By Wendell Steinhauer
This op-ed column appeared in the Newark Star-Ledger on Sunday, Sept. 1, 2013
In New Jersey, Labor Day and the start of school happen around the same time each year. As a teacher and now as president of New Jersey Education Association, that’s a happy coincidence for me because it highlights the link between the two things I care about most: great public schools and fair, respectful treatment of the women and men who help make them great.
You cannot have one without the other. A school is only as strong as its people: students and their families, certainly, but also the teachers, educational support professionals and administrators who create the learning environment and set the tone for success.
That’s why, in an era when labor unions are unfairly maligned as out-of-step and out-of-date, I’m an unapologetic unionist. I’m proud to fight for higher wages, strong benefits, a secure retirement and good working conditions for my members because they have earned those things and deserve to enjoy the fruits of their labors. We also are united in our demand to be treated as professionals and with respect, because no one is doing more than we are to secure the future success of New Jersey.
But I will also fight for our profession and for public education. In 2013, that means taking some risks and trying approaches we may not have considered before. It means being innovative and open-minded when it comes to how we educate students.
NJEA did that last year when we stepped into the debate over tenure reform with a set of proposals that ultimately won the day and brought real changes that all the major stakeholders were able to support. Our schools are better off today because we were at the table. And with issues such as teacher evaluation, standardized testing, charter school expansion, virtual education and privatization of public school functions all in the mix, NJEA will have to step up and lead again and again. It’s not enough simply to defend the status quo or to reject proposals without offering solutions of our own.
So we will get our hands dirty finding solutions to the challenges that face our members, our students and our public schools. We are ready to work with anyone whose genuine desire is to help students and make our public schools even more successful.
But in searching for real innovation and collaborative solutions, we will stand strong against the simplistic, sound-bite “solutions” favored by politicians who are too daunted by the magnitude of effort and investment required for genuine education reform. Too many policymakers seem to believe that the more we test students the more they will learn, but as educators, we know the current testing mania more often gets in the way of real learning.
Of course, the real impetus behind the surge in standardized testing is the mistaken belief that the best way to hold teachers accountable is to measure their students’ test scores. It’s an oddly persistent belief, despite the fact that it flies in the face of mountains of research showing that standardized test scores are a very poor indicator of actual teacher effectiveness.
So we will continue to sound the alarm against an all-testing, all-the-time approach to education as we push for better, smarter, more effective ways of measuring and monitoring both student learning and teacher effectiveness.
NJEA members believe the work we do is not just worth doing, but worth doing well. That’s why we organize ourselves to fight for our profession, so we can support our families while pursuing the work we love. We organize to make sure that the generation coming behind us sees public education as a viable and rewarding career. We organize to make sure the ideal of public education is upheld, so that students’ success, and not corporate profits, will always be the bottom line in our public schools. And this weekend, we are proud to be the labor that Labor Day celebrates, because the work we do, as educators and as advocates, really matters.
Wendell Steinhauer is the new president of New Jersey Education Association.