Nation’s Largest Teachers Union Endorses Teaching “Climate Justice”

By Bill Bigelow

In May, the Portland, Oregon school board passed the country’s first comprehensive “climate justice” resolution. The school board voted unanimously to “abandon the use of any adopted text material that is found to express doubt about the severity of the climate crisis or its root in human activities,” and called for all schools to teach a “climate justice” curriculum. The Portland resolution said that students in city schools “should develop confidence and passion when it comes to making a positive difference in society, and come to see themselves as activists and leaders for social and environmental justice—especially through seeing the diversity of people around the world who are fighting the root causes of climate change…”

That effort received a big boost last week in Washington, DC, when the country’s largest union, the National Education Association (NEA), voted at its national convention to support the Portland resolution and to encourage state and local affiliates to create and promote climate literacy resolutions in their own communities, using the Portland resolution as a model. The NEA has close to 3 million members, and its convention is dubbed “the world’s largest deliberative assembly,” with 7,000 delegates.

The effort to pass the resolution was led by teacher delegates from Oregon, Washington, California, Wisconsin, and North Carolina, and included members of the national Badass Teachers (BATs) caucus.

Oregon teacher Kathleen Jeskey was one of the delegates supporting the NEA resolution: “Clearly teachers from all over the country see that it is past time to teach our students the real science of climate change and properly prepare them for the future. BATs is a caucus dedicated to social justice and we realized that no other social justice issue can be dealt with properly if we ignore the issues around climate.”

In addressing the convention, Jeskey paraphrased the Portland climate justice resolution: “We must commit ourselves to providing teachers, administrators, and other school personnel with professional development, curricular materials, and outdoor and field studies that explore the breadth of causes and consequences of the climate crisis as well as potential solutions that address the root causes of the crisis, and do so in ways that are participatory, imaginative, and respectful of students’ and teachers’ creativity and eagerness to be part of addressing global problems and that build a sense of personal efficacy and empowerment. Our schools must play a leadership role in modeling for students climate and environmentally friendly practices.”

NEA delegates passed a second resolution, sponsored by Noam Gundle of the Seattle Education Association, calling for the teachers union to “publicize the work of NEA members educating students and their communities on issues of anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change using innovative project-based learning and cross-curricular methods.”
There remains an enormous gulf between the severity of the climate crisis and the attention given the crisis in U.S. schools and in widely used text material. In testimony before the Portland school board in May, members of the community group Educating for Climate Justice, shared examples of textbooks currently in use in Portland schools. One passage in Physical Science: Concepts in Action tells students: “Carbon dioxide emissions from motor vehicles, power plants, and other sources may contribute to global warming.” The small section on climate change is filled with this conditional language of “may” and “might.”

A social studies textbook used in Portland and around the country, Holt McDougal’s Modern World History, begins its second of three paragraphs on climate change: “Not all scientists agree with the theory of the greenhouse effect.”

Portland’s resolution was passed with the support of more than 30 community groups including 350PDX, the Sierra Club, the Portland Association of Teachers, Columbia Riverkeeper, Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility, the Climate Action Coalition, and the Raging Grannies.

The Milwaukee-based social justice education publisher Rethinking Schools has been distributing “seed packets” to parents, educators, and community activists around the country, which include a copy of the Portland resolution, supporting articles, an “Organizing Lessons from the Portland Climate Justice Resolution,” and excerpts from the Rethinking Schools book, A People’s Curriculum for the Earth: Teaching Climate Change and the Environmental Crisis.

Rethinking Schools’ interim executive director, Bob Peterson, former president of the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association, an NEA local, suggested the NEA’s “new business item” in support of Portland’s climate justice resolution. “Today’s teacher unions should recognize that educators need to address social and environmental justice issues,” Peterson said. “The NEA’s support of the Portland climate justice resolution offers teacher unions around the country a concrete way to connect teachers, parents, and the broader community on an issue that concerns us all.”

The process of replicating the Portland climate justice resolution is already underway. The Seattle Education Association’s Noam Gundle plans to use the NEA’s endorsement of the Portland resolution to begin a similar effort in Seattle, working with other teachers, sympathetic school board members, and the King County Labor Council. Gundle said, “This is a first step in educating our students on the most important issue of our time.”

billbigelow-100x100Bill Bigelow is curriculum editor of Rethinking Schools magazine and co-director of the Zinn Education Project. He co-edited A People’s Curriculum for the Earth: Teaching Climate Change and the Environmental Crisis. Learn more about the Zinn Education Project and how you can help bring people’s history to the classroom.

***Blog first published on the Huffington Post***

Cook quote

A Dialogue with the Curriculum of Our Nation: A Critical Reading of Moments

By Courtney B. Cook

Courtney Cook sent this poetic response to the murder of Philando Castile to Rethinking Schools. We wanted to share it with our readers as a source of healing and a call to action. Cook is a former high school English teacher who has been engaged in justice work and critical education in high schools, prisons, and youth-run organizations. She is currently pursuing a PhD in Cultural Studies in Education at University of Texas at Austin.

I went to sleep safely on Wednesday night with Alton Sterling and his family in my heart and with a heaviness of despair at my doorstep. I woke up Thursday morning to a world without Philando Castile and because I could no longer stomach the videos of Black men being murdered by police, I listened only to the audio. Then I listened again and typed the transcript, and considered more carefully the words and grief of Diamond ‘Lavish’ Reynolds. I want to be in dialogue with this moment. I want to be in dialogue with Ms. Reynolds and her child to say I am so sorry. I want to be in dialogue with the Black community in this nation and say, yes, your lives matter.  I want to be in dialogue with the police who mishandled her and her daughter after senselessly killing her partner – pay attention, I want to say! You are accountable, you are responsible, you have to do better. You do not have the right to kill Black people. Importantly, I want to be in dialogue with my white community who may not be listening – it is your privilege that allows you to move forward without paying attention. We don’t deserve the safety we’ve been granted anymore than Philando and Ms. Reynolds and her daughter do. Anymore than Alton Sterling did, or any of the others whose names deserve to be listed, who deserve to be memorialized and remembered, who deserved safety and protection because that is what we, as citizens, are promised. I want to be in dialogue with my white counterparts who may be passively watching these videos as they become commonplace, or worse spectacle, or who may be expressing outrage and advice only in digital spaces without taking action – active solidarity is the only solidarity. We have to show up or we are complicit. I want to be in dialogue with my fellow educators and ask this question: if the curriculum of our nation is teaching us that Black lives don’t matter, that police have the right to kill and go free, then why not use this transcript as a part of your curriculum? Why not study it carefully, read it critically, write letters in response to it to your local police and politicians as citizens asking the questions that these events might conjure in the hearts of young people facing terrifying realities?

