When All Else Fails, We Must Protect Childhood

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Thank you all for attending the Thomas H. Wright Lecture, which serves as the keynote for the “Empowering Teachers Program” at Sarah Lawrence College. I’m honored to be this year’s speaker.

It was not until I attended the Save our Schools rally and conference in Washington that I began to see myself as an activist.  I met so many of my comrades at that event, and quickly met others as the Badass Teachers Association, United Opt Out, and Defending the Early Years were formed. Today, my activism guides my work as a teacher educator, researcher, and future lawyer.

As I prepare young women at Trinity Washington University to become early childhood and elementary education teachers, I bring my activism to the classroom, in the hope that they’ll be inspired to see themselves as more than just teachers. There is nothing wrong with being a teacher, but what I have learned in my journey is that being a teacher is not enough. If young people are going to survive, flourish, and grow as educators they must see themselves as advocates and activists.

But what exactly is an activist, and how does that differ from being an advocate? Or is there a difference? And more importantly, do you identify as an activist, advocate, or both?

Some of you might see a distinction between advocacy and activism, but I am not sure it exists. Activists advocate and advocates can be activists. When many of us think of an activist, we picture a radical with a face mask disrupting or engaging in violence. While an advocate is someone who testifies at a council meeting or speaks during a press conference.

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.

We can learn from other special-interest groups, such as the American Association of Retired Persons. Their policy agenda involves advocating on issues that are important to their members, but they maintain a nonpartisan focus that allows them to experience success instead of failure.  Using this strategy, they were able to substantially reduce the poverty rate for elders.

We must continue to emphasize why it is so important to protect childhood. Why should others care?  We need to be clear that protecting childhood is a matter of national security. It may seem far-fetched to invoke such rhetoric, but the truth is the future of the United States of America depends on our children.

We cannot produce capable citizens, leaders who can take on global problems, if we allow childhood to become an experimental playground for corporations and social engineers. Solving the global climate crisis, responding to overpopulation, eradicating world hunger, and curing disease are tough issues that require competent individuals to work collectively to generate new solutions.

It’s important to learn from our failures and develop a new strategy that promotes the vision of early childhood education we seek. We have much to learn from our international neighbors. Although we do not have the same society and history as Finland and other Nordic nations, we need to study their best practices, which meet the needs of the whole child.

We should also look to Italy.  The Reggio Emilia philosophy emerged after the devastation of World War II out of a desire to rebuild a society free from oppression. This effort resulted in a world-renowned approach to educating young children that posits the image of the child as capable and strengthens the role of teachers, parents, and the environment in working collectively to support the growth and development of young children.

Most critical to our efforts is a steadfast commitment to protecting childhood for all children. If our work only benefits white middle-class children, then we will have have failed at an even greater task. As we rush to save public education, we must ask ourselves what exactly are we saving. An institution that denied black people an equal education for years, one that, when finally forced to integrate, fired black teachers who were pivotal in helping black children succeed.  One that labeled black children as having special needs, or suspended and expelled them from school. I don’t know about you, but that is not an institution I want to save.

I do not believe that teachers and education, alone, can solve the problems of poverty, racism, and oppression.  But we can insure that in our classrooms, all children receive the best possible care. This means understanding how bias affects your views and behavior. A process that begins by recognizing your implicit bias—subtle, often subconscious, stereotypes that guide our expectations and interactions with people. They have real consequences for how we treat children who do not look like us.

This is hard work. There are days when it will feel like you have been asked to do too much. There are times when you will want to give up and go back to being colorblind and ignoring bias. I implore you to recognize when you are feeling frustrated and hopeless, take a break and feed your soul, and then come back and continue the work, because it may be hard, but it is worth it. Our children are worth it. When all else fails, we must protect childhood.

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Denisha Jones, PhD
Denisha Jones, PhD. is the Director of Teacher Education and an Assistant Professor in the School of Education at Trinity Washington University. Dr. Jones began her career in education as a kindergarten teacher in D.C. She also worked as a preschool director before spending the last 14 years in teacher education. She is a board member and administrator for the Badass Teachers Association, Inc., United Opt Out National, and she serves as chairwoman of the National Advisory Board for the Public Education Defense Fund. Dr. Jones has been working with Defending the Early Years as and an advisory board member since 2014. Her research interests include developing a critical consciousness in pre-service teachers, organizing activist research projects that challenge the privatization of public education, and leveraging the intersection of public policy, social movement lawyering, and critical social justice education.

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