Joseph K. Reports From the Save Our Schools March and Conference

Joseph K. reporting from D.C. on S.O.S. That would be Washington, D.C. and Save Our Schools. I went in for the whole nine yards: the two day conference, the march, and the day-after symposium to figure out where we go from here. It is not all wine and roses, so be prepared. There is a lot of bad news out there regarding public education and the more you learn about the news, the worse the news gets.

First things first. I follow the news, so I have a pretty good idea how bad the news is. Second, I spent two days at the S.O.S. Conference learning a lot of new news. Most of it was bad. If you are reading this blog, then you probably already have a pretty good idea regarding the powers aligned against us. The problem is, no matter how hard we try to imagine how powerful the powerful forces aligned against us are, they are all infinitely more powerful than we can imagine.

It starts with marketing, marketing toward children. If you look at a graph showing the increase in spending on marketing directly, indirectly, and directly indirectly at children over the last few decades, the growth is, to say the least, mind boggling. It is not a numeric progression. It is not algebraic. It is logarithmic. It is terrifying. We are not talking Mickey Mouse, Ronald MacDonald and Tony the Tiger.

We are talking every aspect of a child’s life: TV, movies, of course, but the video games they play, the artificial cyberworlds they inhabit, the busses they ride to school (even the music played on the busses), the stadiums, the (nutritious) water they drink, even the air that they breathe is all either inundated with marketing or the manifestation of marketing itself.

It starts at infancy with things like Baby Mozart and all sorts of infant educational paraphernalia of absolutely no proven educational value whatsoever, products which marketers convince parents are they must consume on behalf of their babies lest their babies be left far behind forever. The smartest people in the room: the product designer’s room, the economist’s room, the psychologist’s room, the media consultant’s room, the choreographer’s room, the composter’s room, the cinemetographer’s room, the subliminalist’s room, the EVERYONE’s room, is directed at one thing: Consumption.

Somehow in the midst of the debt and Middle East crises, I managed to miss the fact that marketers have even invaded slumber parties. A box arrives full of goodies and the children play, trade, debate, reflect and react to all kinds of infinite, consumable crap. They have the time of their lives with all of it until, at the end, they are full of it. They then report back. All values have been replaced by a single omnipotent value of obsessing over artificially created value. Tens of billions of dollars are invested annually to create a consumptive obession in children begining at infancy. The only good news is I am going to spare you the rest of the bad news when it comes to corporate America’s manipulative machinations of children.

Oh and by the way, children are only where the machinations get started.
The other bad news, which I already knew something about (but also couldn’t imagine) involves standardized testing. Even nincompoops like Arne Duncan are beginning to realize a focus on 100% proficiency by 2014 is, to say the least, utopian. The shift, as we all know, is moving toward improvement — value added improvement. We know, of course, our inner-city teachers are going to be further demonized right before they are fired and their careers ruined using magical value-added algorithms based on standardized tests.

What most of us don’t realize is exactly what is going to happen in regards to testing. Value-added, ladies and gentlemen, is going to make the testing regimines of NCLB look like a pop quiz by comparison. Valuing improvement means putting a number to it.

And putting a number on improvement means a lot more testing: pretests, post-tests, and quite possibly one or two interim assessments. None of these tests will be small or minimally time consuming. None of them will be inexpensive. Since you cannot evaluate only English and math teachers’ improvement, value-added means pre, post, and interim assessing of every subject in every grade every year. A pop quiz, ladies and gentlemen. For the last few years, we have been teaching to a pop quiz. It is, as I say, terrifying.

The really bad news is things are going to get a lot worse before they get better. And this brings me to the final bit of bad news. I came to Washington not just to march, but for marching orders. How do we fight the almost infinitely powerful forces aligned against us? The bad news is, not only do we not really know how to fight, we don’t even know where to start. After a brutal year of relentless, withering attacks on educators, of demonization, and the continuing dismantling of public education, I came to Washington looking for a reason to get up in the morning.

Sometimes I think we should all vote for Michelle Bachmann right this second so we can just get on with the Apocalypse. I came to Washington to march. But I also came to Washington wanting to continue marching. I had hoped to leave having a direction where to march. Where and how do I help the rest of us march? Gulp.

This brings me to today: The March (and one more bit of bad news first). Prior to The March, organizers had hoped for five to ten thousand. During the conference, I heard expectations rising as high as twenty thousand. Prior to writing this (now at 1:30 a.m.) I checked the media. The Huffington Post reported four thousand, the organizers five thousand, and (according to the Washington Post) the Park Service eight thousand. I have never worked for the Census, but my guess is the Huffington Post was optimistic. A quick survey of the bar, where I was until an hour ago, ran from my estimate to that of the organizers’. We all agreed the Park Service was insane.

