The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Teachers of the world, unite. You have nothing to lose but your rubrics.’

Diane Ravitch on The Daily Show. (Comedy Central)

Hardly a week goes by where some education-related group gathers somewhere to talk about something, but a gathering of education activists this past weekend in Chicago was different from the usual.  It was the second annual conference of the Network for Public Education, an advocacy organization started by education historian and activist Diane Ravitch and some of her allies, and it attracted more than 600 teachers, parents, students, union leaders, school board members and others from around the country. It reflects the growth and seriousness of the movement that is fighting corporate school reform.

Sometimes incorrectly labeled in the media as being union-launched and led, the movement against the privatization of public education and standardized test-based accountability systems has grown in large part because the people in schools who have traditionally kept quiet about reforms they found ineffective or harmful to students — teachers, principals and superintendents —  began to speak out publicly. Parents began to to organize and students did as well.

Ravitch has been the titular leader of the movement since her 2010 book, “The Death and Life of the Great American School System,” was published, explaining why she was abandoning her support for No Child Left Behind and test-based school reform. From 1991 to 1993, Ravitch worked as assistant secretary in charge of research and improvement in the Education Department of President George H.W. Bush, and served as counsel to Education Secretary Lamar Alexander. She was a supporter of No Child Left Behind, the chief education initiative of President George W. Bush, until she researched its effects on schools and students and found a narrowing of curriculum, an obsession with test prep and demoralized teachers.

The movement had another big moment in 2012, when the Republican Texas education commissioner, Robert Scott, told the Texas State Board of Education that the mentality that standardized testing is the “end-all, be-all” is a “perversion” of what a quality education should be. Since then it has grown and sprouted an opt-out movement in which tens of thousands of parents in different states are refusing to allow their children to take high-stakes standardized tests. Some teachers, too, are refusing to administer the tests, and principals and superintendents have come against them as well. In fact, a group called United Opt Out had its own convention in Florida this past January.

It is fair to say that the pushback on corporate reform by these activists is responsible for the current national debate on the value of high-stakes standardized tests and a move in states to reduce their number and influence.  It has also affected the discussions in Congress around the rewriting of No Child Left Behind, being led by Alexander, now a Republican senator from Tennessee, who chairs the Senate education committee.

Ravitch and others co-founded the network — which, to be clear, has union support but is not union-run — a few years ago in an effort to try to connect the many grassroots anti-reform organizations around the country.

Peter Goodman, who writes a political blog in New York called “Ed in the Apple,” wrote this about the Chicago conference:

For me, meeting in-service and retired teachers, parents and activists from every nook and cranny across America makes me optimistic. From rural Tennessee, along the Mexico-Texas borders, across Florida, from Minneapolis, Michigan, to the urban centers, Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Philadelphia, New York City and Boston, the amazing geographic diversity of public school activists. Special kudos to the parents, community activists, school board members and local legislators organizing around education issues and fighting the incredibly well-funded opponents of public education.
Too often we feel isolated; we fail to understand that we are an army spread across the nation.

Ravitch wrote about the conference on her blog, explaining the goals of the network:

We believe in improving public education so that it meets the needs of all children; we want a strong and rich curriculum in all schools; we want reduced class size; we want wraparound services; we want schools to be supported, not closed; we want equitable resources for all our schools, with additional resources for the children most in need; we want a strong teaching profession. I prefer to talk about what we are for, rather than be divided among ourselves. In unity, there is strength. United we stand, divided we fall.

She also wrote that she and Anthony Cody, a veteran educator who was a co-founder of the Network for Public Education, joked about a new slogan for their organization: “Teachers of the world, unite. You have nothing to lose but your rubrics.”