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MTA Annual Meeting Concludes on Positive Note

The MTA Annual Meeting concluded on a high note after a strained, divisive debate over teacher evaluation. At the 2010 Annual Meeting, it was clear that the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education was going to issue new guidelines on teacher evaluation as part of the Massachusetts application to Race-to-the-Top -- the misguided approach to education reform by Arne Duncan and the Obama administration. One of the business items last year, accepted almost unanimously, directed the MTA to not support the application if the teacher evaluation component used test-scores. During the year, the MTA worked very hard to influence the development of the evaluation guidelines, releasing a document Reinventing Educator Evaluation. But, in the end, they made some concessions on using test scores. The actual guidelines are not yet finished (they are, in fact, available now for public comment), but it seems clear that they will include test scores in some form.

There is ample evidence to show that test scores are unreliable and frequently misleading when used for assessment of teacher performance. But they're cheaper than meaningful evaluation and administrators like them because they're seemingly easy to interpret. In many states they are used for between 25% and 50% of teacher evaluation. Massachusetts is among the only states where they cannot be used. Until now.

It was an action of the board that enabled MTA to concede on using test scores. Many local union presidents woke up one morning in December to read that the MTA embraced using test scores for teacher evaluation:

The state’s largest teachers’ union, embracing a concept shunned by many educators, plans to offer a proposal today to use student test scores to help judge which teachers deserve promotions and which ones should be fired.

There had been a lack of communication about what was happening and many were surprised -- and angry -- given the unambiguous direction provided at last year's annual meeting. The presidents began organizing and came to annual meeting prepared to raise a revolt against the union leadership.

The issue was brought to a head near the very end of the meeting when a new business item would have forced the MTA to repudiate their acceptance of using test scores. The key phrase was "MTA leadership will oppose any usage of standardized tests in evaluation and dismissal of teachers."

The MTA annual meeting is held in a huge hall with 10 different microphones on the floor. Anyone can come to a microphone and hold up a sign: a yellow sign, to ask a question; a red sign to speak against a motion; and a green sign; to speak for a motion. I think nearly every every card was being held at every microphone.

There was an impassioned debate. Many spoke about holding to our principals and not giving in to pressure to do something we know is wrong. Others spoke about the increasing isolation of teachers unions and the need to accept the inevitable in order to stay engaged and shape the outcome. It was clear that the delegates were evenly divided between those who felt that the leadership had abandoned a crucial principle and those who believed that, pragmatically, we had no choice other than to keep to the course. As the tension rose to a peak, Tim Collins spoke and offered a small amendment: the wording was changed to "MTA leadership will oppose any the usage of standardized tests in evaluation and dismissal of teachers." The amendment passed and, after some initial confusion over the actual meaning of the revised language, the motion was accepted almost unanimously and the tension drained out of the room.

The presidents did get one important change earlier in the meeting. The MTA is going to start running 6 new meetings with local presidents throughout the year: quarterly regional meetings, and two state-wide meetings. This is likely to have sharply positive effects getting local unions more engaged on a state-wide basis. I'm encouraged that we'll see new activism in the coming year as an outcome.

Still, the overall picture is gloomy. Just as the Bush Administration was an object lesson in how any money given to the government could be spent badly on misguided wars and inept governance, the education-reform movement has just about wrecked public education. By de-professionalizing educators, placing evaluation and curriculum in the hands of administration and committees, it has made public education so bad that progressives and liberals are having a hard time supporting it. If we don't do something soon, I expect it will collapse.

MTA Fails to Lead on Single-Payer Healthcare

I've been coming to the MTA annual meeting for 5 or 6 years now. It's a fascinating experience, in part because of the unique qualities of the members. Mostly teachers, but with an admixture of Educational Support Professionals and higher ed faculty, the audience is in varying measures homogeneous and heterogeneous. Nowhere was that more in evidence than during the discussion around single-payer healthcare yesterday.

Tim Collins, the leader of the Springfield Teachers Association, had proposed a New Business Item that would direct the union to organize a signature drive for a ballot measure for single-payer health care. The union has been publicly supporting single-payer for years, has been contributing $10,000/year to MassCare a single-payer lobbying organization, and is currently supporting a bill in the legislature that would provide a medicare-like system for all Massachusetts residents.

One other important piece of context: In the past two elections, the MTA (with help from the NEA) has spent huge amounts of money fighting off atrocious ballot initiatives from well-funded small government advocates. The first initiative would have eliminated state income taxes. The most recent would have reduced sales-taxes to 3%. If either of these had passed, it would have created huge problems for funding public education. And that's not just idle speculation: when the misguided "Prop 2 1/2" passed a generation ago, it threw a whole cohort of young teachers out of the profession, which is still visible in the demographics of teachers today.

Collins believes that we should take the offensive and bring our own ballot measure to the election and stop merely being reactive. It's well-known that growth in healthcare costs are one of the factors that is putting pressure on the economy, in both the public and private sectors and many of us believe that without a single-payer system, there's no way to get enough leverage to wring the profits out and keep costs down. And, as I say, MTA is already on record supporting this bill and is currently putting in place a new structure for political organizing.

