Farewell to 2013. It was a year of beginnings, a year that launched a fundamental change in the debate about what constitutes true education “reform.”
More and more parents and teachers are awakening to the realization that the word “reform” has been hijacked by people who want to dismantle public education and the teaching profession. Those who have boldly named themselves the “reformers” are all too often working on behalf of turning public dollars over to private interests and to strip teachers of any due process, any collective-bargaining rights, any salary increment linked to their experience or their education. These so-called “reformers” reify test scores, making them the be-all and end-all of education and are eager to fire teachers and principals whose students don’t get the test scores that the computer says they should, and equally eager to close public schools with low scores and replace them with privately managed schools that all too often escape the same scrutiny as the public schools they replaced. The “reformers” care not at all about class size, indeed, they say they would prefer larger classes with “better teachers,” even though teachers say they can be better teachers with smaller classes, especially given the diversity of students in most public schools today, some of whom have disabilities, some of whom are learning English.
Our educators and schools now live under a Sword of Damocles fashioned by No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. Those who cannot produce higher scores are doomed. This is madness. This is a game rigged to harm public schools, which is a fundamental institution of our democracy.
The good news in 2013 was that parents, educators, and citizens began organizing and rising up in opposition to the status quo controlled by the fake “reformers.”
Here are some of the high points of 2013 in the battle against the status quo:
1. High school students began organizing to fight high-stakes testing and school closings. The leading edge of student opposition has been the Providence Student Union, which has deployed intelligence and wit to lead the battle against the state’s use of a standardized test (with the appropriate acronym of NECAP) as a graduation requirement. The students are fighting because they know that the weakest among them will fall on the low end of the bell curve and be denied a diploma, which will knee-cap them for the rest of their life.
2. Ethan Young, a high school student in Tennessee, appeared before the Knox County School Board, to express his opposition to Common Core, and the video of his five-minute appearance went viral, having been viewed some 2 million times on YouTube.
3. In Tennessee, parents organized a group called the Momma Bears. They blog, post on Facebook, and organize protests against the efforts of Governor Haslam and Commissioner Kevin Huffman to take over their public schools and demoralize their children’s teachers. Why do they call themselves “Momma Bears?” They say on their website:
“Momma Bears defend and support children and public schools. Momma Bears realize that quality public education is a right for every child. There are greedy corporations and politicians eager to destroy and profit from our American public school system and vulnerable children. Momma Bears are united in defending and protecting our young and their future from these threats.
“It is our hope that this group will connect lots and lots of Momma Bears, because we are stronger together than as individuals. Together, we must protect our children and public schools and we must also support the teachers who nurture, inspire, and protect our children.”
4. Forty percent of district superintendents in Tennessee signed a letter to Governor Haslam calling on him to rein in Commissioner Huffman, who is intent on shoving his “reforms” down the throat of every educator, without ever listening to experienced educators (when the letter went public, a handful of the superintendents removed their names, fearful of reprisals). After all, he did have two years as a Teach for America recruit, then served as communications director for TFA, before being selected to redesign the education system of the state of Tennessee. Huffman is pushing charter schools and doing his best to demoralize the teachers of Tennessee by tying their evaluations to test scores, not to experience or education or any other factor that matters more than test scores.
5. Thanks to the energetic parents of Texas who joined TAMSA (Texans Advocating for Meaningful Assessment), the legislature passed SB5, which rolled back a requirement that seniors needed to pass 15 tests to graduate from high school. In the future, they will need to pass five tests, not 15.
6. The implementation of Common Core testing in New York state created a firestorm of opposition to Common Core, to testing, and to the educator evaluation system cobbled together by the State Education Department. Neither teachers nor students were prepared for the new Common Core tests, which had an absurdly high passing mark. 70% of the students in the state “failed,” including 97% of English learners, 95% of students with disabilities, and more than 80% of black and Hispanic students. Parents were outraged by the state’s imposition of standards and tests for which their students were not prepared, based on material they had not studied. State Commissioner John King and the Board of Regents dismissed parent complaints, and Secretary Arne Duncan brushed them off as the whining of “white suburban moms” who were disappointed to learn that their child was not as brilliant as they thought and their public school was not as good as they thought. This angered parents even more, and Long Island may well be the epicenter of a massive opt-out from state testing in spring 2014.
