Listen up, Arne Duncan: Racial defense of Common Core won't derail coalition to fight corporate school reform which hurts kids

"Education Spring" is on -- and the uprising against testing, cuts and for-profit schools is on the rise

By Jeff Bryant

Published November 19, 2013 6:03PM (EST)

  (AP/Jacquelyn Martin)
(AP/Jacquelyn Martin)

"There's something happening here," the old song goes, "what it is ain't exactly clear."

The "something" in this case is the full-throated outcry coming from every corner of the nation about policies governing the nation's public schools.

And while it may not be "exactly clear" what the protests are calling for, the causes are all too obvious.

In the summer of 2012 public school teachers in Chicago made headlines when they went on strike demanding improved conditions for children attending their public schools. Then in 2013, students and parents poured into the streets of Philadelphia to object to worsening school conditions, which got the attention of at least one television news outlet.

Most of America ignored the unrest because it was coming primarily from communities of black and brown families living in inner-city neighborhoods. But now the protests have spread to white suburban communities of the more well-to-do.

Boisterous rallies in school auditoriums and civic halls in places like Long Island, N.Y., and Denver prompted U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to remark last week that he found it “fascinating” that even “white suburban moms" are now speaking out against his policies.

While protests coming from black and brown moms from the inner city may have left the secretary bored, Duncan now needs to make the leap from fascination to actually listening to what people are saying. The protests – a continuation of an "Education Spring" that has broken out across the country – are only going to get louder and stronger.

One of the national teachers' unions, the American Federation of Teachers, has even called for a national day of action coordinated with community organizations and union partners in cities across the country to bring grievances to light.

Protests Flare Across the Nation

Protests have been loudest and most unrelenting in places like Pennsylvania where austerity budgets imposed by a conservative governor have rolled out at the same time that the reform agenda pressed down on local schools. This has left teachers and parents feeling that students are "being set up for failure," according to local news sources.

Barely before the school year was underway, local media outlets across the Quaker State reported on "activists" interrupting town council meetings demanding funding for schools, protesters confronting politicians about policies that send public dollars to private enterprises like private and charter schools, and students protesting against worsening school conditions.

Philadelphia parents sent hundreds of letters of complaints to the state education secretary about program and curriculum deficiencies, including elimination of school programs and the shuttering of libraries and other resources. And Philly community groups filed a lawsuit against the city and the state on behalf of special-education students who had their schools closed down due to budget cuts.

In New York, where lawmakers also cut funds while imposing new reform mandates, thousands of parents and teachers, from the lower Hudson Valley all the way upstate to Buffalo, packed school auditoriums demanding changes to these policies. Parents and lawmakers have called for the ouster of the state's education chief. And at a recent town hall meeting in Long Island, a classroom teacher charged state officials with "child abuse" and was roundly cheered by an audience of hundreds of disgruntled parents and educators.

In Newark, N.J., hundreds of students boycotted class and poured into the streets to protest the "intentional underfunding" of their schools and the mandates from "so-called reformers."

In Virginia, 30 school boards across the state called for an end to a public education accountability system." Local Virginia blogger Rachel Levy traced similar protests across the state in the Virginia legislature, in Roanoke, in Chesterfield County, and Richmond. As Valerie Strauss reported in the Washington Post, these demands "are part of a growing backlash around the country by academics, educators, parents and others."

In Chicago, another place hit hard by reform decrees driven by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, thousands rallied to bolster their public schools and demand education policy changes. Local activists interrupted a board meeting to demand an end to "damaging" education policies. And Chicago students staged a "zombie march" to protest “the death of Chicago’s public education system.”

In Tennessee, nearly half of the school superintendents across the state spoke out against the state commissioner's reform directives, which the educators say are "counterproductive and hurtful." Teachers in Nashville went even further to declare a "vote of no confidence" in the state's education leadership.

In North Carolina, teachers led "walk-in" demonstrations to protest the cuts made by lawmakers to public education over the past several years and the imposition of "reform" measures that were rushed through a state assembly dominated by the Tea Party.

Out West, scores of parents and students in Denver staged a "zombie walk" protesting school policies and complaining to local reporters that "reform" policies are "actually harmful for our children."

Sources for these grievances can be traced to very specific problems that government leaders and the general media mostly ignore.

Too Much Reliance on Testing

Chief among the complaints of students, parents and teachers are the overemphasis on and poor quality of standardized tests that schools are made to impose.

In many states, including New York, very young children now face a battery of exams. The Daily News reported, "Because of a tough new curriculum and teacher evaluations, 4- and 5-year-olds are learning how to fill in bubbles on standardized math tests." Giving bubble tests to kindergartners has become the order of the day in many schools, even though testing at this age group "is slow and traumatic," and "trying to get a proper answer was next to impossible."

According to an article in the Washington Post, because these tests increasingly require students to fill out the forms on computers, "educators around the country are rushing to teach typing to children who have barely mastered printing by hand."

In later grades, students can encounter exams practically around every corner. In Pittsburgh, a local reporter found that public schools this school year have to administer "a total of more than 270 tests … to students in kindergarten through 12th grade. In fourth grade alone, there are 33 required tests … The district has no choice … the state mandates them."

Not only is the number of standardized tests overwhelming, but the quality is atrocious. As a new report published by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution found, "Test-based accountability began its march across the nation’s classrooms more than a decade ago. Yet no one in that time … has held the tests themselves accountable. While lawmakers pumped up the repercussions of lagging scores, schools opened exam booklets to find whole pages missing. Answer-sheet scanners malfunctioned. Kids puzzled over nonsensical questions. Results were miscalculated, again and again."

