Teachers as Change Agents

Against the Current, No. 189, July/August 2017

Marian Swerdlow

Educational Justice:
Teaching and Organizing against the Corporate Juggernaut
By Howard Ryan
Monthly Review Press, 2016, 287 pages, $19.55 paperback.

IN HIS INTRODUCTION to Educational Justice: Teaching and Organizing against the Corporate Juggernaut, Howard Ryan states that he and his coauthors “offer theory, strategy and organizing case studies to inform and inspire those who are working to rebuild public education and put an end to the corporate occupation of our schools.” This is an apt description, and the reason anyone interested in that work should read this book. Ryan’s motivation for writing this ambitious book was his conviction “that the fight to defend public schools had particular potential for energizing larger movements for democracy and social justice.” The focus is on K-12 education.

Driving the School Reform Movement

Part I (“The Problem”) consists of two chapters. The first, “The Hidden Aims of School Reform,” offers a compelling and rigorous structural analysis of the forces behind “school reform.” Ryan defines that term as “a package of public policies, private investments and informal processes through which corporate and private sectors are seizing control of education.”

This is by far the strongest and most successful part of the book. The author examines the various progressive interpretations of corporate reform, and presents what he fittingly describes as “a class-based Marxian framework in which social power under capitalism grows out of elite ownership of production and moves out to impact every other social outcome.”

He analyzes the dynamics of school reform as consisting of “drivers,” major funders and institutions they control, and “implementers,” politicians, think tanks, directors, school district superintendents and others, who carry out the “drivers’” wishes. He divides the drivers into sectors: organized business, “edu-businesses” who profit from goods and services sold to educational institutions, and the philanthropic sector. Each has its own aims. Ryan’s analysis is theoretical, yet also detailed and specific.

At the end of this chapter, he poses the question: What are the ramifications of this analysis, as distinguished from other progressive ones, for the educational justice movement? In his view, it provides a more compelling case against corporate reform, because its more complex, less narrowly economic determinist, view of its motives better explains observable realities.

Second, it “may encourage us to think strategically about the classroom and school as a terrain for challenging the corporate social engine.” However, demonstrating that the school and classroom are the targets of the corporate project in no way proves that they are a favorable terrain for resistance.

Finally, Ryan claims his analysis “underscores how large is the task of an educational justice movement.” It certainly does. This book’s case studies of resistance may not convince the reader such a movement has a good chance of “becoming the larger movement for democracy and social justice” of Ryan’s hopes.

For better or for worse, whether consciously or not, it seems that Ryan has not cherry-picked cases that might have more strongly supported his conviction. Instead, he has given us what are probably more typical cases and a more realistic picture: most efforts against the powerful forces of school “reform” will have the same kind of ambiguous results as the cases he presents.

The second chapter, “Trade Unions that Partner with Billionaires,” focuses on the teachers’ unions: “The American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association leaders at national, state and local levels have, to varying degrees, aligned themselves with corporate forces of school reform.” Teachers’ unions favor a “service model,” and to successfully battle these corporate forces, they must be changed to a “social movement approach: democratic, militant, community connected.”

Ryan declares that teachers’ unions have a responsibility to students, parents and communities. In turn, in today’s landscape in which unions have all but disappeared, teachers need new alliances.

Resistance and Mixed Results

The next two parts present case studies. All but two of the six are about a specific urban school with predominantly students of color.

Part II, “Organizing through Resistance,” begins with Ryan’s inspiring and enthralling account of Beidler Elementary School, which is 95% Black and low income. In the spring 2011, teachers, students, parents and community united in a successful struggle to stop the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) from closing it and turning the building over to a charter operator.

As Ryan notes however, at the same time Beidler was saved four other schools were shut down; two years later, CPS shuttered 50 more. These facts underline how extraordinary it is to organize and win such a fightback.

The Beidler victory is limited, at least as Ryan presents it, because it is not a “turning point.” That might be too high a standard to determine success, but it does not even seem, based on what readers are told, to have become an example used by others to successfully protect their schools.

The second case is Chicago’s Kelvin Park High School (KPHS), which served more than 1,500 predominantly Latino students. In 2009, a new, provisional principal arrived and proceeded to impose an austerity regime that seems to have been intended to make the school fail.

The principal restricted teachers’ access to copying facilities, skimped on measures and staff that had kept the school orderly and safe, and programmed teachers against their will for courses they lacked the credentials to teach. Adding insult to injury, the principal was aggressively disrespectful and insulting to the staff. Her policies clearly compromised education.

The school’s union leaders were able to unite the staff, students, parents and community to mount a campaign against her. She was forced to dial back many of her decisions and policies, and in the long run, the school got a new principal, “with better people skills [but who] seemed to follow a similar business model.”

This shows it is even more difficult to change policies that come from above the school level than to oust one particularly heavy-handed and obnoxious individual. In both the Beidler and KPHS cases, the victories are limited and ambiguous.

Although teachers in cities across the United States have built union caucuses that champion the social movement approach, and have pursued and even achieved aspects of an educational justice agenda — with the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) in Chicago probably the foremost example of this — such caucuses are not the focus in any part of this book. Although two of the three cases in this part are in Chicago, Ryan mentions the CORE leadership of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) only tangentially. In one case the CORE leadership sent an organizer to help Beidler’s anti-closing fight, and in another an activist from KPHS discusses how she found a workshop at a CORE conference to be “eye-opening.”

In this part’s final chapter, Joel Jordan offers his take on “How to Fight Back, Teachers against the Corporate Juggernaut,” a discussion of developing a citywide or even a statewide strategy. At the time Jordan writes, United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) is “preparing to launch” this strategy for 2016-18 so readers will have to wait to find out how effective it proves to be.

