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Living in Dialogue: The War of Attrition Over Public Schools

Public schools are in the midst of a war of attrition over their control – and even the very institution of public education is in danger. There is a sort of pincer assault under way, with billionaires on the far right pushing for complete de-regulation, and others, like the Gates Foundation, pursuing top-down systemic control of every public school in the nation.

On the “anti-government” side, billionaires like the Koch brothers and Walton family want to turn schools into a publicly-funded free market free-for-all, where virtually anybody who wants to can set up a school and teach whatever they want. This philosophy is resulting in voucher money going to schools that use the Bible as a source in teaching about the origins of life on Earth. The American Legislative Exchange Council has developed legislation sometimes called “Opportunity Scholarships” which give parents tax credits that can be applied to private or parochial school tuition. This week, the state of Nevada became the latest to adopt this model, so soon tax dollars will flow to whatever school the parent chooses, stripping funds from public schools. Deregulation is extending to the teaching profession as well. In Wisconsin, newly proposed rules would allow anyone to teach, regardless of their level of education, so long as they have “relevant experience.”

On the “pro-government” side, the Gates and Broad Foundations have been working closely with the Obama administration and teacher unions to advance the Common Core and aligned tests as the new accountability system that will re-wire our schools and turn our classrooms into uniform “sockets” for technologically-based learning systems. With the lure of Race to the Top grants, and by threatening the loss of Title One funds, the federal Department of Education has coerced a majority of states into adopting the Common Core. For similar reasons, many states now mandate the inclusion of test scores in teacher evaluations, though these systems are irrational and unfair. The Vergara case in California diabolically pitted the interests of students against those of teachers, asserting that teacher seniority protections interfered with students’ ability to get a good education.

The result of these attacks has been the unprecedented demoralization of the teaching profession. The number of applicants for teacher credentialing programs has plummeted in the state of California from around 77,000 around 2001 to fewer than 20,000 in 2012. According to the MetLife survey, teacher morale dropped from 62% in 2008 to 39% in 2012 – and I believe that morale is even lower today.

This is no accident. Teachers have been one of the chief obstacles to the dismantling of public schools from the start. The two teacher unions together have about five million members, making this the largest group of organized workers in the nation. So the political assault began there. Waiting for Superman, NBC’s Education Nation, and an onslaught of think tank reports provided propaganda for the campaign. Pseudo-governmental organizations like the National Council on Teacher Quality came up with half-baked “rating systems” to condemn schools of education, and coerce them into embracing test-centered pedagogy.

The authentic views of teachers became contested territory, and corporate philanthropies invested in groups able to gather teachers together, shape their views, and anoint them as “teacher leaders” when testimony was needed at the state legislature or Congress.

The media has been largely silenced on these issues. Education coverage on NPR and PBS, and the Seattle Times is sponsored by the Gates Foundation, and at behind the scenes gatherings journalists have been encouraged to focus on “what works.”

Teachers, parents and students have been successful at dominating “free” media, beyond the direct control of corporations and philanthropies. There are literally hundreds of education bloggers doing independent research and analysis of stories too touchy for mainstream media to cover. Alexander Russo raised the alarm about this state of affairs several years ago, asserting that “reform opponents” were winning online. It took a few years for the response to develop, but last year we got the Education Post, a $12 million blog staffed with people paid to sing the praises of corporate reform.

After several years of attempted dialogue, and the accumulation of mountains of redundant evidence that high stakes tests do more harm than good, charter schools accentuate rather than reduce inequities, and “no excuses” policies feed the school to prison pipeline, it has become clear that the billionaire sponsors of this reform project are satisfied with these outcomes, and intend to continue to force their misguided reforms on us, using every leverage point available. They are not going to turn around on their own. It will take a social movement to stop them.

This is a war of attrition.

The billionaires have a bottomless checking account, and are literally looking for people who will take their money to sing their tune. The leaders of the project seem to care very little about the views of students and teachers. In New York, citizens got rid of the autocratic state commissioner John King, only to have him replaced by someone with a similar track record from the heavily Gates-funded schools of Hillsborough County, Florida.

But the public is getting much smarter about the whole mess that is being created in our schools. Students that walked out or opted out of tests did so because they could see the failure the tests were designed to yield.

We have to think a bit strategically at this juncture. The most important thing is for people to be able to think and speak for themselves. We have some excellent models for the social movement now underway. Students need to develop their own voices, and their own organizations. Groups like the Newark Students Union are showing how this is done. Teachers of Conscience are standing tall, speaking the truth about the damage testing is causing.

We are seeing a real challenge emerge to the Obama administration’s rhetoric that “education reform is the civil rights issue of our time.” In January, in the context of the debate over the renewal of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), a group of 27 civil rights groups issued a statement insisting that the federal mandate for annual testing was essential to preserve the drive for equitable outcomes for students. But in May of this year, after many thousands of students opted out of these tests, only a dozen of these groups were convinced to sign onto a statement condemning the opt-out effort.

The Seattle branch of the NAACP offered a different perspective in April, with a statement in support of opting out.

