By: Marcus B. McArthur, UFT Executive Board, City-As-School High School
Trump’s Presidency is an opportunity for progressive educators to articulate and mobilize a vision for 21st century public education.
The jury is in on neoliberal education reform. Standardized testing, common standards, union busting teacher evaluations, school closure and charter privatization schemes have failed. These policies delivered zombie schools, soul crushing test prep and a demoralized teaching force. It is out of this vacuum of destruction from which a 21st century vision of progressive education must emerge.
Educators are well situated to be leading players in a new progressive movement as our profession is located at the nexus of America’s most pressing political struggles. There is wind at our back with grassroots support in the streets and courageous union leadership emerging. Chicago teachers deployed the strike to preserve neighborhood schools, equitable resources and basic dignity for workers. Seattle teachers proclaimed their commitment to movement politics through public expression of solidarity with #Blacklivesmatter. Teachers of conscience in New York City and across New York state have engaged in civil disobedience by refusing to administer the standardized tests that perpetuate inequality and justify our nation’s sorry state of feudal affairs.
Race to the Top (R2T) unnecessarily extended the neoliberal era of education reform initiated by the No Child Left Behind Act at a considerable cost to schools, community and labor. R2T’s ransom dollars were dangled before distressed states in the heart of the Great Recession in the latest chapter of disaster capitalism—advancing a basket of plutocratic fantasies that had little support from everyday Americans.
School closures unnecessarily relegated low-income students, particularly those of color, into zombie schools—where doors remained open but the lifeblood sucked out as teachers and students fled as they saw the writing on the wall. Other policy shifts like Common Core, high-stakes testing and the Danielson Teacher Evaluation system had little to do with high standards and quality teaching, but rather achievement of a radically different conception of public schooling in America. Hallmark values of liberal education were replaced with those of crude corporatism in service of constructing a trillion dollar public education marketplace open for profiteering and conquest.
The Common Core would establish rules of the game for making comparative claims about education quality and create a nationwide marketplace for materials and services. Teacher evaluation schemes would ensure a constant churn of educators transitioning teaching from profession to retail occupation killing two birds with one stone—teacher union advocacy and labor costs.
These policies embody the flawed politicking of the contemporary corporate controlled Democratic Party in which Democrats attempt and fail to align the interests of Wall Street and big corporations with those of community. Rather than advancing progressive ideas and rallying support behind policies whose substance would be popular and concretely felt, Democrats advance politically toxic corporate reforms that leave communities holding the short end of the stick when the reforms fail to bare fruit.
With the Trump threat to public education and unions at our door step in the form of Betsy Devos, Andrew Puzder and a right-wing Supreme Court justice, we must pivot quickly to deal with the impending threats and to articulate the future we imagine. Trump has made no secret of his desire to wage an epic war on public education. Betsy Devos is a billionaire zealot who has never attended, sent her children to, or labored a day in a public school. Her nomination is a warning shot for what’s to come.
Arne Duncan’s $4 billion in R2T bribe money did tremendous damage. Trump has proposed a quadrupling down on the mischief—floating a proposal of $20 billion for discredited school voucher schemes that have failed to improve student performance on the myopic statistical indices that politicians pleasure in attacking public schools over. The widespread deployment of vouchers will deepen inequality by siphoning off resources from public schools and further concentrating our most vulnerable in a second-class system.
America needs a bold progressive vision for public education that replaces standardized testing and the competitive model of education with one rooted in providing all students an equitably funded, high quality, experience-based public education. Our focus must return to emphasizing quality experiences, not the volatile outcomes of the income tests we falsely correlate with learning, intellect and merit. Politicians’ emphasis on racking up campaign sound bites about rising or falling test scores has been one of the most damaging political acts inflicted upon public education and our youth.
Standardized tests have sucked the joy out of learning for too many of our nation’s young people, and as a consequence, many see little value in formal schooling beyond the possibility of obtaining a decent paying job. This should not surprise us. Most Americans already understand standardized tests as largely irrelevant to our day-to-day lives. This pedagogical emphasis is not cultivating an ingenuitive, thoughtful and entrepreneurial generation of citizens. In fact, it is sowing the seeds of precisely the opposite—our nation’s most apathetic and myopic tendencies.
The antidote points towards creative learning opportunities including robust arts education, authentic project based learning and teacher autonomy that inspires lifelong learners. Teachers must also fight for a massive reinvestment in public schools by combining progressive education with an economic agenda in which we hire millions of new teachers and education professionals to support struggling school districts and employ our society through a 21st century Works Progress Administration, Civilian Conservation Corps and Americorps expansion. We can invest in summer enrichment, universal after school programming and recreation sports from K-12 to keep young people off the streets, out of the criminal justice system and away from drugs and alcohol.
Even with a hostile Trump administration in power there will be opportunities for a reorientation of education and economic policy at the local and state levels. If progressive educators and our allies articulate a cohesive platform, mobilize the grassroots and run candidates of integrity in school board, local and state elections, there will be hope for a radically different vision of what it means to make America great again than the one we currently face.