Common Core amounts to another English-only policy

English-Only to the Core by Jeff Bale

What is the Common Core doing to bilingual education?
We’re joining hands with The Progressive and In These Times to shine a light on that question. Jeff Bale’s “English-Only to the Core” will appear in the fall issue of Rethinking Schools, but we want you to have it now!

Please use hashtag #ComCoreEnglishOnly to help us amplify the discussion.

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Among bilingual educators, there has been much debate about the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Some of the most respected scholars of bilingual education have endorsed the Common Core and are working hard to make it relevant for English learners. Others have been more suspicious. Not only do the standards focus on English-only, critics note, but they were bankrolled by the Gates Foundation, pushed on states in a way that amounts to bribery by the Obama administration, and promise to worsen the impact of high-stakes standardized testing.

In fact, the genesis of the Common Core stands in direct contrast to how bilingual education programs were won, namely through grassroots, explicitly anti-racist organizing by students, parents, teachers, and community allies. The standards thus raise a key question: Given the history of bilingual education programs in the United States, is it possible to expand social justice for emergent bilingual youth through the Common Core?

Addressing that question has been challenging, given the inconsistent responses of professional and civil rights organizations to the standards. The National Association for Bilingual Education (NABE) issued a position statement in January 2013 with mixed messages. Although NABE’s membership passed a resolution opposing the Common Core, the statement explains that the group is “working collaboratively with policymakers, school administrators, and teachers” to ensure that implementing the Common Core does not negatively impact English learners. The TESOL (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages) International Association issued a policy brief endorsing the standards.

Civil rights organizations — including the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) — have endorsed the standards while calling for equitable implementation. The NCLR, for example, has used Gates Foundation money to apply the standards to English-language education and to develop tool kits supporting parent advocacy on behalf of the Common Core. The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) posted resources on its website to help parents make sense of the Common Core.

However, the Common Core isn’t just a set of standards. Instead, new standardized tests accompanying the standards promise to deepen the impact of high-stakes accountability measures in place since No Child Left Behind (NCLB) took effect in 2002. On this count, civil rights organizations have wavered. In October 2014, MALDEF and LULAC joined nine other civil rights organizations in issuing a letter to President Obama protesting the negative impact of high-stakes testing, and calling for more equitable resources and multiple measures (i.e., not just test scores) to define accountability. This letter clearly fit the mood of growing resistance by students, parents, and teachers to high-stakes testing. And yet, not three months later, many of these same organizations issued a letter to Arne Duncan endorsing the practice of annual, high-stakes standardized testing.

Their stance is significant, if unfortunate: When NCLB was first proposed, support from leading civil rights organizations gave enormous political cover to its high-stakes testing policies. The main argument was that accountability measures would “shine a light” on how poorly many schools were educating youth of color, including emergent bilinguals, and thus lead to positive change. Fifteen years later, we know how misguided that hope was. As Wayne Au has argued in Unequal by Design: High-Stakes Testing and the Standardization of Inequality, and as the many contributors to More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing have documented, high-stakes testing has had a devastating effect on many schools, but especially on schools that primarily serve Black and Brown youth. And yet, mainstream civil rights organizations continue to pursue this strategy for education reform.

If the response to the Common Core by scholars, professional organizations, and civil rights groups has been inconsistent, then it is no wonder that bilingual educators and teachers of English learners have struggled to make sense of the standards. If the standards can’t just beadopted, is there a way to adapt them and make them relevant for English learners? Is it enough to create a bilingual Common Core, that is, to translate the standards to guide bilingual instruction of language arts and math? If not, then what is the alternative?

To help address these questions, this article looks at CCSS in three ways: against the backdrop of the history of bilingual education and anti-racist struggle, on their own terms, and in light of the current status of bilingual education. Each perspective suggests that the Common Core will further erode bilingual education and linguistic justice in the United States.

A History of Successful Community Organizing

Usually, when the story of bilingual education in recent U.S. history is told, that story tends to focus on the actions of Important People like President Lyndon Johnson and Senator Ralph Yarborough. The narrative tracks formal policy, including the Bilingual Education Act of 1968 and the Lau v. Nichols Supreme Court case in 1974 as key plot points.

However, this approach to history distorts as much as it reveals. Actually, it was the actions of Chicana/o, Puerto Rican, Native American, and Asian American activists in the 1960s and ’70s that brought about bilingual education in the first place. As these activists focused on schools, they combated segregation and a lack of resources, and demanded bilingual and bicultural programming. They built strong social movements from the ground up, which compelled policymakers to heed their demands and either create or expand bilingual education. But the dominant historical perspective takes our attention away from grassroots activism and focuses instead on the actions of “key players” and/or policies.

It also reduces struggle to “advocacy.” That is, it narrows the definition of political activism to lobbying this or that politician, or testifying before this or that committee. This sort of advocacy can matter, to be sure. But it takes place on terms set by those with power. The politicians in their offices and the committees in their hearing rooms are able to set the boundaries of the discussion and debate, while advocates are left to adapt to it or be shut out of the conversation altogether. What gives this sort of advocacy any real weight is whether students, teachers, parents, and community allies have built movements that are strong enough to change the terms of the conversation.