Jordan notes that “educators in the United States are increasingly organizing at the local level to fight not just for bread and butter issues . . .  but also for ‘social justice’ issues like class size, wraparound student services, restorative justice, parent engagement, reducing counselor loads and opposing high stakes testing.”

He cites Saint Paul, Minnesota, Portland, Oregon and his own union in Los Angeles. But that is as far as he goes.

The reader is left wanting more about the ways this was done, and what has been achieved thus far, especially about Jordan’s own union. There, a caucus with a strong educational justice, social movement perspective, won the leadership. But Jordan only discusses that leadership’s plan that, at the time he wrote, had yet to be implemented.

Jordan paints a vivid and daunting picture of the barriers to preserving public education, and the complexity and difficulty of the countering strategy then in the planning stage. Then, he warns, “Teachers and their unions have to flatly reject education as a cure-all proposition and instead become the foremost champions for jobs and services in the communities in which they teach.” Furthermore, Jordan recognizes most teacher unions today are “ill-prepared to build [such a] movement.” So teachers can expect little help in this endeavor from the organizations that collect their dues.

The insight that education is no cure-all is key. However, it is worth discussing whether school staffs, already working to the point of exhaustion and, in most cases, facing the need to reform their own union, can be expected, in addition, to be the “foremost champions” for these essential struggles, particularly with no help from their unions above the school level.

Jordan gives no description of this having happened anyplace. An argument could be made that the CTU, under CORE’s leadership, provided strong support for other organizations’ and movements’ efforts toward these goals. Perhaps that kind of support is a more realistic goal.

Furthermore, Jordan envisions schools as hubs for organizing communities, “ideal locations for such organizing because they exist in every community and can bring the entire community together.” Again, he provides no examples of this having been accomplished.

It is difficult to reconcile this vision with the fact that each school building is under the direct control of a principal, and, above that, the regime of the school district. This is exacerbated by the growing number of urban school districts that have some form of mayoral control.

Teaching Social Justice

The book’s final part, “Organizing through School Transformation” focuses on curriculum and teaching methods. This part corresponds to Jordan’s statement that “the movement for public education needs living alternatives showing that a better education and a better world are possible.”

Even if we leave off the need to show a better world is possible, it is still a tall order. This is the longest of the book’s three parts, showing how important the authors feel these issues are to the educational justice project. The authors envision changing pedagogy and curricula as indispensable to their vision of building a popular struggle for educational justice capable of “energizing larger movements for democracy and social justice.”

The first case involves a national grassroots movement of teachers in support of a method of teaching reading called “whole language.” In the end, the author, Debra Goodman, finds that “the movement labeled as whole language did not survive the corporatist assault.”

The second case is about teachers in one school in Chicago, who resist “scripted instruction,” and organize to protect their right to use a method similar to “whole language,” called “balanced literacy.” It concludes “Sadly . . . the balanced literacy movement at Soto would not sustain beyond 2009-10.”

In the final case, in a Los Angeles high school, a very ambitious and reasonably successful curriculum designed by parents, students and teachers, is shut down after a year when the superintendent reorganizes the entire school, and fires all the teachers involved.

In an “Afterword: Where Do We Go From Here” Ryan returns to the vision he shares with Jordan that “single issue education organizing can advance into multi-isssue organizing, with schools serving as centers for community social justice organizing.”  But before “school-based community organizing” can become an option, “many conditions must be met . . . beginning with teacher outreach to communities, joint work in a campaign or two [before it is] ready to embark on a social justice organizing project beyond the school.”

Such efforts are more likely to be sustained “if teachers networked beyond a single school,” which unions can help do, provided “teachers have transformed their union, then they have many more resources.” This is a realistic assessment. It suggests the many barriers that must be surmounted for its vision to be realized.

To begin with, teachers have an increasing number of additional duties, and their “on the clock” work time increases, too, with longer school days and longer school years. In a growing number of districts, teachers are also tackling the task of re-making their unions, of transitioning from a service to a social movement model. Organizing their communities on top of that will rarely be possible.

Ryan stipulates that all these efforts must be “pursued within a larger strategy.” “An organized community is needed to open the doors and ensure that all students have access to democratic and justice-driven teaching.”

This appears somewhat circular. Is school transformation a strategy to organize the community, or is the organized community a precondition for school transformation?

In his “Introduction,” Ryan stated his conviction that “the fight to defend public schools had particular potential for energizing larger movements for democracy and social justice.” However, in none of the cases presented here has such a “larger movement” developed. The tasks Ryan and his co-authors assign to school workers go far beyond what has been up to the present achieved anywhere, even in Chicago, where the CORE-led CTU has gone the furthest in this direction.

So there is a paradox built into this book. Ryan and his co-authors arguably have passed up the opportunity to showcase the impact that union reform caucuses have had. Most of the cases they present end in limited or ambiguous victories, or outright failure. This may be a more realistic picture of what most activists, in most situations, can expect.

Yet Ryan and his co-authors envision educators leading movements that go far beyond what any educators have so far achieved anyplace in the contemporary United States. The choice of cases may have made the book less strong than it could have been, because there is a significant gap between its thesis, and the real life instances it presents.

What Ryan has accomplished is drawing a scrupulously honest, detailed, and vivid snapshot of the many aspects of the fight to defend public education in large cities today. In addition he lays out an outstanding theoretically rigorous analysis of the “education reform” movement. These two features make Educational Justice indispensable reading for anyone who cares about the future of public education.

Ryan’s portraits of complicated outcomes, limited victories and potential strategies constitute a body of shared experience and knowledge no education activist can afford to overlook. The reader can draw her/his own conclusions as to the extent that organizing for education justice can spark broader movements for wider social change.

July-August 2017, ATC 189