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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

Author

Anthony Cody
Anthony Cody

Anthony Cody worked in the high poverty schools of Oakland, California, for 24 years, 18 of them as a middle school science teacher. He was one of the organizers of the Save Our Schools March in Washington, DC in 2011 and he is a founding member of The Network for Public Education. A graduate of UC Berkeley and San Jose State University, he now lives in Mendocino County, California.

Comments

  1. Barbara Walton-Faria    

    Thanks Anthony…for your inspiration and your truthfulness!

  2. Herbert Kohl    

    can I do anything to be helpful?

  3. kkdomangue    

    Yes, it is time to “take it to the streets”, as it were. However, the freedom to exercise such activism is at least on the surface dampened in “right-to-work” states. We use social media as a bully-pulpit, we constantly work to “improve our game” in the classroom so as to not hand over an opportunity to silence us over a question of our effectiveness. And yet….

    It is with great appreciation that I have followed your reporting on education matters. It has been a “word in due season”.

  4. Elaine    

    Excellent! I love being Badass. ^O^

  5. Joan Kramer    

    Thank you for a great synthesis, just in time for Labor Day!! What comes to mind is the great slogan – El Pueblo Unido Jamas Sera Vencido!!!

  6. Diane Aoki    

    Thanks Anthony. Nice job and kind of like a shot of adrenaline.

  7. Ludwig Richter    

    Excellent article. It deserves a wide audience.

  8. Terry Weber    

    Anthony-Great info for folks to understand. The fight back is definitely growing and Chicago is a great example. I hope folks realize they spent many years building their caucus before they took over. I worry about the fight back in a few ways: 1) our teachers’ unions are modeled and act more like industrial model (bread and butter issues) unions. The fight back for unions and opposition caucuses are against high stakes testing and maybe common core and corporate take over in general, but what are they for? Where is the push for a real professional union like the California Teachers Union that spent 12 years pushing through the state legislature nurse/patient ratios. Where is the push for student based learning and performance assessments? 2) Since the average teacher leaves after 5 or 6 years how will we get the experienced life long teachers?

  9. Ray Brown, M.A. Bilingual RS    

    Anthony, I loved your article and I just retired from OUSD as a resource specialist. I saw how the SBAC testing this last year caused so much frustration on the part of our students and teachers. I hope teachers in Oakland will eventually protest this horrendous testing for testing sake. It is a tradegy. We are all brothers and sisters and when one student and teacher bleeds we all bleed. If Oakland eventually protests this fatuous and laborious testing, I will be there to support our brothers and sisters.

  10. rmurphy12    

    While I’d welcome anyone to take the lead, I’m scratching my head with a bit of HOPE. Out here in the Pacified Northwest, Great State of Wishy Warshy, In Shining Seattle, we had a very important election for President etc of the Seattle Education Association (SEA) last spring. 45% of almost 5000 did NOT even vote. A slight majority of those voting were sufficiently scared that they bought into not jeopardizing SEA-WEA “leadership” strategy of giving in to really scary things ahead of time because it is preferable to maybe possibly getting really really scary things later. People out here keep citing Chicago (Run Karen Run!!!), but, before Rahm & Co. recently axed another 50? or so schools, Chicago had already lost appx. 100 schools and appx. 50,000 kids to Charter-ILL-Vain-IA. (If I did my facts correctly.) 100 schools & 50,000 kids is Seattle School District. I HOPE a critical mass of us gets involved before we’re all fighting over scraps from the scrapings … I’m trying… I also have a day job. Oh yeah … what did that vote for HOPE AK in ’92 and that vote for HOPE in ’08 get us … ??

  11. Gregory A. Butler (@GREGORYABUTLER)    

    While I support the struggles of the teachers very much, I find the author’s thesis that teachers will replace industrial workers as the core of the working class struggle to be highly dubious

    First of all he underestimates the number of industrial workers in America

    Even with the shift of manufacturing to suburbs and rural areas, the movement of jobs to Mexico, China and Bangladesh, automation and the 10 to 12 hour workday, there are still 12 million factory workers in America.

