Are You Ready to Die Empty?

This past weekend in Brooklyn, I had the opportunity to spend some time with Diane Ravitch and many other heroes of public education. We were gathered for a Network for Public Education (NPE) project that left me buoyed about the future of public education. For those who might not know, the NPE is a national grassroots public education advocacy group founded by Diane Ravitch and Anthony Cody. I won’t go into the details of the project, but here’s an NPE notice about it.

It was to say the least, an amazing experience! I heard Texas Superintendent John Kuhn speak eloquently about how “education malpractice doesn’t start in the schoolhouse, it starts in the statehouse.” I had first heard of John Kuhn when he gained national prominence by speaking at the Save Texas Schools Rally in 2011. I was excited to meet John and he didn’t disappoint. He is incredibly articulate and passionate and as a dedicated education professional, knows of what he speaks firsthand. During his session, he brilliantly made the point that “naming and shaming teachers, while shielding legislators” to fulfill their responsibility to our children is unconscionable. Or as he later asked in another way, why is it that we use a microscope to analyze outcomes of our public schools, but wear a blindfold to look at the input?” Of course this was a rhetorical question, John knows it’s because we can’t stand the answer.

Next “up to bat” was Jesse Hagopian, a teacher from Seattle. I hadn’t previously heard of Jesse, but he was equally impressive. He said “we are turning the teaching profession into a one size fits all” factory that fails students and demoralizes teachers. He asked the audience (dozens of volunteers who had come from all over the country), whose side are they on? He said he is “on the side of the students, the teachers, and the parents, against the corporate takeover of public education.” Our country “has massive problems” he said, “that can’t be solved by circling in a bubble on a standardized test.”

Johanna Garcia was next up and as a Latino single mom she has learned that no matter how hard she works to provide for her children, the system is not predisposed in their favor. She has learned that “by taking the standardized tests, ”you are saying yes to being reduced to the money in your wallet.“ Because, she says, the tests are designed to rack and stack students and those on the low-end of the socio-economic scale will more often than not – because of the challenges poverty puts in their way – score on the low-end. She now advocates for parents to ”opt-out” of the standardized tests as a way to not allow your children to be used by a system that is increasingly rigged against them.

We also heard from Jitu Brown who is a community organizer, parent, grandparent and public education advocate in Chicago. In fact, I had first heard of Jitu when he and other activists participated in a 37-day hunger strike to keep Dyett High School from being closed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel. This was a school that had great community engagement and was making incredible progress in rewriting their narrative, but was still slated for closure. In the end, the activists won and the school remained open. He made the point that “the way you destroy a community, is to destroy its institutions.” He told us that it wasn’t just the impending closure that spurred the hunger strike, but the systemic inequity. Like the fact that a public elementary school on the north side of Chicago offered their students Mandarin Chinese, Arabic and Spanish; where every teacher had a teacher aid; where there was a full-time nurse, social workers, speech therapist, and drama teacher. Yet on the Southside, children ate lunch under the stairs due to overcrowding, there was one teacher aide in the entire building, and for the part-time Spanish instructor, they had to give up a librarian. “The trust we’ve given this system” he said, “has been betrayed.” Jitu also left us with some hope though, as he said that each of us can make a difference, especially parents. The key though for activists and organizers, is to “meet parents where they are, not where you want them to be.” Find what parents want, and help them get that, no matter how small it might be, because small wins will turn into big wins. And, he said, target those who can actually give you what you want, or, as I’ve heard it said before, never take a no from someone not empowered to tell you yes.

The pièce de résistance however, was Diane herself. She started out by saying that, “the latest and most serious threat to our public schools is DeVos” and her privatization agenda. The privatization effort she said, has become a “steamroller turning our citizens into consumers.” And like John Kuhn did, she made the point that “we have a culture in our schools now that suppresses the joy of learning and of teaching.” That, “test scores of 15 year olds are not a predictor of either their’s, or our nation’s future.” And that, “the achievement gap construct – created by standardized tests designed for some kids to fail” – does nothing to help them succeed. She also pointed out that “a nation ”that doesn’t trust its teachers’ judgement, will never have a great education system.”

Diane certainly wasn’t all doom and gloom however, highlighting the silver linings in DeVos’ selection as SecED. The DeVos appointment has galvanized public education advocates like never before, with membership in NPE skyrocketing from only 22,000 to 350,000 during the DeVos hearings and since then. She has also done us a favor in “taking away the false veneer of charter schools” and bringing together people from different communities to solve the problems.

That’s one of my main takeaways from this past weekend. DeVos and her buddies (of which Governor Ducey is undoubtedly one), may have the big bucks, but we’ve got the people, and better yet, we’ve got the parents. The parents of the 90% of America’s public school students who attend community schools with locally elected, fully transparent and accountable, governing boards. We’ve also got incredibly dedicated, passionate, selfless advocates such as the ones I’ve mentioned, that are standing up and speaking out for our kids not because they seek power or money, but just because they believe that every child deserves every opportunity to succeed.

My other main takeaway is that we must be vigilant and have great stamina to win this fight because with $700 billion on the line, these corporate raiders will not go quietly into the night. They no doubt, believe they can buy our democracy right out from under our noses, one schoolhouse brick at a time. As Miranda Beard, the past president of the National School Boards Association inspirationally said though at this year’s annual conference, “I will die empty to prevail in this fight.” Will you?

Note: if you are interested in grassroots public education advocacy here in Arizona, you can join us at Support Our Schools Az . You can join Diane’s national group at the Network for Public Education.

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