High-stakes, standardized testing is to learning as:
a). memorizing a flight manual is to flying
b). watching Hawaii Five-O is to doing detective work
c). exchanging marriage vows is to a successful marriage
d). reading Gray’s Anatomy is to practicing surgery
e). singing the national anthem is to good citizenship
f). all of the above
On June 10, 2014, Judge Rolf M. Treu of Los Angeles Superior Court ruled that current teacher tenure laws deprive students of their right to an education under California’s constitution.Vergara v. Californiawas cast as a group of poor kids suing the state to get rid of bad teachers under the banner of an advocacy group called Students Matter, a not-for-profit founded by Silicon Valley billionaire David Welch in order to bankroll his multimillion dollar lawsuit.
Vergara was immediately hailed by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan as an opportunity and “a mandate to fix these problems.” Give Arne Duncan credit for consistency: he called Hurricane Katrina “the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans” because it swept the slate clean and folks could just start over (never mind those black bodies piled in the corner), and in 2010 he applauded the school board in Central Falls, RI, the most densely populated and one of the poorest cities in the state, for firing every teacher, guidance counselor, and the principal at the high school because of poor performance. “This is hard work and these are tough decisions,” Duncan said at the time. “But students only have one chance for an education, and when schools continue to struggle we have a collective obligation to take action.”
Breitbart.com called the California decision a “conservative’s dream-come-true victory” over the unions, and cheered Welch and his supporters as “a long-time coalition of educational free-market supporters and privatization philanthropists, including the Gates Foundation, Los Angeles billionaire Eli Broad and Walmart’s Walton Family Foundation.” Karen Lewis, fiery leader of the Chicago Teachers Union, responded that the ruling had “the moguls drinking champagne.”
The link to Brown v. Board of Education was explicit in Judge Treu’s decision as well as in aneditorial in the liberal New York Times which acknowledged somewhat grudgingly that teachers deserve “reasonable due process rights,” but saluted the decision for opening “a new chapter in the equal education struggle.”
There’s trouble in every direction.
Because Judge Treu wrapped his judgment in it, let’s start with Brown, the 1954 Supreme Court decision that overturned the “separate but equal” doctrine and heralded the legal termination of racially segregated schools—it’s become an icon in the popular story America tells itself about its inevitable upward trajectory. On October 26, 1992, the US Congress designated Monroe Elementary School, one of the segregated black schools in Topeka, Kansas, a National Historic Site because of its significance in the famous case, and the National Archives include several documents from the case in its digital classroom.
Brown occurred in the wake of World War II, in the wash of that reenergized sense of freedom. The decision followed incessant and increasingly intense demands by African-Americans that the country live up to the promise of the Fourteenth Amendment. And, importantly, Brown coincided with clear white interests that had nothing to do with black well-being: avoiding a revolution led and defined by subjugated African-Americans; transforming the feudal South and integrating it into a repositioned capitalist juggernaut; removing a blatant and embarrassing fact of American life that was being effectively wielded against the US in the escalating Cold War. White power needed Brown—but only a bit of Brown.
Brown was, importantly, the result of relentless action and activism from below—whenever I read an account that begins with something like, “As a result of Brown, America experienced a wave of activism for justice…,” I want to offer an amendment: “As a result of a wave of activism for justice, America got Brown…”
In any case the promise of Brown was not simply about ending segregation in public schools; the promise, rather, rested on a profoundly democratic aspiration—that all individuals will receive equal education and opportunity, and that each will be afforded full dignity and equal respect. The most radical possibilities of Brown are that the country might recognize black people’s full humanity, their complete membership in the nation. Ralph Ellison wrote at the time that “the court has found in our favor and recognized our human psychological complexity and citizenship and another battle of the Civil War has been won.” Another battle won, perhaps, but not the last.
Brown embodies a fundamental, even a fatal, flaw that runs deep in the American racial narrative. The argument in the case turns on the specific harm suffered by black children and the feelings of inferiority that are a result of segregation, rather than the despicable, immoral, and destructive system of white supremacy itself. Black people—not racism—were the acknowledged concern; black pathology, however, not white privilege, became the focus of action. And the institutions of white supremacy live on: mass incarceration and massive school closings in black communities, home foreclosures which disproportionately erase black wealth and the gutting of voting rights for black people. On and on and on.
And so Brown, the widely celebrated and lofty statement of principle, was followed immediately by its lesser-known brother, the betrayer and assassin, Brown II, the implementation, or remedy phase, and here again—consistent with the long tradition of all things racial—the remedy fit neither the crime nor the injury. In fact Brown II gave the local school districts, the parties defeated in Brown, the power and responsibility to construct the solution—to desegregate their schools “with all deliberate speed.” The fox—far from being banished from the hen house—was given the only set of keys.
“With all deliberate speed” turned out to mean “never.” The activity in the courts over the decades following Brown went decidedly south: racially isolated black communities were denied the right to draw students from adjoining white suburbs; children were denied the right to equal school funding; the concept of “neighborhood school” was reinforced and reified even if the result was re-segregation. School segregation is alive and well, more firmly entrenched than ever, and each year schools are more racially divided.
