Questions and Answers About What is to Be Done

Within the Testing and School Reform Movement

by Rich Gibson, February 2007

Substance News

There is a disagreement in the anti-test (and anti-strangulation of literacy) movement, about key questions that must be answered. These questions could be posed to nearly any group seeking change in nearly any situation in the world, but they are set up here in relationship to the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) which is, after all, an international phenomenon.

Some of those questions are:

1. What is the social context of No Child Left Behind?

2. Why does NCLB exist?

3. What are the apparent goals of NCLB sponsors, and what are their underlying goals?

4. Who gains from NCLB?

5. Who suffers?

6. Why is it that so many teachers support NCLB, with but modest reforms?

7. Why did the two teacher unions (along with the US Chambers of Commerce, Broad Foundation, et al) demand the NCLB, and why do their leaders refuse to do anything substantive to even develop a reform movement?

8. Who does, and who does not, support the abolition, not reform, of NCLB?

9. What should be done in regard to NCLB, and the social context that set it up?

There are right and wrong answers to those questions.

Here are some mostly wrong answers

NCLB is the result of bad people (Bush etc) seizing control of political power in the US and its social context is the corruption of our democracy conducted by those bad people.

NCLB has good intent, that is, schooling equality, but it is made perverse by bad right wing people who use NCLB for profits and privatizing. What is needed is to defend public schooling.

All kids could gain from NCLB, but because those bad people keep distorting public education, they don't and therefore teachers and kids suffer.

Teachers support NCLB because they just do not understand it.

The unions really do not support NCLB. They want to change it, and there is a good chance they will take action to do so.

Abolition of NCLB is not realistic, and therefore, only reform is on the table.

The way to win reform is through the electoral channel, through legal action, through research, writing letters to the editor, activity in professional organizations, and perhaps calling some mass demonstrations in Washington DC.

Here are some mostly right answers

NCLB exists for the purpose of social control, to regulate what people learn and how they come to learn it and to replace the mind of the teacher in the classroom with the mind of capitalists in power. That is the goal of any boss, in any work place, but it is the desperate need of the ruling class in the US today.

NCLB's social context is rising inequality, the promise of perpetual imperialist war, the eradication of freedoms, deepening racism and segregation, booming nationalism (required for war), rising irrationalism (religious mysticism, etc), impending international bankruptcy, an all out attack on the working class' standards of life---all made necessary by the declining position of the US as a world power.

There are many, many lies used to promote the NCLB. Perhaps the main lie is that we are all in this together, with common interests, in one nation. We are not. There is an intense international war of the rich on the poor going on now. What really unites us is our social class, not nation. We need to learn who "we," and "they," really are.

This is not, then, a matter of bad people in power, but a rotten social system, capitalism, which can now offer nothing but this decaying social context, in crisis. NCLB is a method of class rule.

NCLB's came into being as part of a process initiated shortly after the victory of the Vietnamese people, in the late 70's, when ruling classes in the US realized that schooling in de-industrialized America, was now a key, centripetal, point of social life, and the schools had to be reined in.

From the 1983, "Nation at Risk," report to NCLB is a logical progression, reflecting economic and social demands of capitalism. NCLB is a creature of both the Democratic and Republican parties acting in concert, because they too are forms of class rule, really reflecting the overarching agreement and common interest in domination, and secondary disagreements, of the US ruling class, which does exist.

The united ruling classes which created NCLB (always a bi-partisan project) have no good intent whatsoever. They do not care a bit about the children of the working class, particularly not black, latin and immigrant kids, but not about any kids but their own (and maybe not even them), and they never have, except to find ways to convince those children that they have something in common with their rulers, for example, same nation, same race, etc. That makes it possible to win those children to go fight and die, against the enemies of their enemies in imperialist wars.

There is no single public school system in the US, and never has been. Schools are absolutely segregated by class and race. What is taught in these segregated schools varies not only in content, but in teaching methods, and, of course, in materials, supplies, books, technology, geographic space, aesthetic qualities, and so on. These are not our "public" schools, but their Capitalist Schools, arms of their government, which is not a neutral body, but a weapon of the rich.

Much of what goes on inside capitalist schools amounts to teaching lies to children, now using methods so obscure that the children learn to not like to learn, a great achievement for the powerful. Surely, some teachers seek to teach otherwise, and NCLB exists in part to wipe them out or force them to capitulate.

Truly wealthy people send their kids to private schools, which, like the church, seek to pick off some of the best and brightest of the poor, to turn them against their own origins.

There is no defense of this kind of not-public education, none that does not simply on one hand excuse the inexcusable conditions of prison education projects that typify many "public" schools in, say, Detroit, or Compton, and on the other hand, ignore the role of government as a tool of wealth, implying that the capitalist government is some kind of nonaligned body, thus misleading people into an endless series of cul-de-sacs.

