High stakes tests are stressful on children and not a sound measure of learning

Back to Work with Merlin Mann and Dan Benjamin on the 5by5 Network.

Back to Work with Merlin Mann and Dan Benjamin on the 5by5 Network.

If you want to hear the discussion on standardized testing hit the play button above and slide the the progress bar to minute 27:15. They once again mentioned one of my tweets at minute 51:50. 


I've been an avid Podcast listener since almost the beginning of the medium. One of my favorite podcasters is Merlin Mann. I first heard about Merlin on "Mac Break Weekly" back in 2006. At the time he was known for his blog 43 folders and for translating the Getting Things Done methodology to the Mac and the available tools on that platform. So when he started a new podcast named "Back to Work," I started listening.

Back to Work is a talk show with Merlin Mann and Dan Benjamin discussing productivity, communication, work, barriers, constraints, tools, and more. After years of listening, last week Merlin and Dan talked about standardized testing, how those tests work and how it makes their respective children feel. So, I when they asked for listener feedback, I had to respond. I heard that episode while in Burlingame for the CTA Board meeting so, I quickly wrote an email to them giving them my perspective and sharing CTA's flyer on parents rights to opt out their children from these tests.

I hadn't heard back so I just figured my email got lost in their inboxes. but this morning Merlin sent me an email asking if it was ok to mention my name and my position with CTA, of course I said it was ok.  Not only did they read my letter on the show but they used it as a way of continuing to discuss the problems with standardized testing.

It felt good on different levels: people I've admired used my input on their show and more importantly It felt good to take the opportunity to advocate for our position on standardized testing and sharing our resources on the rights of parents to opt out their children to a broader audience. 

Janus decision is coming...

Should Abood be overruled and public sector agency fee arrangements declared unconstitutional under the First Amendment? 

This is the key question that the Supreme Court of the United States considered in the Friedrichs v. CTA case, and will again consider this term in the Janus v. AFSCME case. Abood is the Abood v. Detroit Board of Education case of 1977. In that case the court found a middle ground between members who might object to the political stances of labor unions but benefited from the non-political activities such as contract negotiations, contract maintenance, protecting employees against arbitrary punishments from the employers, providing legal representation in wrongful termination cases or in ensuring due process rights, etc. The court recognized in the Abood case that these union activities had a cost associated to them and therefore established “Agency Fees.” Simply stated, Abood permitted unions to collect fair share dues from members who enjoyed the benefits of being in a union but objected to its political activities. These agency fee payers would receive a refund of the portion of their dues used for political activities. For 40 years this has been the law of the land.


The Bad and the Ugly

Our expectation is that Abood will be overruled by the end of the current Supreme Court Session in June of 2018. Why? Friedrichs, which asked the same question of the court was a 4-4 split. The addition of Justice Neil Gorsuch, who by all accounts and based on decisions he took on the Court of Appeals, is to the right of Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Kennedy, and has already moved the court to the right. So we expect a 5-4 decision to overturn Abood.


What does this mean for us? Much depends on the scope of the decision, but at the very least we must prepare for the following: 1) No more fair share fees from non-members. This would be the immediate result of a decision. The day after the decision is announced, we would lose these fees; 2) Right wing groups like the National Right to Work Foundation are ready to send post cards and other campaign materials to our members encouraging them to drop their membership; 3) A loss of 20% of membership. Based on what we’ve seen in Michigan and Wisconsin, this seems a realistic number. This means locals, CTA and NEA could see a major loss of dues.


How do we prepare for this? The main preparation is what we’ve been doing over the last few years: Membership Engagement campaigns at the local level. When members view their union as an insurance policy, it’s very easy to drop membership. Why pay for something that, perhaps, you’ve never needed, and don't see yourself needing in the near future? Yet, when someone is connected to the union because of a personal relationship with site rep, or the membership engagement team or friends on the bargaining team, dropping membership becomes much more difficult. Membership engagement is relational work. Additionally, we have been trying to create a value driven union. Our locals must reflect what our members are passionate about. Members must connect to the people within our unions and the principles our unions support.


We’ve also been encouraging locals to start thinking about what their budgets will look like with a 20% loss of membership. Even if local leaders are sure that they will retain all of their members, it is better to be prepared with a strategic budget that provides for a worst-case scenario.


Lastly, we need to understand that a Supreme Court decision will establish our reality for the foreseeable future. There are only two ways to overturn such a decision: a constitutional amendment or another Supreme Court case. It took 40 years for the Court’s make-up to change so that Janus could overturn Abood. We should expect to live with Janus for at least the same amount of time.


