Our Battle Cry Outside Obama's Dept. of Education

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Answer Sheet Blog

Our Battle Cry Outside Obama's Dept. of Education

Through Sunday this week, education activists, including Diane Ravitch, will “occupy” the Department of Education.

Ravitch, of course, has occupied the Department of Education before, but in a different sense: From 1991 to 1993, she served as Assistant Secretary of Education under George H.W. Bush. She is standing outside the building gates as part of “Occupy 2.0, a Battle for the Public Schools.”

In 1991, her years of scholarship on school reform made her an attractive choice for the role of Assistant Secretary for Education Research and Improvement. Fast-forward two decades. She is leading the fight against corporate-based reform after the evidence persuaded her that it didn’t work. And now, the person serving in an analogous role at the department has experience not in the classroom or in public school leadership or in scholarship on school transformation, but, rather, from McKinsey & Company, and as founder of a for-profit school management company.

It’s worth taking a moment to reflect on who is attending the Occupy DOE 2.0 event. Where Occupy Wall Street was considered leaderless, Occupy 2.0 features leading scholars and teachers, who have decades of classroom, school, and university leadership guiding them. They are demonstrating in front of the Education Department because the people working inside have ignored their message.

In education today, voicelessness is widely and generously shared.  It is shared among students marched through scripted curriculum, among parents whose neighborhood schools are closing, among educators told we do not know how to assess our students, among education professors once tasked with crafting policy.

Educators today are being punished for decades of growing income inequality, an eroding social welfare system, and an economy brought to its knees by lack of regulation—factors which make work in building supportive, democratic schools and classrooms that much more important.

I am traveling from New England, where I teach prekindergarten in a public school.  It is not lost on me that the event’s tagline—“Battle for the Public Schools”— is a war cry, that the posters are hand-drawn, that the website features poor formatting. I will feel uncomfortable and maybe even embarrassed to participate in group chants—they’re not really my thing. But I will chant anyway because the drive for data has made it so that faculty meetings and the teachers’ lounge no longer exist as a space for having the conversation about big issues in regular tones. I will go, as much as anything, to hear my role models speak, individuals who have created networks of public schools, who have thoughtfully analyzed a century of school reform, who have corresponded with thousands of teachers and students and compiled their voices into terrific books.

“Reform” has become a kind of code word, referring to a specific agenda of high-stakes testing, weakened collective bargaining, and school closings that have generated massive instability for American children, particularly low-income people of color.

Now, Duncan, who was never an educator, is education secretary. His deputy, Anthony Wilder Miller, worked at Silver Lake Equity and LRN Corporation, a compliance software and eLearning company.  We are supposed to believe that these leaders have the skill and insight to guide a generation of children and families—yet they have never guided a classroom. These individuals have never shared their lives with young people in our schools.

It is hard to picture another field where individuals as qualified as Ravitch and Meier feel that they must “occupy.” Meier is a MacArthur Fellow, writer, educator and school reformer with 45 years of experience making classrooms and schools more democratic.

Educators today are being punished for decades of growing income inequality, an eroding social welfare system, and an economy brought to its knees by lack of regulation—factors which make work in building supportive, democratic schools and classrooms that much more important.

As an early childhood educator deeply committed to leading an equitable classroom, I see the road ahead as a long one. Witnessing my role models standing out in the cold this spring will serve as a stark reminder of that distance.

Amy Rothschild

Amy Rothschild teaches prekindergarten in a public school in New England.

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