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by Melissa Bollow Tempel

UPDATE:  A short time after I posted this at Huffington Post, I received a lengthy email from a teacher who was clearly upset about my message. He wrote: “As a high school history teacher from New York City, I have a different perspective on morality. I personally do not agree with same-sex marriage and I do not endorse homosexual conduct. Nor do I agree with the so-called ‘progressive’ and ‘enlightened’ views you are advocating. . . . You do not stand for common sense, reason, or logic.”

It’s sad to get a message like this, especially from a fellow teacher. It makes me even more passionate about our work on Rethinking Sexism, Gender, and SexualityDespite the progress that has been made in the past years, there is clearly more education that needs to happen. We want to give as much support as we can to teachers who will show compassion, foster understanding in our schools, and advocate for those who feel helpless or alone.

Share this message and our campaign with your friends, family, and, especially, teachers you know.

We can help the children of today—the adults of tomorrow—act with love and compassion toward people who are different, rather than with fear and hatred.

Thank you for your support!

Melissa Bollow Tempel, editor
Rethinking Sexism, Gender, and Sexuality

Here’s the original post:

MBTheadshotA few years ago, I worked with a teacher that changed my view of not only teaching, but the world. Andy and I co-taught literacy at a school in the city. Every morning Andy would join us with a smile on his face and we would greet the students. He had an eternally cheerful disposition and genuine care for children. Andy and his partner, Mark, cared for foster children. One Monday morning, before the students arrived, Andy and I were chatting about what we we did over the weekend. Andy told me about how he had spent the weekend on his organic farm with Mark and dog, picking pumpkins and preparing the garden for winter.

“You’re so lucky,” Andy said, “you can tell the students what you did with your family over the weekend.” It took me a moment to understand that Andy was talking about having to stay in the closet at work, and then I felt terrible. I felt for Andy, and I felt even worse for all the students who would miss out on the opportunity to learn about organic farming experiences and the rest of Andy’s charmed life. He also wasn’t able to teach the students to build an understanding and care for equity and rights of LGBTQ people.

Read the rest of this post at HuffingtonPost Gay Voices

Join our campaign to raise funds to publish Rethinking Sexism, Gender, and Sexuality! 

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v28.1The fall issue of Rethinking Schools magazine, which will appear online and in your mailbox (if you’re a subscriber!) before you know it, includes a review of Bob Gliner’s 2012 film Schools that Change Communities.

We recently learned that the film will be airing on PBS World stations in many cities over the next several days.  You can check your local listings here.

Here’s an excerpt from David Sobel’s review:

Schools That Change Communities provides a view of what we should be aspiring to in schools. Let’s call it aspiring to high standards within the context of respecting the whole child and grounding education in place and community. Filmmaker Bob Gliner focuses on five schools in five very dif­ferent communities across the United States. The diversity of grade levels and ethnic profiles shows that this kind of in­novative, place-based approach can work anywhere. All are public schools, three out of five in high-poverty areas.

At these five schools, the emphasis is on connecting the curriculum to real is­sues and

problems in the school and the community. The teachers create curricu­lum that changes students and changes communities. Greg Smith of Lewis & Clark College explains that this ground­ing of curriculum in the natural and so­cial context is what makes education rel­evant and meaningful: “These kids don’t need to ask ‘Why am I learning this?’ They know why they’re learning it.”

Gliner point1We see the students at Young Achievers Math and Science Pilot School in Boston working with José Massó, a grandparent and WBUR (Boston’s National Public Radio) radio show host, to produce public service announcements about asthma. The realness of the work is compelling.  Students know that they’re not just doing this for the teacher, they’re doing this for the community. Massó summarizes:

“From an early age, they understand the idea of civic engagement—not to be bystanders but to be active in changing things they believe need to be changed. That has to be part of the pedagogy in schooling if we’re going to be successful in the 21st century. It empowers them to believe and know when they share their learning with a wider audience.”

Crellin Elementary is a K–5 school in western Maryland coal mining coun­try. When acid mine drainage is identi­fied on a site adjacent to the school, the faculty work with the Bureau of Mines to mitigate the polluted water and create an environmental education laboratory for the schools. The project makes for great curriculum and for improved water quality in adjacent Snowy Creek.

Skeptics, of course, wonder wheth­er this approach will sacrifice student achievement and depress test scores. For example, Crellin 4th and 5th graders are engaged in a Trout in the Classroom project. If children are taking field trips to the stream to do water quality test­ing to make sure the water is healthy for trout, are they sacrificing time from lit­eracy or math? Gliner addresses this is­sue in the film. There’s joyful footage of transferring the trout from the classroom to the local stream with smiling students, helpful parents, and the Department of Natural Resources specialist. Then, back in the classroom, the principal leads a related math lesson. This is when math comes alive, when it’s directly related to real-world experiences. In 2010, Crel­lin was rated the highest performing el­ementary school in Maryland.

