Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Our Hearts Belong to the Children: We will never surrender. What Education Reformers should know about our commitment to Participatory democracy
By:  Dr. Yohuru Williams and Marla Kilfoyle, NBCT

On the occasion America’s bicentennial celebration in 1987, historian James Henretta keenly noted how “Americans remain sharply divided by race, and economic and social inequalities, although united by their Constitution” and their commitment to “republican ideology.” Rich, and poor, young and old, immigrant and native, and regardless of race, class or gender, Americans maintain a reverence and devotion to the tenets of American democracy and tend to feel a deep sense of injustice when those claiming to operate in the public interest betray those ideals.

Henretta’s poignant observations clearly have relevance today as we consider the current battle over Corporate Education Reform. One of the key issues at the center of public opposition to the Deformers centers on the undemocratic practices its supporters have pursued in pushing it on communities in ways, which runs counter to the Constitution and republican ideology. Constitutionalism and Participatory Democracy have always been the cornerstones of what political scientists like to call America’s civil theology—our real political common core as it were. Yet what we are currently witnessing from so-called education reformers including, most deplorably, the current head of the United States Department of Education Arne Duncan, violates this public faith and trust in the most dangerous and disheartening of ways, by imperiling public education and undermining democracy. Public education, after all, is the cornerstone of democracy.  It helps students acquire civic knowledge so that they can become participants in their democracy. It also requires students and communities to reflect on a continuous basis, through school board meetings, referendums and countless other exercises of local politics, on the nature of the democratic process.  Public education further requires parents, teachers, and communities to work in partnership to solve problems on behalf of the public good.  If we were to sit passively by and allow unscrupulous politicians and corporations to auction public education off to the highest bidder, we would also be complicit in its demise, but we, and scores of others do not intend to allow that to happen. For the future of our kids and these democratic ideals, we will fight. 

The current model of engagement to force privatization, Common Core, unprepared TFA trainees, and high stakes testing upon communities has recently been temporarily checked in Connecticut where the Governor has called for hearings brought on directly by parent, teacher, and community activism. The tenor of much of the conversation taking place in the new round of discussion however leaves much to be desired as many politicians and “reformers” seem to be going through the motions of public discourse with no real indication that the people will have a chance to decide for themselves. “We have explained it, now you accept it” is unacceptable. Practices are only democratic to the extent that they create opportunities for people to engage on issues with the broadest possible audience and fully participate in the decisions that touch our children, our communities, and our lives. In a thought provoking essay from August of 2013, democracy activist Camilla Hansen rightfully observed, “The popular assembly where citizens meet face to face to discuss, vote, and make collective decisions is the original form of democracy.” The town hall meetings now taking place concerning Common Core in Connecticut and many other states will only be meaningful if the stakeholders, parents, teachers and students in those states have the opportunity to voice their concerns and ultimately vote whether they wish to move forward or abandon corporate education reform policies. This unfortunately has not been the case. In New York, the Commissioner of Education, the Chancellor of the Board of Regents, and many lawmakers traveled the state listening to the concerns, pleas, and desperation of parents, educators, and students about how the “reform” movement was destroying education, their children’s self-esteem, as well as their love of education.  Children testified about being over tested, tired, and confused.  Those concerns, so desperately laid out for all to see, fell upon deaf ears, were marginalized as “special interest” groups, and the flawed educational reforms they rolled out continued full steam ahead.

We believe that one of the reasons proponents of Education Reform from Arne Duncan to Stefan Pryor have rejected this model is because they realize that much of what they are proposing would never survive close public scrutiny.  Delivered in Malthusian “the sky is falling” sound bites, their arguments are compelling enough, but wilt like lettuce under the microscope of public discourse. Until recently, they have been able to control the conversation. However, at the present a broad array of parents, students, and teachers stand ready to force the debate. Frustrated by the half-truths, lies, and tightly controlled spaces to engage on these and other issues central to the future of public education, parents, teachers, and students have created their own spaces for debate through blogs, web based journals and through Social Media advocacy groups like the Badass Teachers Association and the Badass Mothers Association.