Monroe Elementary—that iconic temple in Topeka elevated as a National Historic Site—may as well be turned from a museum into a mausoleum: Here is one more place where African-American aspirations and struggles for decent and equal education were laid to rest.
With minimal imagination and a bit of thought the struggle for “equal education” and Arne Duncan’s “collective obligation to take action” might extend to include the impact of concentrated poverty on children’s health and well-being and educational opportunities, or the consequences of skeletal budgets, overcrowding, and school closings, or the failure of Brown to remedy what it claimed it would fix.
And now comes Judge Treu using the lofty language of Brown to attack teachers, but without a word about the reality of districts continuing to herd black children into unnatural, chronically underfunded and inferior schools, build ever higher walls, and no mention of the policy interventions championed by Duncan and the corporate “reformers”—things like the overuse and misuse of standardized testing, massive school closures and school “turnarounds,” the stripping of needed resources, and inadequate scripted and “teacher-proof” curricula—that have disrupted and hurt urban districts for years. As usual, white supremacy is hiding in plain sight.
Judge Treu’s decision is not an isolated event; it’s part of a pattern and an intentional strategy that begins by positing education as a product like a car or a refrigerator, a box of bolts or a screw driver—something bought and sold in the marketplace like any other commodity—and schools as businesses run by CEOs with teachers taking the role of assembly line workers and students playing the part of the raw materials bumping helplessly along the factory floor as information is incrementally stuffed into their little up-turned heads. In this metaphoric strait-jacket it’s rather easy to suppose that “downsizing” the least productive units, “outsourcing” and privatizing a space that once belonged to the public is a natural event; that teaching toward a simple standardized metric and relentlessly applying state-administered (but privately-developed and quite profitable) tests to determine the “outcomes,” is a rational proxy for learning; that centrally controlled “standards” for curriculum and teaching are commonsensical; that “zero tolerance” for student misbehavior as a stand-in for child development or justice is sane; and that “accountability,” that is, a range of sanctions on students, teachers, and schools—but never on law-makers, foundations, or corporations—is logical and level-headed. This is in fact what a range of noisy politicians, and their chattering pundits in the bought media call “school reform.” And this is what Judge Treu just bought and affirmed.
The magic sauce for this reform recipe has three ingredients: replace the public schools with some sort of privately-controlled administration; sort the winners relentlessly from the losers—test, test, TEST! (and then punish)—and destroy teachers’ ability to speak with any sustained or unified voice. The operative controlling metaphor for these moves has by now become quite familiar: education is an item for individual consumption, not a public trust or a social good, and certainly not a fundamental human right. Management, inputs and outcomes, efficiency, cost controls, profit and loss—the dominant language of this kind of reform doesn’t leave much room for doubt or much space to breathe.
The forces fighting to create this new common-sense are led by a merry band of billionaires—Bill Gates, Michael Bloomberg, Sam Walton, Eli Broad—who work relentlessly to take up all the available space, preaching, persuading, and promoting, always spreading around liberal amounts of cash to underline their fundamental points: dismantle public schools, crush the teachers unions, test and punish. When Rupert Murdoch was in trouble in the summer of 2011, it came to light that Joel Klein, a leading “reformer” as head of the New York City public schools for years (and whose own kids, of course, attended private schools), was on Murdoch’s payroll; according to the New York Times, the two saw eye to eye “on a core set of education principles: that charter schools needed to expand; poor instructors (the now-famous “lazy incompetent teachers”) should be weeded out; and the power of the teachers union must be curtailed.” The trifecta!
And, of course, these imaginary reformers create a fictional opposition—in a flattering portrait of Arne Duncan in the February 1, 2010 issue of The New Yorker the author claimed that in the contemporary school reform battles “there are, roughly speaking, two major camps.” The first he called “the free-market reformers,” the second, “the liberal traditionalists.” The reformers have the vitality and the energy, the big ideas and the grand plans, the troops and the momentum and all of the ready money; the traditionalists accept the schools just as they are, and they embrace the status quo as embodied in the colleges of education and especially in the big teachers unions.
This caricature leaves out a huge range of approaches and actors, including those who argue, as John Dewey did a century ago, that in a democracy, whatever the wisest and most privileged parents want for their children must serve as a minimum standard for what we as a community want for all of our children. Arne Duncan attended the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools (as did our three sons), and so did Mayor Daley’s, Mayor Emmanuel’s, and President and Mrs. Obama’s children, where they had small classes, abundant resources, and opportunities to experiment and explore, ask questions and pursue answers to the farthest limits—oh, and a respected and unionized teacher corps as well. Good enough for the Obamas and the Duncans, good enough for us—and good enough for the kids in public schools everywhere. Any other ideal for our schools, in the words of Dewey, “is narrow and unlovely; acted upon it destroys our democracy.”
Before teachers were organized, women were paid less than men, African-Americans were last hired and first fired, and teachers were routinely dismissed for their political opinions without any hope of due process. Fact: in those states where teachers are denied the right to organize, student achievement on the measures favored by the corporate group do much worse; fact: good working conditions are good teaching conditions, and good teaching conditions are good learning conditions—good working conditions can only be developed if teachers are collectively in the conversation.
The moguls may be drinking champagne, Breitbart and company may be having a late-night orgy, and Judge Treu may imagine himself a freedom fighter, but none of this is the last word.