The complete review of Schools that Change Communities will be available on our website and in the print edition of the magazine by next Monday, September 30.

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By Ann Berlak

For the first time since I can remember some members of the American Educational Research Association (AERA)—the largest association of educators and educational researchers in the world—are taking a public stand at AERA’s annual meeting in San Francisco against the corporatization, standardization and privatization of education.

reclaimaera-thumbnailSadly, the leadership of AERA has invited Arne Duncan, who represents and supports the technocratic, dehumanizing forces of privatization to speak on Tuesday, April 30, 3:45 p.m. at the Hilton Hotel. This and other actions by the AERA serve to support the dismantling of education as a public good, narrow the possibilities of what it means to research, know, learn and share our understandings, and marginalize and silence voices of dissent.

We are inviting teachers, administrators, students, parents and concerned community members to join those of us at AERA as we make visible our support for public education and democratic empowerment

Here’s how you can get involved:

In person. 

Contact your friends and colleagues in the Bay area and join our protest.  We especially are looking for Oakland and San Francisco parents and teachers to join us in the on-the-ground protest.

Virtually. 

Read the statement from AERA members:

As members of the American Educational Research Association we are committed to:

  • free and equal public education for all as a cornerstone of democracy.
  • research, scholarship and policy making that grows from and with communities  that are impacted by these.
  • knowledge production as varied, multiple and contextual.
  • research, scholarship and policy free from the interests of corporations and venture philanthropists.
  • public education-at every level-as a space for social imagination and the practice of freedom.

AERA has failed to take a public stance in support of these commitments and has not provided space for meaningful dialogue about how we can enact these commitments. Instead, AERA supports: 

  • narrowing of ‘acceptable’ research to demands of quantification and standardization.
  • affiliation with corporate sponsors like Pearson, Inc.
  • denial of the impact of corporate influences when it accepts for publication articles authored by writers from corporate sponsored think tanks.
  • complacency in the face of the ongoing assault on education and incursions of corporations into research and practice led by such actors as: the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Broad Foundation, and Rupert Murdoch’s Wireless Generation

Case in point: invited “education researcher’ Secretary Duncan whose policies have led to:

  • school closings; increased testing; narrowing of curriculum; undermining of collective bargaining; increasing of for profit charter schools; increased corporate influence in education.
  • students, teachers, parents, and scholars threatened, silenced, and abandoned.

We invite our colleagues, students, and parents to refuse the corporatization of education, build alliances to resist its policies, and join the conversation as we imagine education as the practice of freedom.

Ann Berlak is a regular contributor to Rethinking Schools and most recently wrote  “Coming Soon to Your Favorite Credential Program: National Exit Exams” on the early California version of edTPA in our summer 2010 issue.

Related Resources:

V23-3Spring 2009:  The Duncan Myth

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Recently Philadelphia school parents and the local chapter of the NAACP filed a complaint with the City Ethics Board alleging that a major foundation and the Boston Consulting Group had engaged in lobbying the School District of Philadelphia around major policy issues such as school closings and charter expansion.

The complaint centered around the fact that the Foundation contracted with the Boston Consulting Group around a set of “deliverables” without the School District being a party to the contract. The Foundation also solicited donors to specifically pay the Boston Consulting Group at least $2.7 million for their work, but funneled the money through a separate agency to hide the identities of the donors.

Last week the School District of Philadelphia announced the planned closure and consolidation of dozens of schools across the city.

This post by RS Board Member Helen Gym, a co-founder of Parents United for Public Education in Philadelphia, explains why the parent group filed the complaint.

Why we filed with the Ethics Board: The public deserves to know what’s happening here

HelenGym

by Helen Gym

Yesterday, Parents United for Public Education, the Philadelphia Home and School Council and the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP filed a complaint with the City Ethics Board requesting an investigation into whether the Boston Consulting Group, private donors, and the William Penn Foundation acted as lobbyists and principals to influence policy in the School District of Philadelphia.

We did not make this decision easily or hastily. The William Penn Foundation has long been a positive force for philanthropy in the city. Before taking action, we requested a thorough legal analysis from the venerable Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia. We arrived at our decision after months of observation and study around the murky activities of the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and the wealthy donors who funded them. Just a week before the District is expected to announce dozens of school closings which will throw our city into turmoil, we believe the public deserves to know the full influence of private money and access on decisions that impact us all.

As detailed in our complaint, the BCG -William Penn Foundation contract explicitly stipulated that BCG’s work would promote charter expansion, management networks, identify 60 top candidates for school closure and impact labor negotiations. Specific mention was made in the contracts about influencing the SRC before an important May vote. While it’s true that the District initially hired BCG, it did so only for about five weeks between February and March. BCG’s District contract expired March 29. From then on, BCG’s contract was only with the William Penn Foundation.

As a third party entity, BCG had unprecedented access to District data, financial information, high-level decisionmakers, and private forums to push their plans. No such access has ever been afforded to parents and community members who had to settle for limited information and public meetings.

