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What the Education Reform Movement Can Learn from the Student Power Movement

Check out my latest post on Spencer Smith’s blog!

Spencer J Smith

Last week, some Twitter and real life friends of mine converged on Madison, Wisconsin for Student Power 2013. Because I’ve been really encouraged by the healthy debates and conversations I’ve had with these amazing men and women, I asked one of them, Hannah Nguyen, to write about what the reform movement stands to learn from the Student Power Movement. Hannah is a student at USC, and a building member of the Los Angeles chapter of Students United for Public Education. She writes her own blog over at inspirEDucation. I’m so thankful for her insight and her words and her ability to look past differences in order to agitate for better educations for our students. I hope you learn as much from her as I did.

What the Education Reform Movement can learn from the Student Power Movement

I’ll be honest. When I was asked by Spencer to write about…

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Why I Do What I Do – A Reflection After Student Power 2013

I believe that there are three key things you need to always do when leading a movement for social justice and change.

  1. Be willing to listen and learn.
  2. Have the courage to speak out and act in the name of justice.
  3. Never forget why you do what you do and who you do it for, and make sure everything you do honors that.

As you may know, I recently got back from the National Student Power Convergence at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Words can’t even begin to describe how inspired and moved I feel. 5 days of meeting and connecting with student activists (including the wonderful and amazing Stephanie Rivera, Jacob Chaffin, Asean Johnson, and Israel Munoz), exchanging ideas and strategies on how to organize action around key issues affecting youth, and celebrating the power of student voice and action? It was seriously a dream come true. I wish I had the time to delve into every detail of every experience that I had during these 5 days, but I hope you take my word for it that the NSPC was life-changing and groundbreaking.

With all that I’ve learned and all the new friendships I’ve made, I am so excited to take all that I have learned to begin building my very own chapter of Students United for Public Education (SUPE) in Los Angeles and well as working alongside my great friend and mentor Stephanie Rivera as a national organizer for SUPE.

But I’ll be honest: as excited as I am, I’m actually kind of scared. I’ve spent most of my life doing what I love most: learning. And most importantly, I’ve devoted a lot of time to learning about myself, what I really feel passionate about, and how I could to contribute my gifts and talents. I never wanted to really act until I was sure of myself and until I understood the issues fully and deeply. And to be honest, I’m still learning, but since starting this blog, I’ve been starting to speak out and act. When I created this blog, I wanted to use it not only as a place where I could continue to learn and develop my thoughts, but to also speak up about my beliefs, raise awareness, inspire others to think critically about these key issues.

Of course, I will continue to learn, listen, and grow for the rest of my life. It’s my favorite thing to do. But I feel like I’ve finally found my voice and I’m at a good place where I can begin to translate my passions, my thoughts, and my ideas into meaningful action and activism. Making that transition, stepping out of my comfort zone to put myself out there, is scary. But so far, what I’ve learned and how much I’ve grown has been more than worth it.

Attending this convergence was a big first step towards action for me. One of my favorite experiences in this entire world (maybe even more than singing a solo on stage) is meeting people who care. People who have passion coursing through their veins. Who really care about something so much that they go out and do something about it. Who have the courage to stand up and fight for justice and what they believe in. Whose eyes light up and heartbeats speed up at even the slightest mention of something that makes them angry, hopeful, inspired, determined. Who are driven by love: love of compassion, solidarity, justice, freedom, and equality. These people are not only passionate; they’re revolutionary. They are the game-changers and change-makers. These are people who live and breathe that list at the top of the page. These are the people who have fought the fights and walked the talks. These are the people who have taught me what it means to be a part of the student movement, to stand up, speak out, and take action.

I went to this convergence to do the first two things on that list that opened this post. I am here to learn from and listen to these amazing people and their stories. And from learning from those who have walked the talk and fought the fight, I hope to find the courage within myself to become more action-oriented, to continue to speak out against injustice, to immerse myself in my community, and work with and alongside others already doing great work to make a better tomorrow for youth.

But before I continue working on my action plan for SUPE, I want to give attention to the third and most important point on that list. I’m even going to repeat it here because it’s so important:

Never forget why you do what you do and who you do it for, and make sure everything you do honors that.

What I’ve seen happen often times (especially in… yup, you guessed it: the education reform movement), is that intentions start out good but the sword starts to swing the other way when money, power, and statistics are valued over the lives and humanity of students. “Kids first” and “For the kids” becomes merely rhetoric, as people jump to enact radically dangerous and untested policies that do anything but put kids first. It’s even scarier when these policies are put in place by people with power and money, because then they are blinded by their power and money and fail to see all the intricate parts of the matter.

This scares me, because I believe my intentions are good, and the last thing I want to happen is for what I fight for to put students at a greater disadvantage. But I know that won’t happen, as long as I make sure that everything I do for my students stems from why I do what I do. I need my vision to be clear and for that vision, story, and root of my passion to drive me. I need to stay humble and true to my roots.

So why do I fight for educational justice?

