A Call for the Next Phase in the Resistance

Teachers at every level of schooling have struggled against two powerful social claims: (i) education has always been labeled a failure by political leaders and the media (notably in the context of international comparisons and despite such claims being at least misleading if not completely false) and (ii) that K-12 teachers must not be political while university professors should also focus on their scholarship and not drift into public intellectual work.

The consequences of these dynamics include an essentially passive teacher workforce and an increasingly dysfunctional bureaucracy driving how schools (K-12 and universities) are run, that dysfunction primarily grounded in that non-educators make most of the structural educational decisions and thus the education system is done to (and not by) the professionals themselves.

Over the past thirty years, this process has become more clearly codified and federalized, the seeds of which were planted in the early 1980s commitment to the accountability paradigm based on standards and high-stakes testing, and then expanded through NCLB in 2001 as well as copy-cat initiatives under the Obama administration.

Most of those accountability years, I would classify as Phase 1, a period characterized by a political monopoly on both public discourse and policy addressing primarily public K-12 education.

We are now in Phase 2, a time in which (in many ways aided by the rise in social media—Twitter, blogging, Facebook—and the alternative press—AlterNet and Truthout) teachers, professors, and educational scholars have begun to create a resistance to the political, media, and public commitments to recycling false charges of educational failure in order to continue the same failed approaches to education reform again and again.

In Phase 1, educators were subjected to the role of the child; we were asked to be seen but not heard.

In Phase 2, adolescence kicked in, and we quite frankly began to experiment with our rebellious selves. In many instances, we have been pitching a fit—a completely warranted tantrum, I believe, but a tantrum nonetheless.

And now that there are some cracks in the education reform machine, now that we have committed ourselves to being that resistance, the voice and action of those who are the professionals, I am making a call for Phase 3, something like moving into our young adulthood as a resistance.

Having taught high school for 18 years and having raised a daughter into her mid-20s (so far), I am one who both loves and recognizes the power and danger of the passion driving adolescents. I am often jealous that adolescents can care so deeply and so loudly, and often with the ability to hold their pitch high endlessly.

The power of adolescent passion is that it breeds passion and it draws attention. The danger of adolescent passion is that it must result in something substantial or all that exponential passion and attention wither.

Now that we as the resistance have fostered passion beyond the choir and now that we have begun to garner the attention of a few politicians, a few journalists, and many parents as well as interested members of the public, I sense a need to make a shift in strategies that include the following:

  • While I remain committed to my many arguments defending tone, the resistance now must lead our claims with substance and take care not to create opportunities for our central messages to be overshadowed by either credible or unwarranted complaints about tone. I am reminded of the evolution of Michael Stipe’s lyrics for the alternative rock group R.E.M.; Stipe admitted during what can now be called the mid-period of the band that he had moved on from being always ironic and sarcastic about topics such as love (note the early “The One I Love”) in order to consider them seriously (note “At My Most Beautiful”). I am not saying we should no longer be angry (we should) or sarcastic and biting, but I believe we have come to a time in which our primary driving tone must be above the possibility of having our central mission undermined.
  • A related shift must be avoiding the trap of maintaining too much energy on putting out fires set by education reformers, notably in that we as the resistance are embroiled in refuting the person of the moment (from Bill Gates, Michelle Rhee, and Arne Duncan to the current Campbell Brown and Whoopi Goldberg). This is a very difficult bind for the resistance because education reform is rich not only in funding but also in celebrities of the moment. And my argument here is not that we do not refute edu-reformers without credibility, but that we maintain as we discredit a focus on the larger evidence and claims instead of suggesting that this person or that person is the problem. For example, I have offered that the Common Core debate is not about the specific standards, but about the failure of the accountability paradigm itself. With Duncan, Gates, Rhee, Brown, and others, our concern is that these people lack experience and expertise in our field, and thus, their claims and policies are the problems—not them as people. If we must write about Whoopi Goldberg’s comments on teacher tenure, we need to focus on what tenure is and how her characterization is misinformed—but not on that Goldberg said it (she isn’t alone, by the way, and by highlighting her, we suggest she has more credibility than dozens of other people saying the same misinformation).
  • As I have noted before (in the context of the John Oliver Rule), we must use the incredible platform that Diane Ravitch has built for teachers, professors, and scholars in order to build a movement of many faces, many voices, and many experts. The mainstream media have reduced the resistance to Ravitch in much the same way that the media have reduced climate change to Bill Nye. The resistance is and must be promoted as a rich and varied body of professionals, both unified and driven by the tensions of our field. Race, gender, sexuality, ideology—the rainbow of our resistance must be prominent and we cannot allow it to be reduced, oversimplified, or marginalized.

