Monday, April 28, 2014

Interesting Times

A couple months ago, I wrote about the Washington State legislature's rejection of a bill that would have mandated the use of student standardized test scores to evaluate teachers, opting instead, in a collective and bipartisan manner, to approve an updated version of our state's homegrown teacher-principal evaluation system. At the time I mentioned that this act would jeopardize our state's No Child Left Behind (NCLB) federal funding. Well, last week the other shoe dropped.

Washington State was informed today that the US Department of Education has revoked our No Child Left Behind waiver. Under the terms of the revocation, Washington State will not lose resources; rather, we will lose some flexibility on how to use $40 million of the approximately $12 billion we spend in our K-12 schools per year.

It's not a backbreaker, but it's clearly a shot across the state's bow.

Not long ago, I was invited to speak to a group of early childhood educators in Spokane, which is in the "red" part of our state. I've spoken to audiences in Greece, England, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand over the course of the past couple years, but in all honesty, I was far more nervous for this event than for any other. I mean, after all, I am essentially a "hippie" from the most liberal legislative district in the liberal city of Seattle. We've just elected a socialist to our city council, for crying out loud, one who ran on raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour, unseating an established Democrat who would wear the label of "radical" in most places. I was going to speak on the topic of democracy and education, which is, by nature, a political discussion and while it had gone over well with more liberal audiences, I was a bit sweaty palmed about the reception I would receive from an audience I'd been cautioned would be more conservative, especially when I trotted out my observation that corporations are "dictatorships set up in the midst of our democracy."

A funny thing happened. This audience did not laugh or gasp in the same places as previous audiences, but they did laugh and gasp, frequently. In fact, by the time I was 15 minutes into my talk, I was seeing far more nodding heads than I'd ever seen. When we took a break, one audience member came up to me to say, "I can't believe they let you even speak aloud in this state. You're saying the things I've been trying to say for years." Another said, "I can tell you're a liberal, but you're one of the smart liberals." And yet another commented, "I disagree with unions about everything, except this. The teachers unions are right on about what's happening to our schools."

The bipartisan rejection of this federal government demand during the 2014 legislative session is a strong and unifying message that our state fully embraces our constitutional 10th Amendment guarantee to develop, fund, and administer our state's education system as the citizens of the state of Washington and their elected representatives determine, not as federal officials deem it appropriate.

Although this was written by a Democrat, the evocation of the 10th Amendment is at the heart of the conservative objection to Race To the Top (the current Obama initiative), Common Core, and the rest of the US Department of Education (USDE) agenda. My own objection, and the pushback from the left, has largely been about the developmental and pedagogical failings of what I call the corporate reform agenda (because it was developed and implemented by and at the behest of Bill Gates, Wall Street investors, and the for-profit education industry), and the not so well disguised efforts to bust the teachers unions. One of the great frustrations to me about NCLB (a Bush initiative that still has the force of law) is that it was conceived to circumvent the 10th Amendment: in a time of economic uncertainty no state has to take the money, but if one does, it must abide by the conditions set by the USDE, which is essentially the implementation of this unproven, untested corporate agenda. In other words, it violates the spirit, if not the letter of the law.

Of course, what ultimately unites us, right and left, is our concern about our children. No one is happy that anything that doesn't have to do with math or literacy, such as the arts, humanities, physical education, and even such time honored events as kindergarten year-end performances are being cut in the name of the insane goal of getting five-year-olds "college" and "career" ready. No one is happy that these young children are being robbed of their love of learning, that they are stressed out and bawling over developmentally inappropriate materials. No one is happy that our children are spending their days prepping for high stakes standardized tests instead of actually learning. No one is happy that the Common Core curriculum (and despite what they say, it is a curriculum) provides teachers with corporately written, federally "approved" scripts for teaching, not only dictating what professional teachers should be teaching, but how.

The national narrative has lately focused on the rash of Republican governors and other elected officials objecting to Common Core, with the media attempting to cover the story as if it's just another fight between Democrats and Republicans, but from the way it looks here on the ground, outside the Beltway, it's a true, albeit sometimes uncomfortable, alliance of American parents and teachers who want what's best for their children.

I've written before about the Chinese curse/blessing, "May you live in interesting times." These times are interesting indeed.

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