Former Stand activists speak out on ballot initiative

Rethinking Schools supporter and education activist Alain Jehlen is involved in an organized effort to halt the corporate-driven reform agenda of Stand for Children.  Here’s the latest from Alain, including a call to action.

by Alain Jehlen

In the fall 2011 issue of Rethinking Schools, Ken Libby and Adam Sanchez described how Stand for Children abandoned its grassroots and started promoting the corporate, anti-union agenda of the Gates and Walton Family foundations at the same time that the foundations began pouring millions of dollars into Stand’s coffers.

My sidebar article on Massachusetts told the stories of local leaders who quit the organization in disgust when Stand pushed aside their priorities to get with the new national program.

But these activists didn’t go away. Now, many of them are fighting against Stand’s latest Massachusetts effort, a ballot initiative that would restrict collective bargaining and have the effect of handing more power to school administrators. At last count, 55 former Stand activists had signed an open letter blasting Stand for doing the corporations’ dirty work.

“The proposed ballot measure . . . does nothing to improve teaching in our schools,” they wrote. “What it does is put the careers of our teachers at the mercy of an untested rating system, violating the recommendations of the people who designed that system.

“We fear the result would be to drive some of our best teachers away from the schools that need them most.

“This ballot measure fits the ideology of its corporate sponsors, but it is not what we want for those who teach our children. Most of all, it is not what we want for our children.”

Among the biggest contributors to Stand for Children in Massachusetts are principals in Bain Capital, the private equity company co-founded by Mitt Romney.

Read the letter—and sign on if you’re a former Stand member.

“No History Is Illegal” Campaign: Pledge to Support Tucson

Dear Rethinking Schools friends,

As we wrote earlier, on Jan. 13, we learned that our book Rethinking Columbus had been banned in Tucson schools as part of Arizona’s broader suppression of the successful Mexican American Studies (MAS) program. We asked for ideas about how we could oppose the attacks on this program and act in solidarity with teachers and students there.

Rethinking Schools readers flooded us with comments and ideas. Thanks to all of you who wrote, called, posted on our Facebook page, and commented here on our blog posts. What a great community of conscience you are.

Rethinking Schools invites you to join the effort launched today, February 1, by the national Teacher Activist Groups (TAG) network: “No History Is Illegal: A Campaign to Save Our Stories“–by teaching lessons from and about the banned Mexican American Studies program. Visit the “No History Is Illegal” website, where you’ll find curriculum materials from the Mexican American Studies program as well as teaching ideas and resources developed by TAG teachers around the country.

Here’s the TAG “pledge,” which Rethinking Schools supports:

“In solidarity with the students and teachers in the Mexican American Studies program in Tucson, AZ, I pledge my support to teach and raise awareness about their struggle and to ensure that the perspectives and stories of historically marginalized populations are kept alive in our classrooms and communities.”

Sign on here.

And check out this Saturday’s “Teach-In on Tucson,” at Georgia State University, sponsored by Georgians for fREADom. They’ll be live streaming for those of us not in Georgia.

Rethinking Columbus bannedFinally, many of you have generously offered to buy copies of Rethinking Columbus and other banned books to send to students and teachers in Tucson. As you know, the book-ban is really just “collateral damage.” It’s the entire Mexican American Studies program that Arizona right-wingers have set out to crush.

Nonetheless, there are a number of efforts underway to get books into the hands of students and teachers there — including one we just learned about initiated by The People’s Library at Occupy Wall Street, which is collecting donations to send the seven banned Mexican American Studies program books to Tucson. We’ll keep you posted about these and other efforts.

Thanks for your important work, and for your support of Rethinking Schools.

Zombie NCLB still stalking our schools

Stan Karpby Stan Karp

Anniversaries are often cause for celebration… but the 10th anniversary of No Child Left Behind is mostly a time for damage assessment. A new report from FairTest sums up the fallout from the “lost decade of NCLB:” stagnating test scores, narrowed curriculum but not narrowed achievement gaps, extra collateral damage for the most vulnerable students and communities.

This massive, bipartisan, wrong turn in federal education policy has been a colossal failure, even on its own test-score terms, and the damage will continue until we force a change in federal policy.

NCLB dramatically expanded the federal role in education, but transformed it for the worse. It shifted federal policy away from its historic role as a promoter of access and equity in public education through support for things like school integration, Title I funding for high poverty schools, and services for students with special needs. Instead, it mandated top-down micromanagement of assessment and “accountability” policies that Washington had no clue about or capacity to do well. This bad law helped consolidate the shift of decision-making about teaching and learning away from educators and classrooms to state and federal bureaucracies.

NCLB’s mandate to test every kid every year in every grade and measure the results against benchmarks that no real schools had ever met was never a credible “accountability” system. It was an enabling mechanism for creating a narrative of public school failure and imposing sanctions that were not educational strategies at all, but political strategies designed to promote privatization and market reform.

