A stand to save our schools

August 2, 2011

The recent Save Our Schools conference and march drew thousands as part of a movement for real education reform and against teacher-blaming.

LAST SATURDAY, I joined thousands of educators, parents, students and activists who gathered in Washington, D.C., for the Save Our Schools (SOS) march. Coming from all parts of the country, participants were united by outrage with federal education policy and local school budget cuts.

Homemade signs spoke clearly to the growing frustration with privatization, attacks on teachers' unions, and especially to the use of high-stakes standardized tests to measure student achievement and, increasingly, teacher effectiveness. "Spend $ on kids, not te$t$!" read one sign, and another "Education > testing". My personal favorite wasn't a placard or banner, but a mock graveyard arranged near the rally site where tombstones indicated that Joy, Creativity, Cooperation and Critical Thinking, were among the deceased.

Before the protest, I spent two days in the classrooms and hallways of D.C.'s American University, rubbing elbows with hundreds of parents, students and educators--including some of the biggest names in progressive education. This was the Save Our Schools conference.

I found myself in conversation with people from Florida, Oregon, Georgia and Arizona. I saw scruffy activists in shorts and flip flops holding court with administrators in heels and pearls. We debated and discussed everything from the motives of corporate reformers (profit? ideology? both?) to the strategies we can use to fight for progressive reform and to defend public education.

The legendary educator Debbie Meier had to step over me to get into a jam-packed workshop, where the author Jonathan Kozol was among those looking for a place to sit ("What do you mean there aren't enough seats?" he quipped). We listened to the leading lights of Rethinking Schools magazine, from Wisconsin, New York and New Jersey. Bob Peterson, newly elected president of the Milwaukee Teachers' Education Association, quoted the late historian Howard Zinn: "Teachers can't just be teacher-unionists, but need to be teachers of unionism."

On the first morning, Kozol had opened the conference with a blistering assessment of the growing racial and economic segregation of the nation's schools. The pressure to demonstrate "progress" on high-stakes standardized tests has instituted a "reign of terror" in urban schools, Kozol said, making the savage inequalities he wrote about decades ago, even more savage:

In too many of the urban schools I visit--and principals will tell me this with despair--two-thirds of the school year is consumed by preparation for exams. As a result, culture is starved. In the elementary grades, music and art and history and geography and science and exploratory subjects and projects, which bring exhilaration and excitement to a child are exiled from the course of study, or are included only in the most truncated forms.

Of George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind legislation (which Obama has pursued and expanded) Kozol said, plainly, "We're not here to ask Congress to make a few minor changes. We are to say that you cannot fix this awful law, it needs to be abolished!"

I TRAVELED to D.C. from New York City with a group of educators and parents from the Grassroots Education Movement. Our workshop (on building a grassroots movement to defend public education) was well-attended, and our film, The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman, received a standing ovation at a Friday night screening.

The closing plenary featured a group of student activists from New Orleans. This spirited group of activists ranged from high school down to elementary grades. They call themselves "Rethink."

They learned how to organize around issues that directly affect them--from the quality of school food to high-stakes tests, to the school-to-prison pipeline. "They try to fix little things in the school to get us to shut up," one of them observed.

Another student, a poet, mused, "Oh my god, it's a Black youth from New Orleans! We are smart, fun, powerful, open-minded..." and concluded, "I am truth. I am justice. I am forgiveness. But why can't it be: we are?"

During the question-and-answer period, an adult asked, "What can we do to help you?" One of the youngest members answered: "Don't try to force youth to do things. Listen to us. Guide us, but let us lead our own struggle."

One of the most interesting developments of the weekend occurred outside of the conference, however. On Wednesday, three members of the SOS March Executive Committee staged a symbolic protest at the Department of Education. To their surprise, a DOE staffer invited them inside. They met with various officials for about an hour, including approximately 15 minutes with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

Duncan allegedly insisted that he had a lot of "common ground" with the march organizers--an assertion they repeatedly denied, arguing instead that his policies were punitive and damaging to the process of genuine education.

The next day, the organizers received a phone call from the White House--an invitation to meet, on Friday, with President Obama's top education advisor Roberto Rodriguez. For three hours Thursday night, the committee debated what to do. I was told by one of the participants that the committee reflected on the way that President John F. Kennedy succeeded in blunting the militancy of the famous 1963 March on Washington, and were keen to avoid being similarly co-opted. With the debate raging, someone pulled up Arne Duncan's Facebook page and noticed that he had already posted a note about his meeting with the SOS organizers. The posting allegedly emphasized their "common ground" (and has apparently since been taken down).

