School & District Management Opinion

Teachers: A Call to Battle for Reluctant Warriors

By Anthony Cody — April 12, 2014 6 min read
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We just wanted to teach.

When I was drawn to teach in Oakland, I saw a chance to give students the chance to do hands-on experiments, to answer their own questions, and explore the natural world. On field trips to the tide pools I found out some had never even been to the Pacific Ocean, an hour’s drive from their homes. I did not enter teaching to prepare students for tests. I wanted my students to think and reason for themselves.

We teach the children of the middle class, the wealthy and the poor. We teach the damaged and disabled, the whole and the gifted. We teach the immigrants and the dispossessed natives, the transients and even the incarcerated.

In years past we formed unions and professional organizations to get fair pay, so women would get the same pay as men. We got due process so we could not be fired at an administrator’s whim. We got pensions so we could retire after many years of service.

But career teachers are not convenient or necessary any more. We cost too much. We expect our hard-won expertise to be recognized with respect and autonomy. We talk back at staff meetings, and object when we are told we must follow mindless scripts, and prepare for tests that have little value to our students.

No need for teachers to think for themselves, to design unique challenges to engage their students. The educational devices will be the new source of innovation. The tests will measure which devices work best, and the market will make sure they improve every year. Teachers are guides on the side, making sure the children and devices are plugged in properly to their sockets.

The children will be more competitive with students in China, who already know that the test is all that matters. The test is a trial in which your challenge is to please an invisible master. It is important to succeed because our lives will be a series of such challenges - where we must do well to enter college, to get a job, and to continually please our employer, who will then value our work enough to pay us.

Meanwhile the economy provides fewer jobs, and pay and benefits diminish, as corporations look to maximize profits. The nation has more wealth than ever, but corporations avoid taxes, so schools and universities make classes bigger, more automated and computerized, and this is called “personalization.” And 21st century college graduates are finding the middle class jobs to which they aspire elusive, while their debt is inescapable.

Schools of the poor were the first targets. It was easy to stigmatize schools attended by African Americans and Latinos, by English learners and the children of the disempowered. Use test scores to label them failures, dropout factories, close them down, turn them over to privatizers. But this was just the beginning. And now, as Arne Duncan made clear with his dismissal of “white suburban moms,” they want all the schools, and are prepared to use poor performance on the Common Core tests to fuel the “schools are failing” narrative.

Teacher unions are under ruthless attack by billionaires, who conveniently own the media, and provide the very “facts” to guide public discourse. Due process is maligned and destroyed under the guise of “increasing professionalism.” Democratic control of local schools is undermined by mayoral control and the expansion of privately managed charter schools.

Congress and state legislatures have been purchased wholesale through bribes legalized by the Supreme Court, which has given superhuman power to corporate “citizens.”

Teachers, by our nature cooperators respectful of authority, are slow to react. Can the destruction of public education truly be anyone’s goal? The people responsible for this erosion rarely state their intentions. With smiles and praise for teachers, they remove our autonomy and make our jobs depend on test scores. With calls for choice and civil rights, they re-segregate our schools, and institute zero-tolerance discipline policies in their no-excuses charter schools. They push for larger classes in public schools but send their own children to schools with no more than 16 students in a room. Corporate philanthropies anoint teacher “leaders” who are willing to echo reform themes - sometimes even endorsed by our national teacher unions.

But the truth leaks out. Reed Hastings reveals his aspiration to use the expansion of charter schools to sideline elected school boards across the country. Charter schools, sold on the basis that traditional schools are broken, rarely do better, and in many cases do worse than the schools they replace. Teach For America novices turn over at such high rates that they promote instability wherever they go. The destruction of due process feeds high turnover, as is already seen at many charter schools where it is absent or weak. And the instability and churn that is the hallmark of corporate reform is damaging to students and their communities.

Teachers are beginning to react. We have known all along that test-based accountability would yield data by the truckload, but data is blind without wisdom. Our unions have become accustomed to serving members who are largely uninvolved and deactivated. A union with an inactive membership is like a sleeping athlete. Until the athlete is awoken and in motion, the body is inert. We need to get the adrenaline flowing, so our unions can engage in movement once again. Our colleagues in Chicago showed us how this can be done - and they are still at work, organizing.

Teachers are lending support to the Opt Out movement. Teachers in Seattle showed that tests can be boycotted last year, and their solidarity and support from the community meant they carried the day. This year, tens of thousands of students are opting out in New York and across the country, and teachers at some schools are risking their jobs by opting out as well. When the data-hungry machine is not fed tests, it is starved and will die. The Washington teachers union just voted to support families who opt out. When the data-hungry machine is not fed tests, it is starved and will die. The folks at United Opt Out have recovered from a cyber attack and are rebuilding their web site, sharing lots of great information.

The Network for Public Education has issued a call for Congressional hearings this spring. After more than a decade of NCLB, isn’t it time we had some true accountability for all these tests that have been running our schools? Letters are being collected now to be sent to members of Congress. [Disclosure: I co-founded the Network for Public Education and serve as treasurer.]

Some teachers are even declaring themselves Badasses, and expressing outright defiance. There will be protests this summer - mark your calendar. Teachers are organizing for a protest at the Gates Foundation in Seattle on June 26. And the Badass Teachers (BATs) will be rallying in Washington, DC, on July 28.

We just wanted to teach, to make a difference in the lives of our students. But when that is made impossible, then we have no choice but to get organized and fight, for ourselves, and for the students we serve.

Update: There is also a petition to the White House that asks President Obama to “Direct the Department of Education & Congress to Remove Annual Standardized Testing Mandates of NCLB and RttT. Please add your name.

What do you think? Are you seeing teachers making the shift from frustration to action?

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Image provided by Network for Public Education, used by permission.

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.