It has been a week since I stood in Times Square penned in behind barricaded fences in a sea of tens of thousands protesters at the Occupy Wall Street rally. As an education blogger, I was on the lookout for teachers when I saw a man with a large yellow sign that read, “Teachers Want Corporate America Assessed.”
The message was loud and clear -- it is time for educators to turn the table on the corporations and politicians and begin evaluating, measuring and assessing their performance. Here are some well-known statistics: 25 million people are out of work or underemployed, 50 million people have no access to health insurance and one in five children in the U.S. is living in poverty and four of every ten black children living in poverty. Everyone but the wealthy are corporate America's collateral damage, and the country is on the brink of revolution. So far, the protests have been relatively peaceful, but unless there is real change, if history is any guide, the anger and outrage will inevitably turn to violence.
Despite the potential consequences of joining in the protests (like being fired), teachers are also standing up and participating in the OWS movement. Teachers have finally had enough. After years of subjection to standards and accountability for student test scores in a country that has no accountability for the perpetrators of endless wars and economic collapse, teachers are beginning to hold those in power accountable and making their voices heard.
Since its inception in 2001, teachers have known that No Child Left Behind was bad policy, but no one was listening or even cared. In fact, four years ago Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute summarized his findings on NCLB. Rothstein, along with many others did the math and concluded the research showed the damage to American education by NCLB included:
- the conversion of struggling elementary schools into test-prep factories;- a narrowing of curriculum so that disadvantaged children who most need enrichment would be denied lessons in social studies, the sciences, the arts and music, even recess and exercise, so that every available minute of the school day could be devoted to drill for tests of basic skills in math and reading;- demoralization of the best teachers, now prohibited from engaging children in discovery and instead required to follow pre-set instructional scripts aligned with low-quality tests;- and the boredom and terror of young children who no longer looked forward to school but instead anticipated another day of rote exercises and practice testing designed to increase scores by a point or two.
Perhaps four years ago when people still had jobs, most found it difficult to see through the smoke and mirrors put up by politicians and their corporate sponsors. Maybe they were just too busy to stop and look around to peek behind the curtain of adequate yearly progress, accountability and labeling schools in the poorest neighborhoods as failures. The writings of academics like David Berliner who wrote about the manufactured crisis and why poverty has always been the elephant in the room were dismissed and marginalized. The voices of reason and truth were intentionally drowned out by the corporate media who jumped on the bandwagon, intensified the drumbeat of failed public schools, and blamed teachers and public education for our nation's problems. The fake research reports and slogans generated by savvy marketing and PR professionals were funded by large corporations and foundations with the ultimate goal of privatizing education and destroying teacher unions. These myths have all been shattered and the reality can no longer be ignored.
What a difference a few years makes. OWS has catalyzed a long overdue conversation about the abuses of corporate power and, it is the spark that has also ignited the pent-up anger and frustration brewing in the education community for a decade. The pushback against corporate abuse in all areas of our lives, including education, is well underway and gaining momentum.
In the past year, three newly established grassroots education movements have been organized as parents, teachers and citizens begin to focus on ending the reign of terror in schools. Save Our Schools and National Call to Action held a march and conference in Washington over the summer and is now a national organization with chapters in more than 30 states. Parents Across America and United Opt Out National are gaining traction by shining a spotlight on legislation, generating excitement and political action, and keeping a close watch on the education policy positions of candidates running in local school boards and all the way to Congress. What they all have in common is a passion for children and authentic learning. This translates into their core demands to end the abuse and misuse of high stakes testing, return to well-rounded curriculums and community control over local schools. These are only three of many organized political groups providing a platform for the millions of Americans who see how corporations have hijacked the country and our political leaders.
These patriotic citizens are passionate and determined, not because of self interest, but because they understand that the destruction of a sound public education system is a direct assault on democracy itself. They want their country back, they want their lives back, and they want their schools back. Parents are beginning to support teachers because they see how the the test and punish model is aimed at indoctrinating their children into becoming mindless, well-behaved obedient corporate citizens and consumers. Parents are tired of seeing their children humiliated and used as guinea pigs, measured, assessed, and labeled as early as kindergarten. And teachers with a conscience who have professional integrity are no longer willing to mindlessly execute orders from powerful moneyed interests that are harmful to their students and their profession.
The battle cry is being heard from coast to coast and is already having an impact on Washington. A new flurry of activity on Capitol Hill to revamp No Child Left Behind has everyone scrambling. The reauthorization of ESEA, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, is now front and center as Congress tries to fix the broken system they created -- a system that has left millions of children behind, emotionally, intellectually, physically and economically. The corporate lobbyists are on the run, jockeying to maintain a stranglehold on testing and their steady stream of profits, but the tide has turned and they are running for cover.
There are some in the GOP and right wing ideologues who want to see the Department of Education and Title I funding for poor districts abolished altogether. This has the civil rights community and children's organization up in arms. At the same time, teachers and administrators, desperate for even the tiniest relief from the torture endured over the past several years, want meaningful reform, and with the wind behind their sails, they are ready to fight and stand up for is right. The danger between now and the next election, however, could be the desperation of teachers and administrators who give in too easily and provide another opportunity for the vultures on Wall Street to swoop in and agree to loosen the noose just enough to shut them up while finding new and creative ways to keep them teaching to the tests.
