In November, a clear majority of voters defeated the most authoritarian and racist presidential administration of our lifetime. But the first winter after the Trump presidency brings daunting challenges, including:
- The fierce and profoundly unequal ravages of the pandemic.
- The urgent need for a national policy that expands social spending and overturns the politics of austerity.
- The sobering reality that a large part of the U.S. population was mobilized in support of white nationalist rule.
What are the contours of these challenges? How can we respond?
Staying Strong Through a Cruel Winter
Chicago elementary teacher Dwayne Reed, like so many others, is emotionally exhausted by the pandemic. The grandparents of two of his students have died from COVID. “My kids are literally living through the disease of coronavirus and the disease of racism. . . . Just the fact that I have to give grades to 9-year-olds right now doesn’t seem morally right.”
Reed’s experience reflects that of teachers around the country as we witness families struggle with illness, job loss, housing and food insecurity, steep healthcare bills, and enforced isolation from friends, relatives, and normal activities. Many parents confront having to work from home as they support their children in online classes. Students are deprived of the lifeblood of effective learning — in-person classroom communities, and the critical face-to-face engagement with peers that brings joy and growth experiences essential to childhood. Younger children and students with disabilities are especially vulnerable to deprivation of normal classrooms. Many older low-income students must take care of younger siblings as their parents continue to work, and even find jobs themselves to help support their families. This has been and continues to be a school year from hell.
As teachers worry and grieve over the daily stresses that engulf students and families, they navigate a bewildering array of challenges. Some are compelled to teach remotely from empty classrooms, even if they have health issues that make it risky to go to work. Others juggle both in-person and online instruction, requiring hours of extra preparation. Teaching in-person classes entails endless handwashing, sanitizing desks, monitoring social distancing, and fearing the inevitable student sneezes. A New Jersey high school English teacher comments, “It’s not sustainable. That’s the hardest thing to come to grips with for myself and my colleagues.”
To get through the unprecedented challenges of this pandemic, to sustain what at times feels unsustainable, teachers have responded with brave resilience. They have helped colleagues develop new online teaching skills, shared innovative cyber lessons, and pushed back against administrative fiats that put unacceptable stress on students and school staff. For our part, Rethinking Schools has published special issues on the impact of the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter rebellion on schools and educators. We have held webinars on teaching for Black lives and how early-career teachers can work for racial justice amidst the pandemic, sponsored a series of workshops on social justice teaching, and helped support hundreds of educators with our work on the Northwest Teaching for Social Justice Conference. Through our Zinn Education Project — which we sponsor with Teaching for Change — we’ve offered public classes on Teaching the Black Freedom Struggle, along with a network of Teaching for Black Lives study groups. We’ve sought to offer hope and resources in these wretched times of COVID-19.
Even though many school districts have made heroic efforts to support students’ online learning and provide meals and other vital services to families, funding shortfalls, critical lapses, and wrongheaded policies need to be remedied. When laptop glitches and shoddy internet access lead to unequal access, when administrators insist teachers hew to mind-numbing benchmark instruction and inappropriate virtual classroom schedules and routines, and when essential funding for the pandemic emergency is not forthcoming, teachers need to network, alert and mobilize their allies, and organize to defend our students. As we recover from the pandemic, school districts will have to recover from exacerbated funding shortfalls and provide extra support for students whose academic progress was compromised. Teachers and teacher unions must stand ready to fight to ensure these needs are met. We look forward to collaborating with and sharing the stories of the many educators who are finding ways to counter the pandemic by sharing intellectual sustenance, solving classroom problems, and engaging in creative acts of problem-solving solidarity.
Holding the Democrats to a Staunch Defense of Our Schools — and Moving Beyond the Neoliberal Paradigm
Compared to Betsy DeVos’ scorched-earth project to destroy public education, and Trump’s desire that schools foster national chauvinism and a loyalty to institutional racism — exemplified in his 1776 Commission on instituting “patriotic” education in U.S. schools — Joe Biden’s support for both teacher unions and a fundamental federal role for public education are welcome. But vigilance and active engagement will be essential. The Obama/Duncan education program was characterized by damaging support for high-stakes testing, the Common Core, charter schools, and tying teacher evaluations to test scores. The hedge fund vultures who founded Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) nurtured this agenda. And they stand ready to open a back door for the disempowerment of teacher unions and the privatization of public education. Their approach is buttressed by a congery of policymakers enamored of curriculum standardization, education markets, and the intrusion of technology corporations into public education. The centrist power brokers of the Democratic Party have damaged our schools, and we must press the new administration toward a decisive break from their education policies.