BCG’s influence was made apparent in the massive charter expansions which happened this past spring. BCG’s contract with the William Penn Foundation stated as a “deliverable” that BCG would “work closely with the school district’s senior leadership, School Reform Commission members, and the Office of Charter Schools to design a charter school expansion strategy” and “design and execute a charter school renewal and modification process.”

They delivered.

Against a backdrop of dramatic fiscal crisis – Chief Recovery Officer Tom Knudsen even threatened that schools may not open in September – the School Reform Commission inexplicably approved 5,416 new seats across 14 charters at a projected cost of $139 million over five years. Some of the charters like KIPP Philadelphia had a School Performance Index which ranked them among the District’s lowest performers.

It’s critical for the public to understand the role of private, monied interests seeking to influence such decisions. PILCOP found that the William Penn Foundation solicited donors specifically for the BCG contract and then oversaw a fund at a separate agency that disbursed donations exclusively to BCG. This set-up allowed the identities of many of those who paid for BCG’s work to remain secret, along with any economic interests they may have had in the policies and decisions being advanced. For example, it was later reported by the Public School Notebook that the donors included a prominent real estate developer and individuals and groups with interests and ties to religious and charter organizations.

Transparency matters in the case of charter expansions, or when BCG states as a deliverable that it will “identify 60 top candidates for [school] closure.” It matters because under this shrouded arrangement, the public can’t know whether the work BCG did was for the District’s benefit or for the benefit of its donors.

From our viewpoint as parents, this is not philanthropy. It’s something dramatically different that needs the review of an independent agency. That’s why we joined with the Philadelphia Home & School Council and the Philadelphia NAACP to file a complaint with the City Ethics Board and bring what we believe to be the first test of the City’s new Lobbying Ordinance since it went into effect last January.

As Philadelphia NAACP president J. Whyatt Mondesire explains: “We need to assure the public that monied interests are not using the turmoil in the District for their own interest.”

This issue isn’t just a local one. On a national level, a number of education observers and public interest advocates have raised serious concerns about the role of “philanthropic” investments into education reform. From the Broad Foundation to the Waltons and Gates Foundations – what we’re seeing across the country is an unprecedented level of private money shaping public policy under the guise of philanthropy. Too often that agenda has centered around a radical dismantling of public education, increased privatization, and disruptive reform that has sent many districts spiraling into chaos and sustained turmoil.

It’s important to note the complaint we filed addresses regulatory compliance. We are not suing the Foundation or BCG and we are not charging them with illegal activity. Lobbying is legal. But there is a fundamental difference between claiming that BCG’s work was based on a full needs assessment of the school district with the District’s best interests at its center, and recognizing that they could also be a hired gun executing on a pre-determined contract with private interests hoping to influence decisionmakers rather than endure a public and democratic process of governance.

The public needs to know what’s happening here either way. We are not going to shrug our shoulders with a “business as usual” resignation. The lines separating public good from private interests have been blurred if not crossed on issues of dramatic importance to parents, students and community members. The School Reform Commission meanwhile has not assured us they understand the importance of boundaries and maintaining them judiciously.

Transparency and public process matter. It’s unfortunate it takes a formal complaint to reinforce that message for our schools.

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Thinking about seeing a movie this weekend?  Take our advice and avoid Won’t Back Down. Below, Helen Gym, a Rethinking Schools editorial associate and parent activist in Philadelphia, shares why.  Her commentary was first published at The Philadelphia Public School Notebook

Won’t Back Down won’t be real about school reform

by Helen Gym

Last week I attended a local screening of Won’t Back Down, the latest flick from the producers behind the controversial documentary Waiting for Superman.

The film stars Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal as two moms of special-needs children, one also a teacher, trapped inside their failing public schools while battling an evil union leadership. They decide to take advantage of a state law called the FailSafe (known as the “parent trigger” in most states) in order to take over their public school, close it down, and re-open it under their personal and private management.

The film has its tender moments, particularly between Viola Davis and her bullied son. A scene where Maggie Gyllenhaal stares into the soulless eyes of her daughter’s do-nothing teacher induced shudders of similar experiences.

At the end of the day though, Won’t Back Down is a Hollywood fantasy, complete with the requisite soap opera melodrama, a cheesy love interest sidebar, and an all-star cast. The union hack caricatures and Gyllenhaal’s eager beaver mom role were particularly grating, if not outright insulting.

But let’s face it. Movie producers Philip Anschutz and Rupert Murdoch didn’t bankroll Won’t Back Down to win Academy Awards. They’ve entered it as a yet another piece in the contentious education reform debate using as their premise the idea of “parent empowerment” and “parent choice.” And on that level, there is some serious substance to reflect upon.

One of the ideas promoted by the movie is that failing public schools deserve to be closed down or “blown up” in some way. In place of that public institution, so says the movie, is the belief that motivated individuals should run these schools as they see fit. After all, anything must be better than this, right?

