Education Reform Advances in “Post-Riot” Anaheim

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Anaheim protest.(Photo: Chase Carter / Flickr)National advocacy organization Partnership for 21st Century Skills purports to advance education in Anaheim’s predominately Latino schools, but its framework is designed to prepare graduates for the global economy – not a critique of it.

It’s been more than ten months since a weekend of fatal officer-involved shootings in Anaheim turned to consecutive days of protest. When California State Superintendent Tom Toralkson visited a local high school campus in April in the interests of education reform, it was as if that backdrop of unrest had never been there.

Anger in the city’s Latino community reached a crescendo on July 24, 2012, when the stage was set for a tense standoff between around 1,000, mostly youthful, protestors and Anaheim police, backed by neighboring law enforcement agencies. The scenes of clashes in the city’s downtown shocked national and international audiences who only knew of Anaheim as the tourist destination home of Disneyland.

In the time since those days of outrage, the city has done little soul-searching and not much has actually changed. Political reforms in the way Anaheim elects its city council continue to be debated as an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit alleging disenfranchisement of Latino voters, which forced the issue, works its way through the court system. In terms of police oversight, no concrete proposal has emerged for a civilian review board, although accountability activists have demanded it.

Anaheim has dozens of documented gangs largely emerging from low-income, neglected barrios that have existed for decades. A Disney-funded Olin Group study found that Anaheim was particularly failing youth between the ages of 13 and 18 – as much of the emphasis was placed in terms of how the city’s young residents could be better served after the school day ends. But what about in the classroom between school bells?

With an eye toward the literal future of Anaheim, two main pillars of so-called education reform have been quietly advancing in the city’s schools, where students spend a good portion of their day. California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson visited Savanna High School, as a special guest, for presentations, panels and a town hall meeting surrounding “P-21” or the Partnership for 21st Century Skills.

Just a month prior, Torlakson announced in March that California would become the 19th state in the United States to join the national partnership. The move would provide, in Torlakson’s words, “additional tools and resources to implement common core state standards,” and help “prepare every student for the challenges of a changing world.”

Partnership for 21st Century Skills is a national advocacy organization based out of Washington, DC. Its newest president, Dr. Steven Paine, a former state superintendent from West Virginia, was also on hand for the high school event in Anaheim. The reform touts a framework of 4-Cs: critical thinking and problem solving; communication; collaboration; and creativity and innovation. The skill set is purported to prepare graduates for the competitiveness of the global economy.

P-21 and the common core initiative are not on the polarizing forefront of high stakes standardized testing and the push to privatize public education, but that doesn’t mean corporations do not see the value in them. The reformist P-21 organization is a consortium of public and private interests. The National Education Association, Apple Inc., the Ford Motor Company Fund and the Walt Disney Company are all among those comprising its “Strategic Council” members.

As it stands, the P-21 movement is positioning itself in a city where the Walt Disney Company’s first theme park opened and where Disney has great influence over the local economy and governance. Savanna High School reflects the “other” Anaheim, where Latinos form the majority of residents in the mainland as opposed to the whiter, wealthier areas up in the Hills. Currently, 71 percent of Savanna’s 2,200 students are Latino while 12 percent are white. A majority of Savanna students qualify for the free/reduced lunch program, and many are English language learners.

The demographics are also a prime example of just how rapidly the brown, working-class supermajority of the city’s mainland has been formed. At the onset of the 21st century, Savanna High School’s student population held a 43 percent Latino majority, while 32 percent were white. Within a decade, the number of Latinos enrolled doubled whereas the number of whites halved – underscoring the level of “white flight” from mainland Anaheim. The city is definitely entering the 21st century under transformative terms. Is P-21 right for its new needs?

The reform agenda is not without its critics. Education scholar Mike Rose has likened “21st Century Skills” rhetoric to a new oft-repeated cliché, a public relations rebranding of theoretical core principles that should be the crux of an educational system in any century. At the P-21 event in Anaheim, the term was repeated so often by all the speakers that a proverbial drinking game could have been played. Critiques run deeper than simply examining the packaging. “The 21st Century Skills’ philosophy of education is an economic one,” wrote Rose in 2009. “The primary goal is to create efficient and effective workers.” Exemplary of that, Anaheim Mayor Tom Tait, an elected official present at the town hall panel, fielded a question about P-21 not in terms of fostering citizenship skills, but of being useful in the workplace, using his experience as head of a business firm.

Common core state standards has its progressive criticisms also, though the two largest teacher unions are supportive of them. P-21 posits itself as complementary to its aims. Common core’s emphasis on digital literacy and the accompanying technological demands is seen as providing for a new, increasingly singularized market for heavy investors. It’s no surprise then, that Intel and Apple corporations are part of the P-21 nexus. Though trying to position itself away from the scrutiny now focused on standardized testing, common core will come with its own set of assessments, where the stakes will be high and the implementation shaped accordingly, critics contend.

With a Latino supermajority in Anaheim, its schools could benefit from a “C” left out of the P-21 paradigm – that of culturally relevant pedagogy. In Arizona, an academically successful Mexican-American studies program was ideologically dismantled in the Tucson Unified School District. In Anaheim, what has never been established need not be demolished. The Partnership for 21st Century Skills pays fealty to multiculturalism, but mostly through its market-based prism. “Global awareness” and multilingualism are suggested for international trade, and competitiveness within it, and not so much for the young, budding anthropologist. Culturally responsive education as a means of re-orienting and challenging dominant narratives plays no real part, though it would be beneficial to Anaheim’s Latino present and future.

On the other education reform front, standardized testing became a focus for one elementary school. Danbrook Elementary resides on the west side of the city and is smack dab in the middle of a gang injunction “safety zone.” Eight-one percent of its student body population is Latino, and the surrounding community is yet another example of neglect. The street name and the school are referred to by some as “damn broke.” Teachers and school officials literally rallied to dramatically improve the academic performance index (API) measurement based on test results – going so far as to hold pep rallies for the coming California Standards Tests (CST) and crowning as “kings” and “queens” those who scored highest the previous year.

A dramatic 81-point increase gained them the distinction of being the most improved elementary school in Orange County, where Anaheim is situated. Mayor Tait ecstatically cited it during his post-riot 2013 state of the city speech. If a barrio success story, it is one with a youth-criminalizing gang injunction – one of four in the city – in the backdrop. An extraordinary amount of effort also was made by staff and students to test their way out of imposed parameters. What if the energizing spirit of cooperation was differently situated through truly democratic, bicultural schooling instead of targeted at hitting standardized testing benchmarks?

No space for such ideas exists in the Partnership for 21st Century Skills as it discards the lessons from 20th century critical thinkers. “Our economic system must create men who fit its needs; men who cooperate smoothly; men who want to consume more and more,” wrote social psychologist Erich Fromm. “The same artifices are employed in progressive education. Parents and teachers have confused true nonauthoritarian education with education by means of persuasion and hidden coercion.” P-21’s function in creating graduates for what big business desires shows its purpose and limitations. There is much on the surface level to be seductive, but that’s what makes it necessary to view its framework through a critical lens.

“They call for adapting to society, rather than transforming it,” wrote Richard Van Heertum and Carlos Alberto Torres of “21st Century Skills” boosters in Educating the Global Citizen – In the Shadow of Neoliberalism. The riots of last summer exposed Anaheim’s racialized class lines for the nation and the world to see. It is a city in dire need of change, but education reform on the move is situated to have those of the next generation who aren’t failed by the system simply uphold it one way or another.