By Anthony Cody.
The teachers of America have been learning some very deep lessons about the nature of 21st century capitalism. And these lessons may turn teachers into a political force to be reckoned with in the years to come.
Those who have studied Marxist theory know that he predicted that the exploited working class held the key to political and economic change. It is the workers that generate profits, and can leverage their role to seize control of the means of production.
But in 21st century America, workers have lost power. Few belong to unions, and strikes are rare. Large numbers of workers have been replaced through technological advances. Factories and mines that once employed thousands are now run by a fraction of those numbers.
Workers are still exploited, to be sure, and have a latent power that could be activated with the right leadership and organization. But I think we are witnessing the development of a new political force in America, the teaching class. And if this class fulfills its potential, it could offer a historic challenge to the economic marginalization of the middle and working class in America.
The teaching class consists of educators from pre-school through college. This group is facing the brute force of a class-based assault on their professional and economic status. The assault is being led by the wealthiest people in the world – Bill and Melinda Gates, via their vast foundation, the Walton family, and their foundation, and Eli Broad, and his foundation. And a host of second tier billionaires and entrepreneurs have joined in the drive. These individuals have poured billions of dollars into advancing a “reform” movement that is resulting in the rapid expansion of semi-private and private alternatives to public education, and the destruction of unions and due process rights for educators.
When I started writing my blog at Education Week in the summer of 2008, there were a handful of us raising concerns, mostly focused on the out-of-control high stakes tests associated with No Child Left Behind. We knew there was a whole lot wrong with the rationale behind these tests, and even more, we bore witness to the devastating effects the tests had on students, especially those they were supposed to be helping.
But over the past six years, much more has become clear. And now there are literally hundreds of educators writing about these issues, and thousands of activists organizing in their communities across the nation.
As the latest report from Yong Zhao and ASCD illustrates, there is absolutely zero connection between the productivity of our economy and test scores. There may be some minimum level of academic achievement below which our nation’s economy might suffer, but our students are far, far above that threshold. So the entire economic rationale for our obsession with test scores and “higher standards” has been obliterated.
Even liberal rationales for education reform are falling away. We have heard for the past decade that employers need students who can think critically and creatively, that everyone must be prepared for college. These arguments have been used to promote progressive models of education, along with the Common Core. The economic assumption here is that the middle class will grow as more students are prepared for middle class jobs. But the number of such jobs are shrinking, not growing. The supposed shortage of people prepared for STEM careers is a hoax, as we see with the layoff of 18,000 such workers by Microsoft. In fact, one economic projection suggests that in the next 20 years, 47% of the jobs of today will be gone as a result of technological advances and what Bill Gates terms “software substitution.” (see the full report here.)
Prior to the past decade, public schools and universities had been a bit of a haven from the ravages of capitalism. People who chose careers as educators were able to engage in a collaborative, cooperative venture, building community within their schools, and with parents as well. But billionaires like Rupert Murdoch spied the untapped wealth going from taxpayer to public employees, with few opportunities for profiteers to extract their portion, and saw a market ripe for disruption.
The 2008 election of Barack Obama saw a contest between progressive educators like Linda Darling Hammond, and the advocates of disruption of the “government monopoly” on education. When the campaign cash came flowing in from the hedge funders and financiers, that contest was decided and there has been no turning back. The backers of charters, Teach For America and the Common Core have gotten everything they wanted from this administration. Public dollars have flowed to expand their projects, and the Federal government has pressured states to remove any limits on the expansion of charter schools.
The connection between political spending and public policy has been made brazenly clear. In 2011, Stand For Children CEO Jonah Edelman’s braggadocios description of how his organization outflanked the teachers in Illinois made it very clear how the sausage was being made. The way profiteers like virtual charter chain K12 Inc have used ALEC and politicians like Jeb Bush, and his “non-profit,” the Foundation for Educational Excellence, to get public funds spent on a clearly inferior educational system shows that the system is being rigged.
Teachers are paying attention. Study after study provides evidence that the central planks of corporate education reform not only fail to work, but are undermining the education of our students. This project that was supposed to be driven by data is collapsing, and would be long gone if our politicians were not being legally bribed to look the other way. Corporate education reform is a fraud, a hoax perpetrated on the public, with the active complicity of media outlets like NBC, which allows the Gates Foundation to dictate the very “facts” that guide their coverage of education issues.
But teachers have been building their own means of communication and understanding. Diane Ravitch’s blog rivals Education Week as a source for up to date information about what is happening around the nation, and the Gates Foundation is not vetting HER facts! The development of our own media remains a major challenge, and is one of the reasons this blog became independent. I have seen estimates that fifty percent of Twitter traffic is related to education, and voices critical of the status quo reforms are highly visible.
