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The Antidote to Astroturf: A Real Grassroots Movement

A New York Times article published on Saturday has uncovered some of the strategies billionaire Bill Gates is using to influence the future of education in America. Reporter Sam Dillon has dug beneath groups that appear to represent ordinary teachers or parents, and found that often, these groups are funded by the Gates Foundation. And the funding may have a great influence over what these groups wind up advocating. These groups look like grassroots advocates, but are termed Astroturf due to the compromises they make to sustain their funding.

As Diane Ravitch has so clearly described, the Gates Foundation has an agenda that aligns closely with the policies of Arne Duncan's Department of Education. The tenets of this agenda are familiar by now.

How does this operate in the real world? Just over a year ago, I wrote about a presentation I heard from a leader of the New Teacher Project. Their report, The Widget Effect, was cited by Arne Duncan in pushing for changes in the teacher evaluation system. They argued, as does Gates, that we will improve schools by focusing on test scores, and identifying and rewarding teachers who get their students to score well, and getting rid of those teachers who do poorly in this regard. This research was paid for by the Gates Foundation.

This research was woven into the guidelines for Race to the Top, which has in turn led to legislation across the country for pay for increased test scores, and the use of test scores in the evaluation process. It also means support for an ever-more sophisticated system of testing and data collection, so that ever more decisions can be built around this wealth of data. Thus the Gates Foundation has invested heavily in the Common Core Standards, and in systems of curriculum and assessment derived from them. Groups like the national PTA have taken money from Gates to support advocacy campaigns in favor of the Common Core.

So how do we mount an effective response? The best response to a phony grassroots campaign is to create a genuine one. Parents, teachers and students, and others who care about children, are doing just that. The Save Our Schools March is uniting parents and teachers in a true grassroots effort to bring attention to the need for sanity in education policy. We are connecting with others, like the educators that publish Rethinking Schools, and the advocates for sane testing at FairTest. There are teachers organizing to make sure their unions represent them well, and preserve their rights to collective bargaining and due process. There are groups like Parents Across America, and the work surrounding the documentary movie Race to Nowhere, which are engaging parents in thinking about how our schools are affecting their children.

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Astroturf defenders attempt to create a false equivalence between the various efforts of the Gates Foundation, test publishers, and pro-charter profiteers on the one hand, and teacher unions on the other. According to this view, anyone who is associated with or supported by a union is just as corrupt as the corporate reformers. But this is a bogus charge, for several reasons. First of all, the resources of the unions are dwarfed by the might of the billionaire reformers, and the US government agency they currently control. Second, the unions are, unlike these corporations and foundations, membership organizations, with elected leadership that is responsive to its membership. The Gates Foundation is responsible to nobody outside of its sponsors. Lastly, union advocacy for teachers is closely connected to the interests of students as well. They fight for due process, decent class sizes and working conditions and time for teachers to collaborate - and these things all make our schools better.

Those of us organizing to respond face a challenge to our credibility as well. Rick Hess, whose institute got half a million dollars from Gates a couple of years ago "to influence the national education debates," said "Everybody's implicated." Not quite. Not all of us are on the Gates payroll, though it is tough to avoid any connection at all. I am affiliated with the Teacher Leaders Network, which is a project of the Center for Teaching Quality, which has received money from Gates in the past few years. But I take my independence seriously, and think it is crucial for advocates to avoid selling their souls for funding.

Last August I wrote about the various consortia working on assessments aligned with the Common Core Standards, and the opportunities being offered to teachers to help develop them.

As these opportunities proliferate, often with money attached, we need a real discussion among educators about the ethics of cashing in on phony reform efforts. What is the cost when teachers lend their names and expertise to such projects? Are we actually empowered enough to make a valuable difference in the assessments that are produced? Or are these projects doomed by the test-driven philosophy of their sponsor? Is a seat at the table an end in itself? What if our students and colleagues are on the menu?

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I think we are beyond the poor choices offered us last year. Then our choice was to participate in a predetermined process and hope for some marginal influence, or boycott the process, preserving our integrity but unable to change the outcome. I think the movement of teachers, parents and students is starting to create a third alternative. It is possible that we can organize and influence the political sphere in which these decisions are made, and actually shift policies in a new direction. The foundation of this movement must be the authentic voices of classroom teachers, parents and students, unfiltered by billionaire sponsors. The moral authority of these voices comes from their direct connection to the issues at hand, and their independence from the corrupting influence of sponsored advocacy. And we will be heard when we come together in Washington, DC, on July 30th, at the Save Our Schools March.

What do you think? How can teachers, parents and students get our authentic voices heard?

images by Anthony Cody.

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