Five New Years Resolutions for Public Education Supporters

2013 was a pivotal year for parents, teachers and students who support a free public education for American children. In California, Governor Jerry Brown refused to over-test the state’s students to satisfy bureaucratic demands for data, even in the face of federal threats to withhold Title 1 education funding. In Seattle, Jesse Hagopian and fellow teachers at Garfield High refused to give the MAP standardized test; after facing down threats to their employment, the teachers saw the school district waive the MAP test as a graduation requirement. On the other side of the continent, students with the Providence Student Union in Rhode Island had adults take a NECAP test and released the results,zombie-protested, and generally gave the corporate reform movement fits. In Texas, an organization lovingly known as “Mothers Against Drunk Testing” formed and teamed up with a plethora of other public schools supporters to help pass HB 5, a law that reduced the number of standardized tests required for graduation from 15 to 5.

New York City voters replaced a mayor wallet-deep in the education reform movement with one who vowed not to give charter school operators preferential treatment. Indiana voters replaced state schools chief Tony Bennett (he of “anything less than an A” for a charter school owned by a prominent donor “compromises all of our accountability work”) with teacher of the year Glenda Ritz. Bennett then went on to a soft landing in Florida before bouncing to another soft landing advising the ACT on Common Core testing.

Millionaire reformer (but I repeat myself) Colorado state representative Jared Polis called Diane Ravitch “evil” and then deleted the incriminating tweet. Meanwhile, Diane publishedanother New York Times bestseller laying out the case against the reform-bash-and-privatize movement. John Merrow unearthed a long-hidden memo that seemed to prove that Michelle Rhee knew about cheating on the DC public schools standardized tests that drove her ballyhooed merit pay system and yet did nothing about it. A number of statesdropped out of the Common Core testing consortia, and resistance to Common Core testing grew vocal in New York, where state superintendent John King was forced to go on a statewide listening tour after cancelling planned public hearings in the face of criticism of his policy choices and calling parents and teachers who had the audacity to disagree with him “special interests”. New York state principals banded together to advocate for public education, led by the indefatigable 2013 High School Principal of the Year Carol Burris.

The super-reformy school district declared by Frederick Hess as “the most interesting” school district in America did some really interesting things by paying Hess for a white paper just before the reform slate of school board candidates ran for re-election. The district released the glowing report via email blast to 85,000 local stakeholders just in time to inform opinions prior to the vote. A judge has declared that this was in violation of campaign laws. Interesting.

The Network for Public Education (disclaimer: I’m a supporter) came online in 2013, was immediately derided by reformers, and then promptly started seeing candidates it endorsed win elections they were supposed to lose. Like Monica Ratliff, for example, a teacher who was outspent 42-1 by an opponent supported by reform heavies from across the US in her successful campaign for a seat on the board in Los Angeles.

As for me, I published my own book about education reform in 2013, Test-and-Punish. I hope you’ll read it. It tells the story of how the punitive school reform movement got its start, and where we can go from here.

A number of other exciting developments unfolded in 2013, and I apologize for not listing them all. I’m sure I’ll miss some really big ones, but it’s time to turn our attention away from the old man and toward the chubby baby of 2014, who will toddle forth when the ball drops and gradually let us know what’s in store for education in the coming year.

Will the education reformers rebound from their numerous defeats this year? They still have the money, they still own the media and the US Department of Education, and they have fresh NAEP and PISA scores that “prove” whatever they want them to prove. (Tennessee and DC students showed major gains on NAEP, they enthuse, but then they conveniently forget to mention all the reform-friendly states that didn’t show gains at all. Asi es la vida.)

Will the Common Core be perceived by the masses as a sensible set of standards to guide instruction in 2014, or will progressives across America view it as another armament in the artillery trained on public education and teachers, while conservatives across the nation view it as a federal takeover of a traditional state responsibility and an attempt to brainwash the children?

Time will tell. In the meantime, I’d like to share 5 New Year’s Resolutions for Public Education Supporters.

1. Be active online, in the papers, and in your state capital. In the blogosphere, in the halls of your legislative bodies, in the letters-to-the-editor section, and during every single election, public education supporters can’t afford to sit back. Reform-friendly organizations dominate the media with press releases from ideological think tanks. They dominate vital elections with buckets of campaign money. They spin testing data any way it suits them. They are white-knuckled in their opposition to anything that might prevent them from reducing taxes, and public education as it has been traditionally provided is a huge culprit. They are likewise white-knuckled in their promotion of anything that might water down the cost of education, because this will reduce their taxes and increase their portfolios.

