America’s ‘Education Spring’ Goes Mainstream

Jeff Bryant

Earlier this year, spontaneous rebellions against top-down mandates and budget cuts inflicted on public schools erupted around the nation.

In a months-long Education Spring, students, parents, teachers and community activists staged boisterous rallies, street demonstrations, school walkouts, test boycotts, and other actions to protest government austerity and top-down “accountability” mandates that damage community schools and diminish students’ opportunities to learn.

The protests spanned the nation and generated national media attention, resulting in a policy impasse in Washington D.C. and many state capitals, as government leaders and politicians scrambled to pause the rollouts of new heavy-handed school punishments.

Prominent pundits began to openly question the intention of a self-defined “reform” movement that has reigned for years but failed to produce any direct benefits to school children. And prominent educators, economists, parent advocates, labor and religious leaders, and community organizers called for a new policy agenda focused on ensuring students have the opportunities and resources they need to learn as much as they can.

Now, with a new school year in session, mass protests have yet to reemerge, but there is widespread evidence that America’s Education Spring has now gone mainstream, affecting voters’ behaviors at the ballot box, lawmakers’ actions in state capitals, and policy administrators’ decisions in carrying out new directives. And the call for an opportunity-based education agenda which began with a much-heralded education declaration has been expanded into a blueprint for positive change in an important new book.

The De Blasio Win On Education

Last week’s electoral victories for Bill de Blasio in the New York City mayoral race and for three “outsiders” in a school board race in Bridgeport, Conn. provided clear rebukes to out-of-touch leadership of education policy.

For years, under the autocratic rule of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, New York City had imposed education policies that typified what has become known as “education reform.”

The “reform” suite of prescriptions calls for, among other things, summarily closing neighborhood schools based on test score data, forcing non-regulated charter schools onto neighborhoods, and ratcheting up testing as a means to sort students by race and cultural background and unfairly rate teachers as ineffective.

But under the Bloomberg regime, the reform agenda widened achievement gaps between minority students and their white, more well-off peers, reduced learning opportunities for the most struggling students, and produced more high school graduates who were not college-ready.

The mayor’s policies had become so unpopular that candidates to replace him vied to see who could be the most “Un-Bloomberg” on education, and the candidate who was the most un-Bloomberg of all – who, according to Democrats for Education Reform, “offered the least support for issues of concern to education reform advocates” – won.

Declaring de Blasio’s victory a “full speed reverse on education reforms,” Politico’s Stephanie Simon wrote, “Exit polls showed that education was a key issue for voters, and de Blasio made it a central plank of his campaign.”

Placing a victory against education reform squarely in the middle of the progressive movement, Peter Beinart, writing at The Daily Beast, called the de Blasio win “an omen of what may become the defining story of America’s next political era: the challenge, to both parties, from the left.”

The Bridgeport Revolt

Like the de Blasio vicory, the triumph of the three non-establishment candidates in the Bridgeport Democratic primary was, according to one local blogger, “really a referendum on the education reform efforts” of the political establishment.

As in New York, Bridgeport had long been subjected to the dictates of a self-anointed “reformer” – superintendent Paul Vallas – who had repeatedly forced a destructive market-based agenda on school systems in New Orleans, Chicago and Philadelphia, and was then forced onto the citizens of Bridgeport, despite repeated objections.

Writing at the website of the Connecticut Post, Hugh Bailey had the election recap: “There were six candidates running for school board last week. Three, endorsed by the city’s Democratic Party, were vocal supporters of the current superintendent and the changes his team has made. The three challengers were just as outspoken in opposition … Bridgeport voters overwhelmingly rejected school reform.”

Voters aren’t the only ones rejecting the education reform narrative.

Showdown In California

In California, a confrontation between the state’s schools chief Tom Torlakson and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is emblematic of growing resentment toward the education reform movement’s overreliance on testing.

As Education Week reported, California education leaders have determined that the state needs to suspend testing for one year as it transitions from old assessments to field tests aligned to new Common Core State Standards. After all, because old tests can no longer serve as adequate benchmarks for any future measures of education attainment, what’s the point of giving them? Why not instead use the considerable time and resources taken up by the old tests to adequately prepare teachers for preparing students to do well on the new ones?

Nevertheless, the decision brought a “sharp rebuke” from Duncan, who stated in a letter, “The department will be forced to take action, which could include withholding funds from the state.”

Objections to “testing for testing’s sake” are now commonplace among parents and students and are increasingly being voiced by government officials and political candidates. The reform movement’s overreliance on testing has led to widespread movements to “opt out” of tests and calls for curbing their use.

From Texas – a state that also has exhibited a strong and growing resentment to the over emphasis of testing – blogger Jason Stanford noticed the California-Duncan stand-off and wrote, “Sec. Duncan’s refusal to play ball with California and Texas shows that the federal government is committed to the ideology of assessment for the sake of the data, not the learning. This is measuring for the sake of filling out spreadsheets, not little minds.”

On his blog at Education Week, former president of the National Education Association John Wilson agreed, saying California was taking a “pragmatic stance” to give teachers “time to learn these standards, align curriculum and lesson plans, and prepare their students,” while Duncan was enforcing a “full-steam-ahead, testing-at-all-costs approach.”

“Parents want honest and accurate information,” Wilson concluded. “They will not get that if California is forced to give tests that are no longer useful. This entire scenario makes no sense.”

A Better Way Forward

It’s this lack of “sense” that continues to drives the resentments behind the Education Spring.

Anyone paying attention can see the twin vice grips squeezing the viability out of public schools. Recent reports have documented the massive disinvestment in funding schools need, while reform policies – such as charter schools, school closures and obsessions with testing – that appear to have no direct benefit to students continue to be forced onto communities with scant citizen input.

The better way forward that emerged earlier this year in an Education Declaration to Rebuild America has now been filled out and expanded in a new book by education historian and New York University professor Diane Ravitch.

“Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools” is the strongest argument yet against an education reform movement bent on feeding its own sustainability rather than achieving genuine progress for children and youth. (Read reviews by Kenneth J. Bernstein on Daily Kos, in Education Week by Anthony Cody and Sam Chaltain, on Mercedes Schneider’s Deutsch29, by Jan Resseger and by P.L. Thomas.)

Ravitch dispels bromides of the reform movement – that public education is a systemic failure, that American schools have made little progress over the years, and that market-based approaches relying on test scores will save the day –  with fact-based arguments.

But it would be a mistake to discount Ravitch as a purveyor of negativism. Like the voices from the masses behind the Education Spring, Ravitch makes a clear call for expanding opportunities in areas that really matter for schools and students.

Her eleven “solutions” for real school improvement derive from what we already know works: better care and education in the early years, essentials such as a well-rounded curriculum and small class sizes, attention to non-academic needs of students, and policies that support teachers and schools and unite communities, students, and parents behind education as a common good.

No doubt Ravitch’s words will become part of the rallying cries of people everywhere who continue to call for the schools our students deserve. And the Education Spring – a movement truly for all seasons – will not stop.

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