In fact, it was local struggles — often school-by-school and district-by-district, led by students in concert with parents, sometimes teachers and teacher organizations, and radicals — that provided the necessary momentum to make advocacy effective. Without the blowouts in East Los Angeles in 1968; without the student boycotts in Crystal City, Texas, in 1969; without the Third World student strike in San Francisco in 1968 (where the lawyers for the Lau family cut their political teeth); it is difficult to imagine bilingual education becoming formal policy at the district, state, or federal level.

Finally, the dominant approach to bilingual education history completely misidentifies the source of hostility to bilingualism and bilingual education from the 1980s on. It focuses, accurately, on the election of Ronald Reagan as a turning point, a moment when all the gains of the civil rights movements came under attack. The Reagan administration backtracked on the Lau remedies, a series of measures flowing from the 1974 Supreme Court case that strengthened bilingual education. There was also a concerted campaign to declare English the official language, federally and in several individual states. But when it comes to explaining why this conservative shift happened, the story runs into trouble — it lays the blame at the feet of the very civil rights activists who pushed for bilingual education in the first place. Their activism is described as too confrontational, the demands for meaningful bilingual education as too radical.

According to the terms of the dominant view of the history, which ignores or denigrates community demands and organizing, I guess it’s logical to rely on official channels and Important People to reform schools. But the actual history of bilingual education in the United States suggests something quite different. It was the conscious, ambitious, and collective actions of anti-racist activists that brought real change to schools for emergent bilingual youth. The CCSS are neither the product of, nor will they contribute to, the creation of such movements.

Emergent Bilingual Education and the Common Core

Bilingual education scholars who support the Common Core, and even some who don’t, have acknowledged the significant shift it represents in understanding the relationship between language and content. How language and content are connected has been an enduring dilemma for language educators.

One traditional, but prevalent, model claims that English learners must first “master” the language (i.e., use grammar and vocabulary accurately) before they can engage in meaningful, age- and grade-appropriate content. The most extreme version of this model is Structured English Immersion (SEI) in Arizona. In 2000, Arizona voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition 203. This measure not only severely restricted bilingual education, but also required the state to develop a new model of English-only education. The state responded with SEI. English learners are grouped by proficiency level­­­­ — and segregated from their English-proficient peers — for up to four hours per day in English-language development classes. This model includes no content instruction or cultural components. Contrary to what some 40 years of applied linguistic research have taught us about language learning, SEI assumes that students can develop enough language “skills” to be successful in mainstream classes within one year.

This approach to language education is consistent with the twin logics of standardization and accountability that have deformed our schools. Skills and facts are broken down into discrete parts; it is assumed that these parts can be measured and that those measurements reflect real learning. Students are then “prepped” on those parts ad nauseum. Under the SEI model, student progress is tracked on what is called the Discrete Skills Inventory. This stranger-than-fiction document contains a series of tables that literally break down the English language into grammatical units. Teachers are then expected to use the inventory as a checklist to track student “mastery” of English: Student uses past tense of to be accurately — check! Student uses past negative of to be accurately — check! Student uses past simple negative accurately — check!

Other models have tried to unify language development and content knowledge in so-called sheltered environments. Here, academic language is scaffolded to facilitate student engagement with content. Prominent examples of this model include the Sheltered Instruction Observational Protocol, widely adopted by school districts across the country; the Specially Designed Academic Instruction in English model, first developed in California; and the Cognitive Academic Language Learning model. Although there is much value in these models, it is an ongoing challenge to prevent scaffolded or sheltered instruction from becoming watered-down instruction.

Part of the support for the Common Core among bilingual educators and teachers of English language learners (ELLs) is rooted in the potential they see in CCSS for moving away from these models toward an academically robust environment for emergent bilinguals. Scholars and practitioners working with the Understanding Language project at Stanford University have made this case most clearly. For them, the Common Core assumes that English learners can learn the language through rigorous content. The standards focus literacy instruction simultaneously on text (processing individual letters, words, etc.) and discourse (overall meaning). That is, it shifts literacy instruction away from mere decoding skills and instead gives English learners access to instruction using academic language for a variety of complex, critical tasks. Emergent bilinguals don’t just learn about language through explicit instruction on grammar items or isolated vocabulary. Rather, they use language to engage academic content and to collaborate with others (with native-speaker, English-only, and multilingual peers, and with teachers who do and don’t share their home language) on academic tasks. The math standards also support language development by focusing on the language of math, namely, the language of explanation, reasoning, and argumentation associated with mathematical functions. Finally, the standards reinforce the idea that every teacher is a language teacher, not just the ELL or bilingual ed specialist.

This shift in orientation to the language-content connection reflects perspectives that many bilingual and English-language educators have long held. It is certainly refreshing to see these ideas taken up so broadly in policy briefs and curriculum guides. My sense is that for this reason alone many bilingual educators (practitioners and academics alike) have gotten on board with the Common Core.

However, the Common Core only makes this connection between language and content in English. The CCSS make no reference to linguistic diversity, to culture and its relationship to language, or to the linguistic and cultural resources that emergent bilinguals bring with them to the classroom. Worse still, the standards make no room for applying the language-content model to any language other than English. The standards invoke all the opportunity represented in sociocultural approaches to language learning, only to foreclose on it by focusing on English only.

