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"The Role of Teacher Union Locals in Advancing Racial Justice and Improving the Quality of Schooling in the United States,"

by Mark Simon May/June 2011 issue of Poverty & Race

In 2005, a dozen or so progressive teacher union leaders created the Mooney Institute for Teacher and Union Leadership (MITUL), an outgrowth of the ten-year-old Teacher Union Reform Network (TURN). We created MITUL out of a deep understanding of just how difficult it is to lead a teacher union local in a progressive direction. We wanted to define what progressive unionism is, develop a curriculum through which our fellow unionists would deepen their understanding of the approach, and then institutionalize coaching and support for next-generation unionists to take their locals and the national unions in that direction. We wanted to cultivate bold, creative, reform-oriented union leaders and locals.

The institute convinced a handful of foundations to support our effort and began work with our first cohort of nine major urban union locals. We developed tools to communicate about the approach, a web site and blog (, and got the attention of the leadership of both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, who were cautiously supportive.

Tom Mooney, AFT Vice-President from Ohio, and a great reform leader as president of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers (CFT) was one of our MITUL founders. When he passed away unexpectedly in 2006, we re-named the Institute after him. The MITUL web site includes descriptions of Tom’s life and work and why his view of teacher unionism has been a guiding light to many of us.

Defining Progressive Unionism

Progressive unionism, as we defined it, included an equal emphasis on three frames: 1) traditional (industrial) unionism; 2) professional unionism; and 3) social justice unionism. The locals in our first cohort acknowledged right off the bat that their existing local activity fell almost entirely in the industrial frame, and that both the professional and social justice frames were underdeveloped. The work undertaken then was to develop plans for building community alliances, taking up strategies for improving teacher quality, and helping teachers to adopt approaches to teaching that enabled them to empower and be more successful with disadvantaged students. MITUL took up the need to re-think seniority rights, the need for the union to invest in peer review and other innovations to teacher evaluation. We viewed collaboration with management, not as a goal, but a strategy for exerting teacher influence over the important decisions in our members’ work lives, those related to curriculum, assessment and instruction. We also discussed the need for the union to be connected with other movements for social justice and economic change to further what became known as the “broader, bolder approach” to education reform. The Mooney Institute authored two Opinion columns in Ed Week, and we looked forward to the change in the president in the White House but also the ones in both the NEA and the AFT, all in 2008.

The most well-meaning of elected local union leaders come into the job and feel immediately overwhelmed. It is an awesome responsibility to speak for thousands of hard-working teachers. The language, work styles and daily patterns of teacher unionism since the late 1960s have been defined by industrial unionism. Teacher unions are frequently largely reactive. They handle individual teacher complaints and grievances. They serve on management committees as the teacher voice. They periodically bargain pay rates, hours and working conditions. The daily routines of most union leaders are defined by others. We were trying through the Institute to help union leaders see that their mission needed to be to define the public education reform agenda – to fight for equity and justice through changes in curriculum, authentic assessment tools, improvements in instruction and teacher quality control. We wanted to change the community face and role of the union.

We found tremendous receptivity to our ideas among teacher unionists, but the main impediment to the work of the Institute has been the growing sense of crisis and being under siege that has become the norm in public education. The crisis is both fiscal and political. The sense of being embattled frequently brings out the worst of the industrial instincts and training of teacher unionists.

Now, more than two years into the Obama presidency—with the failure of the education jobs bill in Congress under the then-Democratic majority in both houses, the end of a brief foray into an attempt at economic stimulus, and then a devastating election in which Republicans gained a majority in the House of Representatives and the whole idea of government having a role in economic downturns was replaced by a new goal of deficit reduction—things have dramatically taken a turn for the worse. From the beginning of its term in office, the Obama Administration looked to some of the same foundations and think tanks that had brought corporate-style reform strategies to Bush Administration education policy development—the Gates Foundation, the New Schools Venture Fund, the Broad Foundation and the Ed Trust. As Diane Ravitch argues, we have a tsunami that has put teacher unions in the crosshairs. The economic downturn put pressure on state and district revenues, forcing districts to make massive cuts, which led many to target teacher pensions, health benefits and class sizes. The new Obama strategies have doubled down on Bush strategies—School Improvement Grants and Race to the Top funding conditioned on promoting charter schools; labeling schools in high-poverty neighborhoods as failures and closing them; evaluating teachers based on student test scores; firing half the teachers in low-performing schools as a condition of getting federal funds, and in some cases letting the whole teaching staff go when test scores are low. These “quick fix” prescriptions create a collision course with teachers and their unions, but avoid the tough work of improving schools in urban, high-poverty neighborhoods.