Sensing that a meeting with Obama's staff could be misused in the same way, they decided to decline the invitation. They released the following statement:

We sincerely appreciate the interest of the White House in the Save Our Schools March and National Call to Action. We'd be pleased to host any White House or Department of Education personnel on the Ellipse on Saturday so they can hear firsthand what teachers, students, parents and community members from around the country have to say about public education. Thousands of concerned citizens will be sharing their experiences and their thoughts on the future of our schools. July 30th is your opportunity to listen to us. After the march, we will be open to meeting with White House or Department of Education leaders to further discuss our specific proposals.

This was an act of remarkable political courage. Progressives face tremendous pressure to play ball with the Democratic Party come hell or high water. Maintaining this loyalty, they are told, is the only way to stay "relevant" or "in the conversation." But this simple act of refusal sent a more powerful message than any that they could have possibly delivered in person. Here, a large group of fairly mainstream educators (including some well-known and respected public figures) decided that their arguments would be more effectively delivered in the streets than in the Oval Office.

ON SATURDAY, we gathered just a stone's throw from the White House to do just that. From the front, speakers included education historian (and former United States assistant secretary of education) Diane Ravitch. "I'm a historian," she began, "there has never been a spontaneous national grassroots movement of parents, teachers and students to save our schools!"

Ravitch blasted President Obama and Secretary Duncan for pursuing a business oriented approach to reform. "Carrots and sticks are for donkeys," she told the crowd, "not professionals."

Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor of education at Stanford University, was a key figure in Obama's transition team back in 2008, and many thought she was a shoe-in for secretary of education. When Arne Duncan got tapped instead, it was an ominous sign. Duncan has never been an educator, but that didn't stop him from leading the charge for corporate "reform" when he oversaw the Chicago Public Schools, to disastrous results. So there we were, in the shadow of the White House, and I saw Darling-Hammond approach the microphone.

In the age of budget cuts and austerity, she spoke to the shameful priorities of the government: "We won't spend $10,000 a year to educate children, but when they grow up we'll spend $40,000 to keep them in prison," she said.

And to the poisonous atmosphere of teacher-bashing that prevails, conveniently absolving political leaders of any real accountability, she said, "If the banks are failing, they think we should fire the tellers--and whatever you do, don't look for the man behind the curtain."

Comedian Jon Stewart's pre-recorded video message elicited a few chuckles, but the speech that moved many to tears was given by the actor Matt Damon.

He wasted no time getting right to the point--the obsession with testing and "data" is killing real education:

I had incredible teachers. As I look at my life today, the things I value most about myself--my imagination, my love of acting, my passion for writing, my love of learning, my curiosity--all come from how I was parented and taught.

And none of these qualities that I've just mentioned--none of these qualities that I prize so deeply, that have brought me so much joy, that have brought me so much professional success--none of these qualities that make me who I am...can be tested.

But the part of the speech that hit many of us in the gut was the ending. He spoke to our collective sense of pain and frustration, and offered sincere solidarity, and the hope that broader forces might be rallied to our struggle:

This has been a horrible decade for teachers. I can't imagine how demoralized you must feel. But I came here today to deliver an important message to you: As I get older, I appreciate more and more the teachers that I had growing up. And I'm not alone. There are millions of people just like me.

So the next time you're feeling down, or exhausted, or unappreciated, or at the end of your rope; the next time you turn on the TV and see yourself called "overpaid;" the next time you encounter some simple-minded, punitive policy that's been driven into your life by some corporate reformer who has literally never taught anyone anything...Please know that there are millions of us behind you. You have an army of regular people standing right behind you, and our appreciation for what you do is so deeply felt. We love you, we thank you and we will always have your back.

I'm sure the SOS organizers have their own assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the conference and the march. I wasn't able to stay for the congress on Sunday, but I look forward to hearing more about the ideas it was to generate about where we go from here.

From my perspective, I would have liked to see more workshops run by K-12 teachers. I would have like to have seen some of the teachers I met speaking from the stage on Saturday. Clearly, there needs to be more of a conscious effort to bring the younger echelons of our ranks on board, and to make special outreach to parents of color. But overall, I was impressed with what they were able to pull off with so few resources. For their vision and hard work, they deserve our praise and sincere thanks.

For their political courage in declining the White House's invitation, they deserve our support and solidarity. The SOS march has laid down an historic marker, and perhaps even the seeds of something we have desperately needed, but haven't seen in this country in over a generation--a large, national grassroots political movement that is truly independent of the Democratic Party.

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