Sunday, June 1, 2014

Reflections on the 50th Anniversary of Freedom Summer
Why Teach for America and the Common Core are More Civil Wrongs than Civil Rights.
Yohuru Williams & Marla Kilfoyle

One of the more disturbing narratives employed by corporate education reformers, who support both Teach for America and the Common Core, is the claim that they are cast in the spirit of the Civil Rights Movement—specifically in the use of education as a tool to challenge economic and political inequality.   The larger claim of the Common Core defenders is that it will close the achievement gap.  Their rhetoric is that CCSS will increase “rigor” and make children “college and career ready.”  The idea that a set of standards can erase child poverty, systemic racism that continues to exist in our educational system, and squash the rise of classist privilege is beyond absurd.  To do this in the name of Civil Rights is insulting.  Have the CCSS really leveled the playing field?  Are they really doing what the corporate reformers say they will do?  An examination of Kentucky, the first state to adopt the CCSS in 2010, clearly shows that CCSS is not addressing Civil Rights nor is it closing the achievement gap. In 2011, one year after Kentucky adopted the CCSS, the average reading scale score for Black students in the 4th grade was 210.  In 2013 it fell to 204.  In Texas, where CCSS is not implemented, Black students in the 4th grade in 2011 scored 210 (the same as those exposed to CC in Kentucky) and in 2013 that number fell one point to 209 (5 points above those exposed to CC in Kentucky).  So, our question is; does it look like CC is closing the achievement gap? Why is it that children of color in Kentucky, who are exposed to CC, are scoring below a scaled reading score when compared to their counterparts, who are not exposed to the CCSS?  Kentucky however, is merely the tip of the iceberg.

In a May 2013 commencement speech at Brown University Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp admitted another of the major problems associated with TFA as a remedy to inequality.  “It turns out,” she pointedly acknowledged, “it's hard to recruit and select a diverse corps of individuals who are ready to teach in our neediest schools. It's hard to provide them with the training and ongoing support necessary so they don't just survive but thrive with their students. It's hard to ensure their experience does not disillusion but empowers them to be lifelong leaders for change.”  Yes, Wendy it is hard and the corps individuals you place in our neediest schools are not trained sufficiently to be there.  They don’t stay or live in the communities they teach, they often replace teachers of color who have been fired, and as a result don’t make themselves agents of change in the neighborhoods in which they teach.  It is widely known that Teach for America corps members sign on for a 2 year commitment.  Julian Vasquez Heilig and Su Jin Jez note a study done by Miner in “Teach for America: A Return to the Evidence” (2014) that 16.6% teach beyond their 2 year commitment.  In their training, Heilig and Jez write, Teach for America corps members report that 6 pages of an 800 page training manual is spent on how to teach English Language Learners.  Finally, Heilig and Jez note, that Barnett Barry, CEO and founder of the Center for Teaching Quality, states, “Teach for America gets their recruits ready for a sprint and not a 10K.  They don’t make long term commitments to teaching and it is viewed as a stop-over before graduate school and a career.”   Why is it that our neediest communities are the recipients of Teach for America corps members? Why are they not entitled to a highly trained teacher that will commit to their children, their school, and their community?

Although the claim that CC and Teach for America will close the achievement gap is dubious, it has gained traction, which necessitates a clear refutation. This year, for example marks the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer the massive voter education project in the South that substantially contributed to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. As we pause to reflect on the importance of this Civil Rights Movement milestone, we should also be aware that Freedom Summer has more to teach us especially in understanding what Civil Rights activists privileged as the driving force behind education-community building.

A central feature of the Freedom Summer campaign was the creation of Freedom Schools.  In their wonderfully accessible, book Lessons from Freedom Summer: Ordinary People Building Extraordinary Movements (2008) on Freedom Schools and Freedom Summer authors Sylvia Braselmann, Linda Reid Gold, and Kathy Emery reproduce many of the documents associated with the original Freedom Schools as well as the five principles that drove their creation and curriculum. In list form, the strong parallels with the core ideas expressed by BATS are more than apparent.


1.  The school is an agent of social change.

2.  Students must know their own history.

3.  The curriculum should be linked to the student’s experience.

4.  Questions should be open-ended.

5.  Developing academic skills is crucial.


They also expose as false education reforms unconvincing claim to the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement. There is simply no honest way to compare a program that denigrates and disempowers young people to one that help lay the basis for one of the greatest social revolutions in the history of the world. The curriculum adopted for Freedom Summer embodied the blueprint for change.

