Network for Public Education

Strengthening Public Education in the Face of Relentless Assaults

Hundreds of teachers, parents, students, school board members and other public education advocates gathered in Raleigh, North Carolina on April 16 and 17  for “And Justice for All: Strengthening Public Education for Each Child,” the third annual conference sponsored by the Network for Public Education and its political advocacy affiliate NPE Action.

The mission of the Network for Public Education is to “protect, preserve, promote, and strengthen public schools and the education of current and future generations of students.” It was founded by education historian and author Diane Ravitch as a way to mobilize supporters of public education in opposition to powerful forces that promote privatization and other “reforms” that undermine public education as a core democratic institution.

Rev. William Barber, who heads the North Carolina NAACP and has because a hero to progressive advocates for his inspirational leadership of the Moral Mondays movement, gave a rousing opening keynote before heading to Washington, D.C. to take part in the Democracy Awakening. Barber said public schools are “where we learn to be a public” and develop a “common civic identity.” But, he said, “racism always gets in the way of us meeting the noble goals of public education.”

“We’ve seen this before,” Barber said of attacks on public education combined with tax cuts for the wealthy. He recounted the history of resistance to Brown v. Board of Education and racial redistricting of school districts, noting that schools are re-segregating in high poverty areas today faster than they did in the 1970s.  He said school reforms that contribute to separate and unequal school systems are “giving in to the vision of Plessy v. Ferguson.”

Among the more than 45 panels and workshops was a conversation with two members of People For the American Way Foundation’s Young Elected Officials Network, State Sen. Dwight Bullard from south Florida, and County Commissioner Jessica Holmes from Wake County, North Carolina, with PFAW Director of Outreach and Partner Engagement Diallo Brooks acting as moderator.

Bullard, the only classroom teacher in the state legislature, said that bad education policies are moving through the legislature for a variety of reasons: some of his fellow legislators are naïve about education policy and some have family and financial ties to charter school operations.  Bullard said that even though the state government has expanded so-called school choice provisions, the “house of cards is falling apart” when it comes to overzealous testing that harms students’ education. He said dissatisfaction with the overuse of high-stakes testing offers opportunities for coalition building, noting that a recent press conference included liberal legislators, members of the teachers union, and Tea Party activists.

Holmes said that she is a first generation college student attributing her success to “amazing, wonderful public school teachers.” She described herself as a reluctant politician, but urged other participants to consider becoming policymakers as a way to make a real difference.  In a state that ranks near the bottom of the scale for teacher pay, she said, she worked to win approval for the largest education budget in her county’s history, while also developing support for early childhood development. Meanwhile, at the state level, millions in tax dollars were diverted to unaccountable private schools through vouchers.  

The panelists said that supporters of public education must respond to the amount of money and political influence wielded by privatization advocates with on-the-ground organizing that can provide public officials with both incentive and cover to do the right thing.

Another topic of conversation was the damage caused by the explosion of high-stakes testing and the diversion of educational time and resources to test taking. Speakers argued that testing should be used to identify areas of needed improvement for students, not as simplistic evaluation tools that label students and schools as failing. The “test and punish” approach has set up teachers and schools to be declared failures by implementing high-stakes tests without resources and professional development.

Another keynoter, Seattle teacher and blogger Jesse Hagopian, noted that when Washington state declined to tie teacher evaluation to student test scores, former Education Secretary Arne Duncan revoked a waiver from unrealistic standards under the No Child Left Behind Act. As a result, nearly every school in the state, including some of its best, was classified as “failing.” School officials sent parents a letter required by the federal government informing them that their school was now classified as failing, but included a cover letter explaining that NCLB was “regressive and punitive” and that the designation was bogus.

Among other topics covered at the conference:

  • alternatives to increasing privatization and of public school systems, including proven community schools approaches that use schools as a vehicle for addressing broader community needs;
  • the impact of charter schools’ disproportionate use of suspensions and other “zero-tolerance” policies against students of color;
  • the role of the American Legislative Exchange Council in promoting right-wing attacks on public education in state legislatures.  North Carolina’s Tom Tillis was ALEC “Legislator of the Year” before the Koch brothers helped finance his successful campaign for the U.S. Senate;
  • the growing movement among educators to resist high-stakes tests and an opt-out movement among parents and students.

A number of speakers denounced HB2, the recently enacted North Carolina law that overturned Charlotte’s nondiscrimination ordinance – and banned localities from passing their own protections against discrimination as well as living wage ordinances.