The speeches were wonderful. I will tell you in minute. Jonathon Kozol (Savage Inequalities), Matt Damon (gotta have a celebrity), Matt Damon’s mom (gotta have a teacher), lots of other great teachers, a number of great parents, John Stewart (gotta have another celebrity) and Diane Ravitch. Now let me make one thing clear. I do not have a foot fetish. But given the opportunity, not only would I kneel down and kiss Diane Ravtch’s feet, I would kiss them for an extended period of time, for days or even weeks perhaps, and I would kiss them passionately. We should all be kissing Diane Ravitch’s feet. She is, as she was introduced, our “North Star.” If you have not yet read Diane Ravitch’s book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, then you need to quit wasting your time on dimwits like me and start paying attention to geniuses like her. Start paying attention to her before you finish reading this sentence.

Highlights (with a qualifier): Qualifier: I am not a journalist, so the quotes I am about to quote to you should not be considered quotes. Still, you will get the idea.

Highlights: Jonathon Kozol. I am not smart enough to quote Jonathon Kozol directly other than to say it is pretty clear that the savage inequalities he described in his seminal 1992 book Savage Inequalities are even more savage and more unequal now than they were then. We heard a lot of great music, but the best was a band I cannot name but I can quote. Google it if you can. Youtube it if possible. Each stanza was more clever than the previous. “I’m a test teacher, teaching to the test. I teach math and English and forget about the rest.” My problem is a problem I share with you. I have forgotten the rest. Find it somewhere. Spread it around.

Here is another genius I do not know anything about other than the fact we should all know him. Mr. Kuhn, from Texas.

He is a rural superintendent who in the face of withering cuts to education in Texas, stood on the steps of the State Capital and spoke out relentlessly defending teachers. If you can, fill us in when you comment below. Mr. Kuhn said, “Poverty is not an excuse; it is a diagnosis.”

We heard a wonderful mother from New Orleans, the scene of Arne Duncan’s miracle, the town where the best thing to happen to children was Katrina. She spoke about how school choice in New Orleans means the same thing school choice means more and more in cities across America. School choice means schools choose. “When schools choose, kids lose.” You can quote me on that. You don’t forget, or misquote, something like that.

Matt Damon spoke directly to teachers, saying something very close to, “The next time you are told something by some corporate reformer who has never taught anything to anybody, know there are millions of people standing behind you.” He wondered where he would be if his future had been determined by a standardized test.

John Stewart, whose mother was also a teacher, was there  — at least on videotape. He would have driven to D.C. himself, he said, but his dog ate his car.

Diane Ravitch managed to get my lips off of her feet long enough to address Race to the Top. “Races have one or two winners, and everyone else loses.” You don’t forget something like that either. Quote me directly quoting her.

Then we marched. And here, finally, is where we get to the good news — the really good news. We marched. Every single one of us, no matter how many there were, marched. And as we marched, we grew in power. And we grew in power more and more with every step we took. We were finally, all of us, doing SOMETHING. And this, ladies and gentlemen, is exactly what we need to do. We need to do SOMETHING. We need to discuss. We need to write. We need to blog. We need to tweet. We need to phone. We need to SPEAK OUT. We need to ORGANIZE. We need to mark “E” on our ultimate standardized test -“E. All of the above.”

But most of all, we need to do SOMETHING. We ALL need to do SOMETHING. We need to do it now. We need to start now.

Start. Stop wasting your time with me and start.

Whatever it is you can do, start doing it. If you do not know where to start, then google “>Parents Across America. Get in touch with them. Donate some money. Most importantly, get all your students’ parents  and your parent friends in touch with with Parents Across America. Do this every day of every year for the rest of your life. Start today. Start now.

Tomorrow (sorry, make that today) OK in just six hours (it is now 3:00 a.m.), those of us without an immediate plane to catch will get together to plan. We will take our next step. And this is the ultimate joy of the Save Our Schools weekend. We started. Sometime it the late 1950’s Malcolm X spoke to an auditorium full of three or four people. He started. Someone sometime in the early days of what would become the more mainstream Civil Rights Movement thought to ask Marin Luther King Jr., a young man who looked like he had been shaving for about a month, to say a few words before a church full of a couple of people. He started. Today (now make that yesterday), I started too. I am telling you to start.


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1 Comment

  1. Annie - August 14, 2011, 11:53 pm

    Joseph K–

    What an irresistible voice, with an infectous spirit! Sign me up for everything!

    Great essay,

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