The authors of the Common Core do explicitly address English learners in a brief addendum to the standards, but the addendum is inconsistent in its perspective. On the one hand, it acknowledges the linguistic, cultural, economic, and academic diversity of emergent bilinguals and states clearly that these students are capable of engaging rigorous content. However, it uses a medical model for defining effective instruction as that which “diagnos[es] each student instructionally.” It also labels students as English learners (i.e., defining them by what they do not yet know) rather than as theemergent bilingual youth they are. Moreover, the cultural knowledge that emergent bilingual students possess, and how teachers might leverage that knowledge, is left entirely unaddressed.

Most revealing, though, is how the addendum talks about students’ home languages. In the very few instances where they are mentioned at all, home languages serve merely as tools for learning English and English language content. In the section on English language arts, for example, “first languages” are mentioned only as a resource to learn a second language more efficiently. In the section on mathematics, “all languages and language varieties” are identified as resources for learning about mathematical reasoning. But home languages are never described as worthy of further academic development themselves. This stance continues the long tradition in the United States, even within some bilingual education models, of using home languages just long enough to learn English, and then leaving them behind.

On their own terms, then, the CCSS amount to another English-only policy. This severely undermines whatever curricular or pedagogical advances they might contain.

Bilingual Education Under Attack

Of course, the Common Core does not exist in isolation from other education reforms. In fact, the standards are part of a doubling down on the test-and-punish approach to reform that has had disastrous consequences for all students, but especially for schools serving students of color and multilingual communities. In addition, the standards appear at a moment in which bilingual education has long been in decline as a legitimate model for emergent bilingual youth.

There are several factors that account for this decline. One is an open political assault on bilingual education that reached its highpoint at the turn of this century. Four state-level ballot initiatives attempted to restrict bilingual education; three of them (in California, Arizona, and Massachusetts) were successful. These initiatives were part of a larger wave of anti-immigrant racism that had grown significantly by the 1990s. At first, anti-immigrant activists focused on denying undocumented immigrants access to public services, as with Proposition 187 in California in 1994. Although voters approved that measure, it was overturned by a federal court. In some ways, measures like Prop. 187 were seen at the time as too radical. Anti-immigrant forces quickly regrouped and focused instead on attacking bilingual education. Here, they found greater success — and greater legitimacy for their ideas. Bilingual education has long been low-hanging political fruit for anti-immigrant racists (Bale).

Beyond these explicit attacks, shifts in education policy have further undermined bilingual education. Most significantly, NCLB abolished the Bilingual Education Act of 1968 and all mentions of bilingual education and bilingualism were replaced with English-only terminology. NCLB’s high-stakes accountability measures have had direct and disastrous consequences for emergent bilingual youth. Kate Menken has documented this trend in two important studies in New York City public schools. Her work shows that the pressure exerted on schools to perform on high-stakes literacy exams in English has led to a significant decline in bilingual programs — even though both city and state policies still formally support bilingual education (Menken, Menken and Solorza).

One glimmer of hope in this otherwise dismal situation is the modest growth in dual-language programs. Different from compensatory bilingual education models, in which all students are English learners, dual-language programs have a more balanced mix of students. Some students are proficient speakers of English, and some are proficient speakers of the other language. This balance between speakers of dominant and minoritized languages is designed to build equity into dual-language programs: Each set of students acts as a linguistic and cultural resource for the other. However, language educators have long raised concerns that dual-language programs are often created either at the behest of or to attract (upper-) middle-class, white families and they tend to function more to the linguistic and academic benefit of English-speaking children. Language scholar Nelson Flores recently referred to this dynamic as “columbusing” — the “discovery” by white families of the benefits of bilingual education programs that in fact were fought for and won through the activism of communities of color.

Moreover, dual-language programs are not necessarily more exempt from racism than bilingual programs. Consider the experience of the Khalil Gibran International Academy, an Arabic-English dual-language program that opened in Brooklyn in 2007. As Brooklyn is home to the largest number of Arabic speakers in the United States, it is a logical site for such a school. The Arabic language curriculum it initially adopted was developed by researchers at Michigan State University and Arabic language teachers in that state. Their work was funded by the Department of Defense, which supports Arabic language learning in the name of national security. Neither logic nor the shroud of national security protected the school from a hateful campaign of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim racism. Although the school managed to weather the storm, its potential was severely undermined. Its founding principal was forced to resign, and the school has changed locations several times.

Given this political context, whether the next generation of education standards sets bilingualism and biliteracy as explicit goals for all students is not a neutral question. And clearly, the Common Core has taken sides. By focusing on English-only, the standards function as the culmination of more than a decade of attacks on bilingual programs and emergent bilingual youth.

Politics, Not Evidence

From every perspective, then, it’s clear that the CCSS promise to further erode bilingual education and linguistic justice in the United States.

This conclusion underscores a point that has long been acknowledged, even by bilingual educators who support Common Core: Bilingual education is above all a question of politics, not of evidence. We have no shortage of evidence about the cognitive, personal, and social benefits of bilingualism. And, as difficult as it has been to come by, given the ups and downs of research funding and changing models of language education, we even have significant evidence of the benefits of bilingual education models themselves (Baker, García, García and Baker).

To be clear, as linguistic diversity in U.S. schools continues to increase, we need much more research on educational models for multilingual as well as bilingual settings. Also, there is much work to do in developing standards and curriculum that support and sustain students’ home languages while they learn academic English. This is the goal, for example, of the Bilingual Common Core Initiative in New York, a welcome response to the English-only assumptions in Common Core. But even here, “translating” the standards misses the point because the Common Core isn’t just a set of standards, but part and parcel of the test-and-punish paradigm. A bilingual version of Common Core may be pragmatic, but it does not move us away from the high-stakes testing that has so disfigured public schools. In short, adapting to the Common Core, rather than challenging it, does not help progressive educators change the conversation about real school reform.

