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Public Schools
Under Attack?

Here's a cogent explication of the theory high-stakes tests like the MCAS are just one part of a general attack on public education. These remarks, titled "Why Our Schools Are Under Attack," were presented by Dave Stratman on July 14, 2002 to kick off a talk show segment on KPFA Pacifica radio.

David Stratman is an educational consultant living in Boston. He was the Washington Director of the National PTA from 1977-79. During that time he directed the Natonal Coalition for Public Education--which includes more than 80 education, labor, civil rights, civil liberties, and religious groups comprising 70 million members--in defeating the Tuition Tax Credit Act in the 95th Congress. Dave has been an Education Policy Fellow in the US Office of Education. He earned a Ph.D. in 1970 from the University of North Carolina, where he was a National Defense Fellow, and he has taught at colleges and universities in New England. Dave Stratman is the author of We CAN Change the World: The Real Meaning of Everyday Life, and he edits New Democracy, a newsletter devoted to democratic revolution.

Part of the Massachusetts Education Reform Act (ERA) passed in 1993 was the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) test. Portions of the test are given at several different grade levels to assess both learning by individual students and teaching by the schools.

"Why Our Schools Are Under Attack"

Hi, Carol, Neil and everyone. I'm very happy to be here.

When I say "our public schools are under attack," I'm referring to the education reform movement that began in the late 1970s and resulted in such things as the TAAS tests in Texas and a whole range of education reforms in most states.

The first thing to understand is that these reforms are designed to do terrible things to children and teachers and communities. They are designed to create failure, to push kids out of school, to inflict pain, to instill fear, to create greater inequality, to attack students' self-confidence and sense of self-worth, to cause teachers to doubt themselves and their profession, to intensify competition, to undermine cooperative relations between parents, to undermine and fragment communities. The destructive effects of education reform, in other words, are entirely intentional.

Look at some of the reforms:

  • High-stakes testing creates a climate of fear in the classroom and drives huge numbers of kids out of school without a diploma.
  • Charter schools and school choice attack the relationships among parents and undermine communities; instead of cooperating to improve the schools where we are, we're supposed to compete to get our kids into the right schools.
  • Attacks on teachers' seniority and tenure rights are a way of undermining teachers' power to improve the schools and protect our children. Merit pay plans are designed to encourage teachers to compete with each other for the favor of the principal.
  • School to Work programs are designed to train kids to become loyal and docile corporate employees.

So the big question is, Why would our politicians and corporate leaders impose programs which are so obviously destructive?

I had an experience a number of years ago that can shed some light on this. In 1985 I was hired by the Minnesota Education Association to help it defeat the MN Business Partnership Education Reform Plan. The Business Partnership Plan was the most sophisticated reform plan around at the time. It would have done a lot of very destructive things, but the most destructive was this. It would have changed the K-12 school system into a K-10 system. This meant that at the end of the 10th grade, all the kids would leave school, and the top 20% would be invited back.

We asked the Business Partnership why would they want all these kids to leave high school without a diploma. They said it was to give the students more "choice" and "personal flexibility." We said, "Bull. You're just trying to push these kids out of school without a diploma so that all they can do is flip hamburgers or work in the stockyards. You're trying to create a pool of cheap labor, and to lower these young people's expectations of what their lives should be like."

We were able to defeat the Business Partnership plan, but I think that these high-stakes testing plans such as the TAAS are that same plan in a different form.

To understand why public education should be under attack for these past 25 years, I think we have to look all the way back to the 1960s. The 1960s and early 1970s witnessed a revolutionary upsurge, a "revolution of rising expectations" here and around the world. In those years our vision of the possibilities of education and of human society tremendously expanded. In the 1950s we were told, "What's good for General Motors is good for the country." In the '60s, we began to challenge the idea that corporate success is the best goal for human beings and the best measure of human society. In capitalist and communist countries alike, ordinary people rose up against elite domination and elite value systems, and demanded real democracy. In Prague people fought Soviet tanks in the streets. In France, ten million workers occupied their factories and offices and schools for ten days in the biggest wildcat strike in history. In the US labor militancy and popular movements against the Vietnam War and for social equality cut deeply into profits and threatened elite control of society.

Beginning around 1972, the corporate and government elite went on the counteroffensive. In fall, 1972, the CEOs of the 200 largest corporations in the US met in Washington, DC to plan strategy. They formed the Business Roundtable to lead the counteroffensive. If the country was going through a revolution of rising expectations, they reasoned, they had to begin to lower people's expectations.

The Business Roundtable and other elite forces began to press for economic and social policies that would make people more economically and psychologically insecure and thereby more controllable. Social programs like welfare and housing and food stamps were cut; millions of jobs were shipped overseas; millions of permanent jobs with benefits were reduced to temporary jobs without benefits and without a future; vast numbers of white-collar jobs were eliminated as companies "downsized"; many jobs were eliminated through the use of automation, and millions more have been de-skilled through the use of computers. This after all is what makes computers attractive to corporations: as workers' skills become embedded in the software, the workers' skills and the workers themselves become expendable.

Look what they have done to us over these past thirty years as part of the business counteroffensive. Our corporate rulers have attacked our families, our communities, our sense of security, our sense of self-confidence, our belief in ourselves and each other. They have turned the world into a jungle to threaten us, terrorize us, frighten us into toeing the line and clinging to our great leaders in fear.

So to answer the question, Why are public schools under attack? I would give two reasons:

  • One, our young people have more talent and ability than the corporate system can use, and higher dreams than it can fulfill. To get young people to fit into a society that is becoming more and more unequal and undemocratic, the system has to crush a great many of them so that they will accept their place in society without complaint.
  • Two, education reform is part of a strategy of social control to strengthen corporate power over our lives.

The next question, I think, is whether we can do anything about this situation. I'm sure we'll be talking about this more, but let me just outline my general feeling here.

I am part of an organization called New Democracy. Our goal is democratic revolution. We believe in government of the people, by the people, and for the people—not government of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich. Communism and capitalism are both undemocratic systems which hold no promise for us. It is becoming clearer and clearer to people around the world that we are on the road to disaster and we have to create another way, a truly democratic society based on the best values of ordinary people. We are in pre-revolutionary times.

We in New Democracy not only think revolution is necessary. We also think it is possible. Our fundamental belief is in the values and the power of ordinary people. Let me conclude my remarks here by saying why I think we can change the world.

We know that capitalism is the most powerful and dynamic system in history. The basic principle of capitalism is the principle of competition, the idea of dog eat dog. The logic of this system is that this world should be a loveless and savage place. But we can look around and see that this isn't true. We can look and see that most people in their everyday lives—with their wife or husband or children or students or patients or coworkers and friends—that most people try to create relationships that are the opposite of capitalism. We try to create relations based on love and trust and mutual respect and solidarity. It's true that often we don't get very far, and I'm certainly not claiming that ordinary people are perfect. But to the extent that we have created any loving relationships in our lives, we have created them in the face of a culture which is profoundly hostile to them. Most people are already engaged in a struggle against capitalism.

Most people are already trying to change the world and make it a more loving and human place. The media are always trying to tell us that "Nobody cares but you," "If you think you can change things, you're crazy and you're all alone." The first step toward making a revolution is understanding that we are not alone, that millions of us, billions of us worldwide share democratic values. We believe in solidarity and equality and democracy, and together we can win.

I hope you'll take a look at our web site, to find out more about us. You may also want to order my book, We CAN Change the World: The Real Meaning of Everyday Life (New Democracy Books, 1991), which is available from me or from for $10.

So Carol and Neil, I hope I've said enough to get us started.


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