In short, as I have argued about the Common Core debate, the resistance has reached a point when we must forefront rational and evidence-based alternatives to a crumbling education reform disaster.

We must be the adults in the room, the calm in the storm. It won’t be easy, but it is time for the resistance to grow up and take our next step.

23 thoughts on “A Call for the Next Phase in the Resistance”

  1. This is a wonderful piece with many wonderful points.There are also, I think, a few points you may be missing. For instance, when you say ‘the resistance now must lead our claims with substance ‘, I think you may be giving a bit too much credit to the reformers at this point in the game. They no longer have enough political clout to affect much legislative change. They also do not have enough to affect change as executives of school districts. Because of this, the days of RTtT and Rhee are, in fact, behind us. And, because Americans love their teachers so much, they cannot take to the airwaves and make the false claims that they made back in the summers of 2009 and 2010.

    But they do try! They do not take to the airwaves, for instance, because they like to be stars. They take the airwaves because they are trying, diligently, to move public opinion closer to their agenda. Although I realize you feel a need to move beyond the points of conflict into a more substantive discussion (and I am very much aware that that’s where we, in the resistance, hold the most moral high ground), the reality is that running to the cameras the way they do is not a tactic of substance. It is a tactic of claims. And the people who listen to them are not, in the MSM, permitted the time to hear substance. They are permitted only the time to hear claims.

    We must be there to counter the claims.

    This is a street fight, not a symposium. Our energies must, unfortunately, be focused on what is happening on the street, not on the college campus’ where they’re serving wine and cheese and everyone is listening one another with an open mind.

    This is why, when I read a brilliant person like you assert that we should be “avoiding the trap of maintaining too much energy on putting out fires set by education reformers”. I cringe. I fear that you don’t fully understand the potential of those fires. Public opinion, here in NY, counts. It matters. Favorable public opinion helped us elect a more teacher-friendly mayor and it helped Long Island parents and teachers come together and push back 1) the Common Core implementation and 2)the rating of at least some teachers along HST. This particular fire, set yesterday by Whoopi (and, as our friend Karen from Basecamp points out, by Chris Matthews) will be fanned by someone else tomorrow…and the next day ..and the day after that. My deep concern here is that, while that fire is being fanned, growing, moving public opinion in a way that can only hurt teachers, hurt parents and hurt public education (which the removal of tenure will hurt the most), you would have us all ‘move beyond claims to substance’. It’s feels a lot like asking us to go leave the street fight -that is in fact happening- and go elsewhere for more ‘substance’ discourse.

    It all sounds very Platonic and I love the idea. But someone has to counter these claims. It’s not called a resistance for nothing.

    1. You appear to be misreading me, and my argument is not about IF we resist, but HOW. I clearly support continuing to counter the untrue, but am asking that we consider HOW we do that, including the need for ACTION and not just rhetoric.

      1. I agree that the “how” is exactly what needs to be changed. It is indeed high time to rise above the anger. As a parent involved in many groups including one I started in my own district – I have been trying to also warn educators they will lose parental support if they do not better articulate themselves and more respectfully to the public and to parents they are going to alienate and leave themselves open for more attack by those bent on privatizing the profession. I have eyewitnesses some ugly tirades by teachers against parents and students that whilst they may feel a righteous anger compelling them to do so, it is a dangerous tactic to utilize. It has the old proverbial potential to blow up in one’s face.

    2. Excellent commentary. The blogosphere has created excellent discourse and has been very powerful. I agree it is time to move to the next phase . Free market and corporate reformers have for too long been given a seat at the table of education policy makers, often finding influential positions at the federal Department of Education. The next phase of resistance, in order to gain traction, will require an insistence that other voices are heard in Washington. While phase 2 must continue, it is now time to engage politically and through scholarship.

      My upcoming book, “The Origins of the Common Core: How the Free Market Became Public Education Policy” (Palgrave Macmillan, January, 2015) is my attempt to engage in “public intellectual work” in order to provide a historical analysis of education policy. While America scrambles to find someone to blame for the current policy debacle, the reality is that there is collective blame on both the political right and left for turning over education policy making to the private sector. Like minded scholars on this issue need to unite and reach out to the public in order to help save our public school system.