Although challenging the Common Core may seem like a daunting task, the good news is that we already know a lot about what makes for high-quality and equitable bilingual education. In their book Educating Emergent Bilinguals: Policies, Programs, and Practices for English Language Learners, Ofelia García and Jo Anne Kleifgen describe the most effective practices for emergent bilinguals organized around four key strands: tailoring educational programs to the specific linguistic and academic needs of English learners; implementing fair assessments, especially assessments that decouple language from content proficiency; providing equitable resources, especially age- and grade-appropriate curricular resources in both home language(s) and English; and involving parents and communities at school. An important advance in the ideas they describe is moving away from a traditional approach to bilingual education that strictly separates the two languages and privileges only academic/standard varieties of language, and instead moving toward classroom practices that help students become conscious and critical users of the full language repertoire they bring with them to school, that is, both standard and non-standard varieties of English and home language(s).

History also tells us that challenges to the Common Core can’t come from just inside the classroom. Although many teachers and language scholars were working on models of bilingual education in the 1950s and early ’60s, it wasn’t until that work connected with a radical and grassroots civil rights movement that those models were widely implemented. The same holds for us today: If we are to transform schools into more equitable places for emergent bilinguals, then we need to rebuild social movements of students, parents, teachers, and community allies to make that change happen. The coalition building of the Chicago Teachers Union before their successful strike in 2012; the ongoing coalition work by groups such as the Grassroots Education Movement or the biannual Free Minds, Free People conference; the dramatic and rapid growth of opt-out and other anti-standardized testing activism across the country; the potential of deepening the #BlackLivesMatter movement to include education issues — all offer compelling and promising models for what this work looks like moving forward.

Not only did the CCSS not emerge from these educational and activist spaces, their vision of “reform” stands in direct opposition to grassroots, anti-racist democracy. If we are to transform schools into places that foster linguistic equity, the Common Core will not be the vehicle of that change. The burden, then, is on us — as supporters of linguistic and social equity for emergent bilingual youth — to organize against the Common Core politically, and to be part of building social movements that force open social space at school and beyond for bilingual education and practice.


  1. Au, Wayne. 2009. Unequal by Design: High-Stakes Testing and the Standardization of Inequality. Routledge.
  2. Baker, Colin. 2006. Foundations of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism (4th ed.). Multilingual Matters.
  3. Bale, Jeff. 2012. “Linguistic Justice at School.” In Bale, Jeff and Sarah Knopp, eds. Education and Capitalism: Struggles for Learning and Liberation. Haymarket Books.
  4. García, Ofelia. 2009. Bilingual Education in the 21st Century: A Global Perspective. Wiley.
  5. García, Ofelia and Colin Baker. 2007. Bilingual Education: An Introductory Reader. Multilingual Matters.
  6. García, Ofelia and Jo Anne Kleifgen. 2010. Educating Emergent Bilinguals: Policies, Programs, and Practices for English Language Learners. Teachers College Press.
  7. Hagopian, Jesse, ed. 2014. More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing. Haymarket Books.
  8. Menken, Kate. 2008. English Learners Left Behind: Standardized Testing as Language Policy. Multilingual Matters.
  9. Menken, Kate and Cristian Solorza. 2014. “No Child Left Bilingual: Accountability and the Elimination of Bilingual Education Programs in New York City Schools.” Educational Policy 28.1: 96–125.

Originally published at

Editorial: Teaching as Defiance

Originally published in Rethinking Schools VOLUME 29, ISSUE 4 — SUMMER 2015.Editorial1Recently, we posted an article at the Rethinking Schools Facebook page that listed reasons why parents should opt their children out of standardized testing, including “standardized tests narrow the curriculum.” The article went on:

What’s on the test is what’s taught. PARCC and Smarter Balanced [versions of the Common Core tests] only evaluate math and literacy, and thus science, social studies, and the arts are lost to spend maximum instruction time on the tested material. There is no time for creativity, collaboration, and curiosity.

A Rethinking Schools reader, Texas educator Noreen Naseem Rodriguez, wrote to say: not so fast. Rodriguez pointed out that teachers are still “creative and collaborative, and encourage curiosity in spite of the high-stakes testing environment.” She argued that we need to distinguish between what teachers are being pushed to do and what they are actually doing. Yes, the tests have made it more difficult to teach critically and authentically, but Rodriguez pointed out that simply because people in positions of power want something to happen, doesn’t make it so.

Rodriguez is right. Teachers continue to resist the high-stakes testing machine by teaching what matters, by doing everything possible not to narrow the curriculum to test prep. And when we say that the corporate school reform agenda has killed critical, imaginative teaching for social justice, we have declared defeat while the fight rages around us.