7. The teachers of Garfield High School in Seattle voted unanimously not to give the MAP test, which they agreed was useless. They said the test was a waste of time and resources, and they would not do it. Faced with threats of suspension and pay cuts, they stood firm. They won. There were no punishments, and they won the admiration of teachers and parents across the nation.
8. The Badass Teachers Association, organized in 2013, now counts 35,000 members across the nation. These are the fearless activists who will not tolerate the punishments meted out by the guardians of the status quo. Their motto: “This is for every teacher who refuses to be blamed for the failure of our society to erase poverty and inequality, and refuses to accept assessments, tests and evaluations imposed by those who have contempt for real teaching and learning.”
9. Some of the candidates opposed by the “reformers” managed to win their elections, despite being overwhelmingly outspent by corporate funders (in many cases, the corporate funders lived thousands of miles away). Among the winners who fought off the “reform” money machine were Steve Zimmer and Monica Ratliff in Los Angeles, Sue Peters in Seattle, and the winning candidates who took control of the school board in Bridgeport, Connecticut, signaling the end of the Paul Vallas era in that small city.
10. It is impossible to overestimate the power of social media in establishing communication among pro-public education bloggers. The bloggers have done an amazing job of informing people across the nation about what is happening in their district and in their state, and building awareness that the attacks on public education are not sporadic and are not local. They are heavily funded by a handful of millionaires and billionaires and passed through groups like Stand for Children, ALEC, Democrats for Education Reform, and 50CAN, who use their funding to advocate for privatization, for high-stakes testing, for evaluating teachers by test scores, and for stripping teachers of any due process so that experienced teachers may easily be replaced by newcomers who will work at entry-level wages and leave without ever collecting a pension. All of us are far better informed because of the remarkable and persistent bloggers in Ohio, Indiana, Connecticut (a special shout-out to Jonathan Pelto!), Florida, Texas, Nevada, Idaho, New Mexico, Louisiana, and every other state. They have blown the whistle again and again to call attention to financial misdeeds and frauds against students and teachers. Thank you, bloggers!
11. In North Carolina, a reactionary governor and legislature were elected in 2012, and they passed bill after bill to destroy public education and to turn teachers into temporary workers. In response, concerned citizens organized a weekly protest before the Legislature called Moral Mondays, where they gathered to show their opposition to the attacks on the public sector and on valued institutions.
12. In New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s 12-year reign in office (extended by a controversial overturn of a term-limits law passed by voters twice) finally came to an end. Polls showed that his most unpopular issue was education, where only 22-26% of voters approved his harsh and punitive reform policies of closing public schools, grading schools, rating teachers based on student test scores, opening hundreds of small schools, and favoring charter schools with free public space. Among the many contenders for the office, Bill de Blasio was elected. De Blasio was the candidate who most sharply disagreed with Bloomberg’s education “reforms” and promised change. De Blasio pledged a moratorium on school closings and co-location of charters in public schools; he pledged to abolish the A-F grading system. And he promised to listen to parents and communities, unlike Bloomberg, who viewed parents and communities as a nuisance and obstacles that could be easily ignored.
13. Grassroots groups opposing the assault on public education and attacks on teachers formed in many states and continue to form. In spring 2013, Anthony Cody and I, along with a group of other concerned educators formed the Network for Public Education in spring 2013, specifically to identify and encourage the many grassroots groups across the nation and to help them find one another. In addition, part of our mission is to endorse candidates who support public education in local and state races for school board.
