School Climate & Safety Opinion

Lesson for Our Leaders: The Best Defense is a Good Offense

By Anthony Cody — June 03, 2013 9 min read
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Educators and our representatives have been on the defensive for so long, many of us have forgotten one of the lessons of the great strategist Sun Tzu - the best defense is a good offense.

No Child Left Behind was a frontal assault on the teaching profession. We were accused of “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” One Bush era secretary of education even called a teacher union a “terrorist organization.”

The phony accountability regime that NCLB brought us was collapsing in 2008. The biggest applause lines at both Clinton and Obama campaign rallies came when they pointed out how NCLB was pushing us to teach to the test, and promised to get rid of it. Of course we all know what happened after Obama was elected.

The Common Core could be called a “High Tech Rehabilitation of High Stakes Tests.” The major goal of the project has been to overcome objections to data-driven school reform, by offering standards and tests that are so new and different that we will not mind having our schools driven by them. They are heavily supported by a coalition of corporate entities that stand to make billions from the privatization of education. If we cannot mount a coherent counterproposal, we will be stuck objecting piecemeal to the worst elements of this regime, just as we did with NCLB. This may give us some small victories, but the entire project will remain intact.

Our union leadership has, for the most part, been timid about confronting the basic tenets of corporate reform, especially in regards to “accountability.” There is a reason for this. The corporate offense has led with the charge that unions are vehicles by which teachers avoid accountability for poor performance. Union leaders have responded by rushing to assure everyone that “Oh no, we do embrace accountability.” We even have NEA President Dennis Van Roekel co-signing an op-ed on teacher preparation with TFA founder Wendy Kopp, calling for the use of data in teacher preparation. And AFT President Randi Weingarten co-signing one on teacher evaluation with the Gates Foundations’ Vicki Phillips.

We are operating on defense, and we are steadily losing ground. Those who wish to wipe out or completely disempower our unions, replace public schools with private and charter schools supported by vouchers, and put schools of education out of the field of teacher preparation, are setting the terms of the debate.

One of the things we ought to learn from the incredibly effective conservative pushback against the Common Core is that they have been on the offense from the start. They have fiercely and, for the most part accurately, attacked the false promises and corrupt elements of the Common Core, and they have made it clear what they want instead.

So how would we build an effective positive “offense” against corporate reform?

First Step: Thoroughly Discredit Bogus Claims and False Solutions
There are literally hundreds of bloggers and analysts working on this every day, with remarkable effect. The blog and writings of former accountability hawk Diane Ravitch have been especially effective in this regard, attracting more than four million views since its launch a little more than a year ago. There are academic sites, such as the National Education Policy Center, which regularly debunk propaganda disguised as research. There is academic research, such as this 2011 report from the National Academy of Sciences, which found high stakes accountability to have virtually no positive effect. The market-based solutions offered by corporate reformers have been devastating to our public schools, and are increasing segregation and narrowing the curriculum, especially for students in poverty. Charter schools, in spite of their tendency to avoid the most challenging students, have performance levels no better and often worse than the public schools in their communities. The flag-bearer for corporate reform, Michelle Rhee, left behind a district wracked by cheating scandals, with a widening achievement gap and huge teacher turnover. This is a failed project, top to bottom.

We need to educate ourselves and others about the Common Core system that is on the way. Positioning ourselves as expert implementers of the curricular and instructional aspects leaves us largely disarmed, as the accountability mechanisms begin to kick in. Randi Weingarten has called for a year’s delay in the high stakes consequences for the Common Core tests, but has continued to praise the Common Core to the heavens. A year’s delay would be welcome, but to pretend that this is sufficient to prepare for tests that are likely to yield a 30% drop in proficiency rates is foolish, and sets us up for a new round of failures.

We need to be absolutely clear. The Common Core is NOT a new paradigm. It is old wine in a new, high tech bottle. If you want to give teachers a set of loose standards and the time to work together to make them come alive for their students, fantastic. However, if you want to create a seamless system of cradle to college expectations, measured in all sorts of high stakes tests, we are not interested, and will fight you every step of the way. As John Merrow wrote recently, “to hell with the tests.” When John Merrow has become more radical than leaders of our unions, something is amiss.