This approach predictably produced profiteering and educational chaos. “This reads like our business plan,” said the CEO of Pearson, Inc., when he first saw the plans for NCLB. It’s been a gold-rush decade for textbook and test publishers.

But for schools, teachers, parents and students, it’s been a nightmare. NCLB’s testing mania seeped into every classroom and its sanctions fueled the rush to deregulated charters and teacher bashing. By the end of 2011, nearly 50,000 schools failed to meet NCLB’s absurd annual yearly progress targets. All 50 states had considered legislation rejecting all or part of NCLB and the law was almost as unpopular as the Congress that created it. The bipartisan coalition that originally passed NCLB was in shambles and the law was collapsing of its own weight.

Yet NCLB continues, zombie-like, to threaten schools with sanctions and bombard them with mandated tests. Like a bad Hollywood horror movie, it is also spawning sequels. Given an opportunity to learn from a decade of policy failure, the Obama Administration and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan instead doubled down on NCLB’s “test and punish” approach to reform. Much as it traded one destructive war in Iraq for another in Afghanistan, the Administration morphed one counterproductive set of education policies into another.

Obama-Duncan’s Race to The Top uses the same flawed test score tools to drill deeper into the fabric of schooling. Where NCLB imposed penalties on schools and students (e.g., grade retention, diploma denial), test-based sanctions are now increasingly targeted at teachers. Left unchecked, these trends will undermine the teaching profession and create a less experienced, less secure, less stable and less expensive professional staff.

Duncan has also pioneered new directions in bad policy, distributing federal education dollars through “competitive grants” to “winners” at the expense of “losers,” and bribing states to adopt the Administration’s unproven pet reforms. Unable to secure Congressional agreement to reauthorize NCLB, Duncan devised a dubious waiver process that will increase the pressure on 5,000 schools serving the poorest communities at a time of unprecedented economic crisis and budget cutting. While the waiver plan rolls back NCLB’s AYP (adequate yearly progress) system as it was about to self-destruct, Duncan’s new guidelines require states to identify up to 15% of their schools with the lowest scores for unproven “turnarounds,” “charterization,” or closure.

It’s increasingly clear that we will only get the changes we need in federal education policy when pressure forces them from below. We need to occupy education policy the same way we need to occupy Wall Street. This is one reason we should mark the 10th anniversary not only by redoubling efforts to get rid of this bad framework for federal education policy, but by remembering those who saw the disaster coming and sounded the alarm from the beginning.

While politicians and pundits led the race over the cliff, there were many educators and advocates who were speaking truth to power: the much-missed Jerry Bracey, Susan Ohanian, Alfie Kohn, Monty Neill and FairTest, Deborah Meier, Bill Mathis, Richard Allington, George Wood, and many others, including Rethinking Schools, saw through NCLB’s false promises and hollow rhetoric from the start. That’s worth remembering too as we chart the way forward to a better, post-NCLB future.

 Related Resources:

Rethinking School ReformRethinking School Reform puts classrooms and teaching at the center of the debate over how to improve public schools. This collection offers a primer on a broad range of pressing issues, including school vouchers and funding, multiculturalism, standards and testing, teacher unions, bilingual education, and federal education policy.Informed by the experience and passion of teachers who walk daily into real classrooms, Rethinking School Reform examines how various reform efforts promote — or prevent — the kind of teaching that can bring equity and excellence to all our children, and it provides compelling, practical descriptions of what such teaching looks like. Edited by Linda Christensen and Stan Karp.

Failing Our Kids

The long arm of standardized testing is reaching into every nook and cranny of education. Yet relying on standardized tests distorts student learning, exacerbates inequities for low-income students and students of color, and undermines true accountability. Failing Our Kids includes more than 50 articles that provide a compelling critique of standardized tests and also outline alternative ways to assess how well our children are learning. Edited by Kathy Williams and Barbara Miner

Coming soon!

Pencils Down: Rethinking High Stakes Testing and Accountability in Public Schools, edited by Wayne Au and Melissa Bollow Tempel.

Children’s Literature for the 99%

by Elizabeth Marshall

Children’s literature is inherently political, whether it upholds social and economic inequality or resists it. For educators, the Occupy Wall Street movement offers an opportunity to think about children’s and young adult books that deal with issues of equality and economic justice. What kinds of stories do adults tell children about social class?

Below are some titles that deal explicitly with economics and inequality, its causes and its potential remedies. To be sure, these are not the only children’s and young adult texts available that explore and explicitly critique the relationship between boss and worker, work and money, but they offer a place to begin. The three books described below serve as examples within a larger set of texts that aim to challenge the status quo, some more radically than others.

Tales for Little Rebels: A Collection of Radical Children’s Literature

Tales for Little RebelsJulia Mickenberg and Philip Nel’s anthology, Tales for Little Rebels, offers a history of radical literature for children. Their collection focuses on works published in the United States in the 20th century. The anthology includes fiction and nonfiction, poems, biographies, and illustrations from what Mickenberg and Nel define as “left of center” authors and artists, including Lucille Clifton, Syd Hoff, Langston Hughes, Munro Leaf, Eve Merriam, Julius Lester, and Dr. Seuss.

