fresh voices from the front lines of change







"It's always hard to tell for sure exactly when a revolution starts," wrote John Tierny in The Atlantic recently. "I'm not an expert on revolutions," he continued, "but even I can see that a new one is taking shape in American K-12 public education."

Tierney pointed to a number of signs of the coming "revolution:"

  • Teachers refusing to give standardized tests, parents opting their kids out of tests, and students boycotting tests.
  • Legislators reconsidering testing and expressing concerns about corruption in the testing industry.
  • Voucher and other "choice" proposals being strongly contested and voted down in states that had been friendly to them.

Tierney linked to a blog post by yours truly, "The Inconvenient Truth of Education Reform," explaining how the movement known as "education reform" has committed severe harm to the populations it professes to serve while spreading corruption and enriching businesses and political figures.

Echoing Tierney, on the pages of Slate, The Nation, and elsewhere, David Kirp, education professor and author of a popular new book casting doubt on competitive driven, market-based school reform, declared that cheating scandals and parent rebellions over high stakes standardized testing were proof that much ballyhooed reform policies championed by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Education Secretary Arne Duncan are not "a proven – or even a promising – way to make schools better."

Kirp declared that mounting evidence from school reform efforts in major U.S. metropolitan areas reveals "it’s a terrible time for advocates of market-driven reform in public education. For more than a decade, their strategy – which makes teachers’ careers turn on student gains in reading and math tests, and promotes competition through charter schools and vouchers – has been the dominant policy mantra. But now the cracks are showing."

In a legislative view, the Progressive State Network, which supports left-leaning state legislators and monitors legislative policy in state houses, noticed "a backlash is brewing in many states as more and more parents and legislators alike start asking questions about corporate education reform." The post on PSN's website referenced Tierney's article and highlighted a Minnesota bill that eliminates testing requirements for graduation and several states that are embroiled in battles to defeat measures known as the "parent trigger," which enables private takeovers of public schools.

These observations are not alarmist chatter but well-reasoned, valid conclusions that anti-government collectivist actions related to public school policy are scaling up from isolated protests to a nationwide movement of unified resistance.

The movement is widespread among teachers, students, and parents. It is grassroots driven and way out in front of most journalists and political leaders. And it's scaling up in intensity.

A Teacher-Student-Parent Movement

For quite some time now, education historian and reform opponent Diane Ravitch has written about the ever expanding discontent among teachers over the emphasis on standardized testing and test-based teacher evaluation and school rating systems.

As proof of this discontent, Ravitch has closely followed and commented on a boycott against standardized testing among teachers in Seattle, an ongoing protest among principals in New York state against new teacher evaluations, and objections to the "testing beast" among educators and parents in Texas.

In ever-greater numbers, however, students are also leading the resistance. A recent article in The Nation reported on the growing student resistance movement driven by grievances over austerity budgets and systemic racism.

From all corners of the country – North Carolina to Philadelphia to Louisiana to Chicago – students as young as eight years old are organizing and taking part in a variety of actions including zombie protests, school walkouts and sit-ins, and acts of defiance like the recent rant by a high school student in Texas that went viral over the Internet when he castigated a seemingly indifferent teacher for dispensing education in "packets" rather than engaging the class in meaningful, relevant learning.

In Chicago, youth voice is forming in grassroots groups like CSOSOS (Chicago Students Organizing To Save Our Schools) and VOYCE (Voices of Youth in Chicago Education) that have led prominent, headline-earning protests to school closures, teacher firings, and over emphasis on high-stakes testing.

In Philadelphia, a handful of students used their social media and organizing skills to whip up student resentment and send hundreds of students into the streets to protest budget cuts to their favorite education programs.

In Denver, high schoolers have formed Students4OurSchools and staged walkouts protesting the over-emphasis on standardized testing.

Students in Philadelphia, Providence, Rhode Island, Portland, Oregon, and elsewhere have formed student unions that have developed attention-getting tactics, which have spread to a national scale. These student organizations' Facebook pages speak in unison against school closures and cutbacks, widespread teacher firings, and top-down implementations of mandated standards and high-stakes testing.

In many places, teachers and parents are supporting rebellious students and even joining in the protests. Grassroots parent groups, in fact, have been the driving force behind efforts to beat back school voucher proposals in Tennessee and parent trigger legislation in Florida.

Resistance is particularly vehement in low-income communities of color in large urban school districts where reform measures have lead to widespread teacher firings and school closings. In Chicago, Philadelphia, New York City, Cleveland, and Detroit, vocal protestors have been organizing in their own communities but also uniting in national campaigns, such as this year's Journey for Justice effort that brought hundreds of activists in allied grassroots organizations to the White House to protest school closings.

Unlike school reform proponents who benefit from massive donations from rich foundations and politically connected funders, grassroots groups leading the resistance – like the Alliance for Educational Justice and Alliance for Quality Education – have far humbler means and few connections to the political class and deep pocketed philanthropists like Bill Gates.

Nevertheless, these groups have generated strong outpourings of popular dissent and produced important analyses of the duplicity of the reform agenda.