To counter the overemphasis on testing, a nationwide "opt out" movement has rapidly expanded. According to a recent article in the Nation, " the United Opt Out movement was established to counter the pro-testing mania sweeping the country. Its website provides opt-out guides for forty-nine states and the District of Columbia, and connects a burgeoning community of grumbling and disaffected parents."

In New York state alone, "dozens of grassroots organizations have emerged to address testing. Parent advocates recently formed New York State Allies for Public Education (NYSAPE) to serve as an umbrella group." Recently, the principal of a New York City elementary school on the Upper West Side canceled standardized tests when over 80 percent of the teachers opted out. Cross-town at an elite high school, students also called for a test boycott.

Writing in the New Republic, education historian Diane Ravitch maintained, "Today's standardized tests are useless … the results reflect the student's family income with uncanny accuracy … "; they're written by a "committee" rather than by teachers who know what's been taught, and "the results of the tests will not be returned for months," so teachers "can't give extra help to those who are falling behind."

Ravitch concluded, "We need more tests written by teachers, graded by teachers, and quickly analyzed by teachers, to understand what their students are learning and what they are not learning."

Not Enough Control of What Schools Teach

As the Nation reporter Owen Davis noted, however, not only are tests the objects of criticism, but parents, teachers and students also protest the lack of influence they increasingly have over the content of school curricula.

What students are being made to learn in schools is now predominantly driven by new Common Core Standards that the vast majority of states have adopted, at the federal government's encouragement.

Although proponents of the standards say that they do not dictate curriculum, voices on the ground are insisting that even if that is so, local input on what teachers should and can teach is being overridden or flagrantly disregarded.

In New York, which is ahead of much of the rest of the country in imposing the new standards, the "Common Core is arriving with incomplete plans in schools and at a rapid pace that leaves some students behind," according to local reporters. Many of the complaints focus on the lack of "materials" needed to teach for the standards and the inability of teachers to "modify the modules for students who are struggling."

More recently, reporters found that books to help teachers implement the new standards were "delivered more than a month into the school year in some cases," and that the lessons to help teachers teach to the standards "are poorly planned, too long and full of mistakes."

Another controversy sparked by the new standards is related to what should be taught at specific grade levels. Educators in states where the standards and accompanying materials are rolling out are finding that learning objectives are being imposed on students when they are too young.

Writing at the blog site of Valerie Strauss, Long Island educators Carol Burris and John Murphy looked at test items related to the curriculum of the Common Core and found that many students may not be "developmentally ready" for the material designed to meet the new standards. "These problems will likely lead to frustration, discouragement and negative emotional reactions – which is exactly what parents are reporting," they concluded.

"Standards matter," these educators said, but "they must be high quality and match the development of the child … It may be possible to teach them to parrot the tasks for the tests. But what will our students gain? And what will we not be teaching instead? Art? Music? Level-appropriate math skills?"

Vocal unrest in early-implementing states like New York is prompting leaders in other states to take actions to tamp down criticism of the new standards, according to a recent article in Education Week.

State leaders in Alabama, Florida, Louisiana and Michigan have taken steps to reassure voters that "local control over data, curriculum, and materials" will be maintained. But according to the reporter, these efforts are likely to have "negligible" impact at "the classroom-level," because state directives will "largely emphasize existing policy."

Looking at the botched rollout of the new standards, president of the American Federation of Teachers Randi Weingarten declared it was "far worse" than the implementation of the new healthcare policy known as Obamacare.

Weingarten insisted, in a column on the Huffington Post, that the Common Core standards are "not a silver bullet, and they're not the only thing kids need for a great public education." But states that have decided to adopt them have "rushed to impose tests and consequences way before students were ready" or "are skimping on or simply bungling implementation.

"No wonder students, their parents and teachers are angry, anxious and demoralized."

The Great Big Disconnect

When school doors around the country opened this fall, a poll conducted by Phi Delta Kappan and Gallup revealed, "American policy makers are forging ahead with education initiatives, but they may be leaving Americans behind and out of the loop."

The survey, which got next to no media attention, pointed out how so-called reform mandates pushed by the nation's leaders at all levels and an array of corporate-backed advocacy groups have very little support among average Americans.

The "reform" agenda that calls for high-stakes testing, rigid standardization and using test scores to evaluate teachers rings hollow to people who pay for public schools. For instance,
• Less than 25 percent of Americans think increased testing has "helped the performance of local public schools."
• A majority reject the idea of using student test scores to evaluate classroom teachers.
• Almost two-thirds of Americans have never heard of the new standards, called the Common Core State Standards, that 45 states have adopted.
• Among people who have heard of the Common Core, only four of 10 agree "the standards can help make education in the United States more competitive globally; a majority said the standards will make the U.S. less competitive or have no effect."

What Americans care about, the survey showed, is that the schools their students attend are safe and that they "go beyond the basics" to teach skills such as critical thinking and problem solving and offer a well-rounded curriculum that includes the arts, sports, journalism and other subjects beyond reading and math.

With the school year well underway, what's playing out on the ground in communities across the country is a widespread and increasingly vocal resistance to the bureaucratic mandate for more standards and testing and fewer learning opportunities for students.

The only thing Gallup got wrong was that reform mandates "may be" in conflict with what ordinary Americans want. Now we know they are.

Jeff Bryant

Jeff Bryant is a writing fellow and chief correspondent for Our Schools, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He is a communications consultant, freelance writer, advocacy journalist, and director of the Education Opportunity Network, a strategy and messaging center for progressive education policy. His award-winning commentary and reporting routinely appear in prominent online news outlets, and he speaks frequently at national events about public education policy. Follow him on Twitter @jeffbcdm.

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Arne Duncan Austerity Denver Education New York Opt Out Philadelphia Testing