A Pivotal Moment

This is a pivotal moment for teacher unions in the United States. And it is a pivotal moment for community groups and organizers for racial justice to understand the role and potential of teacher unions.

There is a powerful, richly funded and well-orchestrated campaign afoot to fundamentally restructure public education on a corporate efficiency and privatization model. It uses the rhetoric of civil rights to intensify the sense of urgency for change that all parents feel, particularly the families of low-income students of color. The reform movement has attracted surprising spokespeople in the likes of Newt Gingrich, Al Sharpton, Joel Klein, Cory Booker and Michelle Rhee, none of whom had run a school or a school system or much of anything that involved teaching or learning when they jumped in as the enablers for these neo-liberal reform strategies. It also seems to have captured the Obama Administration’s Education Department. Funding for these reforms and the propagation of this powerful narrative comes from some of the largest education foundations, including Gates, Broad, hedge fund managers who bankroll Democrats for Education Reform, and from the federal government.

A primary purpose of this campaign is to disempower teacher unions and make public education cheaper by accelerating turnover in the teacher workforce—getting rid of older teachers, hiring younger ones who don’t plan to stay long, reducing legacy costs in the form of cutting pensions and teacher health care. The goal also seems to be to teacher-proof the curriculum, centralize the content and instructional methodologies in line with high-stakes assessments, and to de-professionalize teaching. To make these changes possible, editorial boards and foundation-supported think tanks have waged a tremendous PR effort to undermine teacher unions and label them the cause of what ails public education. In a sense, the frontal attacks by Wisconsin’s Scott Walker and Republican governors in Ohio and Michigan have been able to build on the fertile ground left by liberal corporate reformers.

A False Narrative

The dominant narrative that underlies the federal reform agenda goes something like this: Public education has failed to provide disadvantaged children with the opportunity for upward mobility, and has left middle-class children without the technological skills they need to compete in a world economy. Plenty of money has been spent on improving teaching and learning conditions, training teachers and ensuring that students are ready for school, which should have enabled the educational system to overcome differences in student background and preparation. The solution lies in high-stakes and test-based accountability and serious sanctions for failure, as measured by standardized exams. The stakes will be dramatically increased when teachers are evaluated not by their qualifications, experience, or overall competence and effectiveness, but by the basic-skills test score gains of their students. This view holds that schools and school systems need to be shaken up and required to compete with alternatives that include charter schools operated by private entities not bound by the restrictions that purportedly impede regular public schools. The status quo is so obviously broken, the purveyors of this narrative maintain, that any change, no matter how radical, can't possibly make things worse.

The problem is that this simple narrative is false. From the perspective of students, parents and teachers, things can get worse. Community groups are rising up spontaneously in New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, Cleveland and elsewhere against school closings and consolidations in their neighborhoods. The common analysis by those community groups is that school closings and consolidations have more to do with opening new schools in gentrifying neighborhoods and closing schools in poor neighborhoods, furthering gentrification strategies of the banks and developers, than it does with real school improvement. In Chicago, Washington DC and Philadelphia, school consolidations led to gang violence predicted by community leaders. Research by the Consortium for Chicago School Research now shows that low-income students forced to attend new schools in other neighborhoods did no better, or even a little worse. It turns out that improving schools is more complicated than the promoters of Chicago’s Renaissance 2010 and other quick turnaround efforts advertised. By and large, those efforts failed to deliver.

While individual charter schools sometimes offer a good education, the only large, national data-set study of charter schools, by Stanford University’s Margaret Raymond, showed that 83% of charter schools have produced no better results than the neighborhood schools those students would have attended. Notwithstanding the fictionalized but emotionally gripping accounts like “Waiting for Superman,” the success of some charters depends on selecting and attracting more highly motivated kids. In and of themselves, charters represent no reform strategy whatsoever. In fact, NY Daily News columnist Juan Gonzales warns of a coming avalanche of scandals of corruption and conflicts of interest by the corporate boards of loosely regulated, unaccountable charter schools.

We’ve had over a decade of No Child Left Behind and the achievement gap has not at all narrowed. NAEP scores have not improved over the past decade of NCLB, but were improving, it turns out, in the previous decades under different strategies. Test-driven reform is leading to epidemics of cheating, wasteful test-prep, narrowing of the curriculum, and educationally unsound practices in response to the high-stakes attached to standardized test scores. What test-driven reform has done is increase top-down management control, while narrowing and dumbing-down what is taught to what is tested in many schools and districts.