Well for starters, I want to be a teacher. Every time I play that “nine lives” game at conferences where in each life you can choose any career you want, high school civics and social studies teacher is written in #1-9. But why do I want to be a teacher? Is it so I can watch people’s face fill with disappointment and bewilderment when I tell them my life’s ambition? Is it so I can work 2 other jobs to pay for my first job? Is it so I can have my impact measured by my students’ test scores? Is it so I can get weekends and summers off?

The answer is simple: I want to devote my life’s work to inspiring and fostering young, bright, creative, and passionate hearts and minds. The thought of crafting creative and engaging lesson plans, bringing them to life in my classroom, sharing my stories and wisdom with young minds, taking my students to places they’ve never been (both intellectually and literally on field trips and such), and watching them grow into conscientious, open-minded, kind-hearted, passionate people excites me like no other. I’ve gotten a taste of it through working with children of all ages during my high school and early college careers, and I really cannot wait until I am finally fully trained and prepared to teach my own classroom.

But why become active in educational policy and activism?

Well the answer to that connects to what I want to teach and how I was taught. Let’s start with the latter.

I am very lucky to have gotten the education that I got. It completely changed my life. As I’ve mentioned before in my other posts, I didn’t realize what learning was until I was exposed to a full, well-rounded curriculum that included the arts, humanities, and social justice education. Before, I depended on my high test scores to know that I was learning. Today, I know that no test score could ever reveal how much I had truly grown and learned through my education.

For the first time, I was experiencing what I was learning, rather than passively regurgitating information that I barely internalized (something I’m really excellent at doing… I could be a professional test taker and that’s something to be ashamed of). I was finally opening my eyes to the intricacies and complexities of our global society and the field of education, and finally understanding concepts like solidarity, inequality, privilege, human rights, justice, and my role in all of these things. Social studies and civics woke my mind and heart and sparked such an immense passion in me that in my spare time, I found myself delving into the issues I studied more and more, as well as becoming more involved in my local community through organizing work and volunteerism.

During this time in my life was when I found my passion in education, partly because realized the magic of education through my own transformational experience, and partly because I decided to write my sophomore year research paper on standardized testing and it shattered my long-held (arrogant) faith in tests as well as everything I thought I knew about education.

As time went on, I slowly developed my biggest belief: that EVERY student should receive a free, quality, democratic, and well-rounded public education, unhindered by huge class sizes, dilapidated infrastructure, terrible working/learning conditions, inadequate funding, child poverty, high stakes testing, or other broken reform policies. I believe that this is a fundamental human right and true justice.

This is why I am fighting for educational justice now. My education helped me find my voice and understand the importance of standing up for justice and equality for my brothers and sisters. When I look at the current attacks on public education, especially by a group of people I used to trust to improve education, I get this intense emotional reaction that mirrors the kind I would get in high school every time I read about or discussed a social injustice. My insides burn, my heart races, and every inch in my body longs to get up and do something because what is happening to students, teachers, and schools today is not reform; it’s destruction.

I cannot possibly stand by while countless students are literally robbed of true education by neoliberals under the guise of “innovation”, “high expectations”, and “accountability.” I cannot possibly stand by while I hear my students’ stories of feeling unheard and powerless in what should be THEIR fight for THEIR education. I cannot possibly stand by while students continue to be silenced and invisible, their humanity reduced to digits and their futures determined by people who ignorantly implement harmful policies without considering student voice. I cannot possibly stand by while people who don’t want to devote a day of their life to educating a child use their money and power to manipulate and profit from a system they destroyed in the first place (Why is there a billionaire boys club? Oh right, because poverty and economic inequity exist and are silently hurting public education).

I realize that I could not care about any of this, live a very easy life, float through grad school, get my teaching credential, and just be a teacher in a high school somewhere. I’m sure the reformies would love that. But I refuse to do that. And that has as much to do with how I was taught as it does with what I want to teach.

I want to teach the things that made me a more open-minded, empowered, and justice-seeking person. I want to be a high school teacher of social justice and civic engagement.

I believe that true education can and should awaken the mind and heart by fostering critical thinking (mind) and a commitment to social justice (heart). Yes, learning about all the terrible injustice and oppression that has marginalized groups of people throughout history is naturally discouraging, but I feel that there is also such beauty in looking at how the marginalized have historically risen up against their oppressors and fought for the justice and freedom from oppression. When students engage with learning material that relates to them and their cultural histories, they are more empowered to think and learn for themselves and take action. This kind of social justice education brings not only knowledge and enlightenment, but also hope for students. Hope that they too can not only live in a better world someday, but also be the reason for that better, more just and equal world.  

This is what I hope to bring to students. Hope. Light. A true sense of wonder for the world and love for those living in it. Motivation to learn and turn learning into positive action. A sense of empowerment.

But how can I possibly begin to teach social justice in a system with so much injustice?

I fight for educational justice because I believe that I myself have the power to contribute what I can now so that by the time my future students reach my classroom, the education system will be a more just place. I believe that empowered students like myself can and will stand up for what they believe is right and demand educational rights for all. I believe that education is liberation from oppression.

