Education Justice Platform

Our coalition, Great Public Schools Pittsburgh, has just released an important education justice platform. See below for the short version, or click here for the full version. The six organizations of the coalition worked together to develop this platform to help educate and inform school board candidates and other education advocates about the specific issues facing our schools in anticipation of this spring’s primary election – when four of nine school board positions will be on the ballot.

The GPS education justice platform calls on candidates running for school board to commit to the following:

  • full funding for the PPS schools our children deserve
  • charter school accountability
  • sustainable community schools
  • welcoming and inclusive teaching and learning environments
  • support for educators who help our children learn and grow
  • universal early childhood education
  • less testing, more learning
  • transparency, accountability and collaboration

Do you care about these issues? Please come to our GPS Town Hall Forum this Wednesday! April 29th from 5:30 – 7:30 pm at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary’s Hicks Memorial Chapel (616 N Highland Ave, Pittsburgh, PA 15206). Kevin Gavin from WESA will be our moderator. This is your chance to ask the school board candidates about where they stand on education justice issues. GPS will then use the education justice platform to score the candidates. Please come, ask questions, and be a part of this incredibly important election for our city.

GPS_Final Platform_page1 GPS_Final Platform_page2

The Religious Reasons My Kids Won’t be Taking the Test

As we head into several weeks of high-stakes-testing here in Pennsylvania, I would like to share with you the religious reasons my children will not be taking the state mandated PSSAs. Here is an open letter I sent to Dr. Linda Lane, Superintendent of Pittsburgh Public Schools; Dr. Lisa Augustin, Director of Assessment; Ms. Jamie Kinzel-Nath, Pittsburgh Colfax K-8 principal; and all of our children’s wonderful teachers.

April 10, 2015

Dear Dr. Lane and Ms. Kinzel-Nath:

Pursuant to Pennsylvania Code Title 22 Chapter 4, section 4.4 (d)(5) I am hereby exercising my right as a parent to have my children, ____________, excused from PSSA testing on the grounds of my religious beliefs. Please allow ­­­­­­­­­___________ to pursue alternate educational activities such as a research project or volunteering in younger classrooms during testing.

I could stop my letter right there, as that is all that is legally required by the state in order to excuse our children from testing. However, as this is our third year writing such letters, I would like to explain the religious grounds we have for refusing to allow our children to be tested. Even though, under law, no state or school official is permitted to ask us about our faith nor require “proof” of our beliefs, I would like to share these religious reasons with you.

We belong to First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh, a member of the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network (PIIN), which is active in education justice. Every Sunday, we recite seven principles that unite Unitarian Universalists. Most of these principles are basic moral and philosophical statements shared by all of the world’s major religions. They reflect the common values of most faiths, from “love one another” and “do unto others,” to respect for the spark of the divine in each of us, and the ethical-humanist imperative to leave this world a better place. Please allow me to explain how each of these seven principles has led us to refuse high-stakes-testing for our own children, and on behalf of all children.

  1. The inherent worth and dignity of every person.

Every child is valuable – priceless – and has the human right to a rich, full education. Respecting the inherent worth of every child also means treating each student as an individual, and not a widget being produced in a factory. Standardized testing, tied to an ever more standardized common core curriculum, sorts students into categories (“below basic,” “basic,” etc.) There are serious consequences to this sorting and labeling (see below), but the underlying premise of this standardized high-stakes-testing is to compare and rank students – not to support the individual learning of each student.

This is clearly evident when schools use standardized, normed tests, which force all students into a bell curve, guaranteeing that a large proportion of the children will fail. To get that nice bell shape of test results, with exactly half of the children falling on the “below average” side of the curve, the tests are carefully designed with purposefully misleading questions. For instance, test makers will use tricky sound-alike answers to intentionally trip up English language learners, or culturally specific clues most easily decoded only by students from wealthy families. Pittsburgh is subjecting students to the normed GRADE test not once, but three times a year (a result of accepting state money that came with testing strings attached). Teachers have been reporting the problematic GRADE test questions for years, but the test-maker has not changed them because this “assessment” requires a set failure rate. In what way does this kind of standardized testing respect the inherent worth of our students? When students’ test scores are then displayed for all to see on “data walls” (an increasingly common practice in our schools), how does this respect the dignity of each child?

  1. Justice, equity and compassion in human relations.

While advocates claim that high-stakes-testing will hold teachers and schools accountable for student learning and therefore promote equity, it often does the exact opposite by reinforcing inequality. High-stakes-testing labels our schools as “failures,” but never results in additional resources to actually help kids. Instead, “failing” schools are often targeted for closure. When you look at the pattern of school closures across the country – including here in Pittsburgh – you can see that districts have closed schools in predominantly black and brown neighborhoods, displacing some students multiple times. Our communities of color have been harmed the most, with places like Oakland and Hazelwood turned into education deserts without a single neighborhood public school.

Schools labeled as “failing” on the basis of student test scores are often targeted with other “reforms” that rarely help children. Our own beloved Colfax provides an excellent example of the “disruptive innovation” imposed on supposedly failing schools. Nine years ago when our family first started at Colfax, its large achievement gap had recently earned it a designation as a “turnaround school.” The district fired every single teacher and the principal then handpicked an entirely new teaching staff. The idea, of course, was that we had to get rid of the “bad” teachers and hire only “great” teachers and that would solve the problem of low test scores. Fast forward almost a decade and you can see that this didn’t work: Colfax still has one of the largest achievement gaps in the city (which is really an opportunity gap made highly visible by the presence of families from some of Pittsburgh’s wealthiest and poorest communities together in the same school).

