Public education was called for and created because our citizens, many of them first generation immigrants, in the late 1800's, realized that if we did not provide a system where all of our future citizens could share in access to a free and fair education, we would not be able to build a great society. It was realized then, that we are only as strong as our weakest members, that we are judged ultimately by how we treat our children, and that our success as a nation lies in our ability to teach each child to become thoughtful, educated citizens of the world. "Race to the Top" does not even begin to represent the earliest and most important ideals of public education: if this is a race, then there are winners and losers- who will the losers be? Inherent in the components of current reform, is a belief that teachers fail, schools fail, that choice and competition will bring about equality. This is a fundamental flaw because it is rooted in a capitalist ideology.
There is a reason that we have guarded certain aspects of our public policy from capitalist ideology, these social aspects need a more socialist approach (a dirty word, but it is true). Let's look at areas of social policy that have been infiltrated by capitalist ideology and the impact it has had: 1. Prisons: after prisons were partially privatized we saw the numbers of those incarcerated sky rocket, and in particular the disproportionate number of black men incarcerated has increased. 2. Health Care: dominated by private interest, 50,000 or more Americans die needlessly each year. 3. The military: Blackwater (a private military force) has done extreme harm to the national security of this country- their leader will soon be found guilty of heinous crimes, this organization has raped and murdered hundreds and they think they should not be held accountable for it because the public laws should not apply to them. These are three very simple and vitally crucial areas that go to the heart of the security and prosperity of our nation. Choice and competition, and private interest and money, the capitalist ideology now driving education reform, has weakened and harmed these important and vital aspects of our country and our social policies. This is not the solution for education. The unwavering belief in a free market ideology in a time of great economic turmoil that has been propagated by these very beliefs is unbelievable to me... how can we be so blind?
At the foundation of education reform is standardized testing; these tests are the centerpiece of all that reform is to be measured by, all we should be accountable to and for, this is not only a fundamental flaw, but it is outrageous. The current reform movement suggests that, we, and specifically teachers, should accept yearly test-based standards for their students/children, should stop whining about testing because it does no good, that if teachers teach, it will show up on the tests we give... this is a very narrow view not only of what teaching is, but of who our students are. We teach students who are hungry, whose parents did drugs and alcohol while they were pregnant. We teach students with disabilities, language delays, and medical issues. We teach students who are being abused and neglected. We teach students who don't know where they will sleep tonight. We teach students who trust no one, who are afraid, who seek love, who need love. We teach students who have had little to no rich experiences, whose prior knowledge is limited. We teach students without parent advocates, without family, without the safety and security that is a fundamental requirement for learning. These students do not necessarily represent the vast majority of students; but should we ignore their reality? We all know who the losers will be in Race to the Top and in the new Education Reform agenda, it will be these children.
What tests alone do not measure is who ate last night and this morning, who is worried, tired, or scared. Tests do not measure the tremendous strength it took to overcome the overwhelming despair many of our students, our children, experience, the strength it took to even show up in the morning. This week, fifth grade students in New York City will take a state social studies test on Monday and Tuesday, Wednesday is for make-ups and then they will take the reading city-wide test on Thursday and the math on Friday (I should not the alternative was to take the reading and math last Thursday and Friday which would have resulted in four consecutive school days of testing and the last two days of preperation for the social studies test would have been lost)... how is this teaching? How is this what is good for children? This is the measure of our children's achievement and worth? Of our teachers' success and worth?
We as educators and parents should be outraged at the reform agenda being presented to us, correction, being shoved down our throats: Charter schools and the privatization movement, the heavy focus on standardized testing, an undefined push for teacher quality and accountability, the significant inclusion and privilege of private corporations' view and influence at the exclusion of parents, educators, and students, slashed budgets, lost services, the narrowing of curriculum, the loss of democracy in our education system (especially here in NYC and other big cities across the country), which is ironic since one of education's most important roles is to protect, preserve and maintain our democracy through the preparation of its citizens.
