Jul 2 (9 days ago)
Thank you for including me on the conference call this evening. It is a relief to hear that many of my brothers and sisters in union have the same concerns that afflict me as a mother, educator, and citizen (except that guy asking about road infrastructure – that was a little out in left field for me).
I will try to be brief so that your staff isn’t deliriously angry about you extending this offer to email you with unanswered questions, but brevity is not my strong suit. I guess if I wasn’t a teacher; I should’ve been a politician.
I’m the daughter of a Longshoreman who raised me in Ashtabula, Ohio, and the granddaughter of a man who told me he went to DC in the 1950s to testify about unions. I’ve been a member of Local CTU 279 in Cleveland, Ohio since August of 1998. I don’t think it would surprise you to read that the culture of education in our city, state, and country is vastly different than what it was when I began.
With the Republican National Convention being held in our city next summer, I believe we have a prime opportunity to take action on a national level that will begin to remedy the atrocities that have been occurring in our state with regard to education. The Ohio budget bill is being used to mandate absurdities in education. Ohio got rid of PARCC due to grassroots efforts that encompassed parents, community stakeholders, and educators, but then replaced it within 24 hours with another assessment from AIR that will prove to be equally horrific. Changing the name of the test, or the entity that produces it, does not eliminate the over-testing, nor does it pacify our principles. The legislators and governor demolished democracy in Youngstown last week as they took over the city schools in a late-night, a backdoor deal that included banning any debate on the issue in chambers. Our state teacher evaluation system ties test scores to 50% of a teacher’s annual rating. We have TFA propaganda in abundance as well as a steady stream of TFA candidates not only teaching but now in administrative positions at building and board levels. We have an unregulated charter system that is the laughing stock of 99% of the nation. The other 1% is rejoicing over the billions that they are gathering in profits while they fail our children.
In our district, we have the “Cleveland Transformation Alliance” and “Cleveland Foundation” spitting out propaganda reports, with practically zero credibility, claiming that our schools are failing, our students are failing, and that the teachers are ineffective. The high stakes testing culture has ruined our traditional schools that don’t offer, or barely offer, music, phys ed, art, or vocational and trade subjects that our students are craving. We fuel the school-to-prison pipeline, which fills detention centers with children the system seems intent on disregarding. In Cleveland, my pay is now tied to an evaluation system that has no statistical or mathematical validity and has been implemented with complete incompetence. All of this has left many of my colleagues in fear or apathetic from the defeat they sense. We had one teacher described as a “gentle soul” who “loved her students” placed in “teacher jail” after being bullied by an aggressive, unkind principal all year. CMSD had this teacher removed from a K-8 school in front of her special needs students. Already fragile from other personal issues, Dr. ***** (name omitted in public version) ended her own life because teaching was her life. The callous principal is now working downtown at the board office.
We need our brothers and sisters in union on the largest scale that I have known in my career. The Cleveland Plan is a farce. We all know that by 2018-19, the overarching goal is to have all of our city schools turned into charters. They have been slowly and steadily dismantling us. Unfortunately, our union is viewed as a criminal defense lawyer instead of as a defender of the people. This view is not only held by the public, but by its own members as well. When I’ve been approached about running for office, I scoff at the idea. I don’t want to be an “executive” at a downtown union office, posting pictures of myself at a table at Democratic fundraisers, maintaining a state of oblivion to the daily realities of teaching in a classroom; who will eventually ask the CEO for a job at the board and fight against the very union to which I was once elected (2 names omitted in public version). If someone like me, who came from generations of union workers, who understands and teaches the history of labor in our country, is scoffing at being part of the governing body of the local union, can I be angry at young members for feeling disconnected and disenfranchised?
My teacher effectiveness state rating was dropped from “accomplished” to “skilled” 2 years in a row because my union signed off on a test for 10th grade US History for the “data” part of my evaluation that no one told me about until 2 weeks before it had to be given, and that wasn’t aligned to the curriculum that is in our district’s scope and sequence. It is on public record that I am a “skilled” teacher instead of an “accomplished” teacher, even though I have extensive evidence to fit the “accomplished” rubric requirements, and even though I am a “Master Teacher” and was named the “2013-2014 Cleveland Bar Association Teacher of the Year.” The results of this test from April of 2014 that have been used to supposedly prove that I am an “average” teacher this school year (2015) and last school year (2014) even though I am not even teaching at the same 2014 school any more, have never been given to me, given to students, published in our district database, or revealed to anyone. Due to the merit pay negotiations in our CBA, that means I didn’t get a raise 2 years in a row based on a union decision; the same union that is supposed to be protecting the wages of families. Sadly, I’m not alone in the rank and file with my disappointments.
I file grievances. I email. I speak at school board meetings. I’m interviewed by local and national news organizations. I whistle blow. I blog. I create petitions. I sometimes get a response from the union, just like I sometimes get a response from the district.
It became so frustrating that I formed a group (Refuse of Cuyahoga County) with colleagues to accomplish the things that my union should be doing. We solicit parent input and support. We hold forums and events to inform. We build relationships with families, colleagues, and community stakeholders. We launch counter assaults on our legislators and governor when they don’t do what’s best for kids. We meet with local leaders. We talk to state leaders. We set up meetings with national legislators. We use social media to promote our cause and to inform. We make sure that people know that we care about kids first because once we build that trust, they understand that if we say “teachers need smaller class sizes,” it isn’t because we’re lazy leeches sucking the taxpayer’s money away. It is because we care about kids, and we know research shows that significantly smaller classes make a positive difference for kids. They know that when we say it is time to stop this testocracy, it isn’t because we don’t think kids can achieve, or because we are afraid of losing our jobs or our money, it is because we know from the research that it is harming, not helping, kids. When we build these family relationships, we can say to the district that it isn’t just teachers who want these things, but families of students want them also. It is a lot more difficult to use that leverage in negotiations when the state has already disenfranchised the families in Cleveland and Youngstown with CEOs, mayoral control, and appointed boards, but it is worth something in public opinion polls which leads me back to my questions that couldn’t be answered this evening on the conference call:
What can the AFT do on a national level to help our city and state reclaim the culture of education so that teachers are once again valued and respected as competent professionals? So that charters are held accountable? So that schools and students are never labeled as “failing” because they can’t pass tests that aren’t even a valid indicator of their talents or intellect? So that states can’t annihilate a city’s right to democratic processes? So that teachers can’t be punished through public humiliation and loss of pay because they want to work with students who live in high poverty areas? So that teachers feel like being part of the union is contributing to the greater good of society? So that being in the union will feel like being part of a movement for social justice because that is what it was intended to be?
There was a massive campaign in NY, supported by AFT, because of Cuomo’s suggestion to tie teacher evaluations to testing. Our PAY and state evaluations have been tied to test scores for 2 YEARS in Cleveland. We need national attention and outrage while we simultaneously build grassroots support for what we achieve and accomplish with children every day as members in our union of “professionals.”
As Ohio goes… so goes the nation. It works in presidential elections. Let’s make it work to change the national culture that surrounds education.
Melissa Marini Švigelj-Smith
PS. I’ll be in DC on July 24th-29th. I’d be happy to stop by and say, “hello.” Of course, you can probably tell from this email that I may have a little more to add to the “hello.”