People For the American Way Foundation board member Bertis Downs is also a member of NPE’s board of directors, said the conference was a “big success” in bringing together advocates from around the country to meet and compare notes with fellow activists. Downs praised the quality of the presentations and the fact that many of the workshops and all of the keynote speeches were livestreamed and are being archived online at www.schoolhouselive.org.

 

PFAW

Rating States' Commitment To Public Education

In the wake of National School Choice Week, the Brookings Institution released a report card on the largest school districts, which were ranked according to how open the districts are to school choice. That reflects a common assertion among education “reformers” that maximizing choice will always be best for students, a presumption also evident in scorecards from right-wing groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council and corporate-minded reform groups like Students First.

But such an assumption is not true. We know that charter schools, for example, have a mixed record of success and failure. And a recent report from scholars at Berkeley, Duke, and MIT found that the test scores of Louisiana students who won a voucher to attend a private school “dropped precipitously in their first year of attending private school, compared to the performance of lottery losers.”

This week the Network for Public Education released a different kind of report card, one that grades all 50 states and the District of Columbia according to how well they support their public schools. “Valuing Public Education: A Fifty State Report Card” was released at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., where Network for Public Education co-founder and president, education historian Diane Ravitch, and NPE Executive Director Carol Burris spoke about the report.

Ravitch said the NPR report is based on factors that have proven to be important to the success of public schools. The report draws on the work of the University of Arizona’s Francesca Lopez and a team of researchers. They identified 29 measurable factors that could be used to evaluate states on six criteria: use of high-stakes testing; professionalization of teaching; resistance to privatization; school finance; spending taxpayer resources wisely; and “chance for success.” The latter category recognizes that factors outside schools that are influenced by policymaking decisions also have a big impact on schools and students, such as the percentage of children living in poverty even though someone in the household works full time, and the extent to which schools are segregated racially and ethnically.

Grading in the report is tough: while some states receive “A” grades in particular categories, no state earns higher than a C overall, and a majority were graded D or F. Ravitch said those scores reflect in part the impact of the “unprecedented assault” that is being waged against public education and the teaching profession, as well as the “unconscionable” number of American children now living in poverty.

Burris, a 2013 New York state high school principal of the year, said improving a school is hard work and happens incrementally over time – “there are no silver bullets.”

Regarding school finances, she said, the report considers not only funding levels but whether money is spent on things that are known to make a difference, such as class size in elementary schools.

Ravitch said that the current policy framework grounded in high-stakes testing has proven to be a failure, and that standardized tests in general reflect income levels more than anything else. Burris said that closing the opportunity gap is essential to closing the achievement gap, noting that schools with a high percentage of children in poverty need resources like social workers, guidance counselors, and nurses. But many poorer schools have been “stripped clean” of those resources, said Ravitch.

The report, “Valuing Public Education: A 50 State Report Card” is available online, and as an interactive map.

PFAW

Mobilizing to Defend and Strengthen Public Education

I wish politicians and pundits who make a habit of railing against teachers and public schools had spent some time at the conference put on by the Network for Public Education (NPE) last weekend.  The organization’s first national conference brought together about 400 teachers, scholars, education bloggers, and activists to learn from and encourage each other, and to strategize on how to push back against the assault on public education.

The passion that fueled the high-energy gathering was not teacher pay or pensions. It was a commitment to students, teaching, and the future of public education as an institution that serves all children and helps prepare young people for life.

There was also plenty of anger and frustration at the status quo: budget cuts, diversion of energy and funds into various privatization plans, and a vast amount of time being taken away from teaching to satisfy ever-increasing demands for high-stakes standardized tests.

At the end of the two-day conference in Austin, Texas, NPE called for congressional hearings on the use, misuse, and abuse of standardized testing in America’s public schools. In a letter to members of Congress, the group urged them to examine 11 questions about the quality, costs, and effectiveness of such tests. The letter, which has drawn some surprising support, concludes:

We believe that every child in the United States deserves a sound education. We are deeply concerned that the current overemphasis on standardized testing is harming children, public schools, and our nation’s economic and civic future. It’s our conclusion that the over-emphasis, misapplication, costs, and poor implementation of high-stakes standardized tests may now warrant federal intervention. We urge Congress to pursue the questions we have raised.

After the conference, NPE board member Bertis Downs, who also serves on PFAW’s board, published a compelling open letter to President Obama inviting the president to consider the harmful impacts of excessive high-stakes testing and other educational policies backed by the administration.

A primary focus of the conference was the heavily funded corporate “reform” movement that pushes for increased testing and expanded “school choice” via vouchers, charters, and virtual schools. That push comes in the context of massive cuts to public education, particularly in states where Tea Party Republicans took power in recent years, including Pennsylvania and North Carolina. And huge sums are being diverted to for-profit companies through tax credit schemes and lucrative contracts.  In Texas, for example, the state has a five-year, $500 million contract with testing giant Pearson, the world’s biggest for-profit education corporation.

