Tuesday, February 18, 2014

There Is Magic In Boldness

I'm both pleased and surprised at the response to yesterday's post. I'd been collecting links to articles about the pain of subjecting 5-year-olds to high stakes standardized tests, planning a big, thoughtful piece for later in the week, but instead I just banged out a quickie yesterday morning before hitting the road to Portland for a speaking gig. By noon, it had become the most read Teacher Tom post of all time, surpassing the former #1, a post that has taken over three years to attract so many readers. It continues to be shared and read. I suspect that by the close of business today, those readership numbers will have doubled.

I'm feeling very buoyed this morning about a topic that normally sinks me. I often feel as if I'm shouting into a void, but judging by the comments and reader interest this is obviously not true. And I'm also not the only one asking the question: What can we do?

Frankly, I don't really know. What I've been doing is "shouting" louder. And I do believe that that's part of it. That's always part of making change in a democracy: individual citizens making their voices heard. The problem is that those promoting drill-and-kill testing-based education, those who say, "Our schools are failing" as code for, "Our schools are not turning a profit," those who seek the de-professionalization of teachers, those whose endgame is the wholesale privatization of public schools . . . Those people are well organized and well-funded. They have lobbyists and publicists and the ears of policy-makers. They have absolutely no research or data or evidence to support their policies, but they possess the hammer of No Child Left Behind (the Bush administration's initiative) and Race to the Top (the Obama administration's twin initiative) and they're using it to force your public schools to implement abusive, anti-child reforms, or else.

Of course, the pitchforks and torches approach only works when enough people are outraged and apparently, so far at least, their money is speaking louder than our numbers. I have no doubt that our numbers have the potential to overwhelm them, but we're just "the people" and therefore under-informed and disorganized. The first step is to do something about that.

One of the ways the corporate "reform" movement is winning is by employing the principles of what Naomi Klein labeled "disaster capitalism" in her book The Shock Doctrine, the basic idea being that great change can only take place through crisis. Or as the godfather of free-market radicalism, Milton Friedman put it, "Only a crisis, real or perceived, produces real change." If you're unfamiliar with this idea, here is a brief video in which Ms. Klein explains it. She's talking here about different issues, but it's not difficult to see the connection to what is going on in education:

It is not an accident that the pell-mell push for neoliberal school reform is being lead by these very free-market radicals who have been working for the past couple decades, at least, to figure out how they can tap into the billions we spend each year on public education. The way they've done this, successfully so far, is to manufacture a crisis and sell a solution, which is this test-driven corporate curriculum. And part of this crisis is to claim it is so bad, so pressing, so tragic that we don't have time to be thoughtful, we don't have time to look at research, and we certainly can't be hindered by consulting with actual education professionals. No, we must shock the system in order to save it! Now! Ignore that man behind the curtain!

They have produced movies like the outrageously propagandistic Waiting for Superman, they have engaged the services of teams of marketing and public relations professionals to help craft their message, they have sought out spokespeople like Bill Gates who can command the world's microphones and TV cameras at will, and they have sought to frighten parents into believing that their children must be saved, and that they, the Supermen, are the only ones who can do it. They've coordinated their "shock and awe" efforts with teams of lobbyists, bringing it to every statehouse in the country, threatening, cajoling, and buying off our elected officials.

One of the few people on our side who has consistently been able to cut through their noise is historian and researcher Diane Ravitch, whose latest book, Reign of Error, recently, and encouragingly, spent time on best seller lists (and which I discussed in a series of three posts, here, here, and here). She's been loud enough that Bill Gates has called her his "enemy," but she's just one woman. If you ask me what you can do, I would start by suggesting that we attempt to amplify her solitary voice. I urge you to read her book, to memorize her points, to practice talking about the ideas and issues she raises, and to help make her more than one woman by sharing it with everyone you know, through social networking, at parties, while standing in checkout lines, and over the back fence. This is how day-to-day retail politics works. When you're ready to expand your reading list, take a look at this post in which I link to other resources you may find useful.

Another way you can make a difference is to talk back through the media. When you see a news story about education, get into the comments section, write letters to the editor. Be calm, factual, forceful, and brief: three sentences are better than four. Don't let falsehoods or misinformation stand, get your point across, argue, but don't name call.

And obviously, it would be useful if we could get organized. There are dozens of groups out there, most of which are well-intended, but small, unable to coordinate with one another, and dependent upon a small core group to make anything happen. This is not true, however, of Parents Across America (PAA) a non-partisan, non-profit organization that has been connecting parents and activists to push back against the corporate "reform" movement for the past decade. As far as I can tell, they are the biggest, most successful organization of its kind. We recently elected one of PAA's founders, Sue Peters, to our local school board here in Seattle. Their website is full of information and ideas for how you can get involved both nationally and through your local PAA chapter. And if you don't have a local chapter, why not start one?

But probably the most important thing you can do, is talk to the teachers and administrators at your own public school. Voice your concerns. You'll probably find they share them. Attend school board meetings and speak up. And bring friends with you. And you can always opt your child out of standardized tests. In fact if enough parents did this, it would mean the end of these tests. The more of us we are, the bolder everyone becomes. As Goethe wrote, "there is magic in boldness," and boldness might be the only thing that can effectively stand up to shock.

Until someone brings me a better idea, I'm pushing back anywhere and everywhere I can, shouting louder and pushing harder. I invite you to join me. Get educated and get organized: as far as I can tell it's the only way anything good ever gets done.

Update: I've done more thinking on this topic, which you will find in this post.

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
Bookmark and Share


Stephanie Schuler said...

Thanks for always pushing us to be the best educators we can be, Tom! Your posts are truly a joy to read each week for me!

Mandy said...

If anyone is wondering how to get involved, there are many, many groups, mostly on facebook. Here is one website that has compiled over 55 anti-Common Core groups. Some are by state, others are nationwide. I only found out about Common Core one year ago and I'm still amazed that most people I talk to have never heard of it, even parents who have kids who are learning it in school! http://truthinamericaneducation.com/common-core-state-standards/connecting-with-anti-common-core-state-groups-on-facebook/

Anonymous said...

I'm always struck by how sure the current group of reformers are about the ideas they suggest. A more informed and experienced educator knows better than to predict so assuredly. You might enjoy this post from my blog as I think it relates to the conversation - https://blogs.svvsd.org/slickart/2014/02/19/who-is-in-charge-around-here/

karen @ Smarticle Particles said...

Hi Teacher Tom,
Love the blog. It is always refreshing to see male role-models working with little people. I work in one of the largest urban school districts in the country. Our district is being over run by the exact same forces that you discuss in your post. I'm not a strongly political person, but it is so discouraging to see the ultra-wealthy that have the funds to send their own children to exclusive private schools step in and think that they know better how my job should be done. Thanks for your post!
Smarticle Particles