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Repeating History at the MTA Annual Meeting

It's always interesting to attend the MTA Annual Meeting. It's a perfect example of watching people who don't know the history undertaking to repeat it. Every year. I wonder if anyone has written a history of Annual Meeting. I'm skeptical that you could get people to read it, but we are talking about teachers: they might.

There are two truisms about annual meeting: (1) everyone has an opinion and (2) people quickly get tired of hearing other people's opinions. Trying to strike a balance between letting people talk and trying to move ahead with the business of the organization is an endless challenge. Every year, people try to tinker with the standing rules trying to adjust this balance. This year was the same.

For this to make any sense to anyone who hasn't attended Annual Meeting, a quick precis is probably necessary. Annual Meeting is conducted in a giant hall with 1000-2000 people seating in blocks by "region". In the front of the hall is a platform with a long table and a podium and three giant screens. There are 8 microphones and cameras set up among the participants. At each microphone is a box with large colored signs you can hold up. You hold up a different color to be recognized for different purposes: a yellow card, to ask a question; a green card, to speak in favor of a motion; and a red card, to speak against a motion. The standing rules define exactly when you can make a motion and what kinds of motions you can make with each color and which takes precedence. There is a parliamentarian and several staff members who scan the audience and pass cards to the president with which microphone is next in the speaking order.

Normally (I use this term advisedly), the maker of a motion can speak to a motion (on a green) and then the floor is opened to questions (yellow cards), and then people can debate the motion using green and red cards, but questions can still take precedence. Once all the questions have been answered and everyone has spoken, there is a vote on the question and the motion is adopted or rejected. As I say, "normally." But normally has nothing to do with it.

In point of fact, teachers are gifted at rhetoric and love to fill time with the sounds of their own voices. They love the challenge of using a "question" to actually speak for or against the motion. Or trying to block "the other side" by asking question after question to thwart debate. At the same time, the body, as a whole, tends to lose patience with people trying to gum up the works. These tactics lead people to make motions to "close debate". But you can only make a motion to close debate on a red or green card. And when there's a sea of yellow cards, red and green never get called. So they changed the standing rules a few years ago to allow you make a motion to "suspend the rules" (which requires a 2/3 vote) on a yellow card to change the order of precedence to allow green and red cards to be called. But often this happens after people are already so frustrated that someone will call the question and end debate before any actual debate has occurred.

OK. So this year, someone had the clever idea of requiring two green and two red cards before someone could make a motion to close debate. After much debate (and tempers already wearing thin), this change to the standing rules was adopted. And lasted for about two motions. Pretty quickly, people from the opposing side started holding up green cards and then not actually speaking in support of the motion, purely to thwart the rule. I called a point of order to ask whether these sham statements of support "counted" and was told that they did because to do otherwise would require the parliamentarian to ascribe intent. Shortly afterward, someone moved to suspend the rules to undo the new change in the standing rules.

This turned out to be convenient because the next day, as the temper of the body grew even shorter, we were anticipating that a group would try to offer amendments to tinker with the budget. So while the questions were still being asked, I stood with a green card and my colleague Dave took a red card and we waited (and waited and waited) until we could make a motion: and so I was first in the calling order and called to close debate. They tried to make a quorum call, which failed. And then my motion, and the budget, passed easily. Yay me.

What I'm not talking about, of course, are the underlying dynamics and tensions. I'll leave those for another post.

Structure of Public Higher Education in Massachusetts

One topic that came up at the NTT gathering yesterday is the need for a chart, diagram, guide, or infographic, that concisely explains how governance and collective bargaining are organized in higher ed in Massachusetts. It's an incomprehensible alphabet soup until you learn how things work.