A recent New York Times article reported that the Harkin-Enzi bill grants more leniency on teacher evaluations and measuring student achievement, thus providing some hope. Bruce Hunter, a lobbyist for the American Association of School Administrators was quoted in the Times about the Harkin-Enzi plan saying, “we couldn’t be happier. “The current law is so toxic, and they’ve had a hard time in Congress for a long while coalescing on how to fix it.”
Before throwing any victory parties, we should recognize that the battle lines being drawn in a shrinking economy where there is less money to go around, could present new and unexpected challenges. The Times article put it this way: “Civil rights and business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said the legislation would so thoroughly eviscerate the federal role in school accountability that they could not support it. But powerful groups representing superintendents, principals, teachers and school boards said they were delighted.”
What's worrisome, too, is that any compromise could come at the expense of Title I funding for the poorest, most vulnerable schools. This would give more power at the state level to impose more tests in more subjects, invest more money in data collection, and further divert the flow of funds to political corporate cronies with little or no accountability. Hopefully, unlike 2001 when NCLB was passed during the traumatic days following 9/11, millions of people are paying close attention to education issues and are more educating about education reform policy. As this story evolves and is reported on television over the next several months with pundits and politicians honing their messages, CNN, FOX, MSNBC and the major networks may no longer be able ignore the real story -- teachers and parents are turning the tables and their message is resonating. Catchy sound bites and shallow reporting on education reform such as "no excuses" and "no child left behind" have lost their power because it is so obvious that this emperor has no clothes .
How this will play out from now until November 2012 will depend on the ability of these grassroots organizations to hone their messages and keep this issue in the spotlight. They can learn something from their opponents by shifting the discourse surrounding education reform towards truth and justice. While most observers believe it's unlikely new legislation on ESEA will pass before the 2012 election, by focusing on electing candidates who represent the common interests of children, parents and teachers, the reign of terror by corporations over educators will end. Those with power over the airwaves will try to use the same, tired sonorous rhetoric about the importance of education for U.S. global competitiveness, how teachers are heroes, and how every child deserves a great education, blah, blah, blah, but it will ring hollow.
Amidst all the chattering on TV about education reform, teachers are hard at work each day in overcrowded, dilapidated classrooms with meager supplies and budgets. Many teach in classrooms with hungry, anxious students who lack health care and a safe neighborhood. Other teachers are seeing more homeless students whose parents lost jobs or have been deported because they came here illegally. Teachers will continue to administer the tests to children who might have one or both parents overseas fighting in Afghanistan. Despite all this, teachers who will continue to do the heavy lifting and jump through whatever hoops necessary in order to care for their students and get up everyday to do what they love, but some who can no longer take the abuse will leave the profession as many already have. Teachers now find themselves as the last line of defense in the battle for the souls of our nation's children.
We are now living in a society that is literally collapsing under the weight of increasing social and economic inequality brought about by the consumer driven, for-profit culture of excessive greed that puts earnings per share above everything else. This value system idolizes the marketplace where competition, greed. and bullying constitute a way of life. Anderson Cooper and Dr. Phil scratch their heads and hold town hall meetings on the increased bullying and suicides in elementary and middle schools, but they never go deeper than blaming the parents or holding the schools and teachers responsible for the bullying.
Teachers know and understand bullying because they have been the victims of corporate bullies and politicians like Governor Chris Christie who use bullying as a weapon and a tactic to undermine their integrity and their profession. That's why teachers will continue to occupy Wall Street and Washington as they turn the tables and demand accountability for the crimes being committed in the name of education reform. They are finally standing up to the bullies. As Congress debates No Child Left Behind and the future role of the federal government in education, this time around teachers and parents are no longer going to be silent, sitting on the sidelines. They are going to be marching in the streets, protesting, calling their congressmen and senators and making their voices heard. Teachers are finally demanding the freedom to teach and the professional autonomy and respect that they deserve.
Educators are only beginning their assessment of corporate American and they have a unique perspective and responsibility to challenge the status quo and begin to ask the important questions, questions that need to be on a test given to the nation's business leaders and politicians.
Chris Hedges has some questions teachers might use on the test. In an article about OWS titled, A Movement to Big to Fail. He asks:
“What kind of nation is it that spends far more to kill enemy combatants and Afghan and Iraqi civilians than it does to help its own citizens who live below the poverty line? What kind of nation is it that permits corporations to hold sick children hostage while their parents frantically bankrupt themselves to save their sons and daughters? What kind of nation is it that tosses its mentally ill onto urban heating grates? What kind of nation is it that abandons its unemployed while it loots its treasury on behalf of speculators? What kind of nation is it that ignores due process to torture and assassinate its own citizens? What kind of nation is it that refuses to halt the destruction of the ecosystem by the fossil fuel industry, dooming our children and our children’s children?”
Here’s a few more questions teacher might put into their "assessment:"
“What kind of a nation subjects poor, handicapped and immigrant children who do not speak English to a standardized test that labels them, their teachers and their schools a failure?”
What kind of a nation institutes an education policy that encourages competition between students, teachers and schools rather than collaboration, where a few Race to the Top and the rest are labeled losers?
What kinds of a nation values ignorance-inducing multiple choice tests and data tracking systems more than smaller class sizes, libraries, nurses, and teachers?
The answer and the assessment of the situation indicate a failed nation, a failed corporate state, and a failed political system.
We can do better! Join one of the many organization fighting for the future of our children and our nation. Got to their websites, make a donation, and get involved.