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John Thompson: Time is Right for "Principles that Unite Us"

 Guest post by John Thompson.

The seeds of the defeat of the accountability-driven reform movement, ironically, were sown in 2009 when union leaders decided that they had to keep their own counsel, or to at least keep a low profile when warning against test-driven reform. Union leadership felt they had no choice but to acquiesce when the incoming Democratic President Barack Obama tilted toward corporate reform. Many rank-in-file teachers and scholars like Diane Ravitch documented the fallacies of the reformers' agenda and started the process of articulating a clear alternative.  

Five years later, teachers, unions, students, and families are finding a common voice. It is the perfect time for the American Federation of Teachers to issue "The Principles that Unite Us," a call for labor and communities to unite in a new era of school reform.

During the election of 2008, I thought Hillary Clinton might be a better ally in improving schools, but I still supported Barack Obama. I assumed the President would "split the difference," side with teachers about half the time and with so-called reformers the other half of the time. 

President Obama began with a $100 billion Stimulus which saved jobs in education and helped stop the Great Recession from deteriorating into a depression.  At the same time, he gave the "Billionaires Boys Club" a free rein in writing the rules for the $4.2 billion Race to the Top (RttT). Back then, letting corporate reformers set the RttT rules could be seen as a trade-off.   But, it soon became clear that market-driven reformers were in complete control of policy.  The Obama administration might say nice things about teachers, throw a few pennies at early childhood education, and complain about NCLB testing.  But, it put the worst of NCLB's bubble-in accountability on steroids.

The Obama administration might have successfully institutionalized test-driven reform, imposing corporate governance on the public schools system, were it not for hubris. The administration may have enabled the reformers' prideful overreach, giving them enough rope to hang themselves. Reformers thought their prayers were answered.  A liberal Democratic president committed himself fully to accountability-driven reform.  President Obama could show toughness by beating up unions and praising the mass firing of teachers, as he did in Central Falls, Rhode Island. Teachers and unions had no choice but to "take one for the team." We could do no more than offer mild, constructive criticism. 

When reformers saw the chance to ramrod their entire agenda, they had no second thoughts.  Virtually overnight, their entire wish list became law.  Billions of dollars was spent on computer systems for keeping score and firing teachers based on test scores, high-poverty schools were closed and replaced by charter schools, seniority was ended in most states and this meant that mass closure of schools could be used against veteran teachers and their higher salaries, tenure was compromised, the federal School Improvement Grant (SIG) program allowed the imposition of litmus tests so that teachers could be "exited" as "culture killers" if they opposed high-stakes testing, anti-teacher zealots like Michelle Rhee and Joel Klein were praised, a teachers strike in Chicago was provoked by Obama funders, and school closures in Chicago, Washington D.C., and Philadelphia was spun as pro-, not anti- children.

Reformers had no adult supervision and their eyes were too big for their stomachs.  After getting all of their political agenda, they had to implement it.  And, nobody made them face the mutually contradictory nature of their theories that had suddenly become the law of most of the land.  Consequently, their policies forced teachers and principals to concentrate on primitive basic skills instruction or be fired.  They then were supposed to turn on a dime and teach the opposite - Common Core college readiness standards. States were expected to close schools using test scores, even as Common Core testing meant that pass rates would decline in a dramatic and disparate manner, damaging the poorest schools the most. Schools had to obey laws that denied graduation to students who failed exit examinations, even as the old minimum skills graduation tests were replaced by college readiness metrics.

More and more, elementary schools had to hold back 3rd graders who failed high stakes reading tests.  But, given all of the other newly imposed mandates, they had no time or money for early education or remediation.  SIG schools were "incentivized" to drive veteran teachers out, in a doomed effort to dramatically raise test scores. Nobody took the time to ask how the rookie replacements were supposed to learn their jobs overnight and still produce transformational improvements.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan originally criticized the bubble-in malpractice of NCLB.  His NCLB Waivers promised most a schools a break from its pressure to narrow the curriculum and impose non-stop test prep.  But, his waivers and RttT, and other competition, twisted the arms of states and they complied with a testing regime that was worse than anything imposed by President Bush.

 So, last month, when disappointing SIG results were released, Secretary Duncan had to rewrite history and praise incremental gains, as if that was always the purpose of the SIG gamble. The, last week's release of disappointing international PISA scores prompted Duncan to go back to his old slogan and claim that transformational change was needed.  This time, however, he was right.  Duncan's teach-to-the-test is now the status quo.  He must take ownership of the expensive failure known as "reform."

Now is the time for teachers, unions, parents, students, and persons who respect the principles of public education and our constitutional democracy to launch a counter-attack.  The path has been prepared by grass-roots teachers and parent organizations. Consequently, "The Principles that Unite Us" could become the blueprint for a new era.  It proclaims:

 For the past 20 years, we have watched as corporate interests attempt to dismantle public education and create a new, market-based system of schooling. Their strategies include ever-expanding regimes of high-stakes tests, attacks on the collective bargaining rights of educators, and aggressive school closures that pave the way for privately managed schools. The first targets for this approach have been urban African-Amer­ican and immigrant communities. Yet despite dismal educational results, those advocating a corporate agenda are now also targeting rural and suburban school districts with their disruptive interventions.

The union is issuing a characteristically balanced diagnosis of the problem schools face. It opposes:

Strategies [to] take away the public's right to have a voice in their schools, and inherently create winners and losers among both schools and students.

The creation of charter schools for the purpose of privatization.

School closures [that] have become a strategy to transfer students from public to privately operated schools.

This community and labor coalition supports:

Full-service community schools that address the social, educational, health, and mental health needs of children.

High-quality early education.

Extended learning time for well-rounded instruction.

"The Principles that Unite Us" includes more nuanced analysis of the complexity of school improvement. What do you think? Has the public grown tired of simplistic quick fixes and scorched earth politics? Has the time come for pulling together for comprehensive solutions? 

 John Thompson was an award winning historian, with a doctorate from Rutgers, and a legislative lobbyist when crack and gangs hit his neighborhood, and he became an inner city teacher. He blogs for This Week in Education, the Huffington Post and other sites. After 18 years in the classroom, he is writing his book, Getting Schooled: Battles Inside and Outside the Urban Classroom. 

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