During this same decade, Colfax students also experienced a relentless series of “reforms,” all aimed at increasing test scores. When we started, Colfax was a Spanish language immersion school, then we lost the extra language instruction to become an “Accelerated Learning Academy” focused on reading and math. We got an America’s Choice curriculum that was supposed to solve everything and added extra periods of reading. We got a longer school day and a longer school year. We got a Parent Engagement Specialist. Then we lost the curriculum, lost the extra time and days, and lost the parent specialist. The district changed to a 6 day week, so we could cram in extra reading and math periods, since these are tested subjects, resulting in a net loss of music, art, language, and physical education. With state budget cuts we lost more music and athletic programs, and we even lost our after school tutoring program aimed at those very students whose test scores continue to cause so much alarm. And class sizes ballooned to 30, sometimes 35 and more students.

Imposing constant churn and disruption on our most vulnerable students in the pursuit of higher test scores is not education justice. Worse, the relentless high-stakes-testing has served to re-inscribe inequality. We recently heard from Jon Parker, a Pittsburgh high school teacher, who explained what high-stakes-testing is doing to students’ sense of self worth in his classroom. Every year, he asks his students to write him a letter introducing themselves. In his class of struggling readers this year, over half of the students included their most recent PSSA rating as part of their introduction. They literally said things like, “I’ll work hard but I’m below basic.”

Mr. Parker explains, “the tragic message from our high stakes test environment is ‘you are your score.’ And if we tell a student he’s below basic regularly from the time he’s in kindergarten, what else would we expect of him? One of the stated goals of No Child Left Behind was to combat the ‘soft racism of low expectations.’ But instead it has created a vicious cycle of self-fulfilling prophecies. ‘You have failed in the past; you will fail forever.’ I cannot imagine where I would be if I had that school experience, but I can guarantee you I wouldn’t be here.”

Mr. Parker also examined the ways in which high-stakes-tests are used to exclude students from high-quality courses and programs. He gave the example of a young woman of color in his class right now with a 4.0 GPA – “one of the most well-rounded and motivated students I’ve ever had” – who will be excluded from taking the advanced math and science courses she would like to take next year solely because of a test score.

What’s more, Mr. Parker argued that if high-stakes-tests are meant to indicate which students need support so teachers can help them, they are miserably failing this most basic task. Instead, administrators and teachers makes lists of “bubble students” who are close to the passing mark and focus their energy on moving these students up to “proficient.” The students with the most needs, struggling at the very bottom, are passed over: “they are neglected, perpetuating what has probably been the whole of their educational experience. ‘You’re a failure; you’re not worth our time.’ Then we wonder why we have such disparity in opportunities, a lack of student or family buy-in, negative attention seeking behaviors (for which we then suspend students).”

So if our students who need the most help never get that help, where is the equity? If a young woman of color with 4.0 GPA wants to take advanced math and science classes but and can’t because of a single test score, where is the justice? If children now label themselves with their own test scores and literally believe themselves to be “below basic,” where is our compassion?

  1. Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.

Part of accepting one another is recognizing that we each have unique gifts and strengths. We are not all the same. Some students excel in trombone or slam poetry, or are highly empathetic or fantastic story tellers: none of which gets measured by high stakes testing. I am concerned about the intellectual growth of our students as well as the nurturing of their individual spirits. I believe in real learning and more learning time for our children. I support quality assessments that help our children learn and provide meaningful information to teachers to help them meet the needs of individual students. I want tests, ideally designed by teachers, which align with the curriculum and give timely, informative results to parents and students.

  1. A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.

As a scholar, I am committed to a free and responsible search for truth and I highly value data and evidence in that quest. We now have a mountain of evidence about the negative consequences of the high-stakes attached to testing, as well as the over-use and mis-use of testing. To summarize, these are some of the high-stakes for students:

  • Lost learning time: there’s less time for learning with testing and test prep (for instance, Pittsburgh students now take 20-25, or more, high-stakes tests a year). We have reports in the district this week of students covering up the walls to prepare for testing, rather than spending their time learning.
  • Reduced content knowledge: research shows that students are learning how to take high-stakes-tests, but cannot demonstrate subject mastery when tested in a different format. In other words, they are not actually learning. [Koretz, 2008]
  • Narrowed curriculum: with a focus on reading and math scores, students lose history, civics, world languages, the arts, and other programs.
  • Decreased ability to write: writing portions of high-stakes standardized tests are graded by hourly employees – not teachers – who are often recruited from Craig’s list and paid minimum wage. To “pass” these tests, students are taught a narrowly confined way to answer writing prompts.
  • Subjected to stale, dull methods: educators report that the focus on high-stakes-testing and test-prep means they cannot be creative and innovative in their teaching.
  • Missed teachers and classes: intense security measures prevent teachers from overseeing testing in their own classrooms, so teachers from non-testing classrooms (such as Kindergarten teachers) are frequently pulled from their students to proctor exams.
  • Used as guinea pigs: schools and districts routinely agree to allow their students to “field test” new questions and entire exams for testing corporations without notifying parents or compensating students. Teachers are expected to give a test they did not design, on material they did not teach, to students who will not learn anything from the experience. Those teachers, students, and their parents will never see the results. Last year when the district field-tested text dependent analysis, one principal told us students ripped up the tests and said they couldn’t do it. Field testing further reduces actual learning time and contributes to the stress imposed on our children.
  • Shut out of programs: high stakes exclude students when test results count as extra weight in magnet lotteries or for entrance to gifted programs or advanced courses.
  • Diverted resources: the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on testing in Pennsylvania are not available for classroom education. Most high-stakes tests are written by and benefit the bottom line of a handful of large international corporations. For instance, the new School Performance Profile system, largely based on student test scores, cost Pennsylvania taxpayers $2.7 million to develop and it will cost an estimated $838,000 every year to maintain. This does not include the five-year, $201.1 million contract with Data Recognition Corporation to administer high-stakes-tests to our students. Dr. Greg Taranto, Pennsylvania Middle School Teacher of the Year and member of Gov. Wolf’s education transition team, recently shared with us that state testing will cost us $58 million this year!
  • School closures: schools labeled as “failing” on the basis of test scores can be threatened with closure. These schools are usually in communities of color.
  • Loss of curiosity and love of learning: bubble tests are developmentally inappropriate for the youngest learners, yet are routinely being pushed down into Kindergarten in an attempt to get students “test ready.” The emphasis on “skill drill and kill” fails to stimulate children’s imagination and limits their natural curiosity. At Colfax, I’m concerned this has meant that our “enrichment” period has turned into an extra period of reading skills for most students.
  • Blocked access to facilities: as more and more tests are given on-line, many schools find their computer labs taken over by testing for weeks on end and not available for learning.
  • Harmful stress: children are pressured to not only demonstrate their knowledge but to represent the effectiveness of their teachers and their schools. Teachers are reporting children throwing up, losing control of their bowels, and increased commitments for psychiatric and anxiety issues. Mandated testing conditions, particularly for some special education students, border on child-abuse and some parents are reporting evidence of self-harming behaviors.
  • Internalized failure: struggling students forced to repeatedly take tests that label them “below basic” begin to believe they are “bad” or “worthless” students who cannot succeed in school.
  • Grades: some high-stakes tests are included in students’ grades.
  • Graduation requirements: as Pennsylvania introduces the Keystone graduation exams, evidence suggests that up to 60% of our students of color will be forced out of school without a diploma on the basis of a single score.
  • Altered school culture: schools must empty their walls and hallways for many weeks; classes are under lock-down with limited access to restrooms; some turn to daily announcements or even pep rallies to “prepare” students for testing and all-school field trips to “celebrate” testing (rather than actual learning).
  • Private data tracked: testing companies are tracking an enormous amount of information on our students, from test scores to even discipline data on children. Dr. Taranto told us, “this fact is not disclosed to parents” and he asks, “Who has access to this information? Who will have access to this student data down the road?”
  • Loss of enrichment: schools are eliminating academic field trips and pressuring teachers not to participate in activities that would take students out of school to maximize classroom time (for test prep). During PSSA testing, Pittsburgh’s gifted center also closes so those teachers can be reassigned to proctor the exams in other district schools.