I’ve faced jaw-dropping school environments and leadership. I understand the knee-jerk frustration and the grasping at quick solutions. But what strikes me most is not the easy idea of “blowing things up.” Rather it’s how those who propose these measures are so thin on how to put it all back together in a truly transformational way.

Won’t Back Down takes excruciating pains to emphasize how terrible the public school is and how it has failed children. It’s interesting that the movie focuses on students with special needs, who are rarely served in non-public settings. When the actors explain the school of their dreams, they speak in simplified platitudes almost meaningless in their generality: “I just want a place where I can teach.” “I just want a school that works for my kid.

But there’s almost no explanation about what kind of place or school that is, how it operates and functions, how heart and love — which all of us share for our children — translates into meaningful classroom and community practices. The movie never explains how the new school transforms into a great one that serves these children. Yes, the takeover school has a new paint job. Butterfly mobiles hang in the hallways, and there’s a brief scene about how the curriculum will now include Shakespeare.

But were more resources brought in? Many of the original teachers stayed. Did the professional development suddenly improve? Did they get trained in special-needs teaching? How did a dyslexic child, neglected if not effectively abused at the school, suddenly learn to read? Is there even a mission to the school? None of that is explored.

The second point to consider is the contentiousness of the new education reform efforts today. The FailSafe law in Won’t Back Down seems to glorify division. Parents are pitted against one another. Teachers are pitted against the principal. And the teachers’ union is pitted against all humankind. One of the most telling scenes of the movie is a climactic rally where one side has signs stating: PUBLIC SCHOOL ADVOCATES. The other side has signs that say: GOT SCHOOL CHOICE?

I’d like to think that even if you supported school choice options that you could also be a public school advocate and think about public systems responsibly. Instead we get heroes vs. villains and a my-way-or-the-highway approach to ed reform. On the heels of a seven-day Chicago teachers’ strike, we should be reminded that we need a reform movement that brings all of us to the table in a communal and collective effort to build our schools.

Finally, I had some serious issues around the race dynamics of the movie. I was troubled that the school in Won’t Back Down was portrayed as majority White because it masks the frequent focus of parent trigger legislation. Nationwide, parent triggers target schools with predominantly poor children of color: Black, Latino, and immigrant.

The fact that Maggie Gyllenhaal saunters into the school in her very first year and decides to take it over for herself, while scolding parents of color who seem to have given up hope, also bothered me. In one scene, she talks to an Asian father and references rat tails in restaurant food to explain the significance of the school’s failure – bizarre to say the least.

In fact the only parent choice or empowerment presented in the movie is having low-income parents sign over their permission to empower Maggie Gyllenhaal. There’s no indication that other parents were engaged with designing the vision for the future school.

In Philadelphia in particular, the idea of two individuals closing down a public school in order to run it themselves is more likely to raise eyebrows than to elicit cheers. We’ve seen far too many charter school scandals, corruption investigations, and failed independent efforts to feign naivete that all you need is a good heart and some roll-up-your-sleeves attitude

I am no apologist for failing schools. I’ve seen South Philadelphia High School at one of its worst stages and worked for the past four years to see it evolve into something far greater. I’ve lived with horrible principals, “Dawn of the Debra” zombie teachers, and seen countless children, sometimes my own, written off. There’s no excuse for that. Ever.

There’s a real need in our schools for parent empowerment that’s meaningful and lasting. We don’t need fictional movie heroes to bring that point home. I see real-life Maggie Gyllenhaals and Viola Davises partnering in our schools everyday.

We are real people on the ground, in our schools and communities, working to create real models of transformative education practice that inspire great teaching and learning. We need help to make that happen, not derision and division. We want change that’s sustainable and makes a real difference in the lives of our children, in their classrooms, with their teachers, and within a system that works for all students. We don’t just want a “parent choice.” We want a real parent voice.

And that’s the difference between Hollywood and the true reality of our schools.

Related Resources

Trigger Laws: Does Signing a Petition Give Parents a Voice?  by David Bacon, Rethinking Schools Magazine, Fall 2011.

Parents Across America Toolkit for Won’t Back Down

Missing the Target? The Parent Trigger as a Strategy for Parental Engagement and School Reform, National Education Policy Center

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by Wayne  Au

“Parent triggers” are one of the latest education reforms gaining traction around the country. They appear to be a simple and empowering reform: If the majority of the parents (50% + 1) at a school sign a petition, they can force restructuring, including conversion into a charter school.

Trigger laws have been passed in California, Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi and considered in Florida and Pennsylvania. They have even arrived at the movies: 20th Century Fox and Walden Media’s film, Won’t Back Down, revolves around using a trigger to take over a struggling public school.

Now one could be coming to Washington State in the form of Initiative 1240 (I-1240).

I-1240 Section 213(3) states that a public school can be converted to a charter school “…by a petition signed by a majority of teachers assigned to the school or a petition signed by a majority of parents of students in the school.”