In place of the DFER recipe, we support the tilt of the Biden administration toward teacher unions and a bolstered social safety net. Notably, the Biden education platform includes commitments to equity and to expanded school funding for such programs as Title I, special education, and wraparound services. But we must remember that insurgent organizing such as the testing opt-out movement and the recent teacher uprisings played an essential role in moving the Democratic Party away from DFER-inspired policies and toward better funding priorities. As the Biden administration contemplates critical policy matters, such as the crucial decision whether or not to resume the harmful federal testing regimen mandated by the Every Student Succeeds Act, teachers and community activists must continue to unrelentingly press Democratic politicians to commit to progressive education policies. We need a federal government that replaces years of austerity with the massive increases in school construction, Title I, and special education funding that Biden promised during his campaign. We also need a revival of U.S. Department of Education civil rights protection and enforcement, and a commitment to use federal funding to press states to improve the adequacy and equity of their school funding formulas. Federal education policy must again become a lever for equity instead of privatization and disinvestment.
And we must move well beyond the paltry vision of education evident in the Biden education platform, which reduces the purposes of schooling to preparing students “to succeed in tomorrow’s economy,” and to “maintain our competitiveness.” Our fraying social fabric, glaring economic inequalities, bedrock racial injustices, and burning planet all require a bolder and much different vision, one that transforms schools into greenhouses of democracy and enables our children to cultivate the values, skills, knowledge, and capacities for collaborative efforts that enable them to build a better world.
Teaching Against White Nationalism and Toward Multiracial Democracy
As we struggle through the pandemic and engage with and challenge the Biden administration, we have another virus to confront. More than 73 million of our fellow citizens voted for a cult figure who as president gloried in greed, shattered democratic norms, nurtured misogyny and homophobia, enriched the 1 percent, and imperiled the planet. Trump rode to power by fanning the flames of white supremacy, institutional racism, and hatred of immigrants. He practiced a politics of cruelty that unleashed an appetite for authoritarianism and the demonization of people of color among millions of Americans. Trumpism marks a profound eruption of four centuries of white nationalism that in recent decades has especially nested within the Republican Party and more recently in the nether reaches of the far-right, conspiracy-driven cyber world. Though Trump is gone from the Oval Office, Trumpism festers as the foremost manifestation of white supremacy.
Teachers and advocates for public education need to fully take the measure of the racially fueled hatred and intolerance that engendered Trumpism, and especially their impact on schools and young people for many years to come. We need to build on and develop curricula and pedagogy that help students come to understand authoritarian white supremacy, and to build a future that expunges its existence. Such curricula and pedagogy must rest on broad principles yet be adaptable for immensely diverse students and communities. Its prime ingredients will be teaching that engenders deep and respectful intellectual engagement, a commitment to collective struggle, and the capacity to confront crises as opportunities to rethink and transform our schools — and our world.
A pedagogy of deep and respectful intellectual engagement is especially essential at a time when bitter partisan division has been exacerbated by disregard for facts, conspiracy theories, and thinly veiled racial threats. Schools need to nurture habits, dispositions, and understandings that prepare students to build a democratic society. This challenge is best met when classrooms are problem-posing enterprises, animated by essential questions: How can we make our way toward a more racially just future? What paths can we forge toward resolving the climate crisis? How do we define justice in a multiracial, multicultural society? Students need to engage such questions through the collaborative evaluation of empirical evidence. This search for deepened comprehension of the world is well served by curricula that weaves the lives of students and their communities into a host of other sources of knowledge.
Just as classrooms can set students on the path to shared knowledge and democratic values that are antithetical to intolerance, the fight to transcend the legacy of Trumpism also depends on community-based struggles to strengthen schools as essential pillars of democracy. One inevitable kind of struggle will be defending educators who are attacked because they are bold enough to teach about racism and other forms of injustice, treating such episodes as extended teachable moments that can bend school communities toward social justice. Other struggles might focus on efforts to create what have come to be known as transformative community schools — centers of vital community-wide services that empower parents as respected partners in school governance. They might involve campaigns for school districts to gain critical resources, to remove police from schools and adopt comprehensive programs of restorative justice, and to adopt climate justice curricula as well as comprehensive green ecological practices.
Finally, the sometimes-shattering difficulties that COVID has thrust upon school life has called into question educational fixtures hitherto considered sacrosanct, such as grades, standardized tests, the rigid division of school days into uniform periods, and the silos of individual subjects. Along with loss, trauma, and the deepening of long-standing injustices, COVID offers an opening to challenge key features of business as usual in our schools. In the coming months and years, we at Rethinking Schools hope to be part of conversations that suggest how school communities can think and act with imagination — exploring assessment beyond the constraints and hardwired injustices of traditional grades and standardized exams, designing interdisciplinary curricula conducive to addressing real-world problems, and inventing new forms of collaboration that move students, teachers, and community members into more powerful and sustaining relationships. Bold reimaginings, acted upon with courage and solidarity, can help us move beyond the immediate trauma of the pandemic, and the long-unfolding trauma of racial injustice.
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