Assessment Opinion

We Still Have Allies in the Fight

By Guest Blogger — May 06, 2014 5 min read
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Author and advocate Mike Klonsky again writes to Deborah Meier today. The two are currently co-blogging on Bridging Differences.

“Well, the way I understand it, if a school’s kids don’t test well, they burn the school down. It’s pretty high-pressure."—Louis C.K.

Yes, Deb.

Once again, as you point out, you’ve corrupted me, as you have so many times before. For me, blogging used to be three quick hits and out. My last post on Bridging Differences somehow grew to over 1,000 words. I blame it all on you. Your posts have me thinking about so many things at once.

In your last post you raised a really important question: Who do we ally with? It’s a loaded one because it’s not so clear who the we is. I’m assuming from the context of the post that you mean: Who do we, defenders of public education as a democratic institution, ally with? To answer that question, we need to start from an assessment of current conditions. How bad is it out there? Who are the forces in the field? How weak or strong are they and we?

You can’t always plan for everything. There are always black swans. And allies pop up in the strangest places. Comedian Louis C.K. brought a smile to my face the other day when he, a public school parent, tore into the common core and the standardized testing madness. I wish we had more pro-education friends in the popular media. I remember how important it was to have Matt Damon and his educator mom, author Nancy Carlsson-Paige, speak at our Save Our Schools March in Washington in 2011. I also recall how panicked Arne Duncan became and how he tried, without success, to head Damon off at the D.C. airport. Duncan knows the power of popular culture.

The most recent place where the question of alliances has come up is around single issues like common core and testing. You and I have been clear on our opposition to the Common Core State Standards and the wildly expanding testing regimen that comes with it. Defenders of common core argue that the CCSS are purely standards and “not curriculum,” and that they aren’t trying to influence or control how teaching and assessment take place. I think we both know that’s not true. Standards and assessments are completely bound up with curriculum and instruction. Others, like the leadership of the two big teacher unions, claim support for common core, but criticize “the way it’s being implemented.” I’m not sure how they can continue to support a policy years after its implementation has been devastating for teachers and students. Theory is always pure, but as they say around here, real life is a ...

All this shows there are different kinds of allies—some strong and consistent, some weak and wavering. There are also different kinds of opponents and lots of contradictions between them.

The question is made all the more complex because there are groups and political movements we oppose, who are attacking common core from out in right field. The common core has been made a political wedge issue, much like the Affordable Care Act, by right-wing extremists, the Christian Right, states’ rights segregationists, racist populists, Obama-haters, and other antigovernment groups. A report released today by the Southern Poverty Law Center shows that most of these anti-common core groups, like their neo-liberal corporate reform counterparts, aren’t really about reforming public education, but are simply using the issues for their own narrow purposes. But in some ways the framing of common core as the platform of all the “sensible” folks from Jeb Bush and Christie to Hillary and Barack vs. the Tea Party (NY Times does this in every story) serves the corporate reform agenda by silencing the criticism from the left which is deeper and more powerful, but is usually missing from the mainstream story.

You ask: “Is there a wing of such ‘right wing-ism’ that can be appealed to on behalf of preserving a less-than-totalitarian society in which money and only money rules—who are equally afraid of an oligarchy of the 1 percenters, even the .01 percenters?” My answer is no—none that I would appeal to and none that appeal to me.

A while back I got into a little tiff with a good, fiery opponent of common core who, for some reason, saw the need to sing the praises of well-known right-wing extremist and immigrant-basher Michelle Malkin, merely because Malkin is against common core. I argued, without much success, that an alliance with Malkin and her ilk would so discredit us, especially with real potential allies in the labor and immigrant rights movements and in communities of color, that our arguments on common core would be buried.

I guess I’m not as gloomy about current prospects as you seem to be, Deb. While I agree that we’re really on the strategic defensive and facing a rollback of many of the most important civil rights victories from the ‘60s, I don’t think we’re on the brink of “1932 in Germany.” If I did think so, I’d probably have a much different take on current tactics and strategy.

But you’re right; the “reformers” move fast, since they don’t have to bother with time-consuming democratic input. None the less, there’s lots of democracy bubbling up in social movements, lots of good reliable forces to unite with and friends to be made. After a decade of having all the money and the big megaphone and a coordinated strategy to promote testing, undermine the collective voice of teachers, and sell off the public space, the corporate reformers still have not won the hearts or minds of the public. It’s still contested space, and we risk being silenced if we barricade ourselves and fail to consider to power in our arguments and risk being discredited if we make opportunist alliances with right-wing extremists.


Michael Klonsky teaches in the College of Education at DePaul University. He is the co-founder and director of the Small Schools Workshop and is a co-author of Small Schools: Public School Reform Meets the Ownership Society. He blogs daily at Mike Klonsky’s SmallTalk Blog, at//michaelklonsky.blogspot.com/. You can follow him on Twitter at://twitter.com/mikeklonsky.

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