CalCARE Resistance Road Trip, September 2007
Susan Harman, Rich Gibson, and Bob Apter
Some beginning thoughts: Organization is everything. We need a short couple of introductory sentences on the Rouge Forum (a decade-old organization of parents, students, educators, and community people dedicated to social justice and equality in schools and out) and Cal Care.
I don’t think teaching is a profession. It is a job. It’s only a profession when the bosses want you to buy your own materials. Otherwise, teachers do not set the curriculum, the hours of work, the wages and benefits, and have little in common with others who think of themselves as professionals, or are seen as that. Bosses gain from the elitism and individualism that the idea of professionalism promotes. But that is no big deal right now, for our purposes.
First of all, our thanks to everyone who took the time to meet with us, feed us, house us, and give us your thoughts. I hope this Report does you justice.
We began this Road Trip to collect information about what’s going on in schools in the various parts of the state where we already had contacts; and to see people’s responsiveness to linking the corporate takeover of our schools (rigid curriculum, the tests) with the corporate takeover of our country (in particular, the war) or, put another way, the intense rise of inequality in schools and out, reflected in the empire’s curricula regimentation and wars.
In brief, we found anguish for the loss of our profession and the joylessness of teaching in these times, an unnerving amount of fear, isolation, but hunger for information about resistance as well as the energy to DO SOMETHING, lacking only direction.
Rich has been an NEA organizer and bargaining specialist and is currently an Emeritus Professor at San Diego State. Bob is an old friend of his and a UAW organizer in New York. They are both founders of the Rouge Forum. And Susan is a partly retired principal and teacher, and a founder of CalCARE (which is.....).
Rich and Bob left San Diego on September 9th, and we had our last meeting on the 20th, after two weeks on the road. Rich clocked 2,444 miles. The meetings were small, intense, and useful. They involved teachers, parents, school board members, administrators, and union officials.
Our first meeting was in Saratoga, an upper-middle-class suburb of San Jose. Everyone at the meeting (parents and principal) came from a small alternative progressive school, where most parents opted out. The outspoken and principled principal who opposed a test-based curriculum had been transferred, and the kids had graduated into high school, where they are being pressured to test. The high schools’ tactics are vicious: threats to withhold letters of recommendation for college, to not allow them to enroll in AP classes (Cupertino H.S.), and in one child’s case, actually denying her a “good citizenship” award. Needless to say, the kids are conflicted, and the parents are angry.
The principal has published his views in the San Jose Mercury News, and said the district superintendent privately agrees with him but publicly supports the tests. (We heard this everywhere we went.) The principal has met with the local State Assembly-member, and he set up a debate between himself and a new, mid-career change teacher who was pro-testing, but by the time they’d met a few times to arrange logistics, he’d changed the teacher’s mind. They faked the debate.
They also told us about a small local school that scored 1,000 (a perfect score) on the API, CA’s state ranking system, in 2005-06. In 2006-07 they plummeted to 996 and everyone was hysterical. The school had been 95% Asian and 5% white, with 1 English Learner (EL), 1 child eligible for free/reduced lunch, 100% credentialed teachers, and most parents having college or graduate degrees. The change in demographics that probably explains their dramatic fall from grace is the addition of 1 Pacific Islander.
The next evening we were in Santa Cruz, another wealthy community; houses cost $700,000. Everybody is worried about paying the mortgage. We met with a woman who’s been organizing for years and is worn out, and two teachers. All are also parents. They said it was hard enough to run their classrooms well, much less take on organizing a larger group. Again, they are all involved in a lovely, small, progressive oasis, which has so far escaped the heavy hand of curriculum cops. They said that the federal money that comes with NCLB is the issue for the town. “The money attached to NCLB is very powerful.” The district tried to turn Title I down and the community revolted. The union, an AFT local, is concerned with salary and benefits, and not quality of work. The district uses Houghton-Mifflin. (Maybe the districts with only H-M, and not Open Court, aren’t as oppressed, therefore not as desperate, therefore not as ready to act?)
Everyone everywhere asked about sanctions: what they are, when they are supposed to take effect, if in fact they get enforced. One person at this meeting said she had a friend in a Year 6 school to which nothing had happened.
They emphasized that high school kids in Santa Cruz are very strong, thereby being the first meeting to make clear that we need a coalition of groups: parents, teachers, high school kids, and (as someone pointed out in Visalia) classified employees, who tend to also be parents. Obviously, teachers can get to kids, but we also need to know what groups they belong to. Kids are easy to organize these days through the internet and texting.
They said that a few prominent local educators publicly signing on would be invaluable, and most importantly, they asked for a plan. Let’s give them one!
