March 4: There's Something Happening Here
What it is ain't exactly clear.
Something is shifting in the education debate. There is a sense forming that since our quietly held perspectives and knowledge are not sought or respected, only our creative and bold actions will make a difference. The March 4 protests will serve to deliver this message: you cannot demand that we teach all students to high levels, then slash support for our schools.
Teachers have suffered from whiplash over the past year. Most of us supported the presidency of Barack Obama and were elated at his historic election. But the actions of his administration have been nothing less than a betrayal of our hopes.
Here is where we stand.
At the same time President Obama and Secretary Duncan make bold declarations about the prospect of schools eliminating the effects of poverty on our students, school districts across the country are being cut by billions of dollars.
One time federal funds were used last year to plug holes in state budgets, but those funds are gone and the schools are dropping off a funding cliff.
Republican politicians are refusing to find revenues to support public services, and schools face the prospect of major layoffs, increased class sizes, fewer counselors and administrators, fewer books, libraries, and computers.
School funding across the nation varies according to the wealth of local communities and their ability to raise tax revenues to support schools. This is true even in states like California where the bulk of funding comes from the state. Wealthy communities find ways to get money to their schools. Poor communities do not. Federal funding was historically used to compensate for this gap, to help the impoverished districts buy some of the supports the wealthier districts could afford. But now the Obama administration is shifting more and more of these dollars into competitive grants that reward "innovation."
Although the idea that we will have a contest and let the best ideas win and be rewarded sounds great, there are some problems here, which have recently surfaced.
Who judges the contest?
As Dean Millot pointed out recently, there are real questions of fairness and objectiviy here, especially when the judges were, until recently, employed by some of the entities applying for the grants! Millot wrote about this and found his blog post censored, and himself fired for having the nerve to raise this question.
It has become clear that the innovations that are popular are, not coincidentally, those favored by the largely corporate reform movement. These geniuses have figured out that through a strategic investment of a few million dollars here and there, they can redirect billions of dollars of federal and state funding in education towards reforms that fit their ideology, even if they do not actually work.
Former advocates of No Child Left Behind, led by Diane Ravitch, have opened their eyes to the devastation this law has created in the schools it was intended to help. The single-minded focus on test scores has fundamentally corrupted our schools, and made higher scores the only thing that matters.
This corruption infects every dimension of Obama's Race to the Top. Every reform in play is based on advancing test scores. If we have a race, we must have a means of judging winners, and the test scores remain that means, in spite of occasional acknowledgments that these scores are limited and flawed.
President Obama has repeatedly said he would move us away from this emphasis. He has had more than a year to do so. Instead he has embraced policies that raise the stakes attached to test scores even higher.
Expand charter schools? Why? They have not, on the whole, been shown to be better than traditional schools. High quality charters do not have the capacity to expand to fill the needs of our students in large numbers.
Reconstitute schools with low test scores by firing the teachers? Why? This has not been shown to work.
Change laws so teachers can be evaluated and paid based on test scores? Why? This has not been shown to increase learning.
And now our schools are being destroyed by budget cuts.
There will be no public schools left if we do not act.
Think about what our public schools represent. The people of a community decide to all send their children to the common schools. Children of different races and creeds, and different economic levels, all come together in the same classrooms. Teachers lead them in learning how to read, solve problems, and get along together. The community is responsible for supporting the school, and elects a school board to make sure it is well run.
What happens when that is destroyed? What happens to our common culture? What happens when the children of the wealthy are cloistered and secure, and those in poverty are deprived and condemned when they reveal the bruises of their mistreatment?
March 4 we walk. We stand in the rain. We raise our voices. We say we must be heard. We say we cannot stand to see our students treated this way, reduced to test scores.
Our schools have become far below basic. Our elected and appointed leaders are not listening, and we must do what has always been done when leaders do not listen. We must raise our voices in protest and demand to be heard.
Update: This morning I went to a street corner where colleagues from my former school gathered to protest. Here are several of them.
Then on my way home I encountered a noisy crowd of students, parents and teachers from Redwood Heights Elementary School, backed by the school band. One parent told me the school has been learning about Cesar Chavez, whose birthday is a school holiday in Oakland. So the students created their own signs, and led spirited chants. Here is a video and some photos I shot of their protest:
What do you think? What is happening in your area? Will you join the protests?
(photos and video all by Anthony Cody)