Education Opportunity Network

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A Force For Real Education Reform Emerges

Education “reform” wasn’t supposed to turn out like this.

In an ironic coda to the No Child Left Behind era last week, Texas officially turned its back on George W. Bush’s policy triumph by opting out of his signature mandate for schools to achieve “adequate yearly progress.”

Topping the irony of The Lone Star State rejecting a policy based on the Texas Miracle, the leader of the Beltway’s newest brand of “education reform,” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, lashed out at critics of his signature education policy, Race to the Top, by saying they … wait for it … “inhabit a Washington bubble.”

Along with those who want “government hands off my Medicare” and Congressional Representatives who insist on being paid while they cut off wages to other federal employees, purveyors of education policy have clearly descended into nonsense.

As the country pivots from the failures of NCLB, what’s needed is not an insistence on the same brand of policies or the outright rejection of those who believe there is a better way forward, but a new course for real education reform based on traditional values that made public education an enduring American institution to begin with.

That new course is indeed emerging in a movement coming not from a Washington bubble but from communities across America.

Community And Labor Organizing Together

At a hotel in downtown Los Angeles last week, hundreds of activists and organizers gathered to voice a common commitment to public education and to plan specific courses of action to disrupt what most in the audience described as a “corporate model of school reform.”

The participants included labor leaders, educators, clergy, members of immigrant communities, civil rights activists, representatives from grassroots student and parent groups, and community organizers fighting for fair housing, economic fairness, and other causes.

The hotel meeting – billed as a combined “organizing summit” and a “conference on civil, human, and women’s rights” – was put together by the National Opportunity to Learn campaign (OTL) and the American Federation of Teachers. (Disclosure: OTL is a partner with the Education Opportunity Network.)

Although the two labor unions, including the National Education Association, contributed to the agenda, workplace issues, such as collective bargaining and tenure, were mere bullet points in comparison to the meeting’s full scope. Instead, those gathered focused on much broader concerns over widespread economic inequality, the marginalization of Latino and African American communities, and the disempowerment of teachers, parents, and students within the educational system.

A Call to End “Corporate Reform”

Central to the meeting was a document proclaiming “The Principles That Unite Us”, which provided a touchstone that various speakers referred to frequently in their presentations throughout the event.

According to a press release from AFT, the Principles “were developed from ideas and proposals for strengthening public schools that were generated at town hall meetings held in several communities nationwide. More than 100 partners from parent, union and community groups are signatories to the principles.”

Declaring “access to good public schools is a critical civil and human right,” the document calls for “public schools that serve all children” and describes an attempt by “corporate interests” to “dismantle public education,” beginning with “urban African American and immigrant communities” and then “targeting rural and suburban school districts.”

This corporate reform is characterized as a “market-based system” emphasizing “competition – as opposed to collaboration –” that imposes a “system of winners and losers” in which “vulnerable children become collateral damage.”

Specific “reforms” the framers of the document oppose include “ever-expanding regimes of high-stakes tests, attacks on collective bargaining rights of educators, and aggressive school closures that pave the way for privately managed schools.”

A Commitment To Educational And Social Justice

The document’s call to “reclaim the promise of public education” comes with a detailed explanation of principles that include a commitment to public schools remaining public and an opposition to “the creation of charter schools for the purpose of privatization.”

What’s demanded is a broader sharing of school governance instead of mayoral control, that has characterized New York City schools under Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chicago schools under mayor Rahm Emanuel, and state takeover that has occurred in Philadelphia, Detroit, and elsewhere.

Taking aim at high-stakes testing, the Principles propose “multiple measures” instead of a “single exam” being used to “determine classroom funding or a student’s course placement, grade promotion, or eligibility to graduate.”

In opposition to “a war on teachers” waged by “today’s corporate reformers,” the document takes a veiled slap at alternative certification programs like Teach for America by stating, “teaching is a career, not a temporary stop on the way,” and calling for “significant student-teaching time in the classroom” in teacher preparation programs. In addition to defending teacher collective bargaining, the document insists, “class size must be kept low.”

To maintain schools as “community institutions” that offer “supports and services for students and their families, early childhood programs, and “opportunities for academic and social enrichment,” the authors want increased and more equitably shared funding that doesn’t rely exclusively on “local property wealth” and that reflects “the real costs of supporting and nurturing our young people.”

A Movement That Is Moving Forward

The significance of the conference was not lost on local reporter Howard Blume of The Los Angeles Times who noted, “more than 500 people attended from across the country.” Blume linked the gathering to simultaneous appearances in the Los Angeles area of education historian Diane Ravitch, who was promoting her new book Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools that has reached #10 on The New York Times best-seller list.

The coincidence of these events, as Blume put it, seemed to work in unison to “take on corporate-style school reform, which emphasizes competition and accountability and is promulgated by many state governments and the U.S. Department of Education.”

No doubt, taking on the wealth and power behind corporate-style school reform has its formidable challenges. No one at this event spoke about quick wins or easy success. Speakers at the event who are deeply experienced in civil rights and community struggles – such as Reverend William Barber from North Carolina and Jitu Brown from the Southside of Chicago – exhorted the crowd to prepare for the long haul.

But as grassroots rebellions to top down education mandates continue to flare more frequently across the map into a full scale Education Spring, those involved in school and community organizing now have a movement with considerable resources and a broad coalition behind them.

And a force for real education reform has finally emerged.

