Confessions of a privatizing corporatist union thug

/ 28 May 2013 / eunice

Michael Diedrich, Minnesota 2020, Twin Cities Daily Planet Commentary, May 28, 2013 – I got my start in education policy as a student activist. I testified at school board meetings in my hometown of Rochester, met with state legislators about funding equity, that sort of thing. An interest in education policy stayed with me through my time at UW-Madison. I didn’t want to be a career teacher, but I wanted to get classroom experience before pursuing anything else in policy or politics. Teach For America was a logical next step.

As an English teacher at Brooklyn Center High School, my success increased with my students’ ages. I was an atrocious eighth grade teacher, but made decent progress with twelfth graders. I struggled mightily to teach reading comprehension, was adequate at literary analysis, and had my biggest successes in writing. I learned how hard it is to teach, to say nothing of how hard it is to teach well. My view of master teachers morphed from intellectual appreciation to deep, emotional respect (touched, I’ll admit, with envy). With very few exceptions, my colleagues were deeply dedicated to their students and their work. BCHS certainly struggled with test scores and achievement gaps, but those problems weren’t because of an uncaring or jaded staff.

My heart, though, was still in policy and systemic reform. This hit home during my second year of teaching. I was in charge of the test prep regimen for 10th grade, creating and distributing materials to advisory teachers to improve scores on the reading test in the spring. I tried to find ways to make those packets meaningful, but I eventually found that I couldn’t justify even to myself why they were relevant.

To be clear, I absolutely know and believe that reading is relevant. I saw that every day, watching students fight their way through novels, stories, and poems that shouldn’t have been so difficult for high school students. It broke my heart that I wasn’t better at helping students improve, and I was thrilled when my students did find their way to success. Where I couldn’t find relevance was in the test itself. The format wasn’t realistic, the skills too isolated, the questions and answers too discrete. Sure, it assessed many sub-skills of “reading,” but it didn’t really measure reading.

What I was doing that second year at BCHS as I copied endless piles of test preparation materials looked nothing like the education my students deserved. This wasn’t a culture of high expectations; it was a climate of fear and anxiety organized around a single, flawed form of measurement. The tests had warped the shape of schooling in a way I saw as unhealthy for kids. I knew I had to get out.

I’m now a public policy graduate student because I believe we can build a school system that has, not just higher, but better expectations for all students. That’s also why I work for a teachers’ union.

I was connected with the Saint Paul Federation of Teachers by the alumni-oriented side of Teach For America. They knew about my views and pointed me in the direction of the job I have now, doing research and organizing work for SPFT. Despite the image in some circles of TFA producing an endless supply of Michelle Rhee wannabes, there’s a broad mix of ideas and politics to be found within the ranks of TFA alumni. Many other TFA alums have the same concerns I do about testing, quality-blind support for school choice (which, thankfully, is on the decline), and other elements of current education reform. It’s worth noting that TFA is OK with this diversity. The organization has not tried to shape my politics or policies, for which I am grateful.

I love working for SPFT because it’s proof positive that teachers’ unions care deeply about the students their members serve. Everything I’ve been involved with at SPFT has come back to what’s good for students in the Saint Paul Public Schools. I believe that the most effective changes to how we teach and how we run our schools will look more like what SPFT is doing than the test-based mania I saw in Brooklyn Center as a TFAer.

To some, my TFA pedigree marks me as a “privatizing corporatist,” although anyone who’s read what I’ve written for Minnesota 2020 can see that’s not true. To others, I’m a “union thug” putting the interests of adults ahead of the interests of kids. However, my primary work at SPFT has been to articulate a student-centered vision for the Saint Paul Public Schools based on the ideas and feedback of families, students, and community leaders in addition to those of teachers.

I’m not as much of an anomaly as you might think. There are many people with more nuanced views than our stereotypes would suggest. We should argue and disagree – this is no mealy-mouthed cry for middle ground – but I think the best results for kids will come from the collaboration of those who are more interested in winning friends than in beating enemies.