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Educators Push Back Against Obama’s “Business Model” for School Reforms

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It’s back-to-school season. As millions of children around the country begin a new school year, the Obama administration is aggressively moving forward on a number of education initiatives, from expanding charter schools to implementing new national academic standards. We talk to Karen Lewis, the president of the Chicago Teachers Union, and Lois Weiner, a professor of education at New Jersey City University. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: It’s back to school, and as millions of children around the country begin a new school year, the Obama administration is aggressively moving forward on a number of its education initiatives. On Thursday, federal education officials announced that forty-four states have joined a new $330 million initiative to replace year-end English and math tests with new national exams. The funds are drawn from the Obama administration’s $4.35 billion Race to the Top fund. The new testing systems are scheduled to be rolled out in the 2014-15 school year. The tests are a part of an effort to create a new set of national academic standards known as Common Core Standards, which nearly forty states have already agreed to adopt. Critics have suggested that national standards would erode state and local control of schools.

Meanwhile, through Race to the Top, Education Secretary Arne Duncan has also pushed states to lift caps on charter schools and link student achievement to teacher pay. The initiative has come under fire from civil rights organizations, community groups and teachers’ unions.

Before being appointed Education Secretary, Arne Duncan was the head of Chicago’s Public Schools, the nation’s third-largest school system. During that time, he oversaw implementation of a program known as Renaissance 2010. The program’s aim was to close sixty schools and replace them with more than a hundred charter schools. This year, the Chicago public system is facing a $370 million deficit. Hundreds of teachers and city school workers are facing layoffs as part of cost cutting measures and budget cuts.

Well, for more on the Obama administration’s education initiatives, we’re joined by two guests. Lois Weiner is a professor of education at New Jersey City University, and Karen Lewis is the president of the Chicago Teachers Union.

I welcome you both to Democracy Now!

KAREN LEWIS: Thank you.

LOIS WEINER: Thank you.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to start with Karen. Arne Duncan comes from your city.

KAREN LEWIS: Yeah, sorry.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And he is now basically heading up education policy for the Obama administration.


JUAN GONZALEZ: Your sense of his legacy in the Chicago public schools?

KAREN LEWIS: Well, Arne’s legacy was — you know, let’s look at the fact that he’s not an educator, never had any experience. As a matter of fact, he would be arrested if he went into a classroom and tried to teach, because he’s uncredentialed completely. So his legacy is: “I don’t know what to do. Let me just give it over to the privatizers. Let somebody else do” — I mean, basically, under his aegis, the Board of Education abrogated their responsibility towards education and gave it away, because he literally had no idea, and still doesn’t have an idea, of what to do.

The problem is the system is obviously broken. I don’t think anybody will argue with that, that the system is broken. It is — it has not basically changed since the 1900s — 1800s, for that matter. And as a result, it has never been able to absorb real innovation. And the problem is it’s just a lot easier to test, test, test children. Our curriculum has narrowed in Chicago. If you look at the average day for an elementary school kid, it’s reading, reading, reading, reading, reading, reading, math, math, math, reading, reading, reading, reading, math. I mean, kids are bored to tears. They’re hating school at an early age. There’s no joy. There’s no passion. And the results show that. They’re very indicative of that.

JUAN GONZALEZ: But now, what’s wrong? The supporters of Arne Duncan, superintendents like Michelle Rhee in Washington, DC, Joel Klein in New York City, and others around the country, are saying, what’s wrong with having higher accountability standards for teachers? What’s wrong with encouraging experimentation and entrepreneurship, in terms of how you deliver public education to the millions of children who so far have not been served by the public education system? So what’s wrong with that?

KAREN LEWIS: Well, the problem is that the whole idea of the business model doesn’t work in education. In the business model, you can select how you want to do something. You have an opportunity to innovate in a way that discriminates. It’s very easy to do. Whereas in a public school system, where we do not select our children — we take whoever comes to the door — what we need is actually more resources and more support for the people that are there and the work that’s being done. However, again, Arne Duncan, Michelle Rhee, Joel Klein — I don’t know about Joel Klein — none of these people are superintendents. You have to have, again, credentials for that. These are business folks. Look, the business model took this country to the brink of Armageddon in 2008. And yet, we want to follow a failed business model and imprint that on top of public education? No. And these things are not innovative. What they are is they’re terrorism. They’re “my way or the highway.” And they’re still not producing, quote-unquote, “results.”

Nobody disagrees with accountability. That’s not the issue. The issue is, what do you use? We still know that high-stakes testing basically tell us more about a student’s socioeconomic status than it does anything else. And until we’re honest about that and want to deal with the fact that we have neighborhoods in our cities and across the nation that have been under-resourced, have been devalued for decades, and for some reason or other, the schools are supposed to fix all that and change that.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Lois Weiner, you’ve been, in your research, conducting what I would, I guess, call a macro analysis of the education reform —-


JUAN GONZALEZ: —- comparing not only what’s happening here in the United States, but around the world, in terms of these so-called reform initiatives. Could you talk about that?

