One of the many carefully orchestrated myths of the corporate “reformers” who have hijacked American education this century is that opposition comes only from the Tea Party and from teachers union ‘dead enders.’ All right-thinking Americans, the myth goes, recognize that our public schools have failed and that education in the United States can only be saved by alternatives like vouchers and charter schools, by public schools staffed by temporary Teach for America instructors, and by imposition of “standards” by an elite that knows what employers need. Led today by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, billionaire Bill Gates, College Board head (and Common Core State Standards creator) David Coleman, and Students First organizer Michelle Rhee, this well-funded “reform” movement has been steamrolling over resistance for years, opponents often destroyed before they even know they are under attack.
A case in point is the recent experience of Bill de Blasio, new mayor of New York City. Diane Ravitch, the doyen of the anti-”reform” movement, notes his surrender to the charter-school movement and asks: “How did a privately managed school franchise that serves a tiny portion of New York’s students manage to hijack the education reforms of a new mayor with a huge popular mandate?” The answer, of course, is money. The money of the “reform” movement has, over the past decade or so, crushed all obstacles.
Over the last year, however, de Blasio’s caving notwithstanding, the situation has begun to change. Parents and teachers and others not beholden to the big money have started fighting back. The reformers attempted to cross a bridge too far by imposing on the states a standardization formula (Coleman’s CCSS) that utilizes high-stakes centralized testing for evaluation of both students and teachers—and that clearly benefits business much more than it does schools. Parents, seeing their children blindsided by a testing regimen making schooling a dreaded experience, are beginning to opt out of the CCSS-sparked standardized tests. Teachers, finally fed up with the vilification of their profession that has become an accepted part of American political discussion and terrified by new evaluation methods that reflect little of what actually goes on in their classrooms, are also finally beginning to resist. The Badass Teachers Association (BAT), organized in 2013, has become central to organizing the frustrated and increasingly marginalized (in terms of education policy) profession.
One of the founders of BAT is Fordham University’s Mark Naison, a professor of African-American Studies and a civil-rights advocate with an activist pedigree going back to the 1960s. He has now written Badass Teachers Unite!: Reflections on Education, History, and Youth Activism (Haymarket Books). Along with Ravitch, Long Island high-school principal Carol Burris and a growing cadre of bloggers, Naison has emerged as one of the leaders of a movement that may, one day, sweep the “reformers” and all of their money from the center of American education, a place they have occupied since the inception of No Child Left Behind in 2002. Money can do a lot but, when it comes to affecting the lives of children, parents and their allies, money may not prove to be everything.
Based on writings published primarily online over the past few years, Naison provides much more than a simple history of the backgrounds of a movement threatening right now to burst into national prominence. He also provides a context of public schools, real American public schools in the Bronx where real education happens, as a counter-argument to the failure meme at the heart of the “reform” movement. He paints a picture of students not as raw material for factory schools but as individuals with their own plans and desires, ones that can be far different from what the “reformers” draw up for them. And he makes clear just what his movement is fighting against: the Common Core standards, “a one-size-fits-all model of learning that is imposed through bribery, intimidation, and extreme political pressure, for the profit of private companies” (96); high-stakes and excessive testing; teacher evaluation based on student test scores; privatization of public education; federal and state mandates on local schools; and teacher rights to collective bargaining.
In his introduction, Naison describes the reason behind his own latest activism, a growing recognition of “the profound illegitimacy of policies wrapped in the mantle of patriotism, philanthropy, and civil rights” (xvii). He writes:
if my voice is unusual among the many speaking up to challenge attacks on teachers and public schools, it stems from my commitment to try to understand current policy initiatives in light of the historic experience of immigrants and people of color in Bronx schools and the history of great human rights struggles in the American past. (xvii)
The genesis of his writing, and of this new movement, lies not in Tea Party activism or in teachers unions. It lies in an American individualism and activism that has been quiescent, these last decades. The corporatist movement, in a stroke of genius, coopted even the language of past mass movements, leaving them word-tied. It even has the nerve to call itself a new civil right crusade. Yet all the while, as Ravitch points out, it is promoting “the re-creation of a dual school system” as diabolic as that destroyed more than half a century ago in Brown v. Board of Education. What Naison, Ravitch, Burris and the others are part of creating in response may be the first genuine populist movement in America since opposition to the Vietnam War.
Whether or not this movement will succeed—it has a difficult task in the face of concerted resistance by American oligarchs of both political parties—remains to be seen. But, sparked by a growing cadre of talented spokespeople like the three I have mentioned here, its chance of creating an effective counter to the monied movement of “reform” grows daily.
Anyone who wants to understand this movement, to be involved in it, to counter it, or just to observe it intelligently, would do well to read Naison’s book. All of us should want to: the conflict between the “reformers” and this new mass movement may well prove to be central to the American history of the next few years.