Thursday, July 1, 2010

Speaking truth to power

Last Friday, in person, I told Arne Duncan just what I think... at least a tiny bit of it, anyway.

Duncan was in the Bay Area for three events: as the guest of U.S. Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey for a discussion on education reform, and to give commencement speeches at two community colleges, Foothill College and DeAnza College.

I attended the first event in Marin County which was held at an extremely affluent Mill Valley high school in the middle of the day.

Even though I’m a parent, not a teacher, I joined the smallish group of teacher protesters who showed up and were permitted inside to stand at the back (sans signs). The event was basically a Q & A for educators of constituency districts.

Representative Woolsey moderated and invited questions from audience members: two from superintendents, two from principals, two from school board members, and two from teachers. As could be expected, Duncan’s responses were pretty much the usual canned ed deform logic and rhetoric that we’ve all heard before.

With time running out, the Congresswoman asked if a student was in the audience who would like to ask a question. Since teenagers are out having their summer fun and not the least bit interested in sitting in a room with a bunch of adults at a 1:00 PM Ed Sec event in the silence of the response, I hollered out “What about a parent?” Woolsey took the bait. “Oh yes, let’s hear from a parent,” she said. I've noticed that it's not unusual for officials to forget about the parents.

Well, I’m a pathetic public speaker and it was hard to watch that microphone shake in my hands, but I had put some thought into what I would most like to tell Arne Duncan if I was given the chance. I had some prepared notes to read from.

I told Duncan that I had been an Oakland public school parent for the past seventeen years, that I had attended public schools myself, and I had a deep love and respect for public education (three things, none of which he can claim; but I didn't say that). Then I went on to tell Duncan that it is NOT the public schools, nor their teachers, which are failing our children. Rather, the issue is that this country has failed its children with its decades-old incarceration and economic policies, and other unhealthy social values. Not only have these things harmed children, but they have absolutely devastated families and communities.

I told Arne Duncan that public school teachers have been coping with the consequences of those things the very best they can. Then I cited the following statistics:

-African American unemployment has been approximately twice as high as white unemployment at least since the 1950s.

-The number of incarcerated African Americans has increased 800% since the 1950s. I added that the climb of incarcerations coincides with the way problems have increased in urban public schools.

-The teen birth rate in the U.S. 52.1%, Canada's is 20%, Finland's is 9.2%. I told Duncan that I mention Finland because we often use it as a model of a country with high test scores.

At this point, the Congresswoman interrupted me, saying there wasn't time for much more. I told her I only had a couple more things to add, and that it wouldn’t take long. I continued:

-The U.S. child poverty rate is 22.4%; Finland's is 4.3%. The African American child poverty rate is in the 30’s; the White child poverty rate is about 13%.

-The U.S. is #1 in the world, in prisoners/capita at 715. Russia is #2 at 584 and Finland is 71.

So, my message was delivered and I was done. I heard some applause and then it was time for Duncan's response.

His first point was to tell me that the two of us have similar points of view (oh great…now we're BFFs). Then he spent the rest of the time elaborating, with the usual blather, on how he believes that education – by way of scaling up of the “good” schools he has visited – is essentially going to fix it all.

The most interesting part of Duncan's reaction was that, at one point, I was clearly getting the sense that he was staring me down (later, the word that came to my mind was “glaring”). Once this dawned on me, I made it a point to stare directly back at him and I started to shake my head back and forth "no" (as in "sorry, but I'm not buying it."). He definitely saw what I was doing. "Good," I thought.

Well, Duncan finished his comment and the event was over. Several teachers approached and thanked me. My response was, "I keep trying." I located a staff member standing at a side door
(his secretary in a pinkish, tweedy-plaid suit) and handed her an envelope which I had prepared asked her to give it to Mr. Duncan. It contained a personal note and the statistics cited (printouts of A Real Crisis and A very important collection of other-statistics).

I’m not going to claim my single encounter with Arne Duncan is going to be enough to make a difference, but at least I gave it a good try. Such is the life of an activist.

By the way, here are photos of the anti-Arne Duncan protesters at Foothill College.

How to find out if Duncan is coming your way

You, too, can track Duncan’s public appearances and make an effort to make him hear what you have to say. Use your email account’s calendar feature which can remind you to check on his upcoming destinations every week. This was helpful for notifying one of my resistance associates in North Carolina a few months ago; she took an appropriate action. You can also check on the public events attended by Ed Dept. staff members. And if you like to use Facebook, you can write on Arne Duncan’s wall.

Duncan goes around the country claiming that people are unopposed to his policies. His listening and learning tours have been a total farce.

Obama has given Duncan an unprecedented amount of money to spend without getting congressional approval. He is using it to inflict communities with more and more charter schools and to destroy teachers unions.

As with the Houston (or Texas) Miracle claimed by GW Bush's EdSec Rod Paige, Duncan's claim of success during his time as the CEO of Chicago Public Schools has turned out to be a lie, but nothing seems to be stopping him from doing the same across the U.S. See Jim Horn's piece Duncan's Chicago Failure With Corporate Charter Schools Slated to Become National Model.

The billionaire and millionaire-funded privatization-of-public-education train is barreling hard down the tracks, and Duncan’s in the driver’s seat. Unless the resistance ratchets up some major action soon, the landscape will be permanently transformed and there will be nothing left to lose.

I am constantly astounded by the obliviousness and passivity of teachers to all of this. I guess the ed deformers have either already succeeded in beating their morale down to a pulp and/or they're too drained from taking care of our kids all day.

My final message to those of you who are reading this who place value on U.S. public education and don’t want it to be privatized: NOW IS THE TIME TO STEP UP TO THE PLATE AND DO WHAT YOU CAN TO RESIST.


NYC Educator said...

Thanks for telling Arne the truth, and thanks for standing up for public education. I, too, am a product of public schools and a public school parent.

Don't be discouraged by Arne's reaction. Surely he's wholly unaccustomed to hearing the truth. After all, he doesn't know anyone who's opposed to Race to the Top, and as far as he's concerned, you and I don't exist.

CarolineSF said...

Thank you so much for doing this -- I wish I could have been at Tam or Foothill (was in my first week on a new job). I'm doing what it takes to be there next time he's in the Bay Area! Both your account and the Foothill photos are awesome.

nikto said...

Thank you for speaking out, Sharon.

We already knew Duncan is deaf, dumb and blind to any truth that displeases him.

It's epidemic among neocons/neoliberals.

Thanks for for nailing it down
yet again.

What shallow imposters our
"Leaders" be!

ms-teacher said...

Thanks for doing this on behalf of students, parents, and teachers. I'm a union president of my local association in Vallejo. I attended last week's NEA-RA as well as the conference that preceded it, the National Council of Urban Education Association (NCUEA). I proudly represented by colleagues at both events. Like Oakland, Vallejo was taken over by the state of California and has a state appointed administrator.

It is at the NCUEA conference that the vote of "no confidence" was conceived. At the NCUEA conference, there were people who have received or will be receiving money under Race to the Top. These people were absolutely terrified of criticizing the Obama administration. As a teacher in a district that is under state receivership, I have seen what it means to have absolutely no control over the curriculum being taught, the over use of test scores to determine what good teaching looks like, and the absolute condescension of administrators and their contempt of those in the trenches. The effect on teachers in my district has been absolutely demoralizing. I vehemently supported the vote of no confidence because of what I've witnessed first hand in my very own district over the past six years. It was Race to the Top on a much smaller scale.

Nothing gives me greater pleasure than the fact that I will be able to report to the almost 800 teachers I represent of this vote of no confidence. Thanks to Ravitch, I no longer feel like I'm screaming in a vacuum!