Veteran teacher Anthony Cody was one of the main organizers of last week’s Save Our Schools March , the first time thousands of public school teachers gathered in Washington D.C. to publicly protest the Obama administration’s education policy. There were smaller protests in about a dozen other cities around the country at the same time.
I asked him how he thought it went, what it accomplished, whether the turnout disappointed him, and more. Cody taught science for 18 years in inner-city Oakland and now works with a team of science teacher-coaches that supports novice teachers. He is a National Board-certified teacher and an active member of the Teacher Leaders Network. He writes the Living in Dialogue blog for Education Week Teacher.
Q) You spent many months organizing the SOS event. Did it accomplish everything you wanted? If not, why?
A) This event has accomplished some important things. Everyonewho participated felt a great sense of energy and power as a result of taking a positive action. We made a real mark on the consciousness of the education community, that there are a growing number of teachers willing to do what it takes to protect our schools, our students and our profession from the terrible policies and outright attacks we have experienced recently.
This march was about big ideas in education. We offered a clear critique of test-driven reforms, and positive alternatives rooted in our own schools, and our expertise as teachers and parents. We have experienced the effects of No Child Left Behind far too long to allow it to continue. And we are sharp enough to discern the traps that lie within the policies the Department of Education has offered as supposed improvements to the law.
We brought together some of the most brilliant minds in education at our conference and rally. Linda Darling-Hammond and Pedro Noguera, both of whom have advised President Obama on education policy, offered compelling arguments for a shift.
And the rally in Washington, DC, was just one of about two dozen that took place across the country. Activists in states such as California, Colorado, Oklahoma and Wisconsin also staged protests. We havebuilt a strong network, and we will continue organize to make ourselves heard.
Of course, what we really want to accomplish is a shift in the policies that are condemning schools as failures, tying teacher pay and evaluation to test scores, and fostering an increase in racial and economic segregation. We want these policies replaced by ones that support teachers, that build their ability to grow as professionals, to collaborate and improve together. We want struggling schools to get more support, not face mass firings. We want our teachers empowered to make curricular decisions, and we want educators and community leaders directly involved in the process to replace No Child Left Behind with meaningful and useful reforms.
One event alone will not accomplish these things – it will take a broader movement and sustained activism. But we have made an important start.
Q) There were between 5,000 and 8,000 participants in the rally and march, from the estimates I’ve heard. There are millions of teachers in the country, and millions of people who support them. Why wasn’t the turnout larger?
A) Teachers and parents are rather demoralized and afraid. Many lack the time and money to travel. Others are simply not sure anything can be done. One of the first challenges of any movement is to destroy the illusion of power that the system projects. As your question implies, there is a tremendous latent power in our profession. But that power only works when people realize it is theirs. Our march was an alarm clock ringing for that sleeping giant. This was the first protest of its kind, but it won’t be the last.
Q) Was there anything that surprised you about the rally/march?
A) I was surprised when a reported grabbed me by the elbow and asked me if I was Jonathan Kozol!
Q) What do you think is the real impact of the event on policymakers in Washington?
I think the impact will play out in the months to come. We have a collection building of videos that people made of the speakers and attendees at the march that are just now starting to make their way on to YouTube. The words spoken there carried the power of truth, insight and courage, and they will echo for months and years to come, as these issues continue to be debated. There is something so powerful about hearing those words in the context of a protest held practically on the front lawn of the White House, with the protesters cheering, that transcends the normal chatter and beltway debate. With the brilliant speech by Matt Damon, and the video sent by Jon Stewart, we got a sense of broader support that teachers have among a wider circle of Americans. And not just solidarity, but a real understanding of some of the policy concerns being brought to light.
And this fall, when Education Nation takes place again on NBC, we hope that the crew at the Ellipse shooting video will provide a healthy source of well-informed voices, and that there will be a real debate over education reform. Experts such as those who appeared at the march should be on center stage, as should the informed and eloquent teachers and parents who participated. Education reform should be presented as a complex subject, with varying opinions. We have elevated the voices of teachers and parents, previously marginalized in this arena. We will be heard, and that gives us a chance to influence the debate.
Q) What’s next for the organization you helped put together to stage this event?
A) We met Sunday afternoon in a half-day congress devoted to figuring that out, attended by two hundred activists. We emerged with an interim steering committee, which will include members of the existing Save Our Schools March executive committee. A number of ideas for concrete projects emerged, and sub-committees will be formed to bring those plans to life. There was a great deal of momentum from Saturday’s rally, and we are determined to keep moving forward.
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