Since its inception almost 30 years ago, Rethinking Schools’ mission has been the defense and transformation of public schools. These go hand in hand. Yes, we need to fight the myriad ways that the forces of privatization and privilege seek to discredit and destroy public education. But one front in that defense is the effort to revitalize classroom life, to ensure that students’ time in school is worthwhile—for students personally, and for the larger communities and society they belong to. As we argued in the first edition of Rethinking Our Classrooms: Teaching for Equity and Justice, back in 1994, classrooms should be grounded in the lives of our students; critical; multicultural, antiracist and pro-justice; participatory and experiential; hopeful, joyful, kind, and visionary; activist; culturally sensitive; and academically rigorous. We set ourselves the task of creating curriculum and finding teaching stories to bring these principles to life.

Teaching to the Tests

Is this kind of teaching made much harder by today’s standardized testing mandates? No doubt. Valuable classroom time has been hijacked by the tests and test prep. New legislation and policies threaten teachers with bad evaluations or worse should their students fail to perform adequately on the tests. In some school districts, armies of clipboard-carrying curriculum cops circulate through classrooms to enforce scripted teaching strategies. These are tough times, and we do not mean to minimize the power of this bullying to stifle good teaching.

The corporate school reformers’ vision of a successful classroom was on display this spring in a front page New York Times investigative article on New York’s Success Academy, the charter school chain founded by Eva Moskowitz. Politicians and millionaire philanthropists have championed Moskowitz’s program as a model for education reform. The article, by Kate Taylor (“At Charters, High Scores and Polarizing Tactics”), paints a harrowing portrait of classroom life, with every teaching move subordinated to standardized tests. An email from an assistant principal (a “leadership resident”) at Success Academy Harlem 2 to her 4th-grade teachers in the wake of disappointing results on a three-day practice test offers a glimpse: “You must demand every single minute,” she wrote. “We can NOT let up on them. . . . Any scholar who is not using the plan of attack (test-taking strategies) will go to effort academy (detention), have their parent called, and will miss electives. This is serious business, and there has to be misery felt [by] the kids who are not doing what is expected of them.”

Teaching for Life

Since Rethinking Schools began publishing in 1986, there have always been odious requirements that teachers have confronted and resisted: basal readers, detailed “scope and sequence” instructions, “competencies” to be met, “anchor assignments,” required textbooks, and overbearing administrators. Indeed, in the very first issue of Rethinking Schools, RS co-founder Rita Tenorio described how she resisted the imposition of a Scott Foresman basal reader on her kindergarten students. Instead she provided experiential, playful, and collaborative literacy activities far more appropriate for young children than a dreary succession of worksheets.

And today, in the midst of the launch of Common Core tests, teachers continue the resistance. Sometimes this is an individual who defies the system to teach toward her ideals. During a dinner conversation, a 2nd-grade teacher in New Mexico told Rethinking Schools editors how she brings authentic literacy lessons to her classroom: “They have taken over our literacy block with a mandated, scripted curriculum, but I use read-aloud time to engage students in reading and writing that matters.”

Sometimes it’s a collective effort. In Portland, Oregon, teachers at several high schools are collaboratively constructing and teaching curriculum. Social studies teachers at one school, for example, created a unit on the Russian Revolution that was taught in 14 classes. At another school, language arts teachers developed and taught curriculum on local school desegregation as a follow-up to reading Warriors Don’t Cry when a student asked, “So what happened in Portland?” After they taught the unit, the teachers traveled to each other’s classrooms to discuss revisions and adaptations, and to look at student work. Two articles in this issue of the magazine, Jerica Coffey’s “Storytelling as Resistance” and Stephanie Cariaga’s “Research as Healing,” are the result of an inquiry group created by teachers at a school in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles (see Collaborating to Capture Community Resilience).

Throughout the country, teachers are constructing curriculum that challenges students to think instead of memorize, to connect their lives to broader social and ecological issues. Through this kind of engaged scholarship, students discover the joy of learning—joy that rarely accompanies a lesson that starts “Today, I will learn. . .”

This resistance is fueled by networks of social justice teachers in groups like Teachers 4 Social Justice in San Francisco, the New York Collective of Radical Educators, Chicago Teachers for Social Justice, the Educators Network for Social Justice in Milwaukee, Teaching for Change, the Oregon Writing Project, and Free Minds, Free People. These organizations, and many others, inspire critical teaching through conferences, workshops, and inquiry-to-action groups—defying the corporate push toward standardization.

Rethinking Schools’ two latest books, A People’s Curriculum for the Earth: Teaching Climate Change and the Environmental Crisis and Rhythm and Resistance: Teaching Poetry for Social Justice offer further proof that teachers across the country are working with one another to address vital social issues at the same time they strive to develop academic skills. Howard Zinn famously said that “you can’t be neutral on a moving train.” When it comes to the climate crisis, endless war, growing income inequality, and the disregard for the lives of people of color as shown by the regularity of police killings, the social train we’re on is headed off a cliff. Teachers need to do our part to stop and redirect that train.

As we oppose the hegemony of standardized tests, the budget cuts, the school closures, the pro-charter legislation, the infiltration of Teach For America, and other privatization schemes, we also should demand teaching and learning conditions that allow us to create an alternative vision of classroom life. In order to design curriculum that speaks to students’ lives, we need more prep time, more time for teacher collaboration, more professional development worthy of its name. We need to nurture a grassroots conversation about social justice teaching—one that refutes the notion that learning and high test scores are synonymous; and one that opts for joy over misery.

