I long wondered why public school teachers sat quietly during the decade-long No Child Left Behind era watching high-stakes standardized test-based reform take hold, leading to a host of damaging unintended consequences (narrowed curriculum and teaching to the test, just to name a few).
This Saturday, teachers, along with principals, parents and other activists, quiet no longer, are scheduled to take their concerns to Washington, D.C., with a march intended to let the Obama administration know that they are unhappy with corporate-based school reform that is obsessed with test-based “accountability,” the expansion of charter schools and other measures.
I recently asked two march organizers why, now, after all these years, they were speaking out. Here, in a repost, is what they said:
Anthony Cody is a veteran California science teacher who has a blog called Living in Dialogue for Education Week Teacher. He is a frequent guest writer on this blog.
Q) How and when did this event get conceived?
A) The event was conceived more than a year ago, when a group calling itself Save Our Schools Million Teacher March called for teachers to march on Washington. A large-scale march was not possible then, but it inspired people to get involved and start the planning and organizing needed for such an event.
What is the purpose? What do you think it can reasonably accomplish?
Our purpose is to raise the voice of teachers, parents and students in calling for real education reform. Ever since the advent of No Child Left Behind a decade ago, education policy has been driven by a relentless focus on standardized test scores as the primary indicator of learning. These policies have caused tremendous harm to our students by narrowing the curriculum and encouraging a dumbing down of instruction to focus on that which can be measured on a test. And the trend has continued with the current administration, as Race to the Top and the proposed revision of NCLB attach even higher stakes to test scores, tying them to teacher pay, evaluations and even hiring and layoff decisions.
We wish to show that there are alternatives to these policies. It is possible to engage teachers, parents and students in the creative work of improving schools without the threat of mass firings, using powerful tools of engagement like teacher/parent collaboration and authentic assessments. We believe our true accountability belongs with our students, parents and community. Heavy-handed pressures from the federal government focused on test scores do far more harm than good. We want the responsibility for curriculum and assessment shifted as close to the classroom as possible, and we oppose high stakes attached to test scores.
[In April] I participated in the first-ever convention of Oakland teachers. We were called together by the Oakland Teaching Effectiveness Task Force, of which I was a member. We gathered more than 200 teachers from 95 different schools to take on the tough challenges we face in our schools, many of which suffer from high levels of poverty and neighborhood violence. The conversation there was very serious — and inspiring. At the end, it was clear that teachers are not some immovable obstacle to reform that must be driven forward by a combination of threats and bribes. We are ready to lead this work. The teachers in our group are doing our best to show that this sort of engagement and leadership is what real reform is all about.
I’ve been covering education for many years and have always been surprised at how quiet teachers have been about what has been done to their profession by politicians. Take the issue of test prep and narrowed curriculum that resulted from No Child Left Behind. Were there protests I didn’t know about? If not, why not? And why now?
I think people had been accustomed to previous swings of the educational pendulum. We had the Reading Wars, the Math Wars, and people got the idea that these fads come and go, so the best thing to do is to hunker down in your classroom and wait out the storm. I also think the crafters of NCLB were very purposeful in choosing the achievement gap as the focus of the law. This allowed them to define opponents of the testing as being self-serving teachers who held “low expectations” for their students. The rhetoric from the Department of Education has softened slightly, but the underlying policies are still aligned with these assumptions.
I think people did not expect any better from the Bush administration. But with the election of Obama, we had high hopes that we would get a new era — that is what he promised, after all. He made speeches where he criticized over-reliance on standardized tests, and called for a new era of shared accountability, where teachers would not bear the entire burden of meeting the great needs of their students. As the last two years have passed, however, we are not seeing policies change. We are seeing the intensification of pressure on test scores. We are seeing high-poverty schools continue to be punished for low scores. As the recent response to Secretary Duncan’s letter to teachers shows, people have had enough of the nice words and terrible policies.
A year and a half ago, I responded to this disconnect by organizing a letter-writing campaign called Teachers’ Letters to Obama. We grew to more than 3,000 members, and sent more than 100 eloquent letters to President Obama and Secretary Duncan. This led to a conversation several months later with Secretary Duncan, where we attempted to air our concerns. That was more than a year ago. Our concerns have not been addressed, and the policies just keep getting worse.
And teachers are not the only ones who are speaking out. The movie Race to Nowhere has been shown in hundreds of communities across the country, often resulting in parents and students becoming active. Diane Ravitch has been a powerful voice pointing out the flaws in corporate education reform with a clear historic perspective. She has given respectability to a powerful defense of public education. In spite of the strong opposition from teachers and many parents, it has become clear to everyone paying attention that the only thing that will cause this administration to change its direction is serious pressure. The only thing we can do is raise our voices, and stand together in large enough numbers so that we cannot be ignored.
Rita Solnet is a Florida businesswoman, parent and education activist. She is a co-founder of the nonprofit Parents Across America.
Why, as a parent, are you involved with the SOS March?
As a business owner and as a 15 year volunteer in the school system, I’ve had a front row seat and witnessed our public education system in decline. I attribute it to NCLB’s fixation on high stakes tests and the obsession with privatizing public education. NCLB has robbed all children of a solid curriculum inclusive of arts, music, literature, language, PE, history along with reading, math and sciences in favor of drills and prep for mindless bubble tests. I’m angry.
Education cannot be treated as a corporate business. It is that simple. Children’s minds are not commodities to be bought, sold, and exchanged. I frankly don’t see policy makers or many legislators grasping the totality of this destruction. With those I’ve met, most have little knowledge of what is truly happening inside classrooms.
As a result of making decisions in a vacuum, they are not making the best possible decisions. In fact, they are illogical decisions.
The past two years I’ve witnessed multi billion dollar testing & technology companies being the sole beneficiaries of policy makers’ decisions — not our children. And I see children as collateral damage in a control struggle, it seems, with unions and political parties.
They must take this conflict into a conference room to devise workable contracts to resolve that situation. They must stop meddling in the classroom with desperate, ill-fated attempts to fix those issues.
As a parent, I’ve concluded that if we don’t step up and take action to ensure we are heard, who else will do so?
I am also a co-founder of Parents Across America. Our motto is: Our children. Our schools. Our voices must be heard. I believe this with all my heart.
What do you think this SOS March will accomplish?
1) It will open up a candid and genuine dialogue once and for all. No longer can a news network air a week of one-sided perspective.
2) It will send a message to Congress that NCLB must end as it stands today. It failed our children miserably for 9 years. It devastated public education unintentionally but undeniably.
3) It will heighten the awareness that this goes beyond “disgruntled teachers.” Participation of parents and business men and women will demonstrate this goes beyond the worn out rhetoric that this is merely a union issue or a band of whiny teachers. These are real issues facing millions of voters. We are fed up.
4) It will help to raise a red flag on reckless spending of federal education dollars on ill-fated reforms which all research shows have proven to fail.
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