Networking, Organizing, and Resisting

Portland-area teachers' group takes on issues ranging from standardized tests to teaching about globalization

By S. J. Childs

What exactly is Portland Area Rethinking Schools (PARS)?

Part network, part support group, part organizing center, the group began in 1986 when several teachers decided to read education theory as a way of getting clearer about their classroom practice. These initial meetings provided a place to share thoughts on critical pedagogy and to problem-solve about curriculum and school politics.

Over the years, PARS has evolved into more than just a study group; it has become a collection of organizing efforts on school-wide, district-wide, and state-wide education issues. Teachers affiliated with PARS have reflected and organized, lobbied and testified, spoken and published around issues of tracking, tax cuts, school choice and vouchers, standards and assessment. PARS currently has a mailing/e-mail list of over 500, and it is not unusual for as many as 100 people to attend its meetings.

The group discusses education controversies, develops curriculum, and organizes to influence policy. It also sponsors nationally known speakers on key controversies. For example, it recently sponsored a series of talks by Monty Neill, the executive director of the Boston-based group FairTest, who spoke about accountability and standardized tests. Following Neill’s presentations, teachers and parents met in small groups to share experiences and brainstorm strategies for change.

PARS was initially organized by a group of teachers and professors that included Linda Christensen and Bill Bigelow, classroom teachers who are also editors of Rethinking Schools. While PARS has no formal affiliation with the Rethinking Schools journal, it operates within the same framework of promoting K-12 education reform grounded in equity, social justice, and quality education. And, like the Rethinking Schools journal, it advocates an activist approach.

“Portland Area Rethinking Schools is a network of teachers who meet to figure out what it means to teach for social justice, to figure out the relationship between lively curriculum and participatory teaching,” says Bill Bigelow. “And we organize for the right to pursue that kind of teaching. The group provides a place and a space not provided by the union or school districts where teachers, student teachers, teacher educators, parents and community members can have essential conversations around education.”

The group holds “Thank Goodness It’s Friday” potluck meetings about once every six weeks, hosted either by the steering committee or one of the several other work groups, depending on the topic. Discussions and organizing are divided into two main areas: policy/political strategy, and curriculum development. Work groups this past year included: A “new teacher” group that provides new teachers with mentorships and anti-racist, social justice curriculum; a globalization curriculum group that develops and tests classroom materials; a group monitoring Oregon’s statewide standards and assessment policies; a reading group on critical teaching; and a community outreach group. Several newer groups aimed at organizing opposition and alternatives to Oregon’s standardized testing craze formed at the end of last school year.

The meetings include both veteran teachers, new teachers, and student teachers who realize that, as member Tamar Ehrlich says, “I could either spend my time banging my head against the computer trying to figure out how to do it all, or I could spend my time with colleagues who were also trying to figure things out – who are more than worth my time.”

Ehrlich is part of one of the strongest work groups in PARS – the Globalization Work Group that meets twice a month and develops curriculum around global issues. Members have created curriculum on environmental racism, global sweatshops, oil drilling in Nigeria, indigenous struggles in Ecuador, and the war in Kosovo. Last school year the committee’s teachers helped their students put on a Globalization Conference where about 175 kids from throughout the Portland metropolitan area explored and organized around multinational corporations, environmental issues, and human rights.

“The Globalization Work Group saved me as a teacher,” said Renée Bald, a third-year teacher. “I feel isolated in the classroom and never have the time at school to sit down with colleagues and talk about curriculum at a deeper level. I couldn’t have lasted by myself.”

For Linda Christensen, one of the group’s founders, PARS has been a way to both resist and survive the onslaught against quality public education that serves all students. She admits that there have been times she wanted to take a break from the group, “but the larger issues just won’t go away. We have to do the work. The alternative is them winning, and I can’t face that, and I can’t face not fighting when there is so much at stake. Education is under assault, and you can’t stand in the presence of evil and do nothing.”

As Doug Sherman, another founding member and a professor at Portland State University said, “For a long time now there has been a need to be responsive. The current education ‘reforms’ are a constant attack on people’s hopefulness. There are always reasons to resist.”