fresh voices from the front lines of change







The end of another school year is leaving a bad taste in many people's mouths. A steady diet of government austerity and top-down "accountability" mandates have left numerous communities across the country with a severe case of sour stomachs over how their schools are being governed.

As the school year closed in Michigan, hundreds of protestors gathered at the state capital in Lansing to protest state school budgets and policies that have left classrooms overcrowded and eliminated art, music, and other educational programs in schools.

In Pennsylvania, teachers, parents, and public school activists have staged multiple actions (see here, here, and here) to protest severe budget cuts that have eliminated programs and laid off teachers.

At the state capital of North Carolina, boisterous "Moral Monday" demonstrations against the state's conservative government have made public education funding part of a rallying cry for a more progressive agenda in that state.

These protests are a continuation of a months-long Education Spring unifying diverse factions across the nation in efforts to reverse education policy mandates and bolster public schools instead of punishing them and closing them down.

The uprising has not gone unnoticed by people at the centers of policy, power, and opinion in Washington.

In the U.S. Department of Education, the halls of Congress, and the meeting rooms of think tanks and foundations, uncertainly, impasse, and calls for a new direction are now the order of the day.

Uncertainty Sets In At The Top

In a surprise announcement to the media, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan hit the pause button for implementation of new teacher evaluations tied to new standards-based tests. Now states will get an additional year to roll out the new tests and more flexibility in how they fund teacher training for the standards.

Duncan's actions come on the heels of a call from Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, who had previously called for a "moratorium" on the high stakes associated with standards-based testing for at least a year.

These calls for pause are clearly a response to widespread concerns over basing accountability systems for schools and teachers largely on standardized tests.

As the above-cited reporter Joy Resmovits observed, the standards and testing regime has been "in motion for years, but recently, as the rubber hits the road with the new tests rolling out in 2013, the outcry has been magnified. Schools are grappling with all of these demands amid an escalating fiscal crisis. The message, coming from teachers, their unions and other advocacy groups, is clear: Too much is changing simultaneously."

In a video conversation with Dan Brown, a teaching ambassador fellow for the department, Duncan claimed "this is not a major shift at all" in the Department's mindset. But that's not necessarily the message being heard in school districts.

As Education Week's veteran journalist Alyson Klein wrote, Duncan's decision to communicate the change in "a big, splashy announcement" had the effect of imparting some uncertainty about the reform agenda.

Klein quoted New Jersey Commissioner of Education Chris Cerf who said, "The manner in which this was executed did put the thumb on the scale in favor of delay." This risks, according to Cerf, "energizing folks who frankly have never gotten on board" the standards and testing mandate.

What the delay also "risks" is more articles like the one that appeared in The Baltimore Sun that used the announcement as an opportunity to voice the "concerns" teachers and administrators have with the new system and report the absurdity of "devising a system to evaluate teachers based on student test scores" when "only about one-third of the state's teachers are in subjects that have standardized tests."

The imposition of higher standards and more testing is already an idea that hasn't stood up well to close scrutiny. Now there will be more time for more scrutiny.

Policy Impasse Becomes The New Normal

In the halls of Congress, senators and members of the House working on reauthorizing federal education policies, known as No Child Left Behind, showed clear signs of locking into the same uncompromising positions that have characterized congressional action in other policy arenas.

At the very start of the process, veteran Beltway pundit Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute stated flat out, "There will be no reauthorization in 2013 or 2014."

Since his prognostication, some of the roadblocks to reauthorization have come to pass – such as a mostly partisan bill from the Senate committee dominated by Democrats and competing "hard-hitting" bills from Republicans in both the Senate and the House in strong opposition.

Reinforcing Hess' conclusions, a recent survey of education policy "insiders" found that only 8 percent thought NCLB reauthorization would take place this year, with 81 percent seeing it happen after January 2015.

Calls For A New Direction Increase

Among opinion leaders on both the right and left, an acute divide has emerged between status quo supporters of the standards and testing mandates and those who are calling for a different direction.

In the conservative community, the controversy mostly centers on the Common Core standards. While factions allied with the tea party have flared into vocal opposition to the standards, establishment right-wingers have generally promoted a "stay the course" message.

For people who lean left, the divide on education policy is a more nuanced one where disciples of the standards-and-testing approach are now being called into question by those who want to see a transition from the status quo to supports-based policies focused on ensuring students have the opportunities and resources they need to reach the higher standards.

The divide among progressives was acutely evident at the most recent Netroots Nation conference during a panel on Mis-Education of Bloggers: What You Don’t Know About Education Reform and Communities of Color.

During the presentation, as can be seen on a video here, one panel member, Rufina A. Hernández, executive director of the Campaign for High School Equity, likened the standards-and-testing approach for education to a civil rights cause, declaring new Common Core Standards to be "Brown 2.0" for education, a reference to Brown vs. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court case mandating racial integration in public schools. (Her comment begins at the 26:00 mark.)

Responding to Hernández's statement, another panel member, Dr. John H. Jackson, President and CEO of The Schott Foundation for Public Education (disclosure: a funder of this site), retorted, "Fine that we have the Common Core Standards. But we need common core supports to meet those common core standards." (at the 36:30 mark)

Jackson called for a transition from the status quo emphasis on standards and testing to policies ensuring students have more opportunity to learn. And he called the audience's attention to a new Education Declaration aligned with that policy transition.

Speaking to a more specific situation, Chicago public school activist Jitu Brown, explained the realities of how the standards and testing regime is playing out – and has been playing out for nearly 20 years – in his community (beginning at the 15:50 mark). What he described is a situation very much like what has now spread to communities across America, where policy mandates have resulted in resource deprivation, inequity, public disempowerment and the widespread perception that governing policies are driven by corruption.

Time For A Reset

Although the current pause in the high-stakes consequences of standards and testing has been called a "hiccup" by some (see Hernández above) or a "flexibility" by others (Duncan's words), those terms pale in comparison to the passion coming from American communities that want a new direction.

Instead of a rest, what's needed is a reset for education that can transition us from the tumult of today to real progress for our children's future.

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