Rethinking Schools encourages teachers to continue to subvert the test-and-punish system by doing everything we can to teach for the benefit of our students—and the world. Every child-centered, socially aware lesson plan is a gesture of defiance to those who endeavor to make test scores the sole criterion of educational success. This kind of teaching that matters is part of the broader struggle to defend and transform public schools.

29.4: Teaching as Defiance, 4-Year-Olds Discuss Marriage, +more!

29.4 Cover


FREE 4-Year-Olds Discuss Love and Marriage

By A.J. Jennings

An early childhood educator shows how far-ranging discussions can open children’s eyes to a broader understanding of relationships, including same-sex marriage and not getting married at all.

FREE Los niños y las niñas de 4 años hablan sobre el amor y el matrimonio

Por A. J. Jennings, Traducido por Nicholas Yurchenco

Una maestra de preescolar demuestra cómo una variedad de conversaciones pueden ampliar el conocimiento de los niños sobre las relaciones interpersonales, incluyendo los matrimonios del mismo sexo y las parejas que no se casan.

FREE Baby Steps Toward Restorative Justice

By Linea King

A middle school teacher tries to implement restorative practices in her classroom. It’s harder than she thought.


Collaborating to Capture Community Resilience

By Stephanie Cariaga and Jerica Coffey

Teachers form an inquiry-based study group to support each other as they look for ways to build on the resilience of their students.

Storytelling as Resistance

By Jerica Coffey

After a critical look at how their community is described by others, high school students interview and tell the true stories of people in their Watts, Los Angeles, neighborhood.

Research as Healing

By Stephanie Cariaga

As 9th graders focus persuasive letters on community issues, their teacher realizes she must be open about her own pain to empower students to be open about theirs.


FREE Can We Rescue the Common Core Standards from the Testing Machine?

By Peter Greene

Would the Common Core be OK if it weren’t for the tests? An activist/blogger says no.

Learning About Inequality

By Linda Christensen

A master English teacher uses dialogue poems to develop empathy and connect history to literature.

FREE Climate Change and School in a Yup’ik Fishing Village

By Jill Howdyshell

In a small village in southwestern Alaska, climate change is a current reality, not a distant fear. But it’s not in the curriculum or discussed at school.

Blood on the Tracks

By Amy Lindahl

Science teachers at a Portland, Oregon, high school ask how they can make their science classes more welcoming to Black students.

Colonizing Wild Tongues

By Camila Arze Torres Goitia

A teacher vividly describes her own experience of English-only schooling.



Teaching as Defiance

By the editors of Rethinking Schools



Seattle Students Vote with Their Feet

Poets Start Young

Schoolchildren Targeted in Baltimore

Global Teacher Unions Protest at Pearson Meeting

Teacher Fired for Get-Well Letters to Mumia Abu-Jamal


Our picks for books, videos, websites, and other social justice education resources.


Thinking and Playing Under Pressure

Educating the Gates Foundation

June 26, Rethinking Schools editor Wayne Au spoke at a Seattle rally protesting the role of the Gates Foundation in public education: “Educating the Gates Foundation.” The rally was sponsored by Washington BATS (Bad-Ass Teachers) and Washington Save Our Schools. This is the speech he delivered at the rally. 

Educating the Gates Foundation Rally Remarks

by Wayne AuWayne Au

Good evening. I’m here tonight because I am deeply concerned. I’m concerned that public education is rapidly becoming privatized. I’m concerned that we are all part of a grand experiment, one that is hurting kids and communities. I’m concerned that we are losing democratic, public accountability in public education. I’m concerned with the state of public education reform and the role of Bill Gates and his foundation.


You see, right now Gates and his foundation are pushing an entire set of public education reforms like charter schools and vouchers, high-stakes, standardized testing, and using tests for teacher evaluation. We are getting this set of reforms purely because he and his foundation have leveraged vast financial resources to influence and negotiate politics. They are doing this despite all countervailing evidence, and they are doing this with no democratic accountability.


And that is just the thing. While Gates and his foundation tinker around with charter schools, high-stakes testing, the Common Core, and the junk science of using tests to evaluate teachers, they avoid the central and most important issue that impacts educational achievement: poverty.


But Gates and the Gates Foundation aren’t hearing that. As far as I can see, they are not about actual educational equality and equity. Instead they seem to be about opening up public education to the marketplace.


In fact, Gates has said as much. Back in 2009 in the run up to the Common Core, Gates said the following:

When the tests are aligned to the common standards, the curriculum will line up as well—and that will unleash powerful market forces in the service of better teaching. For the first time, there will be a large base of customers eager to buy products that can help every kid learn and every teacher get better.


I find this ironic. It seems to me that Gates wants to fix inequality in public education by relying on the same market forces responsible for the crisis in housing, the crisis in medical care, the climate crisis, the massive wealth gap, and the increase in the schools-to-prisons pipeline for youth of color, amongst other national travesties.


And all of this has me concerned because in many ways you and I and our children are unwillingly part of a grand experiment in education reform. Back in September of 2013, Gates himself said, “It would be great if our education stuff worked, but that we won’t know for probably a decade.” These folks pushing these reforms do not know if they will work, but they are willing to experiment on an entire generation of children.


And this raises another issue that we must contend with: institutionalized racism. We know that the system of public education does not serve low-income black and brown kids like it should. Unfortunately, here in Seattle we are a great example of this given the low achievement and disproportionate discipline rates for students of color. But the question we have to ask ourselves is this: “Have these corporate styled reforms like charter schools and high-stakes testing actually improved the conditions of education for the least served?”