Despite its inclusion of teachers, this is a classic trigger law, where the slightest majority of the parents or teachers at a school can make a choice for an entire neighborhood institution.

I-1240 would be the country’s most aggressive trigger law. Triggers in other states apply only to failing schools and allow multiple options for restructuring. The I-1240 trigger, on the other hand, could be applied to any school, high or low achieving, and the only option is for conversion to a charter school.

I-1240 also does not require public notice to parents or teachers that a charter conversion petition is being circulated.

Under I-1240, 51% of parents at any given school could “convert” it into a charter without telling the remaining parents or any of the teachers. Likewise, under I-1240 51% of the teachers at a school could convert it into a charter without any input from parents.

Imagine an elementary school with 15 teachers. Eight of them decide to sign a trigger petition to convert their school into a charter. Under I-1240, that’s it. An entire school community could be upended by a handful of people.

Further, once a school is “converted” into a charter, there is nothing in I-1240 to guarantee that parents or teachers have any say-so once the new charter management organization takes over.

Ironically, “parent triggers,” did not start with parents.

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has been the primary provider of model language for parent trigger laws. ALEC is the conservative organization behind the “stand your ground” gun laws (which came under scrutiny following the widely publicized shooting death of Trayvon Martin) and voter I.D. laws aimed at reducing the number of eligible voters.

Consistent with ALEC’s policy agenda, trigger laws have been promoted as a way to replace unionized public schools with non-union charter schools, and a way to transfer public school control to non-profit and private management organizations.

Parents have also found parent trigger laws to be disempowering. For instance, parents in one California school have lodged complaints against parent trigger proponents for providing misleading information. Just this summer, after nearly 100 of those parents requested to have their names removed from a trigger petition (pushing the petition below the majority threshold), a California judge ruled that they could not change their minds once they had signed. He proceeded to reinstate the charter conversion against the wishes of the parents.

The California example also illustrates another problem: Because they rely on simple majority vote as opposed to overwhelming parent support, trigger laws pit parents against one another in a fight for a slim majority rather than engage them in a joint effort to do what is best for all children at a school.

Parents have been resisting parent triggers too. A parent trigger law was defeated in Florida by a coalition of groups that included the state’s Parent Teacher Associations and parent-based advocacy groups Parents Across America and Save Our Schools.

Even the Washington State Parent-Teachers Association, which had officially endorsed charter schools, has balked at I-1240.

Yes, we need more parental and community involvement in our public schools, but such involvement needs to include all parents, teachers, and administrators working collaboratively.  And that’s not the aim of trigger laws.

Regardless of how Washington voters feel about charter schools, it is important they understand that I-1240 is not just a charter school initiative, it is also a trigger initiative.

Dr. Wayne Au is an Assistant Professor of Education at the University of Washington, Bothell, and he is an editor for the progressive education magazine, Rethinking Schools.

Related Resources

Trigger Laws: Does Signing a Petition Give Parents a Voice?  by David Bacon, Rethinking Schools Magazine, Fall 2011.

Parents Across America Toolkit for Won’t Back Down

Missing the Target? The Parent Trigger as a Strategy for Parental Engagement and School Reform, National Education Policy Center

Pencils Down: Rethinking High-Stakes Testing and Accountability in Public Schools, edited by Wayne Au and Melissa Bollow Tempel

Rethinking Multicultural Education: Teaching for Racial and Cultural Justice, edited by Wayne Au

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The following is an excerpt from Charter Schools and the Corporate Makeover of Public Education: What’s at Stake? co-authored by Michelle Fine and Michael Fabricant. The book traces the evolution of the charter school movement from its origins in community- and educator-based efforts to promote progressive change to their role today as instruments of privatization and radical disinvestment in public education. Many parts of the New Jersey story described will likely sound familiar, as will the issues raised below.

A noted scholar and activist, Michelle Fine is a longtime supporter and friend of Rethinking Schools.

-Stan Karp, Rethinking Schools editor

excerpt from Charter Schools and the Corporate Makeover of Public Education: What’s at Stake?

by Michelle Fine and Michael Fabricant

In this book we track the history of charters from social justice alternatives to a campaign to dismantle and decentralize public education, through to the contemporary movements for educational justice.  It is within this context that the following six questions animate our writing:

How did a social justice education movement, initiated by teachers and teachers’ union, evolve into a corporate campaign to dismantle existing structures of public education?

What is the relationship between the promise of charters and contemporary evidence of their impact?

Even if charters in the aggregate were academically more successful than local schools – and the evidence is dubious – what are the consequences of a deregulated charter movement for participatory democracy, racial equity and deep accountability to community and youth?

How does the twinning of corporate profit and Black/Latino/poor community pain resonant across the history of the U.S., manifest itself in the current rush to reshape public institutions toward private interests and ever more inequitable forms of (dis)investment?

Recognizing that charters are now here to stay on the public education landscape, what safeguards need to be put in place to assure that these schools remain public, democratic, accessible to all and deeply accountable?

