Time for Democratic Renewal of Public Education

Last week the Western New York Task Force on New York State Education Policy held its first of four planned public meetings.[1] I have agreed to be a part of the Task Force, and on account of my inability to attend tomorrow’s meeting, I am offering the following remarks in hopes that they might contribute to tomorrow’s deliberations.

In an email update regarding the Task Force, Williamsville Central School District Superintendent Martzloff indicated that the aim of the Task Force is to “educate the Governor’s Reform Commission” as well as “state legislators, [the] Commissioner of Education, Board of Regents, and the Governor himself.” He concluded, demanding: “The attack on public education must stop and teachers and principals need to be supported in the important work they do with our students.” The Task Force has the goal of presenting solutions to the problems associated with so-called education reform by November 19, 2015.

The Nature of the Problem We Now Face

The solution of any problem requires that the problem itself be properly understood. Many currently understand the problem to be centered around educational standards and assessments (e.g., Common Core Standards and high-stakes testing, including test-based evaluations of teachers mandated by the state’s Annual Professional Performance Review, or APPR, itself an outgrowth of Federal policy).

But we must carefully consider this: are the tests, teacher evaluations, and common core “curricula” the problem? Or are these maladies symptoms of the problem? Big media outlets controlled by friends of those leading the attack on public education repeatedly render the problem as one of implementation. Is this true? Can you implement a wrong thing correctly? In both scenarios — the idea that the problem originates with the tests, the idea that the problem originates with poor implementation — the actual problem is obscured, and thus no longer the center of discussion. Some at the last Task Force meeting last week actually suggested that the problem rests with the test refusal movement itself, causing not a few to question the motives behind the organization of the Task Force.

But the point is this: if we mis-identify the nature of the problem we will never find solutions. We will remain ineffective in defending the dignity of public education and we will fail to renew it to serve the needs of the next generation and society as a whole. We will fail to identify the next critical steps and the key demands that the Task Force should publicize and be responsible to fight for.

Problem Identification, Neither Partisan, Nor Negative

Public cynicism regarding Governor Cuomo’s Reform Commission and the willingness of Regents and legislators to deal in a straightforward and serious manner with parent and educator concerns is at an all-time high. This is not a Democrat problem. It is not a Republican problem. This fact cannot be ignored. And, I must emphasize, it is not “negative” to properly characterize the current state of affairs as I just have or do below.

The fact is, parents and educators alike are sick and tired of being lied to. They are sick and tired of being ignored, marginalized, and mocked. They are sick and tired of their interests and the interests of the youth being sidelined. They are sick and tired of the corrupt, corporate and profit-centered agenda, which has consumed and is now destroying public education. Schools are not for-profit businesses and students are not products. Test-prep is not education.

These facts and the experiences from which they are drawn should inform the work of the Task Force. Elaborating this experience and opposing it is not negative; it is rather a requirement of building trust, unity and momentum. To be repeatedly ignored, mocked and abused, and then to have it suggested that silence regarding this abuse is a condition for resolution is not going to inspire trust, unity or initiative.

To be repeatedly ignored, mocked and abused, and then to have it suggested that silence regarding this abuse is a condition for resolution is not going to inspire trust, unity or initiative.

So, just as I do not believe the problem is properly understood as one of testing or implementation of the Core regime, I do not believe the problem originates with parent or educator “negativity” either. Abuse by current policy is the experience of students, parents and educators irrespective of what political party they belong to or what TV pundit they habitually watch.

This is a public experience and it has resulted in the formation of a definite public will. This public will has been and will continue to be expressed in refusing the tests until the problem has been solved. Test refusal has occurred in all areas of the state and is representative of a wide variety of social groups. The origin of test refusal helps us identify the actual problem we now face.

The Problem is Who Decides!

The standards themselves are not the problem. Implementation is not the problem. Hundreds of thousands of New York families refused the tests because the powers that be have refused to govern on their behalf, and in their interests. The tests and implementation of the Core regime have been used to block parents and educators from having a say — it is political marginalization that is the key problem needing solution. The problem is that the standards were not set by educators, informed by the public interest. The standards — the tests, the Core, APPR — reflect the interests and values of a tiny minority, an economic and political elite, who established these standards without the involvement or consent of those to whom these standards are applied.