For example: in public higher education, the "board" might be the Board of Higher Ed, which governs higher ed -- except for the UMass system that has a Board of Trustees instead. Both UMass Lowell and UMass Amherst have unions called "MSP" to represent faculty, but they're totally different organizations. By contrast, UMass Amherst has MSP and UMass Boston has FSU, but they actually are legally one entity called JCC that bargains for both. UMass Amherst has three separate unions: MSP, PSU, and USA that cover faculty, professional and classified employees, but FSU does all three at Boston. Lowell, Amherst, and Boston are all affiliated with MTA, but Dartmouth is in AFT. Eventually, you learn all this stuff, but its impossible for someone who doesn't know it to understand how things work.

I think it would be a great idea to have a big chart or infographic that could show governance (from the top down, of course) and then union representation (from the bottom up) with names, acronyms, and leadership info. I think it might really help people get up-to-speed on the structure of things.

Barbara Madeloni Re-elected

In recent years, I've had to chose whether to attend graduation or MTA Annual Meeting. This year, however, they were scheduled on different weekends and it was a pleasure to be able to do both.

I'd gotten disgusted with the MTA leadership and then was so amazed and pleased when Barbara Madeloni was elected president. She's struggled because many in the leadership failed to give her their support, but in spite of that I think she's done an excellent job. She's really changed the dialog about education and unions in the state. It's been an incredible turnaround. But Barbara was up for re-election and she had two opponents: the guy she beat last time and the current vice-president.

The turn out to the meeting was huge -- so large that, although we usually had tables, they had to set up stadium seating to fit in enough chairs.

MTA Annual Meeting

I wasn't sure what was going to happen, but I was encouraged when I went to the Educators for a Democratic Union caucus meeting and found that one in three participants was a first-timer. It was incredible to see how many new members had come to make a difference!

Once again, the public schools are facing an existential threat. The monied interests want to privatize the schools and have put a measure on the ballot that would allow them to open a dozen new charter schools every year. That means they could wipe out the public schools in two or three towns every year. Reports are that they've raised $18 million to devote to passing the measure.

The MTA and AFT are working together to defeat it in a coalition called Save Our Public Schools. The main piece of business at Annual Meeting was to approve our contribution toward the funding. It was going to require some tough choices. As we debated the issues, the election was going on.

My main frustration is that almost every election cycle, we have to face another threat from enemies with deep pockets that play mischief with the law. Our legislators tell us they hate ballot measures and so we haven't run any. But yet we end up having to defend ourselves and it's bleeding us dry. One year, it was to defeat a ballot measure that would have eliminated the income tax. Another year, it was to allow administrators to fire teachers more-or-less arbitrarily.

I think we should go on the offense. I think we should launch our own ballot measures and require them to fight us. The first one I'd do is to require charter school teachers to be in the same collective bargaining unit as the local public schools. But we have enough MTA members that if JUST OUR MEMBERS signed on, we could put measures on the ballot. We could do five or ten or a dozen. Maybe that would get someone's attention.

In the end, Barbara was handily reelected -- and allies won several of the races for Director and Executive Committee seats. Unfortunately, Barbara's enemies combined forces to defeat the vice-presidential candidate that was running with her, which I thought was really unfortunate because I had been, by far and away, more impressed with her ideas and vision than any of the others.

I also noticed that the reactionary forces in the union are weakening. When their spokespersons would come to the mic, you could almost predict that the body would vote against them. The MTA is odd: very strongly progressive related to unionism and public education, but extremely divided with respect to many other conservative causes. But the infusion of new blood means that the times they are a'changing.

Democracy happens

On May 10, 2014, the delegates to annual meeting of the Massachusetts Teachers Association choose Barbara Madeloni as president. It's hard to overstate the significance of this tectonic shift in the organization.

Every two years, the organization chooses a president by election, but the practice is for the current president to be re-elected for a second term and then, when term limits prevent running again, for a two-term vice-president to become president. Occasionally there is a challenger, but challengers have usually -- perhaps always -- been defeated. In fact, that's how this whole thing got started, I think.