I know I’m going to get a lot of opposition for fighting for what I believe in. Social justice education is equally liberating and threatening to authorities that pray for compliance. But I will not comply under policies and rules that put students at a disadvantage. I will not comply with people who wish divergent perspectives and beliefs be silenced. I will not comply until there is justice.

Instead, I will continue to hope. Hope that I can not only teach in a better education system one day, but also be the reason for that better, more just and equal system. Hope to live my lessons now and one day have my lessons come alive.

Matt Damon – Public School Hero Turned Hypocrite?

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Matt Damon giving a riveting speech defending public schools and teachers in 2011 in Washington DC at the Save Our Schools Rally

Recently, A-list actor (and personally one of my favorites) Matt Damon announced in an interview that him and his wife have decided to enroll their daughters in private schools rather than the public schools of LAUSD.

Naturally, the entire ed reform crowd was all over this news like the ed revolutionaries (it’s what I like to call the “anti-reform” crowd) were all over the news about Tony Bennett’s cheating scandal.

In 2011, Matt Damon gave a beautiful speech at the “Save Our Schools” rally in Washington DC. He has been widely known by the education community as a public school advocate that is very much opposed to the ridiculous reforms by corporations and greedy politicians, such as charters, vouchers, and high stakes accountability. A graduate of public schools himself, as well as a son of a public school teacher and professor, he understands the importance of a free, democratic, locally controlled, well-funded, fully-staffed, and well-rounded public education.

So naturally, every reformy immediately scrambled to call out Damon on his hypocrisy… on Twitter. Here are some examples:

I wasn’t really going to say anything about this… but it made me the kind of angry where I really just laugh nonstop because these attacks are so hilarious, desperate, and… hypocritical. But I understand where they’re coming from. Lord knows they’ve needed a break during these past few months of utter failure and embarrassment.

Matt Damon isn’t a hypocrite. If that’s what you’re going to take away from all this, then you’re not looking hard enough.

First of all, his choice, as so eloquently put by blogger @Didymath on Teach For Us, is “more personal than political.” Politicizing people’s personal choices is not only a desperate move, but also pretty hypocritical (Mr. Bush, how would you like it if I brought up where YOUR kids go to school?)

Second of all, the lessons to take from wealthy actor’s and public school supporter’s decision are not that he’s a privileged hypocrite or that school choice is a great thing.

It’s a lesson that maybe we should start making real changes in public education that make public schools resemble the schools that the privileged send their kids to (hint: NO high stakes testing and more teacher respect/autonomy).

It’s a lesson that maybe we should start investing in smaller class sizes, more libraries, better infrastructure, healthy food options, and wrap-around services like counseling and healthcare.

It’s a lesson that if a public school supporter like Damon decides to ultimately send his kids to private schools in the heavily “reformed” city of Los Angeles, public education needs a lot of support, especially against these corporate “ed reform” attacks.

It’s a lesson that the best choice is the choice to not need a choice at all.

Matt Damon advocates for a public school system that does not exist anymore (thanks to the past few years of digression brought to you by education reformies). Who can blame him if he wants to do the best for his kids? What is so wrong with looking out for your kids and then simultaneously fighting for the belief that other people’s kids should have access to the same education as yours? And don’t tell me he doesn’t believe the latter just because he doesn’t support corporate reform. If you opened your eyes at all, you’d know reform policies like school “choice” and “accountability” have hurt more students than it’s helped.

Damon believes in the best idea this country’s ever had: that every student has the right to a great public education. This is exactly why he opposes reform, which turns education into a business with a few winners and many losers.

Third of all, this isn’t even hypocrisy in the slightest. Here’s a beautiful excerpt from a post by Jersey Jazzman about what hypocrisy really is:

What’s hypocritical is for Chris Christie to say that public schools spend too much, and then send his own kids to private schools that spend a fortune.

What’s hypocritical is for Barack Obama to bribe states into using top-down, test-based teacher evaluation systems while sending his own kids to schools that do not engage in that practice.

What’s hypocritical is for Bill Gates or Merryl Tisch to create a culture of test-based accountability when their own children go to schools that eschew that very culture.

What’s hypocritical is for Michelle Rhee and Kevin Huffman to push policies that deprive schools of necessary resources while sending their child to a private school that is more than adequately resourced.

And what’s hypocritical is for champions of “choice” to condemn the choices of people who they will not listen to and work with to create a stronger public school system for all.

“Corporate Reform” or Failed, Desperate Corporate Management?

Excellent look at the terrible business of corporate education reform. DON’T BUY INTO IT.

School Finance 101

I suspect there are a lot of readers of my blog and twitter followers who frequently use the phrase “corporate reform” to characterize the current heavily privately financed movement to push specific “reforms” to public education systems.  My readers may not have noticed, but I tend not to use this phrase. I have a few reasons for my avoidance of this term.  First, it’s my impression that the term necessarily implies corporate to mean “evil.” That a corporate mindset – meaning private sector for profit business mindset can do no good. I’m cynical, but not that cynical.  I actually do think there are good, for profit corporations out there. Perhaps they are dwindling in their numbers and power base, but I still think they exist.

But here are my main reasons why I don’t roll with the whole “corporate reform” lingo. That the education reforms being pushed – that are…

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