Making School Reform a True Civil Rights Movement

Temporarily lost in the edu-politics of the mid-term elections is the importance the letter sent to President Barack Obama and congressional leaders by a coalition of civil rights groups. The coalition wrote, "We must shift towards accountability strategies that promote equity and strengthen, rather than weaken, schools in our communities, so that they can better serve students and accelerate success."

The letter - which could become the turning point in our education civil war - was signed by the Advancement Project, the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Lawyer's Committee for Civil Rights, the League of United Latin American Citizens, the National Opportunity to Learn Campaign, the National Urban League, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the National Council on Educating Black Children, the National Indian Education Association, and the Southeast Asian Resource Action Center.

The coalition is diplomatic in phrasing its letter to the Democratic administration that has taken the punitive bubble-in testing of the Bush-era NCLB, and put it on steroids. "While the need for accountability is almost universally agreed upon," they write, "there have been concerns raised about overly punitive accountability systems that do not take into account resources, geography, student populations, and specific needs of schools."

The groups wrote:

The current educational accountability system has become overly focused on narrow
measures of success and, in some cases, has discouraged schools from providing a rich curriculum for all students focused on the 21st century skills they need to acquire. This particularly impacts under‑resourced schools that disproportionately serve low‑income students and students of color.

Consequently the civil rights organizations conclude, "We must shift towards accountability strategies that promote equity and strengthen, rather than weaken, schools in our communities, so that they can better serve students and accelerate success."

The single most destructive aspect of the contemporary school reform movement, with its faith in "testing without investing," is the way that it has consciously pitted liberal versus liberal, generation against generation, and civil rights advocate against civil rights advocate. Despite claiming to be a "civil rights movement," test-driven, competition-driven policies have deteriorated into corporate reform. Test, sort, and punish regimes have been disproportionately imposed on poor children of color. And, now, the school closure mania is privatizing education in many urban areas.

I have no doubts that accountability-driven, market-driven reformers were sincere in their original efforts to use high stakes testing and competition by charter schools to force educators to do a better job in overcoming the educational legacies of poverty. They didn't intend to rob children of a rich curriculum, necessary for nurturing 21st century skills and healthy, fulfilling lives. The problem was that these newcomers to education had no comprehension of the complexity of the challenge that they embraced. When their test, reward, and punish schemes failed, reformers sought scapegoats. They blamed teachers and unions.

True believers in data-driven accountability also came with the sword of market-driven, competition-driven school improvement theories. They stacked the deck in favor of selective choice schools and charter management organizations, and against neighborhood schools. High stakes testing provided the ammunition for the life and death struggle. Mass closures of schools in poor communities, urban school removal, was the result. This further damaged the remaining schools that served all comers by creating even more intense concentrations of kids from generational poverty who have suffered extreme trauma.

I don't believe that reformers intended to impose drill and kill malpractice on children, break unions and de-professionalize teachers; it was an unintended result of their scorched earth edu-politics. Not even true believers like Newark's Cami Anderson (and her patron, Gov. Chris Christie) or the Philadelphia School Reform Commission are brutal enough to intentionally hurt kids in such an arrogant manner. They originally had no desire to privatize public schools and produce educational neo-Plessyism.

But, that is what happened.

I would remind elite do-gooders who leapt into school reform without looking at nuance of a larger problem with the scorched earth politics of corporate reform. What happens if they continue to undermine the power of teachers unions? If they destroy one of labor's most important institutions, what will take its place in the battle for working people? Will the billionaires stick around for the fight for the minimum wage, health care for all, and equal rights?

Now is the time to unite for a new reform era that is worthy of the title, "the 21st century civil rights movement." I am even hopeful that sincere reformers, who once believed that testing, competition, and market-driven conflict could help poor children of color, will now be open to the new civil rights call for a humane and constructive era of school improvement. Regardless of whether that happens, I hope that President Obama, who I love (despite his awful education policies) will heed the wisdom of the civil rights coalition.