Detroit schools in final death spiral?

The Detroit Federation of Teachers (DFT) may be on its last legs. This was a once-proud union that fought like hell, alongside other workers, not only for the school worker force, but for kids. Last year, behind the urgings of the DFT President, Keith Johnson and AFT President Randi Weingarten, the DFT bargained what I think is the worst contract in the history of school-based collective bargaining. Substance (subscribe now for lower rates!) ran a piece on that contract (§ion=Article).

Above, Detroit teacher Steve Conn (left) speaking at a forum sponsored by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) Peace and Justice caucus at the AFT Seattle convention on July 10, 2010. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.Detroit schools lost 1/2 of the student body in the last decade, probably more than that because no statistics coming from any Detroit agency can be trusted. Over the years, the school system, like the entire Detroit public sector (and parts of the private sector — what is left of it) grew riddled with incompetence, corruption and dishonesty, at every level.

That is a product of the cruel mixture of racism and capitalism. Nevertheless, the organized teachers were the last force in the city that could truly fight back. That they failed, almost completely, does not speak well of them, or most teachers in the US either.

As a result of the DFT contract, what are called "neighborhood" schools have collapsed. Already in rapid decay, they appear to be nearly finished off. "Priority schools," are funded, get supplies, cream kids and teachers. Not too many complaints come out of them. In fact, I know quite a few priority teachers who are happier in their jobs than ever before. There is a lesson to them below.

There are more charters than before, but nobody can make a case that they caused the ruin of DPS, nearly in ruins before they arrived.

Detroit Federation of Teachers President Keith Johnson (above, speaking at the 2010 AFT convention) has been accused of supporting the worst union contract in AFT history. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.Detroit is dying a death of a thousand cuts. Still, the cuts add up and will someday become the last breath. With a long history of rebellions and uprisings, that last death could be ugly. With hope in schools evaporating fast, that possibility is greater every day.

There is an election going on in the DFT now. Votes are to be tabulated in about ten days. It's unlikely that the contract can be upended, even if the traitorous leadership of the union is.

Below is a letter from the DFT web site, written by the V.P of the DFT. Nothing in the contract that I know of can protect school workers from the practices the letter describes. Only direct action could. I'll let it stand alone with just one warning: an injury to one really does just go before an injury to all.

Good luck to us, every one

Letter to Dr. Barbara Byrd-Bennett [11.22.10]

[Letter sent today to Dr. Barbara Byrd Bennett, DPS Chief Academic and Accountability Auditor]

Dear Dr. Byrd-Bennett:

We are getting a lot of feedback from teachers concerning the overwhelming amount of testing and progress monitoring they are required to do. While each of the assessments may have merit, taken as a whole they leave too little time for instruction. Teachers throughout the district are asking "When do we have time to teach?"

In addition to the regular curriculum, students are assessed using the Star Math and Star Reading programs. They work on individualized lessons and assessments through Accelerated Math and Accelerated Reading. Three times per year students take a battery of benchmark assessments including up to five Dibels assessments, Burst, and TRC. Throw in quarterly Q tests that take two class periods per day for four days each quarter, and two to three weeks of MEAP testing, and it's no wonder teachers want more time to teach.

In between benchmarks, teachers are asked to print up to 80 pages of Burst lessons every two weeks. These lessons are to be taught to the lowest achieving four to five students in each class for a half hour per day. Some schools don't have enough toner to print these lessons, others don't have enough copiers, and nobody seems to have enough time. One teacher estimates that a quarter of her instructional time is devoted to these assessments and progress monitoring.

On a weekly basis, teachers also are asked to do time-consuming progress monitoring for Dibels and TRC. Much if this work is done with one student at a time. While our teachers are doing their best to keep the rest of the class doing meaningful work, it is not possible to properly monitor and coach the others while you are testing individuals.

Two common themes emerge from discussions with teachers throughout the district. First, these assessments all have some merit individually, but together, they are too much. Second, we as teachers can handle all this, but our students are suffering.

One teacher told me that for one day, she ignored Burst, Dibels, TRC, Accelerated Math and Reading, and all she did was teach. It was the best day the class had all year! The saddest thing is, this didn't happen until the third week of October, and she had to ignore directives to make it happen at all.

To bring more balance to the classroom, we suggest that the district strongly consider the following changes.

1. Eliminate the Q1, Q2, Q3, Q4 benchmark tests. These tests are not aligned with the district's scope and sequence charts. Students are taking tests in November on material that won't be covered until March. As a result, there is no validity to these tests.Our teachers have seen tests designed by and for DPS every few years. From Exit Skills, to ESAT, to MIP, to Q tests, the tests come and go and you would be hard pressed to find a teacher who will claim instruction has improved as a result of any one of these.

2. Allow teachers to use their professional judgment to determine the amount of progress monitoring to do. Progress monitoring in TRC is particularly difficult, since the text in the Palm devices frequently does not match the text in the books students are reading.

3. Discontinue Burst groups. The lower achieving students can be helped in the regular classroom setting.

4. Provide additional personnel to help with assessments. Whether the district allows literacy coaches to do some of the assessments or provides classroom aides to assist with class management, more help is needed to keep all children learning.

We know that standardized testing is here to stay. To improve our scores, we need more instructional time, not more tests.

Sincerely, Mark O'Keefe, DFT Executive Vice President


December 13, 2012 at 5:50 AM

By: Sean Doyle

'Shock Doctrine' attack on teachers

From Detroit to California and New York we see the same "Shock doctrine " assault on education. If you havn't already try to read Naomi Klein's book, Shock Doctrine, it puts the current right wing revolution into a coherent historical perspective. Chicago led the way, and the courageous MORE caucus in New York is challenging the complicit leadership of the UFT. Teaching is being privatized. The Rich have declared war. It is time for real leadership of the teachers unions.

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