Reform School

Can a million teachers marching on Washington this fall force change in the country's approach to education policy?

Teacher Myra Sawyers hopes so.

The 35-year-old Sawyers, a former aide to the late Hawaii Congresswoman Patsy Mink, is a first grade teacher at Wakefield School, a pre-K-12 private school in Virginia. She is also the leader of an effort to mobilize a million-teacher march on the nation's capitol this fall before the November presidential election.

"Reform should come from teachers, not from outsiders," says Sawyers, who left Capitol Hill in 1999 and has been in the classroom -- both as a student and as a teacher -- since then. Sawyers hopes to draw attention to the problems in the Bush administration's sweeping education reform policies, particularly the No Child Left Behind legislation.

She is hardly alone in her protests. Since the NCLB Act's passage two years ago, state officials, school superintendents, teachers, and a host of education researchers have weighed in with critiques of the law, from the common refrain that it's under-funded to the outcries over its extreme emphasis on high-stakes, standardized testing.

In the past three months, lawmakers in 14 states, including Utah and Virginia, which boast Republican-controlled legislatures, have passed non-binding resolutions against the law, claiming it violates states' rights. While those measures are primarily symbolic, they do signal a growing dissatisfaction -- and some education officials are planning action that is more dramatic.

John Mackiel, Omaha Public Schools Superintendent, and Frederick Morton, Superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools in Christiansburg, Virginia, are preparing a class-action lawsuit against the federal government over NCLB, again centered on what they view as the federal government's intrusion on states' rights. "Who should be making education policy in this country?" Morton asked an audience of fellow school administrators rhetorically at a February conference in San Francisco. "And if it is the federal government, should that policy be as prescriptive as NCLB?"

Morton also raised issue with the law's creation, claiming there was virtually no input from anyone outside of Washington, D.C. and the U.S. Department of Education. "I think four people wrote this law," he said.

While Sawyers' mission is different than Morton's, she shares his view that education policy needs to happen closer to the classroom, and that teachers have to take a much more active role in shaping that policy.

The planned march, however, isn't a last-ditch attempt to further disparage NCLB -- though Sawyers admits that would be a fine ancillary benefit. (In March, the U.S. Department of Education announced it would relax some of the law's teacher certification requirements). The march in fact signals the launch of a new organization Sawyers has founded -- Educators for Progressive Instructional Change (EPIC).

Sawyers is quick to note that EPIC would not be a third teachers union. Instead, she sees it more as a loose collection of local groups, each able to discuss and take positions on specific issues that impact their individual districts -- unlike the two large, national teacher unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, which she says are concerned mostly with adding members, not pursuing reforms.

"There is no organization that allows teachers to organize themselves," says Sawyers. She envisions EPIC growing almost as a Tupperware business: individuals spreading the word one coffee klatch at a time.

Hidden in that quaint notion, though, is Sawyer's radical idea of teacher as activist. It's a role that runs counter to the current model of a classroom teacher, according to Sawyers, yet has never been more important.

The ever-increasing school bureaucracy and the lack of an outlet to voice their frustrations over that bureaucracy, she says, infuriate her colleagues.

"Teachers feel so powerless," says Joanne Loftus, a learning specialist at Wakefield School and a supporter of Sawyers' efforts. "You need something at the grassroots level."

Teachers simply aren't able to speak up as much as they would like, says Sarah Pearson, one of eight EPIC board members. Pearson has a background in national youth policy at the high school and college level. She currently works for a non-profit, non-partisan youth policy organization in Washington, D.C. but has signed on with Sawyers' new organization as an individual because she too believes in Sawyers' mission.

"EPIC is another venue for teachers to speak out," she says.

And there is no other profession that needs activists more, says Sawyers. "That's the one thing I have -- the power of activism," she says. "I've seen it. I know it can be successful... If you don't participate as a teacher...it's reflected onto our children," she says. The goal of the march and of EPIC is to get teachers out there and empowered, she adds, and that will ultimately be reflected onto the kids they teach.

Sawyers' concerns about the overall paucity of civic-mindedness in the country's schools are borne out in the findings from a 2003 report by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.

In the report, called The Civic Mission of Schools, research found that until the 1960s it was common for high schoolers to take as many as three courses in civics, democracy and government. Today, however, most high school students take only one government-related course.

In addition, the report notes the factors working against "even the best intentions educators may have to promote civic engagement among young people."

These obstacles include "fear of criticism and litigation if educators address topics that may be considered controversial or political in nature; pressures to meet the goals of high-stakes testing, which now measures reading and mathematics skills (civic education is rarely included); and budget cutbacks in extracurricular programs that help children gain civic skills and attitudes," according to the report.

Citing the report's findings in the Spring 2004 issue of Education Next, a policy magazine, Princeton University politics professor Stephen Macedo writes, "If public schools are failing to teach civic knowledge, it is at least partly because they are not trying. To simply throw up our hands and say that public education agencies should now withdraw from civic education seems nothing short of perverse."

Roland Legiardi-Laura, another EPIC board member, agrees. "The good citizen part of education is fundamental," he says. Legiardi-Laura is a New York City-based documentary filmmaker who is currently finishing a three-part documentary with author, former award-winning teacher and noted school critic John Taylor Gatto called The Fourth Purpose: The Enigma of Public School.

It's teachers who can inspire their students to be civic-minded and fulfill that good citizen goal, both by what they teach in the classroom and by what they do outside of it, says Legiardi-Laura. He believes Sawyers efforts can raise awareness of that mission.

Still, Legiardi-Lara understands that organizing a million teachers is a tall order. "This movement may build itself over a period of years," he says. "There may have to be a march every year for 10 years." And Sawyers sees the march this fall as the first step in building that movement.

"Why do I care? Because things have to change," she says.

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