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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.


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.

Post MTA

Each year I go to MTA, I have a sense that we could be more effective if we organized sooner. This year, we did a reasonably good job, but there's still room for improvement.

The issue that dominated the convention was organizing to defeat the referendum that would eliminate the income tax in Massachusetts and decimate education and local services. The Committee for Small Government wants to force a reduction in government spending and has hit on an attractive sound-bite: get rid of income taxes. They claim the average savings, per taxpayer would be around $3600. They don't tell you that someone earning a million dollars a year saves $53,000 and that the lost revenue would about equal the discretionary spending in the state budget (ie, the money that the state contributes for local services, like police, fire, and education).

In 1980, a referendum was introduced that limited the amount that property tax could be increased in the state. Proposition Two and One-Half had draconian effects on education. Across the state, nearly 10,000 people were cut and many young teachers were driven out of the profession. Class sizes increased People who had lived through that time spoke eloquently at the MTA meeting about the results. This referendum would probably have similar effects.

At that time, there was a perception that Massachusetts residents paid too much in taxes. This time, I think people are more aware of our precarious circumstances. There is deferred maintenance all across the state: our public buildings are in poor shape already and the roads and bridges are falling apart. The biggest risk is people believing they can "send a message" by voting for the ballot measure. If it passes, it really will be a disaster for the state.

Shiny Floors

Last night, the janitorial staff came in to strip and wax the floors in my office and in the BCRC. This morning, the room smells like floor cleaner and the floors are all shiny. It was a huge amount of work yesterday to get objects up off the floor and today there will be an equivalent amount of work today to get things put aright. I really like having a clean floor, though.

There is only one class meeting left in the semester. The students are pushing their way toward having final projects finished. The first of the data has been posted in the repository, but there are still groups in a whole variety of intermediate states. I feel for them trying to pull it all together at the end. One student was frustrated by how tedious the data analysis was. Good science almost always involves a lot of tedious work.

Last night, Alisa and I celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary. We went to Chez Albert in Amherst and had dinner together. The food was wonderful and I was pleased to see they had my favorite beer, the De Ranke XX Bitter. After dinner, we walked to the common and watched them setting up the carnival rides.

Tomorrow, I head to Boston for the Annual Meeting of the Mass Teachers Association (MTA). I've gone three or four times before. Each year, we've sent a larger and larger contingent from UMass. I am convinced that we derive real value because MTA has real influence in the legislature. This year, there was a proposal to raise our health-insurance premiums that was removed from the budget after substantial pressure. MTA has been particularly good at these kinds of defensive actions. But Higher Ed is just a tiny sliver of the organization that is dominated by rank-and-file public school teachers. By sending a full contingent and being active in the organization, we increase our visibility and keep our issues on the agenda.

MTA Day Two

We passed an agreeable night in Boston and started the business this morning at 8am. For the first hour and a half, the Higher Ed caucus met to discuss a variety of new initiatives and challenges. I wish we could get the Higher Ed caucus to meet more often -- Every time the group meets, I perceive that we have many of the same issues across higher ed that we could address better if we shared information more effectively.

The MTA Teacher of the Year, Jessie Auger gave an effective speech. She had spent 8 months in San Jose Las Flores in El Salvador and spoke movingly of the students growing up with the aftereffectis of the terrible war there. A delegation from El Salvador attended her speech and offered brief remarks afterwards. The speaker, among other things, condemned "neoliberalism". I wonder how many of the audience could give a concise definition of neoliberalism.

The rest of the meeting is primarily devoted to passing the budget. You learn a lot about an organization by looking where the money goes.

MTA Iraq War Resolution Passed

The first year I came to the MTA annual meeting, there was a huge controversy when an MTA member, Andy Sapp who was currently serving in the armed forces in Iraq, sent a letter asking the annual meeting to consider a resolution condemning the war in Iraq and requesting the immediate withdrawl of troops. The body was divided and a series of efforts were made to prevent the motion from being heard at all and, in the end, it wasn't considered. A less controversial motion was proposed and even that was defeated.

Last year, Andy Sapp had returned from Iraq and presented the motion again. Again, efforts were made to squelch consideration of the motion. The motion was postponed until the next day, but eventually came up for a vote and was defeated.