With all of that evidence that high-stakes-testing is hurting students, changing their schools for the worse, and reducing real learning, why are we still giving so many standardized tests? Steve Singer, a teacher in the Steel Valley School District, points out that some tests can serve a political purpose. For instance, the DIBELS test, used to evaluate reading, is owned by Rupert Murdoch, and “cut scores are being artificially raised to make it look like more students are failing and thus our schools aren’t doing a good job.” Yet Mr. Singer explains that the DIBELS “doesn’t assess comprehension,” and “rewards someone who reads quickly but not someone who understands what she’s reading.” Also, he explains that, “focusing on pronunciation separate from comprehension narrows the curriculum and takes away time from proven strategies that actually would help [a student] become a better reader.”

My son’s experience with the DIBELS illustrates the way in which standardized tests can be used as gatekeepers, excluding even very high achieving students from accessing appropriate programs. My son was a “late” reader (which is not really true: he learned to read when he was developmentally ready in the third grade, and became a voracious, wonderful reader). But when he was in second grade, we were told his DIBELS score was too low to allow him to take an accelerated math class. He had taught himself multiplication at the age of four and was bored out of his mind in class. But the teacher had her orders: students needed to be reading 100 words per minute or could not advance to anything else. During our conversation with her about this, she called our son over and said, “I notice that you spend a lot of time looking out the window, like you were just now. Why are you daydreaming?” To which he answered, “Well, I was thinking about how if you have a ball in your hand, and drop it, and it hits the floor but doesn’t come all the way back up, where did that energy go?” I kid you not. He was seven years old and this was his response. The teacher looked right at us and said, “But see? He’s not reading 100 words per minute.”

Ideally, teachers are able to use test scores as just one data point among many to determine what students need to support their learning. But the hyper-focus on testing – and accountability measures that hold teachers responsible for getting every student over developmentally-arbitrary thresholds – means that time and again students are not treated as whole, complex learners, but rather reduced to a single score.

Testing advocates tell us that we must test every child, every year in order to identify inequality and drive reform (something no other high-education-achieving nation in the world does). But we have ample evidence from education researchers that high-stakes-testing is not improving schools. Over 2,000 education researchers recently sent an open letter to the Obama administration and Congress: citing reams of data, the researchers wrote, “we strongly urge departing from test-focused reforms that not only have been discredited for high-stakes decisions, but also have shown to widen, not close, gaps and inequities.” The letter went on to quote evidence at length from a new policy memo from the National Education Policy Center, which effectively summarizes a “broad research consensus that standardized tests are ineffective and even counterproductive when used to drive educational reform.”

Evidence also shows serious problems with using high-stakes-testing to evaluate and rate schools. For example, a detailed analysis of the state’s new School Performance Profile (SPP) rating system found that – despite its claim to use “multiple measures” to evaluate schools and teachers – 90% of the calculation is based on high-stakes standardized tests. Yet “these measures are closely associated with student poverty rates and other out- of-school factors.” In other words, the tests are very good at measuring one thing: a family’s socio-economic status. Even the much-touted Pennsylvania Value-Added Assessment System (PVAAS) component of the score, which is supposed to calculate projected student growth while controlling for out-of-school factors, instead strongly correlates with poverty. The report raises “questions about whether the measures are a valid and reliable measure for purposes of school accountability.” In essence, schools are being held accountable, not for what students learn, but for the poverty level of the families they serve.

