Published Online: July 30, 2011
Updated: March 24, 2012

Education Policy Critics March on White House

People march to the White House during the "Save Our Schools" rally in Washington, D.C., on July 30. Marchers chanted and carried signs expressing their demands after hearing speeches nearby.
—Nicole Frugé/Education Week

Teachers and their supporters gathered near the White House on Saturday afternoon to chant, cheer, and march for a variety of changes they hope to see in public schools—most notably, a 180-degree shift away from standards- and testing-based accountability.

Aside from that message, those who attended the Save Our Schools March and National Call to Action in the scalding sun preached everything from boosting support for teachers’ unions, to booting U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, to getting more federal money for low-income schoolchildren. Student poverty was repeatedly cited as the most pressing problem in public schools.

The more than two hours of speeches and hourlong march, along with other related events, were organized by teachers and teacher-educators who say they are fed up with test-driven accountability for schools—and, increasingly, for teachers. Speakers ranged from such prominent education authors as Jonathan Kozol and Diane Ravitch to the actor Matt Damon.

Organizers estimated the size of the crowd at 5,000, but a rough count by Education Week put it closer to 3,000. Before the event, organizers had said they were expecting 5,000 to 10,000 people.

The gathering, according to the organizers, was aimed at sending a message to national and state policymakers about its participants’ disgust with those policies and to highlight their own principles for improving public education. Members have created a series of position papers outlining the loosely organized group’s views on high-stakes testing, equitable school funding, unions and collective bargaining, and changes to curriculum.

For the most part, those aren’t formal policy prescriptions, and no stronger positions emerged from the rally Saturday. However, policy proposals aren’t necessarily among the organizers’ goals.

“What we’re talking about is creating the right conditions, not prescriptive policies,” said Sabrina Stevens Shupe, a former teacher in Denver who has turned full-time activist and was one of the event’s leaders. “There’s no one silver bullet that’s going to save anything,” she added, referring to attempts to craft education reforms over the past 30 years.

At the Rally

Patrick McCarthy, an 11th grade English teacher from Woodstock, Va., said he is tired of devoting weeks of the school year to preparing students for standardized tests. If he had his way, students would instead spend that time writing more, and improving their writing and critical-thinking skills.

“I’m so tired of hearing teachers are the bad guys,” said Mr. McCarthy, who will start his 17th year as a teacher later this year.

The July 30 event appeared to foster a feeling of solidarity among teachers from across the country who say they have felt under attack. Teachers from Central Falls, R.I., where a move for wholesale replacement of the district high school’s staff drew headlines last year, and from Wisconsin, where a new state law curbed collective bargaining rights for most public employees, made a point of attending. However, not everyone present could pretend to be likeminded on every issue.

Raquel Maya, a graduate student studying elementary education at Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore, said she understands the arguments against merit pay for teachers—a policy measure that many teachers oppose. Her mother is a longtime elementary school teacher who Ms. Maya said has lost some of her passion.

Nsenki Kabassu, 7, attends the Save Our Schools March and National Call to Action in Washington. His mother, Monica, is a teacher in Clinton, Md.
—Nicole Frugé/Education Week

“But you do need accountability” for student achievement, and testing provides that, she said.

The four-day Save Our Schools gathering also attracted hundreds of teachers and parents to American University on July 28-29 for a series of workshops and seminars about fostering activism and engaging parents, among other topics.

Some of the organizers’ methods during their stay in Washington have been unorthodox. On Wednesday, for example, they created an art installation of 50 dolls, each inside its own cardboard box to represent teachers’ feeling of being boxed in, and placed it outside the U.S. Department of Education headquarters. The move earned them an invitation to speak with Secretary Duncan and members of his staff.

However, the organizers rebuffed an overture from the White House. Although they have denounced the No Child Left Behind Act and the Obama administration’s continued emphasis on high-stakes testing, organizers declined an invitation to meet on Friday with Roberto Rodriguez, a White House education adviser. Organizers cited a busy schedule and instead urged members of the administration to observe and join the march.

Kelle Stewart, a 1st grade teacher from Portsmouth, Va., said she attended in part because five years of teaching exclusively in Title I schools had led her to believe the money spent on testing could be put to better use. In addition, she said that not enough teachers and parents are a part of the debate about education reform, and that the Save Our Schools movement is an opportunity to correct that.

“As teachers, this is a chance for us to model appropriate behavior and how to disagree with each other respectfully,” she said. “We want to encourage healthy debate—it only makes for a richer discussion. That’s a democratic guiding principle, and we have a chance to reiterate that to our students.”

She said had it been her choice, the event organizers would have taken up the White House on its meeting invitation.

“We have to compromise,” she said. “We have to work together.”

