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Top down educational reforms impoverish our schools, our teachers, our communities

Teachers are stressed. A recent survey in British Columbia found that two-thirds of teachers felt “stressed and emotionally exhausted all, or most of the time.” In the United Kingdom, 86% of teachers reported increased workplace stress. In the United States, 40% of teachers quit teaching within five years, leaving schools with inexperienced teachers who often are assigned to teach the most challenging and vulnerable students.

It’s not the kids.

Most people become teachers because they want to make a difference in children’s lives. Educating students in a well-structured and supportive school is a positive experience for all. Evidence from a Northwest Evaluation Association survey in 2014 found 90% of students believe their teachers care about their learning.

What about top down education “reform?”

Could it be the degradation, commercialization and devaluation of public education caused by top down educational reform—driven by greed and the false measure of standardized test scores?  Teachers at a conference I just returned from think so. Over 200 union educators came from all over Canada, Mexico and the United States as well as Great Britain, Ecuador, Belize, Argentina and Puerto Rico.  They had in common a frustration with “educational reform” as described above.  They came to the conference with their research and experiences in hopes of coming up with ways to work together to defend public education.

The XIII Tri-National Conference in the Defense of Public Education took place in the mountain town of Orizaba, Veracruz, Mexico. Historically, the town is notable for the Rio Blanco Strike, seen as a main event leading to the Mexican Revolution. On January 7, 1907, striking textile workers battled with mounted police and Federal troops leaving seventy strikers dead and hundreds injured. Stories and photographs of dead workers circulated around Mexico and stirred up revulsion against Porfirio Diaz’s corrupt regime.

Before the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect, education union organizers from Canada, Mexico and the United States learned of a plan for an “education common market” that would support NAFTA’s economic integration by creating a “North American identity.”  One of those organizers, Dan Leahy, Director of the Evergreen Labor Education Center in Olympia, Washington, convened a conference on “The Future of Public Education in North America” in January of 1993. The conference was attended by over 200 education union delegates from the three countries.

Many of them came together again in Mexico City in February of 1995—one year after NAFTA was signed—to form the Tri-National Coalition in Defense of Public Education.  Since that time, every two to three years, the Tri-National Coalition meets to dissect and analyze the effects of NAFTA and its neoliberal policies on public education. .

Policies and practices that erode respect

Teachers no longer feel respected. A British Columbia Teachers’ Federation survey of 38,000 teachers from 2017 found that  92% felt disrespected by their government, 72% by the media and 72% by their own district-level administration. The disrespect comes from the lack of meaningful professional support, not enough time for peer collaboration, inadequate preparation time, insufficient student services, bureaucratic requirements that have little to do with educating, poor working conditions, lack of access to resources and, pointedly, school reform that comes from above, not out of teacher or student needs.

Using test scores to sort and eliminate students, teachers and schools

Disingenuous school reforms from outside the classroom lead to the degradation of public education. Standardized tests that treat students like they are all the same disregard individual, community and cultural differences. I taught second language students who took the same tests and were evaluated as if they were the same as native speakers with college-educated parents.

The United Kingdom in 2001 decided to turn some public schools into academies based on “low test scores.” Parents, seen as consumers, were offered the “illusion of choice and the fetish of quality” according to Louise Regan, President of the National Education Union. Financial incentives encouraged them to enroll their children in the academies.  Today, 47% of UK students attend these academies with no democratic oversight. Students who don’t do well are “off rolled,” removed from attendance rosters like they no longer exist.

Poor test scores are also used as an excuse to cut services. In Chicago, officials are closing schools, and presiding over a system with greater segregation than before Brown v Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court ruling that outlawed separate public schools for White and Black students. The solution in Chicago was  “Turn Around Schools.” They either changed the principal, changed the entire staff, or closed the school. School closings can have a dire effect on communities when students have to travel farther away from their homes to, in some cases, more dangerous areas.

Along with tests, replacing teachers with technology

A major component of top down school reform is the belief in technology as the savior of education. Closing schools, cutting staff and programs and reducing teacher autonomy, is accompanied by the myth that technology will make up the difference.  In a small high school in the outskirts Orizaba, the myth is all there is. As part of the conference, we visited local schools around the area.

We took a twenty-minute drive to El Encinar, a Distance Learning TeleHigh School that offers a “Telebachillerato de Veracruz,” a TV diploma. There are over 1,000 TV schools in the Mexican state of Veracruz. They are supposed to reach the poorest students and by delivering teaching via satellite with “scripted learning” guided by teachers on site. This school had one television for 130 students. Most of the school’s six classrooms had only desks, a table and a white board. The school was not free; parents paid $70 and a materials fee each semester. The teachers there are the lowest paid in the state.

El Encinar teacher Enrique Reyes was lucid. “Greed knows no limits. Teachers are kept busy and in a constant crisis mode that deters organizing. It started in Mexico with airlines and then went to higher education. Concepts like privatization and commercialization have invaded schooling,  along with entrepreneurship.  Original concepts are marginalized as old style or from the past. Education is now a business. Directors become more concerned with making profit to keep schools going than with the quality of education. We need to fight this.”

Although Canadian and American teachers didn’t complain about a shortage of technology, there were concerns about the quality of the software,  and the safety of their and their students’ data and how it is used by corporations. Maria Santiago, a Mexican teacher from Oaxaca describes how the government provided computer software with instruction in English, while her students speak Zapotec or Mixteco. Similarly, Professor Elizabeth Escobar criticized a Mexican law that requires students to work on the Internet—in communities where there is no electricity.

Taking action to defend public education and restore respect

Teachers and students are taking action. Mexican teachers, who have felt the worst effects of educational reform, have demonstrated all over Mexico. Teachers went on a five-month strike in Veracruz in 2013 and, according to Lucia Morales, were ambushed by police, tear-gassed, and attacked by dogs. In the US, teachers in West Virginia, Arizona, and California have carried out successful strikes. Philippa Harvey, past president of Great Britain’s National Union of Teachers, reported on “unprecedented actions by students who are walking on Parliament with placards. They have flipped 3/4 million votes nationally to Labor through their activism.”

The conference closed with the kind of camaraderie that comes from sharing meals, stories and dances. We made agreements to go back home and keep the stories and issues alive. Union members agreed to make teachers’  health and stress a bargaining issue using the example of Ontario’s union who recently bargained a one-year moratorium on any new Ministry of Education or local school board initiatives or programs.

Since the XIII Tri-National in Orizaba ended November 11, a new Mexican president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, has taken office. In his inaugural address on December 1, he made the gratifying announcement that he will end education reform. This could bring on a new era of public education in Mexico that serves the needs of students, communities, and their teachers, not business interests.

Sarah Ringler retired from teaching at Pajaro Valley Middle School, and as Vice President Pajaro Valley Federation of Teachers Local 1936.

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