But the MTA leadership was clearly against the motion. In spite of the wording of the motion, which made it quite clear that it was only about organizing the members to collect signatures, the leadership claimed that the motion would cost $10,000,000 and increase dues by more than $100. This seemed like a transparent attempt to simply torpedo the motion to me.

There was passionate debate on the floor. We had built a well-organized group to speak for the motion. Advocates spoke for the need to take the initiative and organize. Detractors worried that it wasn't the "right time". In point of fact, no-one said it wasn't a good idea. When there was a statement made about how difficult it would be to collect the signatures, I decided to frame a question...

"How many members does the MTA have?"

"Around 107,000."

"So, if just 2/3 of the MTA membership signed the petition, that would be enough by itself to put the measure on the ballot?"

"Um... Yes. Mathematically, that's true."

There was a smattering of laughter and applause.

In the end, the motion was defeated. Although it looked very close to me, the chair ruled (rather abruptly) that it wasn't close enough for a teller count. I believe this represents a real failure of leadership -- many of us thought it looked very close, or like we might even have won. Unfortunately, we'll never know.

I believe the MTA leadership is too timid -- rather than organizing and communicating our message to the politicians, too often they seem to be about communicating to us why the politicians can't do what needs to be done to fix fundamental problems. Under tremendous pressure from us, they are making small steps in the right direction, but too often their idea about "organizing" is a media campaign where members are supposed to mail in postcards.

I'm hopeful that we can organize to undertake the ballot initiative anyway -- with or without the MTA support. If we can collect the signatures by the next annual meeting, then maybe we can come back and advocate for the multi-million-dollar media campaign to actually push the initiative through. And maybe we can get a step ahead for a change.

UMass Crossroads

As the spring semester wraps up at UMass Amherst, a few big changes introduced by the current chancellor are looming. One is the move to join the Mid American Conference for football and another is a plan to "fix" faculty salaries by giving out a few really big raises to faculty for "extraordinary merit". Both are terrible ideas.

One member of the Board of Trustees has been pushing the move for football for years. I remember attending a meeting with the previous UMass chancellor in which he remarked that it would never happen under his administration, mainly because the numbers didn't add up. And because it seems like a joke to have the games played nearly 100 miles away from campus. The numbers still don't add up and now people are joking that maybe UMass should also start offering its classes 100 miles away too.

Another bad idea is the "extraordinary merit" program the chancellor has proposed. The chancellor gets a lot of bad ideas by studying how UMass Amherst compares with our "aspirant peer institutions". Rather than looking at the situation on the ground and trying to actually improve things, he looks for where he could spend money that might make us look better. One way in which we don't look good is average faculty salaries. Rather than trying to fix that, he got the Trustees to let him anoint a small number of tenure-system faculty with really big raises, which will increase the average. My take has been that, as long as there's a problem that he cares about, we have the potential to get meaningful action but, if we let him fix his problem this way, the rest of us will get no meaningful support at the bargaining table.

It was sobering to attend the open forum for the chancellor's evaluation and to read the comments that were submitted to the survey by the MSP about the chancellor's performance. The campus is really demoralized -- especially the non-tenure-system faculty. I had a sense that my experience was not unusual: that workload has increased dramatically at the same time that trust and confidence in the leadership has diminished. The first question I asked the chancellor when he arrived on campus was to ask about the trend toward systematic disempowerment of the non-tenure-system faculty by increasing barriers to participation in university opportunities and programs -- and he unambiguously stated that this was his goal. Mission accomplished.

In 2001, Aaron Lazare (then the Medical School chancellor) headed a task force to study the Future of UMass Amherst. It's fascinating to look back at it ten years later and see how it influenced (or failed to influence) our direction. The thing I remember best from when Lazare presented it was when he lauded the faculty, indicating the faculty was significantly better than any of the other criteria for the institution would lead you to predict. At the time, I though that meant that the faculty represented a particular strength that warranted protection and a focus upon which to build. Instead, the institution has invested everywhere else: new buildings, new infrastructure, new marketing campaigns, but not new faculty.


Last weekend, I attended the NEA Higher Ed conference in Boston. I has always thought of the NEA as being mainly k-12-teacher focused, but this was an excellent conference for higher ed. It was much better than I had expected -- especially in that I felt like I got to meet a lot of people. At the MTA annual meeting -- and other conferences I've gone to recently, it feels like people go in groups and tend to be inwardly-focused and hard to break into sometimes. The NEA meeting was different. Interesting people, interesting talks, and lots of opportunity for interaction and discussion -- especially given how short the conference was.

Yesterday, with the IT program at UMass Amherst, we put on our annual ICT Summit. The focus was on free-and-open-source-software -- that was my idea. I also thought we should have a lightning talk about the Hidden Tech Group. Unfortunately, I didn't find someone to speak about it, so my punishment was having to speak about it myself. I put together a nice 5-minute rant about it which seemed to go over well.

