Saturday, September 10, 2011

A Right to Work Nightmare

On a flight last summer I sat next to a person who told a tale far more harrowing than anything emerging from Wisconsin or Ohio.  In those places, there is a tradition of organizing, of working people joining together to level the playing field with management.  This is a tale of the consequences of radical, systemic disempowerment of education workers.  In Wisconsin and Ohio, workers lost some legal rights, but they did not lose their culture of resistance.  This story is a portrait of the consequences if that culture were to disappear, or was never allowed to develop in the first place.
"Barbara" is a grade school teacher from a suburban community.  She has a special needs son named "Tom."  Her son has an excellent IEP, a plan that realistically addresses his educational needs, and speaks to the skills he will need to be functional as an adult.  That plan is in conflict with the state's high stakes testing law. 
Tom's main deficit is in math.  He can't add 4+4 and is entering 4th grade.  If you can't do simple addition, you can't do area problems, yet the third grade standardized tests require students to solve area problems.  Barbara sees the disconnect between Tom’s homework and what her son can actually do.  Rather than follow the IEP, and address Tom's real life needs, he has been subjected to a continuous diet of test prep.  Somehow, a child who can't add managed to make the cut score on a test that requires area problems. 
I wonder if there were an unusual number of erasures on Tom's answer sheet....
But it gets worse.
Evidently principals in this town routinely refer to the "retards".  Administrators’ jobs depend on test scores there.  The high stakes nature of that state’s testing leads professional educators to revile the very children they are supposed to be serving.
But it gets worse.
In Barbara's school there is a principal with two daughters.  He manipulates class lists so that his daughters get the "good" teachers, and keeps the special ed kids and kids with behavioral issues out of those classes.  This principal uses a position of authority for personal benefit.  He can get away with it because of the power he wields over workers.  It is corruption plain and simple.
I wonder what benefit he will have derived when his daughters grow up to be morally debased, self absorbed monsters.  The apple don't fall far from the tree as they say. 
How can this be?
Barbara works in a "right to work" state.  In truth, she works in a "right to get fired" state.  She is afraid for her job.  Her need to make a living is in conflict with her obligation as a parent to advocate for her child.  She fears that if she demanded what is right for Tom, she would be fired.  She even moved to a different school to be in a better position to advocate, but the school is still in the same district.  Without tenure, without robust due process, she is exposed to the winds of a systemic corruption.
She is afraid to ask questions.  Her son's teacher is afraid to follow Tom's IEP because she will get fired if she doesn't follow the test prep regimen.  Barbara was told that state testing laws supersede federal special education laws.  I gently suggested to her that this might not be the truth, but it was so outside of her cultural experience to question authority that she could barely process this suggestion.
I mentioned that there is an NEA affiliate in her state, that there are parent advocacy resources like PIRC,  and that by organizing with other people she could possibly achieve that which she cannot achieve as an individual.  Again this was so outside her experience....
Fish school in part to confuse predators.  As an individual, Barbara would paint a big fat bulls eye on herself were she to become the parent her son so desperately needs.  In a sea of thousands or millions of similar parents and teachers she would be far safer.  The organization itself would become the target.
I described my advocacy work for educators.  Speaking out to authority seemed so alien to Barbara.  I gave her my card and encouraged her to contact me so I could connect her with some organizations.
I never heard from her.
Right to work: an authoritarian culture run amok, where educators learn to hate children, parents knuckle under to the abuse of their own children, and authorities manipulate for personal advantage.  No checks, no balances.
A nightmare.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post, Steve. This story is very compelling, and sadly, many educators would be reluctant to step forward, given such a hostile environment. Your "fish school" analogy is right on. We need each other for moral support, for strength in numbers, and for the resulting empowerment that is needed to do what is right by kids. I think networking through technology can help.