Similarly, teachers are being evaluated on the basis of the test scores of their students. This is an invalid use of data, violating a basic principle of assessment, since those tests were never designed to measure teacher effectiveness. You can’t take a test created to measure one thing and use it to measure another. Nevertheless, the entire teacher evaluation system is built on just this assumption. In fact, the Value Added Model (VAM) used to evaluate teacher “effectiveness,” assumes that student test scores are the result of a specific teacher, independent of all other factors. Yet the American Statistical Association (ASA) released a report last spring strongly warning about the limitations of VAM models, explaining, “Most VAM studies find that teachers account for about 1% to 14% of the variability in test scores” and that “Ranking teachers by their VAM scores can have unintended consequences that reduce quality.” The statistical researchers concluded, “This is not saying that teachers have little effect on students, but that variation among teachers accounts for a small part of the variation in scores. The majority of the variation in test scores is attributable to factors outside of the teacher’s control such as student and family background, poverty, curriculum, and unmeasured influences.”

My son’s situation reveals how inappropriate the entire VAM system can be. He is now several years ahead in math and takes his class at the high school each morning, before returning to Colfax for the rest of the day. However, the state would require him to take a PSSA several grade levels below where he is currently working. In what way would this assess his actual learning this year? This test is clearly not about helping my son in any way: it’s about evaluating his teacher. But if he scores at the very top of the PSSA, as he is bound to do, he is simply demonstrating the ceiling effect – there is no way to “show growth” for this student. Yet his teachers are accountable for the “growth” in each student’s test score. Furthermore, which teacher should we hold accountable for his score – the math teacher at Colfax who does not even have him in school this year? His math teacher at the high school who is not teaching him the material covered on the PSSA?

The American Education Research Association and the National Academy of Education released a report showing that VAM models are highly unstable: teachers rated highly effective one year, are frequently rated ineffective the next. Their ratings also differed substantially between classes taught in a single year. The report also confirmed that teachers’ VAM ratings were significantly affected by the demographics of the students they taught: even when VAM calculations tried to account for this, teachers’ scores were negatively impacted by working with poor students, English language learners, and students with special education needs. Finally, this report demonstrated that VAM ratings “cannot disentangle the many influences on students progress” and stated “most researchers have concluded that VAM is not appropriate as a primary measure for evaluating individual teachers.”

Yet as we place more and more emphasis on holding teachers, principals, and entire schools accountable for student test scores, we have seen a plague of adult cheating scandals erupt across the country. We should not be surprised, since Campbell’s Law in social science states that the more a quantitative measurement is used to make decisions, the more subject it becomes to corruption and the more likely it is to corrupt the thing it was supposed to measure. This is exactly what has happened, with the conviction of 11 former teachers in Atlanta this week who are now facing 5-20 years in prison for changing answers on student tests to raise scores. The superintendent of El Paso, Texas is currently in prison for taking low-performing students out of classes in order to increase the district’s test scores. In Ohio several cities apparently listed low-performing students as “withdrawn” to remove their scores from school totals. Some charter schools are well known for the “charter dump,” pushing students out just before testing season in order to inflate their test scores (sending students back into traditional public schools, where their new teachers will be held accountable for their learning). In Washington D.C. former superintendent Michelle Rhee – now the darling of the corporate reform movement who is famous for publicly firing a principal and massive school closures – oversaw her own “Erasure-gate” but was never held accountable. And right here in Pennsylvania our own former state Secretary of Education, Rom Tomalis, was caught both lying and cheating about student test scores (and then went on to occupy a ghost-job in the state capitol, making $140,000 a year but not showing up for work).

So why are we doing this? Why are we using our children’s test scores to feed a teacher evaluation system that not only doesn’t work, but actually harms teachers who work with our most vulnerable children? Finally, this Unitarian principle requires a commitment to a responsible search for truth, which means we have to be willing to examine the consequences of our own seeking. What if the collection and use of data on student achievement, as measured by test scores, is actually causing harm?

  1. The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.

I am exercising my right of conscience by refusing to allow my children to take these tests. Our family cannot and will not be complicit in a system that we see harming others and damaging our common good.

High-stakes testing has also interfered with the democratic process. In many cities that lack democratically elected school boards, mayoral appointees have used high-stakes testing to label schools as failures and then moved to close them in unprecedented waves. Chicago is still reeling from the mass closure of 50 schools in 2013, almost entirely in communities of color. In cities like Philadelphia and New York, state or mayoral control has resulted in the privatization of public schools, handing over large numbers to private charter operators. Where is the democratic process when parents and communities no longer have a voice in public education and what is best for their children? When hedge fund managers are pouring enormous amounts of money into local school board races across the country to stack the deck in favor of privatization? When private charter operators are some of the biggest political donors in the state and refuse to comply with Pennsylvania’s sunshine open-records laws?

  1. The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.

Pennsylvania’s new Keystone exams pose a particular concern for education justice, as they threaten to fail enormous numbers of poor students and students of color, preventing them from graduating (one of the highest stakes of all for students). The Pennsylvania NAACP has demanded the removal of the Keystones as graduation requirements, calling the use of these tests a “present day form of Eugenics.” With pass rates last year at some impoverished schools in the single digits, how will this form of high-stakes-testing create justice for all? And where there is no justice, there is no peace.

In a letter to the PA Department of Education, the NAACP wrote, “Attaching the Keystone Examinations to graduation is clearly based on the idea that it is possible to distinguish between superior and inferior elements of society through selective scores on a paper and pencil test. … Pushing masses of students out of high school without a diploma will create a subculture of poverty comprised of potentially 60 percent of our young citizens.” The letter uses strong language to object to the impact of high-stakes-testing on our most vulnerable children, including: “human rights violation…unspeakable horror…holocaust on our youth and society…life-long trauma… a system of entrapment for the youth of Pennsylvania…depraved indifference…deficient in a moral sense of concern…lacks regard for the lives of the children who will be harmed, and puts their lives and futures at risk…lynching of our own young.”

If we are serious about the goal of education justice, how can we ignore the impact these tests will have on an entire generation of children denied diplomas, with life-long consequences? Where is their liberty and their freedom?

  1. Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

To me, this principle evokes Martin Luther King’s famous quote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” We are all connected – in an interdependent web of existence – and the oppression and harm caused to other people’s children, causes harm to all of us. We are all harmed by allowing oppression and oppressive systems to continue.