As parents, educators, and other citizens were mobilizing to support their schools, the faux reformers sustained a number of notable setbacks. I can’t list them all here. This is only a sampling. Suffice it to note that none of the “reforms” mandated by No Child Left Behind, required by Race to the Top and by Arne Duncan’s waivers, and advocated by corporate reformers has any evidence to support it. Lots of bad news for “reformers” in 2013, including the following:
1. One of the nation’s pre-eminent scholars of testing, Edward Haertel, explained in an important lecture to the Education Testing Service why value-added-modeling (VAM) was being misused by policymakers. Its value in evaluating teachers, he said, was seriously overstated. This policy happens to be the linchpin of Race to the Top, and its use is now commonplace in most states, despite the fact that the research base for it is not only weak but indicates that the current use of VAM is junk science.
2. The Louisiana State Supreme Court struck down funding for vouchers and course choice (from non-public school providers) by a vote of 6-1. Governor Bobby Jindal had planned to fund his privatization program by taking money away from the minimum foundation funding for public schools. However, the state constitution restricts public funding to public elementary and secondary schools. This forced Governor Bobby Jindal and the legislature to find another source for funding vouchers and course choice.
3. The first year report on the Louisiana voucher schools showed that nearly half the students were enrolled in schools rated D or F by the state, showing that (contrary to the voucher boosters), students were not “escaping from failing public schools,” but transferring from public schools with low ratings (based on test scores) to private schools with equally low ratings (based on test scores). Voucher schools, however, are not held to the same standards of accountability as public schools.
4. John Merrow, who had featured Michelle Rhee on a dozen occasions on PBS and helped to make her a media star, turned his tough investigative eye to allegations of cheating in D.C. during her tenure and was upset to find that the allegations were swept under the rug. He asked a series of tough questions, which Rhee ignored and deflected.
5. G.F. Brandenburg and John Merrow deconstructed the NAEP gains made by D.C., pointing out that the trend lines were continuous with those that preceded Rhee and that D.C. continues to be one of the lowest performing districts in the nation. Arne Duncan and Rhee brandished the D.C. scores as “proof” that get-tough policies aimed at teachers work;
6. We learned how easily the A-F school grading system can be distorted when Tom LoBianco of the AP revealed emails showing that Tony Bennett, state superintendent of Indiana, had manipulated the A-F grading system to raise the score of a charter school founded by a prominent campaign contributor. Bennett, defeated in 2012, had moved on to Florida, where he was Commissioner of Education when the story broke. He resigned his position.
7. “Reformers” and major corporations have turned Common Core into a battle cry, but the more they push, the greater the resistance from parents and teachers who fear that the purpose of Common Core is to make public schools look bad and advance the privatization movement. Mercedes Schneider has tracked the money trail that created Common Core, attributing nearly $200 million in spending to the Gates Foundation, spread liberally among the creators of CCSS, as well as groups paid to evaluate and promote them. At last count, there was growing controversy over the CCSS and high-stakes testing connected to it in at least 23 of the 45 states that adopted them in response to federal lures.
8. Common Core will require districts and states to spent millions on technology and materials to implement it at a time of budget cuts. As teachers, librarians, social workers, and nurses are laid off, huge amounts of money will pay for technology and bandwidth for Common Core testing, all of which will be online. Los Angeles presented the perfect model of the costs that accompany Common Core when Superintendent John Deasy pledged to spend $1 billion to buy iPads for all students and staff, money taken from a school construction bond issue passed by voters. This means that the funds will not be available for school construction or repairs because they are being used to buy iPads loaded with Pearson curriculum; both the iPads and the Pearson content will be obsolete within 3-4 years (when the Pearson contract expires and the iPads must be replaced). Where will the money come from next time? Will voters pass another bond issue, without knowing how it will be spent?
I am sure I have forgotten many of the other highlights and low points of 2013.
Send help update my list of the most important events of 2013 in relation to our struggle to support public education and our educators.
If you know of grassroots groups that are fighting the status quo, privatization, and profiteering, please send their name.
Meanwhile, I wish you a happy and healthy New Year.
And if you want to help the cause, please consider a donation–of any size–to the Network for Public Education. We need your help.