Why are so many early career educators today in open rebellion? How did we lose patience with politicians and policymakers that dominated nearly every education reform debate for more than a generation?
Consider first that both political parties called us “a nation at risk,” fretted endlessly that we “leave no child behind,” and required us to compete in their “race to the top.”
They told us our problems could be solved if we “teach for America,” introduce “disruptive technology,” and ditch the textbook to become “real world,” 21st century, “college and career ready.”
They condemned community public schools for not letting parents “choose,” but promptly mandated a top-down “common core” curriculum. They flooded us with standardized tests in the name of “accountability.” They fetishized choice, chopped up high schools, and re-stigmatized racial integration.
They blamed students who lacked “grit,” teachers who sought tenure, and parents who knew too much. They declared that school funding isn’t the problem, an elected school board is an obstacle, and philanthropists know best.
They told us the same public schools that once inspired great poetry, art, and music, put us on the moon, and initiated several civil rights movements needed to be split, gutted, or shuttered.
They invented new school names like “Green Renaissance College-Prep Academy for Character, the Arts, and Scientific Careers” and “Hope-Horizon Enterprise Charter Preparatory School for New STEM Futures.” They replaced the district superintendent with the “Chief Educational Officer.”
They published self-fulfilling prophecies connecting zip-coded school ratings, teacher performance scores, and real estate values. They viewed Brown v. Board as skin-deep and sentimental, not as an essential mandate for democracy.
They implied “critical thinking” was possible without the Humanities, that STEM alone makes us vocationally relevant, and that “coding” should replace recess time. They cut teacher pay, lowered employment qualifications, and peddled the myth anyone can teach.
They celebrated school recycling programs without questioning consumption, gave lip-service to “student-centered civic engagement” while stifling protest, and talked up “multiple intelligences” while defunding the arts.
They instructed critics to look past poverty, inequality, residential segregation, mass incarceration, homelessness, and college debt to focus on a few heartwarming (and yes, legitimate) stories of student resilience and pluck.
They expected us to believe that a lazy public-school teacher whose students fail to make “adequate yearly progress” was endemic but that an administrator bilking an online academy or for-profit charter school was “one bad apple.”
They designed education conferences on “data-driven instruction,” “rigorous assessment,” and “differentiated learning” but showed little patience for studies that correlate student performance with poverty, trauma, a school-to-prison pipeline, and the decimation of community schools.
They promised new classroom technology to bridge the “digital divide” between rich, poor, urban, and rural, while consolidating corporate headquarters in a few elite cities. Their “value-added” standardized tests scored quarterly profits for stockholder as teacher salaries stagnated.
They preached “cooperative learning” while sending their own kids to private schools. They saw alma mater endowments balloon while donating little to the places most Americans earn degrees. They published op-eds to end affirmative action but still checked the legacy box on college applications.
They were legitimately surprised when thousands of teachers in the reddest, least unionized states walked out of class last year.
The No Child Left Behind generation continues to bear the fullest weight of this malpractice, paying a steep price for today’s parallel rise in ignorance and intolerance.
We are the children of the education reformer’s empty promises. We watched the few decide for the many how schools should operate. We saw celebrated new technologies outpace civic capacity and moral imagination. We have reason to doubt.
We are are the inheritors of “alternative facts” and “fake news.” We have watched democratic institutions crumble, conspiracies normalized, and authoritarianism mainstreamed. We have seen climate change denied at the highest levels of government.
We still see too many of our black brothers and sisters targeted by law enforcement. We watched as our neighbor’s promised DACA protections were rescinded and saw the deporters break down their doors. We see basic human rights for our LGBTQ peers refused in the name of “science.”
We have seen the “Southern strategy” deprive rural red state voters of educational opportunity before dividing, exploiting, and dog whistling. We hear climate science mocked and watch women’s freedom erode. We hear mental health discussed only after school shootings.
We’ve seen two endless wars and watched deployed family members and friends miss out on college. Even the battles we don’t see remind us that that bombs inevitably fall on schools. And we know war imposes a higher opportunity tax on young civilians, asylum seekers, and women who teach.
Against this backdrop we recall how reformers caricatured our teachers as overpaid, summer-loving, and entitled. We resent how our hard-working mentors were demoralized into resignation or early retirement.
Our collective experience is precisely why we aren’t ideologues. We know the issues are complex. And unlike the reformers, we don’t claim to have the answers. We simply believe that education can and must be more humane than this. We plan to make it so.
We learned most from the warrior educators who saw through the reform facade. Our heroes breathed life into institutions, energized our classrooms, reminded us what we are worth, and pointed us in new directions. We plan to become these educators too.