Here is what teachers are seeing:
In the largest school districts in the nation, we see the billionaires behaving as bullies. Eva Moskowitz has just ensconced herself in multimillion dollar headquarters on Wall Street, after punishing the newly elected mayor for having the temerity to block a few of her charter takeovers. In Los Angeles, emails are revealing behind the scenes deals worth many millions that violate the most basic ethical standards. Netflix billionaire Reed Hastings has stated his goal of shifting public schools out of the control of democratically elected school boards.
Corporate reformers have diabolically targeted teachers where we were most vulnerable, by accusing us of placing our own interests above those of our students. Every element of corporate reform has been leveraged on this point. No Child Left Behind accused teachers of holding students back through our “soft bigotry of low expectations.” Due process has been undermined or destroyed because it supposedly provides shelter for the “bad teachers” responsible for low test scores.
But this point of vulnerability is also our greatest latent strength going forward. Because teachers are deeply motivated by concern for their students, they are attuned to the devastating effects reform is having on them. Teachers are seeing what happens in communities when schools are closed – usually in poor African American and Latino neighborhoods. Teachers are seeing how technologically based “innovations” funnel both scarce funds along with student data to profit-seeking corporations. We have had more than a decade of test-driven reform, and teachers know better than anyone what a sham approach this has been. Teachers have seen and responded to the Michael Brown shooting, and though there are still difficult conversations ahead about race, teachers have a head start, because of our work with young people who are, like Michael Brown, vulnerable to racial profiling and the school to prison pipeline.
Teachers have some important pieces of the puzzle, but we have not built the whole picture yet. There is a growing awareness of the discriminatory way laws are enforced, leading to huge numbers of African Americans and Latinos behind bars. But there is still a weak understanding of how this fits into a system that keeps communities of color economically and politically disempowered. School closures are a part of this disenfranchisement, as they rob communities of stable centers of learning. The disproportionate layoffs and terminations of African American teachers are a part of this pattern as well. We need a new civil rights coalition that brings these interests into sharp focus, and establishes alliances between teachers, students, parents and community members.
When teachers bring a deep understanding of how our work has been hijacked and disrupted to bear on broader social issues, we find similar patterns elsewhere. We can see how profiteers are trying to sideline the US Postal Service, even though the level of service for the public will suffer. We see how the prison industry has turned into an enormous machine that sustains itself through vigorous lobbying, to the great disservice of many Americans. We see how laws governing debt are written to give tremendous advantage to financiers, while binding our students into a new form of indentured servitude. We see how leading Democratic Party politicians have taken campaign contributions in the millions from the sworn enemies of public education, and have become their servants.
There are a few places where this strength and awareness is being built upon. Activists in the Chicago Teachers Union campaigned to connect the future of their organization with the interests of students and parents in their community. They held community meetings to find out the issues parents and students cared about most. And they went on the offensive, redefining the very idea of reform so that it revolves around the interests of students, rather than profit-seeking corporations. When Mayor Rahm Emanuel tried to squash them, they organized, and had the most successful strike of the past decade. This summer, the CTU applied their analytic powers to the Common Core, and even challenged the project on the floor of the AFT convention. They continue to organize and challenge the billionaire power structure, and if Karen Lewis decides to challenge Emanuel in the race for mayor, that will really shake things up. And the Chicago Teachers Union is not alone in engaging in this approach rooted in social justice. Activists in Milwaukee, New York, Seattle, and Los Angeles are doing similar work. Organizations like the Network for Public Education and the Badass Teachers Association offer avenues for activists to connect and mobilize as well. The group United OptOut is connecting teachers, students and parents who are organizing boycotts of the tests that are being used to undermine and destroy our schools.
The term “teacher leadership” has been used to describe a narrow range of activities often related to “getting a seat at the table,” or taking charge of professional development or Common Core implementation. But the real potential for teacher leadership arises when we take the lessons we have learned from a decade of being the targets of phony corporate reforms, and recognize our kinship with others who have been disenfranchised. The number of wealthy individuals who have sponsored this decade of fraudulent reform could fit in a small movie theater. Teachers number in the millions — our students and allies are in the hundreds of millions. The only thing that can beat the power of money is the power of people. But the people must be informed and organized. That sounds like work teachers ought to be able to handle.
What do you think? Is it time to bring new meaning to the term teacher leadership, and bring it out of the schools and into the streets?
Image credit: Sarah Jane Rhee