Second Step: Develop a Comprehensive Critique of Market-Based Reform

The thrust of corporate education reform is that our schools ought to be run more like businesses. That is why we have ever-more tests, so that performance can be measured and managed. Our schools are being redefined as places that serve not the development of humanity, but the training of the workforce -- and as centers for corporate profit. The spectre of global competitiveness is used to frighten us into behaving as though our survival depends on making ourselves useful and profitable to global commerce. We are losing the school as a center of community strength, a vital part of the commons, where we send our children to learn together. Instead each school is in competition with others, and could be closed down like a bankrupt shoe store any time performance lags.

We are part of a growing movement that insists we have a common social destiny, and we need public spaces that are democratically operated, not in the interest of profit, but for the common good. We are connected to those fighting the unfolding global environmental crisis - another place where the common good is being sacrificed to market forces. The movement for our public schools must confront head-on the idea that the market is the ruler of us all. The market is an abstraction. It has no mind, let alone a moral compass, and cannot care for the weak and vulnerable. The market may dictate that mountains should be laid to waste, whole cities abandoned to rot, the globe warm unchecked, and bees can go extinct because profits can be made from pesticides, but through our actions together, we can make different choices as a society, that transcend profit and greed. We want a society where we care for one another, and build community structures that protect and serve everyone, not just those with great wealth.

Third Step: Redefine Accountability
The evidence has clearly shown that the high stakes accountability of the NCLB era has done little beyond narrowing the curriculum, and unfairly labeling and stigmatizing schools and teachers. In spite of all the talk of us losing out to our global competitors, this model is not followed in countries like Finland, that outperform us. We must advance a clear alternative to this counterproductive system. The clearest model of this is the Community Based Accountability framework developed by Julian Vasquez Heilig and his collaborators. In this system, our schools are accountable not to the federal Department of Education, nor to high stakes tests from for-profit test publishers. Rather, it calls for communities to engage with their schools to establish priorities and choose indicators that are most meaningful to them. This approach recognizes that conditions differ around the country, and one size fits all standards do not work. It puts the locus of control and accountability where it belongs, within our communities, and under democratic control. We must categorically reject the test and punish approach to reform. We need a permanent end to this, not just a year-long reprieve.

Fourth Step: Build Our Capacity to Fight

We must be prepared to actively fight, using every tool at our disposal. Those advancing corporate reform use the power of money and the political influence it purchases. They have allies in government, in the media, in the publishing/testing industry, and in the field of technology. We have a very different set of tools, and allies. We have our unions, our communication tools, and large numbers of teachers, parents and students who have direct experience in the schools, and very personal stakes in what happens to them. We also have potential allies in higher education, if they can get out of their own rut of defensiveness. Similarly, elected school board members, often dedicated to the public schools, are figuring out that education reformers often are seeking to displace them. Democratic control of our schools is becoming a relic of the past in many places. School board members are important community leaders, who can help defend our schools.

Of these, our unions are our greatest reservoir of potential strength - but they are largely ineffectual, because of their defensive stance. So we need to elect leadership capable of educating and activating the membership. We also need to be willing to use all the tools in the union toolchest. We should act together as teachers, and refuse to give tests, as they did in Seattle. We need to be willing to strike, as teachers did in Chicago. That means preparing by organizing our union members from the grassroots up, and building strong relationships with our parents and community leaders, making it clear teachers are not just after narrow interests, but want what is best for our students. Our power comes from our capacity to act, and we can only act if we are well organized and united, and have strong ties to our allies.

We also need to strengthen our ability to put pressure on elected officials. When 28 Senators from the Democratic Party vote with Republicans against funding foodstamps, and billionaires back candidates who will support corporate reform even in local school board races, we need to develop an independent way to support grassroots candidates who will act for the common good. The Network for Public Education is one such vehicle, and we need more. (disclosure: I am a co-founder of NPE and serve as its treasurer.)

The other key source of strength is the increasingly active and aware movement of students and parents, who are seeing that education reform is working against their interests. In a note yesterday, a friend pointed out something else of great importance:

Our movement must include, among its leadership and directors, parents and teachers from the most targeted of the public school communities, meaning, of course, black, Hispanic and poor families, and proponents of excellent public schools for all. Tea Party and other conservatives who include in their opposition to CCSS an opposition to full equality and educational opportunities for ALL of our children, are doing a disservice to our major job, which is to protect and expand quality education for all children.

These allies are already in motion. Students are walking out in protest of school closures in Philadelphia and Chicago. They are looking to educators for guidance, but if we are not willing or able to step outside the safe boxes offered by those in power, and truly challenge the market and test driven paradigm, we will lose our chance to move with them.

What do you think? Is it time to get off defense? What steps should we take?

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The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue 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.