    That’s more factory workers than anywhere else on Earth with the exception of China

    There’s also 10 million construction workers in this country

    Five million workers in trucking, warehousing and other transportation

    Five million workers in public utilities and communications

    Two million workers in agriculture, forestry and fisheries

    And just under a million workers in mining, oil & gas

    That’s about THIRTY FIVE MILLION WORKERS who create all of the surplus value that enriches our capitalist class and enables every other aspect of the society (including the schools) to function

    We still have our hands on the jugular of capital and capitalism in a way that teachers simply do not

  12. 4cramer    

    A fantastic treatise! Should be required reading for all educators, parents, and community members. Thank you, Anthony, you are exceptional in your ability to eloquently and thoroughly summarize the fight against the hydra that is ed reform. <3

  13. chemtchr    

    Greg is completely correct: “That’s about THIRTY FIVE MILLION WORKERS who create all of the surplus value that enriches our capitalist class and enables every other aspect of the society (including the schools) to function.” We need them. By the way, an organizer of the Chicago Teachers strike tells me the Central Labor Council had promised they would call the city out on a general strike, if the teachers needed it. Chew on that.

    These are questions of how working people can LEAD the working class, though, many of whom don’t even have work at all. Industrial workers face the same opportunity-compression as the “white collar” working class (including teachers), and it chokes their militancy. Plus, we aren’t even all organized. I think unorganized working people would be glad to follow leadership from the organized industrial workers, if it was somehow offered to them, so do that!

    The most militant teachers serve the most economically devastated sectors of the working class, and when we unite with our community we find ourselves aligned with the deepest axis of a working class political agenda. We’re fighting for a living wage, health care, pensions and respect on the job, like organized workers everywhere, but we also fight to raise the minimum wage so our students can eat. We call it social justice unionism. Even if you’re in a “right to work” state, join us as political allies, because the attack we ALL face is national in scale.

  14. Mary    

    I understand students will spend most of his or her day with teachers and it takes one to positives or negatively influence a student’s life.

    I know education is important, but over the past 10 years of management for the federal government I think there are bigger problems than the education piece. I have mentored youth throughout the community and here is what I am noticing:

    This is not true for all but what I am seeing out of this younger generation….

    Students feel entitled.
    Students feel pressure to perform/succeed/go to college.
    Students are not willing to do hard labor.
    Students are exiting college with over $60k worth of debt. Then can’t find a job.
    Laziness.
    More and more of a divide in generosity and willingness to help others. (Selfishness)
    Are too reliant on auto-correct to spell anything.

    Let’s talk about some other problems in the classroom other than education….
    (Once again not all but more and more the norm)

    Parents are checked out.
    Parents are too afraid to tell kids “no”.
    Parents are creating more and more broken homes which in turn the children and his/her performance.
    Parents are too busy with his or her careers (or both) to assist with projects.
    Parents bully teachers to give his/her kid a better grade.

    More and more children are medicated or classified by doctors incorrectly as ADHD, depressed, etc.

    All of these are things teachers have to deal with and can’t be captured on a standardized test.

    I know this article was about uniting in numbers to better the position of teachers and education. How about we unite American back to strong principles of working hard, freedom, and reaping what is sowed. ….if what you reap isn’t as grand or great as the next person – either work harder or be content in what you have. America is turning into a materialist, prideful, and self-serving nation. What made us great was uniting and sharing everything we have with each other in community. Community is what this nation is lacking.

    1. chemtchr    

      I think attacks like this on kids radiate from mean, over-entitled adults, myself. If you have an ax to grind with the federal government, Mary, why not say so and pick on somebody your own size?

      The working class kids I teach are fine young people. Their parents stick up for them, in spite of are getting beaten down by lazy, conventional rants like this all over Fox news.

  15. Dale Lidicker    

    Thank you, Anthony. Very inspiring post. We have much to do.

  16. Sara    

    After 16 successful years I finally left education. I like teaching, but I can’t tolerate one more year of being told I work in a ‘failing’ school. I can’t bear seeing my paycheck get smaller each year. I can’t stand another meeting discussing student data based solely on standardized tests.
    Where is the creativity? Why aren’t students celebrated for their various strengths? Why do people buy the nonsense that Common Core makes us competitive with other countries?
    Thank you for the article. I hope we can reclaim our public schools.

  17. Elizabeth Hanson    

    Fabulous job Anthony Cody! Brilliant and I’ve shared it on facebook and will write an article in which your work is shared on my website- http://restoregedfairness.org/

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