Joel Shatzky taught English for many years at the State University of New York at Cortlandt.

He sent the following reflections about the political quandary of teachers:

What has become increasingly baffling to me amidst the many controversies engendered by the misnamed “school reform movement” is that the one most reliable union group to back and help Democratic candidates get elected is being savaged by Democrats. The teachers strike in Chicago was waged against a Democratic mayor who had been President Obama’s chief of staff and a principal fund raiser for Obama’s re-election. The strike illustrates the point: with friends like that, who needs enemies? In New York the “progressive” Bloomberg Administration has been in the forefront of “educational reform.” That its reforms haven’t worked and continue to be misused, effectively demoralizing teachers and students, hasn’t stopped other big city mayors, many of them Democrats, from applying the same discredited formulas around the country. And aiding and abetting this “movement” is the Obama Administration in its “Race to the Top” program which, in some aspects, is even more destructive than President George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” program. Certainly, Obama’s choosing Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education over Linda Darling-Hammond could not have been very reassuring to teachers around the country whether unionized or not.

The origins of the “school reform” movement, which was traced by Diane Ravitch in “The Death and Life of the Great American School System” as far back as the 1890’s, reflects the periodic dissatisfaction with the public school system in not being “productive” enough in turning out “educated” students. However, despite alarming reports about the “decline” in our nation’s schools such as the Coleman Report of 1966 which was concerned with the need to establish equality of opportunity, and “A Nation at Risk” (1983) ordered by T.H. Bell, Secretary of Education during the Reagan Administration, which warned that our educational system would become less competitive internationally, high school drop out rates and graduation rates have not notably changed in the last four decades.

At the beginning of the millennium, a report by the National Council of Educational Statistics showed that “while progress was made during the 1970s and 1980s in reducing high school dropout rates and increasing high school completion rates, these rates have since stagnated.”
In a more recent report, the NCES stated that although “the overall AFGR was higher for the graduating class of 2008–09 (75.5 percent) than it was for the graduating class of 1990–91 (73.7 percent),” it was an increase of less than two percent. If one were to take into consideration the likelihood that the test cheating discovered recently in Atlanta and D.C has been more widespread, one could argue that there has been no significant change in graduation rates during all those decades of “reform” and “accountability.”

What has become an increasingly frustrating issue with public school teachers is that the way in which their effectiveness is now being commonly measured is a blunt tool that has little if any validity in measuring a teacher’s ability. It is as reliable as using a patient’s temperature to determine his sanity. Yet its lack of validity seems to have little if any effect on those so-called reformers who insist, as does Rahm Emanuel, on using the results of standardized tests to determine whether or not a teacher is qualified to teach. And Emanuel’s remedy is the same as Bloomberg’s or any other big city mayor: vouchers, charter schools, and choiceless “choice.”

Since there is more evidence that the “charter school reformers” are behind much of the change in the way teachers are evaluated as shown in articles by Ravitch, Joanne Barkan (“Got Dough?” in Dissent, Winter 2011 and other researchers and that many of these “reformers” are Democrats who regard education as a “good investment” one wonders: If teachers have friends like that, who needs enemies?

The teachers’ unions in the future should use their economic, political and organizational clout to establish a new political party, a real “Labor Party,” and run candidates who truly represent the interests of all working people including teachers, not the entrepreneurs that sport the arbitrary label of “education reformers.” The segment of the labor force that has had the greatest loss of jobs in the past four years are teachers and many of them have been laid off by Democrats. And since expecting Republicans to be even worse, the teaching profession and other segments of organized labor feel they have nowhere to go. After this election, perhaps it’s time for them to consider finding new friends.