Learning to Fight

Mary Compton

Teachers everywhere are fighting against austerity.

Interview by
Kevin Prosen

Ten years ago, Mexican society was electrified by the explosive struggle of Oaxaca’s teachers against neoliberal education reform. What began as a teachers’ protest turned into a mass movement of Oaxacan society against neoliberalism and the brutality of the Mexican state. Over the course of six months of struggle in the face of intense repression, the movement — dubbed the “Oaxaca Commune” — captured the world’s imagination and led to the ouster of the state’s governor.

In 2016, under the rubric of “reform” and “accountability,” Mexican teachers are facing a raft of proposals from the government of President Enrique Peña Nieto designed to weaken their unions. After Mexican police opened fire on protesters in the Oaxacan town of Nochixtlán, killing six, Oaxaca’s teachers once more found themselves leading a national movement against neoliberalism in the face of tremendous police violence.

Here in the United States, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) shook up the American labor movement four years ago with its defiant strike against Democratic mayor Rahm Emmanuel and his program of budget cuts, austerity, and privatization.

In April, the CTU struck again, leading a broad-based community alliance of labor unions, low-wage workers, and antiracist movements like Black Lives Matter against Emmanuel’s transformation of Chicago along the austere lines of neoliberalism. In the dismal landscape of American unionism, the CTU is notable for its cultivation of these alliances, principled opposition to austerity, and vibrant, democratic spirit.

Meanwhile in the United Kingdom, the National Union of Teachers (NUT) went on strike last week against the Tory government’s school budget cuts and unsustainable working conditions. In a context of heightened xenophobia in the wake of the Brexit referendum, the strike was notable for foregrounding the issue of migrant rights alongside teachers’ pay and working conditions.

What’s driving this global movement to reform education along neoliberal lines, and why do teachers find themselves everywhere at the center of movements against austerity?

Mary Compton, a lifelong teacher and past president of the NUT, has carefully documented the neoliberal education reform movement through the website Teacher Solidarity and her book The Global Assault on Teaching, Teachers and Their Unions (co-edited with Lois Weiner). She spoke with New York City teacher Kevin Prosen about the NUT strike, the global assault on teacher unions, and why teachers need to take the lead in movements for social justice.

Kevin Prosen

Let’s begin in the United Kingdom where you are based. The National Union of Teachers just went on strike there, after a 91 percent membership vote in favor of a work stoppage.

Can you describe some of the issues teachers are confronting that led to this action?

Mary Compton

First of all, schools are facing huge budget cuts, as part of the Tory government’s austerity program. This is leading to larger class sizes, the cutting out of many subjects especially in the creative arts, and serious detriment to programs for children with additional learning needs.

This also leads to a big increase in teachers’ workload, which is already so unsustainable that at least four in ten new teachers leave within the first five years. Apart from the cuts, the main drivers of increased workload are managerial methods of accountability which see teachers having to justify everything they do through endless paperwork, being continually watched and monitored, and being straitjacketed and judged by student testing systems which have no basis in any kind of enlightened pedagogy.

Teachers have little or no professional autonomy and are in a state of being permanently judged and usually found wanting. In my experience it is the destruction of their identities as autonomous professionals who can take pride in what they do, which is becoming unbearable and driving them either to leave or to action.

There are however yet more reasons for the strike. The so-called “academization” of schools (very similar to charterization in the US) means that teachers’ national pay and conditions, something which was fought for and won in the beginning of the last century — a fight which incidentally formed the basis of the growth of the National Union of Teachers — are being steadily eroded, with academies and academy chains able to set their own pay and conditions and employ unqualified people to “teach.”

Kevin Prosen

The other major teachers’ union, the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT) did not join in the strike. Why not? What accounts for this division?

Mary Compton

The division between teachers’ unions is a serious break in the development of the fight for democratic and public education and it is one which the NUT is keen to mend. The NASUWT is the second largest union.

On the ground, teachers in both unions generally work well together and the NUT has made many overtures to the NASUWT to try to build a joint union (indeed it is in talks with the next smallest union to do just that at present). Unfortunately there are too many vested interests at the leadership level to make joining together easy.