The standards — the tests, the Core, APPR — reflect the interests and values of a tiny minority, who established them without the involvement or consent of those to whom these standards are applied.

For standards to serve the public interest and cause of education, the public and educators must have a decisive voice is establishing the standards. But what we now have is irrational standards imposed by gangsters who have usurped state power to serve the narrowest interests of a corporate/financial cabal. We have standards to serve private interests. And these standards are necessarily harmful to the quality of education. Thus the political will of parents and their communities has not been realized as school board power is thwarted under the weight of federal and state mandates and unprecedented intrusion of corporate interests, whether through the buying of school board elections or through the corporate control of curriculum, testing and professional learning.

And so, parents say, “NO MORE!” This stand reflects a public that uses what remains at its disposal: its power to deny consent. Test refusal is the material and symbolic expression of opposition to the condition of being rendered powerless by an oppressive system. It is a demand to have a say, and this demand must be respected, appreciated and nurtured. The Task Force should explicitly affirm: We do not consent to the attack on public education. We do not consent to assessment being transformed into a weapon against our youth, our teachers and our education leaders. We do not consent to the looting of the public treasury for private gain. We do not consent and we will refuse.[2]

Solutions Begin with Demands that Change the Direction of Education Policy and Empower Communities

“So, Professor Garrison, what you say is all well and good, really, but we are here to propose solutions … what are your solutions?” I offer the following for consideration. The basic principle is to demand the power of the state be used to protect — not attack — the public interest. So, as a result of federal and state policy — the treatment — the patient is dying. The first step is to stop the treatment. I thus recommend we demand that the state stop harming our schools and challenge federal policy:

  • Demand a two-year moratorium on 3-8 high-stakes testing;
  • Demand a two-year moratorium on implementing all federally imposed mandates, including a demand that the State initiate actions challenging the legality of Race to the Top and related reforms that have no basis in the ESEA and are in violation of the 1979 DEOA;
  • Demand that districts be allowed to grant local diplomas with a Regents option, as was the case in the past;
  • Bar the use of test scores and SLOs (or equivalent) for the purposes of teacher and administrator evaluation. Return evaluation of teachers and administrators to each school district;
  • Return curriculum decisions to local school districts;
  • Districts will continue to participate in NAEP assessments and use past and future results as one means to assess their programs and initiatives, including performance by subgroup.

In addition, I recommend the following occur during the two-year period. The Task Force should work with school boards, educational associations and parent groups to review the governance of public education in New York State, such that answers to the following questions are developed:

  • What is the proper relationship between Federal, State and Local Education Authorities (school boards)?
  • What changes need to occur in how Local Education Agencies (school boards) are formed, such that they represent and serve the interests of their communities and society as a whole?
  • How can the Board of Regents be reformed to ensure it represents public will and findings of the education research community?
  • What steps need to be taken to ensure the public has control over corporate and philanthropic organizations who wish to involve themselves in public education?

In closing, it is, I believe, key to understand that the current problems exists as decision making problems. We would not have the crazy Core or the pseudo-science of Value-added Models of teacher evaluation if the will of an informed public held sway. Without decision making power, without real mechanisms to ensure we have a say, our best ideas will never be realized, because we never solved the problem of democratic renewal. Simply put, if the problem were simply one of poor quality tests, all we would need to do is develop better tests, better methods of evaluation, etc. (which we know how to do!). But experience shows that without democratic renewal of public education, parents, teachers, administrators and the public at large will be blocked from implementing and testing their solutions. And so, this is why I insist that the key problem is one of who decides.


  1. See the following document advertising the upcoming public meeting of the Task Force; see Williamsville Central School District Superintendent Martzloff’s open letter.
  2. While much was made by a few regarding the challenge educators face in speaking up at the last Task Force meeting, there are many ways educators can assist without putting themselves at undue risk. Strengthening connections to active parents is one way tactics can be developed and unity built. But in the end, we all have a responsibility to defend students and teachers. Silence = Death.

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