In these spaces, we can closely scrutinize the claims of the so-called reformers subjecting them to the analysis of parents, teachers, students, and education experts like Diane Ravitch. Not surprisingly, our collective work exposed and uncovered many of the false reports promulgated by the deformers. Education reform, to date, for instance, has provided not one ounce of valid research that Common Core will make children college and career ready, or that for profit Charters actually do better than public schools, or that rating teachers based on test scores actually makes teachers more effective.  They have not provided not one valid study to support their false rhetoric or their “sky is falling” sound bites.

The so-called Education Reformers should know that we will hold them accountable to the principles of participatory democracy and will demand our right to make our voices and our votes count. As Frederick Douglass, memorably chastised slavery’s supporters while ruminating on the meaning of July Fourth to African Americans, we now say to the so called education reformers who claim to be pursuing social justice and equality in their plans for public education  we find “your shouts of liberty and equality . . .a hollow mockery.” In our united effort to protect children, preserve public education, initiate real reform, and resurrect participatory democracy we also find inspiration in the words of Winston Churchill. Agencies, individuals, and corporate entities that undermine democracy and place our children at risk cannot hide. To rephrase Churchill’s sentiments blended with our present struggle, we will continue the fight to protect students and preserve public education as long as it takes. We will not surrender.

Even though democracy has been frustrated and many communities have fallen under the sway of the harmful machinery of Corporate Education Reform, we will not tire or retreat. We will stand and fight the deformers in the town hall meetings, in the governors’ offices and on the floors of state legislatures, on the local school boards, on the campuses of the nation’s colleges and universities, we will even fight at the gates of the White House and on the steps of Capitol Hill; we will never surrender.

We will never surrender because the real issue that hinders education for children, poverty, needs to be addressed not ignored.  The sound bites of education disaster that deformers thrust upon the public never mention child poverty. In fact, they go out of their way to marginalize it and ignore it.  We will force the public and governments, at both the federal and state level, to address this.

We will never surrender because the very social inequalities that deformers like Gates, Duncan, Rhee, and Broad are using to claim their agenda for public education are full of lies, a lack of research, and an alternate agenda that isn’t about equality or justice; it is about the dollar and continued oppression of the poor.  Nothing they have presented as an agenda for education will cure child poverty or social injustice.  We will never surrender until this lie is exposed and destroyed. Finally, yet importantly, we will never surrender because principle, morality, democracy, and justice are on our side. Our hearts are not bought by The Gates Foundation or The Broad Foundation – Our hearts belong to the children we teach, and the communities we invest in. For that, we will never surrender.


Marla Kilfoyle is a veteran teacher of 28 years; she is a National Board Certified Teacher, education activist, and General Manager of The Badass Teachers Association.  You can follow her on Twitter at @marla_Kilfoyle                                       

Yohuru Williams is an author, historian, and professor, who works regularly with teachers and students and is devoted to the fight to preserve democracy and public education.  You can follow him on Twitter at @yohuruwilliams

If you would like to learn more about the Badass Teachers Association, join us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter. Let your voice be heard!


  1. Hell, yeah, Marla and Yohuru, you tell it like it is! Kudos!

  2. This is the smartest essay. I've been saying this all along but never so eloquently.

  3. I posted this at Oped news at this address after reading it on the Ravitch Blog.

    My comment at the end of your piece was:The monetarizing of education is a disaster for out country, and it will be to late when he sleepwalking public wakes up... if they ever do, lulled into a stupor by the torrents of disinformation spilled out by the plutocrats who own the media.

    What it is doing to the children and the teachers can be found at this link to The Ravitch Blog,
    where a Syracuse teacher writes: " Teaching has lost its joy and spontaneity. It has become "all work and no play, At least one third of the teachers in my elementary school are now looking for work outside the profession. My kinder class is doing literacy curriculum with imaginative play completely phased out and only 20 minute recess daily. It is a stressful, rigid, boring environment that causes children and teachers to lose their spirit." (read more at the link)

    I quote the truth that Dr. Yohuru Williams and Marla Kilfoyle state at the end:
    " the very social inequalities that deformers like Gates, Duncan, Rhee, and Broad are using to claim their agenda for public education are full of lies, a lack of research, and an alternate agenda that isn't about equality or justice; it is about the dollar and continued oppression of the poor. "


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