The following is that attempt towards dialogue with this reality; to read this moment as curriculum with a critical eye of an educator, of a white woman, of a citizen who continues to hope for justice and democracy and humanity to take the lead. It takes its form by responding directly to Ms. Lavish Reynolds, the officers involved, and other audio which is partially transcribed from the recording she shared with the world during the time of her unimaginable tragedy. Unless otherwise indicated, the language which is not italicized is transcribed speech from Ms. Reynolds directly.


we got pulled over for a busted tail light

I, too, have been stopped for a busted tail light. My boyfriend joked with the officer about the Boston Red Sox. I got a warning. I am still breathing. He didn’t even get murdered. Served and protected by our whiteness.

he’s licensed

Dear politicians who employ your rhetoric of safety and defense for the right to carry firearms,

Licensed carry for what kinds of citizens? Which bodies get to carry openly within your definition of safety? Who gets to carry guns within your conception of self-defense? Which people get to abide by the laws you work so tirelessly to defend? The message I hear is clear: gun rights for whites.

 he let the officer know he had a firearm

and was reaching for his wallet

Philando’s mother said he was taught to “comply, comply, comply.” His was killed in compliance. To you, Philando’s mother, I am so sorry. He did not deserve this. You did not deserve this.

 [Murdering Officer:]


No. His compliance didn’t kill him. A man killed him. An officer of the law shot four shots into the window of a car with a four-year old in the backseat. An ambassador of justice yelled profanity into the ears of the victims. In case his shots fired weren’t loud enough, he demanded his confused reaction to his own action to be heard. No, his power in the pistol was not enough, he extended his reach to constrict space as his voice silenced victims’ cries of grief and fear. Shame on you, Officer. For murdering a man, for pointing a gun at his lover, for cursing in front of a scared child and polluting her air with your toxicity.

 [pause for compliance.]

 yes sir, I will, no worries.

Compliance. Respectful language. No worries, she said. And now it is the duty of the victim to calm the culprit. Must we expect her to call her partner’s murderer Sir? No worries she said. No worries. No, he mustn’t mind the worry her child will change through after this trauma. He mustn’t mind her worried, weary soul; the ways she must worry her memories of moments with her partner – moments taken from her en route to an irrecoverable future – like a stone in her pocket she rubs and rubs until worry itself erodes it into non-existence.

oh my God please don’t tell me he’s dead.

please don’t tell me he’s gone.

please Jesus don’t tell me he’s gone.

please Officer,

please don’t tell me you just did this to him.

Please. Please. Please. Please God and Jesus and Officer. Please reality be an illusion. Please fictions of justice be more of a fiction and less of a reality. Please interventions from the Heavens make a difference. Officer, you just did this to him. Please comply. Please call yourself a killer, a thug with a gun. Please explain yourself. Please take responsibility. Please use your experience to speak to other murderous and untrained officers. Please Officer, you just did this to him and, yes, you are a You in a system of Y’all’s and Y’all bear the burden of murder and we hold you all – and you – in contempt of justice that we wish to no longer accept as a fiction, because the truth of the fiction is a man bleeding to death in a passenger seat of a car with a broken tail light, and a grieving lover a foot away from him, and a terrified child stunned in a backseat, and your finger on the compressed trigger. In your hand the still warm pistol pointing into innocent faces, in your hand a tool of death not justice. Please Officer, see your hand holding the gun, see your fear pulling the trigger, see your power as an alienable right which we are standing at the ready to alienate loudly and persistently until You and Y’all see a Black body and know that the right to life is unquestionably real. Until you hold as an unalienable right that Black lives matter and you are not author to the stories of who gets to live and who must die.

where is my daughter?

do you got my daughter?

Who has this mother’s daughter? How can we hold this mother’s daughter? How can I, with my feminine whiteness and all its power it doesn’t deserve, serve the Black mothers and their daughters and their sons in the absence of a justice system that does not meet that promise? How can I leverage my shield of whiteness to stand in for the protection that this justice system denies?


Keep walking

Keep walking

Keep walking

Keep walking

Keep walking an officer orders. Keep walking. What if her legs are tired from all the walking you’ve forced her do? What if her feet have blisters from walking and walking and walking through the combat zone you’ve created in her very own neighborhood, despite careful compliance with your orders to walk and walk and walk? Thousands of others have walked and walked and walked through histories which neglect this violence. They have walked and walked and walked in a direction towards racial justice and how long will the order “keep walking” come down from architects of the violence? It is not her duty to keep walking. Let her rest. Shame on you, Officer.


Get on your knees

Get on your knees

A woman forced to get on her knees before a man. A man in uniform with a badge of power. A mother forced into violent submission of your power while her daughter is crying. Forced to negotiate measures of safety and knowing, and learning, that safe spaces are as much of an illusion as the justice you claim to serve. A lover whose dead partner’s shirt is still wet with blood, who kept walking and walking and walking and courageously broadcast her torture. Who testified her experience to the court of us all, who is forced to kneel before you like the human God that you and y’all imagine yourselves to be. Like a human God that we all, in our silence and complicity, in digital outrage that isn’t supported by human action – by not putting our white bodies in the street, on the steps of the capital, in community spaces of care and support – join in a fellowship of praise. Digital outrage, fleeting hashtags, tweets and reposts do not account for change. Shame on you, Officer, for your orders and shame on us if outrage does not translate to action. White counterparts, if you cannot understand your inaction as your unearned privilege, if you do not see your ability to choose whether or not to be a body in action involved in a movement towards racial justice, then you do not understand that our whiteness and its power is the bedrock of the problem.

[the mother’s daughter is crying]

[click-clack of handcuffs into further confinement of the mother whose child is crying]


Ma’am you are just getting detained right

now until we get this all sorted out, okay?

What exactly are you “sorting out?” How do you sort out the murder of an innocent man? What’s to sort? Why do you contain a woman, a mother, a partner, and deny her daughter comfort, so you can “sort out” the “all this?” All this? This human life, you mean? Sort it out? A murderer who is not cuffed while an innocent and traumatized victim is? “All this” is everything – everything wrong with your understanding of justice and humanity and procedure. There is no procedure to follow when yours are the bloodied hands of responsibility, but I assure you that the direct course of action to follow is not to contain a grieving lover and mother who is on her knees before you, who has walked and walked and walked while you refer to the life of her partner as “all this.” Shame on you, Officer.

Mother, I hear your grief. Sweet girl, I hear your crying; Philando, I heard your voice as you spoke before breath left you. You and you and you did not deserve these degrees of despair. You and you and you did not deserve this counterfeit justice which calls itself by the name of human God.

Please don’t tell me

Please don’t tell me Lord Jesus

Please don’t tell me my boyfriend is gone

Please don’t tell me he’s gone

I am so sorry. I am so sorry.



I am so sorry. I am so sorry.


Stand up and walk over here.

You with your orders, quiet down, shut your mouth. You with your power to murder cannot be blind to the grief You and Y’all have caused. You with your fear of repercussion shut up, shut up, and listen to this mother’s, this lover’s, this child’s grief and hear it and know you are responsible. Shut up and listen and see her and see what You and Y’all have done. I wish blood stained skin like it stained Philando’s shirt, like it stained Ms. Reynolds’ empty passenger seat, so you cannot forget. So you cannot turn away from responsibility.

