TC Student Activists: TC represents at the Save Our Schools March and National Call to Action in Washington DC

| September 6, 2011

July 30, 2011 was a sweltering day in Washington DC, but the heat didn’t dampen the spirits of the thousands of teachers, parents, students, and activists who traveled from across the country to protest education policies they say are demoralizing teachers and reducing the profession to little more than “teaching to the test.” After rendezvousing with a group of NYC public school teachers in Union Square at 5:45am, I boarded a bus, along with two friends and fellow TC students, bound for our nation’s capitol and the Save Our Schools March and National Call to Action.

TC's Lydia Tseng and Lace Smith at the SOS March

The sun was already beating down on the crowd when we arrived at 11am at the Ellipse, a stone’s throw from the White House and the staging ground for the march. A stage was set up as the platform for a series of distinguished and impassioned speakers including Diane Ravich, Jonathan Kozol, and even Matt Damon (whose mother is a teacher). The energy was palpable as the crowd clapped, cheered, and shouted interjections in agreement with those delivering speeches from varying perspectives. There were musical performances and even the recitation of his original poem, “This Is Not a Test,” by NYC middle school math teacher Jose Vilson, satirically decrying the policies of such educational higher ups as Michelle Rhee and Arnie Duncan. The crowd roared in enthusiasm as they were charged with the task of “disbanding the status quo and busting open these deformed gates.”

Attendees carried signs with a wide array of witty, disparaging, hopeful, and sometimes scrappy sayings. They wore T-shirts, hats, and buttons announcing which part of the country they hailed from and as everyone eagerly mingled with one another, reading each other’s signs, high-fiving, and striking up conversations, a sense of unity was clearly felt among the diverse participants allied in a common goal.

That goal was to make a statement about the need for a movement to restore educator, parent, student, and community influence over education policy and practice. The overriding sentiment heard from the stage and amongst participants at the rally was that those who know the most about education, our schools, and our communities should be the ones that have the most influence over the policies that affect them. Stakeholders in the education system are feeling more and more disconnected from any sort of power when it comes to education policy, which seems to be increasingly dominated by corporate interests and privatization.

Participants at the rally wanted more than anything to focus national, state, and local efforts on providing the resources and support schools need in order to provide a high-quality education for each and every student.

Lace Smith, a second year TESOL 7-12 student at TC, attended the march with me and shared these concerns as well as support for the march and the movement. “As a future educator, I am extremely worried and furious about the path that education seems to be taking in this country. Big businesses have an ever-increasing role, and communities less. Here in NYC, the neediest of our students have their schools shut down or their space taken by elite charters, among other problems. However, while we still have a government that mildly represents a democracy, we have the power to congregate and make noise about it!”

The demonstration was the culmination of a two-day conference at American University at which participants attended workshops on such topics as curriculum and activism, educational rights, and using poetry, performance, and the arts in activism. Organized by a group of teachers, education bloggers, and parents, the march was endorsed by the two major teachers unions, but maintained its grassroots feel.

Jonathan Kozal speaking at the SOS March

Those behind the SOS March and National Call to Action identify the movement as the natural result of increasing dissatisfaction with failed and failing policies like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, which have substituted high-stakes testing, rewards, and punishments for genuine investment and support for public schools.

After a morning of speeches and carousing with fellow education advocates, the crowd was ready to march. With chants of “Tell me what democracy looks like! This is what democracy looks like!” and “They say cut backs. We say FIGHT BACK!” we were off in a slow moving, but purposeful and energized mass. The march took us past the front gates of the White House and culminated with a reading of demands to the education policy makers.

Diane Ravich gives an impassioned speech

These demands included equitable funding for all public school communities, an end to high stakes testing (and instead the implementation of multiple and varied assessments to evaluate students, teachers, and schools), curriculum developed for and by local school communities, and teacher, family and community leadership in forming public education policies. You can find a more detailed explanation of these demands here.