It doesn’t have to be this way. This entire system is only about 15 years in the making. Other countries that we admire greatly for their highly effective education systems do not test like this. If researchers need data to compare we could test sample groups of students, rather than every child. We could test every few years, instead of every year. We could remove the high-stakes for kids and teachers, and go back to using assessments to measure student learning, with the goal of helping students. We could admit that our most vulnerable students – our students living in poverty, our English language learners, our students with special education needs – don’t need more testing, but rather smaller class sizes; a rich, engaging, culturally relevant curriculum; and well supported teachers with adequate resources.

Respectfully submitted,

Jessie B. Ramey, Ph.D.

Top 10 Education Justice Wins of 2014

It’s almost the New Year and time for making lists. As we say goodbye to 2014, here is our list of the top ten education justice victories of the year:

1.  Tom Wolf elected Governor. In an election year that saw few bright spots for public education around the country, Pennsylvania stood out with a stellar win. Many folks worked for years on this governor’s race. Yinzercation itself started three years ago in response to Governor Corbett’s disastrous budget cuts and members of our collective have logged thousands of hours, collaborating with others around the state, to elect a pro-public education leader. One of the highlights of the campaign was our Education Debate, which allowed voters to hear from all of the Democratic candidates in-depth on education issues. Co-hosted with PIIN and broadcast by media partner WPXI around the state, the debate attracted 500 people in the live audience and included questions submitted by public school students presented by a community panel. [“Debate by the Numbers”]

Tom Wolf speaking at our Education Debate in April 2014.

Governor-elect Tom Wolf speaking at our Education Debate in April 2014.

2.  Education ranked #1 voter issue in PA. As a result of the incredible work of our grassroots movement, education jumped for the first time into the top spot on voters’ list of concerns. Even if Tom Wolf had not won, this would have been a major achievement in itself. Pushing education to the front of the public agenda was a bottom up effort, the result of countless trips to the state capitol, community meetings, rallies, demonstrations, letters to the editor, op eds, blog posts, TV appearances, media interviews, and more. [For just one 2014 example of our movement in action, see “Taking it to Harrisburg”]

Parents, students, and teachers from Southwest PA went to Harrisburg in June 2014 to talk about education funding.

Parents, students, and teachers from Southwest PA went to Harrisburg in June 2014 to talk about education funding.


Protesting Gov. Corbett’s cuts to public education during one of his visits to the city.

3.  Featured in Bob Herbert’s new book. The award winning, former New York Times columnist Bob Herbert came to Pittsburgh to conduct research for his book, Losing our Way: An Intimate Portrait of a Troubled America. He was so taken with our local movement that he wound up writing three whole chapters on public education! He then graciously came back to the ‘burgh so we could host the national launch of his book. [“10 Reasons to See Bob Herbert”] The event, moderated by Post-Gazette columnist and editorial board member Tony Norman, drew over 300 people and generated more media buzz about education justice. [“Celebrating Hope, Action, and Change”]

Bob Herbert emphasized the need to grassroots activism and a coordinated effort to fight income inequality and for good jobs.

Tony Norman interviewed Bob Herbert for the national launch of his new book, featuring a portrait of our movement.

4.  Rolled back high-stakes testing. The Pittsburgh Public Schools agreed to reduce high-stakes standardized testing for students in grades K-5, returning 41.5 periods of instructional time to our children. That comes to 33 hours for real learning rather than test taking, and does not even count the associated reduction in test-prep. [“33 More Hours for Learning”] Although there is far more work to be done, this was a great first step, and the direct result of conversations we hosted in the community, in social media, and with the school board and the school district. As part of that work, we sponsored the Pittsburgh premiere of the documentary “Standardized.” [“Millions Spent, No Results”] Afterwards, we worked with one audience member, Dr. Greg Taranto – a Pennsylvania middle school teacher of the year award winner – who wrote an op-ed that went viral. [“Slay the Testing Beast,” Post-Gazette, 3-26-14] We developed nine “Strategies to Reduce High Stakes Testing,” and had two articles published on testing in the Washington Post. [“High Stakes for Students” and “Children are Not Guinea Pigs”]

Pittsburgh Allderdice teachers organized their own literature table about learning and testing

Pittsburgh teachers organized their own literature table about learning and testing at the Pittsburgh premiere of “Standardized.”

5.  Saved PE. After we raised questions about proposed cuts to physical education requirements and the community spoke out at a school board hearing, the district decided not to halve the number of required high school PE credits. This would have effectively made gym a required class for only first and second year students, allegedly to free up time for test prep and alleviate some scheduling conflicts. But it would have also likely led to further reductions in teaching staff and exacerbated inequity in our schools. Not to mention the fact that our children are not getting nearly enough exercise as it is and this would have been a step backwards in the fight against childhood obesity. [“Cutting PE” and “Score! Save!”]

6.  Launched community schools campaign. The coalition Great Public Schools (GPS) Pittsburgh released a report outlining a vision for public education in the city and calling for the implementation of a community schools model. The group then got a grant from the Heinz Foundations to take over thirty people to a national conference in Cincinnati to learn more about how community schools work around the country. The conference delegation included school board members, community leaders, parents, and representatives from the mayor’s office. GPS then hosted a community meeting to continue the conversation in the city. [“Reporting Back on Community Schools”] The idea of community schools appears to be gaining wide support and is even the centerpiece of a major grant proposal submitted this year by the district. This was a big step forward for a new way of thinking about our public schools, which could tremendously benefit students, families, and entire communities.

Members of the Pittsburgh delegation get ready to board the bus for Cincinnati!

Members of the Pittsburgh delegation that attended the community schools conference in Cincinnati.

