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10 Big Wins For Public Education in 2013

Here are 10 great reasons to have hope that corporate education reform may soon be a thing of the past.
 
 
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If what’s past is truly prologue, there’s a good chance 2013 will be remembered as the year the free-market education reform movement crested and began to subside. After a decade of gathering momentum, reform politics began to founder in the face of communities fighting for equitable and progressive public education. Within the year’s first weeks, a historic test boycott was underway, civil rights advocates confronted Arne Duncan on school closings, and thousands were marching in Texas to roll back reforms.

Perhaps we should have sensed this coming: the Chicago Teachers Union strike in the fall of 2012 foreshadowed the education struggles that would take center stage in 2013. In addition to fair contract provisions, they called for a new course for public schools: well-rounded curriculum, fewer mandated tests, more nurses and social workers, an end to racially discriminatory disciplinary policies, and early childhood education, among other demands.

The CTU’s chief victory lay in galvanizing public education advocates across the country around a vision for public education that took full form in 2013. At the same time, the year saw reform bulwarks like Teach for America and the Common Core standards suffer unprecedented shocks.

Below are the 10 most notable boons and coups the public school community experienced in 2013.

10. Common Core Coalition Crumbling

Just as Common Core State Standards (CCSS) have become ascendant, supported by over 40 states and glutted with hundreds of millions in federal funding, they've come up against widespread pushback. At least 17 states now show signs of cold feet on the Common Core.

The K-12 curriculum guidelines, initially the darling of statehouses nationwide, have aroused suspicion and pique in their public entrée. The standards’ implementation will likely cause test scores to crater, as they have in Kentucky and New York, exacerbating evaluation pressures on teachers and threatening more schools with closure. Some see the standards as a costly and untested imposition driven largely by firms hungry for the profits nationalized standards may bring—for instance, 68% of districts plan to purchase new CCSS-aligned materials.

The Common Core grew out of a baffling public-private partnership funded by the ubiquitous Gates Foundation and textbook manufacturer Pearson, which was recently fined over $7 million for using its charitable arm to peddle Common-Core-aligned products.

Resistance has emerged in state legislatures as well as the grassroots (including an unfortunate Glenn Beck-inspired contingent that fears the indoctrination of children with “extreme leftist ideology”). Two public school moms in Indiana successfully petitioned the legislature to pause CCSS rollout there. In a series of New York town hall meetings, CCSS protesters aired their (occasionally vituperative) grievances to the education commissioner, and the state subsequently announced a testing drawdown. Several states, including Georgia and Pennsylvania, have withdrawn from the Common Core’s testing consortium, PARCC.

9. “Reform Idol” Tony Bennett Tumbles

In 2008 he was elected Indiana’s state superintendent, with a bold pledge to close failing schools. In 2011 the conservative Fordham Institute crowned him Education Reform Idol (which was, astoundingly, a real thing). After losing reelection in 2012, he was scooped up by a fawning Florida Board of Education. Throughout all this he served on the governing boards of several Common Core-affiliated organizations.

In 2013, the AP rounded out Tony Bennett’s ed-reform credentials by revealing that he’d inappropriately overhauled the Indiana school ratings system in order to protect a high-profile Republican donor’s otherwise-failing charter school.

In a profoundly ironic email, the grade-obsessed superintendent wrote, “They need to understand that anything less than an A for Christel House”— the politically connected charter in question— “compromises all of our accountability work." By finagling with the formula, Bennett pushed over half the state’s charter schools' ratings to a “C” or better, vindicating concerns that accountability systems themselves lack accountability.

8. Parent-Led Movement Cuts Testing in Texas

Education news from the Lone Star State too often involves high-level officials debating whether the earth is actually 5,000 years old or claiming there’s “no evidence for a human influence on the carbon cycle.” But over the summer came a rare headline from Texas that wasn’t staggeringly dumb: a parent-led coalition successfully petitioned the state to reduce the number of tests required to graduate high school by two-thirds.

When Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment was formed in 2011, the state was dumping at least 15 high-stakes tests on students before they graduated. After two years of rabblerousing on the part of TAMSA, the Texas legislature passed an education bill that cut the number of tests to five.

In the state that birthed No Child Left Behind and coughed up $500 million for testing behemoth Pearson, the victory is a coup. Dineen Majcher, president of TAMSA, declared that the bill’s passage “proves that our democratic system still works.”

7. Teach for America Dinged From Within and Without

After 20 years of unchecked growth, communities and TFA alumni have put some of the first major dents in the organization that sends hordes of novice, newly graduated teachers to high-poverty schools throughout the country. Tirelessly lauded by the New York Times op-ed set, lavishly funded by the Walton Foundation and a bevy of gigantic banks and corporations, TFA watched its sacred-cow status slip several notches in 2013.

Over the summer, a group of community members and former TFA teachers convened a summit called “Organizing Resistance to Teach for America” in Chicago. (Full disclosure: As a former TFA “corps member,” I was among the attendees of the Chicago summit.) As the organizers and their allies claim, TFA weakens unions, exacerbates teacher turnover, provides pawns for the forces of education reform, displaces veteran educators and teachers of color, and bolsters the narrative that teachers alone can mitigate the effects of poverty and inequality.

Subsequent activism has been substantive. Students United for Public Education, a campus group with at least a dozen chapters, began “the first national student-led campaign against Teach for America.” TFA faced resistance from University of Minnesota faculty when it sought a partnership with the school, and a new school board in Pittsburgh just rescinded its contractwith TFA. The increasing criticism hasn’t gone unnoticed by TFA’s bigger cheeses.

6. Students Demonstrate Against Overtesting and School Closures

Students protested in remarkable numbers this year to rebuff the advance of high-stakes testing and school closings. In Denver, Philadelphia, Providence and Chicago, students marched as zombies to protest the deadening effects of standardized tests. The Providence Student Union issued a statement against high-stakes tests and urged fellow students to boycott exams. In Chicago, tots participated in painfully cute “play-ins” to protest standardized tests for younger students. Students have opted out of tests in cities across the country.

These actions represent a growing political awareness of education reform among students, particularly its monomaniacal focus on assessment that circumscribes curriculums and places onerous sanctions on schools. More immediately, such testing strikes students as “an inaccurate depiction of student knowledge,” that “takes time from real class time.”

5. Civil Rights Advocates Take on School Closings

School closures have long been a civil rights issue, but this was the year advocates found an audience with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. In January, participants from at least 18 cities convened in DC to air their grievances to the Department of Education. The Journey for Justice came as Chicago was preparing to close around 50 schools, and just before New York and Philadelphia voted to close over twenty each.

Mass closures like these show little evidence of improving learning. And public school advocates claim they roil communities and disrupt children’s learning, in some places forcing kids to cross gang lines to attend new schools. Black and Latino students are disproportionately represented in schools slated for closure. In Chicago, closed schools housed over double the average proportion of black students. The Annenberg Institute found that in the years before New York City closes a school, its special-needs population typically balloons.

Duncan and fellow reformers have long pushed the line that school closures somehow improve schools. As former Chicago Public Schools CEO, Duncan helped launch the Renaissance 2010 program, which closed scores of schools and replaced them largely with charters. Though the results have been uninspiring, Duncan and Obama pledged in 2009 to scale the project nationally, aiming to shutter 5,000 schools. In 2013, a nationwide movement grew to challenge them.

4. Bridgeport Reclaims Board of Education

In 2012, the state of Connecticut dissolved the democratically elected, occasionally dysfunctional Bridgeport school board and reformed it according to their whims and wiles. The new board happened to tap reform luminary Paul Vallas as superintendent, whose swath of successes included presiding over the charterization of New Orleans, leaving Philadelphia with a $73 million budget hole, and launching Chicago’s free-market reform model in the late '90s.