2. Be active locally. The corporate reformers aren’t merely interested in statewide and national elections. They have found more bang for their buck at the local level. They have taken to supporting “reform slates” of school board candidates in local school board elections, and have had some share of success. In Texas, wealthy education-interested businessmen have taken to pooling large sums in PACs with the singular goal of trying to defeat school bond elections in communities across the state. This will happen in your state soon, if it hasn’t already.

3. Embrace your expertise. I am a huge proponent of the Network for Public Educationand The Educators Room because organizations like these put educators in places of engagement and efficacy. The motto of The Educators Room is “empowering teachers as the experts,” and that is exactly the thing that is needed. Mild-mannered teachers must get over their timidity in order to embrace their own power for doing good for this nation. The teacher’s kind-if-firm voice is exactly the antivenin that our nation needs in order to counteract the poisonous greedchismo of the dominant voices in our current policy environment. The titans of self who run this place need nothing so much as a loving teacher to stand at the front of the nation and shush their hurtful words and stop their hurtful behaviors. (“Hey, you there in the Armani suit. Stop distracting the nation. We have an assignment.”) If not us, who? (Or is it whom? Got to remember who I’m talking to here.) If educators are to have an impact, they must have a voice. If they are to have a voice, they must be willing to take the microphone from people who feel they are entitled to hold it. And the same goes for students. Teachers need to embrace the student voice movement. Democracy comes from the people most affected by policy–it isn’t done to them–and in education, that’s the students.

4. Join others. Relatedly, if you are serious about protecting the promise of public education, you have little choice but to join others in holding back the tide of corporate reform. There is diversity in the pro-public education camp. If you are progressive, there is a place for you. If you are conservative, there is a place for you. If you support or oppose the Common Core, there is a place for you. Some organizations and individuals standing together differ on their opinions about well-regulated charter schools. Some differ in their opinions about how much standardized testing is appropriate. Those of us on the front lines of defending the promise of public education are not a monolith. What binds us together is our shared desire to prevent the devaluing of public education via reckless rhetoric and demeaning and unfair policies. We don’t want to see our current system–free public schools for any student who wants an education, anywhere in America–replaced by a portfolio approach that is more interested in “radically transforming the industry” (businessspeak for “getting a piece of that action”) than in guaranteeing every single child a seat from which to learn.

5. Be great. The best defense of the public education system is a strong public education system. Yes, it feels to many of us that we are being sabotaged and set up to fail. Yes, many of us have a hard time doubting that the point of all the testing is to prove that we stink. But be that as it may, we have the opportunity day after day to go into our classrooms and our administrative offices and invest ourselves in activities that make a difference in children’s lives. When we do our jobs well, we win the support of our communities and our parents and students. And, to butcher-phrase an Abraham Lincoln quote often used by the incomparable Jamie Vollmer, “if public opinion is with us, we can’t lose; if it against us, we can’t win.” Public opinion starts in your classroom or office. There are obstacles–especially in America’s poorest communities–that often seem impossible for teachers to overcome. But we must give our all and do our very best. We must show the world that we aren’t afraid of accountability and that, in fact, we embrace something far greater: responsibility. (H/T Pasi Sahlberg)

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6 Responses to Five New Years Resolutions for Public Education Supporters

  1. Pingback: New Year Resolutions for Public Education Supporters | Combatting Schooling Injustice: Comenius Dreaming

  2. Pingback: John Kuhn: Five Resolutions for the New Year | Diane Ravitch's blog

  3. John, I have started a new Facebook group called Principals with Principles at https://www.facebook.com/groups/706746166005633/.I would appreciate any help you can give me in recruiting school administrators who support the positions you articulate so well.

    • “Principals with principles”?
      Gonna be a small group, eh!
      Aarrgghh, there goes one of my resolutions to not be so negative when viewing administration. Oh, well the truth must out I guess.

  4. Ken Mortland says:

    Already doing 1-4. Will leave it to others to determine my qualifications for #5.

  5. Pingback: A Pivotal Year For Education, What Now?

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