Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Public Education, Partnerships, and Community in a Violent World, by Angela Valenzuela

I just came across something that I didn't even remember having written—"300 Texans rally at state capitol against high stakes tests," by Angela Valenzuela.  I found it on the Internet. In Mexico, they call it "El Santo Internet," "The Holy Internet." That's what this find makes me think about. 

The article was published by legendary education activist and newspaper editor, George Schmidt, of Substance News. It captures a moment in our on-going battle against high-stakes tests and testing here in Texas published back in 2003. It was and is such a beautiful and powerful movement of wonderful people in pursuit of a better education for their children and now, like myself, their grandchildren.  We sought/and seek not to end public education, but to mend it.

The piece makes me reflect on how we have indeed made progress in this movement that now has gone nationwide (especially follow TAMSA, TexasKidsCan'tWait, FairTest, NEPC, Susan O'Hanion, Diane Ravitch, on this), but we still have a lot of work to do to eliminate harmful testing—and other educational—practices, even as we re-discover and rescue—if we can—the concepts of "assessment" and "accountability" from their reactionary underpinnings.

For starters, "assessment" is a much larger concept than "testing" and "accountability" is what we all still actually want—but not the way that they are currently articulated and understood in either state or federal NCLB policy.  We might ask then what is the next shift or articulation of these?  What are our alternatives?

We have a long tradition of grassroots democracy in our country that can serve us well today as an alternative to our calcified bureaucracies and ways of working in and with schools.  The idea here is that we as communities still use assessment tools, but become accountable to each other where large-scale testing assumes an important, but limited role as a metric, among others, of educational well-being.  

Here is a policy memorandum co-authored by myself, Wei-Ling Sun, Michael Barnes, and Emily Germain that presents this alternative, “High-Stakes Accountability in Texas Reconsidered [pdf].”  We've vetted it with audiences statewide and testified on this several times in the Texas State Legislature last session.  I encourage you to read it in its entirety.  As ambitious as it is, this alternative is still only a partial solution.  At best, it helps provide the infrastructure for a new educational framework that allows or helps create space for an alternative vision of education and society that we so desperately need. 

We as communities, need to come together to ask the big questions regarding our values, wishes, and desires for our children, youth, and ourselves as communities of conscience and as a society.  We need to define or redefine "educational success" for our times.  How, for instance, can we call ourselves successful if our children are not equipped with the tools of biliteracy, bilingualism, or multiculturalism?  How can we call ourselves successful if our children are not themselves equipped with the tools of democracy and civic engagement?  How can we call ourselves successful if all we've done is reproduce the vast inequalities that already exist in society?

Rather than experiencing schools from the vantage point of a diminished role as "clients" or "consumers" of education in a "market place of options," we need as communities to recommit to public education—not as it is, but as it can and should be—for our brave new world that we have inherited and that is otherwise on a collision course with itself.  This is a space where tolerance, respect, and inclusion express everyday ways of living and being in the world, and where a spirit of authenticity in relationships and good will abides. These are spaces not where children "achieve."  They "thrive," instead.  And their renewal is directly linked to our own, as well—to each one of us, individually and collectively.

We need as communities to come together and have courageous conversations and make decisions on how and where to anchor our resistance to the forces of violence, aggression, bigotry, narrow-mindedness and greed that capitalize on disaster at everybody's expense.  This is a world where real accountability means that we as communities collectively and democratically articulate and harness an alternative, socially just vision of education.  To wit, this is a spirit of educational renewal and freedom in our schools, local institutions, communities, and country.

Many of our churches are already doing this and that's a good thing, but because they are largely segregated, we also need for our children to occupy and inhabit through schools the interstices of multiple worlds in our society so that the social, cultural, and political tools of "civic engagement" and "democracy" together with notions of "communitarianism" and the "public good" are not abstractions, but rather, a way of life.  A great assessment and accountability system is complementary to just such an agenda.

Not only is this the best antidote to the fear-mongering and extremism that we are witnessing in our country right now, but if done well, it re-casts "educational accountability" in a fresh, life-giving way.  We as grassroots community members, need to get deeper into the grass and form committed partnerships with our cities, school districts, and universities in order to foster a fresh sense of engagement, one that breathes life, love, and peace into all of our relations and goings on. 

That's what we're doing here in Austin, Texas, with Cuauhtli Academy/Academia Cuauhtli, our Saturday Academy, and it is such a beautiful thing.  You may learn about us here where you can also view a two-minute video if you prefer.

Also consider reading this recent publication titled, Academia Cuauhtli and the Eagle: Danza Mexica and the Epistemology of the Circle.”  Like us on Facebook.  

In short, rather than big, totalizing systems that convey an illusory peace and tranquility—I suggest herein that we need to reacquaint ourselves with the Deweyan ideal of schools as the bedrock of our democracy, albeit in ways that speak to the urgent realities that our current generation of children and youth face today.

Sí se puede!  Yes we can! And we're all the better for it.

Angela Valenzuela


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