Don’t let him be gone.

I am so sorry.

[Murdering Officer:]


Shut your mouth. This is not a space for your grief or your shock or your incomprehension. You did this. I know you have grown accustomed to being heard and not being questioned and I know it because I, too, am bearing witness to your actions, but please shut your mouth. Are you worrying that we will find out what you’ve done or that you will be held responsible? No worries, remember? No worries, administrative leave is your future. No worries, indictment is not. No worries, your hands clasp through history with the hands of lynch mobs and will be thrown into the archive of the hands of persons unknown. Quiet down. We cannot hear you until a new language is spoken from your mouth.

He started shooting for no reason.

Thank you for your truth. It is a truth that is not to be contested. The media may try, but I believe you. This is a truth of trauma and we as her witness must hear this truth and not tangle it into spectacle. He started shooting for no reason. Thank you for your truth. You and you and you did not deserve this. There was no reason.

[Murdering Officer:]



I am so tired of your voice. Oh, was this an “accident?” Hold your power with the same smugness in which you held your pistol. If to be a man with power is to murder another in front of her lover and child then use that manhood to contain your growls of disbelief.

You wanted his license and registration.

You told him to get it Sir…

We force the victim to remind the perpetrator of reality. Realities which will be called fictions, fictions which will not be acknowledged as reality. Lavish, I am so sorry.

Please don’t tell me my boyfriend is gone.

I am so sorry.

he don’t deserve this

he’s a good man.

he worked at J.J. Hill Montessori School

he had no records of anything

he never been in jail

he not a gang member, anything

You force her to justify Black life to you. We force her to justify Black life to us. Black life does not require justification. Black life does not require justification. Black life does NOT require justification. I believe he was a good man, Lavish. I am so sorry. I am so sorry for the students who he smiled at in the cafeteria having to learn of his death, having to watch it in the news, having to experience a grief that cannot be held. I am so sorry for what we have done to support the system and praise the human God of power that changed your life. I am so sorry. He did not deserve this. You did not deserve this. Your daughter did not deserve this. Your community did not deserve this. Black life does not require a justification.


Please Lord…

that you allow him to be still here with us

wrap your arms around him

the Police Officers are not allowed to just kill these people like this.

spare their heart Lord.

Your name, Diamond, comes from the Greek word meaning indestructible. Diamonds were once imagined to be tears of the gods. The gods weep with you. Your compassion amidst grief which asked the Lord to spare the hearts of murderers in the moment is humanity at its most magnificent depth. I am so sorry. I hope your Lord wraps her arms around Philando and holds him warmly. I hope your Lord folds you into her embrace through your grief. I am so sorry.


You know we are innocent people Lord.

…we are innocent people.

We are innocent.

Your innocence is unquestionable and you did not deserve this. You are innocent people. I hear you. I do not doubt you. I know you are speaking truth. We must consider guilt and innocence as James Baldwin did in a letter to his nephew 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation.

In 1963 he wrote to his nephew:
“I know what the world has done to my brother and how narrowly he has survived it. And I know, which is much worse, and this is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it    and do not want to know it. One can be, indeed one must strive to become, tough and philosophical concerning   destruction and death, for this is what most of mankind has been best at since we have heard of man. (But remember: most of mankind is not all of mankind.) But it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.”

The officer is not innocent. His colleagues who cuffed you and failed to acknowledge your grief are not innocent. The system that supports their actions is not innocent. They are guilty and I see their guilt. We see his guilt.

[Four year-old child:]

I want to give my mommy…

Can you take the handcuffs off me?

I am so sorry you could not hold your daughter.

I am so sorry.


Can you search her?

I can’t. It’s got to be processed.

I can’t.

Is the murdering officer in cuffs? Is he in cuffs as you sort out the all of this? Is he still holding his gun in his hand while the innocent mother’s are clasped behind her back unable to hold her daughter?


I don’t know what kind of condition he’s in

because I’m handcuffed in the back of a police car.

I am so sorry, Diamond. You did not deserve this.


I’m scared mommy

Sweet girl, I am so sorry you are scared and that you should be scared. I am so sorry the police scare you and should scare you. I am so sorry you are scared. You do not deserve to live in fear. I am so sorry.

Don’t be scared.

The strength of a mother, the power of a woman.

It’s okay Mommy.

It’s okay I’m right here with you.

Sweet girl, I don’t know when it became your weight – the grief of the world’s madness. I don’t know when we decided that our nation’s children would have to carry the impossible load of terror and violence on their shoulders and in their spirits, and you do not deserve to have to be so beautifully strong. You are innocent. You deserve that innocence. You are beautiful. Your life does not require justification. Your mother is beautiful. Your mother is strong. I am so sorry you are afraid. You are beautiful.

Y’all please pray for us.

Yes, of course. Of course.  

We have to do so much more. We have to do so much more. If you are forced to keep walking, keep walking, keep walking we have to walk with you, we have to kneel beside you, we have to walk and walk and walk and I want you to know that I will be walking. I will be listening carefully until the powerful pistol-holders who call themselves Gods are blinded by the dust from our tracks. It is only by wiping their eyes clean that they will be able to see. I, and we, will be here walking until you get to rest.  

Inside our Summer 2016 Issue

cover_200Articles in this summer issue are glimpses into the classrooms of educators who are teaching for social justice, defying the notion that schooling should be reduced to test preparation and the training of “successful” workers.

Our cover article, “The Problem with Story Problems,” is from teacher educator Anita Bright, who uncovers troubling biases embedded in story problems in math textbooks—from elementary through high school levels. Bright shows how seemingly neutral math problems are anything but. Instead, they often reinforce racial and gender stereotypes, encourage students to imagine themselves as bosses, reduce workers to sources of profit, and promote consumerism and the acquisition of “stuff.” But Bright also describes how teachers are helping their students think critically about these word problems and repurpose them with more humane and ecological values. Math teachers, she writes, can “create a classroom climate where challenging the status quo is accepted, normal, and encouraged.”

Subscribe Today! Save 20% with code: SubsD16

And that’s just the start. Here’s the full table of contents:
Problem with Story Problems
By Anita Bright
A teacher educator critiques the biases of story problems in math textbooks. Teachers around the country offer creative alternatives.
By Michelle Kenney
The tale of a high school English teacher’s journey into—and out of—formulaic writing programs as her school struggles with high-stakes exams.
By Wendy Harris
Parallels in the oppressive history of residential schools for Native American and Deaf children help Deaf students better understand their history and culture.
By Greg Huntington
A teacher writes about his hopes for the person his child will become—and some of the dangers along the way.


Politics of Paragraph photo

By Michelle Nicola
Latina/o students explore the impact of African roots on Mexican culture and history.


