School photo by Elizabeth Albert
It's the time of year when reporters, pundits, and analysts track down "experts" in their respected fields to explain what to make of the year just past and what to look forward to in the new one.
In education, the question almost always seems to focus on what to do to "fix" the nation's schools. But the "experts" called upon to expound on that weighty question are rarely people who work in those schools, students who attend them, or parents who send their children there or get involved in pushing to support the schools.
Sometimes this elevated expertise can have interesting and enlightening things to say. But the ideas of experts—including Common Core Standards, evaluating teachers with standardized test scores, and teacher merit pay—are often perceived very differently by the folks who have to implement these ideas and deal with their consequences. After all, some of the best ideas for fixing a broken system often come from those who know the system most intimately.
The Progressive created the Education Fellows program to bring into the national debate on education the important voices of people working on the ground to improve our schools. Here’s what some of our Fellows have to say about the struggle:
- In 2015, what happened in your classroom, school, or community that made the year memorable and significant?
- What will your work and advocacy focus on in the year ahead?
Peter Greene, Midwest Regional Fellow
This year in my out-of-the way corner of Pennsylvania we've seen charter schools sucking the blood out of local schools, leading to program, building and staff cuts. People are starting to realize that school districts are not mismanaging their finances, but are being stripped of resources.
From attending the Network for Public Education conference in Chicago, and through the growing readership of my blog, I've become aware of the vast web of teachers and public education advocates who are passionate about doing the right thing for students and giving students the education that each one deserves. It's heartening to see how many people are working hard to do the work of teaching America's students, no matter what the local obstacles they may face.
In my work as a teacher, January is always an invigorating time because I've gotten to know my students, and I can start to focus my teaching on what they most need. I've had a chance to build trust and respect, and we know each other well enough to settle into a good working relationship. The challenge of public education advocacy is that we don't have anything dramatic or world-shifting to advocate for. In the crowd of reformsters hawking miracle weight-loss pills, magical fat-erasing machines, and radical surgical body remakes, we're the people calling for regular exercise and a sensible diet. In the face of hollering and "chicken-littling," it's a challenge to stay clear and to advocate for the work rather than take one “side” or the other. And we have to do a better job of articulating what that work is so people understand it as a viable alternative..
The reformsters, meanwhile, will move on to the next batch of miracles. Watch for miraculous personalized objective-based education, and watch as ESSA turns the national education debate into fifty-some separate state-level debates. And as always, watch for education debates to be proxies for larger debates about the future of democracy itself. Too often the education discussion involves folks (both left and right) stepping in to speak for non-white, non-wealthy communities.. "Just shush – we'll tell you what kind of schools you need," does not belong in a discussion about American schools.
Sarah Lahm, Northcentral Regional Fellow
Minneapolis was home to many incredible advocacy stories in 2015, including the stunning community-led pushback against Utah-based curriculum company Reading Horizons that was selected to be the district’s new phonics curriculum provider for K-3 students. Teachers discovered the books were filled with images and storylines that were shockingly racist, sexist, and classist. I interviewed two teachers for my blog Bright Light Small City and the resulting series of posts helped ignite community uproar. Eventually—through school board meeting demonstrations, petitions, impassioned testimony, and unrelenting pressure—the Minneapolis Public Schools cancelled its contract with Reading Horizons, sending the Utah company a clear message:
Minnesota’s schools are becoming increasingly racially and economically segregated, even as the state’s population is rapidly diversifying. In 2016, this fact will be publicly challenged by a class action lawsuit accusing the state of providing a separate and unequal education for public school students because of policies that have favored school choice over integration since the 1990’s. Alongside the pending lawsuit, Minnesota’s Department of Education has proposed, for the first time ever, that the state’s charter schools be required to develop integration plans if they have a concentration of non-white students. These two actions cast an uncomfortable light on the “promise” of school choice, and are forcing Minnesota residents, particularly in Minneapolis and St. Paul, to consider whether or not segregated schools can deliver “separate but equal” access to a high quality education.
Julian Vasquez Heilig, Westcoast Regional Fellow
Last year, my most rewarding advocacy activities involved the California Hawaii NAACP. After I was elected state conference education chair, my first action was to usher in a number of state resolutions. The first supports parent rights to protest high stakes test by opting out their children from the tests.,The second resolution limits the powers of school resource officers, the law enforcement officers placed in schools for security reasons. Research shows the presence of these officers is closely associated with higher numbers of student suspensions and more students being pushed into the criminal justice system. So limiting their powers to intrude in school discipline issues will help alleviate the negative effects of these officers. The third resolution was in support of multiple measure approaches for evaluating students, schools, and districts. Using measures of performance other than or in addition to standardized test scores leads to more balanced and robust judgements about education outcomes and potentially reduces teaching to the tests and curriculum narrowing that often accompany overemphasis on test-score based evaluations.
My second act was to meet with community members in Los Angeles about the incessant pressure from Eli Broad and top-down education “reformers” to privately control all of the schools in Los Angeles Unified. The experience I treasure the most was training California Hawaii NAACP youth to be advocates for social justice in social and traditional media.
My research and advocacy in the year ahead will focus on community-based solutions for education reform instead of what's dominated the last decade of educational policy in the United States: top-down, private control, and privatization reforms such as charter schools, school vouchers, VAM teacher evaluation, parent trigger, and high-stakes testing. These approaches have failed to improve student achievement. In fact, the United States NAEP score growth slowed during the NCLB regime and then lost ground last year for the first time in decades. It’s time for community-based reforms that are democratically determined, led, and implemented by real educational stakeholders. There are many community-based alternatives to the current press for top down policies, including PAR evaluation, in-district community-based magnets and charters, and local accountability dashboards.