On the whole the answer is “no.” Low-income students of color have had their curriculum gutted because of the tests. They are far more likely to experience scripted instruction and rote learning purely to prepare for the tests. They are far more likely to have art, recess, music, physical education, and even science and social studies cut in preparation for the tests.


And despite their never ending promises, the charter school sector has continued to find ways to keep out English Language Learners and students with disabilities, expel or counsel away low performing kids of color, maintain intense racial segregation, and NOT, I repeat, NOT out perform regular public schools in terms of overall achievement.


Given that both failure on high-stakes tests as well as expulsion and suspension from school greatly increase the chances of students to get caught up in the criminal justice system, I would argue that these reforms contribute directly to the racism of the schools-to-prisons pipeline.


In this way low-income black and brown students of color are the ultimate guinea pigs for the Gates experiment in public education reform, and I think it is ethically, morally, and politically reprehensible that wealthy elites feel so free to experiment on our kids.


This is especially true given that Gates’ own children have not had to face any of his own reforms. In fact, I want all of our children in public schools to have what Gates’ children have had.


Take Lakeside Schools, where his kids have attended. They had small class sizes, a large, well endowed library, top notch facilities, and a rich curriculum. These things seem to work for children of the elite. Don’t the rest of our children deserve them as well?


Lakeside students also don’t have to take 5, 6, 7, or 8 high-stakes, standardized tests a year. As my dear friend and education activist Jesse Hagopian says, we could say the boycott of high-stakes testing in Seattle really started at schools like Lakeside because the rich have rejected having their children take these tests for years: They just sent them to elite private schools.


I also want all of our kids to have some other things those Lakeside students have, like food security, a stable home to live in, jobs for their parents that pay livable wages, access to free or affordable healthcare…You know, all the basic human rights that the rich can afford and, increasingly, the poor cannot.


If Gates and the Gates Foundation really want to start increasing the achievement of low income and students of color, and if they are unwilling to have the real conversation about growing race and class inequality in this country, then I’ve got a suggestion: Fund a nationwide campaign for the implementation of Ethnic Studies. We’ve got research that shows that Ethnic Studies, like the program that was banned by conservatives in Tucson, Arizona, contributed greatly to positive educational outcomes and college attainment of students of color there. In that program students learned about their cultural histories and identities, and they learned about institutional racism in this country.


But I doubt we’ll see any Gates-funded campaign for Ethnic Studies because it doesn’t have the right kind of politics.


Speaking of politics, as the Seattle Times reported, Bill Gates recently said that, “These are not political things,” and that he’s merely supporting research about making education more effective. I’d like to close my speech tonight by pointing out how this statement rings hollow in so many ways.


For instance, we have ample research on the critical impact of smaller class sizes, the importance of culturally relevant practices, the fallacy of using test scores to evaluate teachers, the increased inequity produced by charter schools, the harmful effects of high-stakes, standardized testing, and the central role poverty plays in educational achievement. But Gates and his foundation don’t care to listen to any of this. They have their own agenda for public education, and they are wielding their mighty resources to advance this agenda with disregard of sound critiques or public deliberation.


Gates’ statement also rings hollow because these are all political things. Poverty is a political thing. Institutionalized racism is a political thing. High-stakes testing is a political thing. Charter school policy is a political thing. Private school vouchers is a political thing. All curriculum, especially the Common Core, is a political thing. Teachers’ rights to due process and protections provided by union contracts are political things.


When you attack public education and try to reshape it along the lines of private industry, and you do it with no democratic accountability to the public, THAT is a political thing. Every aspect of education policy is a political thing, and it is ignorant of Gates to think or say otherwise.


But that is why I am standing here tonight. That is why you are here as well. We all know better. We all know that public education is a political thing, and we all know that public education is a political thing worth fighting for. We can win this fight. Together we can remake our schools in ways that actually meet the social, cultural, and academic needs of ALL of our children. We can resist the privatizers like Gates. We can put the Public back into public education.


Thank you.

Rethinking Schools on Facebook: 10 Most Popular Stories of 2013

Those of you who follow us on Facebook know that we regularly post articles, stories, and resources that we think would be of interest to Rethinking Schools readers. At the risk of jumping on the top-10 bandwagon, we decided to review our posts for the year and to highlight the ones that were the most popular, judged by total reach. Some are funny, some are moving, some are outrageous—all are provocative and worth reviewing.

1. Dec. 15: “Wrong” answers on tests from brilliant kids.

2. April 18: Today’s Democracy Now! had an excellent segment — “A Rush to Misjudgment” — about some of the hurried and racist mainstream media coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing. This would be an excellent segment to use with students.

3. Nov. 2: Rethinking Schools editor Wayne Au was the scariest thing ever for Halloween this year: a high-stakes, standardized test!


4. Oct. 5: History matters. Today’s patterns of wealth and power have their roots in slavery. “Top 6 Countries That Grew Filthy Rich From Enslaving Black People

5. April 2:  Our friend and colleague, Bill Ayers, has written a fabulous letter to the New York Times about the Atlanta cheating scandal. Read it here.