Given the well documented and racialized/class based troubles of public education, and the dramatic impact of systematic, cumulative mis-education in low income communities of color, what are the elements of public innovation and strategic investment that can promote educational justice?

Anatomy of the Charter School Movement is written to explore these questions about contemporary conditions in public education through the lens of the charter school movement.  We frame the text by taking into account the commitment of a small group of exemplary charter schools dedicated to social justice, as well as the well funded private sector and federal campaign to sell charters as the market answer to public education, and the cumulative record of disappointment of public education in low income communities of color.

Importantly, this book is neither anti-charter nor an apology for the dismal aggregate state of public education in low income communities. Indeed we have great respect for those educators, parents, youth and community leaders who have struggled to create spaces where young people otherwise denied quality education can be respected, engaged and educated.  Both of us have written on the deep and scarring inequities that litter the landscape of public education. We are however, intensely suspect of the well funded charter campaign that sells the American public on the idea that “chartering” a very small slice of public education while cutting strategic investment in the larger whole project of education will make our schools more effective….

The charter movement has emerged at a moment in history when educational despair in community of color runs high, ideological calls for privatization have gained prominence, unions are under siege, accountability regimes have been mobilized to declare public schools a site of crisis and all that is public is being hotly contested. We, as educators and parents, understand why parents, especially those in under invested communities where so much of public education has failed their children for generations, would seek a voucher, enroll in a charter and yearn for an alternative to provide a better life for their children.  At the same time, as social analysts, we are witnessing the restructuring of public education, and therefore must ask a series of questions about the experience of charter reform. Who is being gentrified out of the charter revolution? Are charters indeed the source of innovation that the federal government declares? What is their record? Who’s making money?

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by Stan Karp

Last summer, the Save Our Schools march brought thousands of teachers, parents, and supporters of public education to Washington, D.C. The march and rally were hopeful signs of pushback against corporate ed reform. A school year that began with the media blitz around the pro-charter propaganda film Waiting for Superman ended with the voices of grassroots resistance in the nation’s capital.

From August 3 to 5, Save Our Schools supporters will gather again in D.C., this time for a “peoples convention” focused on giving more shape and substance to the SOS effort.

Rethinking Schools will be there, joining longtime friends and advocates for educational justice like Jonathan Kozol, Deborah Meier, Nancy Carlsson-Paige, and many others. We hope you will join us. More info here.

Rethinking Schools editor and parent activist Helen Gym and I will host a workshop session Saturday morning on education activism. We’ll share some lessons from Rethinking Schools’ 25-year history as a voice for social justice inside classrooms and communities. We’ll also share our experience with efforts to create local, state, and national coalitions to defend and improve public education, and we’ll invite discussion about how SOS might move that effort forward amidst the strongest corporate counterattack on public schooling we have seen in our lifetimes.

One topic will be strategies for countering the current mainstream narrative about education reform. That narrative is based on fundamentally inaccurate descriptions of the central problems public schools face and disastrous policy prescriptions misframed as the solutions our schools need.

For corporate reformers, the main problems in public education are low test scores, “bad teachers,” and union contracts. Their “solutions” are more standards and tests; creation of a less secure, less experienced, and less expensive professional staff; and more privatized, corporate management of schools, districts, and education policy.

But in the real world, the core problems facing public education are poverty, inadequate resources, systemic inequality and racism, and the misuse of standards and tests. The real solutions are fair and sustainable school funding, poverty reduction, curricula that reflects the real world our students live in and engages them in improving it, better preparation and support for educators, and stronger partnerships with parents and communities.

Solutions like these will only emerge from broad social movements that challenge the lack of democracy and equity both inside our schools and in the society around them.

Rethinking Schools has been addressing these issues since it was founded in 1986—partly in response to an earlier wave of top-down, business-led ed reform. We have tried to provide both critiques of bad policy and concrete examples of better practice. We have highlighted the kinds of stories and voices of educators, students, and parents that are crucial to replacing the current narrative of failure and privatization with one of hope and collective democratic vision.

At the end of last year’s SOS march and conference, participants were invited to submit a short vision of “what next.” In response we wrote:

“As we build on the SOS march and rally, we invite activists to use, support, and contribute to Rethinking Schools in a variety of ways: as a starting point for discussion, a venue for telling our stories of struggle and success in schools and classrooms, as a place to discuss ideas for building our movement, and as an accessible way to reach new audiences with our hopes for what our schools could and should be.”

As SOS regathers, we’re happy to repeat the invitation and look forward to working with other activists to realize the potential of a grassroots national movement for educational and social justice.

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Three weeks have passed since Election Day in Wisconsin, Rethinking Schools’ home base. The Monday-morning quarterbacking started moments after Democratic challenger Tom Barrett made his concession speech. Some of the postelection analysis was smart and insightful, but those pieces were mostly drowned out by pundits and opinion writers who never set foot in Wisconsin, never knocked on a single door, or made a single phone call to a potential voter. Their analyses were crass, insensitive, and some were even misinformed about how the movement here developed. 