The movement has also been the subject of criticism, most notably from the Center for Education Reform, a Washington-based advocacy group for charter schools and other forms of school choice. The center took issue with the SOS group’s call for additional federal money for schools but less prescriptive accountability and testing requirements.

The SOS coalition “advocates for the status quo, and reform to them is about money, control, and no high-stakes tests or accountability,” Jeanne Allen, the center’s president, said in a statement. “SOS is about deforming education, not reforming it. They put up the guise that this is for the families and students, but in truth, these groups want to restrict and remove any power parents have in their child’s education.”

Testing Targeted

On Saturday, another art installation set up at the rally involved several tombstones, each inscribed with a message noting the deaths of imagination, creativity, joy, freedom, and critical thinking, among others. The cause of death for all of them? They were killed by high-stakes testing, in the opinion of the organizers.

Mr. Damon, the actor and Academy Award-winning screenwriter, told the crowd that his strengths and talents couldn’t be measured by any test, and that his mother, an early-education professor, had made sure he didn’t take any standardized exams.

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Forum Discussion: What Comes After the "Save Our Schools" March?

This past weekend, educators descended upon the nation's capital to express their dissatisfaction with the current direction of education policy in the Obama administration. Do you think the "Save Our Schools" organizers accomplished their goal? What would you like to see the movement do next?
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“My mom went to the principal and said: ‘It’s stupid. It won’t tell you anything. It will just make him nervous,’ ” he told the star-struck audience. His imagination and love of acting came from the way he was taught, he said.

“None of these qualities that make me who I am can be tested,” Mr. Damon said, then went on to pay tribute to the crowd.

“There are millions of us behind you. Our appreciation for you is deeply felt,” he said. “We love you, and we will always have your back.”

The event also drew the endorsements of others in the entertainment world, including the actor Richard Dreyfuss and the comedian Jon Stewart. Mr. Stewart, who recorded a video aired during Saturday’s rally, joked that he couldn’t attend in person because a dog ate his car.

Events around the country were organized in state capitals to coincide with the march in Washington for those who supported the cause but couldn’t travel so far. Still, marchers in person Saturday included teachers and supporters from at least as far away as California, Idaho, and Texas.

The marchers sported megaphones and signs as they stopped traffic, at one point drawing cheers from protestors who were denouncing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The SOS crowd carried a collection of signs that read “Wisconsin is the canary in the coal mine,” “Build Schools Not Bombs,” and “A Charter School is Not Superman”—the last a dig at the 2010 documentary “Waiting for ‘Superman,’ ” which many educators have criticized as denigrating regular public schools.

“High-stakes has got to go! Hey-hey! Ho-ho!” some of the crowd chanted.

Support From Unions

The Save Our Schools movement began with a small group of teachers, including former Connecticut teacher Jesse Turner, now the director of the Literacy Center at Central Connecticut State University, who walked from Connecticut to the nation’s capital last August to protest the No Child Left Behind law and the Race to the Top, the Obama administration’s signature school improvement competition.

The Save Our Schools efforts predated actions by state legislatures across the country this spring to curb teachers’ collective bargaining powers and tenure, said Bess Altwerger, a member of the movement’s organizing committee, who hosted a reception for Mr. Turner last summer. The attacks on unions and collective bargaining further galvanized the group, however, and eventually both national teachers’ unions threw their support behind the Save Our Schools effort.

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The National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers have donated about $25,000 each to the effort, although most of the rest of the donations have come from one-time gifts provided through the Save Our Schools website, according to organizers. Conference organizers estimated that they’d raised over $125,000 in all. After this weekend, they will have to begin fundraising efforts anew to keep their work going.

Another large donation came from Ms. Ravitch, the education historian, who said she contributed part of the $20,000 she won for the 2011 Daniel Patrick Moynihan Prize. Ms. Ravitch, who co-writes an opinion blog for Education Week; Mr. Kozol, a former teacher who has written extensively about educational inequities; the educator and school reformer Deborah Meier, who blogs with Ms. Ravitch; Stanford University professor Linda Darling-Hammond; and New York University professor Pedro Noguera were among those who spoke at the July 30 rally.

The SOS group will wrap up its gathering with a closed-door meeting Sunday, at which participants will try to determine how to keep the momentum from the rally going. Movement organizers haven’t disclosed the meeting’s location, and it is not open to the press.

Elaine Mulligan, a former special education teacher who is now working on a federally funded technical-assistance project in special education, attended even though she is unsure whether the event will have any long-term effect.

But it’s a start, she said, noting that she brought a friend who doesn’t pay attention to education issues.

“I don’t think it will work. I think it’s incremental, and I have to do what I can,” she said. “Maybe [my friend] will tell someone, and maybe they’ll tell someone. I hope that everybody does the same thing.”

Vol. 30, Issue 37

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Clarification: An earlier version of this article misstated the amount of Diane Ravitch's contribution to the Save Our Schools effort.

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