Denisha Jones, a professor of early childhood education at Trinity Washington University,gave this talk at Sarah Lawrence College this past summer. Please read her talk in her entirety.
I inspire my teachers—regardless of the label they give themselves—to be advocates or activists for their profession. I don’t want them to spend the next several years in survival mode until they burn out and leave the field altogether. Advocacy and activism serve as nourishment for the soul. They can sustain you even when things look bleak and the future is uncertain.
As I move forward, determined to protect public education as a right, what drives me is the acceptance of our failure. I am ready to declare our efforts, and the efforts of those who came before me, as failures. This may seem harsh, but as we know, failure is essential for success. “Failure is instructive,” John Dewey once said, “The person who really thinks learns quite as much from his failures as from his successes.”
We know that protecting children from the experience of failure is not good for their development. Failure can be a tool for learning how to get it right. Without failure, how do we know that we have even really succeeded? This doesn’t mean that education activists haven’t won some important battles. But they’ve tended to benefit one school or one community, and haven’t reached the national or state levels. Our attempts to stop the spread of the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) have failed.
Before we examine our failures more closely, I want to quickly review what I mean by GERM so that we are all on the same page. Pasi Sahlberg notes that the movement emerged in the 1980s and consists of five global features: standardization; focus on core subjects; the search for low-risk ways to reach learning goals; use of corporate management models; and test-based accountability policies. Although none of these elements have been adopted in Finland, where he does most of his research, they have invaded public education in the U.S. and in other countries.
Here, education activists typically refer to GERM as the privatization of public education, driven by neoliberalism, which favors free-market capitalism. Under this scenario, there are no public schools: public services are turned over to the private sector. Healthcare, prisons, even water, are now being put in the hands of corporations, whose sole desire is to make a profit. When profit is the goal, the needs of human beings are discarded, unless they can generate a measurable return on investment.
We can see how GERM has infected U.S. education policy and reforms. The Common Core drives standardization and aligns with a narrow focus on math and literacy. The use of scripted learning programs, behavior training programs, and online learning is evidence of the search for low-risk ways to reach learning goals. While charter schools claim to be nonprofit, most are managed by companies with CEOs and CFOs who apply corporate models to education.
Teach for America and other fast-track teacher preparation programs also use a corporate model, developing education leaders who get their feet wet teaching before moving on to become policymakers or head up charter schools.
Pearson’s PARCC and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium are drowning public education in test-based accountability. Systems that punish and reward schools and teachers based on student achievement on standardized tests are the norm today.
While the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) includes language that protects the right of parents to opt out—a movement that has been growing in recent years—it also maintains the requirement that 95 percent of students participate. Test-based accountability is here to stay and rapidly evolving into competency-based and personalized learning, in which assessments occur all day every day as students are glued to computer screens.
We have failed to stop the expansion of choice, which threatens the existence of public schools through the proliferation of charters and vouchers. In the U.S., most school-age children are educated in traditional public schools, but we can expect to see this trend reversed under the administration of Betsy DeVos. We have failed to stop the assault on public education through school closures in communities of color.
And then there’s the inexorable push down of developmentally inappropriate standards onto young children. The Common Core, adopted by most states, imposes expectations on young children that are out of step with their development, not to mention the research. Empirical data confirm that kindergarten is the new first grade, and preschool the new kindergarten.
On top of this, we have failed to stop racist school discipline practices that suspended 42% of black boys from preschool in the 2011-2012 academic year. This failure stems from our inability to address the systemic and institutional racism that is prominent in public education but often masked by teachers with good intentions who lack an understanding of culture, bias, and systems of oppression.
We must acknowledge these failures so we can understand the limits of our collective efforts and decide how we can refocus our energies toward a future that will lead to more successful outcomes. We need to change the narrative. Attacking the push for accountability and tougher standards has proven to be a losing strategy. Our insistence that these measures harm student development and learning has branded us unwilling to be held accountable for ensuring that all students can achieve.The more we resist test-based accountability and inappropriate reforms, the more we are seen by the corporations, policymakers, and privateers as resistant to innovation.
We must make the protection of childhood a nonpartisan issue. We need to revise our message. The assault on public education is not just a conservative attack by Republicans against progressive education. Democrats are also aligned with many aspects of GERM, including choice, privatization, and test-based accountability.