The state courts soon invalidated the appointed board and allowed elections to resume. In 2012 Bridgeport residents shot down a handsomely funded mayoral-control referendum that would have relieved them of the burden of electing their own school board. In 2013, they voted in a slate of progressive Working Families Party candidates in a sharp rebuke to the reforms that had blown in from afar.

As is his wont, Vallas is already making for the door after his perfunctory and disruptive stint. As he joins Illinois governor Pat Quinn on the campaign trail, Bridgeport looks ready to steer itself in a new educational direction.

3. California Ensures Fairness in its School Funding Formula

The US education system distinguishes itself in myriad ways. In only two other developed countries, for instance, do disadvantaged students receive fewer resources than their wealthy peers. America achieves this by tying school funding largely to property taxes, with the predictable result that poverty pools in poorer schools and wealth barricades itself in the suburbs.

California struck a major blow at the system this year. In August, the legislature passed significant reforms to the school funding formula, which will eventually send up to 50 percent more funding toward districts where poor students, English language learners and kids with special needs are concentrated. The legislation also delegates more autonomy to municipalities in allocating funds.

The formula will take eight years to come into full effect, and all the wrinkles have yet to be smoothed. But it has overwhelming public support and promises to bring the largest state in the union in line with equitable funding practices that few states currently grasp.

2. De Blasio Elected to Reverse Bloomberg Reforms

When New York City mayor-elect Bill de Blasio announced on the campaign trail his intention to charge charter schools rent, the reform community went apoplectic. Charter sector heavyweights canceled classes for a morning to hold a media-saturated rally defending their rent exception. (New York state law requires all charters that lease public space to do so “at cost,” but longtime mayor Mike Bloomberg skirted the statute, helping charters multiply over his decade-long tenure.)

Despite his “war on good schools,” de Blasio captured nearly three-quarters of the vote, with education a key element in his “tale of two cities” campaign trope. In addition to charging charters rent, de Blasio has promised to impose a moratorium on school closures and to fund universal pre-K through a tax on the wealthy.

Bloomberg’s education legacy is defined in large part by his closing of some 160 schools, and the opening of around 180 charters. De Blasio’s proposals fly in the face of the longest-standing big-city reform mayor, and should he stick to his guns, chart a new path for education in the city.

1. Boycott!

On Jan. 9, 2013, the teachers of Garfield High School in Seattle announced they would not be administering mandated district assessments that spring. According to the teachers, the so-called MAP test didn’t align with curriculum, was ill-suited to students with special needs, and was never designed to be used as an evaluation mechanism, per district guidelines. They called their boycott Scrap the MAP.

Parents, students and national teachers unions all joined in solidarity with the boycott. Though the superintendent threatened them with 10 days’ suspension and at one point compelled school administrators to deliver the test themselves, the Garfield community held strong and eventually won: the district declared the test optional for high schools in 2013-2014.

Advocates around the country picked up the thread started in Seattle. This October saw another unprecedented boycott: parents unanimously elected to opt out of mandated district assessments at K-2 Castle Bridge Elementary in Upper Manhattan. They too soon won: district administrators declared the bubble tests for tots weren’t “developmentally appropriate,” and the state promptly announced K-2 schools would be exempt.

These testing boycotts address more than just ratings and rankings. As activists recognize, standardized tests play a central role in free-market reforms. “The whole system of ed-reform,” argued Garfield teacher Jesse Hagopian, “rests on these data points, on reducing teaching and learning to a single score that they can use to close schools.”

***

And the struggle continues. Despite these victories, districts are still closing schools. Black and brown kids still bear the brunt of radical free-market education upheaval. Standardized tests proliferate and unions face existential threats from statehouses and charters alike. But no longer are parents, teachers and activists sitting silent. Whether the agitation of 2013 represents a turning point for education or a bump under the wheels of the reform juggernaut will only be clear years hence. Still, there is much to celebrate, and build on, as we enter a new year.

Owen Davis is a New York-based writer and former intern at The Nation magazine. He writes curriculum for the alternative children's magazine IndyKids. Davis blogs here and tweets @of_davis.