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Save Our Schools conference begins in D.C., urges less high-stakes testing

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Hundreds of teachers, parents and community activists will attend a two-day action conference at American University in Washington, D.C., Thursday and Friday leading up to a Sat., July 30, rally around the White House as part of a national education movement called Save Our Schools and National Call to Action.

Save Our Schools seeks to challenge No Child Left Behind and Race To The Top education policies the group says, “[h]as resulted in the abandonment of the very children NCLB sought to serve.” Slated to attend the four-day event are leading education theorists and critics of high-stakes testing like former Assistant Department of Education Secretary and professor Diane Ravitch, Stanford University Professor Linda Darling-Hammond, New York University Professor Pedro Noguera and Deborah Meier, the first teacher ever to win MacArthur Foundation “genius” award. Film star Matt Damon is scheduled to appear for Saturday’s rally, as well.

Anthony Cody, a veteran science teacher and mentor at the notably poverty-stricken Oakland Unified, told an audience of media personnel on Thursday he sees “a rhetoric of civil rights and equity hijacked and misused to defend systemic reforms that are actually accelerating inequities in society.” He also addressed what he called an unfair depiction of the mission statements his brand of education reformers are advocating for by the media, naming Bloomberg columnist Jonathon Alter in particular for dismissing “the perspective that we bring.”

While the two leading national education labor groups, American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association, endorsed Save Our Schools, their formal and financial involvement is limited. According to Bob Schaeffer, an organizer of the event and standardized testing analyst, NEA and AFT contributed $50,000 to the movement, less than half of the $125,000 raised. Only two of the13 members on the Save Our Schools executive committee are union representatives.

“These are all unpaid volunteers putting in countless hours,” Schaeffer said. To illuminate the dedication, he said Nancy Flanagan, a former Michigan Teacher of the Year and Teacher in Residence at the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, drove in from Detroit after flying in from her hometown to sleep on an air mattress in a hotel shared with three other volunteers.

According[PDF] to a press release, Save Our Schools organizers are also calling for equitable funding for all school communities and an end to inappropriate, high‐stakes uses of testing for student, teacher and school assessment.

Schaeffer and Flannigan were quick to add the event backers are not against charter schools, however. They called the charter school a “great idea that individualizes, rather than standardizes” student instruction.

“What has happened, of course, is [charters] are used as a tool to leverage non-public moneys and pull kids from public schools and weaken public schools,” said Schaeffer. “We’re not opposed to charters; we hate the way this good idea has been used by people who have other goals and intentions.”

In addition to keynote speeches, a gamut of two-hour breakout sessions run by teachers, activists and professors are planned for Thursday and Friday. David Greene, a former social studies teacher who taught for over 30 years at New York City high schools and now coaches Teach For America fellows as an adjunct at Fordham University, led a session Thursday for other teachers on new approaches in secondary education.

After wrapping up an oral peregrination through U.S. public education, he said a departure from high-stakes testing and an emphasis on college readiness is necessary. He showed that even though over 70 percent of high school students graduate, and over 60 percent enter college, less than 30 percent graduate from college, asking, “How college ready are these kids?”

Another presenter, professor of Bronx history Mark Naison, proposed teaching towards students’ socio-economic backgrounds. He organized a community historical research project in the Bronx, employing non-traditional media like Hip-Hop (dropping a few rhymes himself during the session for good measure). Naison cited a history of creative arts in New York City education, linking student performance to more expressive outlets. Speaking about students today, he said, “they have cultural capital that isn’t being incorporated into our education system where the test protocols are squelching those out.”

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