Educational Justice: Teaching and Organizing Against the Corporate Juggernaut
287 pp, $23 pbk, ISBN 9781583676134
By Howard Ryan
Reviewed by Jessica Shiller, writing for Teachers College Record
(reprinted by permission of Jessica Shiller)
It is 2017 and the critique of corporate school reform has been around for some time. Beginning with Pauline Lipman’s critique of the Chicago Commercial Club’s role in remaking Chicago’s public schools (2004, 2011), Mike Fabricant and Michelle Fine’s critique of charter schools (2012), Ken Saltman’s critique of privatization (2007), and Sarah LeBlanc Goff’s exposé of the move of New Orleans from a public to a privatized school system (2009), they exposed the shortcomings of corporate or neoliberal reform efforts. Their criticisms include the narrowing of the curriculum around test preparation, evaluating teachers’ work through student test scores, closing schools based on test score data, turning schools over to charter management organizations, and treating schools as products for parental consumption. Additionally, there have been broad critiques about the role of philanthropists in public schooling like Janelle Scott’s examination of venture philanthropy (Scott, 2009). She demonstrated how large foundations have privileged corporate models of schooling by incentivizing their implementation.
In this sense, Howard Ryan’s new book Educational Justice: Teaching and Organizing Against the Corporate Juggernaut begins with many of the same critiques and, as a result, is not new. The first part, titled “The Problem,” repeats many of these same arguments. He does add one critical piece to the critique of corporate school reform and provides nuance to the argument positioning corporate and philanthropic leaders as the bad guys. The author shows the ways teachers unions have colluded with corporate reform efforts. This has made the implementation of corporate reforms in places like New Haven, CT and Washington, DC possible. Ryan writes that the teachers unions in these cities have agreed to integrate corporate reforms in exchange for job protection and salaries for their members.
Since corporate school reform is still the dominant way of improving urban schools, the criticism remains relevant and sets the stage for what comes in the rest of the book. As a journalist, Ryan focuses the remainder of his volume on organizing against corporate reform. The two remaining sections, “Organizing through Resistance” and “Organizing through School Transformation,” present stories of struggles that teachers, parents, and community members have engaged in to resist corporate reforms that threaten to undermine quality curriculum, teaching, and community engagement.
There have been other volumes showing the ways parents, teachers, students, and community members are resisting corporate reform. Perhaps one of the most well known is Jesse Hagopian’s volume on teacher resistance to testing. More Than a Score (2014) documents the ways teachers, parents, administrators, and students have resisted high-stakes testing in classrooms across the country. Ryan adds to this work by profiling case studies from school communities. This shows how teachers work with parents and community members to engage in resistance against administrators and school district leaders who have tried to implement corporate reform strategies.
Ryan begins with stories from Chicago schools, a city well known for its tradition of resistance to corporate reform. Mayor Rahm Emanuel leads Chicago’s corporate reform efforts. He has had control of the schools since he became mayor in 2011 and these reforms have been intense. They have used test scores to evaluate schools, close public schools, open charter schools in their place, and implement draconian budget cuts forcing schools to cut critical teaching staff. There have been reports of resistance to these efforts. However, Ryan shares two stories of what he calls “school-based community organizing” (p. 251, emphasis in original) that are instructive in that they show how resistance takes shape.
One story comes from Beidler Elementary. It is located within a school district that slated this elementary school for consolidation. The school was going to be merged with another one and the building Beidler occupied would be given to a charter school. When the staff heard this news, the principal addressed her staff by saying that, “[i]t’s time to fight for Beidler” (p. 97). Quickly the teachers organized, reached out to the union, contacted parents, and enlisted students in a campaign to keep the school open. It held a Special Olympics that helped its special education students become more connected to the school and improve their academic achievement. The school was also scheduled to receive a facilities upgrade. Chicago has become notorious for school closures like the one at Beidler. However, with the help of the local church and past principal, the whole team presented the school’s test score data and enrollment data to counter the argument that its scores were low or that it was an underutilized school. The school board could not defend their decision in the wake of such a solid presentation and needed to keep Beidler open.
At Kelvyn Park, the principal instituted an austerity plan that left the school short of the necessary number of teachers and an adequate amount of resources for teaching. At first, its teachers accepted the need to tighten their belts. However, when a popular teacher and volleyball coach were both fired, parents, teachers, and students went to the local alderman’s office to argue against the cuts that had already resulted in overcrowded classrooms and an unsafe school environment. They took their battle to the district office and received funds to keep the teacher and the volleyball program. However, the fight had not completely ended. These teachers became more deeply involved in local organizing and in the union’s fight against the school district.
These successes against seemingly inevitable rollbacks to public school programs involved the strategic organizing of parents, students, teachers, and community members to resist corporate reform efforts. However, Chicago is not the only city where people are fighting to keep public schools for their communities.
The battle being waged by the local teachers union in Los Angeles is just as heated. However, in this case, it is against Eli Broad. He is a powerful local philanthropist with a mission to privatize the schools in Los Angeles. Ryan presents examples from the city that describe teacher led battles waged over what he calls “curriculum as a terrain for anti-corporate organizing in schools” (p. 252). Educators tread this difficult terrain by creating a curriculum that reflects the world where the students live. They ask their learners to reflect on it and change their world to improve it. Of course, teachers have acted against scripted curriculum and the de-professionalization of teaching long before the author’s book came out. However, Ryan’s descriptions provide real life examples of how these acts of resistance emerge and play out in the daily experience of schools. These specific details make these cases come to life.
One example is historic and looks back at the fight for teaching reading through whole language instruction. Another example examines a battle at Soto Elementary for the right of educators to teach literacy in a way that they thought would help their students the most. Rather than follow the principal’s push for a scripted phonics curriculum, the teachers instead advocated for a balanced literacy curriculum and a professional learning community that helped them improve their instruction. The curriculum was very successful and these teachers received support from parents, the UCLA Writing Project, and the university’s Center X. The principal tried to prevent the teachers from using the grants they received, but the teachers prevailed.
The book ends with the example of Crenshaw High School, a school that serves a largely African American population. With a grant from the Ford Foundation, its teachers implemented a curriculum to help their students. The Extended Learning Cultural Model (ELCM) “seeks to help students discover how they can become agents of change to transform their world” (p. 213). ELCM was interdisciplinary, project-based, culturally relevant, and oriented around a social justice curriculum. Like Soto’s literacy curriculum, ELCM was enormously successful and engaged Crenshaw’s students, teachers, and even the principal in whole school change. However, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), led by Superintendent John Deasey, decided that it was better to restructure the school to provide additional Advanced Placement (AP) courses, International Baccalaureate (IB) programs, and more rigor.
It was painful to read about Deasey’s dismantling of Crenshaw’s new program in spite of the pleas from the school’s friends like Jeannie Oakes at the Ford Foundation. However, Ryan’s point in telling the school’s story was that ELCM advanced an idea of what public education should look like. He contends that to resist successfully, it is critical to have a clear vision and strong linkages to a larger social justice movement. It can start with a few teachers creating curriculum and eventually grow into a community organizing strategy. For the author, there are many levels to create resistance, but a strong vision is crucial.
Although there have been several critiques of corporate school reform over the previous ten years, Educational Justice makes an important contribution. Ryan not only documents the ways teachers, principals, students, and parents resist corporate reform, but he also shows these corporate reforms are not inevitable. In short, there are other visions for public education and urban public education in particular. While Betsy DeVos, the new Secretary of Education, has expressed support for corporate reforms like charter schools, this book demonstrates that alternative views are possible and going to come from the grassroots regardless of what the administration would like to see happen in public education.