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Posted at 07:31 PM ET, 07/30/2011

The Save Our Schools March

“I don’t know where I would be today if my teachers’ job security was based on how I performed on some standardized test.”

That was actor Matt Damon talking to thousands of teachers, parents, principals, school board members and other education activists who stood today for hours in 90-plus-degree temperatures near the White House to protest the standardized testing mania that is at the heart of the Obama administration’s school reform policies.

He was one of dozens of speakers — including education historian Diane Ravitch; prominent educators Linda Darling-Hammond, Jonathan Kozol, Deb Meier; Jon Stewart (on video); and Florida activist Rita Solnet — who protested the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind, and the current administration’s Race to the Top, which, to the disappointment of many Obama supporters, is as punitive and at least as test-centric as NCLB.

If their message has been heard before, this part was new: It was the first time that teachers from across the country have raised their voices publicly in protest of education policies at a Washington rally.

I don’t know how members of the audience (UPDATE Aug.9: a Park Service employee on the day of the march told me that as many as 8,000 attended; however, it’s worth noting the Park Service itself does not provide crowd estimates) withstood the heat but they did, and then they marched to the White House, in hopes that someone would let President Obama know about their disappointment in his education policies.

[Note: Some have questioned whether I was an active participant in the Save Our Schools march. I was not. I was invited to be a speaker at a two-day conference that preceded the rally and I declined long ago. Readers of this blog know that I rather obviously have opinions about school reform but I don’t participate in advocacy events.]

While U.S. legislators on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue were embroiled in negotiations to try to stop the country from defaulting on its debts, the rally and march, planned for many months, went on, noting that the health of the public education system is just as key to the country’s future as anything else.

Critics of the march had claimed that it was union-inspired but, though some speakers were union members, this wasn’t a union-organized or inspired march but actually a grass-roots production organized by teachers, parents and others. (The 15-member executive committee was testament to that.)

Critics also accused participants of supporting “the status quo,” which is a phrase commonly used by modern school reform leaders to disparagingly suggest that they would rather keep bad teachers in classrooms than fire them. It’s nonsense (the issue is how to give teachers due process). If any of these critics listened, they would have heard people literally desperate for some sense to be returned to education policy.

Ravitch, whose best-selling 2010 “The Life and Death of the Great American School System” helped galvanize teachers to publicly protesting their discontent with former president Bush’s No Child Left Behind, and the current administration’s Race to the Top, told the crowd that public schools are “not shoe stores” and shouldn’t be managed as businesses.

“We are here to stand up for basic American values,” she said. “The shame of our nation is that we lead the developed world in childhood poverty,” she said, then noting that our best schools, those with the fewest children who live in poverty, rank on international tests at least as high as any other nation.

Her celebrity with people in the crowd was such that when she was done, they began to chant, “Thank you.”

Speakers protested policies that evaluate teachers based on standardized tests, and that scapegoat teachers for things over which they have no control (such as whether a student comes to school hungry, tired, sick or entirely disinterested).

Damon, who has spoken before publicly about testing mania, was there because his mother, Carlsson Paige, asked him to come. She is a childhood development expert and a professor at Lesley University in Cambridge and was involved with the march.

It is one of the unfortunate aspects of American culture that celebrities get listened to more than everybody else — even, and maybe especially, in Washington, D.C.

If Washington’s policymakers don’t want to listen to teachers — and so far, they haven’t — just maybe they will take a minute to read Damon’s speech. It was smart and powerful. (I will post it separately.)

They could learn from it.

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By  |  07:31 PM ET, 07/30/2011

 
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