The Human Rights Committee of the United Teachers of Los Angeles invited me to give a speech and participate on a panel afterwards at their annual meeting on March 27, 2009  (thank you Steve and Linda!)

The Parent/Teacher Conundrum: how corporate CEOs divide and conquer

by Kathy Emery

[Before my speech, several UTLA volunteers were roped into performing – very well! – the T4SJ Parent teacher conference SKIT]

This skit was developed by a group of parents and teachers in SF several years ago.  They had formed a "study group" organized by the local progressive teacher organization, Teachers 4 Social Justice.  They wanted to find out what was preventing parents and teachers from working together effectively.

I wanted to begin with this skit because it illustrates that neither Mrs Bacon nor Ms Smith have time to sit and talk deeply about Jimmy. This at the heart of our inability to fight the corporate high-stakes testing agenda.

Teachers operate within a bureaucracy that is full of jargon and acronyms like IEP, SST, and "Choice Books," – the jargon is so familiar to teachers that they speak it as unconsciously as they breathe the air around them.  But parents are not so familiar with the jargon and it intimates them. 

Conversely, the details of working class parents' lives are often foreign to white middle class teachers, who, as a result, don't understand why parents have trouble attending meetings about their children.  And since parents tend to only talk to parents, and teachers tend to only talk to teachers, mutually exclusive echo chambers transform misunderstandings into prejudices.

Without time to talk, Mrs. Bacon, the teacher, is going to go from "I just wonder if these people really care about their kids' education"  to  "these people [don't] really care about their kids' education."

Without time to talk, Ms. Smith, Jimmy's mother, is going to go from "I don't think the teacher knows what she's doing in there", to  "the teacher [doesn't] know what she's doing in there."

Any serious organizing against high-stakes testing needs to start breaking down these misunderstandings so parents and teachers can create strong relationships with each other. Not only does Jimmy need this to happen, but it is necessary if schools are to become authentic educational institutions.

 If we are to make this happen, we need to figure out where we are now, how we got here and where we want to go.   In other words, we need to ask, "where are we going --  and why are we in this handbasket?"

The handbasket that we are in today was designed by the members of the Business Roundtable, the top CEO's in this country, at their annual summer meeting in 1989. At that meeting these, approximately, 300 CEO's decided that the U.S. educational system needed to be fundamentally transformed to meet the Japanese economic challenge of the 1980s.  [see complete story in my dissertation]

During that decade, the Japanese, and in particular, Toyota, had become an economic powerhouse challenging U.S. hegemony.  The Japanese had done so by adopting and perfecting what was then called Total Quality Management. TQM is a decision making process that results in increased efficiency of production.  By involving all workers in every level of design, production and marketing, Toyota had been able to make cars that were completely reliable, responsive to consumer demands and very inexpensive.

The Business Roundtable [BRT] CEO's realized by 1989 that their 19th century industrial model would not be able to keep up with Japanese TQM.   U.S. business leaders needed to develop a more flexible and responsive workplace.  And as they had done 100 years earlier, they started to change the workplace by changing the pipeline out of which workers emerged– that is, the schools. 

Business leaders have always seen schools, both public and private, as places to socialize and sort workers.  For them, that is the purpose or schools.  And because they control, and have always controlled school policy, it is a wonder that any real education ever happens.  That it has and does is a testament to the ability of parents, students and teachers to overcome a system designed to thwart the authentic process of learning.

In the 1840s, U.S. economic leaders decided to create public schools when the U.S. transformed from an agriculturally-based economy to one driven by manufacturing.  Then, beginning in the 1880s, the new industrial leaders decided to transform the public schools to resemble factories as they redesigned the U.S. economiy into vertically integrated industrial monopolies.

In the last 20 years, the Business Roundtable [BRT] CEO's have supervised the second fundamental transformation of the public schools in order to provide workers for a new global economy.  But somehow it hasn't worked out the way they planned for.

The current transformation began shortly after the BRT's 1989 annual summer meeting. At the end of their meeting, they had agreed on three basic goals:

By 1995, the BRT had defined their reform framework.   They published them in report called The Nine Essentials Components for a Successful Education.  In this report the BRT argued for

These 3 components would be supported and sustained by:

From the beginning, the BRT CEO's began to engineer an alignment of organizations to implement this educational agenda.  This network now includes the following:

and the list goes on and on...

In spite of this impressive coalition of willing and unwitting, only 16 state legislatures had passed high stakes testing by 2001.  The BRT members realized at this point, that there had been an effective backlash to their imposition of standards based reform. 

