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Arne Duncan & The Real Fight for Social Justice

By Nancy Flanagan — May 07, 2011 2 min read
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Exactly, two years ago, I wrote a blog about my personal hope that Arne Duncan would follow through on the exciting ideas he was preaching: Education as the ticket out of poverty. Public schooling as the civil rights issue of our generation. Genuine social justice.

Duncan was preaching to the choir, on that occasion--the State Teachers of the Year gala celebration--and the choir was reveling in the sermon. But the homily has worn thin, and the congregation is seeing through the rhetorical flourishes to the truth: the pastor has no credibility, and his talking points are false. During this week’s oratory, members of the congregation began calling out the minister on his hypocrisy. Including--amazingly--one of the current State Teachers of the Year.

If we’re truly in this school reform movement to strengthen civil rights and social justice:

• Why are we selling our public schools--and one of our best national ideas, a free, high-quality education for every child--off to the highest bidder? Even bidders with a track record of incompetence and exploitation?

• Why is DOE Darling Michelle Rhee raising a billion dollars to ensure that less experienced (and cheaper) teachers are staffing schools full of kids in poverty?

• Why has the federal government dangled our tax dollars--in the form of competitive Race to the Top grants-- in front of states that are willing to fire veteran teachers (foot soldiers in the war on poverty) when their struggling students don’t score well on standardized tests?

• How did test preparation and test-score increases become our national goal, instead of rich curriculum and deep learning? Why would we pay teachers more to focus on these destructive goals? Especially when the privileged can continue to get high-quality teaching and learning through increasingly privatized schooling?

• Why did our Secretary of Education publicly proclaim that a devastating national disaster was “the best thing to happen” to poor children who live in a beautiful, historic city, because it wiped out their school system and let the entrepreneurs take over?

• Why have Bill Gates and testing giant Pearson suddenly cornered the Common Core Everything market on packaging what American kids should know and be able to do?

What does any of this have to do with social justice, a more equitable democracy, or civil rights?

The magnificent Renee Moore (herself the Mississippi Teacher of the Year, 2001) calls these ideas “fast food education for the poor,” saying:

The really sick logic behind the drive for these teacherless curriculums, quick and dirty assessments (and lots of them), and total de-professionalization of teaching is to create a system for training the children of the poor for their proper "place" in a society. It is as real and insidious a threat as the approaching Mississippi River floodwaters.

I, too, am heartily sick of politicians and educational entrepreneurs using “civil rights” and “social justice” as a rhetorical shield for advancing their own interests and commercial goals.

It’s time to remember the Freedom Riders, who risked their very lives fifty years ago this week, to achieve democratic equality. Not segregated charter schools which a handful of lottery-winners get to attend. Not classrooms staffed by two-year adventure teachers . Not watered-down, low-level curriculum and test items.

Parents and educators and patriots: Let’s turn our eyes to the real prize.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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