By Anthony Cody.
A newly independent Living in Dialogue, and my first book on the shelves made this an eventful year for me. The challenge of organizing the first annual conference for the Network for Public Education filled the first few months, and the Public Education Nation event in Brooklyn was another highlight. Can we, the poorly funded, loosely organized teachers, parents and students, actually bring about a change in the direction our education system is heading? I have appreciated meeting with and learning from hundreds of teachers, parents and students this year – having your company on this journey is so very important.
The Movement Grows
We saw the numbers of students opting out of tests swell, especially in states like New York where the Common Core has already taken effect. Hundreds of activists gathered in Austin for the first annual Network for Public Education conference. The Badass Teachers Association held their own gathering in the summer in DC, and continue to build their organization. The number of people writing about education issues has grown, and the Education Bloggers Network now counts more than 200 members.
The NPE conference revealed some tensions in our movement over issues of race, and prompted some important reflections. As the tragic police killings of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and Eric Garner have reminded us, simmering injustices can only be under wraps for so long. Racism and the marginalization of people of color must be actively addressed, in the streets and within our movement as well. As a white activist in a multi-racial movement, I struggled to find constructive ways to make this happen. I have sought to give space for other voices through my blog, and through the events I have helped organize. But it does not feel as if it is enough, and sometimes it feels overwhelming. I hope we can do better in 2015.
Building Our Independent Media
Living in Dialogue went through a major change itself this summer, parting from Education Week’s Teacher Magazine after six productive years. The blog was re-launched, with a little help from my friends. The blog got a new look, designed by Rob Perry, with original art contributed by Sarah Mcintosh-Puglisi. It also got a new video section, hosted by Los Angeles teacher and filmmaker Vincent Precht. While Education Week was a good starting place, I feel that it is crucial that we develop independent forms of media, so we can communicate without being filtered. This independence will allow Living in Dialogue to develop a wider audience, and offer space for voices not often heard in mainstream media.
Part of that search to offer an alternative platform was manifested in an October event I helped organize in Brooklyn — Public Education Nation, with the Network for Public Education taking over the space previously occupied by the Gates-funded NBC News project. We heard from real experts – like Newark high school student Tanaisa Brown, Rose Rivera-McCutchen, Carol Burris, Jitu Brown and Diane Ravitch. The event trended to the top on Twitter all day long, showing this alternative to the mainstream message was welcome.
The fast-growing Education Blogger Network is another part of this independent media landscape, and the coming year will hopefully see this group emerge as a real alternative source for news and information on education issues.
I also offer a nod of appreciation to the folks at ReThinking Schools for their pioneering work in establishing an independent space for educators to share important news, curriculum and analysis.
2014 at Living in Dialogue
From the start, I have used this blog to tell the story of reform from the ground up. This story was told in stark clarity by a teacher who asked me to help her get the truth out about the nightmare she had experienced. This first-hand report came from a teacher who was just about to leave her job at a K12 Inc virtual charter school. Fifteen Months in Virtual Charter Hell, a Teacher’s Tale, was a riveting expose of the educational malpractice in these profit-driven schools. A few months later, a tip from a San Diego teacher led me to disturbing video testimony from teachers at a local charter school, where administrative bullying may have contributed to the death of one of their colleagues.
The Gates Foundation Unmasked
The year was also marked by a concerted effort by corporate reformers to “change the conversation.” The Gates Foundation spent more millions paying for media coverage of “what’s working” in reform, to try to help people overlook all the ways in which their favored reforms were actually failing.
But we continued to challenge the Gates reform juggernaut, and saw some interesting cracks in the façade. From the Common Core to the Vergara lawsuit in California, we saw Gates Foundation fingerprints everywhere. In the spring, Gates was invited to speak at the National Board conference, on the heels of a multimillion dollar Gates grant to the organization. I reminded readers of Gates’ previous statements about the teaching profession, and asked if the National Board was coming under his sway.
In July, Gates himself blamed “unmotivated students” for the poor results seen from educational technologies. He also acknowledged that “…capitalism in general, over time, will create more inequality and technology, over time, will reduce demand for jobs….” This suggests that the idea that we will somehow rescue the middle class by sending everyone to college is not for real. In June, I joined several hundred protestors who marched in the streets of Seattle to Gates Foundation headquarters, demanding the behemoth philanthropy divest itself from corporate education reform. In October, my book, The Educator and the Oligarch, a Teacher Challenges the Gates Foundation, was released, thanks to Denny Taylor and Garn Press. If you appreciate this blog, you will enjoy the book.
One of the flagship reforms sponsored by the Gates Foundation, the Common Core standards, moved forward on its destructive path, yielding significantly lower test scores for students in states where Common Core tests were given. Scores were even lower for English learners, African American and Latino students, demonstrating that this reform that was sold as a boon to civil rights is actually causing great harm.
Another aspect of reform heavily promoted by Gates has been educational technology and data gathering in order to “personalize learning.” The Common Core was revealed to be, in part, designed to enable such technologies, and we began to see the outlines of the not-so-brave new world these digital devices were bringing to our classrooms.
New (and Not So New) Paradigms
As the movement against test-driven, market-driven reforms gained strength, we saw “new paradigms” for accountability offered up. In years past, I might have seen these proposals in a more positive light, as incremental improvements. But after a decade of such disastrous reforms, dialing the disaster down a notch or two has lost its appeal. This proposal from Marc Tucker centered on the idea that “fewer, better tests” would solve our problems. Another from Linda Darling-Hammond, Gene Wilhoit and Linda Pittenger, alsofell far short of a truly new framework, since it was built on the same foundation of top down management guided by measurable outcomes.
Digging Beneath the Surface of Phony Reforms
This year I tried to go beyond the surface rhetoric of the corporate reformers, to better understand the dystopia they were bringing into our schools. The economic arguments simply did not hold water, so what is the real objective here? Some economic trends emerged as hugely important – the continued concentration of wealth, coupled with a dramatic reduction in the need for labor as a result of technology, creates a highly unstable and unjust society. In this context, I began to understand the role our education system was being shaped to play – that of rationalizing inequity. When we “raise the bar” so high that only a third of our students can pass over it, we have, in effect, designated the remaining two thirds as unworthy of college or career. In a time of shrinking opportunity, this has an important social function – though not one that can be seen as just. When a researcher proposed using genetic markers to sort students according to their levels of “resilience” this provided an explicit connection to the eugenic roots of the standardized testing mania.
Looking Forward to 2015
Teachers in Chicago continued to provide us with a powerful model of united action, as they passed a resolution opposing the Common Core. Their powerful stand, and that of other teacher activists in groups like the Badass Teachers Association, the Network for Public Education, and United Opt Out, led me to think about the possible historic role teachers may play in the growing challenge to the new American plutocracy.
We do need a new paradigm – for accountability, for our economy, for the way we treat the environment, the way we treat one another, and especially the way we educate our children. We will gather in Chicago in April at the Network for Public Education conference, and learn from one another once again. Sarah Lahm offered a post yesterday suggesting that 2015 be the Year of the Student, and to that I say yes. Let’s follow the lead of our students, and our teachers as well, and make 2015 the year we finally end the error of corporate reform.
What do you think? What were your lessons from 2014? What do you hope to see coming around the corner as the new year arrives?
For more go to http://www.livingindialogue.com/
Anthony Cody worked in the high poverty schools of Oakland, California, for 24 years, 18 of them as a middle school science teacher. He was one of the organizers of the Save Our Schools March in Washington, DC in 2011 and he is a founding member of The Network for Public Education. A graduate of UC Berkeley and San Jose State University, he now lives in Mendocino County, California.