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Learning from the Health Care Debacle

The fight over health care is not over yet, but this week the US Senate approved its version of reform, and it appears the bills will continue to move forward in the coming weeks.

This process has me thinking about another set of national reforms that may be on the Senate's agenda before long - the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind.
Teachers seem nearly unanimous in our disapproval of the way NCLB has narrowed the curriculum, undermined good teaching and heightened inequities in our schools. But the American people were in favor of a public option in health care by a wide margin, and so far that has meant less than the hundreds of lobbyists, and the $600 million the insurance industry spent to make sure their interests were served.

Education has become big business
. Some corporations, like the publishers and creators of standardized tests, have huge profits at stake in the direction taken by educational reform. When all education reform depends on more and more tests, given at every level and with ever-increasing frequency and specificity, there are billions of dollars to be made. The industry has allies and lobbyists to support this trend.

Another big set of players are the corporate education philanthropists. Although they are not monolithic, these entrepreneurs tend to support education reform with a particular slant towards their values.

The advocates I have described above are very clear about their priorities, and are largely aligned with one another. They tend to support:
• the elimination of teacher tenure
• teacher pay and evaluations tied to student test scores
• Aggressive expansion of charter schools
• National standards and tests aligned to those standards (see the Gates Foundation's recent grant of $1 million to the national PTA to generate support for national standards).
• Extension of the punitive aspects of NCLB (see Duncan's plan to target the bottom 5000 schools).

These are not the priorities of most teachers, and in fact will move us further down the path of No Child Left Behind. Teachers thought we had elected an advocate in Barack Obama. His campaign materials spoke of de-emphasizing test scores and making sure struggling schools were supported rather than punished. But his Secretary of Education has done little to bring this vision to life, and instead we are seeing more emphasis on test scores and the expansion of charter schools as the keys to reform.

We still hope that President Obama will wake up and realize he has overlooked the wisdom of a core constituency. But we need to do more than just hope. We need to act.

What do we have going for us?

We have more than six million teachers!

Two thirds of us belong to two of the largest unions in the nation, the NEA and the AFT.

We have learned a tremendous amount about education reform over the past decade, and we have clear, well-informed perspectives about how to improve schools.

We have solid allies in parents who have seen how schools have become obsessed with test scores to the detriment of real learning.

We have potentially powerful allies in our students, who are likewise becoming aware that they are being systematically miseducated as a result of current policies.

I stated what I see on the agenda of the well-financed "education reform" movement that has brought us NCLB, Race to the Top, and soon, national standards. We need to do more than simply react to their agenda. We need to offer a vision of our own! What should we, as teachers, place on our agenda?


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