THE COALITION government in Britain has made it clear that it wants 'educational reform' by increasing the number of academies and developing 'free' schools. Many of these ideas derive from the American 'charter school' movement, which has also had some publicity in the UK through the Waiting for Superman film. This pamphlet, Save Our Schools, written by US teacher and Socialist Alternative (CWI US) member Tom Crean, comes at just the right time.
Tom starts with unemployment statistics because: "The US is facing a bleak future of mass structural unemployment... Most job growth will be in low wage, relatively low skill employment sectors... In that context, the goal of the elite is to tailor education to the type of workforce that corporate America will need in the future." This explains the drive to organise schooling around preparation for 'high stakes testing' in literacy and numeracy. Apart from reading and writing, what else will you need?
In 2001, then president George Bush's initiative, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), enshrined 'high stakes testing' as the key tool of federal education policy. Federal funding was conditional on states developing and administering high stakes tests, and determining which schools were 'failing' based on test results. And if a school fails, there'll be a 'charter school' along to replace it.
Tom Crean shows clearly how discontent with poor quality public schools has been exploited by the US ruling class to close schools and replace them with charter schools: privately run, linked to the big corporate players like Walmart, profit-making, and no-union zones.
Of course it hasn't worked. One of NCLB's most ardent supporters at the time, educationist Diana Ravitch, has acknowledged in a recent book that: "the evidence says NCLB was a failure and that charter schools aren't going to be any better." Yet president Obama persists in these reactionary policies, leading many teachers to question why their unions support the Democrat Party.
The stakes are certainly high for US teachers - US schools get closed down if test scores are not high enough. In February 2010, the school board in Central Falls, Rhode Island, voted to fire all 93 staff at the city's only high school because it was allegedly 'failing'. Increasingly, teacher contracts are offered in two forms: either more money, sign away 'tenure' (job security) and accept merit pay based on test scores, or stay on the old contract.
The American teacher unions, the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), have been slow to react. Randy Weingarten, president of AFT, was, incredibly, an advocate for these reforms and signed several sell-out contracts. But Crean is quick to point out the increasing effectiveness of rank-and-file activists, often campaigning in alliance with working class parents.
In June 2010 the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) won the leadership elections of the Chicago Teachers Union for a militant, fightback policy and real union democracy; Florida teachers, with parent and community support, fought off a bill to abolish tenure; and in both Chicago and New York, the GEM (Grassroots Education Movement) has delayed or reduced the impact of school closures.
The pamphlet ends with a socialist programme for education, which would be a really useful basis for discussion in a Socialist Party or Youth Fight for Jobs meeting.
Reading this excellent pamphlet made me feel that "I've seen the future, and it doesn't work". It is all on its way across the Atlantic - for 'Teach for America', read 'Teach First'; for 'high stakes testing', read SATs; for charter schools, read academies (not profit-making just yet, but Gove has no objection in principle). That's the international, neoliberal agenda, and we all have the same fight on our hands.
Since September 2010, 204 UK schools have become academies but this is still a tiny proportion of the UK's 22,000 schools and the coalition government is way behind on its targets. Teachers as far apart as Lancashire and London have struck against academy proposals. SATs and league tables have had several holes blown in them. Crean's message that unions can be reclaimed, and alliances with parents forged, is a good one with which to start 2011.
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