08/21/2014 04:30 am ET Updated Oct 20, 2014

An Interview With Dr. Yohuru Williams on Corporate Education Reform: 'We Aren't Buying It."

Teachers from across the nation stood in solidarity on July 27, 2014, using their voices to speak out about many of the issues plaguing the nation's public education system. The mood at the front entrance of the U.S. Department of Education in Washington, D.C., was one of hope at times, with teachers sharing inspiring stories of the progress they are making with their students, despite the onslaught of high-stakes testing and unrealistic demands placed upon them. At others times, the mood was solemn when parents, voices breaking when they became emotional, shared their stories of neighborhoods being completely dismantled due to public school closures when charter schools were erected, pushing all sense of community to the side. Perhaps the most heartbreaking accounts of that day were the students who spoke from the platform at the front entrance of the U.S. Department of Education, pleading with policy makers to please bring back the joy of learning.

Dr. Yohuru Williams, BAT activist, and Professor of History at Fairfield University, was one of the keynote speakers that day. As he delivered a speech directed to Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education, who was sitting in his office several floors above the front entrance, the teachers, parents, students, and concerned citizens of the crowd rallied around his message. Dr. Williams delivered his speech, highlighting many of the ways corporations and billionaires continue to destroy public education through "reform" tactics, which are in fact, causing re-segregation in communities, pushing highly-qualified teachers out of the profession, and reducing our nation's youth to merely test scores.

This past week I reached out to Dr. Williams and asked for further commentary on several of the points he made during his speech at the U.S. Department of Education that day. As millions of teachers and students head back to school in the upcoming weeks, Dr. Williams wanted to inspire public educators, despite the many hardships they face, to find a way to become more involved, on the activist front, in this war on public education.

Below are four italicized pieces of Dr. William's public address to Arne Duncan, followed by his message to teachers as they begin a new academic year.

"Mr. Duncan, you should know that the educators who make up the BATS live by three principles: People over Profits, Parity over Charity, and Choice over Chance--because if you let the people decide the future of public education we would spare no expense to ensure that our children had access to the highest quality of instruction, in the safest spaces, with a full complement of courses and counseling, health and human services to help them realize their dreams. That, after all, Mr. Duncan is the cornerstone of the American Dream. It is why we pay taxes--not to bail out, prop up, or kowtow to the corporation, but to invest in the future of our nation."

Dr. Williams: It is critical for all of us to demonstrate how our values differ from those who claim to speak for students, but whose actions indicate otherwise. The worst thing that any of us involved in the struggle to preserve public education can do is become frustrated. Parents, teachers, and students, working in concert, have the power not only to change the narrative, but contest for the types of schools and communities that will move us forward. We have the responsibility and the power by making our collective voices heard. We need to see this as a fundamental challenge to American democracy and proceed accordingly with the knowledge that the battle to save public education--at its core-- is the battle to preserve democracy.

"Mr. Duncan, you have made everything about the collection of data--reducing our youth to test scores. If only you would take the time to see our students as we do. They are first and foremost children, students and scholars who pursue divergent interest. Many have special needs. They are concerned about the future and often wonder why the DOE is working so diligently to close the door of opportunity on them by creating a one size fits all approach to education. They need individualized attention, competent special education instruction and a full range of interventions to assist them. And yet Mr. Duncan millions of public school children across the country have seen class sizes balloon due to teacher layoffs and budget cuts. We have had to hear your painfully unfortunate comments concerning special education students. That's not innovation--its alienation. And we are not buying it."

Dr. Williams: I have been encouraged and inspired by the stories of teachers who have shared the ways they continue to pursue pedagogically sound methods of instruction, in spite of high stakes testing, which emphasize not only critical thinking skills, but also music and the arts that are central to our students' continued growth and development. I would encourage teachers not to abandon those goals and to fight back in defense of the students most damaged by these policies, those in need of special education. We cannot allow the data needs of the so called reformers and their narrative of failure to define our kids. Parents, students, and teachers remain on the front lines of this battle. We must all be willing to speak up, speak out, and even opt out of testing, to make our opposition clear.

"Mr. Duncan, communities around the nation have witnessed highly qualified teachers let go and replaced by novice teachers trained through Teach for America. While we do not question the sincerity of your recruits--we have every right to be puzzled by your definition of "highly qualified." While you and other so called education reformers have touted the benefits of placing largely unprepared TFA faulty in front of our children presenting them as a the vanguard of a new model of rigorous instruction--we have witnessed the catastrophic impact this has had on the children and the novice teachers themselves. Mr. Duncan, That's not innovation--it's falsification. And we are not buying it."

Dr. Williams: Teach for America is not the solution to America's education problem; rather, the solution lies in creating environments and pay structures which support and encourage highly qualified and dedicated teachers. I hope that those pursuing teaching as a profession will continue to appreciate, as the BATs are fond of saying, that you teach for America by teaching for life. By that I mean, work to help people recognize the value of the teaching profession. I hope that our veteran teachers will stay the course and continue to fight--knowing their work is not in vain. In this fight, they carry the gratitude of this, as well as future generations. Going into this year, teachers should know reinforcements are on the way and that we will stand for a definition of highly qualified, one that means highly qualified educators, not well-meaning individuals with just seven weeks of training before entering a classroom.

"Mr. Duncan, you pledged that you would help root out racial disparity and inequality in the allocation of resources in our schools but your privileging of charters over true investment in our urban schools has been disastrous and the segregation of Latino youth in particular is appalling. For many of us who labor in schools deeply impacted by the maintenance of a two tiered system of education that mirrors the two America's separate and unequal identified by the 1967 Kerner Commission, we struggle to reconcile our reality with your rhetoric. Mr. Duncan, this is not innovation its re-segregation--shameful, immoral and illegal. And we are not buying it."

Dr. Williams: The abuses associated with some charter schools and the hyper-segregation they encourage has been well documented. Teachers must continue to draw public attention to the zip code apartheid made worse by policies pursued by the DOE. They must also continue to partner with parents and local school boards to protest state polices that encourage the same, siphoning resources away from schools and districts in need. I would encourage teachers to continue to rally around those issues that point to fundamental inequalities in our schools serving predominately urban and ESL students. I would also ask every teacher to recognize that our urban schools are ground zero. The attempt by the so called reformers to frame detrimental polices as the great civil rights issue of our time is a weak attempt to disguise the very real inequality represented by chronic underfunding in cities like Philadelphia and Chicago, to name a couple. Their fight is our fight.

Following our discussion of the four points above, I asked Dr. Williams to conclude this article with his final thoughts on how educators, students, and parents can become more involved in the public education reform movements in their own communities. He responded:

"The most important thing to remember for those interested in fighting corporate education reform is that you are not alone. But we all have to be willing to reach out and connect with others who share our passion and concerns. This is a national problem; it will require all of us to be vigilant and willing to step up and speak truth to power in defense of our schools and a system in which we can be both confident in and proud. We have to listen to our students who are being traumatized by testing and pursue interventions that help them reach their highest potential, not just score well on a standardized test. We have to partner with parents demanding the restoration of popularly elected school boards reflecting the interest of and accountable to the communities they serve. Finally, we must work to restore respect for the teaching profession and the educators that have the training and expertise to help us achieve our goal in delivering the highest quality education for our students. It takes a village--and we are the village. "

(To read Dr. William's public address to Arne Duncan in its entirety, please click here. If you would like to view a small segment of the speech from that day, please click here.)

Dr. Yohuru Williams is a Professor of History at Fairfield University. Follow him on Twitter at @yohuruwilliams.