teachers. He said hairdressers and plumbers have more rigorous criterion to enter their professions than do teachers. Getting a degree in education is no guarantee that a teacher can actually teach kids, he said.
Compounding this problem, Noguera said school districts, honoring seniority rather than the needs of kids, often place the newest and most inexperienced teachers in the most difficult classes.
Teacher Unions should spend their resources promoting professional standards and core competencies rather than devoting resources to defending problem teachers, said Noguera. Colleagues not doing their job, makes the job of dedicated teachers more difficult, he noted, urging the union to change their tactics.
By advocating for good working conditions such as smaller class sizes, safety and adequate resources, Noguera argues, that teachers will gain parents as allies and give the union more strength. He said that improving working conditions would help to retain teachers in the profession as well. Teachers leaving the profession listed poor conditions at their schools as the number one reason for leaving the profession, said Noguera.
Vision about Capacity
In creating a vision for change teachers need to garner the support of parents, businesses, local foundations, churches and civic groups around an agenda for revitalizing and improving schools, said Noguera.
Noguera said the teachers unions when developing a vision about capacity building need to look to other countries that have built the capacity to make strides to make sure kids can meet higher educational standards. In addition to preparing teachers properly, putting good curriculum in place other resources need to be in place. Noguera said, “When we don’t have enough social workers and school psychologists, we don’t have the means to respond to the needs of the kids.”
He talked again about the agenda being proposed in New York City by Mayor Bill de Blasio which includes universal preschool and taxing the rich to provide the resources needed for the schools.
Noguera called for the addressing of multiple issues faced by students living in poverty. He said, “Poverty is not a learning disability, but poverty ignored is disabling.”
In order to make the public more aware of the conditions prevalent in many urban schools, Noguera suggested that teachers unions sponsor Conditions for Teaching Surveys in the schools. Such surveys would highlight the resources needed in schools and could be used in efforts to secure public support to gain the resources needed to teach. He suggested that members of the public be brought into the schools and shown the conditions.
Also teachers need to show the public the connection between massive use of standardized tests to judge teachers and close schools. Noguera suggested that teachers unions promote diagnostic tests as an alternative — tests that can be used to get timely feedback to teachers that can in turn be used to help students to learn.
Noguera called for teachers unions to ask for waivers from the state to forego the standardized tests in order to show the value of using performance based diagnostic tests in improving student outcomes. He said students whose educational experience includes diagnostic testing and feedback have higher graduation rates and higher retention rates in college.
Stressing the importance of such action, Noguera said, “Cleveland will never be a great city without good public schools.”