We thought it would be a good idea to share the voices of educators and activists who were on the ground during the months leading up to the recall. To remind others and ourselves that real people are behind uprisings like the one in Wisconsin, and are fighting battles that are history in the making—albeit always imperfect.

Barbara Miner, who has her own blog View from the Heartland, wrote: “There is always something you can do. Always.” Hers was the piece that brought me past the despair and toward a fleeting sense of hope for our future. It reminded me that movements take time, and we can’t give up the fight. There’s always something we can do.

Amy Mizialko is a Milwaukee teacher who spent hours upon hours on the ground activating her neighbors and colleagues, and she shared with us the following reflection about her experiences.  

Kris Collett
Outreach/Marketing, Rethinking Schools

Life after RECALL

by Amy Mizialko 

I have been a teacher for Milwaukee Public Schools for the past 20 years and for the past 16 months, I have been fighting to win the June 5 recall election in Wisconsin. I marched 10 times at our state capitol in the winter of 2011 to protest the unprecedented attacks on my profession, devastating cuts to our schools, and an extreme, anti-worker agenda that has divided our state. There was talk of recall from within the grassroots of the movement.

First there were the summer recall elections that reduced the Republican majority in the Senate to 17-16. Following debate within the Democratic Party and among grassroots organizations about the best timing for Walker’s recall, it was decided that we would collect signatures to recall our governor. In mid-November, Milwaukee was buzzing, collecting signatures. I signed my petition and obtained 60 additional signatures that I proudly submitted on Jan. 17. My hope and the momentum of the grassroots surged when we learned we had turned in 1 million signatures, far exceeding the required 540,000 needed to trigger a recall election.

After the May primary election that determined who would run against Walker, I immediately pivoted to a full-on campaign for Democratic challenger Tom Barrett. I signed postcards, called voters, canvassed my neighborhood, assisted teachers in helping their students to register and vote, and organized teachers to canvass in their school neighborhoods. In the two weeks prior to the election, I watched Milwaukee rise up and believed we would win.

On June 5, Election Day, I spent 12 hours driving the city to help get folks to the polls. The mood in Milwaukee was electric that day as I drove past people who proudly pointed to their “I voted” sticker and yelled, “I voted!” I encountered canvassers all day with clipboards, signs, and resolve written all over their faces. I drove past abandoned buildings with posters that said “Walker’s Over.”

Although I was prepared to win or lose the election by the slightest of margins, I never prepared myself to lose big, for the race to be called minutes after the polls closed while voters were still standing in line, some for the first time. I looked at the crestfallen faces of my closest colleagues and friends who had worked more and harder than ever before. When the race was conceded, I bolted to my car raging and weeping. Despite our success at turning out Milwaukee to the polls at a rate of 76 percent, it was not enough.

On June 6, I awoke distraught, hopeless, and defeated. June 6 was a quiet day that ended with my monthly union meeting. I fought back tears as I gathered with my union sisters and brothers and listened, disbelieving, as people said we would fight on. My colleagues thanked me for my work and all I could think was that it was all for nothing. For the first time in the past 16 months, I felt weak, beaten, and at a loss for how to recover. On June 6, I learned of the workers’ fight to form a union at Palermo’s Pizza in Milwaukee. Soon after union organizing efforts began, the frozen pizza company began its antiunion campaign, threatening workers with termination and immigration audits. On June 8, I marched with the Palermo workers in solidarity and a little hope returned.

From February 2011 until June 5, 2012, I woke up every day with unwavering certainty that my work was important and that I must do it. Every day of the last 16 months has been an opportunity to live out my beliefs and every minute was worth it. Any sacrifice I made pales in comparison to the $1.6 billion cut to our public schools. Any sleep I lost is nothing compared to the 65,000 Wisconsinites, seniors, the poor and disabled, and 29,000 children who lost government-sponsored health care coverage. Any pain I endured fades away when stacked up against the $500 million cut in Medicaid that seniors and the poor must endure.

Losing the election almost broke me, but on June 8 I stood up again because there are still good people in every part of our state, nation, and around the world fighting for economic justice, fairly funded public education, and for basic rights of safety and humane treatment in the workplace—the Palermo Pizza workers in Milwaukee, my fellow teachers in Chicago, bus drivers in London, and the Nuns on the Bus.

Mahatma Gandhi said: “When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time they can seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall. Think of it—always.” We are one and I will fight on in solidarity. And no, Walker’s not finished yet, but neither am I.

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Stan Karpby Stan Karp

Anniversaries are often cause for celebration… but the 10th anniversary of No Child Left Behind is mostly a time for damage assessment. A new report from FairTest sums up the fallout from the “lost decade of NCLB:” stagnating test scores, narrowed curriculum but not narrowed achievement gaps, extra collateral damage for the most vulnerable students and communities.