  • Mary H Murchison says:

    This news is inspiring. I am a retired teacher who was saddened while teaching at what was happening: the lack of respect for teachers and their professionalism, the array of burdensome tests, the alliance of school systems and boards with corporations, etc. Now, after the terrible actions of the NC Legislature and the governor, I am appalled at the move toward privatization of charter schools for private profit, the severe cuts to public education, no raises for teachers, no limits to class size, and so on. It’s a full-fledged attach on public education, which is a bedrock of our democracy. I do hope this grassroots movement will take fire. I attended Moral Monday rallies, and highly respect Rev. Barber. If he thinks this group is worthy, that’s good enough for me. Best wishes, Mary M. of Charlotte, NC

    October 8, 2013 at 6:00 pm
    • Sandra Wickham says:

      I, too, am a retired teacher, living in Colorado. I can’t believe what has happened to our state. The best thing that I have read about is that the pilot program for data collection was to have taken place in Golden, CO. Enough parents, teachers and community members got together, and they have forced the issue with their school board and inBloom. They are no longer taking part in this pilot program. However, our legislature and governor seem to be completely on board with pushing Common Core. Scary!

      November 30, 2013 at 10:40 pm
  • Ellie Wyatt says:

    This is the same AFT that has been advocating cooperation with the reformers and takes money from Bill Gates, who then shares the stage with the President of the AFT Randi Weingarten. Please do not trust this.

    October 8, 2013 at 6:17 pm
    • Julie says:

      Well, I sure hope AFT and Randi Weingarten are talking to Bill Gates! Stakeholders of all stripes have to be at the table if corporate models are to be removed from the public education debate.

      October 9, 2013 at 3:26 pm
  • Kanawah says:

    The “Corporate education” is the worst of all possible situations.
    Education should be in the Public School system. The “voucher fiasco” must end as well.
    Also, there should be legal restrictions on the teaching of “creationism” by any name in the science class room. Creationism is mythology, and has no place in the science class room.

    October 8, 2013 at 6:24 pm
  • Judith Repke says:

    WOW! I hope so! Students are people and not products. We need a great variety of educated citizens to preserve a democracy. We need people who can think, plan and evaluate not just answer pencil and paper tests.

    October 8, 2013 at 7:32 pm
  • Joyce Williamson says:

    Amen! to Judith Repke’s response.

    October 8, 2013 at 7:58 pm
  • Ruth Vacin says:

    Excellent grounding in the three R’s , learning to think, discern and apply knowledge, less memorizing and more knowing where to go for knowledge. That is what I believe should be emphasized in this age . There is too much important material to memorize, but there is an abundance of places to seek out anything one needs or wants to know. I agree 100% with Judith Repke.

    October 8, 2013 at 8:14 pm
  • J. Michael Fay says:

    What’s the next step in this movement?

    October 8, 2013 at 8:55 pm
  • paulpnasuti says:

    If the next step question above refers to Jeff Bryant’s “new course for real education reform based on traditional values that made public education an enduring American institution to begin with”, then it should begin with conversation replacing our institutional how to, our once tried and true, but now obsolete Victorian model with a wiser, more mature Earth based one.
    All conversations and opinions above have been focused through the lens provided by an old system, ignorant of a modern understanding of intelligence and ecology. The end product is a behavior we can all observe and deride. We are a divided constituency fighting across a common center for a limited resource, when we should be reaching beyond those “traditional values”. To continue to stand with one another in support of more of the same is as self victimizing as any other willful behavior we enable, and have yet to accept responsibility for.
    We need to begin a long termed strategy and exercise dialogue in its regard as strongly as we believe in the logic of the short termed need we are each pursuing. When we include an Earth based education model in that conversation we will finally establish a pedagogy able to support the natural intellectual contrast that is a part of every child. Our enduring institution needs progress to honing both innate and analytic thinking by directly associating state learning objectives with the natural sources for the development of language and numbers that are our common heritage. We are not nature or nurture, scientific or artistic, language or math oriented. We are always both. Argument develops when we need to define by how much, by what degree we differ, which is a bi-product of understanding intelligence only as what might be measured. We are adults. We know better. Remember and reflect upon common sense. If the tool in use isn’t working, do not pick up a bigger hammer!

    October 9, 2013 at 6:06 am
  • Rebecca says:

    I am happy to see someone finally organizing something to stop the madness. Even though it’s too late for me and I’ve already given up on the profession I once loved when I figured out that what I once loved about it no longer exists. I have tremendous respect for my former colleagues, however, and I sincerely hope that change will come before they reach a point where they have to choose to save themselves from the insanity like I did.

    October 16, 2013 at 10:19 am
  • Tricia O'Hara says:

    Techno-fix? CCSS? PLC? RTI? How far back can you recall? I’ve witnessed 45 years of unimplemented innovations– aka passing fads. When do we finally install 50+ years of inescapable research?
    It’s time we give up demonizing teachers. It’s time we give up labels of “bad” or “good” or “great” teachers. We suggest to focus on “skilled” teachers. The vast majority of teachers have been working in isolation — often for years — to fill gaps in their own teacher preparation. Want proof? Ask them.
    There is no need to blame anyone. Knowing-doing gaps exist and persist in every profession. Let’s finally close our basic teaching gaps so that every teacher is a skilled teacher. Only then can we all move on to more complex and productive 21st century educational outcomes.
    –From the trenches,
    http://www.thumbsupkids.com

    November 8, 2013 at 2:40 am

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