So, they wrote and published a new manual for their army of standardistas called, Assessing and Addressing the Testing Backlash: Practical advice and current public opinion research for business coalitions and standards advocates.

Then the BRT lobbyists went to work transforming the ESEA into NCLB.  Going to the federal level did not mean, however, they were abandoning their focus on state-by-state lobbying.  The BRT membership saw the federal law as providing important leverage in their efforts to get the recalcitrant state legislators on board.  A plan that has proven effective.

When NCLB was up for reauthorization in 2007, the BRT went into action to obviate any attempts to take the teeth out of its provisions.

In a joint press release on September 27, 2006, the BRT and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce announced the "lauch[ing of] a broad based business coalition  . . that will focus on sustaining and improving NCLB during its anticipated reauthorization in 2007."  The BRT publicists reminded people of "a similar coalition effort in 2001 to promote the initial passage of NCLB."   They explained in this 2007 press release that their interest in "improving U.S. public education" had to do with their belief that "student performance is key to develop[ing] the workforce our companies need to sustain economic growth and innovation."

In the meantime, a new corporate playbook was being written by the National Center of Education and Economy.  If you want to know where Obama is going with education reform (a direction that NEA has recently signed onto), I suggest you read NCEE's  2007 report, Tough Choices, Tough Times.  In the executive summary, the report argues the following:

Today, Indian engineers make $7,500 a year against $45,000 for an American engineer with the same qualifications.  If we succeed in matching the very high levels of mastery of mathematics and science of these Indian engineers . . . .why would the world's employers pay us more than they . . .  pay the Indians to do [the same] work?  They would . . . only if we could offer something that the Chinese and Indians and others cannot. 

Those countries that produce the most important new products and services can capture a premium in world markets that will enable them to pay high wages to their citizens.  . . . [we are entering a world in which] comfort with ideas and abstractions is the passport to a good job, in which creativity and innovation are the key to the good life, in which high levels of education – a very different kind of education than most of us have had—are going to be the only security there is.

In other words, The coming brave new world is one in which a college education will not guarantee a middle class lifestyle UNLESS the college graduate is innovative and creative with her math and science skills.  The authors of this report, Tough Choices, Tough Times, believe that the following innovations will reverse the declining wages of the middle class:

  1. prepare every student for college by age 16  [this can be ensured by imposing two high school exit exams, one in 10th and one in 12th grade – no one will fail ---  everyone will keep taking the tests until they pass]
  2. recruit teachers from top 1/3 of high school students going to college
  3. develop standards, assessments and curriculum that promote and measure creativity and innovation, discipline, teamwork and so on...[they believe it] all starts with standards and assessments
  4.  transform teachers into independent contractors who own and run their own schools
  5. school boards write the contracts and monitor their compliance and connect the schools to social services in the community
  6. contract schools will be public schools funded by the state according to a pupil weighting formula (this will ensure that low income schools will get more funding than high income schools)
  7. parents and students will choose among the available schools
  8. oversubscribed schools will not be allowed to discriminate in admissions
  9. $19 billion will be added  to the system as a whole
  10. school days will be longer
  11. State Teacher Development Agencies will be charged with making a special effort to recruit teachers of color.
  12. Federal Personal Competitiveness Accounts will enable everyone to get the continuing education they need.  The federal government will put most of the money into these accounts.
  13. State Regional Competitive Authorities will provide job training related to the economic future of the region people live in

This is what the handbasket to hell is going to look like UNLESS we offer a compelling alternative vision.  To do that, parents and teachers must find a way to not only talk about Jimmy, but about what the goals of education should be and how to restructure schools to support those goals.

To figure this out, one can begin by examining the reality on the ground – where  teachers have to rush off to Open Court training instead of spending more time talking with parents and other teachers. 

Where mandatory scripted curriculum is boring both teachers and students to death.  Where Jimmy's school only does reading and writing from 8:15 to 10:45 am, preventing Jimmy's mom from being able to come to class and help him. 

This is the reality created by policies conceived in corporate retreats in Aspin, Colorado, and upstate New York, in the backrooms of Washington DC, and on golf courses throughout the nation.  It is a reality that cannot be changed without organized people power combating organized money power.

The key to organized resistance is for Mrs. Bacon and Ms. Smith to find common ground upon which to build a shared vision of educational reform, a shared vision that would allow the building of coalitions and infrastructure, the building blocks of successful social movements..  Without time to talk, parents and teachers develop serious misunderstandings, which in turn allow business leaders to control the education reform debate, putting both parents and teachers on the defensive.  Not a good place to be!