Who suffers from NCLB? For the most part, poor and working class kids, parents, and school workers. Bogus science is employed to prove that their oppression is the result of natural processes like genes or culture. For them, NCLB assaults every central issue of life:

* Labor (find a serious study of the labor movement and its communist roots in NCLB, or the roots of exploitation),

* Love (sensuality and sexuality is eradicated, as are aesthetics and loving communities),

* Rational Knowledge (teaching that all gods are myths is unthinkable in US schools), and

* Freedom itself (always a battle on any job, let alone the elimination of fun and wild spaces in schools). All these are under NCLB attack, illegal to teach in most schools, yet they are life and death matters.

Teachers mostly support NCLB for a variety of complex reasons, one of them that they do not grasp it, do not understand that the more they do NCLB, the more they set up the wreckage of their own livelihoods. Pay rates are already being linked to test scores, as I warned a decade ago. Soon teacher pay will be directly related to the class and race of the kids they teach.

What has to be admitted is what is the ignorance of much of the teaching forces can be traced to their own educations, and particularly to the lock-step undergraduate liberal studies programs which extend the liquidation of history into university life and the even more vapid requirements of colleges of education, where students meet a professoriate steeped in a culture of ignorance, racism, cowardice, and above all opportunism and where teaching methods are, more often than not, split apart from substantive goals, thus turning teachers into missionaries for capitalism, and schools its missions.

But teachers have for the most part never been in the forefront of progressive movements (Oaxaca not withstanding). Indeed, the vast majority of teachers have historically been among the most reactionary elements in society, Nazi Germany and fascist Japan for example.

Teachers, in the US, are among the last people with health benefits, some job protections, and predictable wages. In short, many of them back NCLB because they are paid off for it and they know it, and, at the other end, they are full of fear of losing those very limited privileges.

Teachers do fight back, on occasion, as Detroit' strikes demonstrate, in very complex ways. But it is rare for teachers to truly put the needs of their kids first, and it is even rarer for the teacher unions to do that. How many teachers have been fired for refusing to abolish their own academic freedom, for refusing to conduct the racist tests, for organizing parents and kids to boycott exams--or how many have even tried? Without new leadership, and new ideas, it is unlikely the US teaching force will do more than trail behind the rebellions of students, who will be forced to rebel as hope is eliminated in schooling.

Racism inside a 90 percent white teacher work force plays a role that is hard to measure, but has to be there. Why teachers would allow the obvious child abuse that is NCLB is, I believe, partly related to racism.

The Role of the Teacher Unions

Teachers are the most highly organized people in the US. The two unions are the largest unions in the US, the National Education Association the largest by far. The unions supported the drive to NCLB every step of the way, to the extent of taking out full page ads in the New York Times demanding it, in conjunction with the Chambers of Commerce, the Broad Foundation, the Business Roundtable and other allies of the union leadership.

The teacher union leaders are themselves incredibly privileged people, making well over $400,000 a year (not much in comparison to many CEO's but still incredible wealth). NEA's President, Reg Weaver, a bulbous uninformed presence, total compensation for 2004 was $445,869. Sandra Feldman, then President of the smaller American Federation of Teachers, made $402,658. Taken together, the presidents made about ten times that of their member teachers, many of whom live in trailer parks.

The last thing these union leaders want is a truly class conscious base of school workers because, on one hand, they would have nothing to sell to the employers, and on the other hand, a class conscious mass of teachers would never collaborate in the creation of leaders like the current union leadership. There is no big difference between the teacher union leadership, and the leadership of the entire AFL-CIO, except to say that the American Federation of Teachers leadership leads the most reactionary sections of the AFL-CIO.

Both teacher union leaderships are products of, and gain from, US imperialism, and they know it. That is the source of their remarkable salaries. US imperialism is also the source of some of the pay that is passed along to teachers, but the gulf between teacher pay, and union boss pay is notable, and while union boss pay is going up, teacher pay and benefits are under assault.

Both teacher union leaders promote the idea that has guided the AFL-CIO, for decades now; the idea of "New Unionism," that labor, government, and business must act together in the national interest. This, of course, abolishes the reason most people join unions, that is, that working people and their bosses have mostly contradiction in common. New Unionism turns the unions' leaders into mere arms of the bosses.

False "reform" groups like the Teacher Union Reform Network, promote the same essentially corporate-state ideology of the unions, unity of labor, business and government. The reform they want is more of this, not less, which is why some of their leaders, like Rochester AFT boss Adam Urbanski, are listed on the Broad Foundation web site as "heroes".