Classrooms of Hope and Critique

By the editors of Rethinking Schools
Letters to the Editor
Schools, Land, and Peace in Colombia

By Bob Peterson
FBI Tells Schools to Spy on Students
Election Rhetoric Harms Students
Our picks for books, videos, websites, and other social justice education resources.
-To really confront the climate crisis,

Abandoning Doubt & Denial, School District Officially Embraces Climate Literacy

By Bill Bigelow

In what may be a first in the nation, this week the Portland, Oregon school board passed a sweeping “climate justice” resolution that commits the school district to “abandon the use of any adopted text material that is found to express doubt about the severity of the climate crisis or its roots in human activity.” The resolution further commits the school district to develop a plan to “address climate change and climate justice in all Portland Public Schools.”

The resolution is the product of a months-long effort by teachers, parents, students, and climate justice activists to press the Portland school district to make “climate literacy” a priority. It grew out of a November gathering of teachers and climate activists sponsored by 350PDX, Portland’s affiliate of the climate justice organization, The group’s resolution was endorsed by more than 30 community organizations. Portland’s Board of Education approved it unanimously late Tuesday evening, cheered by dozens of teachers, students, and activists from 350PDX, the Raging Grannies, Rising Tide, the Sierra Club, Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility, Climate Jobs PDX, and a host of other groups.

“All Portland Public Schools students should develop confidence and passion when it comes to making a positive difference in society, and come to see themselves as activists and leaders for social and environmental justice — especially through seeing the diversity of people around the world who are fighting the root causes of climate change.”

The resolution’s “recitals” — its guiding principles — address the characteristics that the Portland school district seeks to nurture in its students: “All Portland Public Schools students should develop confidence and passion when it comes to making a positive difference in society, and come to see themselves as activists and leaders for social and environmental justice — especially through seeing the diversity of people around the world who are fighting the root causes of climate change; and it is vital that students reflect on local impacts of the climate crisis, and recognize how their own communities and lives are implicated…”

Portland’s resolution also calls for training in green jobs, and notes that “as our society moves rapidly and definitively away from fossil fuels, we will need to prepare our students for robust job opportunities in green technologies, construction, and restoration efforts…”

The school district’s commitment to rid itself of text materials that encourage students to doubt the severity of the climate crisis or its roots in human activity was prompted by the school district’s long use of materials that do just that. One textbook still in use in Portland schools is Physical Science: Concepts in Action, which informs high school students that “Carbon dioxide emissions from motor vehicles, power plants, and other sources may contribute to global warming” — implying that motor vehicles and power plants may not contribute to global warming. The book’s brief section on climate change consistently uses may and might and could to sow doubt about the severity and human causes of climate change.

Another text used with almost all Portland high school students is Holt McDougal’s Modern World History, which includes a scant three paragraphs on climate change, the second of which begins: “Not all scientists agree with the theory of the greenhouse effect.” Presumably, Portland’s new policy will require that these texts be abandoned.

Rather than asking for the adoption of new textbooks, Portland’s resolution imagines a collective process to create and disseminate new materials: The school district will commit itself “to providing teachers, administrators, and other school personnel with professional development, curricular materials, and outdoor and field studies that explore the breadth of causes and consequences of the climate crisis as well as potential solutions that address the root causes of the crisis; and do so in ways that are participatory, imaginative, and respectful of students’ and teachers’ creativity and eagerness to be part of addressing global problems, and that build a sense of personal efficacy and empowerment…”

Portland’s resolution also acknowledges that this curriculum development will not come from education corporations, but needs to be a grassroots process, “drawing on local resources to build climate justice curriculum — especially inviting the participation of people from ‘frontline’ communities, which have been the first and hardest hit by climate change — and people who are here, in part, as climate refugees…”

In their testimony in support of the climate justice resolution, a number of activists mentioned how they were inspired by their participation in the recent “Break Free” demonstrations at the Shell and Tesoro oil refineries in Anacortes, Washington. High school student Gabrielle Lemieux told the school board, “We put our bodies on the line by risking arrest with protests and even a blockade of the railroad tracks leading to two major oil refineries.

“I am 17 years old. While I was there, I was asked several times why at my age, I felt it was necessary to risk arrest by standing with other activists. People said to me, ‘You have a whole lifetime ahead of you to get arrested, to do this kind of work.’

“My response is: We don’t have my lifetime to wait. We don’t even have the couple years it will be before I’m truly an adult. My action starts now, or it works never.”

The school board did not accept all components of the resolution introduced by climate justice activists. One plank called on the school district not “to engage in any partnerships with fossil fuel companies, which offer legitimacy to these companies” — targeting Chevron’s Donors Choose program. Another plank in the activists’ version of the climate justice resolution — which the school board omitted — asked the school district to express solidarity with the recent Portland City Council measure opposing “expansion of infrastructure whose primary purpose is transporting or storing fossil fuels in or through Portland or adjacent waterways.”

Still, climate justice resolution organizers and their many supporters who attended this week’s school board meeting were jubilant after the board’s unanimous vote. The vote was greeted with tears, hugs, high fives, and a standing ovation.

As Lincoln High School teacher Tim Swinehart commented after the vote. “Now the real work begins: transforming the principles of this resolution into the education of climate literate students across the district who feel empowered to work toward a more just and sustainable future.”

Read the full text of the Climate Justice resolution here (pdf).

* * *

Bill Bigelow ( taught high school social studies in Portland schools for many years and co-edited A People’s Curriculum for the Earth: Teaching Climate Change and the Environmental Crisis. He is curriculum editor of Rethinking Schools magazine and is a member of the collective that introduced the climate justice resolution to the Portland school board.

Originally published at on May 20, 2016.

Why I’m voting for MORE

By Adam Sanchez

This article was written by Rethinking Schools editor and New York City public school teacher Adam Sanchez. Rethinking Schools does not make endorsements in elections — whether for political or union office — but we have long been concerned with transforming teacher unions. Given the broad issues that Sanchez raises, we think that his article deserves to be widely read and discussed. For a recent look at social justice unionism in Milwaukee, see Bob Peterson’s “A Revitalized Teacher Union Movement: Reflections from the Field.

MORE supporters speak out against threats to New York City public schools (photo credit: Gloria Brandman)

MAYBE IT’S because I’m fairly new to New York City, but I think it’s important to look at the current teachers’ union elections here from a national perspective. The United Federation of Teachers (UFT) is the largest local in the largest unionized sector in the country. What this means is that what we decide as New York City teachers has an enormous impact on the direction of the national labor movement and immense significance for working-class people in general.

The dominant model of unionism subscribed to since the 1970s by the leadership of UFT and most of the national labor movement is usually referred to as business unionism or service unionism. This model sees the purpose of unions as winning higher wages and better working conditions for members during contract negotiations, while most of the time providing services and administering benefits for its members. Under this model, the primary function of union staff and chapter representatives are to do things for the members — help us get health insurance, help keep our teaching license up to date, and so on.

The business unionist too often tends to think that the bosses and workers are on the same side. In the context of the expanding corporate assault on education, it is true that principals and elected school boards can and should find common cause with teachers to protect public schools under attack. But as the attacks on public schools intensify, it means good, supportive principals are increasingly encouraged to toe the company line or be ousted, and in many major cities like New York City, an elected school board no longer exists.