  2. Paul,
    I think this is useful, and we should be thinking about how to take the movement to the next level. I agree we should continue to leverage the platform that Diane Ravitch has built and continues to make available to us. Another thing we should do is build the organizations that can fight, on an independent basis, for change. That means organizing our grassroots groups and networks, and also organizing within our unions and larger organizations. As part of this, I hope we continue to build our own forms of media. We cannot rely on corporate-owned media to tell both sides, even though we may get occasional glimmers of light. We need to develop our own web sites, and even our ability to broadcast video. We have to get the word out, so we have to develop this capacity.

  3. There’s a related social claim that I think bears mention – that parents were are not citizens but consumers, that education is a consumer good, which produces passive parents and elevates “entrepreneurs” and “executives”. My hope is that this shift you speak of can also knit the voices and interests of parents, students and the community at large with teachers, and does so in such a way consistent with your third bullet. Professionals are essential on the means, but the community is essential on the goal.

    1. The CTU has been simply brilliant at bringing parents and community into this battle. Their long-term strategies are paying off as seen in the recent polling of the Chicago Tribune on Rahm’s education policies.

  4. David Kaib’s words resonate with me.What really helps parents change their paradigm about education from test scores to real learning is when they are exposed to examples of real learning. Alfie Kohn has managed to attract parents and teachers from all walks of life and religion, because he addresses first the goals parents have for children. Once we have a clear understanding of parents’ concerns, we can show how progressive education addresses their concerns and needs

  5. This is a great piece Paul, and it is where I have been focused for the last two years. I believe we need to encourage individuals who share our vision to engage first with local school boards. Last year I was invited to speak for 10 minutes to my school board. This year they invited me back to speak for 45. I believe they will be moving to digital portfolios to show a more robust picture of student development and growth…as part of a long term move away from the dated technologies of standardized texts and standardized testing.

    1. Hi Phil

      Do you do any presenting at all? I run a Pre-Prep which is very much focused on developing well being and involvement for our children, however, we are having to give parents results from EYFS that then sends panic waves. I present across the UK on the importance of EY and Pre-Prep and I wondered if you did something similar. I organise parent evenings to furnish them with fresh perspectives but thought you might be able to come along to strengthen my case!
      My email is preprephead@berkhamstedschool.org.

      Best wishes


  6. I agree whole heartedly with your analysis and ideas to move forward with. Deformers have painted themselves into a corner, albeit a large one, with their interlocking policies. The attack on tenure is a distraction from the implosion of VAM. At this point there is nothing new about their policies other than the increasing amount of facts and rebuttals to them. Chatty et al’s attempted rebuttal of the ASA’s take down of VAM is little more than a flaccid reiteration of their previous positions. It is a weak rear guard action whose aim is to buy time. They are diverting attention onto tenure while they try to resurrect the evaluation system they will claim allows the objective identification of the ever present “bad teacher” that can then be removed if only there was no tenure. The lawsuits in NY are being rushed through in hopes of a favorable ruling before Vergara is overturned. They cannot point to a reversal in subsequent cases. This is also why the assault on tenure is being broadly waged in the court of public opinion, it is a battlefield that we have not shown up at in sufficient numbers with sufficient allies. This is what the deformers money can buy them. Popular sentiment can sway the political process in the event of the failure of lawsuits. We need not only a strategy beyond answering their lies, but a way of making preemptive strikes against those aforementioned interlocking policies that are growing ever more brittle and ossified. We need celebrity champions to bring the message to the public on our behalf. This is where having the facts on our side can really be a force multiplier, once parents and citizens find out how badly they’ve been lied to and why, they will not fall for it again and will spread that indignation to their peers. Right now Campbell Brown is stirring up false indignation. We can and must make it bite the hand that sock puppets it.

  7. “edu-reformers”
    Paul, you give them too much credit calling them “reformers”. My term is “edudeformers” or if you wish “edu-deformers” because the policies and practices that they propose do not reform public education but deform it into something that is not recognizable as public education, because it won’t be public education but all private for profit education.

    1. …or maybe “e-dude-formers” because we have inadvertently created a generation that can type with their thumbs, but not much else, and they are going to inherit running this circus. Paul Thomas is one of the intelligent, rational voices in education, pursuing strategy over tactics.

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