As teacher and union activists working inside the framework of a deeply undemocratic union and against the formidable resources available to the implacable âcorporate school reformâ movement it is inevitable that we momentarily lose heart, even hear a cynical âvoiceâ from inside ourselves about protecting public schools and the welfare of students we care about so much.Â Then something happens, something wonderful. We find again that we have remarkable allies and that over time, perhaps more time than any of us would like to think, we will prevail in the work we do to teach our students well, preserve professional autonomy within our classrooms and join forces with parents and students to give voice to concerns that resonate in the communities that support our schools.
One of those moments occurred at Edward A. Reynolds West Side High School onÂ W. 102nd St. on February 1 at a forum, âMore Than a Score: Talking Back to Testing,â sponsored jointly by MORE, Teachers Unite, Change the Stakes and the NYC Student Union. More than 150 parents, teachers, administrators and students came together to demonstrate what we all âknowâ but sometimes doubt.Â We found that there really is in New York City a coalition of informed, energetic and motivated activists who can work together to take advantage of the cracks now opening up in the political and social environment to push through a âpeopleâs school reformâ movement that will restore sanity, balance and intelligence to the day-to-day operation of the schools where we work and where our students learn.
I circulated during the day across a range of break-out sessions including âHigh Stakes Testing 101â, âStopping the Test-Fueled School to Prison Pipelineâ and âPortfolio Based Assessments in Our Schoolsâ and found in the rooms and hallways a focus, joyous energy and commitment that restored my battered faith that the combined effort of students, parents and teachers will ultimately be able to make the connections, build the strategy and implement an effective campaign to take back our schools from Bill Gates, John King, Andrew Cuomo and Barack Obama:
- The New York Student Union role-played the administration of a high stakes test filled with gibberish from the perspective of students trapped in a testing regimen that makes them feel like faceless prisoners.Â They also brain-stormed about how to mobilize disaffected students to assert themselves in their schools when decisions about curriculum, programming and budgeting are being made.
- Teachers Unite organized a roundtable discussion of the practices that punish students who canât or wonât accept the industrial organization of our classrooms forced by administrators who value the appearance of âorderâ over the reality of âlearningâ and for whom restorative justice practices offer an opportunity to break the cycle of violence and despair that often lead students to drop out and, finding no useful work, into the grip of the criminal justice system.
- Teachers from consortium schools described alternatives to mindless testing that build on the wholeness of our students and use alternate assessments, including portfolios and richly authentic assignments to enable students to demonstrate their understanding of complex skills.
- Change the Stakes examined the reform movement to draw out the threads that run through a developmentally-inappropriate Common Core, a testing regimen that reduces students to â2sâ or â3sâ without providing useful information about what they âknowâ to their parents or their teachers and the fraudulent testing program that is used to evaluate teacher performance, ending with tens of millions of dollars falling annually into the maw of Pearson and other textbook, curriculum and test publishers.
- MORE provided an institute framed around imminent negotiations for a new teacher contract that gave participants practical information about how to use the collective bargaining process to raise teacher consciousness and build strong chapters that will lead to democratization of our union.
One attendee wrote âI was deeply moved and heartened by the thoughtful, impassioned tone of the opening remarks as well as of the two workshops I attended.Â I sometimes feel hopeless and helpless about what weâre all up against but Iâm energized every time I meet the brave parents and teachers who are speaking out like they did today.â Â Of course, weâve all attended conferences where we left with euphoric expectations about imminent change and inevitable success.Â MORE and the organizers of the event should be rightly proud of what they accomplished last week.Â But MORE and Change the Stakes and Teachers Unite and the NYC Student Union have an obligation to take the âthoughtful passionâ of the day and channel it into a stream that will feed a river of focused energy that will flood the trenches and ramparts where challengers to the public school system still hold their ground with the active support of our âliberalâ daily newspaper and the wide-open checkbooks of foundations and financiers.Â We must continue to work regularly with parents and students to build local union chapters that will fight for our members in solidarity with the communities that are the true basis for âTalking Back to Testingâ but, more importantly, for âTalking Truth to Power.â
We in MORE occasionally lose sight of what our real objectives are in the press of events that we canât control and which seem constantly to demand our attention and energy.Â Of course, the long fight will be won in the course of battles we do not always choose and in disciplined opposition to the authoritarian and misguided leadership of our own union.Â But in forums like the one last week where we drink from the well of community support and restore ourselves in the comradeship and solidarity of our natural allies we will be able to focus on what counts: building coalitions outside our caucus and union, supporting our brothers and sisters in schools without chapters who are subject to arbitrary attack by administrators and developing a âvoiceâ that resonates broadly enough to reach isolated teachers, frustrated parents and demoralized students.Â It can be done.Â It will be done.Â Deep fissures are opening up in the once impregnable phalanx led by Arne Duncan and John King, the Board of Regents, the State Legislature and the plutocrats who want to take over the public school system. This weekâs pitiful attempt by NYSED and the Regents to sand off the sharpest edges of a deeply unfair system without acknowledging the fundamental lunacy of the entire projectâor taking the slightest responsibility for conceiving so pointless a system and implementing it so disastrously–demonstrate how much work we have left to do. Februaryâs forum showed us the way forward if we only have the courage to walk down the road that leads from the hallways of one school on the Upper West Side to Tweed and beyond.