In this context, the continued focus on backroom deals and political negotiations as a way to defend members’ interests is a dead end. Unfortunately, Unity, the reigning union caucus in New York City, continues to sell itself not on the basis of a platform for the kind of schools teachers, parents and students deserve or should create, but on the claim that they are the best people to negotiate on behalf of teachers with the city and the state. In their words, “Proven Leadership in Challenging Times.”

Business unionists don’t see their primary political job as mobilizing and empowering members to fight for themselves and the communities they serve, but instead, they rely on lawyers, lobbying and legislation to effect change. Now that liberal Mayor Bill de Blasio has replaced billionaire Michael Bloomberg, the job of the union, as the UFT leadership sees it, is to sell de Blasio and the contract it recently negotiated with him to the membership.

This is why its campaign flyer points out that “when UNITY/UFT finally had an administration in City Hall that was listening, we negotiated a contract that made our members whole” and explains away any problems with the recent contract, by blaming Bloomberg who “purposely emptied the city’s labor reserve fund, leaving his successor scant resources to settle expired contracts with every municipal union.” This claim of city bankruptcy to justify concessions, of course, ignores that New York City is home to so much wealth that making $250,000 a year is considered “not New York rich” by the large share of America’s 1 Percenters who live here.

The last crucial aspect of business unionism is related to the other two — that in order to provide services and negotiate with management, you only need a few dedicated leaders, and so democracy is not really that necessary to the every day functioning of the union. So who cares if, for example, our union endorsed Hillary Clinton without a vote from the membership? Or why should we be concerned that the retirees in the UFT, who do not work under the current UFT contract, have a disproportionate impact on the union election outcome?

As Chalkbeat reported during the last UFT election, “Retirees make up a potent, and unusual, voting bloc in the UFT, one of the only labor unions in the country that allows retired members to continue to vote in union elections. They turn out in droves and almost always cast their ballots for the union’s leadership.” One could argue that the retiree vote — which makes up around a third of all votes cast in the election — are the “superdelegates” of the UFT.

BUT SINCE the 2008 economic crisis, there has been a surge in support for a different model of union leadership. This model is often called social justice or social movement unionism. Most famously, the social justice caucus in Chicago, the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE), was elected to union office in 2010 and has been leading the Chicago Teachers Union in a series of important confrontations against Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s corporate school agenda.

Chicago teachers’ fight for the schools students deserve has inspired similar struggles in Milwaukee, Wisconsin; St. Paul, Minnesota; Portland, Oregon — where I formerly taught — and elsewhere. And while less publicized, there have been important recent victories for social justice union caucuses in Los Angeles and San Francisco, as well as strong showings of support for social justice caucuses in Philadelphia and Seattle teacher union elections. The MORE caucus in New York City, is part of this growing movement to transform teacher unions and the labor movement more broadly.

Social movement unionism emphasizes that workers must engage in a struggle, based on mass action, with those in power. Wall Street got bailed out while public schools got sold out. Whether it’s Bill de Blasio or Michael Bloomberg, politicians refuse to tax the wealthy to make up for the more than 300,000 teachers jobs that have been lost since the 2008 recession — let alone provide schools with the resources needed to improve and enrich education.

To better our working conditions and our students’ learning conditions, the union’s job is not simply to negotiate the best contract we can while accepting the current dire circumstances, but to mobilize our members to create new possibilities. This is why MORE members have recently organized protests for paid parental leave, a basic human right that is shamefully denied to teachers in the wealthiest city in the wealthiest country on earth.

Furthermore, social justice unionism sees the purpose of unions as fighting for a broader vision of society. In schools, this means in addition to wages and benefits, fighting for lower class sizes, academic freedom and time to create meaningful social justice curriculum and to tailor instruction to our students’ needs. But it also means pushing the fight beyond our members’ interests and building an organization that can fight for the communities in which we serve and the broader working class. And this means that unions should join the fight for Black Lives Matter, against deporting immigrants, for addressing climate change, and so on.

Social justice unionists believe that by linking these movements with organized labor we will make both struggles stronger. Furthermore, this kind of solidarity is the only path to winning the schools and communities that we deserve.

Lastly, those who believe in this model realize that we can’t effectively fight as a union unless it is deeply democratic and encourages participation at every level from teachers, parents and students. As labor activist and education professor Lois Weiner writes in The Future of Our Schools:

Though business unionism is touted as more efficient because officers and staff are experts, it is more impractical. Given the horrific attacks on unions and teachers, business unionism is suicidal. No small group of officers, however intelligent or conscientious, can by themselves, or with the help of dwindling number of politicians supporting public education, substitute for the informed involvement of a mobilized membership.

I’m voting for MORE not just because I want to exchange one group of leaders for a better group of leaders. But I’m voting for MORE for similar reasons to why millions of people around the country have voted for Bernie Sanders and his political revolution. The right-wing turn this country has taken since the struggles of the 1960s and ’70s has been a disaster for working people. A real political revolution in this country would need to include a break with the dead-end politics of business unionism and a new model for workers’ struggle and solidarity.

The attack on workers and our living standards needs to come to an end. Unions — and in particular, teachers as the largest sector of unionized workers — can play a crucial role in that fight.

Originally published at on May 16, 2016.


A People’s Curriculum for the Earth

By Tim Swinehart

APCE cover“We can’t hunt [because] the ice is receding. People are going hungry,” says one voice. “Us, too! It’s food. We can’t grow it in the desert,” says another. The speakers are my students, who have taken on the voices of different indigenous people during a role play on the impact of climate change. The exercise is included in A People’s Curriculum for the Earth, a book I recently co-edited on teaching about the environmental crisis.

The students are representing First Peoples as far-ranging as the Yup’ik of Alaska, the Bambara of sub-Saharan Africa, and the Aymara of Bolivia. The list is diverse, but all of the populations share one thing: They all suffer from catastrophic climate disruptions. Rather than simply lecturing or having students read about these changes, I want students to bring them to life in the classroom. Their task? To share experiences and articulate demands for the rest of the world — especially for those who control fossil fuel reserves.



The effects of human-caused climate change already can be seen.

One aim of the lesson is to help students recognize that some of the world’s poorest people — and those least responsible for greenhouse gas emissions — are the first to suffer the consequences of a warming planet. This is a point that was made dramatically by Pope Francis in his 2015 encyclical on the environment, in which the pontiff argues that those most threatened by climate change are the global poor — the billions of people around the world who are currently experiencing the worst effects of a rapidly changing climate. With them in mind, the pope called for an approach that “integrate(s) questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor.” This “interdisciplinary” approach is one that educators also should embrace.

Our best curricular attempts to engage students come when we cross the boundaries of disciplines, in this case joining a scientific investigation of global warming with a social inquiry of how people are affected by a changing climate — and what we all can do about it.