6. Oct. 17: The brilliant and magnificent Cornel West. Please watch and share. “Cornel West on the ‘shameless silence’ of progressives about Obama and education reform

7. Aug. 22: This is a fascinating expose at Daily Kos of how Time Magazine covers in the United States differ from Time covers throughout the world. Great questions to raise about this with students. Shared by Rethinking Schools author Özlem Sensoy.

8. May 3: Have you followed the story of the 16-year-old girl in Florida who was arrested and expelled for her science experiment gone awry? An example of the school-to-prison pipeline in action.

9. April 15: Rethinking Schools friend Dave Zirin reflects on the tragedy at the Boston Marathon, and offers some moving people’s history in the process.

10. September 7: Betsy Toll of the organization Living Earth, wrote this wonderful letter to The Oregonian, in Portland, saying we’re not weary of war, we’re sick of it. War is an “educational issue.” Read Betsy’s letter.

What’s good for Bill Gates is bad for public schools… and Microsoft, too

by David Morris

Editor’s note:  This news has been making the rounds in education activist circles, and we wanted to further amplify this important message. Turns out corporate style reform isn’t just bad for schools, it’s bad for corporations.

Schools have a lot to learn from business about how to improve performance, declared Bill Gates in an Op Ed in the Wall Street Journal in 2011. He pointed to his own company as a worthy model for public schools.

BillGatesBill Gates foisted a big business model of employee evaluation onto public schools, which his own company has since abandoned. “At Microsoft, we believed in giving our employees the best chance to succeed, and then we insisted on success. We measured excellence, rewarded those who achieved it and were candid with those who did not.”

Adopting the Microsoft model means public schools grading teachers, rewarding the best and being “candid,” that is, firing those who are deemed ineffective. “If you do that,” Gates promised Oprah Winfrey, “then we go from being basically at the bottom of the rich countries [in education performance] to being back at the top.”

The Microsoft model, called “stack ranking” forced every work unit to declare a certain percentage of employees as top performers, certain groups as good performers, then average, then below average, then poor.

Using hundreds of millions of dollars in philanthropic largesse Bill Gates persuaded state and federal policymakers that what was good for Microsoft would be good for public schools (to be sure, he was pushing against an open door). To be eligible for large grants from President Obama’s Race to the Top program, for example, states had to adopt Gates’ Darwinian approach to improving public education. Today more than 36 states have altered their teacher evaluations systems with the aim of weeding out the worst and rewarding the best.

Some states grade on a curve. Others do not. But all embrace the principle that continuing employment for teachers will depend on improvement in student test scores, and teachers who are graded “ineffective” two or three years in a row face termination.

Needless to say, the whole process of what has come to be called “high stakes testing” of both students and teachers has proven devastatingly dispiriting. According to the 2012 MetLife Survey of the American Teacher, over half of public school teachers say they experience great stress several days a week and are so demoralized that their level of satisfaction has plummeted from 62 percent in 2008 to 39 percent last year.

And now, just as public school systems have widely adopted the Microsoft model in order to win the Race to the Top, it turns out that Microsoft now realizes that this model has pushed Microsoft itself into a Race to the Bottom.

In a widely circulated 2012 article in Vanity, award-winning reporter Fair Kurt Eichenwald concluded that stack ranking “effectively crippled Microsoft’s ability to innovate. “Every current and former Microsoft employee I interviewed—every one—cited stacked ranking as the most destructive process inside of Microsoft, something that drove out untold numbers of employees,” Eichenwald writes. “It leads to employees focusing on competing with each other rather than competing with other companies.”

This month Microsoft abandoned the hated system.

On November 12 all Microsoft employees received a memo from Lisa Brummel, Executive Vice President for Human Resources announcing the company will be adopting “a fundamentally new approach to performance and development designed to promote new levels of teamwork and agility for breakthrough business impact.”

Ms. Brummel listed four key elements in the company’s new policy.

  • More emphasis on teamwork and collaboration.
  • More emphasis on employee growth and development.
  • No more use of a Bell curve for evaluating employees.
  • No more ratings of employees.

Sue Altman at EduShyster vividly sums up the frustration of a nation of educators at this new development. “So let me get this straight. The big business method of evaluation that now rules our schools is no longer the big business method of evaluation? And collaboration and teamwork, which have been abandoned by our schools in favor of the big business method of evaluation, is in?”

Big business can turn on a dime when the CEO orders it to do so. But changing policies embraced and internalized by dozens of states and thousands of public school districts will take far, far longer. Which means the legacy of Bill Gates will continue to handicap millions of students and hundreds of thousands of teachers even as the company Gates founded along with many other businesses, have thrown his pernicious performance model in the dustbin of history.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.

Related Resources

Taking Teacher Quality Seriously: A Collaborative Approach to Teacher Evaluation, by Stan Karp

Neither Fair, Nor Accurate:  Research-based reasons why high-stakes tests should not be used to evaluate teachers, by Wayne Au

Professional Development: New terrain for big business? by Rachael Gabriel and Jessica N. Lester

Special collection from Rethinking Schools: Keeping Quality Teachers Teaching

CovrPencilsDown120229.3_42Pencils Down:  Rethinking High-Stakes Testing and Accountability in Public Schoolsedited by Wayne Au and Melissa Bollow Tempel

The Trouble with Common Core

On Friday, Rethinking Schools editor Stan Karp delivered a speech “The Trouble with Common Core” to Portland area parents, educators, administrators, elected officials, among others.  (See our summer editorial with the same title.)

Watch and share.