As I’ve been traveling these past couple of weeks, I’ve developed a renewed appreciation of the Gadsden Flag. No, I haven’t run off to join the Tea Party (one more reason to lament the decline of social studies in our schools…), and I’m not ignoring how it’s been co-opted by some pretty unsavory, anti-freedom forces. But as I listen to more parents, students, and teachers, and see the increasingly stark disconnect between our lived experience and the PR coming out of Washington and corporate America, I can’t help but feel a little rattlesnake-y.
As Ben Franklin wrote when discussing the appropriateness of choosing the rattlesnake as a proto-national symbol for the American colonies, the rattlesnake
…never begins an attack, nor, when once engaged, ever surrenders: She is therefore an emblem of magnanimity and true courage. … she never wounds ’till she has generously given notice, even to her enemy, and cautioned him against the danger of treading on her.
A recent Phi Delta Kappan/Gallup poll revealed that most Americans approve of their neighborhood schools, and they largely disapprove of the Obama administration’s education agenda. (We also continue to believe that the larger education system is in crisis, despite our love for our local schools; more on that disconnect in another post.) In response to the poll, members of the ed-consultant class surmised that the administration simply hasn’t done enough to convince a skeptical public that students in low-performing schools could be learning more, or that Americans “aren’t feeling the impact of the stimulus” or “seeing the role of the federal government in school reform.” In other words, they think the federal government is helping us, but we’re too prejudiced or stupid to understand that.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
I’ve yet to meet a single person who feels that under-achieving students couldn’t be learning more. I’ve met hundreds, though, who feel that the federal government’s increased reliance on standardized tests has come at the cost of real instruction and learning in too many schools. To that, they quite rightly object.
Likewise, people are well aware of the stimulus funds, and the increased amount of federal spending on schools. But why should they cheer about billions of their hard-earned dollars going to test-makers, Data administrators, and consultants, when their schools still aren’t rehiring laid-off teachers or reducing class sizes, and when teachers and families are forced to spend their own money on school and cleaning supplies? Should parents be excited when their children’s schools are “reconstituted” or closed–disrupting their learning and their lives for a year or more– when there is no observable benefit for these interventions?
Many of us who voted for President Obama did so because we wanted a change. When his campaign chose Linda Darling-Hammond as an education advisor, we thought we might finally build a more balanced school reform movement, one that meaningfully engaged the grassroots instead of stomping all over them in the pursuit of higher test scores. Instead, we got Arne Duncan, and a reform agenda that feels a lot like NCLB on steroids. That’s not change we can believe in!
As I’ve said, I once whole-heartedly believed in the education reform narrative put forth by our government, leading foundations, and mass media. But witnessing, firsthand, the effects of ideologically driven federal intervention has had a profound effect on me. I’m not alone in that. When mild-mannered college professors are so disturbed by what they see that they start walking to Washington in protest, and long-time choice and accountability advocates reverse a career’s-worth of opinions, and parents start shutting down board meetings, and civil rights leaders start questioning whether our first Black president’s education reform plans actually promote equality, it’s time for our government (and their moneyed allies) to ask why.
President Obama, Secretary Duncan and their ilk like to say that those of us who question their agenda are merely trying to defend an indefensible status quo. But if you look past their straw man arguments and really examine the evidence; when you listen to what these teachers, parents, activists, and their academic allies are saying, the message you hear isn’t, “We like inequality and under-achievement.” It’s more like, “We love our children, and want the best for them. This isn’t it.”
We know that years of high-stakes testing and federal intervention (the real status quo) haven’t gotten our schools any closer to the kinds of schools the “reform” crowd choose for their own children. People are growing increasingly frustrated with that. We feel let down and angry when our former organizer of a president uses our grassroots efforts to get elected, then embraces the same top-down policies and practices as his predecessor. We feel tread upon.
Tread upon, but energized nonetheless. People are organizing to promote a better vision for education, that promotes real learning and respects students, parents, and teachers. I believe we’ll eventually be victorious. But our president and his friends shouldn’t be surprised if they get bitten in the process.