Historically the NAS (as it then was) broke from the NUT because it didn’t agree with our fight for equal pay for women. Now the NASUWT tends to be more focused on a business union model which sees its members well-being as its only responsibility (although it does take an interest in international and antiracist work), whereas the NUT also has a big focus on social justice and the defense of education and children. It is a very different system from that in the United States, where one or the other union has bargaining rights.

Kevin Prosen

In the United States as well, the kind of accountability regime you describe is enforced through testing. We have seen a very interesting movement emerge in the United States — in New York, Chicago, Seattle, and other places — of parents, students, and teachers in various ways boycotting these exams.

What does the testing regime look like in the United Kingdom, and can you say more about why testing is so important for education reformers?

Mary Compton

Standardized testing has been an issue here ever since the Thatcher government started to introduce education “reform” in the eighties. It has been sporadically opposed by union boycotts and parent refusals. However it has never been successfully defeated.

On the contrary, testing under this government has become ever more oppressive. Over the last year we have seen the introduction of testing for four-year-olds which was strongly resisted by a NUT campaign working with parents and has been withdrawn for the time being. On the other hand, new tests have been introduced which require seven-year-olds for instance to know the difference between an adverb and an adjective, and eleven-year-olds to understand the difference between a subordinating conjunction and a preposition.

Teachers are having to spend hours drilling their children in the most arcane reaches of grammar and of course children are bored and frustrated. At present there is an emerging scandal of mismarking, which has seen many children failing the tests and many stories of upset children as they both take and fail these impossible and inappropriate tests.

In a recent radio interview a schools minister responsible for the tests was unable to answer one of the questions put to him at random — and I suspect that would be true for 95 percent of the population.

One might ask why teachers continue to teach this nonsense but it has to be understood that it is part of an elaborate structure of accountability which can affect not only their pay and tenure but also the very future of the school, as schools in some areas are closed or merged and others forcibly turned into academies because they are deemed to be “failing.”

And of course all of these testing regimes are designed, provided, and marked by companies who view them as a huge business opportunity. A recent report forecast that the school assessment tools market would grow by 17.4 percent in Europe by 2020.

Kevin Prosen

There’s a lot of talk about immigration and racism in the United Kingdom right now in the wake of the Brexit vote. The NUT has taken a strong position in favor of migrants’ rights and against Islamophobia and racism. Can you describe how this resolution came about?

Mary Compton

Because many of our members are working every day with children from migrant and immigrant communities, there has always been a strong antiracist strand in our work and of course a lot of that focuses on the scourge of Islamophobia, particularly given the government’s so-called Prevent strategy, which places a responsibility on teachers to uphold “British values” and identify any children who are “vulnerable to radicalization.” The NUT is totally opposed to this.

It is true that there has been an upsurge in racist incidents in the wake of the Brexit vote, which has been encouraged and enabled by a discourse on both sides of the EU argument which seeks to blame migrants for the sufferings of the poor and the economic detriments to the middle classes.

Of course this lets the real culprits off the hook — international finance; corporate capitalism and their placemen in government who are visiting appalling cuts on the population and steadily destroying decent jobs and employment rights. The NUT sees it as part of its struggle to counter this narrative and it formed an important strand in the strike on July 5.

Kevin Prosen

There have been some contentious debates in teachers’ unions in the United States over taking positions on “social justice” issues such as police brutality or immigration, as opposed to limiting our agenda to economic issues and working conditions.

Why is it important for teachers’ unions to take positions on issues like racism and migrants’ rights?

Mary Compton

I think we are way beyond a situation where our responsibility is simply to defend our members’ pay and conditions (although of course this must be done as well). What we are facing is the complete destruction of democratic and public education by a corporate elite which sees education as a massive business opportunity.

Not only that but for the elites, schools are potentially dangerous places, where democracy can be learned and developed and teachers, children, and communities can think critically together about the economic and social relations in which we all live.

By grabbing hold of education, standardizing it with the massive use of technology, and de-professionalizing and straitjacketing teachers, corporate elites are seeking to take control of these dangerous spaces and turn them into training grounds for the sort of flexible and quiescent workers and consumers which they require.

In my opinion our fight for education is central to the fight for democracy and we are in a prime position to take a leading part in that fight because we are embedded in local communities and we see the suffering caused by poverty and of course racism and police brutality firsthand.