Inside the US, the teachers' unions support NCLB, with a few minor tweaks, in order to promote the social control of the ruling class. NEA plans to spend $1 million in 2007 lobbying for what NEA chiefs see as the key reform: full funding--the imperial bribe.

Outside the US, both the NEA and AFT work in concert with the AFL-CIO's projects in conjunction with the Central Intelligence Agency sponsored National Endowment for Democracy, the American Institute for Free Labor Development, and similar maneuvers to destroy indigenous, usually radical or Marxist, movements around the world, like their recent activity in Venezuela.

There is no way to reform these unions, which do not unite people, but divide them, along lines of job, social class, industry, and even now, race and sex. Teacher unions do not, for example, typically welcome other school workers, nor are students and community people included as voting members in union meetings, because those people do not pay dues---the bottom line of capitalism. But students, community people, parents, and others, are absolutely vital to school worker power.

Winning, against NCLB, has to involve winning against capitalism. It would be far better to lose in a struggle against NCLB, yet within that struggle create more and more people who understand what class struggle is and how to conduct it, than it would be to "win" a few minor reforms vs NCLB, and to fool people into thinking that is a victory. Besides, as the US declines as a power, its rulers, all of them, are going to be more and more desperate to enforce programs like NCLB, and most certainly less open to reasoning about it.

But even a serious reformer, as distinct from an anti-capitalist revolutionary, should recognize that teacher power does not lie at the ballot box, where one chooses which millionaire will oppress one the least over the next few years, nor in the courts, now fully stacked against the working class--as has ever been their purpose---but in the schools and the communities where teachers work. The geography of power should be very clear.

The crux of the matter, to win anything, and to sustain that victory, is to have a mass of people who have the understanding, willingness, and analytical curiousity to take action to control their work places, in this case the schools, to close them and open them at will. Absent that, nothing that is won can be kept, as we can see from the dozens of union contracts that employers have simply re-opened, mid-term, demanding concessions.

Some school reform leaders proposed a mass teacher march on Washington. There is nothing wrong, inherently, with marches. However, a mass teacher march on Washington to abolish the NCLB is very unlikely, for reasons noted above, and even it was successful, it would be a mass march of white people---drawing from a population that is about 90 percent white, which is a big problem that would need to be overcome, by organizing kids and parents too. At some point, such a march might be possible, but for the time being it makes sense to organize on the job, for on the job and community action, in and around schools.

Only the abolition of NCLB should be on the table, even for reformers. There is no way to "fund" NCLB and make it anything but a rotten, racist, anti-working class project designed to pump up witless patriotism. It can no more be reformed than slavery itself.

Surely research against the NCLB is important, as is constructing reason in any context. That research, demonstrating the anti-working class nature of NCLB, the goals of its sponsors, its impact on students and teachers, its role as a material attack on the livelihoods of school workers, is done. More research is never wrong, but much of current research and calls for action disconnect that study from the social context that created the NCLB, to pretend that school reform is possible without social and economic reform.

This is to do extraordinarily disjointed work, what might be called "un-whole" within whole language. Capitalism in decay created the NCLB. That is the whole that arches over its particulars. NCLB is a servant of decay.

The crux of the matter is to connect reason to power.

Working for change in professional groups can have a remarkable impact. The National Council for the Social Studies, National Council for Teachers of English, American Historical Association, etc, have a wide audience, but they are hardly the key source of school worker power or social change. It may be that publishing in their journals is useful, but it is far more important to create a central source for school change information. The Rouge Forum online, and the hard-copy Substance News in Chicago can serve as those sources.

That said, the best thing to do to the NCLB is to shut down the schools at test time, and to create freedom schools for kids where they can actually learn why things are as they are, and what they, as powerful people collectively, can do about it---well beyond opposing a series of insipid exams. Of course, that is risky.

But people are being positioned where they must fight to live---as the California grocery strike, the LA transportation strike, the Detroit Teachers Strike, and Oaxaca, all witness. The battle for social control is a two-way battle, and despite all its flaws, Oaxaca is a hint that it can be won--and a warning that without anti-capitalist leadership, it can be lost, with what may be devastating consequences.

Closing capital's schools takes organization, and action---all of which should be directed at the goal of creating a mass base of class conscious people who are truly prepared to lead the fight to go beyond the horrific offerings of capitalism in crisis.

Why are things as they are? Because class struggle is intense, and abundantly easy to see now. Within an international war of the rich on the poor, we see the rich divided and at war with each other as well, imperialist wars---and if Iran is attacked, the beginning of World War 3. Not to rise up and say that is to deny a reality that is pounding itself into every day life, and to mis-lead people. NCLB is about class struggle.

Some teachers, perfectly positioned in US society, will indeed fight back. We need to organize to meet a well organized and ruthless enemy.

Rich Gibson is a co-founder of the Rouge Forum.