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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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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 contract with 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.