This morning on Meet the Press, our trio and the host, began with 'defiing the problem', they said we need to stop lying to our children that we need to reward innovation. Standardized testing as the centerpiece of reform does this? Additionally, how do a group of four men who have never taught a day in their lives feel they have all that is needed to define the problem- it is insulting and intellectually disingenuous. They said they are saying to schools, 'show us something for the money we are giving you, go out and compete, lead our country in the way we want to go'. First of all, they are not giving anyone any money, it is OUR money. Secondly, the race is fixed. Go out an compete? We are all running from hugely different starting points. If money is tied to results, how do those at the bottom have the resources they need to get to the top? One of our oldest tales teaches us, slow and steady wins the race. Thoughtful reform rooted in meeting the needs of a very diverse body of students is what will ensure that all students win the race; reform based on money, competition, and tests will not. Finally, in leading our country where we want to go... we need to question whether there is a shared vision of where this is. Do policymakers and the corporations who own them really want all children to succeed and go to college and access the middle and upper classes? Let's be honest, no. As we head toward globalization, the world cannot sustain the level of the US middle class as other middle classes grow around the world... this requires one of two things- our middle class must shrink, or the disproportionate distribution of wealth in this country (the 1% that owns 90%) must redistribute- since these are the very people who run and own corporations and make policy, a good guess would be they are gunning for the first option.
This debate is being framed as (and our trio said this this morning), "taking on the education establishment". The only direct voice of a student in the whole piece, was of a young black boy saying, 'they[teachers] can't just give us textbooks and then put their heads down or go and answer their emails'. Then, the trio proceeds to talk about us all [teachers,parents,community members] coming together to reform education. When you begin your campaign by attacking, minimizing, and out right lying about and to the very people who have dedicated their lives to the children at the subject of this debate, coming together is not very likely and it is clear that the voices of those teachers in not what you seek. The Orwellian nature of saying, we want to include you, but we are going to minimize you, attack you, and generalize all of you as failing, even when we know any data will show you that the overwhelming majority of schools and teachers are NOT failing, is simply disgusting and it highlights the truth behind their lies... unfortunately, as the old Washington adage goes, 'the truth runs at 20 mph, lies run at 500 mph'.
Are their failing schools? Yes? Are their bad teachers? Yes. Are these two groups even a third of what we are talking about? No. Do we need to continue moving forward and making changes in striving for no failing schools and no horrible teachers... of course. The methods in which to do this, the ways in which we can achieve this are what is at question. The debate is not about failing schools and failing teachers, it is about the policies that can create and sustain the best educational system for ALL children. The policies currently being propagated will not achieve this goal because they do not address the needs of all children, plain and simple.
Should we have yearly tests, sure. Should we also have counseling services, food services, arts programs, family wrap-around services, portfolios, technology, new and renovated schools with equal supplies and staffing, multiple measures of achievement and progress, professional development, parent involvement, etc., yes. We cannot allow education to become Enron: make the numbers say it is so. We do not simply need numbers, we need real, authentic reform.
In the end, it is up to us. We must take our outrage, take our knowledge of what is not working and what we know does work and we must push forth. It is daunting, educators and parents do not have the organization and mobilization that Gingrich and Sharpton, for example, have... but if we do not fight to protect and preserve public education, we sit back at our own peril. So often in this country, we take the short view, we cannot afford to have our voices minimized at this time. The current education reform agenda will reinforce the systems of privilege and subordination we have in this country. All of its components will marginalize those already most marginalized in our society... those behind the current movement repeat (ad nausium) 'education is a civil rights issue'; what is so disingenuous, orwellian and cynical about the current debate is the very people who use this phrase are not fighting for policies that would actually better education for those the phrase refers to. We must lead the fight. We must define the problem and offer the solutions. They say they want to take on the establishment of education, well, we need to take on the establishment of corporations and Washington-male-insiders that have created the policies and reform we already function under and the new polcies that they are suggesting that will continue an unequal system, a sytem based on lies. If there is failure, which certainly there is, the overwhelming responsibility does not fall on the teachers who are forced to implement these policies or on the students who are the subjects of them, the faillure lies in the policies themselves. Educators and parents should be the loudest voice in policy reform, we should be driving it. If we are now going to call education 'a race to the top', we must consider that running a race takes preparation, training, vison, stamina, patience, hard work, and perseverance, and we must also take a forward look at the finish line: do we want winners and losers or do we want to stand united and cross the finish line togehter?