…we view the opt out movement as a vital component of the Black Lives Matter movement and other struggles for social justice.  Using standardized tests to label Black people and immigrants as lesser—while systematically underfunding their schools—has a long and ugly history.

It is true we need accountability measures, but that should start with politicians being accountable to fully funding education and ending the opportunity gap. The costs tied to the test this year will run into the hundreds of millions of dollars. If the State really wants students to achieve academic performance at higher levels these dollars should be put in our classrooms and used for our children’s academic achievement, instead of putting dollars in the pockets of test developers.

And the Network for Public Education, with Seattle teacher Jesse Hagopian, issued a strong statement as well, laying out the many reasons that resisting high stakes tests advances the fight for equity. [disclosure – I serve on the NPE Board of Directors.] This statement was echoed by another this week, signed by Judith Browne Dianis, John H. Jackson, and Pedro Noguera.

Teacher unions continue to be hugely important. The statement in April by both Randi Weingarten and Lily Eskelsen Garcia that both unions would commit to stop taking grant money, and stop collaborating with the Gates, Broad and Walton foundations was a historic one. Eskelsen-Garcia is already trying to walk back this commitment. NEA members should have the last say over this at their next Rep Assembly.

In recent years, national union leadership has vocally advocated in support of the Common Core, and even supported contracts that required teacher evaluations to include test scores. Leaders have claimed that stance was not influenced by foundation funding, and that may be so. Regardless, this strategy of supporting misguided, destructive and disruptive reforms has to end. It is vitally important that our unions take an independent, critical stance towards these phony reforms, and the first step in that direction is to reject funding from these foundations.

The most precious thing we have is our sanity and moral conviction. Much of the corporate reform effort has been aimed at actively demoralizing teachers. Do you sometimes feel as if you are going crazy? That is no accident. We have irrational evaluations, often impossible growth targets, and ever-expanding demands on teacher time. The current wave of failure-producing Common Core tests are aimed at demoralizing students as well. This project of demoralization works – until it doesn’t any more. Groups like the NCTQ are losing their luster, as people begin to question how these self-appointed issuers of ratings got the right to pass judgment on the rest of us.

When we come to realize that “bad teachers” are not the reason for low test scores, and low test scores are not the reason jobs have been shipped overseas, then we start looking for real solutions to our economic problems. We notice the ever-shrinking amount of taxes being paid by the top .001 percent. We notice the way that both mainstream Democrats and Republicans have embraced the corporate reform project. And we notice the others in our society who share our fate – that of being economically squeezed, job security eliminated, pensions chipped away. Solidarity with others is what makes us strong.

Our stories are being told. Fantastic documentary films have been made in the past couple of years that describe what is happening. Defies Measurement, by Shannon Puckett, Education Inc, by Brian Malone and Hear Our Teachers, by Laurie Gabriel. There are films that portray great education that goes beyond the testing paradigm, like Good Morning Mission Hill, by Tom and Amy Valens, and Beyond Measure, by Vicki Abeles. These are great organizing vehicles, and can be used in your local communities.

In a war of attrition, the winner is the last one standing. In that, we have a reserved strength that is impossible for phony reformers to exhaust. That strength comes from the intimate knowledge of what is good for children, which almost everyone who works in schools becomes aware of over the course of a few months or years. If we look at teachers who enter the profession through test-score-focused projects like Teach For America, we find that many of them shift their views significantly as they gain experience. Some have even taken to speaking out about their experiences, as in this new book on “Teach For America Counter Narratives.” We have Teachers of Conscience, who are risking their careers to take a public stand in the interests of their students. We have growing alliances, bridges between teachers and the communities in which they teach, between students and teachers, and with the movement to defend Black lives from police violence. We have growing connections to the movement of organized labor, and the push for a higher minimum wage. The school to prison pipeline is very real, and it leads us into connections with those demanding an end to the incarceration of millions of Americans.

And to match that reserve of strength, the corporate reformers have no depth. Their “solutions” do not work – in fact many of them are inherently disastrous, like a testing system that labels most students failures. The instruction that results from their central strategy of high stakes testing is deadening, and essentially authoritarian. Teachers and students are like any other human beings – we instinctively rebel against such top down efforts to control us. The rhetorical call for civil rights and leaving no child behind has worn out, and is weaker with every tired repetition. Meanwhile, in spite of years of efforts to discredit the profession, teachers remain among the most trusted people in the nation.

Failure has been the primary objective of the corporate reform project. I think it is time to declare that project a success – it has indeed failed. And now let’s invite the billionaire philanthro-technocrats to move on to another field of endeavor. Perhaps they could improve the oceans – try to convince fish to switch to charter schools? Or use their obsession with data to catalog the sands of the world’s beaches? Something slightly more useful than destroying our public schools…

What do you think? How can we sustain our spirit of resistance and hope?

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Anthony Cody

Anthony worked for 24 years in the Oakland schools, 18 of them as a science teacher at a high-needs middle school. A National Board certified teacher, he now lead...