‘Fix the problems…’

One lesson I’ve taught exemplifies these connections and is included in A People’s Curriculum for the Earth. It is “The Mystery of the 3 Scary Numbers,” written by co-editor Bill Bigelow, the curriculum editor of Rethinking Schools. In this lesson, students receive clues and try to figure out the significance of the “three scary numbers”: 2-degrees Celsius, the temperature rise that, if exceeded, would likely trigger a point of climate noreturn; 565 gigatons of carbon, the amount of carbon that can be burned without pushing a 2-degree rise; and 2,795 gigatons of carbon, the amount of proven reserves of coal, oil, and gas that corporations and countries have ready to exploit and burn. During class, students mingle to discuss their clues, and slowly piece together the frightening significance of these numbers. It’s a math lesson, a science lesson, and a social studies lesson all rolled into one.

Afterward, in class discussion, students wrestle with the implications of this playful, but sobering, activity. Should fossil fuel companies be left to decide the fate of the Earth? If not, how should the rest of us respond?

Our classrooms are an important venue in the struggle for a livable planet. We have an opportunity to put the most important crisis facing humanity at the center of our curriculum — and to do it in a way that brings hope to our students, who have been told for much of their lives that it’s up to their generation to “fix the problems” being passed on to them. If we can bring to life the stories of indigenous groups, anti-fossil fuel activists, and communities around the world who are working toward a saner and more equitable social and ecological order, our students can begin to see themselves as part of a larger movement.

Teaching about climate change can be overwhelming. In fact, it probably should overwhelm us at times if we grasp the enormity of the issues in the way scientists suggest we should. But by teaching the crisis through imaginative curriculum, and telling the stories of the people most affected and the movements struggling for environmental and social justice, our students can also find the hope and collective strength to work toward a better future.

A Classroom Resource Guide: CLIMATE CHANGE

These are just a few of the resources compiled by NEA Healthy Futures to help educators teach about climate change. For more, visit


Tim Swinehart teaches at Lincoln High School in Portland, Ore., and is a member of the Portland Association of Teachers (NEA). He coedited A People’s Curriculum for the Earth: Teaching Climate Change and the Environmental Crisis, available at

Originally published at

Opting Out of the Education Reform Industry

By Wayne Au and Jesslyn Hollar

mr-067-10-2016-03-100x146This article is part of Monthly Review’s March issue, “Opt Out!”. Wayne Au is an associate professor in the School of Educational Studies at the University of Washington at Bothell and an editor at Rethinking Schools. Jesslyn Hollar is a doctoral student at the University of Washington and director of the Alternative Pathways to Teaching program at Central Washington University.

We believe the opportunity to build numerous multi-billion dollar education enterprises is finally real. The biggest investment opportunity is where there is a problem — the bigger the problem, the bigger the opportunity. There is no bigger problem in the global knowledge economy today than how to effectively educate our populace.

— GSV Advisors, 2012 1

Big business has long been enamored of public education. Whether shaping systems of schooling along the lines of factory production, dictating what children should learn, or cultivating private-public partnerships to gain access to government monies, corporations and their owners have insisted on being key players in the formation of education policy and practice in the United States. Analysts estimate the value of the K-12 education market at more than $700 billion dollars.2 Beyond their calls for students and workers to adapt to the global capitalist economy through increased competition and “accountability” in public schools, business leaders crave access to a publicly funded, potentially lucrative market — one of the last strongholds of the commons to be penetrated by neoliberalism.3

Business investors and entrepreneurs are already capitalizing on the increasingly privatized education market. GSV Capital is a growth investment company with a sizeable portfolio in education products, including education technology start-ups and online instructional programs. K12 Inc. is a for-profit, mostly online charter school start-up, which, despite operating “public” charter schools, as a publicly traded company, is beholden to the bottom-line demands of its investors and board members. MasteryConnect is just one of hundreds of new ed-tech companies aiding the rollout of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).4

Venture capitalists and start-ups are not the only groups cashing in on the privatization of public education. So too are established multinational corporations like Pearson and the Educational Testing Service, which control massive portions of the “education industry.” Pearson is paid to create tests, which it is then also paid to administer and grade. The company accordingly markets a slew of test “support tools” for consumers to purchase, including test preparation materials, test-aligned textbooks, mobile apps, and computer software. In an education industry dependent on market competition to increase profitability, there is no better tool to turn teaching and learning into products — ready to measure, compare, and sell — than the high-stakes standardized tests championed by the contemporary education reform movement.

A Nation At Risk: Standardized Tests as Metrics for Mediocrity

The current era of corporate education reform began with the 1983 publication of the Reagan administration’s report A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Education Reform, prepared by a committee of prominent professors, politicians, teachers, and business executives.5 Not only did the report attack many of the equity-minded federal education reforms that preceded it, A Nation at Risk also manufactured a narrative of public education in crisis, steeped in the language of Cold War military paranoia: “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war,” the authors wrote. “We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.”6 The report also recommended test scores as an essential metric of student learning—the first major use of testing as a tool to convert teaching and learning into data to be measured, compared, and consumed.

The impact of A Nation at Risk was profound. Within a year of its publication, fifty-four state-level commissions on education were created, and twenty-six states raised graduation requirements. Three years later, thirty-five states had instituted comprehensive state education reforms that revolved around standardized testing and increased course loads for students. By 1994, forty-three states had statewide assessments for K-5, and by 2000, every state but Iowa administered at least one state-mandated test.7

Since the report appeared, major business leaders have been consistently and directly involved in U.S. federal education policy. During George H. W. Bush’s and Bill Clinton’s presidential terms, as high-stakes testing was being formally enshrined in state and federal education law, the business community maintained continued influence. Under Bush, David Kearns, the former chair of the Xerox Corporation, was hired by then Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander to develop national academic standards, and during the Clinton administration, corporate executives endorsed the creation of a National Skills Standards Board as part of the Goals 2000 legislation, and similarly supported the School-to-Work Opportunities Act.8

The influence of business on the education policy narrative has also trickled down into the language and structures of school life. As education historian Larry Cuban observes:

Other business influences also have become obvious. School boards renamed superintendents CEOs and their deputies “chief operating officers” and “chief academic officers.” Many urban school boards have inserted performance clauses in their superintendents’ contracts that pay bonuses when students’ test scores rise. Many districts have “outsourced” to private firms transportation, building maintenance, food services, security, purchasing, and, in some instances, entire schools. School policymakers and administrators (but rarely teachers) salt their vocabulary with such terms as “satisfying the customer,” “benchmarking,” and “marketing our services.” District administrators have imported from the private sector such business mainstays as marketing studies, strategic planning and “total quality management.”9

Groups like the Business Roundtable (BRT) further illustrate the increased influence of the interests of capital on federal education policy. The BRT was founded in 1972 as an association of corporate CEOs who took up the mission of analyzing and advising on issues affecting the U.S. economy. In 1989 a group of Roundtable CEOs from the largest 218 corporations met and decided how best to implement the National Education Goals developed by state governors, and by 1995, the BRT had established what they termed the “Nine Essential Components of a Successful Education System.” As might be expected, the BRT advocated high-stakes testing and national standards, and a careful look at the list reveals a notable coincidence: each of the Nine Essential Components were included in the design of No Child Left Behind.10

