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Poverty

Teachers Unions Should Listen to Parents, Not Marketing Firms

Solutions for parents to public education’s many inequities require real talk in real time. But you won’t find real talk in the new National Education Association (NEA) messaging. A recently leaked document indicates the NEA, the nation’s largest organization representing teachers, wishes to minimize the struggle for those most in need of access to a quality education by putting a kinder, gentler spin on critical issues that affect academic and life success. I am part of that struggle, like so many other parents before me during the civil rights movement era. I have devoted countless hours, tears and sleepless nights to education activism so the impassioned voices of urban parents, like me, don’t get lost in lagging school systems. I am dismayed to see that union members are being encouraged to minimize the inequities that exist throughout the country. The document lays out “words to avoid” and “words to embrace”:  

“Education improvement and education excellence”

instead of “Education reform”

“Committed to the success of every child”

instead of “Educational equity”

“Living in the right zip code”

instead of “Inequality”

“Testing takes time from learning”

instead of “Meaningful, rigorous evaluations”

“School is where childhood happens”

instead of “Effective learning environment”

  To union members, words like reform, equity, inequality, rigor and effectiveness are words that hurt. They don’t give educators that warm, fuzzy feeling inside. You know what I say to that? Good. I’m tired of seeing too many students, a vast majority poor and of color, hurt by a system that does not work for them. It is unbelievable that educators would focus on expensive message research with the intention of further excluding voices they disagree with rather than engage communities honestly, hear about our desperate realities, and consider ways to support critically important changes rather than resist everything they find inconvenient. It is disingenuous of teachers union leaders to dismiss concerns from parents like me simply because our personal experiences with failing schools are not wrapped in a feel-good, warm and fuzzy message. It is this very mentality that has solidified my commitment to real reforms in our system. I spend my days showing parents the effects of anti-reform and anti-rigor measures in their schools. When parents want to know how equity—or a lack thereof—looks, I ask them to look at the classrooms their children are in. When it comes to protesting inequities, I help parents tap into their inner strength and give them good information to make informed decisions about what is best for children. That’s what is most troubling about these NEA talking points—they lack a sense of urgency. Their message implies there is no crisis in education.

Don’t Hide the Crisis in Education

Our children cannot wait for schools to get better, for circumstances to improve, or for the messaging to land just right. I have four children. Two were high school dropouts. There were no words for what I felt when I realized my children would not walk across the stage on graduation day, or for how powerless I felt at not being able to control what happened in their classrooms. But with the right encouragement and support we managed to work together, re-engage and graduate. For a union to tell its members, in essence, to downplay certain terms sends a dangerous message to parents, causing us to question whose side they’re on. I believe their message is clearly meant to minimize the crisis facing public schools and many students. It is misleading to parents and everyone with a stake in public education. Parents may not know what it means to live in the right zip code vs. the wrong one, but they know inequality when they see it. So again, we need real talk from the people who are in front of our children everyday. We need to hear them say, “These inequities do exist, but if we work together, we can address them.” We need union members to use their powerful voices—and most important, their access—to validate the inequities, knowing that by holding each of us accountable to our roles and responsibilities, we can improve outcomes. I worry that messages to the contrary will cause parents to believe there is no crisis and slow down their advocacy efforts. Parents cannot afford to blindly trust the system, to cross their fingers and hope for the best. The needs of our students are urgent and real. We need actions and words from union members that reflect the same.
Gwen Samuel is the founder and president of the Connecticut Parents Union. She is an advocate for the educational rights of all children to ensure that race, zip code and socio-economic status are not predictors of student success. A parent of two children in Connecticut Public Schools, she also is the founder of two volunteer organizations in ...

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