Revolution #245, September 11, 2011

"Save Our Schools" (SOS) and the Sharpening Struggle Around Education

From a group of educators and Revolution newspaper readers investigating the situation in the schools. In the near future they hope to write more extensively on education.

On Saturday, July 29, teachers, parents and education activists across the U.S. rallied in at least 12 cities, brought together by the major teachers unions under the name Save Our Schools (SOS). Washington, D.C. was the scene of the largest of the gatherings—3,000 to 5,000 teachers and allies demonstrated, spoke and marched. The rally was part of a four-day event including a two-day conference at American University with dozens of workshops, such as “Winning the Testing War” and "Dismantling the School-to-Prison Pipeline." There was also a strategy session and film festival featuring a documentary called The Inconvenient Truth About Waiting for Superman, in response to the 2010 film, Waiting for Superman, which promotes charter schools and attacks public education and public school teachers.

This is a time of great turmoil and sharpening struggle around education in the U.S., and SOS is one response to that. In 2001 the George W. Bush administration, with overwhelming support from Democrats and Republicans, passed the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation. NCLB came in the context of a decades-long process of undermining the legitimacy of public schools, the development and funding of alternative schools such as religious schools through the use of vouchers, and the creation of models for a new kind of privatized public school funded by corporations like Walmart and the Bill Gates Foundation operating on principles of business "accountability." NCLB greatly intensified the effort to reshape education to fit the needs of a more parasitic globalized U.S. capitalism, with its increased polarization of wealth, “runaway shops,” the abandonment of the inner cities, millions of youths, especially Black and Latino youth, cast into a pit with no future.

Under No Child Left Behind, standardized testing has become the new touchstone of education, ushering in an era of teaching to a script. Under NCLB and its successor, Obama's Race to the Top, schools, teachers, administrators are not judged by how well students learn about the world nor in how students develop creative, problem-solving or critical thinking abilities, but rather rote memorization and success in cultural and class-biased tests. Teachers who value their students and see their role as nurturing thoughtful and knowledgeable young people have long bridled at the straitjacket of testing and recognize its role in strangling real education and public education—one that recognizes education as a human right.

Many educators had put their hopes on the 2008 elections. "We had reason to believe from his campaign promises that Obama was going to reverse the damage that this law [NCLB, ed.] has caused," said Jonathan Kozol, a public education activist, author and participant in the SOS rally in Washington. "He has betrayed us. That's why we are here today." In fact, Obama's Race to the Top school policy is a marked intensification of the policies of the Bush regime with the addition of heavy attacks on teachers, tenure, seniority and teachers unions. NCLB reforms have failed to achieve even the limited and distorted goals of higher test scores. Rather, they have set off a competition among schools for limited funds which has resulted in widespread cheating and dishonest manipulation of statistics, not by students, but by those administering the tests. All the while teachers and teachers unions have become the scapegoats for this failure and a cover for slashing of public education funds.

At their rallies the SOS organizers handed out Guiding Principles that reflect some of the contentious issues in education, including such demands as equitable funding for all public school communities; an end to high-stakes testing; an end to school evaluation and public school closures based on test performance; teacher, family and community leadership in forming public education policies and an end to political and corporate control of curriculum, instruction and assessment decisions for teachers and administrators; and a well-rounded education that develops every student's intellectual, creative, and physical potential.

Several Bay Area teachers and supporters of Revolution newspaper traveled to Sacramento to join one of the Save Our Schools rallies. About 200 to 300 teachers, students, administrators and others came to Sacramento from as far away as San Diego, Fullerton and Chico. We went there to support this struggle, engage with fellow teachers and others rallying there, learn from their experiences and concerns and better understand the struggles around education.

We found a great deal of receptivity and openness—not only a willingness, but an anxiousness in many cases to talk about the state of education, its relationship to issues such as poverty, war, mass imprisonment, and racism, and even what education would look like in a revolutionary society. The following are some comments taken from conversations with teachers and students from Sacramento, and other comments gathered from press accounts from the rally in D.C., to give Revolution readers a sense of the concerns and thinking among educators and students.


A Cal State Fullerton student:
"The way the school system works, most people, minorities, are not allowed to learn their own culture—they have to learn a very Anglo, colonialist literature and understanding of the world, and through that we can really appreciate one another as humans, and the environment around us. And with all the major issues going on around global warming, the wars, poverty, hunger, racism, fascism, patriarchy—there are too many major issues to have them all shoved under the rug in the name of standardized testing, and standardization and math and science without really focusing on us, as humans. So that's why I am out here—not just on getting more funding but shifting the funding and the focus on education, and away from this very business model."

A preschool teacher from the Sacramento area:
"I've worked for the district about seven years. The reason why I came out here was to support my families—my students are the first time into education—their first school experience. For some of my families they are Head Start parents, low income, living in the Title One area—so sometimes school wasn't the most positive experience themselves. So I'm trying to show that (lack of) education is a double loss and in preschool we set the foundation. I want to say don't cut it, I wish that preschool was open to everyone in the state of California, no matter what your income. I hear people say teachers should be evaluated on what their children know. There's a whole different factor of where the child comes from. If there is no support at home how can you be evaluated on that student getting their needs? Why should that kindergarten teacher be evaluated because of the students who don't know their shapes, colors, how to spell their names because they never had the support at home. I just don't think it is fair."

Cal State Fullerton student:
"We're seeing the encroachment of the private sector on public education, specifically higher education.... Recently we had a 22% increase in tuition... When it comes to what the students are fighting for, I think that is one of the most fundamental issues at hand because it affects the students. But there is also that greater underlining issues of the structuring of education which starts at kindergarten. We have an education that focused in an ethno-centric kind of way—a lack of attention to critical thinking—and it is more about providing a worker for the workforce to make economic profit. It is not something that allows the citizenry to become critically engaged and make constructive, positive decisions."

From speeches at the DC rally:

Diane Ravitch, former head of the U.S. Department of Education and an opponent of school privatization:
"What we call 'accountability' now is just totally unreliable numbers that are meaningless in terms of the lives of children and the careers of teachers."

Cody Anthony, Oakland educator:
"Teachers are in an inescapable ethical bind. We know that the tests do not measure critical thinking... As a science teacher, I believe that the essence of science is the exploration of the natural world. It is all about inquiry: asking good questions, and then using all the tools we can muster to investigate and answer those questions."

Matt Damon, actor:
"I said before that I had incredible teachers. And that's true. But it's more than that. My teachers were EMPOWERED to teach me. Their time wasn't taken up with a bunch of test prep—this silly drill and kill nonsense that any serious person knows doesn't promote real learning. No, my teachers were free to approach me and every other kid in that classroom like an individual puzzle. They took so much care in figuring out who we were and how to best make the lessons resonate with each of us. They were empowered to unlock our potential. They were allowed to be teachers."

Linda Darling-Hammond, Stanford University education professor:
"Our leaders seek to solve the problem of the poor by blaming the teachers and schools that seek to serve them, calling the deepening levels of poverty an 'excuse,' rewarding schools that keep out and push out the highest-need students, and threatening those who work with new immigrant students still learning English and the growing number of those who are homeless, without health care and without food. Are there lower scores in under-resourced schools with high-need students? Fire the teachers and the principals. Close the schools. Don't look for supports for their families and communities, equitable funding for their schools, or investments in professional learning."


The battle over the schools and the education system is literally a battle for the future. The deeper one looks into the way U.S. education is being shaped by powerful economic and political interests, the more one sees, not only the need for resistance, but also the need to look beyond a rotten and decaying system to a kind of society that raises instead of crushes human potential.

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