I became a teacher because I enjoy helping young people learn. I saw teaching as a way to “make a difference” in the world. But at this moment in history, teachers face opponents who are doing great harm, to children, schools, and our profession, harm that we cannot impede solely through our role in classrooms. The rich and powerful, who exploit their stunning wealth to control media and government, use lofty-sounding slogans about “students first” and “making schools work” to mask an agenda that increases social, political, and economic inequality.
We are in a life-and-death struggle for our profession and professional lives. To slow this global project, let alone win any significant economic or professional victory, we need to rethink our unions’ goals and organizational structures. Teachers unions, especially in the global north, have viewed themselves as service organizations. Instead we should function more like social movements, seeing our members’ well-being as inextricably connected to broad struggles for social, economic and political justice. Consider how Honduran teachers led the movement to protect political freedom when the nation’s duly-elected president was ousted by the military. We can learn from Chicago teachers how to re-appropriate the language and leadership of campaigns to give all children quality education so as to embed our professional and economic demands in a vision of schooling that parents and community can embrace.
Sometimes I am told that an international transformation of education could not exist without our knowing more about it, and that what I am describing sounds like a conspiracy. Most definitely not! Conspiracies are, by definition, secret. The global project to destroy education as a publicly-funded cornerstone of democracy has been quite public for more than four decades - if one looked for evidence in the right places - reports from the World Bank, journals of finance, and prospectuses for corporations penetrating the “educational market,” and research. For wealthy, powerful elites, public expenditures on educating workers beyond the skill level needed for low paying jobs seems a foolish waste of money. Their assumptions are revealed in the outcomes of their reforms rather than their rhetoric, which often calls for increased levels of education. To understand their goals, we need to look beyond employer protestations that they want workers with more education to the reality that most jobs being created require no more than an 8th grade education. It is for this reason that elites driving educational reform aim to produce only a handful of people need to acquire the sophisticated thinking and skills to manage and control the world’s productive resources. Minimally educated workers need only minimally educated teachers. Despite governments’ talk of making their nations more competitive economically by ratcheting up standards, the impact of reforms make their aims clear. They can use standardized tests to superintend the lowered expectations for educational outcomes they want for the vast majority of students. Therefore a well-educated (and well-paid) teaching force is a wasteful expenditure.
They aim to make public education a “free market" open to entrepreneurs; create a revolving door of minimally-trained teachers; reduce the curriculum to basic math and literacy content that workers will need to compete for low-paid jobs; control teachers, students, and future citizens with standardized testing; and weaken public oversight of education by breaking up school systems, replacing them with privately operated schools and networks.
Teachers and their unions are the biggest impediment to these goals being realized, which is why teachers unions have been attacked so viciously. Teachers unions have slowed the project, although they have been too weak to halt it. Our opponents have exploited historic inequalities in education, hijacking the language associated with movements for social justice and using it to mask their real agenda of increased profits and control of the work force. Claiming they are “Making services work for poor people,” they impose reforms (as a quid pro quid for economic aid) that actually worsen educational outcomes and strip nations of the right to determine how schooling should shape their society.
Do we have adequate resources to become involved in other struggles? In fact, allying our unions with parents and community in their struggles repays us doubly. We involve members who have not heretofore been active and show ourselves trusted allies, developing legitimacy among parents and community who are suspicious of unions.
I often hear teachers complain “Where is the union?” They think officers and staff are the union, delivering services to them. In actuality, our unions’ power resides in our members’ involvement, but members will not be active if they feel disempowered. To bring democracy to the schools, our unions themselves must be models of democracy.
The Chicago Teachers Union stunned the media and the Mayor when its representative assembly insisted on taking the terms of the tentative settlement back to members, to determine whether to end the strike. As one Chicago teacher told a reporter, the strike was “an amazing display of democracy.” "It is a wonderful lesson for children and adults alike. I'm honored that we are all sticking together. We all want what is fair. We want to make sure everyone is treated fairly, just like I teach my children."
Exactly. Just like we teach - or should teach - our students. Teachers unions must practice democracy, from the school site right up through the international level. That means rejecting how the World Bank sets education goals. That means supporting activists, unions and communities as they tell us what help they need to resist neo-liberal education policies. “Intercambio,” a collaboration of the British Columbia Teachers Federation and a network of Latin American teachers unions, the IDEA Network (Initiative for Democratic Education in the Americas), illustrates one way to work towards meaningful solidarity across borders.