Waking Up To Our Broken Education Policies

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Education Opportunity Network

Waking Up To Our Broken Education Policies

(Photo: Fight for Philly)

Who could ever forget comedian Jon Stewart’s commentary in early 2009 on how financial reporters totally botched reporting of the Great Recession. Stewart mocked journalists at CNBC for missing all the warning signs of the over-valued housing market and their failure to question wild speculation on sub-prime mortgage debt. In one famous clip, Stewart said financial reporters’ astonished reaction to the economic calamity was like a journalist from The Weather Channel reporting at the scene of a tropical storm and wondering why he was getting rained on.

Stewart’s commentary about financial reporting back then would ring true today in describing how journalists are responding to recent fights over American education policy.

Indeed, those in prominent news outlets tempted to jump into the fray of the nation’s education debate should be aware they are late to the scene and way behind the narrative proceeding recent events.

Trying To Catching Up

Opinionators have been sleeping through a veritable rock concert of dissent over current education policies and are now suddenly awakening to declare the band just started and, “Boy, is it loud.”

“Teachers Turn On Obama,” the headline blared from Beltway news source The Hill. “Teachers unions have turned on Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and the Obama administration,” the story went, “creating a major divide in the Democratic Party coalition.”

The reporter, Peter Sullivan, seemed to believe that the Obama administration and public school advocates had been copacetic until the nation’s largest teachers’ union, the National Education Association, recently voted in favor of demanding that Secretary Duncan resign. As proof, he quoted laudatory comments from former District of Columbia education Chancellor Michelle Rhee praising “the work Duncan and Obama have done,” and hailing a report from the National Council on Teacher Quality that found that because of federal pressures, 20 states now “require student growth to be the main factor in teacher evaluations, up from just four states in 2009.”

All these changes “progressed with little fanfare,” Sullivan declared. But suddenly now, teachers unions and Democrats are “fiercest sparring partners.”

Another headline, “Teachers Unions Turn Against Democrats,” came from New York Magazine. Jonathan Chait warned that teachers “are growing increasingly obstinate in their opposition of the sorts of accountability and pressure that Obama has helped bring upon them.” The inspiration for their growing disenchantment: education historian Diane Ravitch.

Ravitch, Chait insisted, “Has depicted education reform as a plot by corporate elites to privatize schools and destroy unions.” Her “militance” is turning leaders of the nation’s largest teachers’ unions – the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers – into vehement opponents of what Chait appeared to endorse: opening more charter schools, extending school days, curtailing teachers’ job protections, and evaluating teachers by students’ test scores. Of course Chait didn’t bother to explain why these policies are supposedly so good for education – just that anyone disagreeing with them is a “militant.”

An article in The New York Times on the recent NEA vote for Duncan’s resignation quoted a representative of Democrats for Education Reform who contended “the Duncan vote” made the teachers look “like the lunatic fringe.”

One wonders where these people have been. Dissatisfaction with Duncan and the President’s education policies isn’t anything “new” at all. The conflict didn’t start with Diane Ravitch, although she is certainly a prominent voice. And recent actions by teachers’ unions are not as much a sudden lurch toward a more radical position as they are a reflection of frustration and resentment that’s been building in communities, in the teaching ranks, and beyond, around the country.

Welcome To The Education Spring

For years, collectivist actions in protest of public school policy have been scaling up from isolated protests to a nationwide movement of unified resistance. The movement is widespread among teachers, students, and parents. From the beginning, the movement was been grassroots driven and demanding of changes in the way our schools are being run.

From boycotts against standardized testing among teachers in Seattle, to ongoing protests among principals in New York state against new teacher evaluations, to objections to over-testing of students in Texas, the movement is diverse and outspoken.

From all corners of the country, students as young as eight years old are organizing and taking part in a variety of actions including zombie marches, prominent, headline-earning protests to school closures, and social media actions to whip up student resentment to the budget cuts and unfair policies slamming teachers and harming education programs.

Students in Denver, Philadelphia, Providence, Rhode Island, Portland, Oregon, and elsewhere have formed student unions that have developed attention-getting tactics, which have spread to a national scale.

Disenchantment with education policies has pushed protestors into the streets of Newark, Philadelphia, and Bridgeport, Connecticut. And discontent isn’t limited to communities of the urban poor and people of color, as evidenced by news reports from towns and cities in Western New York – populated with mostly white, middle-class parents.

In Pennsylvania, teachers, parents, and public school activists have staged multiple actions (here, here, and here) to protest severe budget cuts that have eliminated programs and laid off teachers. At the state capital of North Carolina, boisterous “Moral Monday” demonstrations against the state’s conservative government have made public education funding part of a rallying cry for a more progressive agenda in that state.

Over-reliance on standardized tests, a fetish of the Obama administration, continues to roil opposition across the nation.

In Connecticut, resistance to the state tests is growing so rapidly that “the state Department of Education released guidelines telling school districts just how to deal with parents who want to opt out.”

In Pittsburgh, hundreds of Pennsylvania parents who had opted their children out of state tests caught the attention of a local news outlet that interviewed one of the mothers leading the fight.

In Colorado, “a growing cacophony of assessment protests” has prompted public school officials to release new guidelines for opting out of tests because of so many “teachersparentsschool leaders and school boards have increasingly raised questions over the merit and amount of testing.”

On the west coast, anticipating the rising test rebellion in Washington, the state’s largest teachers’ union just “passed a motion to support parents and students who opt out of statewide standardized tests.”

And somehow journalists have missed all this?

Why Now?

The more interesting question for sure is not whether there is widespread discontent with the Obama administration’s education policies but why is it reaching a crescendo now.

Commenting on the recent moves by both unions, NEA and the American Federation of Teachers, to openly censure Arne Duncan, AFT President Randi Weingarten told reporters and bloggers at the recent AFT annual convention that the Secretary’s positive response to a recent court case overturning teachers’ long-standing job protections in California had been “the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

The language of that judicial ruling, Vergara v California, was “so shocking … and extreme,” Weingarten stated, that when Duncan reacted positively to the decision, “it caused people to question what the issues are.”

Among those “issues,” are recent “50 year anniversary recognitions of past court decisions that were about righting the wrongs of inequity,” Weingarten elaborated, referring to the recent commemoration of the Brown v Board decision and other actions that enforced civil rights and racial integration of public schools. “But now federal policies have gone so far afield of that,” Weingarten stated. Instead, current policies emphasize “accountability” of teachers and schools to such an extent they ignore the issues of “adequate and equitable supports for our schools.”

That’s the story journalists who haven’t been following education don’t get. Behind nearly every protest to the status quo education policies are common grievances about resource deprivation, inequity, and widespread feeling that ordinary Americans no longer control their children’s and community’s education destinies.

Despite how the particulars of the debate pivot to issues about content standards, to assessment results, to school choice, to teacher tenure, grievances with inadequate and ijequitable funding and lack of democratic control are what’s driving the debate – not teachers’ unions, Diane Ravitch, or the inner dynamics of the Democratic Party.

Reporters and pundits who would prefer not to see their write-ups about the education debate parodied in public had better get that.

Jeff Bryant

Jeff Bryant is an associate fellow at Campaign for America's Future and editor of the recently launched Education Opportunity Network, a project of the Institute for America’s Future, in partnership with the Opportunity to Learn Campaign.

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