No Child Left Behind, Accountability, and Corporate Education Reform

In 2002, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) was passed into law with bipartisan support, and it was built almost entirely around the use of high-stakes testing to trigger school reform. NCLB required that all students be tested in grades three through eight, and once again in high school, in reading and math. The accountability measures imposed by NCLB implicitly rejected any argument that racial and economic achievement gaps were the result of broad societal inequities, such as the effects of poverty. Instead, schools and teachers became either saviors or scapegoats in the narrative of education reform.11

This federal policy paved the way for private wealth accumulation from public education funds. If schools did not show improvement on state tests, meeting Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) goals for test score growth by race, economic class, special education, and English language proficiency, among other categories, they would face severe sanctions, ranging from the diversion of federal monies intended for tutoring, transportation, and other “supplemental services,” to a total loss of federal funding. Additionally, NCLB decreed that all students in all subgroups were expected to test at 100 percent proficiency by 2014, and schools with persistently low test scores would be subject to further sanctions, including reconstitution under new management.12

Corporate influence likewise shaped the logic of NCLB, which established a policy paradigm for schools, districts, students, teachers, and states to compete with each other within what was conceived as an educational marketplace. In this vision, failing schools would be shut down or reorganized, and successful schools would attract more students, now recast as consumers seeking the best product. As George W. Bush asserted in a presidential campaign speech delivered to a conservative think-tank, the Manhattan Institute:

Federal funds will no longer flow to failure. Schools that do not teach and will not change must have some final point of accountability. A moment of truth, when their Title 1 funds are divided up and given to parents, for tutoring or a charter school or some other hopeful option. In the best case, schools that are failing will rise to the challenge and regain the confidence of parents. In the worst case, we will offer scholarships to America’s neediest children.13

Thus, schools would become like any other business enterprise, where efficiency and competition rule. In this model, “bad” educational producers go out of business and are removed from the market, while “superior” educational producers survive and thrive—the same logic advanced by charter school advocates now. NCLB was significant not only because it codified the neoliberalization of federal education policy; it also opened the gates for commercial access to the public funds supporting public education, entrenching the already-dominant corporate power and influence over federal education policy.

Public Monies for the Private Good

As states rushed to comply with NCLB’s testing mandates, corporations reaped the rewards. The testing industry has become a premier example of the neoliberal project of creating private markets from public goods. As educational researcher Patricia Burch explains:

Test development firms have sought to use NCLB mandates to attract new business. Major suppliers of test development and preparation firms explicitly reference the No Child Left Behind Act on their Web pages, and several named the law as spurring revenue in their recent financial statements. In addition, they all have links to the Department of Education’s Web site on No Child Left Behind, and include in their marketing materials references to how their products can help districts comply with NCLB.14

The Education Sector, an independent education think tank, reported that during the 2005–2006 school year alone, the twenty-three states that had not yet fully implemented NCLB’s testing requirements would have had to administer 11.4 million new tests in reading and math to meet the federal mandate. This was in addition to the estimated 45 million K-12 tests already required under NCLB at the time.15

The testing market, likewise, reached incredible heights in the wake of NCLB. Sales of test-related printed materials rose from $211 million in 1992 to $592 million in 2003, and for-profit companies offering NCLB-related content and services to school districts saw revenues of nearly $1.62 billion in that same year.16 Eduventures, Inc. estimated that the total value of the tests, test-prep materials, and testing services in 2006 in the United States was $2.3 billion. This total included $517 million for all NCLB related test development, publishing, administering, analyzing, and reporting during the 2005-2006 school year alone. Eduventures also estimated that 90 percent of the revenues generated by statewide testing was collected by only a handful of companies including, Pearson Educational Measurement, CTB/McGraw-Hill, Harcourt Assessment Inc., Riverside Publishing (a subsidiary of Houghton Mifflin), and the Educational Testing Service.17

Race to the Top: Funding Neoliberal Education Reform

In 2009, as popular dissent and a divided Congress left the federal government unable to secure reauthorization of NCLB, the Obama administration developed the Race to the Top (RTTT) grant competition. The money for this grant came from the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act of 2009—itself the result of the risky investments made by banks and investors that brought on the 2007–2009 financial crisis. With state budgets shrinking during the Great Recession, the $4.35 billion dollars attached to RTTT was a tantalizing carrot for state education departments. However, the grant came with strings attached, ones directly aligned with the corporate drive to privatize public education. RTTT explicitly rewarded applicants for implementing market-based education reforms, including high-stakes testing, support for charter schools, large data systems for evaluations, and restructuring plans for “failing” schools.18

RTTT also added support for two key policies that NCLB did not: using test score gains or losses to evaluate teacher effectiveness (sold as “models of value added measurement”), and a commitment to “common standards”—which in this case meant adoption of the Common Core State Standards, since no other national standards existed for states to use. Now, instead of just mandatory annual testing and punitive measures for struggling schools, cash-strapped states—who had little choice but to pursue the multi-billion-dollar grant money—were made to implement specific federally supported education reforms.19In the end, despite the Obama administration’s efforts to distance itself from NCLB, and the failure of NCLB’s testing mandates (in particular the mandated but statistically impossible 100 percent proficiency rates), the act’s design provided the policy blueprint that led to RTTT. The latter only further entrenched high-stakes testing, and extended nearly every other neoliberal measure of NCLB into state and federal education policy.

Neoliberalism, Bill Gates, and the Common Core

The story of the Common Core illustrates just how tightly the logic of neoliberalism has grown intertwined with federal education policy. From the start, the CCSS was developed with the support and influence of corporate interests. In April 2009, Achieve, Inc. was contracted by the National Governors Association to develop national standards in reading and math. Spearheaded by David Coleman, these workgroups were staffed almost entirely by employees of major testing companies like the ACT and the College Board, accountability and school-choice advocacies like America’s Choice, Student Achievement Partners, and the Hoover Institute, as well as employees of Achieve Inc. itself. Several members of the workgroups also had direct ties to Pearson.20 In all, twenty-four people—only one of whom was a K-12 teacher—drafted the initial standards, and while these were sent out for feedback, this original workgroup of twenty-four was given final power over the CCSS.21

Corporate interests were also involved in the development of assessments tied to the CCSS. Pearson has contracts with two new groups—the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers—to help develop and administer the tests and assist in their rollout.22 The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation also played a concerted role in the development, adoption, and introduction of the CCSS, paying out $233 million in grants to the organizations involved, as well as to think tanks that produced reports supportive of the CCSS, and to strategists engaged in “public-policy philanthropy,” promoting the standards and pushing for their adoption at the state level.23 Federally, the influence of the Gates Foundation went far beyond mere money: then-Secretary of Education Arne Duncan hired a senior Gates Foundation official to be his chief of staff, a Gates Foundation program officer to head his office of innovation, and a former chief operation officer of the Gates-funded New Schools Venture Fund to lead the RTTT grant initiative.24