LOIS WEINER: Absolutely. And I think it’s important to understand that Race to the Top is not unique to the United States, and what Arne Duncan did in Chicago is not unique to Chicago. And in fact, the contours of this program were carried out first under Pinochet in Chile. And this program was implemented by force of military dictatorships and the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in Latin America. And the results have been verified by researchers there. They produced increased stratification. So I think what we’re seeing right now are the results of that increased stratification, a stratification, inequality of results, because if you think about it, No Child Left Behind is almost a decade old. And what are the results? The results are a growing gap between poor minority — achievement of poor minority kids and those kids who come from prosperous families who are — who live in affluent suburbs and in those suburban schools.

And I think it’s also very important to understand that this focus on educational reform is replacing, is a substitute for, a jobs policy. We need to understand that. Education can democratize the competition for the existing jobs, but it cannot create new jobs. And when most jobs that are being created are by companies like Wal-Mart, education cannot do anything about that. So, we need to — we really need to look critically at Race to the Top and understand the way that it fits into this new economic order of a so-called jobless recovery and that what’s really going on is a vocationalization of education, a watering down of curriculum for most kids, so that they’re going to take jobs that require only a seventh or an eighth grade education, because those are the jobs that are being created in this economy.

And so, I think that while we — while it’s important to look at the particulars of each state and each city, each school district, it’s also important to see this large picture, because almost anything that you can point to me that’s being done in Chicago or New York or San Francisco, we can find another place in the world that it was already done, and we can look at those results. And the results are not good.

JUAN GONZALEZ: But those who are at the forefront of this so-called reform movement —-


JUAN GONZALEZ: —- say that the charter schools that they’re creating, the small schools that they’re creating, are doing a better job, by the testing model of educating children, especially minority children, than has occurred in decades past under the existing public school system. What’s your response to that?

LOIS WEINER: My response to that, first of all, is that I want to see the evidence. And what’s really incredible and disastrous is that this enormous social engineering that’s going on to transform — I would say destroy — public education has not been accompanied by government funding for serious, objective evaluation. We have this so-called Institute for Education Science, but if you look at the sorts of research that they’re funding, they are not funding the kind of large-scale evaluative studies that we need to determine whether these reforms are going to be effective. And we shouldn’t permit that. We should identify this as what it is, which is an ideological venture that does not have a scientific basis, and it doesn’t have a basis in evidence.

JUAN GONZALEZ: You’ve also taken a look at the impact of No Child Left Behind on teachers. Could you talk about that?

LOIS WEINER: Well, I think it’s important to understand that there are — No Child Left Behind is part of this global project to deprofessionalize teaching as an occupation. And the reason that it’s important in this project to deprofessionalize teaching is that the thinking is that the biggest expenditure in education is teacher salaries. And they want to cut costs. They want to diminish the amount of money that’s put into public education. And that means they have to lower teacher costs. And in order to do that, they have to deprofessionalize teaching. They have to make it a revolving door, in which we’re not going to pay teachers very much. They’re not going to stay very long. We’re going to credential them really fast. They’re going to go in. We’re going to burn them up. They’re going to leave in three, four, five years. And that’s the model that they want.

So who is the biggest impediment to that occurring? Teachers’ unions. And that is what explains this massive propaganda effort to say that teachers’ unions are an impediment to reform. And in fact, they are an impediment to the deprofessionalization of teaching, which I think is a disaster. It’s a disaster for public education.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, you know, one of the — I’ve been, for several years now, looking deeply into these charter schools, and especially their tax forms. And one of the things that has struck me as I look at their various audited financial statements is that, generally speaking, the pay levels of the teachers in the charter schools are far lower than they are for normal public school teachers, but the pay of the executives —-



JUAN GONZALEZ: —- of the charter schools is far higher —-

KAREN LEWIS: Higher, yeah.


JUAN GONZALEZ: —- than it is for superintendents. So you’re, in essence, creating a much bigger wage gap in the schools through the charters —-


JUAN GONZALEZ: —- between management and the employees who actually cover the work.


JUAN GONZALEZ: I’m wondering what you found.

LOIS WEINER: Well, that’s part of the — you know, that’s part of the thinking here, that teaching really is not — does not have to be a skilled profession, because we’re not going to teach —- we’re not going to educate kids to do anything more than work in Wal-Mart or the equivalent. They only need a seventh or an eighth grade education, at most a ninth grade education, and so we don’t need teachers who are more than, as Grover Whitehurst, a former Undersecretary of Education, said, “good enough.” That’s all we need is teachers who are “good enough” to follow scripted curriculum and to teach to these standardized tests. And if you only need teachers who are good enough, you don’t have to pay them very much. And that’s the project. And regardless of the rhetoric, regardless of the intentions of some of the people who are supporting these reforms, people like the Education Trust, whose work I respect, I think it’s important that we look at something beyond the intentions and the rhetoric, and we really look at this project as being a project that’s global in its nature.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Karen Lewis, you led basically an insurgent movement within your own union to win the presidency of the UFT -—


JUAN GONZALEZ: — of the Chicago Federation of Teachers.

KAREN LEWIS: No, Chicago Teachers Union.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Teachers Union, I’m sorry.