Bob and Rich then had an extensive meeting with Kathy Emery in San Francisco to discuss her research and experiences with Freedom Schooling. The key concepts they came away with: We need to get ready to be ready—as with the base-building that went on for years prior to what appeared to be the explosive sudden arrival of the civil rights movement. And, we recognized the severe problems of the “foundations funding complex.” which derail progressive movements, often pitting one against another.
Richmond was next, with Marilyn the Marvelous organizing a good-sized meeting. Richmond is a hotbed of organizing, and home of March for Education. There was a university professor who is eager to help, but also needs a plan. And unique to this meeting was a community organizer from Justice Matters, who runs a parent academy. They are having a forum next week, on Tuesday, Oct. 2 (see flyer attached). If you live in the Bay Area, please come.
The teachers there told us about a consultant to their district, Michael O’Neil, who recommends dividing the day into sections proportional to the number of items on the tests (e.g., 10 minutes for antonyms, 15 minutes for 2-digit multiplication, etc.).
In response to our linking resistance to the tests with resistance to the war, they suggested using a new book by Amy Allison and David Solnit, Army of None, with high school students.
Rich told about an accidental organizing technique used in Detroit. Someone set up community gardens, and as people began using them, they began talking to each other, and organizing. He used this as an example of the importance of knowing each other well enough to trust each other.
In this meeting people seemed to recognize most clearly the connections between rising inequality, war, and the tests and curricula regimentation.
By the way, their Congressperson is that snake, George Miller.
Laguitas is a tiny town with 300 students K-8 in the gorgeous wilds of Marin County, just north of Frisco. Its school has three programs: Waldorf, Montessori, and Open Classroom. Those who don’t approve of progressive ed send their kids over the hill to San Rafael. If it sounds like heaven, you’re close to right. 90% of the town has opted out for years, and they’ve been in Program Improvement for 3 years with no repercussions, but lately the state has noticed and begun to get annoyed. Lynne Woolsey is their Congressperson. Of the 5 people from town at the meeting, 3 were on the school board. The 6th person had for years been on the high school school board over the hill.
Rich distinguished among Grand Strategy (utopia, peace and justice, etc.); Strategy, which is specific to communities; and Tactics, like boycotts, press conferences, freedom schools. We noted the need to connect reason (research, pr, and consciousness of how this social system works) to power (organization, ethics, solidarity, etc).
Rick reminded us that several years ago half the kids at Drake H.S. opted out, with great flyers, and for the highest reasons: because the tests were unfair to poor kids.
[is Youth Together statewide?]
Lagunitas gets $40,000 in Title I.
Ideas: rally therapists and counselors to make a statement to the press about the stress kids are under, the attempted suicides
Publish the released questions (this is legal) and have discussions about them
Publish the state standards and ask people to guess what grade they’re for
Edit down the video of Alfie Kohn’s wonderful presentation that we made years ago (it’s 2 hours long)
List the 10 most common arguments pro tests and responses to them
Put their superintendent in touch with the San Jose principal
Boycotts in middle class locales are dismissed because all these kids will go to college regardless. So we need to team up with a poor district. Susan will put them in touch with the Justice Matters organizers in Richmond, starting with the Justice Matters meeting on Oct. 2.
Some especially interesting comments from this meeting: “How do intelligent loving parents continue to allow this to happen?” “There is a syndrome, ‘we agree with you but don’t tell anyone.’” “This is child abuse and people know about it, but they don’t do much of anything.”
In Petaluma we met at the union office, an AFT local. Everyone there was a teacher (and one husband – a parent). There are 14 schools in Petaluma. They use Houghton Mifflin. They spoke of how much worse things were in Santa Rosa, where they use Open Cult. Latinos aren’t doing well on the CAHSEE (CA High School Exit Exam). The superintendent is “consciously schizophrenic.”
Teachers are distraught about the ruination of the curriculum. One teacher resents the loyalty oath/security affidavit you have to sign before you can touch a test. She wonders what would happen if she refused to sign it. Probably, like everything else, something bad if she did it alone and probably nothing if the whole school did it. It would present a problem for the testers, though, because of their need for secrecy. Another said a general attitude is, “If it doesn’t touch my classroom, I don’t care.”
The district is imposing what they call “fidelity”, which means everybody should be on the same page at the same time. Fidelity also appears to mean a harshly enforced form of loyalty, as in threats to teachers who might tell parents about the opt out right.
One parent had asked the state for the names of the schools that are “similar” to them. CDE couldn’t tell him. Gary said he’s asked around at statewide meetings and nobody’s ever said they’d been part of a NAEP test.