I'm looking forward to ContactCon. I drafted my biography for the list of participants.

Steven D. BREWER is the Director of the Biology Computer Resource Center at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he is a consultant to faculty on the implementation of technology in support of education. He advocates for technology that empowers students to engage in authentic, collaborative, learner-centered activity that applies science in the real world. BREWER is equal parts scientist, technologist, and educator: whether in the field catching mongooses or tardigrades; with 20 terminal windows open hacking php in a drupal module; or exhorting students to take control of their own education and embrace transformation. He is also is a fluent speaker and teacher of the Esperanto language and a published author of essays, fiction, and haiku in Esperanto.

I'm looking forward to meeting the other people -- it looks like an interesting group already.

It's your money...

One of the frames the right-wing has used to agitate for lower taxes is to claim that taxes are unfair because "It's your money." That's just false.

Businesses are neither created nor operate in a vacuum. They take advantage of the infrastructure that exists in an area: the roads and bridges, the national highway system, power, road, sewers, etc. Without these, most businesses wouldn't be possible. Taxes are what paid for all this infrastructure.

Also, most businesses need an educated workforce. Taxes provided for the public education that most employees received. And still subsidizes higher education as well, although at a much lower rate than previously.

Furthermore, business needs a stable, predictable, safe environment that is provided by the laws and law enforcement of the country -- all funded by taxes.

Over the past thirty years, we've seen an orchestrated campaign to leave those services in place while cutting the funding for them. And while the country has gone into debt, where has the saving gone? To the very top. It's your money -- and now the rich are making off with it.

Who's laughing all the way to the bank?

A joke has been circulating in the twitterverse, changing and evolving as it goes. Here's how Michael Moore told it:

RT (hundreds) A CEO, a TPartier, & a Teamster sit w/ 12 cookies. CEO grabs 11, then tells TPartier "That Teamster wants part of your cookie"

My observation was:

Enjoyed cookie joke about CEO/unions, but it's too generous to CEO: actual ratio is not 11/1 -- it's 263/1. Ha, ha, ha. Isn't that funny.

Here's my source for the data.

A new kind of revolution

It's fascinating to watch the varied reactions regarding the revolutions sweeping through the middle east. The people are excited. The real-politik folks are worried. The doomers are eschatological -- But then they always are.

A lot of people have been commenting on the role social media have played on the revolutions. Bin Laden began Al Queda with the goal of toppling the dictatorships that had been supported by the West and his goal is now realized -- but for the perfectly opposite reason. Part of it is purely economic, but a big part has been that the new media have enabled the people to see what liberal democracy looks like and they want it. They won't want a fully Western society, but I think they do want the trappings of a modern civilization: political and social freedom, an open media, and the ability to be part of the modern world. But what they want and what they'll get may be something different.

Nevertheless, I'm hopeful. The real-world potential for technology to let people communicate and organize may yet carry the day. And we might have new allies to help America throw off the yoke of neoliberal imperialism...

Class warfare

A joke has been making the rounds: "A union guy, tea bagger, & CEO are @ table w/ 12 cookies. The CEO takes 11 & tells tea bagger: That union guy wants a part of your cookie." It's exactly right. The real issue, as Howard Zinn tried to point out over and over, is the power of wealth to divide the other people and get them to fight among themselves.

A number of people have been pointing out that when progressives make gains -- through labor unrest or demonstrations -- that the gains tend to be short-lived. It's not surprising because working people need to spend most of their time just keeping body and soul together. The wealthy can afford to hire people -- ruthless people -- that will work 24-7 to achieve their goals.

In the 50's, the highest tax bracket was better than 90%. If someone made more than $400,000/year, most of what was above that went to the government. Some people think that's unfair: they *earned* that money. Did they? Or were the conditions in place to enable it? Let's remember: they didn't educate the employees that made it possible. They didn't build the infrastructure that made it possible. They didn't enforce the laws that made it possible.

It's unfortunate that we let the right roll back the tax rates. In other countries, when there was a huge growth in industry, they used it to build great infrastructure and resources to serve the country. What did we do with our wealth? We used it to let rich people get even richer. While the country fell apart, we used the money to make rich people super rich.

And what did they do with their wealth? Well, they didn't invest it here, that's for sure.

Obama silent on attacts against unions

I saw this recent article which pointed out that as a candidate Obama had said he would be "on the picket line" if unions were threatened. His tepid response so far, got me to send him a note at

I'm disappointed that the President, once again, is allowing the Democrats to distance themselves from organized labor. The increasing gap between rich and poor -- where both the Republicans and Democrats have cast their lot with the rich -- is destroying the country. Unions are one of the last remaining counterbalancing forces.

The President said he'd be "on the picket line" if unions were threatened. It's time, Mr. President.

On a related note, the Subject widget on this form doesn't list any lines that seem appropriate for discussing labor or unions. Is it "Job Creation"? Not really. "Civil Rights"? Maybe. I picked "Education" but it's yet another example to me of how your administration is ignoring the people who voted for you.


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