Several years ago (and if I were a journalist, I would go back and document all this, but I'm not, so these are just my recollections). Several years ago, at MTA annual meeting, the delegates passed a motion calling on the leadership to make no agreement that included high-stakes test scores in teacher evaluation. Then, in January, many local union presidents woke up with their members mobbing them with demands to explain why the press was running articles trumpeting that MTA had signed just such a deal with the Department of Education. Presidents were livid.

This was just one of many defeats that the leadership has tried to explain away as victory: "It's better than it could have been" or "It might have been much worse". There has been a generation-long challenge to public education with teachers being villified and the institution so badly damaged that the whole idea of public education is being brought into question. It's been a death of a thousand cuts.

I recall someone offering themselves as a challenger for president that year and being defeated. The ground wasn't yet prepared for a change of direction.

Activists have been trying for years to get the MTA to move toward an organizing model -- to activate the rank-and-file membership to stand up and demand change -- but with little success. When the leadership directly contravened the will of the delegates, a group of people got together and formed Educators for a Democractic Union. Each year since then, they have worked together as a caucus to advocate for a more activist stance. And this year they put forward a candidate for president with a year to really organize.

Barbara Madeloni was a uniquely qualified candidate for the role. As a former high-school teacher, she had credibility with rank-and-file teachers. As a professor, she understood higher ed and could represent faculty. And as someone who'd been driven out of her faculty appointment for challenging the corporate take-over of teacher certification, she offered hope to people daunted by the status quo.

I think her opponent was blindsided and, by the time he realized what was happening, the movement was unstoppable. He, and the rest of the MTA leadership, had simply assumed that he would win. It was his turn. When it became clear that it was actually going to be a contest, it was too late to organize a meaningful campaign. The only message his candidacy presented was more of the same. With one exception: he and several of his supporters expressed outrage over the successful campaign tactics that EDU employed. His campaign speech, which lacked vision and complained about his opponent's tactics, came across as petty and negative.

Barbara did everything right as a candidate: she worked tirelessly on her campaign, visited dozens of local unions, and carefully crafted her campaign message and her speech. She and her campaign advisors spent months honing the campaign speech and measuring every word. She had obviously practiced it and timed it carefully. She had five minutes and she used every second. It was a visionary speech that resonated with the audience and created a sense of optimism that teachers and faculty can aspire to more than watching public education dismantled piece by piece right before our very eyes.

When the vote came in, it wasn't even especially close. She won by 97 votes, or around 7%. Her acceptance speech was also uplifting and acknowledging the hard work to come. She was not elected to be our hero or savior, but rather to kick us in the ass and put us to work on the front lines defending education. It's the only way we're going to win. And if we organize and activate the membership, we can win. We will win.

Educators for a Democratic Union

In 2010, when I attended the MTA Annual Meeting, there was a bitter division between the leadership and rank-and-file members, who felt like they'd been sold out. The leadership had cut a deal with state government to allow the state to complete for "Race to the Top" funds. But the deal, inconveniently, directly abrogated a statement that had been adopted by the previous annual meeting that required the leadership to not sign on to any deal that used student test scores in teacher evaluation.

This was the last straw for many people who have felt that the the MTA does not adequately fight for teacher's interests. Rather than organizing and trying to confront the interests that have been trying to roll back gains that teachers won in the past, they've been focused on minimizing losses. A group of people formed Educators for a Democratic Union (EDU) to try to shift MTA toward a stance more focused on organizing and fighting for teachers.

This year, EDU is running a candidate for president: Barbara Madeloni. I've written about her a couple of times already. When she first started running, her candidacy seemed like a long shot. But the response to her at 60 or 70 locals has been overwhelming. She is an outstanding candidate: she has the academic credentials and the street cred and the personal history of standing up to the man.

At the beginning, the MTA leadership seemingly didn't seem take her candidacy very seriously. But as she's gained momentum, they've begun attacking her and trying to emulate the successful characteristics of her campaign.