Petaluma just passed a parcel tax increase, and we wondered if taxpayers would be angry if they knew the money was being used to buy the subjects test prep has pushed out of the schools (like music, art, dance, PE, etc).
Teachers were confused and outraged about the 2nd grade test. The truth is that the 2nd grade tests were due to stop this year (Senate Bill 1448, passed in 2004), but Ahnold reinstated them as payoff for getting the budget approved. This is totally undemocratic, and we should all write to him and complain. Here’s the relevant text:
“SB 1448, Alpert. Pupil assessment.
(1) Existing law, the Leroy Greene California Assessment of Academic Achievement Act, requires each school district, charter school, and county office of education to administer to each of its pupils in grades 2 to 11, inclusive, certain achievement tests.
Existing law repeals the act on January 1, 2005. This bill would extend the repeal date of the act to January 1, 2011, thereby imposing a state-mandated local program. The bill would, commencing July 1, 2007, exclude pupils in grade 2 from the standards-based achievement test requirement and make conforming changes.”
Some memorable quotes from this meeting: “There is no will to fight the tests in my schools if we can still close our doors and teach.” “We are threatened to not tell parents about opt-out rights.” “I have horror stories of kids losing control of their bowels about tests.” “The seventh grade language arts standards have 300 discrete skills, the tests address 20.” “Parents voted funding increases for arts and music programs, but tests wiped that out.” “We need to know about our jobs better, comparisons about what it is like to teach from school to school, so we can see common problems.” What drives our district more than anything is money.”
I took a break and came home while Rich and Bob went on up to Arcata and met with members of the Veterans for Peace, Humboldt Bay Chapter 56. They’ve published a wonderful brochure: Advice from Veterans on Military Service and Recruiting Practices: A Resource Guide for Young People Considering Enlistment. It’s online at www.vfp56.org.
Key comments from this meeting: “Our job is to connect the big issues with the small. As long as this system continues, so will the wars.” “We are trying to help people keep their heads, and communities, without being overwhelmed, perhaps by anger.” “This is always interpersonal, building trust.”
Rich, Bob, and I hooked up again in Visalia, where we met with the leaders of the Kings/Tulare UniServ (CTA local). They have a 14-member NCLB Task Force that has been working since March 2006, has produced excellent informational flyers, and ran a huge (25,000) post card campaign. CTA initially indicated they would support the campaign , (and its president, Barbara Kerr, signed on) then turned on the group and sought to sabotage the effort, so the group worked against CTA orders. They are very brave.
They took 15,000 cards addressed to Reg Weaver (NEA President) to the national Rep Assembly in July ’06. They said it was the easiest campaign they’d ever done. They tried to spread the post card campaign there, but NEA locked them out of the state caucuses. They got themselves on the agenda at #4 and the NEA leadership shoved them down to #44, by which time everyone had left. Leadership locked them out of the agenda again at the 2007 Assembly. They also pointed out that NEA has recently gone from the slogan “Fix and Fund” to ??????
In January ’07 they started working with the Educator Roundtable (http://www.educatorroundtable.org/), and set up a website (www.eliminateNCLB.org). Along with EPATA in Fresno, they handed out literature at the National Association of School Boards meeting last spring in San Francisco.
They also set up a web site attacking NCLB, again making CTA unhappy. Former CTA president Barbara Kerr initially signed the anti-NCLB petition, then turned and claimed the petition was not a CTA initiative. They reminded us that the leadership of CTA and most of NEA has never, ever, taught under the restrictions of nclb.
They reminded us that we need to include classified staff in our organizing, since they are often a bridge between schools and communities, since they tend to be parents and grandparents of our students. They may also speak languages that teachers don’t.
They also reminded us of some history: Marc Tucker’s “Dear Hillary” letter back in _____which presaged much of NCLB. And that military recruiters must have access to personal information was also in Clinton’s Goals 2000.
Again, one subject of discussion was the fear in the workforce. RG needs to work with PB on outlining the stages of discipline in just cause cases.
Phil Brown noted the links of the economy, the war, immigration issues, and nclb. “No tests, no wars, hell no we won’t go.”
They are sponsoring a talk by Susan Ohanian, in Visalia, February 28. We can organize something with that as our focus.
Finally, they volunteered to host a meeting and pay for some of it. We’re proposing Veteran’s Day weekend, Nov. 10 and 11, for a leadership planning meeting.
We also noted the upcoming spring RA of CTA, and the summer NEA-RA in DC.
