Sunday, October 12, 2014

Hangin' at Public Education Nation


Yesterday 200 hundred or so Badass Teachers, bloggers, school administrators, college professors, parents and students gathered at the Brooklyn New School for the first ever Public Education Nation conference sponsored by the Network for Public Education. The theme of the event was "Changing the Conversation," an allusion to the need for supporters of public education to take back the narrative on schools and schooling from the corporate education reform industry.

The event was carried across the nation via the internet on Livestream and further supported by a dedicated group of tweeters who had the event trending #1 on Twitter for most of the day. Chairing the event was public education hero, former teacher and current Network for Public Education board member, Anthony Cody. Cody has been one of the leading voices in the pro-public education battle through his blog, Living in Dialogue.

Prior to the formal program, the Education Bloggers Network, under the leadership of Jonathan Pelto of the Wait, What? blog, met to plot out strategy for further expanding the impact of the many blogs devoted to reporting on and championing public education. Bloggers are having an impact it seems. One of our members, Francesco Portelos, was offered a settlement by his school district if he would only stop blogging. The corporate education reformers and Common Core supporters have felt more and more compelled to respond to the bloggers as our message gets out. As Diane Ravitch has reminded us, Ghandi said that once your enemies feel compelled to fight back you are on your way to winning.

Among the attendees at the bloggers meeting was Ruth Coniff, Executive Editor of The Progressive Magazine, which is teaming with the Education Bloggers Network on an online magazine project, Public School Shakedown. The bloggers group is looking to team with The Progressive to expand the reach of this project. The bloggers also seek to add higher education issues into the mix, especially now that teacher education institutions have become the target of corporate education reform.

The conference itself was divided into four panel discussions and an inspirational wrap up session presented by Diane Ravitch and Jitu Brown.

The first panel concerned the Common Core and was chaired by hero principal and dedicated Common Core warrior, Carol Corbett Burris. On this panel, Takiema Bunche Smith argued that the Common Core forced teachers to defend practices that they knew were developmentally inappropriate for young children. She was concerned, as we all should be, that not one early childhood educator was included in the development of the standards. College professor Alan Aja said we need to fight the false conclusion that education reform will fight poverty. The reformers goal is to disrupt our children's lives in order to ensure a conforming and compliant population of workers for the future. Burris wrapped up by saying that we need to get teachers at the center of the conversation on the Common Core, where they should have been in the first place.

The second panel featured Chicago teacher Xian Barrett discussing school closure with Newark, NJ public school student leader Tanaisa Brown and Fairfield University professor Yohuru Williams. Ms. Brown was both passionate and articulate in her criticism of the One Newark plan being forced on the students and parents of the Newark schools by the state appointed Superintendent Cami Anderson. She argued that action needed to be taken to the streets because that was the only way the students could get people to listen. Dr. Williams was inspirational in his plea to privilege people over profits. He warned the reformers like Anderson, "We are coming to take our schools back."

Jeff Bryant of the Educational Opportunity Network asked the next panel to answer the question, "Are charter schools doing more harm than good?" Not surprisingly, this panel came down on the side of harm. Karran Harper Royal, an activist from New Orleans, captured the post-Katrina devastation of the New Orleans school system as offering students what amounted to chance, not choice. There is no real choice in New Orleans, certainly not if your choice would be a well-funded neighborhood public school. New Orleans she said, is no model for the country as it is being touted by the reformers.

Investigative journalist Wendy Lecker added that the lack of scrutiny of charter schools has led to outright fraud. She cited many examples from her own state of Connecticut. Charter schools do damage to equity in Connecticut by getting an unequal amount of funding and they do damage to children through the high attrition rates of both students and teachers. On the same panel, teacher and blogger Gary Rubinstein said that he has found through personal experience that KIPP charter schools, one of the most prominent charter models, provides a poor instructional model led by inexperienced teachers. Rubinstein expects the charter movement to fall of its own weight as it tries to expand.

The final panel, chaired by Network for Public Education Executive Director Robin Hiller, focused on some genuine success stories in authentic reform. Greg Anrig, Director of the Center for Inquiry in Teaching and Learning and author of the must read book, Beyond the Education Wars: Evidence that Collaboration Builds Effective Schools, discussed the enlightened teacher evaluation model in Cincinnati, Ohio. Anrig said that a top down model of teacher evaluation will fail. The Cincinnati model shows how evaluation can work in a spirit of teacher/administrator collaboration. New York City school principal Phyllis Tashlik discussed her school's model that was based on treating teachers as professionals and working with them to design a performance assessment that works. Brian Jones brought this panel to a close by arguing that "no excuses" educational reform was actually making excuses for poverty.

At the end of the day, Diane Ravitch took the stage to declare. "We are winning!" She said that she wants all of our public schools to be like the schools the rich send their children to. Schools unburdened by standardized tests and Common Core and "no excuses" discipline policies. Schools with small class sizes and teachers who are treated s professionals. Jitu Brown exhorted the crowd to go beyond activism to organizing. Only as a community can we change the conversation. And brought down the house when he said, "This is not intellectual discussion. This is a spiritual discussion. The privatizers crossed a line. We must kill the privatization movement."

And so on this Sunday morning may I say to that, "Amen."

Videos of all the events at the conference will be available on schoolhouselive.org. Please watch for them to be posted.

Bloggers Gary Rubinstein, Brian Cohen, Jonathan Pelto
 and yours truly at Public Education Nation