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The Resurgence of the Public Education Nation

The growing movement against corporate-style education reform comes together around the question: What are we for?

Information handout at a protest against Common Core standards outside the state Capitol in Sacramento, California. May 10, 2013. (Photo: Steve Rhodes)

Opposition to the Common Core standards is growing nationwide, and despite salacious headlines indicating that right-wingers are simply opposed to anything the Obama administration does, much of it is coming from teachers and parents opposed to overtesting.

Teachers’ unions have won some recent battles over their contracts, famously in Chicago, less famously in Portland, Oregon and St. Paul, Minnesota. Reformers have taken charge of teachers’ unions in Massachusetts and in Los Angeles. Student unions have sprung up across the country and have held “strikes,” and shut down streets in protest to the way their schools are being handled.

Yet the opposition – the corporate-backed “education reform” movement, or what Massachusetts Teachers Association president Barbara Madeloni calls “predatory ed reform” – is only more determined. Just last week, the Philadelphia School Reform Commission unilaterally cancelled the district’s contract with its teachers’ union. And after a California court ruled that teacher tenure violated the state constitution, well-heeled union busters like Campbell Brown, formerly of CNN, are gearing up for similar suits in states like New York.

“We want community schools . . . embedded in the community and [helping] out the parents, the teachers, and anyone else who lives there that can benefit from wraparound services at those schools.”

In the wake of all this, a group of teachers, parents, and students came together in Brooklyn the October 11 weekend for “Public Education Nation,” an event hosted by the Network for Public Education focused on coming up with a positive vision for public schools. In contrast with “Education Nation,” the big media event funded by deep-pocketed philanthro-capitalists like Bill Gates, the Waltons, and Michael Bloomberg, this event was put together by activists and funded by small donors with a bit of help from the Tides Foundation. The room was filled with well-known education activists (Diane Ravitch, Leonie Haimson, Brian Jones, Carol Burris), but it was some of the less-famed voices, including speakers from the crowd, who stole the show.

“We’re here and we’re creating our own media because we want to share some truths that are apparently too dangerous for mainstream media,” Anthony Cody, teacher and the day’s host, said.

Tanaisa Brown of the Newark Student Union perhaps best set the tone for the day when she told the crowd that the movement needs to have a central message, a central idea. “Remember that there’s other people fighting for the same causes that you are,” she said. While each location has its own specific fights – in Newark, she noted, they’re fighting against the “One Newark” plan being imposed by Chris Christie and his appointed superintendent, Cami Anderson – the movement, she suggested, needs a positive vision to anchor it.

“We want community schools,” she said. “Not a community school that is now a charter school, but a school that is embedded in the community and helps out the parents, the teachers, and anyone else who lives there that can benefit from wraparound services at those schools.”

This idea came up again and again throughout the day. It is no longer enough to simply say no to the top-down reforms, high-stakes tests, charter schools and school closings. It is no longer even enough to strike, to hold dramatic actions, to speak out. The movement, the day seemed to suggest, needs to take the next step and figure out what it is for.

While wealthier white parents feel fine opting their children out of high-stakes tests, assuming that it will not damage their futures, parents of color and less well-off parents have a harder time taking that risk.

This is no easy feat for a movement that is made up of socialists and liberals and even libertarians, one that encompasses low-income families of color seeing their schools shut down and their kids pushed out and affluent white parents opting their children out of standardized testing. It can, though, be a great opportunity. As Carol Burris, the award-winning principal, now nationally known for her opposition to high-stakes testing and the Common Core, joked: Opposition to the Common Core has come from right and left, from libertarians who fear a state-imposed standard and progressives who distrust the billionaires backing the standards. “Both groups are correct,” she said, as billionaires are more and more involved in shaping government practices.

The influence of the wealthy, who want to run school like a business, has ideological effects. As Takiema Bunche Smith, early childhood educator and advocate, pointed out, when the curriculum for young students is narrowed to math and language arts, as it is under the testing-heavy Common Core, studies have found an absence of “social and emotional development” among the students. Students are taught to be automatons prepared for jobs, not full human beings – a theme that came up over and over again.

Power and privilege also cause tension within the movement, as Rosa Rivera-McCutchen, a Bronx teacher turned CUNY professor, warned, to many murmurs of assent from the audience. While wealthier white parents feel fine opting their children out of high-stakes tests, assuming that it will not damage their futures, parents of color and less well-off parents have a harder time taking that risk.

“Even if the tests went away today, these students still wouldn’t have the same opportunities,” she noted, cautioning that the methods of resistance used need to not reproduce inequities among resisters.

Historian Yohuru Williams, a professor at Fairfield University in Connecticut and part of the Badass Teacher Association, echoed her and suggested that for parents of privilege, when testing time comes around, the answer is not to hire a tutor but to organize with other parents. “Helping your kids to compete,” he said, “is not a way to challenge the system.”

Chicago teacher Xian Barrett stressed that movements that work well help people to learn from each other, that privileged parents and teachers not see their work as charity, and noted that in Chicago, working-class immigrant neighborhoods are leaders in the opt-out movement – one school saw 77 percent of its working-class parents opt their students out of standardized tests.