This year, a lot has changed. The motion came up and there was not a single comment made against it. A handful of people did vote against it, but it passed overwhelmingly.

[...] Be it resolved that the MTA opposes the United States' continued occupation of Iraq and diversion of federal funds from public education that it causes,

That the MTA calls for an immediate decision to expedite the safe withdrawal of US forces from Iraq [...]

It's about time.


I'm attending the annual meeting of the Mass Teachers Association at the Hynes Convention Center in Boston today and tomorrow. This is the third time I've come. I was supposed to ride with someone else, but they bailed at the last moment, so I ended up driving myself. Normally, I park at Alewife and take the T in -- I decided this time, since I was staying at the Sheraton, to just drive to the Sheraton to see what would happen. I left the car with the valet parking, left my bag with the conciereige, and walked about 100 feet and into the Hynes. I don't know what will happen when I need to check out of my room at noon, but have to attend meetings until 4pm.

The Western Mass Caucus and the Peace and Justice Caucus are organizing to pass a series of motions. Every year I've come, they've been trying to pass a resolution condemning the war in Iraq and a motion to force the MTA to use the "special campaign for public relations and organizing" for organizing. It will be interesting to see if we can pass those this year: support has grown for both each year.


PlaqueToday I received the College Faculty Outstanding Service Award at work. It's nice to have my contributions recognized, although it was more intimidating than I would have imagined to actually walk up in front of all the faculty to receive the award.

The beginning of the semester is an insanely busy time, where I'm constantly being bombarded with questions and requests for help. I love it -- it's the part of my job that I love the most.

When I first got involved with the MTA, it was interesting to me that teachers and faculty see issues completely differently. The most important issue to teachers is building a firewall between their personal and professional lives so that their career doesn't consume their life. Faculty, tenure-system faculty anyway, decided early on that they weren't going to have a life other than their profession. These are people who talk about choosing whether to read a second story to their children at bedtime or finishing a grant review.

I appreciate that my position gives me the flexibility to participate in a wide variety of activities, from technology, to science, to education, to governance, to actually spending time with my children.

Emerging Leaders Program

The program I'm in is supposed to help people take a leadership role in the organization. I've been disappointed with the central activity of the program, which I believe is misguided. Whenever, I create an activity for students, I try to compromise on aspects that are less important and preserve the authenticity of aspects that are central to the experience. The central activity of the emerging leaders program is to conduct a campaign in support of a candidate for office, but the only factors that have been preserved are the surface features: the need to create flyers and try to get people to vote for you. The ideas that might underlie a campaign, a careful match between ends and means, are entirely absent. It's about trying to get people to vote for someone based on, well, nothing. One of the worst effects has been that, instantly, there was a strong sense of competitiveness among the teams trying to get "their" candidate elected (the candidates being selected more-or-less randomly and the teams assigned to candidates more-or-less randomly). This competitiveness undermines any potential collaboration that might have otherwise existed among teams -- this was brought out immediately when the leaders tried to get teams to share ideas about how they might accomplish some task and there was no-one -- NO-ONE -- willing to speak. Pathetic, but absolutely predictable.

I've thought for a couple of days about how I might have organized things differently in order to preserve collaboration across teams. I decided that I would set the task of the committee to develop and publicize a resolution with the goal of getting the maximum number of people at the conference to sign-on. Many of the tasks end up being the same, but it would be a great experience to try to get the emerging leaders to reach concensus about a resolution and then to get the rest of the attendees to sign it. And everyone would be able to work together. Moreover, at the end of the conference, there would be a statement or two, signed by a large number of members, that crystalized the current thinking of the organization -- it would be *real*.

I decided to be a trouble-maker this morning. I knew the MTA president was going to preside over a mock meeting for our workshop, so I got a copy of a motion that was made at the last MTA meeting about the public relations and organizing committee and made the motion during the mock meeting. It produced a big reaction and a lot of excitement at the meeting. It can't have any direct effect, of course, but it did keep the pressure on, at some level, and continues to inform the newcomers about one of the important contentious issues in the organization.


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