This was the year of the billionaire in education. And teachers, parents and students are wondering what we need to do to make 2011 turn out a bit differently.
The eleventh year of the new millennium was a rollercoaster ride for teachers. As the year began, we were in the throes of frustration, one year into the Obama administration. Some of us were still hoping to get the administration’s attention, still hoping that the voices of ordinary and (and extraordinary) teachers might help redirect policies the deepened our dependence on test scores, and undermined our public schools. We wrote letters, joined Facebook groups, and even got a phone conference with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan himself.
We took the administration at its word when it said it wanted to hear our solutions as well as our critiques. We offered concrete alternatives to their Blueprint for revising NCLB. We described the reasons collaboration and cooperation are much more powerful levers than competition in improving our schools. We offered a well-developed plan for teacher evaluation built around these principles,
After our conversation with Secretary Duncan went nowhere, we shifted our efforts to trying to influence Congress. At Teachers’ Letters to Obama, we developed seven principles we felt should guide reauthorization of NCLB. We also endorsed Congresswoman Judy Chu’s alternative framework for strengthening struggling schools. I even offered a Teachers’ NEWprint for School Change based on our discussions.
But our policymakers were listening to the newest “people” of our nation, the persons previously defined as corporations. The year was defined, unfortunately, by the behavior of the wealthy. As the richest Americans have steadily increased their wealth, they seem to have lost a sense of a social compact with the rest of society, in terms of paying a reasonable share of income in taxes. Some billionaires, however, have used some of their burgeoning funds to seek to control our educational system. This is an opportune time for such leverage, because school systems starved of public revenues are desperate for dollars, and are willing to embrace changes offered by billionaire “reformers.”
The Gates Foundation achieved unprecedented influence at the Department of Education through numerous high level appointments. “It is not unfair to say that the Gates Foundation’s agenda has become the country’s agenda in education,” said Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. That agenda is one driven by an ideology that sees competition and economic incentives as the driving force that moves us ahead as a nation. Every aspect of our school system is being reworked to fit this ideology. Secretary Duncan designed his Race to the Top reform initiative along competitive lines, so that states needed to come up with proposals incorporating as many new “reform” elements as possible. Florida led the pack, creating a plan that would tie at least half of teacher pay and evaluations to test score results.
Although studies have repeatedly shown that teachers are actually different from car salesmen, and operate on a different set of motivational drives, our corporate leaders are religious in their faith that we will produce better results if we are incentivized by pay for higher test scores.
Charter schools are given free rein to expand because they offer competition to public schools, and are able to operate using tax-payer dollars without the restraints imposed by needing to negotiate with teachers collectively through their unions. They have NOT been shown to be any better than regular public schools at educating children.
We saw the continuation of the cruel and misguided practice of labeling schools as failures, firing their staff, and attempting to re-open them with a different cast of teachers. Los Angeles teacher Chuck Olynyk gave us a front-row seat on the experience last winter, as he counted down his days as a teacher there. Again, there is no evidence this is an effective strategy, and research revealed that it had been unsuccessful in Chicago where Duncan had done it before.
And although there has never been much evidence produced that we are burdened by an especially high number of “bad” teachers, the drive for systems to rid us of them led the Los Angeles Times to publish “Value-added” ratings for teachers, publicly labeling individual teachers as “less effective” if their scores did not rise enough. One dedicated teacher, Rigoberto Ruelas, took his life after he was unfairly named this way.
The corporate campaign to reshape our schools hit a crescendo in September, when media giant Oprah helped launch the pro-charter, anti-union propaganda film “Waiting for Superman.” The Gates Foundation gave the film a $2 million budget for promotion, and NBC signed on for a week of “Education Nation” programming, fully stocked with the heroes of corporate “reform,” and largely excluding the voices of teachers who might have raised critical questions.
And most recently, the corporate media’s greatest education superhero, Michelle Rhee, has launched a well-financed “grassroots” campaign called “Students First,” to promote their agenda in communities across the nation.
In spite of this onslaught, there were some hopeful signs of life from teachers, parents and students this year as well. The Florida law to base pay and evaluations on test scores was so controversial that thousands of Florida teachers and parents became politically active, and showed up to picket and cajole Governor Charlie Crist, who became their hero when he vetoed the law. Michelle Rhee had the mantle of champion of the poor damaged when African American voters rejected Adrian Fenty, the mayor responsible for her position.
Last Spring also saw a tremendous outpouring of student activism around education issues. Our students are affected by these changes more than anyone, and last March 4 they took to the streets by the thousands, in California and across the nation, protesting budget cuts to the k-12 and post-secondary schools.
Connecticut educator Jesse Turner took a long walk from his home state to Washington, DC, last summer, speaking to crowds of teachers and parents along the way. He and others have called for a “Great Awakening” to rescue our schools from their calamitous course. He is working with others on plans for a much larger march and conference in DC next summer.
One of the original advocates of education reform based on standardized tests emerged as an unlikely critic of the corporate controllers. Diane Ravitch, with her excellent book, “The Death and Life of the Great American School System,” shook everyone up by pointing out the awkward facts that show that NCLB has not improved our schools, and in many ways has made them worse. Ravitch stepped outside the role of academic, and became a true leader as she challenged the dominant narrative and rallied others to resist what she termed the “Billionaire Boys Club.”
While the corporate media lavished praise and publicity on Waiting for Superman, two less recognized films won the hearts of teachers and parents across the nation. “August to June” offered an intimate portrait of what a humane school should be. We know what good teaching and great learning looks like - don’t let anyone tell us we don’t! And the deeply moving Race to Nowhere has shaken up parents and educators by showing how we are pushing many of our children at a tremendous pace, with sometimes tragic results.
As the year closes, we are looking forward to something different next year. Education is intertwined with the fabric of American political life. As our corporations have amassed wealth and influence, they have sought domination even in the public sphere of our school system. But people are beginning to understand the need for socially supported and democratically controlled common institutions like the public schools. We are going to need to fight for these things, in the same ways that people have claimed their power over the centuries.
As the year ends, we should take time to pause and reflect on what we have lost - some of our innocence perhaps. And Rigoberto Ruelas. And Fremont High School. And my mother, my first teacher, who passed away in September.
But we have gained some things as well. The innocence we have lost may have been replaced by an awareness of the seriousness of the challenge we face, and the need to reach beyond our schools and out into the wider communities in which we live. We need to build awareness of the crucial resource our public schools offer. Our schools are not perfect, and they reflect the conditions and struggles of our communities. Our schools are the concrete manifestation of our shared destiny, our collective investment in our future. The next generations will need our schools more than ever, to help bring them together to meet the great challenges we face.
What do you think? How will you remember the year 2010? How can we make 2011 turn out differently?
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.