NOT SEEING THE FOREST FOR THE TREES: THE IMPORTANCE OF GOOD THEORY
May 17, 2007, DePaul University, Chicago
Around 200 CEOs of the richest corporations in this country belong to a national organization called the Business Roundtable. I argue in my dissertation, in the book that Susan Ohanian turned my dissertation into, and in an article in the most recent issue of Teacher Education Quarterly, that not only is the Business Roundtable (BRT) responsible for the idea of high stakes testing in 1989 but it is also responsible for implementing standards based reform over the last 18 years
How have roughly 200 CEOs managed to effect the 2nd fundamental transformation in the history of our nation’s public school system? After 1989, the Business Roundtable (BRT) created an interlocking network of organizations and has steered the strategies of this network.
Why is it important to know this?
For one, it explains why both Ted Kennedy and George Bush are determined to reauthorize NCLB so it is aligned with the educational goals of the BRT. Both Democrats and Republicans are heavily dependent on corporate money for their campaigns. Not to mention the access the CEOs gain through highly paid lobbysts.
Knowing the relationship of the BRT to high-stakes testing also explains why the editorial pages of major newspapers speak with one voice when it comes to educational reform. A few large corporations own most of the newspapers.
The BRT’s role in education reform allows us to understand why the leadership of the nation’s teacher unions are playing hardball with those local chapters who are expressing opposition to the renewal of NCLB – the leadership doesn’t want to threaten its access to the Democratic National Committee, who in turn have been lobbied heavily by the BRT
Knowing the place that the BRT has in the power structure of the U.S. explains why the vast majority of teachers, students and parents are resigned to the new system as inevitable. They feel powerless when confronted by the scope and reach of the BRT-engineered network.
Everyday, regular people feel powerless unless a few start building the next social movement in this country. For that is what it will take if we are ever to end the control that big business has always had over the nation’s educational policies and practices.
By a social movement, I mean mobilizing people power over a long period of time. A march is not a movement. A movement is a coalition of many grassroots or community based organizations acting together, at the right historical moment, to effect fundamental change in the system. Necessarily, this must take place over many years. Only such a movement can counteract the power wielded by the BRT.
Having an accurate understanding of how the power structure in this country works allows one to predict that reasoned argument, presentation of the facts, and thoughtful framing of the issues cannot prevent corporate CEOs from pursuing their interests. They feel no shame.
Power only responds to power. This is why waiting for business leaders to eventually discover the errors of their ways will be a very long and fruitless wait. CEOs are not moved by increased pushout rates or the underfunding of schools, which are two major effects of high stakes testing. High stakes testing as it has been has served the interests of corporate America. It has created a new tracking system for the new economy and legitimized that tracking system in the eyes of the general public.
The lock that corporate CEOs have on the political structure of this country will continue to make it increasingly impossible for teachers to teach, school board members to vote and parents to make decisions according to their principles
Within the context of a social movement, however, teachers, students and parents can gain the kind of control over educational policy that will allow for other goals of education, besides sorting and socializing, to be pursued.
The bad news is that most people haven’t a clue as to how social movements happen.
The good news is that fifty years ago, there was an amazingly successful social movement in this country. Today it is called the Civil Rights Movement, but at the time, it was called the Southern Freedom Movement.
From 1955-1966, people from all over the nation went to the South and learned how to organize by participating in this movement. For example, Mario Savio went to Mississippi in 1964 and then returned to Berkeley with the kind of experiences that allowed him to help guide the Free Speech Movement. Chude Allen was a Mississippi Freedom School teacher and then went to NYC to help found the modern women’s movement. The story is repeated for many of the leaders of the anti-war movement as well as participants in the United Farm Workers movement.
We need to go beyond calling for policy solutions in academic papers and writing letters to politicians and newspaper editors. We need to start calling for the kinds of organizing that will overturn the new tracking system and replace it with an educational system that is democratically decided upon. Debbie Meier has offered us six alternative assumptions upon which to build such a system.