Without time to talk and within the media echo chamber of high stakes testing propaganda, Mrs. Bacon, the teacher, is going to go from  "I just wonder if these people really care about their kids' education"  to  "these people [don't] care about their kids' education."

Without time to talk and within the media echo chamber of high stakes testing propaganda, Ms. Smith, Jimmy's mother, is going to go from "I don't think the teacher knows what she's doing in there", to  "the teacher [doesn't] know what she's doing in there."

Conclusions like these are being made by parents and teachers every day in schools across the country.  They are reached in a system that creates an atmosphere filled with frustration and anxiety of high-stakes testing.

 "these people [don't] care about their kids' education."

 "the teacher [doesn't] know what she's doing there."

these are the conclusions that high-stakes testing advocates leverage to ensure that working class parents of color and middle class white teachers never discover the common ground upon which they could build a movement that would put the teacher and parent at the center of decision making process.

let me give you a couple more examples of the effects of such divide and conquer tactics:

CHELA DELGADO, a few months ago on NPR youth radio, spoke about her experiences teaching in a charter school in Philadelphia a few years ago:

One day a parent of one of my students came to see me. Her daughter hadn't done well at regular Philly schools and the mother took every opportunity to check in with me about her daughter's progress. She had just received the Pennsylvania State test results.

Ms. Delgado, the mom wanted to know, how is it that my daughter receives good grades but did poorly on this exam? I assured the parent that her daughter was a strong writer. She had pulled off an impressive performance as Voltaire in her recent classroom role play. Your daughter simply hasn't learned to fold her intelligence into a test-taking box, I told the mom.  That's the problem with No Child Left Behind. There's nothing wrong with your daughter.

I expected some solidarity, that the mom would be relieved, pleased even that I was trying to make space for her daughter's talents. Instead, the mom said, before No Child Left Behind no one believed my daughter could pass these tests. They didn't have to believe in her and so they didn't.

And I began to get it. As an overall strategy for civil rights, tests are not the answer, but test scores are the only leverage some parents have against schools who are underserving their kids. For this parent, for lots of parents, ... the [oft repeated phrase] "soft bigotry of low expectations" rings true.

Two weeks ago, I came across another example of how teachers and parents inhabit two different worlds.  A progressive teacher posted the following on an anti high stakes testing group listserv

I was just watching a rerun of the Feb. 28 presentation of Black in America roundtable run by radio host Tavis Smiley on C-SPAN. While I thought it was good, the view of these African-American leaders is that our educational system has failed them. I guess in many ways it has. Sharpton was there, lately in favor of attacking teacher unions, and others there seemed to support him. I just don't understand how they cannot see that the current "reform" efforts are going to make things even worse for minority children, considering the destruction of freedom to teach and learn in schools. Do they not get that high stakes tests are there to continue to hold them hostage to the elite white class that they strive so ardently to become equals with? The message I see . . . is that the black community wants these changes and does not see the danger of living by the sword of test scores. It's hard to stir up any rebels when the people you are fighting to save don't really seem to think they need saving.

I don't think Ms. Smith, the parent in the skit, the parent in Chela Delgado's story and those parents supporting Al Sharpton want to "be saved."  And, I imagine they would be offended by such a patronizing statement. 

What I think they do want is that their children succeed in school.  They want teachers to take responsibility for whether their child is learning or not.  They see standards advocates talking about ensuring that there is a "highly qualified teacher" in every classroom.

 They see teacher unions only caring about teacher wages and working conditions and using those issues to oppose educational reform, which they believe is badly needed.

And because enough parents see teachers as "not knowing what they are doing in the classroom," teachers are vulnerable to high stakes testing propaganda, propaganda much like what Jonathan Alter wrote in Newsweek in 2007.  In an article called, "Stop Pandering on Education," Alter argued,

A big accountability problem nation-wide is teacher tenure, which is almost automatically awarded whether a teacher is good or not.  If  he's not, he gets to commit educational malpractice for the next 40 years.  In New York, [Joe]Klein wants to toughen standards for receiving tenure, and he has already succeeded in ending union "bumping rights," where lousy teachers with seniority can bump good, younger teachers and move into a school where a good principal doesn't want them. . . . . NCLB doesn't go far enough.  It's time to move from identifying failing schools to identifying failing teachers.  That sounds obvious, but until now it hasn't happened in American education. . . Too many educators are still caught in what Klein calls a "culture of excuses." The excuse du jour is that NCLB is "punitive."  But [Margaret Spellings] has a point that "basic assessment is both right and popular; I don't' think parents see reliable data as punitive."