Xian Franzinger Barrett, Chicago Fellow
In 2015, I completed a triumphant return to the classroom. I moved from teaching exclusively social studies into teaching writing-based social studies that supports students in using writing to address pain, trauma, and oppression, and share love. Led by 7th grader Jen Nava, my students organized their very own testing justice movement, confronted the president of the unelected Chicago School Board at his home, and did another dozen or so actions with amazing allies throughout Chicago.
2015 was the year that social media and strong youth activism led by folks like BYP100 and STOP/FLY finally got people to acknowledge what the black community and many of us have been saying for a long time: The police are an organized gang that oppresses and murders black youth and adults while also targeting other folks of color, non-gender conforming folks, and people with disabilities. We also organized a grassroots mayoral campaign that got within a few percentage points of taking back our city, and we fought the school-to-prison-pipeline on a number of fronts. It's a year that justice oriented grassroots educator and parent groups like #Educolor and UCORE changed the way people think about unionism and the rights that workers and students of color have in classrooms.
This year, the student movement will grow. Students will put together the first cohesive, student-led, student-conceived education unions to demand food justice, testing justice, restorative justice practices, and an end to corporate-led white supremacist education movements. The teachers unions will have their most contentious conferences in many years, as we will lose the Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association case in the Supreme Court, which is designed to destroy unions. But unions will grow stronger, driven by a national grassroots movement. Classroom level voices will be led by a growing group of practitioners, students, and allies who stop only playing defense against bad and destructive policy and begin a brainstorming, dreaming, and advocacy process that neither accepts the status quo of bad policy nor attempts to return to some halcyon days of yore. This will begin a spinning cycle that will gather momentum toward just schools.
Ashana Brigard, Southcentral Regional Fellow
This year in New Orleans, I did a workshop on structural violence for the New Orleans’ Health Department violence prevention team summit. I had 30 people; 28 between the ages of 15 and 22 plus 2 adults, one a senior citizen. In the workshop, when I referenced Michelle Alexander and the new Jim Crow one of the young people in the workshop raised her hand and asked, “What is Jim Crow?” I very confidently turned to the rest of the room to ask someone to stand up and explain what Jim Crow was. After a few minutes of young people looking at each other, the senior in the back of the room shook his head. One young man finally stood up and said, “I don’t know what it is exactly, but I’m guessing it has something to do with slavery.” I was almost speechless. I realized children don't know their own history, which still very much affects them today. Children need to understand their history to understand themselves.
In the New Year, my primary focus will be on economic justice and having people understand what the New Orleans experiment with a 100 percent charter schools district really looks like on the ground for community, parents, and children, and what we need to do to make it better. I will encourage nonprofits, communities, and parents to oppose legislation on school discipline that leads to criminalizing children. I will encourage schools to do diversity workshops, so they can have an understanding of race, class, and oppression and do a better job working with children of different race and class status. I want school leaders to start understanding how important it is to have people with shared experiences in the same building, but not just as janitors and culinary staff. I will encourage funders to look at how they’re spending money so they can require that any nonprofit operating for a certain population should hire at least one half of their staff from that population, and have them in co-leadership.
Jesse Hagopian, Seattle Fellow
In the 2015-2016 school year, Seattle educators voted unanimously to strike for social justice issues, including more recess for young children, less standardized testing, race and equity teams in the schools, and caseload caps for school psychologists. A majority of the Seattle School Board voted to authorize the superintendent to sue the teachers for striking. One day during the strike, after walking the picket line for hours, I joined several teachers on a break at our food tent. One of our strike captains handed us bowls of soup, “courtesy of the parents,” she told us. Seattle parents had organized a group called Soup for Teachers to deliver soup and solidarity to every school in the city. The group's Facebook page had thousands of followers. The next day our spirits were lifted again as the famed Garfield pep-band marched the picket lines to root on their teachers. That weekend I joined the great Kimya Dawson to host a benefit concert, endorsed and supported by the newly formed Coalition for the Schools Seattle Deserves, to raise funds for the striking teachers. Even the mainstream media reported that parents were in support of the strike. When the strike was over, we had won the removal of standardized test scores from teacher evaluations, a guaranteed minimum of 30 minutes recess in every elementary school, race and equity teams in 30 schools enforceable, and caseload caps for our support staff, such as school psychologists and speech language pathologists. I believe Seattle’s educators taught their students, the city, and even the nation, that solidarity and collective struggle can win social justice victories.
With the definitive proof from our strike that collective struggle can defeat corporate education reform, I will continue to devote my efforts in 2016 to helping parents, students, and educators achieve their vision of the public schools our students deserve. This will mean supporting the students I advise in the Black Student Union as they organize for racial justice. I will push our union to build on the relationships with parents that were forged during the strike to organize joint forums, rallies, and actions to fight for more funding and less standardized testing in our school. I also will help shape the newly won race and equity teams in the school, so that they can become sites of resistance to institutional racism.
Sabrina Joy Stevens, Midatlantic Regional Fellow
I had a baby.
I'm focusing on connecting the dots between education policy and other social and economic issues so that we can start improving students' lives at home and at school.