If I had to sum up in three words the first national conference of the Network for Public Education, they would be: We. Are. Many. There were over 400 people from across the U.S. (and at least one person from Canada) in Austin this past weekend, and we know there are many thousands more with us in the education justice movement. In her keynote address Sunday, education historian Dr. Diane Ravitch stated several times, “We will win. Because they are few, and we are many.” (Watch it here.)
Indeed. Let me tell you just a little bit about some of those many people I met this weekend to give you a sense of what this grassroots movement looked like on display in Texas. Nearly all of us were there on our own dime and the conference was organized by the volunteer board of the Network for Public Education. I was lucky to travel with fellow Yinzercators Kipp Dawson, a Pittsburgh Public School middle level teacher and mother of two PPS graduates, and Pam Harbin, a mother of two PPS students and co-chair of the Local Task Force on the Right to Education.
The Pennsylvania delegation also included: Larry Feinberg, school board member from Haverford Township (near Philly) and co-chair of the Keystone State Education Coalition (Larry publishes an invaluable daily media digest of education stories from around Pennsylvania that I read every day); one of my heroes, Helen Gym, Philadelphia parent and co-founder of Parents United (our “big sister” group across the state); and Mark Miller, school board member from Centennial School District and board member of the Network for Public Education. I’ll include Dr. Tim Slekar, dean of the school of education at Edgewood College, and Dr. Shaun Johnson, education researcher and Kindergarten teacher, who produce the blog and web radio program @theChalkFace, as honorary Pennsylvania delegates since they are both native yinzers.
The conference covered a wide range of topics in public education today, with two keynote addresses, an all-star panel on the Common Core State Standards, and 27 sessions on everything from student privacy, civil rights, and student activism, to charter schools, education research, Teach for America, high-stakes-testing, and Astroturf groups. There were disagreements and plenty of civil discourse. Here is just a sample of this education justice feast.
Students: The amazing Providence Student Union, masters of political theater who have been particularly active around testing issues, sent representatives. It was a pleasure to see Stephanie Rivera, one of the founders of Students United for Public Education, a national organization of college students fighting for equity and against privatization.
Parents: I was deeply honored to be on a panel discussing the role of parents in advancing public education along with Helen Gym and Karran Harper-Royal, New Orleans parent and education advocate. (I first learned about Karran’s work from the incredible political cartoons at TruthOut by Adam Bessie, English professor at Northern California Community College, whom I also met at the conference.) I loved meeting the Chicago parents from the new group, Bad Ass Moms, including Rosemary Vega and Shoniece Reynolds, mother of Asean Johnson who became a media sensation last year as a fourth grader when he spoke so powerfully against school closures in Chicago.
Teachers: Talk about teacher heroes sticking up for students. I met Jesse Hagopian, the Seattle teacher who led the boycott there last spring when teachers in two entire buildings refused to give a high-stakes test. Chicago teachers Michelle Gunderson and Katie Osgood rock (it was Katie’s piece on teaching in a psychiatric hospital helped me understand the impact of high-stakes-testing on students). New York City teacher Jose Luis Vilson blew me away with his gender analysis of problems with the Common Core. And Boston teacher Geralyn McLaughlin, who is also executive director of Defending the Early Years, provided the most compelling evidence of the way in which Common Core standards are developmentally inappropriate.
Education researchers: Eminent educator Deborah Meier was there. And so was Dr. Sonya Horsford from Geroge Mason University, Dr. Tina Trujillo from U.C. Berkeley who talked about the need to combine scholarship and activism, and Dr. Kevin Welner from the University of Colorado Boulder, who directs the National Education Policy Center. The NEPC publishes terrific research that I have come to rely on in my work. I particularly enjoyed being able to tell Dr. Julian Vasquez Heilig from the University of Texas at Austin how his research on Teach for America informed our own local conversations in Pittsburgh.
Education justice champions: Eloquent and passionate Jitu Brown is an education organizer for the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization in Chicago. To hear him speak is to feel social justice in your bones. Great to see Xian Barrett again, who has been to Pittsburgh with the VIVA project, organizing local communities to speak up for public education.
Grassroots organizations: I had a lovely breakfast with NPE board member Phyllis Bush from Northeast Indiana Friends of Public Education, a group similar to Yinzercation. I learned a lot from Laura Yeager, who helped to start Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment (TAMSA), or what some people call Mothers against Drunk Testing. Last year they successfully worked with the Texas legislature to reduce the number of required graduation exams from 15 to 5 and to remove many of the stakes. And I enjoyed talking to Dr. Nancy Cauthen, who is active with the New York state group, Change the Stakes.
Union & district leaders: During her comments on a panel on the Common Core, American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten gave a huge shout-out to Pittsburgh, our new mayor, and our work to build a community coalition. With their shared keynote address on Saturday, Chicago teachers union president Karen Lewis and “America’s best school superintendent” John Kuhn from Texas, demonstrated what a labor-management dream team would look like. (You can watch their fantastic address here; you’ll be glad you did.)
Bloggers & progressive media: Recently over 120 of us education bloggers have formed a network where we have started to communicate regularly. I got a chance to meet some of my favorite colleagues whom I depend on for a lot of reporting no longer coming from the mainstream media, including: Jennifer Berkshire (EduShyster) whom everyone agrees is the funniest blogger around; Darcie Cimarusti (Mother Crusader) from New Jersey; and Dr. Mercedes Schneider (deutsch29) who also participated on the Common Core panel and shredded it in under five minutes (you can watch that here). It was also great to see representatives from the alternative media at the conference, including Rethinking Schools; Ruth Conniff, editor of The Progressive Magazine, which also produces Public School Shakedown and has published some of my work; and Joanne Barkan, a writer for Dissent, who has published on the big money behind corporate-style reform.
The conference was a social media festival and was trending at #1 on twitter both Saturday and Sunday (#NPEconference, if you want to check it out). Following the last session, the Network for Public Education held a press conference and issued a resolution calling on Congress to hold hearings on the over-use and misuse of high-stakes testing. The resolution “states that high-stakes testing in public schools has led to multiple unintended consequences that warrant federal scrutiny” and “asks Congressional leaders to pursue eleven potential inquiries, including, ‘Do the tests promote skills our children and our economy need?’ and ‘Are tests being given to children who are too young?’” [NPE press release, 3-2-14]
These were a powerful two days that confirmed, “We are many.” But if I had to boil the conference down to just one word, it would be: Inspiring.