KAREN LEWIS: Yes, that’s OK.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And could you talk about how you did that and the relationship of the teachers with the community, in general, in terms of dealing with these education reforms?

KAREN LEWIS: Well, the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators, or CORE, spent two years basically organizing with parents and community groups against school closings, against the turnarounds, and against the Duncan policies. We did not have an electoral strategy, to be perfectly honest with you. We just wanted to see a change in this whole idea of privatizing schools. And what we found was that, in general, there is this animosity between teachers and parents and communities, because we haven’t been working together. And yet, we are still seeing the devastation of our communities based on the fact that our institutions have been underfunded.

So, what we ended up doing was spending a lot of time talking to our members across the city. And the more we got ready to speak — and in addition with that, we changed the way the Board of Education does business. They would put schools on a hit list, and they were closed down, and that was it. We forced the board to start coming to these community meetings. They had never shown up. They just basically rubber-stamped whenever Arne Duncan wanted. And, of course, when Arne Duncan left, the guy that came in, equally as unqualified, had a slightly different vision. So six schools were taken off the hit list. That had never happened. But in addition, our union leadership was nowhere to be found during these hearings. We went to every school closing hearing, every charter school opening. And in addition, we had data that showed that these charter schools not only did no better, but that in some cases actually did worse than the neighborhood schools. And the problem is that those studies never get publicized, and certainly not in mainstream corporate media. So we had an uphill battle, because nobody would talk to us, nobody paid any attention to us. But, school by school, building by building, that’s how you build consensus. That’s how you build capacity for change.

JUAN GONZALEZ: You are a veteran chemistry teacher.

KAREN LEWIS: I am, yes.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Could you talk about the impact of these so-called reforms on your own ability to teach chemistry?

KAREN LEWIS: You know, I’m going to be honest with you. Being a veteran teacher, I have basically ignored them, to be real honest. But I’ve had that ability because of the fact that I’m so passionate about teaching and that I care about what I do and that the results I get, which are not test-driven, as far as I’m concerned, are what speak for themselves. I mean, ultimately, administrators want to know how well you relate to your students, how well you relate to parents, and I’ve always had that ability to do that. So, as far as I’m concerned, these so-called reforms — just get out of my way, as far as I was concerned.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Lois Weiner, could you compare what’s happened in Chicago with the teachers there to some of the bigger unions, to the United Federation of Teachers, to what’s been happening with the NEA, in terms of confronting some of these changes?

LOIS WEINER: Well, you know, I think that CORE’s victory is really a watershed. and I’m just delighted. And I have to say that I spoke at a rally of CORE earlier this year, and I heard Karen speak to teachers in the audience. And what struck me in the way that Karen talked about the reforms and what’s going on in public education was her passion about teaching. And I think it’s — the fact that CORE contains teachers who are committed to social justice, they’re committed to a new form of teacher unionism, and they’re committed to facing racism, it really makes it a model for what we want to do in unions elsewhere, I have to say especially the UFT here in New York.

But we’re beginning to see in other large city locals a renaissance of activism among young teachers, because, unlike Karen, they’re not protected. And these reforms, they’re losing their jobs. They’re being terrorized by principals. Their schools are being shut down, because very often they teach in the most vulnerable schools, because they’re new and that’s where the jobs are. And they want a union. They want a union that’s going to fight for them. And the message that we have to bring them is, I think, that CORE does, is “You are the union. Nobody can do it for you.”

And I think in New York City we’re beginning to see that. I’ve been working with this group called Teachers Unite, and I think it’s a ginger group for a new — the kind of reform that we need in New York City. Los Angeles already has a reform leadership. Detroit has a reform leadership in the AFT. And I think that that’s going to pull — those changes are going to be — pull, I’m hopeful, the national unions to more progressive, more militant, and more pro-parent and pro-education stances.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Let me ask you also about the intervention of other elite forces on this education reform debate —-


JUAN GONZALEZ: —- the right-wing foundations, the Walton Foundation, the Eli Broad Foundation, as well as all of the hedge fund and Wall Street people that have gotten involved in funding schools and creating charter networks. What do you analyze is behind this?

LOIS WEINER: Well, I mean, their effect has been, really, all-encompassing and quite pernicious. And we have a great deal of research about what’s going on with this, if we want to take a look at it. It’s never — it’s never mentioned in the popular media, in the corporate mass media. And they are controlling the education agenda. They are controlling these new core curriculum standards. And if people really looked at these core curriculum standards, I think they would be aghast. You know, vocationalization of the curriculum is beginning in first grade. They’re doing career education in first grade, if you look at these standards. What is that about? That we’re preparing kids for the workforce when they’re in first grade? And the foundations, the right-wing foundations, including the Gates Foundation, they are absolutely driving this. They’re funding it. They’re funding the media campaign to persuade people that this is necessary. And they are funding the —

KAREN LEWIS: Research.

LOIS WEINER: They’re funding the research.

KAREN LEWIS: They’re funding the research, mm-hmm.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us. Karen Lewis is president of the Chicago Teachers Union. Lois Weiner, professor of education at New Jersey City University. And we will continue to follow this story.

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