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Like a Tree Standing by the Water, We Shall Not Be Moved

There is an old labor movement song that I have sung with others in times of trouble.

We shall not -
We shall not be moved.
We shall not -
We shall not be moved.
Just like a tree that's standing by the water,
We shall not be moved.

I grew up in Berkeley in the 1960s, and in my youth I attended a number of protests. My mother took us to peaceful marches at Berkeley City Hall to protest the presence of US "advisors" in Vietnam in the mid-1960s. In the 1970s I was one of many who organized and marched to defend affirmative action in university admissions. As a student at UC Berkeley, I helped organize my peers to oppose President Reagan, and his wars of empire in Central America. In my last year there, I participated in actions demanding divestment from South Africa, and was honored to hear Nelson Mandela speak after the people were victorious there.

The struggle over the future of education is beginning to have a very familiar feel. As John Merrow pointed out this week, NBC's Education Nation did a great deal to solidify the lines that divide us. He writes:

...I'm looking hard for signs of a dialogue, but what I am finding instead are lines hardening between two camps. Scarily, it reminds me of the abortion/choice battle. Right now it's in the naming stage. Those who were excluded from Education Nation are calling their opponents 'anti-teacher' and 'anti public education,' while the Education Nation crowd is labeling its antagonists 'defenders of bad education' and 'protectors of inept teachers'. Naturally, both groups are working hard to wrap themselves in 'pro-children' garments.

Merrow calls on us to resist the temptation to demonize our opponents and declare ourselves holier than thou. But this is challenging when we have been marginalized and silenced.

We did not have to go down this path.
When we launched Teachers' Letters to Obama almost a year ago, we clearly assumed good intentions, and offered our best ideas. We dug into the most challenging issues, and some of us produced a report with detailed recommendations for teacher evaluation. We have shared our thoughts for months, and the closest we got to a hearing was a frustrating 30 minute phone call with Secretary Duncan, who thought he was there to answer our questions rather than engage in dialogue.

But it has become clear that we are in the fight of our lives.
Our public schools are in grave danger. The attacks on this institution are well-funded and coordinated. They are aimed at removing from teachers due process protections some of us have, making our unions toothless. We are seeing schools systematically de-funded, so that we have trouble even meeting the most basic needs of our students, while at the same time the demands for performance are ratcheted up.

We see individual teachers by the thousands publicly scorned by one of the biggest newspapers in the land, and this is supported by our President and Secretary of Education. The suicide of Rigoberto Ruelas two weeks ago reveals the human cost of this strategy of naming and shaming.

Some of this seems completely out of touch with reality. President Obama speaks of extending the school day and year at the same time most schools cannot even pay for staff for the days and hours we have now. The billionaires come along with grants and donations that have great big strings attached. This means that our school systems must choose to either starve, or become dependent on charity, with the result that local schools are no longer in the control of locally elected school boards, but instead answer to the billionaires.

John Merrow does not want us to call our opponents names, and I agree with this impulse. If we want dialogue, we must hold out some possibility that others hold good intentions for our schools. But this has begun to feel awfully close to a shooting war. When the powers that be choose Michelle Rhee as their standard bearer, it is hard to find that middle ground.

This polarization is unfortunate, but cannot be wished away.
We need to develop our capacity to defend our schools. That means we need to get more organized. The folks at Rethinking Schools created a whole project called Not Waiting for Superman to respond to the propaganda, and are even passing out informational flyers at theaters. We need to defend our unions and the rights we have won over many years. The many teacher, parent and student groups that have sprung up to need to work more closely together. We need to be prepared to move past writing letters to the President and Secretary of Education, and begin to get more visible. Teachers and parents in Florida showed us how this could be done last spring, when their activism forced the veto of Senate Bill 6, which would have made teacher pay depend on test scores.

This has become a movement to reassert democratic control of our schools. Our schools should be controlled by locally elected school boards, by teachers, parents and students, not by billionaires. There is a place for charter schools, but they should not be promoted at the expense of regular public schools. Teachers deserve due process, and we must not equate effectiveness with the ability to boost test scores. Our students need a rich curriculum filled with opportunities to be creative, think critically and develop the capacity to work together to solve problems. Our teachers need opportunities to collaborate and reflect together, and to grow as professionals.

We are working towards these goals at Teachers' Letters to Obama, and held a discussion a week ago with a number of leading parent and teacher activists. You can listen to the recorded discussion here. We are forming action teams for those of us willing to get a bit more involved. Please come visit if you are interested.

What do you think? Is it time for us to get more organized and active?

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