7.  Heard many new student voices. Students are inspiring. And when they speak about their education, adults listen. This was a great year for lifting up emerging student voices: most recently, Pittsburgh Allderdice students organized and testified at the school board about the need for libraries and professional librarians. We also worked with Pittsburgh CAPA students who organized their peers and presented moving testimony to the board about cuts to arts education in the district. Even the Washington Post was impressed and picked up their story! [“All They Want for Christmas … is Art Education”] Earlier in the year, TeenBloc students successfully introduced a Student Bill of Rights into the district’s Code of Student Conduct. Students were also key leaders in the planning of our Education Debate, spoke at our rallies, and participated in our trip to Harrisburg, among other actions.

National Arts Honors Society CAPA chapter co-presidents, Will Grimm and Meggie Booth, at their presentation to the Pittsburgh Public School board.

National Arts Honors Society CAPA chapter co-presidents, Will Grimm and Meggie Booth, at their presentation to the Pittsburgh Public School board.

8.  Renewed focus on equitable discipline. As outlined in an ACLU report last year, inequality in school discipline and policing policies disproportionately impacts students of color, students with disabilities, and students living in our most struggling communities. This process of student push-out feeds the school-to-prison pipeline. In a win for Pittsburgh students, the Education Law Center worked with the district to develop changes to the Code of Student Conduct that will eliminate “zero tolerance” policies and provide protection for students of all sexual and gender identity expressions.

9.  Mayor’s Task Force on Education. After a delayed start and some rocky process issues, Mayor Peduto’s Task Force on Education laid some solid groundwork for collaboration between the city and the school district. While some feared the mayor and city council were overstepping their authority to look at school matters, many in the community supported this effort to imagine big solutions and opportunities for new partnerships that can benefit students and entire communities alike. I was honored to serve on the Task Force and remain optimistic about this chance to “think outside the box” and move beyond the silos that prevent cooperation on such tangled issues as poverty, racism, housing segregation, neighborhood gentrification, and financial challenges. A vibrant, healthy Pittsburgh requires great public schools for all students and the school district cannot address all of the issues impacting student learning on its own. I am pleased that City Council plans to make the Task Force into a standing commission to continue this work. [“Mayor’s Task Force on Education”]

Mayor Peduto, Education chief Dr. Porter, and two of the amazing young people on the Task Force for Education.

Mayor Peduto, Education chief Dr. Porter, and two of the amazing young people on the Task Force for Education.

10.  Pittsburgh connected to national education justice work. This was a banner year for our city to shine on the national education justice scene, which itself is growing with a number of new organizations and coalitions. For example, three Yinzercation steering committee members represented Pittsburgh, speaking on panels at the inaugural conference of the Network for Public Education in Austin back in March. [“We Are Many”] Yinzercation helped to launch the national Education Bloggers Network, which now has over 200 members. Through GPS we participated in a national meeting of the new coalition, the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, in D.C. and also coordinated a national week of action to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, which included our local rally at Freedom Corner in the Hill District. [“Still Black and White After Brown”] In addition, a diverse group of local education organizations and leaders collaborated on a pretty fantastic bid to bring the national Free Minds, Free People education justice conference to Pittsburgh. We were one of the final two locations under consideration – and while Oakland, CA won, our proposal brought together groups that don’t always agree for some serious social justice work together. Last but not least, we continued to have many of our articles picked up by the national media and Pittsburgh’s education justice work was featured prominently in a several national stories.

"Remember the Promise"

At the rally to commemorate the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education.

Happy New Year! May 2015 bring many more wins for students, our public schools, and education justice.

In Memoriam: Tony Woods

We lost an amazing man this week in the struggle for education justice for all our children. Kindergarten teacher extraordinaire Tony Woods will be dearly missed by the legions of families whose lives he touched in over 25 years of teaching in the Pittsburgh Public Schools.

Tony Woods at one of the coldest rallies we've held (!), December 2013, outside Governor Corbett's office in downtown Pittsburgh.

Tony Woods at one of the coldest rallies we’ve held (!), December 2013, outside Governor Corbett’s office in downtown Pittsburgh.

As his friend and colleague, Kipp Dawson, reminds us, “Tony will be with us so long as we love, and fight for, all children.” He told her just a few weeks ago, “The love thing goes without saying. Nothing needs to be done to prove that. Just keep advocating for those kids. That has always been my passion and to know it’s going on keeps the love alive.”

A celebration of Tony’s life will be held tomorrow, Saturday, December 7th, at 11AM at First United Methodist Church of Pittsburgh (5401 Centre Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15232). The family requests that donations be made to The Pitt Men’s Study or Shepherd Wellness Community.

Tony’s Pastor, Gail Ransom, shared this about him: “Tony was a spiritual warrior who always led from his heart. And that heart was an expression of divine passion for the young, the disenfranchised, the lost, and the left-behind. He was a protector, a nurturer, a mentor ….”

One of the things I loved about Tony was his ever-present, warm smile. His face would just light up when he saw you. He will help me remember that the path to education justice is a long one and that it helps to keep smiling.

Tony Woods with fellow Colfax teachers on our bus trip to Harrisburg to rally for restored funding for our schools, June 2013.

Tony Woods with fellow Colfax teachers on our bus trip to Harrisburg to rally for restored funding for our schools, June 2013.

Here is Tony’s obituary:

Age 63, of Pittsburgh, passed away Sunday, November 30, 2014, with friends and family by his side. Born November 13, 1951, he is the son of the late Samuel William and Patti Palmer Woods; brother of the late Laurence Woods; he is survived by his loving husband, Ron; he is the esteemed brother of William, David, Richard and Charles; and sisters, Vicki Schroeder of Albuquerque, NM and Penny Elliot of Washington, PA; Tony is also survived by several adoring nieces and nephews. He will be dearly missed by his family and the numerous friends made over the years. Tony was a long time member of the Recovery Community. “He was devotedly involved in the social justice and labor movement.” “He was a bright light in a world of hatred and darkness.” Tony received his undergraduate degree from Carlow College in Early Childhood Education and a Master’s Degree in Education from the University of Pittsburgh. Tony spent over 25 years in the Pittsburgh Public Schools, retiring in January 2014. Until his illness, Tony worked with the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers. Tony was a well-loved, respected, and admired Kindergarten teacher at Spring Hill, Morningside, King, and Colfax Schools. Tony was a light for all students, a mentor, friend to fellow teachers, and an active, vocal advocate for children. As one teacher said, “Tony is the Lorax of Education; he speaks for all children. ” These are the truest words, spoken about this loving, warm, dedicated teacher, and friend. A profound thank you to the staff of The Center for Compassionate Care – Canterbury Place, for their care, support, and compassion during his stay. “HE WAS LOVED BY ALL AND PRAISED BY MANY.”