The reformers, he pointed out, always come in with that kind of destructive “charitable” mindset. “They say, ‘We care more about your children than you do,'” he said. And yet their “caring” isn’t helping.

Often, teachers who challenge the ed reform machine are accused of simply wanting to maintain the status quo. That that is a lie was never more clear than at this event, listening to educator after educator point out the problems with the school system and suggest positive reforms. Burris told a story of getting a phone call from US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, after her outspoken criticisms of Common Core appeared in the Washington Post. She said that she told him what she does think would work – involving teachers and education experts in rewriting standards, a broad curriculum designed to keep students interested – he told her, “But Carol, that’s hard work.” It is, she noted, but it is work worth doing and work that is possible to do.

What charter schools don’t do is teach democratic behavior and educate the whole person.

Williams brought the conversation back to Ferguson, Missouri, where protests over the police shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown continued as the conference went on. “If you look at Ferguson,” he said, “we saw police in the streets decked out in military equipment surpluses from two failed military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq. If we dedicated a fraction of that money to our schools,” he suggested, change would be simple. Barrett agreed, noting, “There’s always money for metal detectors.”

New Orleans parent and education advocate Karran Harper Royal suggested that money, indeed, is at the heart of the matter – money to be made by charter school chains. Suggesting that impossible standards like the Common Core are setting schools up for failure, closure, and takeover by charters, much like what’s been done in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina; she called it a “man-made disaster in the making.”

Charter schools, said New York teacher Gary Rubenstein, tout their increased test scores and try to hide their selective practices and high attrition rates. Yet what he found on a tour of one New York charter was the same kind of small class size and small course load for the teachers that public school teachers have demanded for years, even as New York public school class sizes have skyrocketed. Meanwhile, the exceptional teaching that union-free charters claim to have, he said, consisted in part of a counseling session designed to teach kids more “grit” that was mainly about “how much homework they need to do to get a candy bar.”

What charter schools don’t do, according to Wendy Lecker of the Education Law Center, is teach democratic behavior and educate the whole person. Instead, she said, they practice styles of learning that breed compliance. She quoted New York University sociologist Pedro Noguera’s criticism of these schools, his questioning of whether affluent students would be controlled in this way.

“Are you preparing these kids to be leaders or followers? Because leaders get to talk in the hall. They get to talk over lunch; they get to go to the bathroom, and people can trust them. They don’t need surveillance and police officers in the bathroom.”

Tanaisa Brown challenged the top-down reformers to listen to students about what they need. “Chris Christie and Cami Anderson have a saying, ‘In order to fix a flower you have to uproot it,’ which isn’t true,” she said. “I like to say in order to fix a flower you have to water it, which is what is true.” To fix schools, she said, you’ll have to begin by funding them.

Having laid out the problems with the existing reform ideology and contrasted it with a more positive vision, the speakers began in earnest to discuss models for positive reform that a movement could coalesce around.

Greg Anrig of the Century Foundation presented his research on the Cincinnati model for urban schools, where a community school system brings in service providers who give dental care, health care and other wraparound services in the schools, where teachers are actively involved in running all aspects of the school, and where the community is deeply connected to its school.

Phyllis Tashlik described the New York Performance Standards Consortium, an alternative measure to standardized tests for student assessment that was developed by educators to allow students different ways of expressing their learning and that has demonstrated real successes in public schools.

A broad movement for the defense of public education quickly becomes a movement for the defense of public goods.

And Brian Jones, New York teacher and Green Party candidate for lieutenant governor, suggested that educators need to understand the fight for higher wages, for health care, as part of the education struggle. “When [corporate reformers] say school is going to be a solution for poverty, when they say we’re making excuses for achievement by talking about poverty, what they’re doing is making excuses for poverty.”

On that theme, Brooklyn College professor Alan Aja asked the audience to imagine a federal job guarantee that would help curb unemployment, a sort of permanent Works Progress Administration that would build and rebuild schools, that would support teachers who want to be professional teachers in their communities rather than displace teachers with young graduates who plan to move on, like Teach for America does. “By the way,” he added, “It would cost no more than the bank bailouts.”

A broad movement for the defense of public education quickly becomes a movement for the defense of public goods. Jitu Brown of the Journey for Justice and the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization in Chicago challenged the audience, at the end of the day, to approach the struggle not as an intellectual fight but as a spiritual fight. Sitting onstage with Diane Ravitch, he challenged the idea that a few activists, a few leaders, will make a difference.

“We can’t be activists anymore, we have to be organizers. Activists move and represent an issue, organizers move the people to represent their own issues.” It will take the community, he suggested, to build community schools.

To Ravitch, the day couldn’t have gone better. “The message that I want to leave you with,” she said, “is that we’re winning.”

But the message that resonated was that of Tanaisa Brown and the other student unionists who’ve taken to the street to defend their community schools and call for more. Her ideal school, she told the crowd, needed the arts. “They’re just chaining us all up and saying you can’t study arts, drama, dance. They don’t want this because they want you to feel constrained, which is why they have standardized tests that treat you like lab rats,” she said. “This has been taken from school districts because these are subjects of the free.”

“We have nothing to lose but our chains,” she concluded.

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