In addition to supporting Barbara's candidacy, EDU is trying to address the issues directly as well. Teams are drafting new business items to compel the MTA to not back down from supporting retiree health care (where, again, the leadership has tried to cut a deal rather than openly fight for teachers), bilingual education, minimum wage, adjunct faculty, and, once again, the role of high-stakes testing in teaching evaluation and determination of level 4 and level 5 schools.

The last time I attended the annual meeting, I left in disgust with the feeling that ideas were not welcome. With the chance to make a difference, I'm willing to re-engage and try again.

Why Attend 2014 MTA Annual Meeting

One year, while attending the Massachusetts Society of Professors (MSP) General Membership luncheon, an elderly faculty member joked to me drily that he was there for his $700 lunch — implying that the luncheon was the only benefit he received for his annual dues. Of course, this year, a full-time faculty member will pay ~$900/year in union dues to belong to the MSP.

In point of fact, more than half of the membership fee ($486) is actually the dues for the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA). You might well wonder what you're spending all that money for and question its value. If so, I invite you attend the MTA Annual Meeting (May 10-11 at the Hynes Convention Center in Boston) to find out what it buys.

The MTA fights for public education. They are opposed by well-funded and well-organized lobbying groups that have been working for a generation to defund state government; to undermine and destroy public education; and to roll back benefits to state workers -- your benefits. The MTA has been on the front lines trying to defend education: to stop ballot initiatives that would eliminate the state income tax or tie teacher evaluations to high-stakes testing. And this is a special year to attend…

This year, Barbara Madeloni, a UMass Amherst faculty member, is running for MTA President. She has been at the forefront resisting the privatization of public education. She is pushing for the MTA to shift from fighting a rearguard action to limit losses, and to articulate a vision of public education based on values of social justice and democracy -- a vision that respects the expertise and dignity of teachers.

Part of your MSP dues go to support a team of delegates to the MTA Annual Meeting. If you go, the MSP will pay for your hotel room and buy you a nice dinner out. And in return, you have an opportunity to see the budget of the MTA and to account for every nickel of your dues to them.

No-one who attends the MTA Annual Meeting is unmoved by the experience. If you believe in the mission of public education -- and the role of public higher education in that mission -- you owe it to yourself to see what you're a part of. And learn what you can do to help win the fight.

(Written for the MSP Chronicle)

Standardized Testing, Public Schools, and Barbara Madeloni

When my kids were little, I was torn about public schooling. I believed in unschooling and other, more radical, kinds of educational models. I half-seriously considered trying to start an alternative school that would have an emergent curriculum, if not entirely self-directed and that would be project-oriented, with students doing Work — real work — that would benefit the community. I envisioned having multi-age student groups create public service announcements, running political/publicity campaigns, organizing public events, etc, as a means to explore not just reading, writing, and 'rithmatic, but social issues, communication, and analytics.

At the same time, as a good liberal, I wanted desperately to support public schools. I mostly didn't believe in the factory model of education even then. But I did believe in the idea of the public schools as a shared experience — one of the few that remains — that binds our society together. And when we moved to the neighborhood by Marks Meadow School, the only small, neighborhood school left in Amherst, I was satisfied that it was a good decision for my boys. Although, watching them over the years — and watching what has happened to education generally — was very disquieting. The vilification of the teaching profession, driven first and foremost by the testing regime and standardization of the curriculum, has devastated public education.

It was painful to read this interesting and thoughtful essay about a parent who's child decided first to opt out of standardized testing. But then decided to opt back in, out of a sense of loyalty to the school. The school feels compelled to walk a line between doing what they believe is right for the children's education and engaging in duplicitous exercises: the school

offers extra credit points for attending CST prep sessions; that the school promotes a ‘CST Spirit Week’ with games and prizes; and that claims are made in school communication that imply the children should subscribe to the belief that high API scores offer the school a competitive advantage to other public schools

The author argues passionately that he is "a strong supporter and ally of the school". But how much longer than one feel that way? Some people are just giving up. But not everyone.

