Call to Save Our Schools

Teachers initiate July march and days of action in Washington, D.C.

A coalition of teachers, parents, and academic activists has launched the Save Our Schools (SOS) March and National Call to Action. Fed up with government attacks on public education and the scapegoating of teachers for social problems, the coalition hopes to bring tens of thousands of supporters to Washington, D.C., for a march and rally on July 30, with strategy sessions and other actions held July 28-31.

“We stand united by one belief — it’s time for teachers and parents to organize and reclaim control of our schools,” reads the SOS statement.

Over the past two decades, bipartisan federal “reform” has done nothing less than declare war on democracy in K-12 classrooms, as decisions about what to teach and how to teach — even the reasons to teach — have been steadily transferred away from those most directly affected: teachers, parents, and students.

Organizers see SOS as part of a movement that “is the natural result of increasing dissatisfaction with failed and failing policies like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, which have substituted high-stakes testing, rewards, and punishments for genuine investment and support for public schools.”

Real education vs. testing

As the SOS Web site makes crystal clear, teachers are protesting the erosion of quality education and the damaging effects of education policies on young people. Their demands seek to undo changes that have quite literally turned classrooms into factories whose product is a new generation of workers who satisfy corporate needs, chiefly in the area of digital technology.

In this world, art, music, and physical education — staples of childhood creativity and growth — are endangered species. And helping students to develop their critical thinking skills is positively anathema.

Now, national “standards” drive the curriculum. These are based upon a very narrow conception of reading and mathematics.

To make sure teachers and students step in line, “high-stakes testing” is the whip that strikes periodically along the assembly line. Teachers find themselves sacrificing valuable class time in order to “teach to the test.” Studies show that students are responding with rising levels of anxiety and depression.

The consequences of test failure are dire. Students do not get promoted. Local governments take over failing schools and either close them down or hand them over to for-profit “education companies” to get them back in shape.

To tighten the noose even further, Obama’s “pay for performance” scheme would tie teacher pay to test scores.

The repressive culture of testing is the very antithesis of free, open, critical learning. But the fight-back spirit of teachers was on display at a recent demonstration in Nashville, Tenn., where one teacher held aloft a sign that read “Teachers are not robots and children are not products on an assembly line.”

For quality and equality in the schools

SOS puts forward four main demands as its guiding principles:

• Equitable funding for all public school communities.

• An end to high-stakes testing used for the purpose of student, teacher, and school evaluation.

• Teacher, family, and community leadership in forming education policies.

• Curriculum developed for and by local school communities.

The first demand recognizes the harsh reality that poor schools are found in poor communities and better schools are found in wealthier communities. The former are often gloomy structures without up-to-date materials or even a school library. The latter are modern facilities with the latest computers and other technology.

The extreme economic discrepancies in schools across the U.S. immediately expose the lie that is “national standards.” Students who have computers in every classroom have a distinct advantage over students whose schools lack even a basic library. At the same time, a single-minded focus on national standards negates the educational resources to be found in minority cultures and communities.

High-stakes testing is therefore rendered that much more ferocious when it is tied to national standards. Ultimately, the fight against high-stakes testing is not merely a rejection of learning by torture. It is also a fight to defend communities victimized by years of racism.

That’s why SOS demands “opportunities for multicultural/multilingual curriculum for all students.” In also demanding an end to “political and corporate control of curriculum, instruction and assessment,” it seeks to radically turn things around by replacing corporate dictates on education with democratic, local leadership.

From classroom struggle to class struggle

SOS has received endorsements from numerous individuals and organizations, including winners of Teacher of the Year awards and prominent education scholars, among them Jonathan Kozol and Dr. Diane Ravitch. Endorsements have also come from members of the Center for Immigrant Families and of Parents United for Responsible Education.

SOS also seeks union support. In a major development, it has received the backing of the North Carolina Association of Educators, state affiliate of the National Education Association (NEA), the country’s largest union.

A big infusion of support from organized labor — teachers’ unions and other labor organizations — would give an enormous boost to SOS and its goal of defending quality education. But such support will only be extended if rank-and-file teacher unionists push for it.

SOS’s campaign theme is “The Waking Giant.” And that is precisely what is happening around the country right now, as teachers — 75 percent of whom are women — find themselves roused to action by attacks on collective bargaining rights.

From Wisconsin to New Jersey and Tennessee, teachers have stood shoulder to shoulder with other public workers to defend their unions from efforts to destroy them in order to balance budgets eroded by corporate giveaways. The labor solidarity needed to defend the unions is also a crucial component in saving public education.

Demands focusing on how to save education would complement SOS’s demands and help connect to other public workers:

• To provide funding for education and public services, restore state budgets through an immediate end to U.S. wars and steep taxes on big business.

• Don’t cut back, expand! Reduce classroom sizes, reopen closed schools, and build more — along with more hospitals, colleges, and public transport.

A lot remains to do to make the July days of action a success. SOS organizers are especially looking for volunteers to get the word out. Support this crucial effort!

  • Originally appeared in Freedom Socialist newspaper, Vol. 32, No. 2, April-May 2011
  • Dr. Steven Strauss practices Neurology in Baltimore, Maryland and is a diplomate of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology. He is a member of the Freedom Socialist Party and can be reached at Email him at: Read other articles by Steven.