Our last stop on this trip was Fresno. It’s a little hard to make a good list of districts by size, because some cities (Sacramento and San Jose, e.g.) contain several districts, and some southern districts contain several cities. But as far as I can tell, Fresno is the 4th biggest district in CA (after LA, San Diego, and Long Beach); the Fresno Teachers Assoc has 4,500 members.
Fresno has had a very active CalCARE affiliate, called EPATA, for several years. It participates in the annual Cesar Chavez conference at Fresno State. It works closely with the local branch of Californians for Justice (CFJ), a youth organization. (CFJ also has branches in Long Beach, San Jose, and Oakland. Although it ran a strong campaign v. the CAHSEE, it is no longer working on testing issues. Nevertheless, we should try to work with them locally.) It has cultivated good relations with the local paper and radio stations. And (most impressive to me), some of its members are no longer teachers.
In fact, about a quarter of the group had quit teaching in protest. If a quarter of the doctors were quitting in protest, it would be front page news. It was here that a teacher said, “I feel like a guard in a concentration camp.” Another said, “They put me in a Reading First classs and I said I would rather put pencils in my eyes.”They reported that kids are acting out at younger ages, from the pressure of the tests. They said it was harder for kids to think and take responsibility for their actions. One of the attendees is a professor of biology at Fresno State. When I asked why hed come, he said “Eventually these kids get to college, and they’re a mess.” Someone else said that “NCLB isn’t about schooling; it’s about ruling.”
Other comments: “We aren’t actually teaching anyone where I work.” “My students in the university say ‘you are just making us miserable showing us how we could teach when we are not going to be allowed to do it,’ while others say ,’it is your job to show us how to teach to the tests.”“
”Teachers should be able to speak out without fearing to lose their jobs or assignments, but the union does nothing to protect us so people just quit, often the best people.”
“My students are thinking less and less each year and they are also being emotionally held back, they are being infantalized. They resist thinking for themselves more than ever. They want me to think for them. The children have no chance to play cooperatively in kindergarten, all the blocks and constructive play is gone, so they act out on the playground, don’t know even how to play together.”
Elaine Garan shamelessly promoted her newest book, called Smart Answers to Tough Questions: What to Say When You're Asked About Fluency, Phonics, Grammar, Vocabulary, SSR, Tests, Support for ELLs, and More. An ex-teacher, now bookstore owner, said she follows customers out the door if they haven’t bought it. Everyone should buy it!
Although parents can’t be fired, in this farm town full of migrants, many are undocumented and justifiably afraid.
Organizing ideas: Write a booklet called “how to defend yourself on the job.”
Advertise opting out in bookstores, on the radio, take out an ad in the papers. Walk door to door to talk to parents. Text the kids.
We need money to wage this struggle (printing, travel). How to raise it? Tithes from everybody involved? Elaine is speaking at the Wisconsin State Reading Assoc, and said shed donate her honorarium. Perhaps others would.
Conclusions. Our strongest impression is that people are very upset by the changes in their classrooms, by the lack of autonomy, creativity, spontaneity, curiosity, and joy. There is plenty of fear undermining every aspect of education. And people are afraid of taking action. People cited a lack of plans and leadership for taking back our schools.
We agree that high schoolers are less frightened than teachers, and we will rely on them to take a big role.
Only the beginnings of an organized resistance can re-instill true hope in schools, and overcome the fears that are everywhere. The realization that there is indeed a relationship between what goes on in schools (high-stakes exams, a regulated curriculum, and militarization) and what goes on in the society that creates the schools (war, rising inequality and segregation, hopelessness, apathy, etc.) is an important connection that needs to be made–and in some cases tthat will be a project. Organization, resistance, require the kind of consciousness that grasps the reality that there is an us, and a them, a battle of rich and poor, and they require an ethic as well, if for no other reason than to judge leaders and the movement as a whole. All that should be open for discussion among the people who forge the movement.
Get togethers. We project one in November to plan the year, and three in February, by region (North, South, and Central), to get more specific. The Big Push should come after Presidents Day, when people start to think about the tests.
We’d like to be a presence at next July’s NEA national convention. There are 12-14,000 delegates, and would be a good place to organize.
Questions: Are we asking teachers to refuse to give the tests? Or parents to opt out? Rich will research likely repercussions and good responses to them.
When is the CTA representative meeting? Lets invite CFT reps to it.
Those of us in peace groups should raise the issue of how schools fit into the corporate plans, make the connection, and get them to support a boycott.
I’m attaching the flyers we’ve done since the trip: one for teachers, with the opt out law on the back; and one for parents, with the opt out forms on the back. The parent version is available in Spanish. Comments welcome!