Can our voices change the world?

Community members braved the cold to discuss Diane Ravitch's Reign of Error. Photos by Susie Kaeser.

How do you change the world?  

In a recent conversation about the future of public education—the focus of my quest for a more just and inclusive society—a friend reminded me that change starts with each of us: “I only have control over what I do.”

Can a one-person-at-a-time approach make a difference when unfettered corporate influence, gerrymandered legislators, and both political parties embrace education policies that are undemocratic and harmful to children?

For the last 20 years I’ve had a growing fear that reform ideas sounding reasonable on the surface could destroy public education. The narrative of crisis and failure has infiltrated the public discourse, and obsession with standardized tests has narrowed learning, while emphasizing labeling and judging. The free-market school reformers have created a dual system of schools but have not improved outcomes.

Competition for scarce resources has replaced stable support, and, rather than mobilizing the expertise of teachers to find solutions, we blame and shame them.

A “no excuses” approach to success for poor children ignores the effects of poverty, and federal policy has drowned out local control. It’s a nightmare.

The more I became aware of how these policies threatened my community and what I value, the less powerful I felt. I was at a loss about what to do—until now.

Oddly, my hope comes from reading a book. It started in late December when Ari Klein, a public school parent and president of the Cleveland Heights Teachers Union, invited me and representatives of various local organizations to plan a community discussion of Diane Ravitch’s Reign of Error. The book describes the transformation of state and federal education policy since 1982, challenges the ideas used to justify the reforms and articulates the dangers of testing and privatization.

A month later, for three consecutive Wednesday evenings during this cold and snowy winter, a hearty group of teachers and community members filed into Heights High to discuss the book.

The turnout was large and diverse, the conversations thoughtful and respectful. More than 110 people participated at least once, and many of the 97 who came to the first meeting attended all three. People with different experiences had the chance to explore ideas, clarify their own beliefs and arrive at some level of shared understanding.

Proponents of the policies reviewed by Ravitch have discouraged any questioning of their ideas, so this series of conversations was radical in that it ended the public silence.

It increased awareness of complex issues and put the community and educators on the same team. It demonstrated that individual citizens are willing to invest the time and thought needed to create informed action. The series was a model of how to build awareness, common language, shared understanding, trust and the will to act. We need more of this!

The experience helped overcome my paralysis: If I focus on what I can do in my community with my fellow readers to resist the negative thrust of public policy—instead of worrying about the well-financed privatization machine—I can make a difference.  

I don’t like someone far from the daily reality of our schools defining who we are, judging our quality, or determining our future. Their tools are flawed, their criteria too narrow, and the effects of their policies are potentially devastating. The judgments are ours, not theirs, to make.

If we speak up, we can change the narrative about public education. We can define what we want education to achieve, reject as invalid the use of standardized tests to judge our students and their teachers, and embrace approaches to assessment that facilitate learning.

We can support investing in our teachers, mobilize community resources to reduce stress in the lives of children and families, create opportunities for our graduates, and address the legislature’s failure to provide a thorough and efficient system of public schools.

If we act, so will others.

Susie Kaeser

Susie Kaeser is a longtime resident of Cleveland Heights and the former director of Reaching Heights. She serves on the national board of Parents for Public Schools.

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Volume 7, Issue 3, Posted 4:45 PM, 02.27.2014