Some people are digging in for a fight. Barbara Madeloni came to public education just as things were getting bad: when she started working in teacher preparation she found herself on the front lines of the battle to privatize public education. When she encouraged her students to resist, her contract was not renewed. Now she's running for president of the Mass Teachers Association. The election takes place at the MTA Annual Meeting in Boston. I'll be there.

Neoliberalism and the fall of education

Yesterday, I attended commencement and then a dinner for outstanding undergraduates. Each dean of each college and school called their candidates to stand and be recognized and each group would respond with a roar -- except for the School of Education. Only a few thin voices went up. For a moment, I was surprised and then I thought, "Duh. Who would want to go into education in the current climate?"

This morning, I see that similar things are happening in Britain. But this is the story of every teacher I've known over the past 10 years.

The neoliberals have waged a unparalleled war against the teaching profession for a generation. Rarely has an entire profession been so vilified. They have conducted a witch-hunt for "bad teachers" as being at the root of all of society's ills. They claim they want to improve education, but when you look at what they've done, it's clear that their agenda all along has been to destroy it.

In its place, they would create for-profit schools where students are imprisoned in a behaviorist wet-dream, supervised by robots while they fill out bubble sheets. The idea that education should be empowering -- or even involve contact with empowered, well-educated people -- seems absent from their plans.

In the past on these days in May, I would be attending the MTA Annual Meeting in Boston. But it's been depressing, year after year, to watch the gains for educators get clawed back by relentless attacks from the Right. Last year, it was Stand for Children assaulting teacher evaluations. Before that, it was a ballot initiative to eliminate the state income tax. This year, it's retirement health care: they're gutting the plan, making us work longer, pay more, and get less.

In a generation, people will look back and wonder why we did this. The worst part is knowing that it's not really mean spirited -- it's just business. Partly, it's that public education just doesn't matter for the wealthy -- even if they didn't actively believe that disempowering other people's children was a good thing. Mainly, it's just dollars-and-cents. They want to finish the job of destroying organized labor and they want to extract rents from yet another sector of the economy.


My union, in our most recent contract negotiations, settled the economic parameters early -- very early -- in time for them to be included in the actual state budget negotiations, which is unprecedented in the time that I've been at the University. This means that, rather than having to hope for some supplemental spending bill to activate our contracts (which we have sometimes had to wait for years), there is every likelihood our new contract will take effect immediately. I credit both my union, which organized a grass-roots campaign to the push for this, and the new UMass system president Robert Caret. However, due to the expedited schedule, we were unable to discuss a number of additional issues and, instead, agreed to separate bargaining committees to discuss these issues subsequently. I agreed to serve on the committee bargaining for issues related to non-tenure-track faculty. We met today for the first session of negotiations.

Our MTA representative had encouraged us to develop a set of principles that could serve as the basis for our proposals and this strategy seemed effective for focusing discussion today. We haven't resolved any issues yet, but I thought it generated fruitful discussion.

I was also impressed with leadership of the administration team, who listened carefully to our issues and spoke carefully in response. Afterwards, I spoke briefly to him and mentioned how much I learned about the circumstances on different campuses and in different disciplines by participating in discussions like this.

The next step will be to continue discussions on our local campuses and return to the main table toward the end of June, hopefully to wrap issues up. It's an interesting and productive experience.

MTA: Ideas Not Welcome

I attended the Annual Meeting of the Mass Teachers Association again -- probably for the last time. It's become clear that it's not an organization that welcomes new ideas. The goal of the leadership seems to be to run the annual meeting on rails where the delegates sit, stand, clap, and vote on cue with any input or new ideas discouraged -- or quashed if necessary. Why go to the effort and expense of bringing people in to a meeting if you're not going to structure things to welcome, encourage, and foster their ideas and initiatives?


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