The Good News

Of course, Janus should be worrisome to all of us who are part of the union movement and members of the union family. And while it’s completely appropriate to be worried and angered about the post Janus world, here is the good news: labor unions existed long before Abood. Not only did unions exist before Abood, but the height of union membership happened at least 20 years before Abood. Simply stated, we thrived before 1977. We can do it again!  we simply have to re-learn how to use those muscles. Janus provides us the opportunity to be organizers not just agitators, to be relational with our members not just transactional, to engage with our communities not keep them at arms length, to truly be a movement again, not just an institution.


Now is the time to remember the old union adage: Don’t agonize. Organize!

My union journey began with personal engagement...

The Friedrichs case this week has me thinking a lot about the importance of personal relationships and how those can bear fruit in ways we can't imagine. Very much like our students. We sometimes don't know who we are impacting and why, but we do the work, we plant the seed and it will germinate at some point. We do that as teachers because we have faith in that.

It's the same thing as a union member. For me it was Rene Flores, who with a conversation changed me from agency fee payer to site rep and unknowingly put me on this path of leadership and advocacy. That's why it's so important for our reps, and our regular rank and file members to talk to new teachers in the profession and let them know the importance of being a union member.

Unions have proven to be agents of change, we need to recognize that that is our role, no matter how the Supreme Court rules. 

The following piece appeared in the CTA magazine California Educator, in December of 2015, I talk about my journey from fee payer to activist . . . 

Unions Mater

Part 1:  What is a Union?

You’d think by the rhetoric from the right that Labor Unions dominate the landscape as they ravage and bring ruin to the nation’s economy. Here is the fact: according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2014 “the percent of wage and salary workers who were members of unions—was 11.1 percent, down 0.2 percentage point from 2013” The truth is that unionized workers are at their lowest point since 1912. If it’s labor unions destroying the American Economy, it must be pretty weak for 11% of the workforce to be doing so much damage. Blaming the unions is just another one of those myths that the right has concocted to further weaken unions. I’m always surprised why the question isn’t “How can I get what you guys have?” 

What is a labor union?

labor union: n. an organization of workers formed for the purpose of advancing its members' interests in respect to wages, benefits, and working conditions. (Merriam-Webster)

The piece that isn’t captured by the definition is the impact that labor unions have on non-unionized labor. In other words, the fight of unionized labor is a fight for improving the middle class. When the Sweetwater Education Association was fighting for the School District to honor it’s commitment to our health benefits I would occasionally hear from non-unionized workers say “why do you deserve health benefits? You should be grateful you get what you get!” With the implementation of Obamacare, we have yet another example of an idea that grew out of what labor unions do for their members into the mainstream. Labor unions have worked hard to develop the American Dream and now are attempting to protect it. 

Some historic union victories that have improved the lives of all Americans include:

  • Collective Bargaining
  • The Weekend
  • Child Labor Laws
  • Family Medical Leave Act
  • Paid Leave
  • Minimum Wage
  • Overtime Pay
  • Work Injury Protection
  • Secure Retirement

Many of these victories came during the “Progressive Era” of the late and early 1900s. Other victories came during the 1930s, most notably the National Labor Relations Act or Wagner Act.

Protecting the Promise of Public Education

Furthermore, teachers unions such as ours carry an additional burden. Not only are teachers unions tasked with the same responsibilities of all labor unions: advancing member interests in respect to wages, benefits, and working conditions; they also are charged with protecting the promise of a quality public education for all. Historically, public education has paved the way to the middle class, it has been he vehicle for social mobility. In sum, it has had a democratizing effect in our society. Teachers unions are the only institution that  have stood in the way of so-called reformers who seek only to privatize public education and gain access to tax payer dollars. (I’ll discuss this corporate education agenda more deeply in a future post.)

We need look no further than the mission statement of the California Teachers Association to realize the role of teachers unions today.

“The California Teachers Association exists to protect and promote the well-being of its members; to improve the conditions of teaching and learning; to advance the cause of free, universal and quality public education; to ensure that the human dignity and civil rights of all children and youth are protected; and to secure a more just, equitable, and democratic society.”

So while we look to improve salary and health benefits, we also seek things like smaller class sizes, professional development teacher evaluation, use of technology, the use of resources for Special Education and English Language Learners. 

Clearly, what we do as teachers for the individual students that cross the threshold of our classroom is very important to each and every one of those students. What we do collectively as  part of our professional union is equally important to our community, our state and our nation.

Up next: Labor Union Myths