This massive, bipartisan, wrong turn in federal education policy has been a colossal failure, even on its own test-score terms, and the damage will continue until we force a change in federal policy.

NCLB dramatically expanded the federal role in education, but transformed it for the worse. It shifted federal policy away from its historic role as a promoter of access and equity in public education through support for things like school integration, Title I funding for high poverty schools, and services for students with special needs. Instead, it mandated top-down micromanagement of assessment and “accountability” policies that Washington had no clue about or capacity to do well. This bad law helped consolidate the shift of decision-making about teaching and learning away from educators and classrooms to state and federal bureaucracies.

NCLB’s mandate to test every kid every year in every grade and measure the results against benchmarks that no real schools had ever met was never a credible “accountability” system. It was an enabling mechanism for creating a narrative of public school failure and imposing sanctions that were not educational strategies at all, but political strategies designed to promote privatization and market reform.

This approach predictably produced profiteering and educational chaos. “This reads like our business plan,” said the CEO of Pearson, Inc., when he first saw the plans for NCLB. It’s been a gold-rush decade for textbook and test publishers.

But for schools, teachers, parents and students, it’s been a nightmare. NCLB’s testing mania seeped into every classroom and its sanctions fueled the rush to deregulated charters and teacher bashing. By the end of 2011, nearly 50,000 schools failed to meet NCLB’s absurd annual yearly progress targets. All 50 states had considered legislation rejecting all or part of NCLB and the law was almost as unpopular as the Congress that created it. The bipartisan coalition that originally passed NCLB was in shambles and the law was collapsing of its own weight.

Yet NCLB continues, zombie-like, to threaten schools with sanctions and bombard them with mandated tests. Like a bad Hollywood horror movie, it is also spawning sequels. Given an opportunity to learn from a decade of policy failure, the Obama Administration and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan instead doubled down on NCLB’s “test and punish” approach to reform. Much as it traded one destructive war in Iraq for another in Afghanistan, the Administration morphed one counterproductive set of education policies into another.

Obama-Duncan’s Race to The Top uses the same flawed test score tools to drill deeper into the fabric of schooling. Where NCLB imposed penalties on schools and students (e.g., grade retention, diploma denial), test-based sanctions are now increasingly targeted at teachers. Left unchecked, these trends will undermine the teaching profession and create a less experienced, less secure, less stable and less expensive professional staff.

Duncan has also pioneered new directions in bad policy, distributing federal education dollars through “competitive grants” to “winners” at the expense of “losers,” and bribing states to adopt the Administration’s unproven pet reforms. Unable to secure Congressional agreement to reauthorize NCLB, Duncan devised a dubious waiver process that will increase the pressure on 5,000 schools serving the poorest communities at a time of unprecedented economic crisis and budget cutting. While the waiver plan rolls back NCLB’s AYP (adequate yearly progress) system as it was about to self-destruct, Duncan’s new guidelines require states to identify up to 15% of their schools with the lowest scores for unproven “turnarounds,” “charterization,” or closure.

It’s increasingly clear that we will only get the changes we need in federal education policy when pressure forces them from below. We need to occupy education policy the same way we need to occupy Wall Street. This is one reason we should mark the 10th anniversary not only by redoubling efforts to get rid of this bad framework for federal education policy, but by remembering those who saw the disaster coming and sounded the alarm from the beginning.

While politicians and pundits led the race over the cliff, there were many educators and advocates who were speaking truth to power: the much-missed Jerry Bracey, Susan Ohanian, Alfie Kohn, Monty Neill and FairTest, Deborah Meier, Bill Mathis, Richard Allington, George Wood, and many others, including Rethinking Schools, saw through NCLB’s false promises and hollow rhetoric from the start. That’s worth remembering too as we chart the way forward to a better, post-NCLB future.

 Related Resources:

Rethinking School ReformRethinking School Reform puts classrooms and teaching at the center of the debate over how to improve public schools. This collection offers a primer on a broad range of pressing issues, including school vouchers and funding, multiculturalism, standards and testing, teacher unions, bilingual education, and federal education policy.Informed by the experience and passion of teachers who walk daily into real classrooms, Rethinking School Reform examines how various reform efforts promote — or prevent — the kind of teaching that can bring equity and excellence to all our children, and it provides compelling, practical descriptions of what such teaching looks like. Edited by Linda Christensen and Stan Karp.

Failing Our Kids

The long arm of standardized testing is reaching into every nook and cranny of education. Yet relying on standardized tests distorts student learning, exacerbates inequities for low-income students and students of color, and undermines true accountability. Failing Our Kids includes more than 50 articles that provide a compelling critique of standardized tests and also outline alternative ways to assess how well our children are learning. Edited by Kathy Williams and Barbara Miner

Coming soon!

Pencils Down: Rethinking High Stakes Testing and Accountability in Public Schools, edited by Wayne Au and Melissa Bollow Tempel.

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