Kevin Prosen

Let’s talk politics. In the United States, the two major teachers’ unions are both supporting Hillary Clinton for president. Yet more educators have made donations to her social-democratic challenger, Bernie Sanders. In fact, Clinton was booed just the other day during a speech at the National Education Association for praising charter schools. In North Carolina, teachers disrupted a campaign event with Barack Obama to protest the deportation of their students, and we’ve seen similar protests in New York and other places.

Readers of Jacobin have been closely following the attempted “coup” against Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour Party. Can you describe the relationship of the NUT to the Labour Party, and how the union has related to the current political conjuncture in the United Kingdom?

Mary Compton

The NUT, unlike the big industrial unions, has never been affiliated to the Labour Party. Leaderships of the NUT have historically taken the view, rightly or wrongly, that they should not seek to influence the political positions of their members. So you would never get a situation in the United Kingdom, like the one you describe in the United States, where the union was putting its weight behind one or other candidate.

And as a matter of fact, since the New Labour administration of Tony Blair came in in 1997, our union has been as much at loggerheads with Labour as it was with the Tories, since Blair continued and took much further the neoliberal education reform agenda of Margaret Thatcher. However many of us are very excited by developments in the Labour Party now.

I believe what we are seeing is the last gasp of Blairism — which has been dealt the coup de grace by the Chilcot Report. Many of the coup plotters against Corbyn voted with Blair on the Iraq War.

Corbyn on the other hand has been a man of principle from the start, always supporting the causes of social justice, whether that meant standing on miners’ picket lines, speaking out against apartheid, against the Iraq War, speaking against the Israeli occupation and so on — no matter how unpopular that made him with a vicious media or with the majority of his own parliamentary colleagues.

This new politics is enthusing people all over the country, especially the young, and there have been massive rallies, almost totally unreported in the media, in his support, in working-class towns such as Liverpool, Birmingham, and Manchester, as well as in leafier places like Penzance of Plymouth.

It is our best hope of a counterweight to the revolting racist policies of parties like the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). The NUT will be working with this movement as it pursues its fight for education and social justice.

And needless to say, representatives of Corbyn’s leadership spoke at rallies in support of the teachers’ strike on July 5 — something which no Blairite would have been seen dead doing.

Kevin Prosen

Now in Mexico, teachers in Oaxaca have sparked a mass movement in opposition to the government’s education reforms, and in response to the brutal suppression of the Coordinadora Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación (CNTE), including the massacre of protesters in Nochixtlán. This, two years after the disappearance of forty-three students at the teachers’ college in Ayotzinapa, which also provoked a national and international movement calling for justice and accountability.

What is driving education reform in Mexico, and what accounts for such savage repression against teachers there?

Mary Compton

Nieto is attempting to force through massive structural reforms — the privatization of energy for instance and the destruction of labor rights — at the behest of his corporate friends both in Mexico and the United States. If he is unable to defeat the teachers, he knows that his program is doomed.

The dissident teachers in Mexico are the most determined fighters for democratic and public education in the world. They literally put their bodies on the line to defend the system which they have fought for and built up over the years, despite being starved of budgets and in the last ten years brutally attacked.

The normalista system is at the heart of this struggle — where young people from peasant and indigenous backgrounds learn to be teachers and at the same time learn to think critically about their world and how to fight for justice. So it is no accident that forty-three of them are presumed dead.

However it seems as though state violence just increases the determination of the teachers and their allies. In the words of one slogan from the struggle, “they tried to bury us; they didn’t realize we were seeds.”

One feature of the struggle of teachers in Mexico which makes it particularly hard, is the role of the main teaching union, the Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación (SNTE), which has a long history of both corruption and collaboration with right-wing governments. It is cooperating with the Nieto government in developing and imposing its education reforms and has a history of attacking, including physically, those seeking to oppose them.

This issue of the lack of democracy in teaching unions is a big one — not only in Mexico but globally. It is reflected in the global federation of teachers, Education International (EI), which has always had SNTE in membership (except for a brief period when it didn’t pay its dues) and continues to support them uncritically, despite their connection with reforms which EI opposes.

I think teachers all over the world should be both expressing solidarity with the dissident teachers of Mexico and learning from them and being inspired by them.

