The Save Our Schools March on Washington Saturday is part of a new nationwide push to organize educators against the Obama administration's regime of education reform.
What if the education reformers are wrong?
That's the opinion of a growing number of educators who are convinced that the current direction of reform - despite powerful backers that include President Obama, Bill Gates, and many influential academics and nonprofit leaders - is harming public schools rather than improving them.
While teachers unions and a number of prominent education thinkers have been critical of the reform policies for some time, a more concerted effort is emerging to organize those critics. They plan to take to the streets in Washington on Saturday in hopes of galvanizing attention around their cause. The Save Our Schools March has attracted endorsements from well-known academics, educators, and authors.
Passionate and articulate, many of them classroom teachers, the critics tend to zero in on the increasingly high-stakes role played by standardized tests, which can make or break the reputation of a school or teacher - even if the tests aren't very good.
"What we call 'accountability' now is just totally unreliable numbers that are meaningless in terms of the lives of children and the careers of teachers," says Diane Ravitch, a historian and former advocate of standards-based reforms who is now one of its most frequent and ardent critics. "All they're doing is terrorizing teachers."
Attaching so much importance to tests, say such critics, is leading to unintended consequences - including cheating (with the recent scandal in Atlanta as Exhibit A), a narrowing of the curriculum, and the reduction of many schools into test-prep factories that ignore the higher-thinking skills needed for college and the workplace. Instead, they assert, more attention should be paid to poverty and the related factors affecting students' achievement, teachers should get better support and training, and evaluations should be more nuanced.
Although the Obama administration has been trying to address what it sees as shortcomings in the No Child Left Behind law, critics say that overall the administration is going in the wrong direction on reforms.
"This is impassioned educators pushing back for good or bad," says Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in Washington, who is generally an advocate of standards-based reforms. "I think it's clear that this isn't union power tactics."
In May, US Education Secretary Arne Duncan wrote an open letter to America's teachers for Teacher Appreciation Week acknowledging many of the concerns voiced by teachers. He concluded the letter, "I hear you, I value you, and I respect you."
Rather than appeasing teachers, it unleashed a storm of angry blogs, letters, and comments from educators who feel far from appreciated.
"The things you say here are, as Hamlet once said, 'words, words, words,' but there is no substance behind them," reads a typical comment about the letter, posted on the Department of Education's website. The teacher also says, "The education policies of this administration are the single reason why I will not vote to reelect Barack Obama in 2012."
Why such disgruntlement?
Certainly, some teachers are unhappy for professional reasons, seeing everything from their pay to, in some cases, their job security hinging on tests they don't believe in. Others rail against the constriction of their autonomy in the classroom.
Sabrina Stevens Shupe, an organizer of the march and a former teacher in the Denver Public Schools, recalls her frustration with a district that hired her for her creativity and praised her for the strides she was making on math with her fifth-graders, but then criticized her for not following the prescribed curriculum exactly - even when she had seen it wasn't working. …