Civil Rights activists working in Mississippi recognized the importance of building a solid educational foundation that would allow members of the community to better understand and claim their place in a participatory democracy.  To this end, the Council of Federated Organizations, an amalgamation of civil rights organizations working in the region, sponsored a conference in New York City in March of 1964 to draft a curriculum.  Underwritten by the National Council of Churches, the conference brought together fifty-three delegates from broad range of backgrounds and disciplines, with the active participation and the blessing of teachers and teacher unions. 

The curriculum writers for the Freedom Schools esteemed student centered activities as part of a child’s learning. They also appreciated the importance of developing a curriculum that was culturally relevant. The intellectual growth and development of the whole child and not the achievement of arbitrary standards was the measure of student success. To that end, the curriculum writers of the Freedom Schools focused on civics and community service as both instructional tools and important components for social change.  They devised 14 case studies utilizing real problems that allowed students to examine and debate political, social, and economic forces in society.  In the process this helped students develop the skills and insights necessary for understanding their place and role in a participatory democracy. The Freedom School student manual, for instance, impressed that, “questioning is the path to enlightenment.” Reflecting on the legacy of the Freedom Schools almost a decade ago, one of the program’s chief architects, Civil Rights activists, Charlie Cobb recalled that what they found in the segregated Mississippi schools was, “a complete absence of academic freedom . . . geared to squash intellectual curiosity and different thinking.” This, of course, is very similar to how many teachers and education activists feel about the CCSS today. What we see with Common Core is not a leveling of the playing field but a narrow set of standards that are neither culturally relevant nor designed to interest and engage students in anything beyond performance on standardized tests.

It is also important to note the ways in which teachers played a critical role during Freedom Summer. Like Teach for America, the vast majority of the “teachers” in the program were new to teaching. This is essentially, where the comparisons end, for unlike TFA these volunteers made no claim to being “teachers” nor harbored any pretense about having all the answers. The conference attendees played a big part in helping the recruits identify what role they would play by presenting a realistic portrait of the state of affairs in Mississippi.  The curriculum drafting committee recognized that many of the “teachers” headed into makeshift classrooms with neither the educational background nor knowledge of Mississippi society and culture to transform either overnight.  They also acknowledged that the Freedom School teacher’s actual instructional time with students was limited. They therefore focused on designing goals and strategies to allow the Freedom School to enhance rather than replace the curriculum—leveling the playing field by providing additional instruction and attention - not a one size fits all approach.


Comprised of three parts, the final curriculum sought to enhance student instruction in three critical areas. First, the Citizenship component sought to use the student’s own experience to teach them about the value and importance of civics and civic engagement. Next, the Academic component sought to help students brush up on basic skills.  Finally, a recreational competent sought to help students build healthy minds and bodies and included physical education, music and the arts.  Like a three-legged stool, the various components sought to awaken students to the power of their own potential by encouraging them to see themselves as important parts of the larger community. They accomplished this through the promotion of five key values, which present day so-called corporate education reformers might be wise to study. These included helping students to see their schools as agents for social change, encouraging and providing the opportunity for students to learn their own history and tied the curriculum to the students’ own experience. They also placed a premium on the development of critical academic skills, not through rote memorization or standardized tests but open-ended questions to encourage critical thinking and personal reflection. During discussions regarding this aspect of the schools, the subgroup charged with drafting this portion of the curriculum actually noted how “traditional evaluation and testing methods were as oppressive as traditional teaching methods” because “both caused fear, submissiveness and loss of self-respect among students.” This, of course, is a mantra more familiar to BATS than to TFA supporting corporate education reformers.


BATS do not seek to co-opt the history or legacy of the Civil Rights Movement. The association however is well aware of the importance of this history and its connection to our present struggle to ensure educational models that uplift communities by putting people before profits, and an education of the whole person over the dubious data culled from standardized tests—driven not by a desire to build communities but to further segment them. For this reason, BATS will gather in Washington this July 28, not simply to recreate the victories of the past, but contest for a new future, devoid of the harmful effects of corporate education reform.


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