Saturday’s keynote speeches were by Karen Lewis of the Chicago Teachers Union and John Kuhn, who as a Texas school district superintendent might be considered by some a more surprising speaker. Kuhn gave a barn-burner of a speech on behalf of public education and the children it serves. Kuhn is the author of a new book, part memoir and part pro-public-education manifesto, called Fear and Learning in America: Bad Data, Good Teachers, and the Attack on Public Education.

“I am here speaking for one reason. I care about my country, I care about the future, and I love my children,” he said. “Anything that weakens the public schools in the United States of America weakens the nation.”

Kuhn slammed the ongoing political efforts to divert more public funds to for-profit charter chains and voucher schools that are not required to serve all children, as well as the underlying premise that educational opportunity will be improved by turning education into a system based on competition.  In education, he says, competition breeds marketing and cost-cutting and search for competitive advantage.  Competition doesn’t necessarily result in excellence, he said. “If it did, our fast food restaurants would serve the healthiest food around.”

Sunday’s keynoter was Diane Ravitch, widely considered America’s finest education historian. Ravitch, an NPE board member, served as an assistant secretary of education in the first Bush administration, but she has since become an energetic critic of the corporate reform movement, saying it is based on ideology rather than evidence, and that it threatens to destroy public education in America.  Ravitch’s most recent book is Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools, which Jonathan Kozol calls “a fearless book, a manifesto and a call to battle.” Ravitch’s speech was also a manifesto and call to battle against the corporate-reform “juggernaut” that is “devouring education.” 

While conference participants shared a burning desire to change the conversation and push back on efforts to dismantle and privatize public education, there wasn’t always unanimity among participants. A panel on Common Core, for example, featured a number of educators who are strongly opposed, but also included American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, who defended the standards as a way to build broader public support for a public education system that serves the common good.

At the conference, more than two dozen panels focused on a wide range of issues regarding the future of public education, including teacher preparation, the role of parents, the impact of educational corporations and foundations promoting privatization, the importance of truth-telling academic research and investigative reporting, and organizing and communications strategies.

A consistent theme at the conference was the imperative to better serve high-needs students living in conditions of concentrated poverty. Socioeconomic status is a major predictor of success on standardized tests, but the corporate reform movement often dismisses talk about the impact of poverty and inequities as excuse-making.  “They want us to say that poverty and segregation and policies that continue to foment that should not matter,” said the CTU’s Lewis. “Well, yeah, that would be lovely. They should not matter. But they do.”

Among the organizations offering resources was the Opportunity to Learn campaign. For example, Opportunity to Learn challenges school closures as a reform tactic and provides examples of alternatives that have proven effective in strengthening public schools.  Among those strategies is creating “community schools” by wrapping schools and students in social and family support services.

In spite of the huge challenges and relentless attacks on public education, the conference as a whole, like Ravitch’s speech, had a kind of David vs. Goliath optimism.  She devoted part of her speech to educational heroes. Among them was the Providence Student Union, which has engaged in creative protest and street theater against tests required for students to graduate. In one high-profile project, the group recruited 50 prominent Rhode Islanders to take the math tests students would have to pass to graduate from high school; 60 percent of the adult professionals failed.

Ravitch said that the tactics of those who are out to destroy public education are failing, and that parents and educators are mobilizing to build public opposition to “reforms” that are based on “junk science.”

There’s no question the facts are on our side. But we have to shape the narrative. And the narrative is, we have a great public institution. Our public schools are not failing. If you’ve read my last book you know that the test scores today are the highest they’ve ever been in history for white, black, Hispanic and Asian children. The graduation rates are the highest they’ve ever been in history. The dropout rates are the lowest they’ve ever been in history. So their narrative is a lie…We are defending American democracy. We are defending children. We are fighting for what’s right….

She called for parents and others to be active both in advocacy and in politics.

So my message is, first of all, be not afraid. Be strong. …. Speak proudly of our children. Our children are amazing -- the fact that they’re able to put up with all the garbage that’s being thrown at them. And get political…Run for office. Get involved. We cannot win unless we throw some of these guys out of office….I’m 75 years old…I’m not gonna be here forever….Who’s gonna take my place? My answer is, “you will.”

….We will reclaim our schools as kind and friendly places for teaching and learning. Not profit centers for corporations and entrepreneurs and snake-oil salesmen, and consultants. We are many, and they are few, and this is why we will win.

PFAW