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At its core, to be “progressive” is to fight for the little guy against powerful forces of self-interest.

Whether the little guy was a Kansas farmer whose earnings were manipulated by commodities traders in Chicago, a woman denied the right to vote, an underpaid working man seeking union representation, blacks oppressed by segregation, or a low-level civil servant forced to pay homage to a powerful political machine, progressives made them their cause.

Peter Cunningham

In education, the little guy was historically the teacher and over the years, many progressive reforms were adopted to serve and protect teachers: higher pay, health care and retirement benefits, tenure, seniority and professional development.

Related: Black kids lose when Democratic ed reformers act like Republicans

Along the way, however, we also realized there was an even littler guy than the teacher in need of protection – the student. The Supreme Court recognized this in 1954 and ruled that segregated schools are unconstitutional.

Congress recognized it in the 1960’s by passing a law providing federal funds to counter inequitable state and local funding for low-income students. Congress went further in the 1970’s when they passed a law to protect students with disabilities.

By the 1990’s there was a serious call for higher standards and more ambitious achievement goals. And then in the 2000’s we passed a law mandating accountability – all to protect the littlest guy of all – the student.

Today, that law, for all its flaws, still stands. It’s been amended by the current administration through executive action, but the essence remains: accountability to protect the little guy.

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Recently, education professor Andre Perry suggested that some reforms are at odds with the progressive traditions of the Democratic Party. Citing outcomes from the recent midterm elections, he writes, “No Democrat owes a victory to education reform.”

Perhaps, though several pro-reform Democrats will keep or occupy governor’s mansions in January, including John Hickenlooper in Colorado, Andrew Cuomo in New York, Gina Raimondo in Rhode Island, and Dannel Malloy in Connecticut.

“… parents won’t wait forever for better schools and the political party that delivers them has a promising future.”

Meanwhile, Democratic losses in traditionally blue states of Illinois, Massachusetts, and Maryland can hardly be blamed on their support for education reform.

In any case, Perry’s argument is that the reform agenda – public charter schools, accountability and competitive grant programs – is essentially a Republican agenda that puts the Democratic party at war with its base – specifically teacher unions.

First of all, this argument overlooks obvious areas of agreement among reformers and unions. For example, most reformers join teachers in supporting more funding.

Related: Against tenure? Here’s why you might want to make an exception for your child’s teacher

It’s worth remembering that the pro-reform Obama administration provided nearly $60 billion to save some 400,000 teaching jobs during the recession. This money came with no strings attached and dwarfed the administration’s “reform” initiatives.

Both national unions support higher standards. Both national teacher unions and some state and local affiliates also embraced competitive grant reforms they now oppose, including teacher evaluations based in part on student achievement, and interventions for low-performing schools. Even on issues like merit pay, some unions agreed to pilot programs that factor performance into compensation.

That is not to suggest unions are hypocrites for changing their positions but merely to point out that unions and reformers were not always at odds on these issues and neither are monolithic in their views.

Perry also singles out the tenure issue as an example where unions and reformers differ, but it warrants a little nuance. Some people conflate reforming and abolishing tenure, but most reformers, including the people behind the lawsuits in California and New York, are simply for raising the bar on tenure, not eliminating it.

So the real open question is, who are the real progressives?

Are they the ones protecting educational jobs for teachers or the ones trying to improve educational outcomes for children? Are they the ones insisting that better education cannot overcome the effects of poverty or the ones insisting that it must?

Are they the ones insisting that traditional public schools are the only option for kids or the ones fighting to give low-income parents more options?

Polls show strong support for choice among minorities and Perry concedes as much, citing a survey from the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO).

Perry then takes to task the teacher unions for resisting choice but then inexplicably criticizes Democrats because, “They have not articulated how they can create more quality, public options.”

This is especially baffling, given that he credits the Obama administration for expanding charter schools. He could review New York Governor Cuomo’s speech in Albany last winter before a crowd of thousands of pro-charter parents. There are countless other examples of pro-charter Democrats at every level of government.

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Perry goes on to say that, “Democratic reformers’ stand against labor is simply bad long-term strategy for the Party. Most importantly, it’s not progressive.”

Given that Education Post’s parent poll shows broad support for high standards, accountability and choice among minorities who now make up the majority of public school students, I argue that reformers’ stands against unions are less the problem for Democrats than the unions’ stand against reform.

Insofar as it’s students – the littlest guys of all – who are most at risk from low standards, weak accountability and the lack of better educational options, knee-jerk opposition to reform is definitely not progressive.

