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Thompson: Arthur Levine Is Wrong About Teachers & Unions

Ford_fertigung_1923Arthur Levine’s Education Week Commentary The Plight of Teacher' Unions offers a disheartened, broad brush account of America’s social, political, and economic institutions.

He then presents a narrow, and impoverished, vision of public education -- and in particular, teachers unions.

Levine apparently expects everyone to accept the fate that many policymakers are planning to impose on us.  He seems to argue that our focus on teaching will be replaced by a focus on outcomes, but he does not seem upset at the prospect of teaching being tossed on the ash pile of history. Most of all, Levine is factually incorrect when he writes that all of our institutions are trapped in the industrial era. 

Two sectors he cites, finance and media, have already made the leap into the information economy, and it could be argued that they have largely recast government in their image. But, it hasn’t been pretty.  The numbers-driven approach to finance, and the information economy’s contempt for actual reality, have produced two global economic meltdowns and dramatically lowered the quality of life for the 99 percent.

As unions, and governmental protections and safety nets have been shredded, life has coarsened for working people.  Numbers-driven school “reform” has largely done the same for education. 

And, contrary to Levine’s misstatement of the issues, it is standardized test-driven accountability that epitomizes the antiquated assembly line. A generation of market-driven “reform” shoved schools into the early 20thcentury, circa the Model T. 

As Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis explains, this approach trains the children of the elite to be Masters of the Universe and urban children to be Walmart Greeters.

The other sector of the economy that has leaped into the digital age, the media, provides a compelling reason why education must remain a time-consuming process and not just a focus on outcomes.  Rather than allow children to remain digital natives, adults need to help them become digital citizens.  That requires trusting relationships and the time it takes to build those bonds is the time that it takes to build those bonds. As the world’s knowledge explodes, most kids will need more, not less, time to learn how to learn and to learn how to control digital technology, so they are not controlled by it.

Now, more than ever, we need unions, parents, and students to fight the command and control of schools and reclaim the ideal that they can be the place where children can learn holistically.  Schools need a buffer so they can be safe places for creativity and curiosity, not just a training ground for low wage post-industrial jobs. Now more than ever, we need checks and balances, such as tenure, seniority, and due process, so that teachers can speak truth to the growing corporate power that reduces the glory of teaching and learning to mere outcomes.

We need a humane and constructive vision for the 21st century.  Levine seems to think that the only future for the younger generation can come from robbing their elders of the quality of their working lives and of their retirements and health care. But, a society capable of creating digital technology is capable of more than just a beggar-thy-neighbor struggle for survival. 

Levine’s vision is too narrow because he seems to believe that the battle has been lost. He ignores the other half of the history of unions and governmental safety nets.  Unions, like 20thcentury liberalism, were not merely products of industrialization. They were remarkably successful efforts to make a better world. The industrial age is over, but we do not have to abandon the quest for justice. Many policymakers might not want schools to play a role in shaping a humane and healthy economy, but they do not yet have a complete say in regard to that outcome.-JT(@drjohnthompson) Image via.

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