Sit-In or Call-In

Guest post by Kathy Newman.

We all know sitting is bad for us, right? But right now there is a group of Philadelphia parents, teachers and students sitting-in at Tom Corbett’s Harrisburg office, demanding that the Governor and the State Legislature pass a decent budget for education this month.

Our Philadelphia colleagues are in Harrisburg sitting in the Governor's office!

Our Philadelphia colleagues are in Harrisburg sitting in the Governor’s office!

They're not going anywhere until he gets the message.

They’re not going anywhere until he gets the message.

People power at the Capitol!

People power at the Capitol!

You might not be able to get to Harrisburg to join the sit-in, but there is something you can do. And you can do it sitting down. Five-to-ten minutes of phone calling and emailing on Monday, June 30th, from the comfort of your favorite chair, will make a real difference in this year’s budget negotiation.

It’s hard to believe that a few simple phone calls can make a difference. But our friends at Education Voters say that when lawmakers hear from parents across the state about education they do a better job of putting education first when they are finalizing their budget deals.

The truth is that some of our more sympathetic Democratic lawmakers will have more power than usual in this budget cycle, and a call from you (and you and you and you and you) will remind them that, for many of us in the state, education is a critical issue.

What’s at stake right now? This week the PA House passed a budget that eliminates the $241 million increase in state funding for proposed Ready to Learn Block grants and replace this with a paltry $70 million increase in Basic Education Funding. Under the House budget, PA school districts would lose about 70% of the increases in state funding they were expecting to receive this year and that they were relying on to balance their budgets. That’s a loss of over $2 million for Pittsburgh Public Schools alone.

The House budget is irresponsible and unacceptable.  It does not call for a shale tax or a cigarette tax.  Instead, it relies on the sale of state liquor stores (which the Senate has so far not supported), gimmicky sources of one-time funding, and the suspension of selected tax credits to balance the budget.

Though it’s the end of the month, and the budget was supposed to be locked up by now, budget negotiations are just beginning. While the budget is still fluid and negotiations are taking place, advocates must speak out loudly and with one voice in support of responsible funding for public schools this year. If we do not speak up now, public education will likely receive little more than scraps in the budget this year.

As with previous Call to Action for Education days, we are asking for broad participation from all organizations and individuals across the Commonwealth.  It is incredibly important the legislators in Harrisburg see that people are paying attention.  Communities are using these call-in-days to help spread the word about what is happening to our schools, so please join us again!

WHEN:  Monday, June 30, 2014

WHAT:  Call to Action for Public Education – It’s time for a fair budget for PA’s students!

HOW TO PARTICIPATE:  Mark your calendar and plan to ask your own network to take action

Mark your calendar today for Monday, June 30th – and do 3 things in 10 minutes to make a difference! Click here for your legislators’ phone numbers. Click here for tips on how to make a good phone call.

  1. Call your State Senator.
  2. Call your State Representative.
  3. Call Gov. Corbett’s office at (717) 787-2500.

Ask them to:

  • Support the adoption of a shale tax, cigarette tax and any reasonable measure to raise revenue and close tax loopholes.
  • Support an increase in the Basic Education Funding line that is equal to what was in the proposed Ready to Learn Block Grant.
  • Support and advocate for state funding for charter school reimbursement to be restored.
  • Support SB 1316/HB2138, the special education funding and accountability reform bill.  (Additional information about this bill can be found

When you are done with your call would you mind heading over to the Yinzercation facebook page and reporting on your calls? If you tweet, you can also promote the day using #educationpa and #pabudget. Thanks to everyone who is sitting and calling in for fair education funding!

New Logo, Old Principles

Drum roll please … introducing our new logo! Drawn by local artist Danny Devine, the Yinzercation school bus shows people taking action. Are those rally signs we can see peeking out the windows? We are literally on the bus together, ready to save public education as a public good. Movements move, and this bus is going places for education justice. Don’t worry, it will stop for you – and there’s always room for more people.


While the logo might be new, the principles that unite us are not. We are committed to keeping the focus on students and equity, evidence-based arguments, and saving public education as a public good. Sometimes it gets complicated since we are a movement, not an organization, and we may not all agree on everything, all the time. But as I listen to this growing education justice movement – at rallies, on the streets, at national conferences, in community meetings, on petitions, in social media – these are the core principles I hear:

  • State budgets must provide adequate, equitable, and sustainable public funding for public education. Everyone must pay their fair share.
  • Education reform should address long-standing racial and class-based inequities. These include resource distribution, the disproportionate impact of school closures on communities of color, and inequitable disciplinary procedures that feed the school-to-prison pipeline.
  • The public owns public education. We therefore oppose privatization (such as vouchers and tax credit programs), centralization of power, and mass school closures.
  • Education justice depends on civil discourse, public debate, and the intentional inclusion of minority and historically excluded groups in decision making.
  • Public policies must empower authentic parent engagement and protect student confidentiality.
  • We can win when we work together with our grassroots colleagues here, across the state, and around the nation. Collaboration is essential and students are crucial leaders.