Whether Democrats can marry the reform agenda to its traditional labor base depends both on whether reformers can rein in some of their excesses like over-testing and low-quality charters and whether teacher unions are willing to change from an industrial-style union to a self-regulating professional organization.

Either way, parents won’t wait forever for better schools and the political party that delivers them has a promising future.

Peter Cunningham is the Executive Director of Education Post, a Chicago-based non-profit supporting individuals and organizations working to improve public education, and a former Assistant Secretary in the U.S. Department of Education (2009-2012).

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3 Letters

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  1. There are a few problems with this article:

    1. “Are they the ones protecting educational jobs for teachers or the ones trying to improve educational outcomes for children?”

    This is a false dichotomy implying that you are for teachers jobs, then you are against students. Oddly the University of Chicago just published research showing that attendance (in a classroom with a teacher) and grades (earned by the student and “given” by the teacher) are the top two indicators of future student success in high school and college (standardized test results were third). Making sure that teachers are supported and productive is important for student learning. So is accountability. The problem is that teachers are now being held accountable for aspects of education that they have little or no control over. That is not accountability. At the same time, student accountability is vanishing. Did a student turn in an assignment late? No problem, they can’t get a zero because that is penalizing a behavior (and in some places, you can’t even earn a zero, because no work now earns 50% credit). Don’t feel like studying? No problem there either, under new accountability standards, the teacher is required to let you see the test, and you can then retake it at your leisure (once you have seen the original test … and since that test was a part of a long refinement process, the retake can’t be all that different).

    Hold teachers accountable … hold them accountable for all things that they can control: planning, assessing, discipline. But don’t holding them accountable for other things transforms education into something that isn’t education. I don’t know what it is.

    2. The support for school choice is one that is tainted. When polling virtually any population, and asked “would you rather have the freedom to choose?” or “Let someone else decide”, “Choose” wins in most cases. What is not being presented is the fine print: if your child is disabled, there is a good chance that they ill be eventually asked to leave in order to keep test scores up. No one mentions the unbelievable turnover in staff and complete lack of continuity in the educational program in a lot of charter schools. Since most charters are corporate entities, the goal is to get your kid out of the school (preparing them for their future is optional). The bottom line (profits) is the main goal.

    Some public schools need to be changed and helped. Get those schools the change and help they need to help those students. However, broad, one-size-fits-all approaches are just ways avoiding solutions to the real problems while pretending to treat everyone equally.

  2. A post industrial age education system would be different altogether from what either unions or reformers imagine today. Teachers would be prepared and supported to implement a curriculum and pedagogy consistent with students neurodevelopmental readiness to learn. Teachers would be prepared and supported in mindfulness practiceto acquire the disposition and resiliency they need for the most challenging job in our country today. Teachers would be supported and prepared to interleave pleasurable mind-expanding activities like play, games, the arts, into the academic experience.

  3. Richard Patel: you’re absolutely right; the author here pits teachers against students. In CA, the Republican candidate for Education Secretary ran on that very line: that support of the teachers’ union (i.e., teachers) equals war against education for children. He lost, but he still had plenty of support. Cunninham’s article seems to be a call to Democrats to join the bandwagon or fall to the wayside: recognize that teachers–with their pay, pensions and job security–are the enemy. Yet there is little to no analyses anywhere of how corrupt student “protections” have become.

    As you point out, many schools and districts are promoting this “No Zero” policy, as if reward for nothing is something to prepare students for in their future (a policy that more than anything conditions them for dependence and entitlement). Most recently in LAUSD, the former superintendent decided that too many “minorities” were being suspended for infractions (a total defiance of logic considering that LAUSD is more than 70% Hispanic! are we supposed to suspend the 5% of whites every week?), so suspensions and explusions have been effectively “suspended,” including for physical assaults against teachers. Neither the District, nor the administrations nor the teachers union will protect teachers from physical assault–and it is relatively common in special ed classes with special ed students who are protected by their IEP from consequences for committing acts of violence. Because of our contract, teachers cannot go out of the system to report a crime of violence; because of extreme political correctness, teachers are effectly outside of the laws that protect every American from physical assault, and there is nothing we can do about it!

    “Journalists” like Cunningham are part of the problem: they market this line that “teachers are the enemy:” thus, their pay needs to be lowered, they need their rights reduced, and they are to blame for everything that is wrong with education. It is an illogical argument, but because no one–including our unions for fear of being labled anti-reform or racist–will counter, it has traction.

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