One reason the dominant narrative and thoughtless reforms have caught hold is that educators, unions and community-based organizations never developed an alternative reform narrative that would have empowered teachers, parents and students. All was not right in many of this nation’s schools, but educators and even parents had become complacent. Indeed, local teacher unions did not help their cause by too often living the stereotype as obstructionists and defenders of the status quo. The response of NEA and AFT to the corporate reform models has been slow, complicated and a bit like deer-in-the-headlights over the past couple of years, and the national unions have had little impact on helping their locals to step up to lead alternatives to the dominant reforms.

Reclaiming the Agenda

Although we are now playing catch-up, teacher unions, parent and community groups, and progressive education researchers and activists must reclaim the agenda for school and public education improvement. Our focus must be on real education reform. That means serious support for teachers to teach better. Teaching better has very little to do with getting test scores up, although test score results do provide a marker for how far we have to go. It rather has to do with supports for teachers to expand our repertoire of strategies for making learning engaging and effective. It means broadening and enriching the curriculum. It means engaging families and building neighborhood communities of support around schools. It could mean parent visitation programs like that developed in Sacramento, CA. It certainly means helping communities resist simple-minded school turnaround and closing strategies in favor of programs that better address the real causes of low student achievement in poor communities.

A body of research is beginning to unfold from the work of the Chicago Consortium for Chicago School Research in their book, Organizing Schools for Improvement, and the Syracuse “Say Yes to Education” project, in the Promise Neighborhood strategies emerging in NY, NJ and elsewhere, and the work in developing Teacher Residencies that actually serve to build the profession of teaching. Teacher unions can be at the forefront of pushing for Peer Assistance and Review programs and other supports for new teachers. We have to get school districts to do justice to the complexity of the craft of teaching. We have to work with families and communities to identify strategies to ready students for learning.

Unions and community groups together can blow the whistle when ambitious Superintendents or Chancellors choose strategies that jeopardize the integrity of high-quality teaching and real learning, or when the real needs of communities are being ignored. Whether educators, parents and communities are going to have anything to say about the nature of public education depends on our ability to build alliances around a common vision of quality public education.

In this overview, I have attempted to present my sense of the challenges facing educators and community activists attempting to carve out a progressive agenda and perspective. I continue to think that the two national teacher unions, NEA and AFT, are sleeping giants with tremendous potential as allies of both teacher empowerment and grass-roots community-led support for better reforms. Given the severity of the economic attacks on working-class communities, the attacks on public education itself, and the more and more brazen attacks on teacher unions, nothing is more important than building those alliances.


The Teacher Union Reform Network (TURN) is online at: alternative to Michelle Rhee’s brand of reform. is at: http://www.turn

The Mooney Institute is online at:
The DC grassroots organization Teacher and Parents for Real Education Reform, which has been fighting for an alternative to Michelle Rhee’s brand of reform. is at:

NY Daily News columnist Juan Gonzalez has investigated how charter schools become unregulated money-making investments for hedge fund managers. One in a series of columns he has written on the subject is at: charter_cash_cow_big_banks_making_a_bundle_on_new_construction_as_schools.html

For a snapshot of the components of progressive unionism, view the Three Frames of Progressive Unionism tool at:

To find out more about Urban Teacher Residencies based on the model pioneered in Boston and Chicago, go to:
Find out more about the Syracuse NY “Say Yes To Education” initiative at:

The Consortium On Chicago School Research can be found at:

Mark Simon & Naomi Baden, “The Power of Progressive Thinking,” Ed Week, 2008:

Mark Simon was a high school teacher for 16 years and president of the teachers union in Montgomery County, MD. He serves as National Coordinator of the Mooney Inst. and as Education Policy Analyst at the Economic Policy Inst. in Wash., DC.

This article was written as part of a project for the Ford Foundation, “Secondary Education and Racial Justice Collaborative,” and presented in October 2010. It grew out of the Mooney Institute’s work with the MITUL locals (Cleveland, Minneapolis, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, Omaha, DeKalb County [GA], Prince Georges County [MD], and Elgin, Springfield and Decatur, Illinois ( It also grew out of his experience working as an activist in Washington, DC with “Teachers and Parents for Real Education Reform.” Thanks to CUNY Prof. Michelle Fine for initiating the Ford project and bringing the community-based organizations together.

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