The Gates Foundation’s efforts proved extremely effective. The first public draft of the CCSS was released on March 10, 2010, and the “final recommendations” were released less than three months later. States seeking to compete for RTTT money were required to adopt the CCSS by August 2, 2010. By 2011, all but ten states had adopted the CCSS, and by 2013 all but five states were on board.25 Undergirding the Gates Foundation’s commitment to the CCSS was the neoliberal belief that free markets will cure public education’s problems. In 2009, in the run-up to the mass adoption of the CCSS, Bill Gates remarked: “When the tests are aligned to the common standards, the curriculum will line up as well—and that will unleash powerful market forces in the service of better teaching. For the first time, there will be a large base of customers eager to buy products that can help every kid learn and every teacher get better.”26

The CCSS are a huge financial windfall for testing companies, consultants, and other education corporations. The Fordham Institute estimated that the CCSS cost $12.1 billion from 2012 to 2015.27 The conservative Pioneer Institute and American Principles Project estimate a mid-range cost of $15.8 billion over seven years for the CCSS, with $1.2 billion spent on assessments, $5.3 billion on professional development, and $6.9 billion for tech infrastructure and support.28 According to the New York Times, in part due to the CCSS, venture capital investment in public education has increased 80 percent since 2005, to a total of $632 million in 2012, a figure that has no doubt increased since.29 Bill Gates and Microsoft have cashed in on this lucrative market: in February 2014, Microsoft announced it was partnering with Pearson to install Pearson’s Common Core materials onto Microsoft’s Surface tablet.30

The Future of Testing

It is critical to recognize that all of this profit-making from new standards and standards-aligned materials, as well as the more general perversion of public education into a competitive marketplace, relies on high-stakes standardized testing. The entire education reform industry depends on the data produced by these tests, because tests render children, teachers, administrators, schools, districts, institutions, and communities into numbers. In this rendering, social and historical conditions, complex issues of power and culture, even the life and spirit of people, are flattened into simple quantities for inspection, comparison, and ranking. In turn, test scores become a form of currency, used as the basis for decisions about educational “choice,” school closures, charter schools, and the evaluation of teachers and schools. Within the neoliberal educational framework, test scores become both the means and ends of education, alienating students and teachers from their labor while turning the test scores themselves into fetishized commodities that obscure the very people they purport to represent.31

ESSA: The Everything Stays the Same Act

As of this writing, NCLB has been declared deceased, and RTTT seems to have withered and vanished in the triumphant narrative surrounding NCLB’s demise. Now, victory has been declared in the next generation of U.S. federal education policy, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), signed into law by President Obama in December 2015. However, it will come as no surprise that despite growing nationwide resistance, the federal government has reaffirmed its commitment to annual high-stakes standardized testing and accountability measures, and to linking those scores to school funding. Coupled with the continued testing and accountability fetish are dangerous provisions that will serve to diminish the quality of the teaching workforce in favor of a competitive teacher preparation market, whose graduates’ worth will be measured by their ability to raise student test scores, and little else. So although federal education policy now operates under a new name, in the ESSA we still have the same testing, conceived within the same neoliberal framework.

All of which makes the Opt Out movement so critical. High-stakes tests provide the data that is the very fuel of the corporate education reform machine. By opting out of these tests, students, parents, and teachers have the power to take away the data. With the data seized and the machine deprived of its fuel, the corporate reformers cannot produce public education for private gain. This is why opting out is so threatening to the reform industry—and it should be.


  1. Michael T. Moe et al., “Revolution 2.0: How Education Innovation Is Going to Revitalize America and Transform the U.S. Economy,” GSV Asset Management, July 4, 2012,
  2. National Center for Educational Statistics, Digest of Educational Statistics, 2012,
  3. Michael Fabricant and Michelle Fine,The Changing Politics of Education: Privatization and the Dispossessed Lives Left Behind (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2013).
  4. Lee Fang, “Venture Capitalists Are Poised to ‘Disrupt’ Everything About the Education Market,”The Nation, September 25, 2014.
  5. National Commission on Excellence in Education,A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, 1983), 65. The full report is available at
  6. Ibid., 5.
  7. Wayne Au,Unequal by Design: High-Stakes Testing and the Standardization of Inequality (New York: Routledge, 2009).
  8. Larry Cuban,The Blackboard and the Bottom Line: Why Schools Can’t Be Businesses (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004).
  9. Ibid., 63.
  10. Kathy Emery and Susan Ohanian,Why Is Corporate America Bashing Our Public Schools? (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2004).
  11. Au,Unequal by Design.
  12. Ibid.
  13. George W. Bush, “A Culture of Achievement,” speech delivered in New York City, October 5, 1999.
  14. Patricia Ellen Burch, “The New Educational Privatization: Educational Contracting and High Stakes Accountability,”Teachers College Record 108, no. 12 (2006): 2582–610.
  15. Thomas Toch,Margins of Error: The Education Testing Industry in the No Child Left Behind Era (Washington, D.C.: Education Sector, 2006).
  16. Burch, “The New Educational Privatization.”
  17. J. Mark Jackson and Eric Bassett,The State of the K-12 State Assessment Market (Boston: Eduventures, 2005).
  18. U.S. Department of Education,Race to the Top Program Executive Summary (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, 2009).
  19. Ibid.
  20. William J. Mathis, “The ‘Common Core’ Standards Initiative: An Effective Reform Tool?” Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice, July 2010,
  21. Mercedes Schneider, “Those 24 Common Core 2009 Work Group Members,” deutsch29 blog,
  22. Mercedes Schneider, “Incompetent Pearson ‘Wins’ PARCC Contract. Big Surprise,” deutsch29 blog, May 2, 2014.
  23. Lyndsey Layton, “How Bill Gates Pulled Off the Swift Common Core Revolution,”Washington Post, June 7, 2014.
  24. Michael Klonsky, “Power Philanthropy: Taking the Public Out of Public Education,” in Philip E. Kovacs, ed.,The Gates Foundation and the Future of U.S. “Public” Schools (New York: Routledge, 2011), 21–38.
  25. Mathis, “The ‘Common Core’ Standards Initiative.”
  26. Bill Gates, speech delivered to the National Conference of State Legislatures, July 21, 2009.
  27. Patrick Murphy and Elliot Regenstein with Keith McNamara,Putting a Price Tag on the Common Core: How Much Will Smart Implementation Cost? (Washington, D.C.: Thomas B. Fordham Institute, 2012).
  28. Common Core State Standards Estimated Cost is $16 Billion for States,” Pioneer Institute, February 22, 2012,
  29. Motoko Rich, “NewSchools Fund Attracts More Capital,”New York Times, April 30, 2013.
  30. Layton, “How Bill Gates Pulled Off the Swift Common Core Revolution.”
  31. Au,Unequal by Design.

Originally published at on March 1, 2016.