Yesterday, 30 July 2011, several thousand teachers and public-education supporters gathered in Washington, DC, in order to protest the government’s increased emphasis on standardized testing and teacher evaluations subject to such tests, as well as the highly lobbied movement to privatize more and more of the nation’s public schools.

I have posted here before about my support of Diane Ravitch and her recent views on the problems with the public education system. She received, much to my delight, an honorary doctorate at the Franciscan Siena College, where I taught theology this past year. I agree that the so-called “professionalization” and market-driven shifts within education administration in this country is detrimental and only reduces the quality of an already declining system. What stands at the heart of these movements, I believe, is the profit that some stand to gain in the shift, meanwhile the students and the intellectual development of society pays the ultimate price.

I’m sharing this story about the yesterday’s march here because I believe this is an issue of social justice. The rally, titled “Save Our Schools March” included speakers and authors from the world of education like Ravitch and Jonathan Kozol, as well as a few celebrities like Jon Stewart and Matt Damon. Matt Damon, like me and my brothers, is the son of a teacher. In addition to my mother having taught for years at the elementary level and recently has taught at the secondary education level for some time, my younger brother is a high-school math teacher. Combine that with my having taught theology at the college level, and you quickly see how important education is for my family (not to mention the many friends of mine that are teachers on all levels).

Damon spoke about how he sees these movements by corporate-minded businesspeople who have been meddling with education for years now affecting the quality of education for students and the environment for educators. His speech is to-the-point and well-done.

I flew overnight from Vancouver to be with you today. I landed in New York a few hours ago and caught a flight down here because I needed to tell you all in person that I think you’re awesome.

I was raised by a teacher. My mother is a professor of early childhood education. And from the time I went to kindergarten through my senior year in high school, I went to public schools. I wouldn’t trade that education and experience for anything.

I had incredible teachers. As I look at my life today, the things I value most about myself — my imagination, my love of acting, my passion for writing, my love of learning, my curiosity — all come from how I was parented and taught.

And none of these qualities that I’ve just mentioned — none of these qualities that I prize so deeply, that have brought me so much joy, that have brought me so much professional success — none of these qualities that make me who I am … can be tested.

I said before that I had incredible teachers. And that’s true. But it’s more than that. My teachers were EMPOWERED to teach me. Their time wasn’t taken up with a bunch of test prep — this silly drill and kill nonsense that any serious person knows doesn’t promote real learning. No, my teachers were free to approach me and every other kid in that classroom like an individual puzzle. They took so much care in figuring out who we were and how to best make the lessons resonate with each of us. They were empowered to unlock our potential. They were allowed to be teachers.

Now don’t get me wrong. I did have a brush with standardized tests at one point. I remember because my mom went to the principal’s office and said, ‘My kid ain’t taking that. It’s stupid, it won’t tell you anything and it’ll just make him nervous.’ That was in the ’70s when you could talk like that.

I shudder to think that these tests are being used today to control where funding goes.

I don’t know where I would be today if my teachers’ job security was based on how I performed on some standardized test. If their very survival as teachers was based on whether I actually fell in love with the process of learning but rather if I could fill in the right bubble on a test. If they had to spend most of their time desperately drilling us and less time encouraging creativity and original ideas; less time knowing who we were, seeing our strengths and helping us realize our talents.

I honestly don’t know where I’d be today if that was the type of education I had. I sure as hell wouldn’t be here. I do know that.

This has been a horrible decade for teachers. I can’t imagine how demoralized you must feel. But I came here today to deliver an important message to you: As I get older, I appreciate more and more the teachers that I had growing up. And I’m not alone. There are millions of people just like me.

So the next time you’re feeling down, or exhausted, or unappreciated, or at the end of your rope; the next time you turn on the TV and see yourself called “overpaid;” the next time you encounter some simple-minded, punitive policy that’s been driven into your life by some corporate reformer who has literally never taught anyone anything. … Please know that there are millions of us behind you. You have an army of regular people standing right behind you, and our appreciation for what you do is so deeply felt. We love you, we thank you and we will always have your back. (via The Washington Post)

Wolves in sheep’s clothing is how I would describe the specious claims that privatization of the education system, increased “measurement” (student and teacher) based on standardized testing and financial dependence on test scores are a good thing for the US education system. To the contrary, these things harm the fostering of what I might call a foundational liberal arts education, one that values mathematics and the sciences while also emphasizing the less-quantifiable, yet absolutely significant humanities fields.

Like so many other pressing systemic social issues of our time, we cannot let the siren of corporate capitulation lure educators and legislators into the dangerous trap of pedagogical declivity. It has already begun. It started with Clinton, reached a new low with the Bush “no child left behind” legislation, and continues today under Obama’s pithy “race to the top” legislation — a renaming of the same old. I applaud Ravitch, Damon and others and encourage all of us to work to prevent this corporate takeover of the education system.

This is the most pressing long-term issue in our country and world. Want to know what the most dire national security threat is to the US? It’s the inability of its young citizens to think critically, to be well-educated and to be the bright innovators for which the United States used to be emblematic. Think things are bad now, wait a generation when all of our most active citizens have only ever had to engage a multiple-choice test. There are no multiple-choice tests in real life.

Photo: Pool


  1. Here’s what the Church says about school choice, which Ravitch vehemently opposes. Short version is that parents have a RIGHT to public subsidies for private schools — to vouchers, in other words. Ravitch has nothing valid to say against the Church’s position, which I hope you share.


    Parents who have the primary and inalienable right and duty to educate their children must enjoy true liberty in their choice of schools. Consequently, the public power, which has the obligation to protect and defend the rights of citizens, must see to it, in its concern for distributive justice, that public subsidies are paid out in such a way that parents are truly free to choose according to their conscience the schools they want for their children.

    * * * Therefore the state must protect the right of children to an adequate school education, check on the ability of teachers and the excellence of their training, look after the health of the pupils and in general, promote the whole school project. But it must always keep in mind the principle of subsidiarity so that there is no kind of school monopoly, for this is opposed to the native rights of the human person, to the development and spread of culture, to the peaceful association of citizens and to the pluralism that exists today in ever so many societies.

    Charter of the Rights of the Family (1983)

    a) Parents have the right to educate their children in conformity with their moral and religious convictions, taking into account the cultural traditions of the family which favor the good and the dignity of the child; they should also receive from society the necessary aid and
    assistance to perform their educational role properly.

    b) Parents have the right to choose freely schools or other means necessary to educate their children in keeping with their convictions. Public authorities must ensure that public subsidies are so allocated that parents are truly free to exercise this right without incurring unjust burdens. Parents should not have to sustain, directly or indirectly, extra charges which would deny or unjustly limit the exercise of this freedom.

    Canon law:

    Can. 793 §2. Parents also have the right to that assistance, to be furnished by civil society, which they need to secure the Catholic education of their children.

    Can. 797 Parents must possess a true freedom in choosing schools; therefore, the Christian faithful must be concerned that civil society recognizes this freedom for parents and even supports it with subsidies; distributive justice is to be observed.

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