For other models, I encourage you to attend the national popular education conference here in Chicago next month, called Free Minds, Free People. At that conference I will be part of a panel on Freedom Schools, Then and Now.
The 1964 Mississippi Freedom Schools operated on principles diametrically opposed to those of the current high-stakes testing reforms. That the Mississippi Freedom Schools emerged out of the Southern Freedom Movement suggests, as Jean Anyon argues, progressive education reform will only happen within the context of a social movement.
As a former history teacher, I can’t help believing that if we study past social movements, we can avoid reinventing the wheel.
One of the most important organizing lessons that one can learn from studying fundamental social movements such as Abolitionism, Populism or the Southern Freedom movement is that everyday, regular people acting collectively at the right historical moment make such movements happen.
In other words, don’t wait for a charismatic leader to emerge. Martin Luther King Jr. would not have had the opportunity to emerge as a leader if it weren’t for the Women's Political Council of Montgomery, Alabama.
Jo Ann Robinson was a founding member of the Women’s Political Council and a teacher at Alabama State College. Those of you in the audience today who are interested in how to create a movement would do well to study what Jo Ann Robinson and the Women’s Political Council did to create the infrastructure that made the Montgomery Bus Boycott successful, which in turn created the opportunity for King to emerge as a leader and founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Council.
Leaders emerge out of movements, not the other way around.
Another important lesson to take from the study of the Southern Freedom Movement is that without direct action, there is no social movement.
Most people believe that policy necessarily becomes practice. Legal or policy action, however necessary, is not sufficient. Direct action is needed to ensure that policy is actually translated into practice. For example, in 1954, the Supreme Court declared school segregation unconstitutional. But, it took ten years of direct action to translate such policy into practice. Similarly, the U.S. Inspector General has condemned as illegal the actions of the NCLB Reading First Panel.
This, however, will not reverse the damage done by this Panel during the last five years unless there is political pressure put on the federal government by a large network of organizations. Such a network does not yet exist, in part, because the leadership of NEA, AFT, ACORN, and PICO feel no pressure from the rank and file to create such a coalition. How such a coalition might be formed today can be seen by studying Freedom Summer.
In 1964, the rank and file of the four major Civil Rights Organizations, SNCC, CORE, SCLC and NAACP worked together to break the back of segregation in the South in spite of the reluctance and even mutual hostility by the leadership of each organization. It is worth studying the detailed history of Freedom Summer to understand how that happened, and particularly the crucial role that youth played.
To interpret what is happening today in education as privatization, commercialization or a destruction of the public school system is to miss what is really happening. It is important to know that the BRT has no interest in destroying public education and couldn’t care less about vouchers and charters. To insist otherwise is not only an error in theory but an error in strategy. To argue that people must organize in order to defend public schools is to alienate the very parents and students for whom the public schools have never provided a decent education and the very people who must participate in the next social movement.
The current fundamental transformation of public schools can easily feel like destruction. But the BRT CEOs still want a public system, albeit leaner and meaner—one that will produce more high tech workers than there are jobs available for them and legitimize the tracking of low performing students into low paying, unskilled service jobs. As big business did in the 1890s, it has done again in the 1990’s – transforming the public school system to sort and socialize students in preparation for their entrance into the economic structure of the moment.
If teachers, parents and students can understand this, then they know they must establish strong relationships with each other and use principles and policy to leverage direct action, and that this has to be done for the purposes of building a social movement.
Even if the next social movement fails to end global warming, nuclear proliferation, and the war on terror and fails to create social justice for all, there are still important reasons for each of us in this room to consider becoming part of its creation.
Cesar Chavez said: “When we are really honest with ourselves we must admit that our lives are all that really belong to us. So, it is how we use our lives that determines what kind of [people] we are. It is my deepest belief that only by giving our lives do we find life.”
When you talk to veterans of the Civil Rights Movement, they will tell you that they knew they were trying to do impossible. They will also tell you that they never felt more alive than when they were active in the movement.