Taking time in the summer to decompress from the academic year and to process the maelstrom of influences and ideas that are constantly warring within education, it has been hard to focus on a particular narrative. Maybe that is the whole point of recess – to let the dust settle and to try to rejuvenate ourselves for a new beginning in September. Yet ‘maelstrom’ doesn't seem too strong a word to use in referring to the ongoing struggle between reform and tradition, austerity and abundance, poverty and affluence. My use of ‘and’, not ‘versus’ is deliberate: we have to live with all of these realities, somehow reconcile them, take the best from wherever we can find it, and form alliances instead of adversarial factions.
Talking with fellow teachers and education professionals, reading the passionate, desperate, outraged, heart-felt critiques of the current EdReform direction of education in America, the question that haunts me is – “Why are we, the professionals, playing defense to a bunch of business moguls and data crunchers who think that they can reduce our children to a simplistic, one size fits all common denominator? Especially when that common denominator happens to be the least significant measure of what it means to live a rich, civilized, meaningful, productive life in the 21st Century?”
Reading letters from disillusioned Principals, crushed, resigning teachers; excoriations from union-busting legislators and think tanks; commercial textbook publishers with abominable curriculum guides that will solve all your discipline problems and raise your test scores in one easy package – sure, it’s hard to keep hope alive.
But recently, something interesting has been happening in Mexico. While there are certain issues there which don’t have exact parallels here in the U.S., the point is that, rather than despairing of the possibility that anyone will listen to reason – as we seem to – the teachers there are striking, in a very big way! A friend from the organization ‘Grassroots Education Movement’ (www.gemnyc.org) published a link to press accounts of actions in Mexico City and around that entire country in response to new reforms put in place by the new Government of President Enrique Pena Nieto. Teacher evaluation is high on his agenda, along with tests for teacher quality, and many of the ideas seem culled from the Obama/Duncan/Gates (et al) playbook.
It would be unfair to suggest that Educators here have been taking things lying down – the success of the Chicago Teachers Union and efforts by reasonable people from all areas of academia and research to push back against useless and untried (or long disproven) theories has been Herculean, for example. But teachers as a whole, ill represented by their elected officials, isolated in their classrooms, demoralized by constant attacks on their profession, and ultimately afraid of losing their jobs in a fragile economy, have felt powerless. Does the solidarity in Mexico teach us anything? How did they achieve critical mass? What can we learn from their example? Safety in numbers, the willingness to risk everything for what they believe is right. Instead of whispering on blogs and Op Eds, they are standing up for their conviction that this is not the way forward for the future of our children,
Differing from them in some specifics – such as issues of patronage, corruption, and funding that eclipse ours, nevertheless we are united against union-busting, imposition of teacher evaluation based on flawed testing, attacks on teacher tenure and sterile curriculum trends..
For a more detailed account of the issues in Mexico:
If we believe that excessive testing, the imposition of manic curricula, the dumbing down of education for the sake of data points and analysis, and the removal of a broad based, hands on, enriched, experiential, healthy school setting are catastrophic for the majority of our children – then why are we not out in the streets protesting too? Why were the majority of voters in the last UFT election retired teachers? And why did that apathy permit a default win by the caucus of appeasement (Unity) against the caucus of action and enlightenment (MORE: http://morecaucusnyc.org/)?
In this coming year, with the prospect of Mayoral change locally, and Midterm elections nationally, we cannot let apathy and fear prevent us from standing up for what is right. Given the educational mayhem in Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit, NYC and hundreds of smaller jurisdictions, large scale action is becoming the last and only hope of those who believe in Public Education and an educated electorate as the foundation of enlightened citizenship. And a great life!