Herb Kohl reviewed Tales for Little Rebels for Rethinking Schools in the winter 2008/2009 issue. He wrote that, “Taken as a whole, the book reveals a unique, vibrant, imaginative, and energetic left-wing tradition of writing for young people.” The book includes reproductions of the original (and often out of print) texts. Two sections, “Work, Workers, and Money” and “Organize” would be most relevant for discussions about labor, economics, power, and the unequal distribution of wealth.

One excellent example is “Mr. His: A Children’s Story for Anybody” written and illustrated by Syd Hoff (author of Danny and the Dinosaur and other successful children’s books) under the pseudonym A. Redfield and published in 1939 by New Masses press. In this book, a rich capitalist named Mr. His lives in a small town called Histown because “everything in it was his.” Mr. His skips through the street each day with a paper and pencil, calculating profits and singing. Mr. His has no friends in the town as the townspeople hide from him.

The poor people would peep through their windows and shiver. They didn’t know it made Mr. His very happy to see they were afraid of him       and that they were doing nothing to improve their lot. For there were no strikes in Histown—and no picket lines and no unions. The newspapers, which Mr. His owned, too, said that these things were wicked. (Mickenberg & Nel, p. 125)

One day as Mr. His “was dreaming of a way to get all the air in Histown into cans so the people would have to buy it from him,” he looks out the window and sees the townspeople holding signs of protest. Mr. His tries to divert them by running a newspaper story that encourages the people in town to see each other as the enemy, but they don’t fall for it. Mr. His is run out of town by a large group, who march through the streets chanting, “We’re tired of being stepped on! Now we are stepping forward!” In the end, wealth is redistributed and the town renamed Ourtown, where “The fields of wheat and corn, the fruit trees, the great mines—everything belongs to the people.”

Click, Clack, Moo Cows That TypeClick, Clack, Moo

In this contemporary picture book written by Doreen Cronin and illustrated by Betsy Lewin, the cows on a farm organize for better working conditions.

After finding an old typewriter, the cows post a note on the barn door that reads, “Dear Farmer Brown, The farm is very cold at night. We’d like some electric blankets. Sincerely, The Cows.” When Farmer Brown says “No,” the cows go on strike. They post another note: “Sorry. We’re closed. No milk today.” When the cows and the hens (who also want electric blankets) become allies, the animals find strength in numbers and revise their tactics: “Closed. No milk. No eggs.”

Farmer Brown is incredulous that cows and hens would demand such things. Finally, furious, he types a response to tell the cows and the hens that he will not provide electric blankets.  Farmer Brown concludes: “You are cows and hens, I demand milk and eggs.” The cows hold a meeting to discuss the farmer’s ultimatum. They propose an exchange—typewriters for electric blankets—and the farmer agrees. While perhaps not as radical as the stories in Tales for Little Rebels—Farmer Brown remains in power at the end and the cows continue to provide labor—the book could be used to spark conversations about organizing for change and using technologies for resistance.

Hunger GamesThe Hunger Games

The bestselling dystopian trilogy, The Hunger Games features 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen, who lives in Panem, a district in what used to be the United States. The Capitol forces 24 children to fight to the death in a reality television show as a way to keep the 12 districts from rebelling against it.

Taking the kids from our districts, forcing them to kill one another while we watch—this is the Capitol’s way of reminding us how totally we are at their mercy. How little chance we would stand of surviving another rebellion. Whatever words they use, the real message is clear. “Look how we take your children and sacrifice them and there’s nothing you can do. If you lift a finger, we will destroy every last one of you. Just as we did in District Thirteen. [pp. 18-19]

The novels deal directly with economic repression, the use of media to uphold the interests of the one percent, and the necessity, as well as the often-violent consequences, of resistance. The books are brutally violent as Collins’s intent is to capture the realities of war. As Collins said in an interview in the New York Times, “I write about war. For adolescents.” Given that The Hunger Games is now a major film and a media spectacle of its own, with features in magazines like People, it will be interesting to see if and how the subversive elements of the books are co-opted into the mainstream.

The above are brief overviews of children’s and young adult literature that seek to represent the 99 percent. Readers of this blog may have other titles to suggest. What is clear is that children’s and young adult literature teaches profound lessons about economic equality—some that challenge and others that reinforce injustice.

What children’s or young adult books do you use to spark conversations about economic (in)justice? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.


Elizabeth Marshall, Ph.D. teaches in the Faculty of Education at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver Canada, where she researches children’s and young adult literature and popular culture. She is co-editor with Özlem Sensoy on Rethinking Popular Culture and Media. Her work has appeared in numerous academic journals, including the Harvard Educational Review, Reading Research Quarterly, Gender & Education, Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, and The Lion and The Unicorn.

This post represents the views of the author, and not necessarily those of Rethinking Schools.