What do you think? In preparation for our new logo, I have been re-vamping the Yinzercation website to make it even more of a space for conversation and civil debate as we ask questions and seek answers together. I’ve added new tabs at the top that highlight some of the main issues in the education justice movement today: equity, school funding, corporate-style reform, school closures, and high-stakes testing. If you haven’t been on the site in while, take a look and let us all know what you think by leaving a comment on this piece. Thanks!

We are Many

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 Pittsburgh Delegation

The Pittsburgh Delegation

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.

Student leaders from the national Students United for Public Education

Student leaders from the national Students United for Public Education (photo from Twitter)

Karran Harper-Royal, Helen Gym, and Jessie Ramey speaking on parent engagement

Karran Harper-Royal, Helen Gym, and Jessie Ramey speaking on parent engagement

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.

Some of the Bad Ass Moms from Chicago (with other friends)

Some of the Bad Ass Moms from Chicago (with other friends; photo from Twitter)

Chicago parent Shoniece Reynolds and Seattle teacher Jesse Hogopian

Chicago parent Shoniece Reynolds and Seattle teacher Jesse Hogopian (photo from Twitter)

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.

Dr. Julian Vasquez Heilig

Dr. Julian Vasquez Heilig

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.

Jitu Brown, education community organizer in Chicago

Jitu Brown, education community organizer in Chicago

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.)

Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis and Texas school superintendent John Kuhn deliver a keynote address

Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis and Texas school superintendent John Kuhn deliver a keynote address

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.

Fellow blogger Mercedes Schneider and I may or may not have been drinking beer together

Fellow blogger Mercedes Schneider and I may or may not have been drinking beer together

Two NPE board members: educator and blogger Anthony Cody and Florida parent activist Colleen Wood

Two NPE board members: educator and blogger Anthony Cody and Florida parent activist Colleen Wood

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.

Education Justice

Long time readers of this blog may have noticed that, somewhere over the past year, I started referring to our work as an “education justice movement.” That’s an important distinction from simply an education advocacy movement, or even a grassroots group supporting public schools. It’s a distinction particularly worth noting today, as we celebrate and remember Martin Luther King, Jr.

So why education justice? I can trace my own switch to the use of this phrase back to a series of conversations I had last spring with different community leaders. After attending (and filming) our Rally for Public Education back in February, Kent Bey invited me to be interviewed on his cable-TV show with students from his Stand Up Now (SUN) Network. Kent speaks about his work with young people in Pittsburgh’s Hill District neighborhood in terms of education justice and used the term repeatedly while we were on the air, pushing me to think about how I was framing my own comments.

A few weeks later, the Women & Girls Foundation of Southwest PA invited me to be on a policy panel discussing various aspects of the state budget. I found myself talking about the impact of state funding with poverty, housing, hunger, and other activists who all spoke about their work as social justice. I was particularly struck by the way La’Tasha Mayes of New Voices Pittsburgh articulated her work on reproductive justice. La’Tasha is a graduate of women’s studies at the University of Pittsburgh, where I was teaching, and I invited her to guest lecture in my Intro to Feminist Theory course.

By this time, I was regularly using the term education justice to describe our work, with its focus on equity; addressing structural and historical barriers such as poverty and racism; and emphasizing the goal of great public schools for all children. But as La’Tasha taught my students the basics of reproductive justice (what she calls “R.J. 101”), she also taught me to re-conceptualize education justice as a sort of E.J. 101. So what is education justice?

1.  It’s a name. Education justice combines educational rights or public education advocacy with social justice. Public Education + Social Justice = Education Justice.

2.  It’s a social change movement. It’s not just about supporting public schools, or advocating for resources (though these are important things). Education justice is about bringing about larger social change so that every student can get a great public education. It’s a movement, not a single organization. There are leaders, but no one leader. And it’s grassroots, at its most effective when led by the community, especially those communities most impacted by budget cuts, historic inequities, school closures, and efforts to privatize public education.

3.  It’s about students and communities. Education justice affirms individual students and their everyday experiences, while also connecting schools to their communities. It places children in the context of their families and neighborhoods. Education justice insists that we consider the whole child, and that we re-frame schools as the centers of communities. It connects the health and strength of communities to the well being of students and public schools.

4.  It’s a theory. Education justice shifts our thinking, moving us beyond budget battles and the latest education reform fad of the moment. Education justice acknowledges what women’s studies calls “intersectionality” – the way in which social identities such as race, class, and gender overlap and must be understood together. We academic types also call these power hierarchies or interlocking systems of oppression. In essence, education justice forces us to deal with the complexity of education as a social issue, as well as a public institution.

Education justice also recognizes human rights as the basis for its claim. In other words, education is not simply needed because it’s the foundation of our political system, or democracy, or because we need to prepare students for complex 21st century careers (although you can make strong arguments for all of these). Education justice rests on a more basic principle, tied to our existence as human beings apart from political or economic structures. It stems from Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, signed by the United Nations in 1948 following World War II, which reads in part:

“Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. … Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

Thinking about our movement in this way also forces us to consider what the conditions are for achieving educational justice. We have talked about all students having access to a great, local public school with a rich, culturally relevant curriculum; full arts programs; athletics; small class sizes; librarians, social workers, and counselors; high quality and well supported teachers; equitable and adequate resources; the reduction of high-stakes-testing; and the elimination of the school to prison pipeline, among other things. Shifting the paradigm like this also encourages us to think about what the goal of education itself ought to be.

Education – and education justice – is far more than higher test scores or career readiness. In 1947, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. himself described “The Purpose of Education”:

“To save man from the morass of propaganda, in my opinion, is one of the chief aims of education. Education must enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from the fiction. The function of education, therefore, is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. But education which stops with efficiency may prove the greatest menace to society. The most dangerous criminal may be the man gifted with reason, but with no moral…We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character–that is the goal of true education.”

Sixteen years later, Dr. King was sitting in a Birmingham jail when he wrote some of his most famous lines about justice. Wise words for us to consider as we think about education justice:

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” [Letter from a Birmingham Jail, 1963]