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Teachers Converging on Washington for 4-Day Schools Rally

By Nirvi Shah — July 28, 2011 7 min read
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Today kicks off the four-day Save Our Schools March and National Call to Action, a gathering and rally in Washington, D.C., organized by teachers who say they are fed up with test-driven accountability for public schools—and, increasingly, for teachers.

The group, which maintains that it is a grassroots, from-the-ground-up organization, hopes to send a message to national and state policymakers about their displeasure, as well as highlight a variety of principles for improving public education. The group has developed a series of position papers outlining its views on high-stakes testing, equitable funding for all schools, unions and collective bargaining, and changes to curriculum, among other issues. For the most part, the position papers aren’t yet at the level of detail of formal policy prescriptions, and it remains to be seen whether such proposals will emerge from the gathering.

March organizer Sabrina Stevens Shupe said however that policy proposals aren’t necessarily the goal of the events. “What we’re talking about is creating the right conditions, not prescriptive policies,” she said.

“There’s no one silver bullet that’s going to save anything,” she added, referring to attempts to craft education reforms for the last 30 years.

The big event happens Saturday, when thousands of teachers and supporters of the cause are expected to rally and march at The Ellipse, near the White House. (About 1,000 people have indicated they’ll attend via the movement’s website, but registration is not required, and organizers believe 5,000 to 10,000 marchers will turn out.) The group will wrap up with a closed-door meeting Sunday at which participants will try to determine how to keep the momentum from the rally going. (Movement organizers haven’t disclosed the meeting’s location, and it is not open to press.)

Watch this blog and our issues page for developments from the movement’s events today and through the weekend.

The movement began with a small group of teachers, including Jesse Turner, who walked from Connecticut to the District of Columbia last August to protest the No Child Left Behind Act and Race to the Top. Their efforts predated actions by state legislatures across the country this spring to curb teachers’ collective bargaining powers and tenure, noted Bess Altwerger, a member of the movement’s organizing committee, who hosted a reception for Mr. Turner last summer. She said the shortcomings of the American public education system do not lie with teachers.

“This has been framed as somebody’s fault—either the parents’ fault or the teachers’ fault,” Ms. Altwerger said. “The fault lies with an education policy that does not work.”

Eventually, both of the nation’s largest teachers unions threw their financial and philosophical support behind the movement.

The American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association have donated about $25,000 each to the effort. The bulk of the rest of the donations have come from one-time gifts provided through the Save Our Schools website. Conference organizers estimated that they’d raised over $125,000. After this weekend, they will have to begin fundraising efforts anew to keep their work going.

Taking Message to Obama Administration

Three organizers of the SOS March met Wednesday for an hour with senior-level Education Department officials, including two press officers and the deputy chief of staff. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was in attendance for about 10 minutes, and described the meeting as a “good conversation.” He added that “there is a lot of common ground out there.”

Following that meeting, Ms. Altwerger said she and other SOS organizers were invited to speak with Roberto Rodriguez, who advises President Obama on education matters.

According to a White House official, a couple of Obama’s education advisers—including Rodriguez—will meet with folks from the march tomorrow as part of “our ongoing commitment to listen to and work with teachers as we reform our education system to deliver a 21st century education for every child.”

Organizers say they plan to share the message at the heart of this week’s events:

“We want them to change the priorities... away from new standardized testing to thinking through equity issues, to making sure we can create situations in schools that ensure we have quality education for everyone rather than have everybody race to the top from an unequal playing field.”

Note: Turns out the SOS organizers are not going to meet with White House officials Friday after all.

Interestingly, Education Department officials reportedly helped the SOS folks navigate the General Service Administration’s permitting process for a march, a process that can be bureaucratic and time-consuming. Finally, several of the SOS organizers bequeathed Duncan a gift of a portion of an art installation. It consists of a box covered with test-form “bubble sheets” with a baby doll inside—apparently an ironic commentary on the narrowness of testing and its dominance in school reform. Before the meeting, SOS organizers had arranged 50 cardboard boxes holding dolls with messages to Mr. Duncan outside the department’s offices.

Although the organizers described the meeting as “respectful,” they disagreed with Mr. Duncan’s assessment that he and they are not very far apart on their hopes for change to American public education.

The list of speakers who will lead discussions today and Friday and rouse the crowd Saturday reads like a who’s who of the most vocal opponents of the standards- and test-based accountability movement, with a little star power thrown in for good measure. Event organizers say Jon Stewart has recorded a message that will be delivered by Jumbotron on Saturday, and Matt Damon, flying in on a red-eye that morning and flying out that night to shoot a movie in Vancouver, is scheduled to speak.

Philadelphia high school English teacher Madeline Nist said she couldn’t forgive herself if she didn’t attend the rally in person. She said she spent much of the last school year drilling her students, preparing them for Pennsylvania’s standardized tests. Although she has taught for more than 20 years, she said this past year’s experience was a first.

“Our kids missed Emerson. They missed Thoreau. I barely got in the Harlem Renaissance. Now they hate English class more than they ever hated it before,” she said.

She said she was aghast at a recent education roundtable hosted by President Obama that included business leaders, but no teachers.

“I hope that this is just the start. We don’t have that billionaire money, but we do have that determination.”

Rich Schools, Poor Schools

As part of a pre-march conference today and tomorrow, teachers, education professors, and others are gathering at American University to share ideas about a variety of topics.

On Thursday morning, author and activist Jonathan Kozol rallied the crowd, speaking of the heroism of American teachers, the “reign of terror” inflicted by current standards and testing-based accountability, and his firm belief that the achievement gap between races is growing.

“In the rich schools, kids are still empowered to interrogate reality,” Mr. Kozol said. “Not so in the poor schools.”

While many teachers and activists are expected to travel from across the country to Washington to attend, the movement has also helped organize a series of events in many states to coordinate with Saturday’s march in D.C.

After Mr. Kozol’s speech, more than 450 conference attendees scattered to dozens of sessions on topics including how to reform public education, become community activists, engage parents—especially black and Hispanic parents—and, oddly, learn how to self-publish students’ writing.

In one afternoon session, conferencegoers began plotting their next steps. Educators tossed around ideas including building a policy arm for the movement. Teachers and other SOS attendees raised hands in favor of forming an institute tentatively known as the “Think/Do Tank.”

Lamenting their feelings of fragmentation, the educators jumped at the chance to unite and deliver a targeted message. The idea of using YouTube videos to promote their message drew big cheers, but their exact message is still to be determined.

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.

(Politics K-12’s Michele McNeil and Education Week staff writer Alexandra Rice contributed to this report.)