Kevin Prosen

Your research has focused on the global agenda of neoliberal education reform. What is driving this movement to reform education globally, and why do we see such similar agendas in such varied national contexts?

Mary Compton

This is such an important issue and one which many people still fail to see. The education reform movement is global and is driven forward by both corporations like Pearson and also capitalist institutions like the World Bank and the OECD.

The rationale behind it as I said above is that education is both a business opportunity — the global education market is worth trillions of dollars — as well as an opportunity to subdue and train the sort of quiescent and flexible workers and consumers which a rampant global capitalism requires.

What makes it so insidious is that it is invariably cloaked in the language of social justice, “education for all,” “bringing the little girls to school,” and so on. So you have for-profit outfits like Bridge International Academies, selling a denatured form of education to some of the poorest families in countries like Kenya and Uganda, operating under the slogan “a high-quality education for every child.” Bridge International is part of both Mark Zuckerberg’s and Pearson’s investment portfolio.

Education International has an important campaign against the privatization of schools globally. Unfortunately however it also sits on bodies like the “Learning Metrics Taskforce” chaired by Pearson and promoted by bodies like the World Bank and the Brookings Institute, which seek to produce massive data collection systems on education around the world.

Such efforts not only provide rich pickings for tech companies, they also force teachers, even in countries where class sizes can be well over a hundred and there are often no sanitary facilities or even school buildings, into endless and meaningless data collection, whipped on by targets and performance-related pay. In other words, all the things which are driving teachers out of the profession in the United Kingdom and the United States are happening globally — and in the Global South on poverty pay as well.

I believe it is the task of teaching unions and our global federation to understand the ideological basis of this movement and resist it, while at the same time promoting a different vision of education, based on local communities, culture, and languages but always developing critical and creative thinking, teaching and learning.

At the moment unions and EI too often fall into the trap of accepting the social justice rhetoric of outfits like the OECD and the World Bank, which brings the danger of collaborating with the very systems which are seeking to destroy us.

Kevin Prosen

I’m glad you mentioned the tech companies. The culture of data collection has really permeated the classroom here in the United States, where we constantly hear administrators talking about “data-driven instruction” and so on. Could you elaborate a bit more on the role of tech companies in school reform?

Mary Compton

Teachers now find themselves in a position where they are spending hours acting as unpaid data collectors for private corporations. This nonstop drive for data is one of the things which is frustrating and exhausting teachers.

However it is worse than that. Nobody knows how the data will be used either by corporations or by governments. Tech entrepreneurs make no secret of the fact that the mass collection of data on children can be monetized and brings potentially huge profits.

What is more it can be seen as part of the surveillance state where every aspect of a human being’s life is being recorded and kept — in the case of children, including their attitudes and behavior as well as their abilities, work rate, and so on.

Tech companies like Facebook and Microsoft as well as corporations like Pearson are at the heart of the education reform movement. And their interests are being actively furthered and promoted by the World Bank and the OECD.

Indeed Pearson is the chosen provider of the latest round of the OECD Programme for International Student Assesment (PISA) tests. It is time teachers’ unions and in particular our global federation EI woke up to this. In a 2014 post, in the context of a roundtable hosted by Facebook and attended by Hewlett Packard and Intel, amongst others, it reported that

Education International is working with the Global Business Coalition for Education to improve the quality of learning and teaching for all through aiding international technology suppliers to connect to educators in deploying modern technology.

While computers can have a subordinate role in schools, big data has no place in education either in the North or the Global South. Instead we should be fighting for proper funding for schools and a completely different vision for education based as I said earlier on local cultures, languages, and communities but always striving for teaching and learning which is both creative and critical.

Kevin Prosen

Finally, what do these various movements tell us about the role of teachers in relation to the wider labor movement, and movements for social justice more generally?

Mary Compton

As I said above I think teachers are in a key position, they are usually embedded in local communities, they are often respected members of their communities and looked to for leadership, and indeed they often share the poverty and oppression experienced by those communities.

In the NUT we are seeking more and more to become a social movement union as are many teaching unions in the world and I certainly think we should look to enlightened teaching unions in the rest of the world who are engaged in the same struggle, particularly at the moment in Mexico.