A Movement Getting More Recognition

Mostly, grassroots-led protests against education mandates have gotten little attention from even the few media outlets and reporters focused on education.

That changed, however, when the head of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, called for a moratorium on the consequences of high-stakes testing related to the Common Core.

All of a sudden, when there was a crack in the conventional wisdom that education policy was a centrist agreement between teachers' unions and conservative belief tanks, many education bloggers and journalists decided the school accountability movement had reached a surprising new level of intensity.

Long-time education journalist Dana Goldstein speculated on her blog that Weingarten's moratorium call is proof that education matters that were once considered products of a "coalition" of centrist-minded – although mostly conservative – wonks and Beltway operatives are now points of strong contention.

Her conclusion was that these differences represent a "deep divide" among the political class about whether it's a good idea to "scare us into meaningful school reform."

Another experienced education journalist, Sam Chaltain also reflected on his blog on calls for a testing moratorium. He recalled that after Barak Obama was elected, Obama proceeded with "a series of education policies that further entrenched America’s reliance on reading and math scores as a proxy for whole-school evaluation."

Critics of those policies "vented," Chaltain explained, but "policymakers nodded. And absent any real noise, the tests continued." But with this more recent backlash to education mandates, Chaltain observed, "policymakers have been unable to ignore a groundswell of noise and resistance."

Chaltain concluded that conflicts over school policy had "reached a tipping point."

Similarly, veteran education reporter at Education Week Michelle McNeil observed, "Not since the battles over school desegregation has the debate about public education been so intense and polarized."

McNeil sourced the polarity to the conventional wisdom that public education is "an institution that historically is slow to change," and now it's being "forced to deal with so much change at once." And she asserts that the controversy over change is mostly "about centralization or decentralization" of specific "reform" efforts.

But what Goldstein, McNeil, and others on the sidelines fail to grasp is that the pushback against the nation's education policy is not new. The "polarization" is not "obscuring" the issues – as McNeil contends – it's clarifying them. And the "debate" over education has broken free from being an issue confined to "fringes" and "policy elites" to take its rightful place at the center of "a growing, broader backlash."

Indeed, just like the fight to integrate public schools was connected to the larger struggle for civil rights, fights to preserve and strengthen public schools – whether they take the form of students walking out of class to protest education cuts, parents fighting against deceptively named "empowerment" policies, or teachers boycotting standardized tests – are connected to much larger struggles over what kind of nation America is becoming.

A Leadership Out Of Touch

The growing rebellion to education mandates has been driven mostly by grassroots groups formed first among low-income communities of color, but now the movement is extending to people of greater means and social-political capacity like parent groups that worked an inside game with state legislators to thwart implementation of the Common Core standards in Indiana, block parent trigger bills in Florida, and curb the emphasis on high stakes testing in Texas.

This unification of the grassroots with the "grass tops" in education is not well understood in the media or among policy elites.

In fact, people in charge of education governance appear to be more clueless than ever about what they are intent on accomplishing and legislating.

Witness the recent confession from one of the movement's most influential leaders, Bridgeport, Conn., school chief Paul Vallas. As Valerie Struass reported at her blog on The Washington Post, Vallas has led reform efforts in Chicago, Philadelphia, and New Orleans that have become blueprints for education policy ideas across the country. Yet he admitted that the policies he has championed are resulting in a "nightmare" of complexity.

Reportedly, he characterized his efforts to enact test-based teacher evaluations as a feature of a “testing industrial complex” and “a system where you literally have binders on individual teachers with rubrics that are so complicated … that they’ll just make you suicidal.”

Vallas' newfound doubts over what he has created reflected other confusing comments from education policy leaders. Most notable was the commentary by Bill Gates, widely acknowledged as a leader in the movement to base teacher evaluations and school ratings on student test scores, warning against the "rush to implement new teacher development and evaluation systems" based on test scores.

Even more perplexing was Secretary Duncan's recent inability to deliver a straight answer about parent trigger bills. As Beltway gadfly Alexander Russo recently reported, "Duncan described the trigger as 'an important tool' for parent involvement -– but not the only or even the most important one" – whatever that means.

Compared to authentic grassroots outpourings for resources, equity, and real democracy, these equivocations from education policy leaders are puny and venal to say the least.

Intensity Is Building

"Scared" or not, recalling Goldstein's comment, activists driving protests against the nation's prevailing education policies are ratcheting the fight to unprecedented intensity that will likely become even more forceful in future efforts.

Later this month, for instance, teachers in Chicago are planning a citywide three-day march to protest impending school closures. Education related bills in state legislatures in California, Texas, New York, North Carolina, and elsewhere will be highly visible points of contention. And actions to protest the imminent doubling of college loan debt interest rates – certainly an issue related to public education – are generating a unified response from hundreds of thousands of Americans.

Clearly, the resistance to top-down education mandates is building. The movement is propelled by forces far greater than what education journalists and policy leaders understand – widespread grievances about inequity, unfairness, and public disempowerment.

The revolt is happening. The revolt is now.

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