When I read this, it blew me away.  It was a perfect example of how standards advocates have been able to immorally seize the moral high ground.  One reason they have been able to do this, however, is because teachers have let them. Teachers have not been organizing with their parents against high stakes testing.  As a result, parent leaders have been persuaded, among other things, that test scores are "reliable data" for them to use in their fight with teachers over their children's education. 

[AS AN aside – "reliable date" – there really is no such thing, see my analysis of the SF Unified School District]

The corporate quest for "reliable data" (what they call data points or metrics) has successfully recruited parents.  This can be seen in a recent press release put out by ACORN, a grassroots, working class organization. Their press release of last December 28th, was titled ACORN Parent Leader Speaks at the McKinsey Report Release

On December 19th 2008, Superintendent of Schools, Jack O'Connell along with education advocates and the business community held a joint press event at the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce to release the McKinsey Report.  This report examines California's current information system that is responsible for collecting student and school information....Martha Sanchez,...a State Board Member for California ACORN, was invited to speak on behalf of parents in the state. As a parent of three and a strong community leader, Martha spoke about the importance of parents being equipped with the most timely and accurate data about how students are doing in school.  Martha explained parents need quality data information that is accessible and transparent in order to help prepare their children to be successful in school. ACORN leaders look forward to continuing to work with the California Department of Education and within their local cities to advocate for key implementation of the McKinsey Report that will improve our states information system and raise student achievement.

ACORN is not the only national grassroots organization of parents that have bought into the parameters set by the  "reliable data" of test scores.   PICO, another grassroots organization of parents and concerned working class citizens, has been organizing around the dramatic numbers of high school dropouts, without any input from teachers.

The progressive teacher I quoted previously, the one watching the Tavis Smiley program, wants to know why black parents don't "see the danger of living by the sword of test scores." 

One answer might be is that no one has been able to sit down with them long enough to have an honest conversation about

Perhaps parents don't "see the danger of living by the sword of test scores" because

not enough teachers have enough deep relationships with enough of their parents.

In this context,

it is like trying to put out a 3 alarm fire with a water pistol.

Perhaps this is why the NEA recently announced its willingness to join forces with those that have brought us high-stakes testing. An NEA press release announced last February that the organization was going to work with the BRT coalition in the development of The Common Core State Standards Initiative . Another NEA press release, more recently announced its decision to work with  the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the National Association of Manufacturers to define the details of the recommendations of  the Tough Choices, Tough Times report.

The BRT CEOS are very heavy hitters and the NEA has apparently decided that if you can't beat em, join em. 

But while union leadership is hoping to mitigate or slow down the rigorous implementation of

I think some of the rank and file teachers need to talk about how to organize with parents and students in order to take education reform in an entirely different direction.

I am hoping there are some of you in the audience tonight who might consider doing so.

You are not going to be able to turn back the clock.   The juggernaut of high stakes testing has gathered too much steam.  The only way of preventing "reliable" data from destroying what little there ever was of social justice education is to forge a new vision of education with parents.

Easier said than done.

ACORN, wants schools where

There [is] a highly qualified teacher in every classroom [as defined by] No Child Left Behind . . . Longer school day[s with instruction that] moves students towards academic excellence [and which] is available to all students; [and] a research based reading program . . .such as Success for All.

These demands have been taken straight out of the standards' advocates' playbook indicating the degree to which ACORN has been swayed by the corporate business agenda.

However, this is not all there is to ACORN's educational vision 

ACORN also insists that

For teachers to organize effectively WITH parents, money, and tough tedious organizing is needed not to mention many, many difficult conversations between teachers and parents. But without parents and teachers organizing together, no effective opposition can be mounted to the corporate agenda.

In spite of the obstacles, such organizing is very doable and has been done before. Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement are always reminding me that social movements are built one relationship at a time.  If teachers can organize with parents, the likelihood we can create a social movement is very high. 

And it will take a social movement to achieve fundamental change in the current structure created by high stakes testing.  We all understand that schools do not exist in isolation from the rest of society.  Yet, rarely do we develop and implement tactics from such an understanding.  But once we learn to do so, there will be no stopping us. 

I really believe parents, teachers and students have become impatient with high stakes testing and are ready to think outside the box.  One reason I believe this is the dramatic increase in interest in Civil Rights history during the last three of four years.   I am sure each one of you can think of other signs of growing unrest and anger with things as they have become.  But we need a few organizers able to channel that impatience, unrest and anger with the system, organizers who understand what I refer to as the lessons of the Civil Rights Movement.  We cannot go forward unless we

This is what we must do, this is what we can do and, if history is any guide, this is what we will do.