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‘Save Our Schools’ Rally Turns Up the Heat

By Nirvi Shah & Nora Fleming — July 29, 2011 5 min read
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The Save Our Schools March and National Call to Action is now in full swing, a day and a half into the four days of seminars, speeches, and marching.

All that activity means it’s getting hot out there—and I’m not just talking about the Washington, D.C., weather.

The rally organizers, who decry the role standards- and test-based accountability have taken in public schools, turned down an invitation from the White House to meet today, saying they simply
are too busy meeting with supporters and hosting seminars to attend. They also want President Obama to see the scope of their movement, which includes a march around the White House on Saturday afternoon, before any meeting. They’ve countered with an offer to meet Sunday, to which the White House has not yet responded.

The organizers did not, however, turn down an impromptu meeting with Education Secretary Arne Duncan on Wednesday. The conversation was described as “respectful,” but not necessarily fruitful.

Meanwhile, the group’s rhetoric about engaging parents, toning down testing, and boosting funding for schools is drawing some sharp criticism.

“S.O.S is about deforming education, not reforming it,” said Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform. “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.”

Her organization took issue, in particular, with the organizers’ push for more equitable funding for schools but less accountability in its current form. The center mocked the event as being about saving the status quo, rather than schools, echoing the comments of Indiana Superintendent Tony Bennett last month.

The organizers disagree. “This is the same tired rhetoric public-school advocates often hear from defenders of the real status quo: The decades-long misuse and abuse of testing, and the illusion of school ‘choice’ that treats families like school shoppers instead of public school stakeholders,” countered Sabrina Stevens Shupe, one of the SOS organizers. “Given the lack of evidence supporting test-based accountability and turnaround schemes, it’s unsurprising that they have resorted to name-calling instead of honest conversation.”

Momentum Grows, Cause Unclear

For SOS marchers who agree on what the frustrations are—if not necessarily on specific ways to overcome them—what should be the next steps for change? That was the main question that teachers, parents, and community members wrestled with at the second day of the premarch gathering at American University. The answer, for now, seems to be: Just keep being heard.

In an early session, Wisconsin teachers narrated their experiences mobilizing teachers in response to state legislation curbing members’ bargaining rights. Amy Daroszeski, a middle school English teacher in Milwaukee, Wisc., told how her efforts using social media, websites, and phone trees were successful in rallying her teacher peers for school walkouts and general social protest. Though she’d had little union involvement prior to the spring, she created a Facebook group, now with close to 12,000 members, that was used to galvanize protests and helped organize a weekend “grade-in” at malls throughout the state, where teachers sat in food courts grading papers to show the time they spent on the weekends for work.

Audience members then discussed how they make a difference in their communities and their concerns that many teachers were afraid to speak out and that unions were hesitant to act. One guest said she knew of teachers in Virginia who were afraid to come to Saturday’s rally for fear of losing their jobs.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re heard or not,” the woman said. “It matters if you can say this out loud.”

Later in the afternoon, one group talked about the way to deliver a message, how to get buy in and response, how choosing the right words or analogies to make a message more meaningful.

After chronicling the situation in Philadelphia public schools in one session, parent activist Helen Gym said she was hopeful.

“The stories out of Philadelphia are like many other struggling cities,” she said, but she had one unanswered concern.

“We need to think about immediate options,” she said, “not just about ideology.”

Diane Ravitch Interviews Herself

Earlier Friday, education historian Diane Ravitch interviewed herself before an eager crowd.

“Dr. Ravitch,” she began, “mind if I call you Diane?”

Other snippets from her conversation with herself:

Q: Is U.S. education in crisis?

A. “Well, yes, we’re in crisis, but we’ve been in crisis for hundreds of years. ... But the crisis is not what you think it is. It’s a crisis caused by [the No Child Left Behind Act].”

Ravitch, who once embraced that legislation, is now one of its most outspoken critics, but drove that point home by asking herself about it.

Q: “So Diane, what do you think of NCLB?”

A: “I’d say it’s one of the worst pieces of federal legislation ever passed. No I take that back, it is the worst piece of legislation ever passed. Schools are narrowing curriculum, states are gaming the system, and grownups are cheating to save their jobs. Principals and teachers are being fired because they can’t make an impossible goal without cheating.”

Then she asked herself about her thoughts on evaluating teachers by test scores.

“It is one of the worst ideas ever. This is something George W. Bush could only dream of doing. You had to have a Democratic president to sell it. What do politicians know about evaluating teachers? Nothing. Methods of evaluation should be designed by evaluators, not legislators.”

Ravitch went on to ask herself about how schools should be improved and reformed.

“First of all, we have to elect a whole lot of different people. Anyone here from Ohio? We have to get a referendum and turn over Senate Bill 5 [which took a swipe at collective bargaining rights in the Buckeye State.] Throw out those rascals in Wisconsin!”

And merit pay?

“The program that never works and never dies.”

She reinforced the march organizers’ mantra that anyone can begin a movement that makes waves by writing to lawmakers, involving friends, commenting on blogs, and writing letters to the editor.

“These people who call themselves reformers have almost all the money and all the political power. But things change. This is a democracy: We vote. The reformers, they are few, and we are many. Let’s let this democracy work for the many and not the few.”

Note: Several people who blog for or have worked for Education Week are involved in the Save Our Schools March. Education Week Teacher opinion bloggers Nancy Flanagan and Anthony Cody are on the organizing committee. Endorsers of the event include Education Week opinion bloggers Peter DeWitt, Diane Ravitch, and Deborah Meier; former reporter James Crawford; and Ron Wolk, the founding editor of Education Week and the chair emeritus of Editorial Projects in Education, the nonprofit corporation that publishes it. Education Week and Education Week Teacher are not affiliated with the event and take no editorial positions about it.