"The development of common standards and shared assessments radically alters the market for innovation in curriculum development, professional development, and formative assessments. Previously, these markets operated on a state-by-state basis, and often on a district-by-district basis. But the adoption of common standards and shared assessments means that education entrepreneurs will enjoy national markets where the best products can be taken to scale."
-- Joanne Weiss, chief of staff to Education Secretary Duncan and former CEO of the New Schools Venture Fund
When I talk to teachers, students and parents, and when I think about education policy and politics, two simple questions almost always come to the fore.
• If America needs to reform its public schools, why aren't public school teachers, students and families leading the education reform movement?
• If teachers, students and public school families are most familiar with the problems with our current school system, why aren't our voices being heard when we question education policy, or suggest better alternatives?
For years, public school stakeholders have struggled with the burden of reform policies they had little hand in developing, that have failed to live up to their lofty promises. The "standards-based" education reform movement born out of A Nation at Risk had its largest growth spurt with the 2001 passage of the No Child Left Behind Act, ushering in our present era of high-stakes testing and "accountability."
These developments have been very traumatic for many public schools. The requirement to make adequate yearly progress toward 100 percent proficiency -- as measured by standardized tests many agree are inadequate -- has created some truly disturbing trends. Schools that have traditionally served their students and communities well have been labeled as failures because some of their students' learning styles don't fit neatly into standardized bubbles. And schools that have historically struggled with insufficient funding, neglect and high concentrations of students living in poverty have been especially hard-hit, as the pressure to raise test scores has created incentives for schools to push out low-performing students and fostered new and creative ways to cheat. Teaching to the test and sacrificing time spent on non-tested subjects has become increasingly common. Indeed, in many high-poverty schools, the curriculum looks more like extended test prep than a true curriculum. Schools have been closed, careers have been destroyed and students have been deprived of extra-curricular activities, recess and even graduation.
And yet, when educators raise concerns -- that these tests are being used inappropriately to reward and punish people instead of helping schools identify areas of weakness and strength; that many of our schools are often denied the resources and time needed to make meaningful improvements; that over-emphasizing test scores encourages cheating -- we are accused of trying to avoid accountability. And up until very recently, the media almost completely ignored instances of family and student protests over increased testing and harsh interventions like school closings.
For all this upheaval, this strategy has failed, even by its own standards. The much-hyped test scores have barely moved nationwide, achievement gaps persist and colleges continue to report that incoming students are under- or unprepared for college-level work. And none of this accounts for the costs to students, educators, families and communities, in terms of stress and diminished health, lost opportunities for real learning and the loss of valued community anchors.
Which brings me back to those two questions, and the opening quote. What has all of this upheaval been for, if it hasn't delivered the promised results? Why is it so hard for public school communities to make our voices heard?
Why? One reason is that we are facing a small but powerful group of people who believe, despite all evidence of ineffectiveness and harm, that harsh "accountability" is the only way to make struggling schools work. That lack of trust and respect is disturbing enough. Even more disturbing than that, however, is that this group has empowered another group to become incredibly wealthy selling tests, curriculum and related products and services to an increasingly-nationalized education market. People like the chief of staff to our federal education secretary openly sneer at the idea of local control, and at the notion that schools and districts should "customize solutions to meet their specific needs."
No wonder the public has become almost invisible. Apparently, adapting to local concerns is "no way to build a market."
We can no longer accept being silenced.
As budget crises worsen, and schools struggle to survive, we face critical choices. Will we invest in professional teachers and strong schools, or high-stakes tests and pre-packaged curriculum delivered by interns? Will all students have access to a full, rich curriculum that fosters creativity and critical thinking, or will that become the privilege of a few -- while the rest succumb to standardization?
And will our schools serve We the People, or the bottom line?
This is a call to action.
If we are to have a school system that works for every child, and serves our collective interests instead of the private interests of a few, we must put the PUBLIC back in public schools. A movement is growing, as more and more Americans unite to demand fully and equitably funded schools; an end to high-stakes testing for student, teacher and school evaluation; curriculum developed by and for local school communities; and teacher, family and community leadership in forming public education policy.
I'm marching because I believe in public schools. And I'm marching because I agree with other teachers and parents who want real education reform, that prioritizes our students, our schools, our communities and our future over ideology -- and over the needs of the marketplace.
If you agree, then march on Saturday, July 30. Learn more and get involved.
Follow Sabrina Stevens on Twitter: www.twitter.com/TeacherSabrina