Educational Courage: Stop Undermining Our Public Education

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“Educational Courage” is a collection of essays that illustrates while there is much to bemoan about the current state of public education, there is also much that can be done.
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By sharing accounts of the promise and pitfalls of public education and by sharing experiences of resistance to market-driven education, we hope to encourage you to similarly reflect on your experiences. Our stories can shed light on what is valuable and what is hurtful to public education.

This earnest compilation of essays and exposés, Educational Courage (Beacon Press, 2012) by Nancy Schniedewind and Mara Sapon-Shevin aims statistic-tipped arrows at the political and corporate forces responsible for undermining our public education. This collection sheds new light on the “ambush of public education” as well as the brave, dynamic stories of resistance made by students and educators around the United States. The following excerpt highlighting some of their courage and the consequences is taken from the Preface.

Educational Courage

High standards? Accountability? Success for all? What could be wrong with these goals for education? Who could be against wanting all children to learn and succeed in school?

But wait! What if the ways these ideas are being articulated and enacted don’t actually take us where we want to go? What if the standards that are set aren’t reasonable? What if the people setting the standards don’t really understand the students they’re imposing the standards on? What if the teachers are being held accountable for things that keep them from reaching many other meaningful educational goals for their students? And what if the rhetoric of success for all has actually resulted in the systematic failure of large numbers of students and schools that don’t have the resources that more privileged students have?

This book is about the real lives of teachers and students who have been caught in a firestorm of educational rhetoric and putative educational policies that are undermining public education and their courageous reactions to it. You will read narratives of those who have resisted what is hurtful to children and families.

This book is full of personal stories because we believe that the truth of what is happening in the schools is best represented by the words of those who are there. And, because we have asked others to share their personal stories, we begin with our own stories.

Who are we? How did we come to write this book? What educational experiences shaped our own educational philosophies and understanding of best practice?

Nancy’s story depicts the powerful potential of public education, and how very different it is from what market-driven educational policies have forced public education to become today. Mara’s story describes her experiences with the problematic aspects of her school experience–such as an overemphasis on competition, a narrowing of the curriculum, and useless assessments–that are hallmarks of market-driven education today.

Nancy Schniedewind’s Story

I was fortunate to have a fourth-grade teacher who shaped my vision of what public education in a democracy could be. Mrs. Burns built a community of children where we all learned to the highest standards. For example, my classmates and I recited challenging poetry and worked together to solve tough math problems. While Mrs. Burns played the piano, she led us in spirited singing of classic songs from the 1920s to 1950s. With students, she organized recess games for the whole class, so boys weren’t playing baseball while girls played hopscotch and others stood alone on the playground.

From her teaching, we learned that we could live very happily in a classroom community where we all achieved because we helped each other, respected each other despite our significant differences, worked hard, made decisions together, and experienced zest, fun, and care. In public school, we experienced a democracy and learned the possibilities for a democratic society.

When I began teaching, I sought a teaching situation where I could foster democracy through public education. Teaching primarily African American students in a large, urban high school, I integrated into my social studies curriculum African American history and current civil rights issues. I expanded my curriculum to connect to my students’ lived experiences and helped them create positive visions for the future.

In the late 1960s, the Philadelphia Public Schools created a wide variety of alternative schools within the public school system. They were not charter schools that got public money without accountability, but innovative schools within the school district. I transferred to an alternative high school, collaboratively run by the school district, the University of Pennsylvania, and a local community organization.

A large Victorian building housed two hundred students for whom part of the curriculum was community-based. At least one day a week, each student worked in a grassroots organization or in another local internship.

Despite the ongoing, inevitable challenges of educating young people whose families were struggling to survive, most students thrived. Poor readers learned to read when introduced to the stories of Richard Wright, students developed pride in themselves and their community, and former gang members visited colleges with their teachers and went on to enroll. This was meaningful, public education enabling our students to go on to become teachers, lawyers, community leaders, and more.

There were very few standardized tests and scripted curricula, and no merit pay in this experience of public education. I taught because I had a commitment to young people, democracy, and social change. I still teach not to create workers for corporate America but to foster the development of intelligent, critical, caring persons who can contribute to the public good in their personal and professional lives. My hope is that we can reframe and reclaim public education today for the common good.

Mara Sapon-Shevin’s Story

My understandings of what schools could be like–and should be like–was shaped early in my life by living and going to school in three countries before I was eight. First grade in Spain and second grade in Scotland taught me that there are many different ways to see the world, and I returned to third grade in the United States already committed to inclusion and diversity.

Although I always did well in school academically, I also realized early on that many of the ways in which schools were structured–with a focus on competition and individual achievement–stood in the way of collaborating and developing meaningful relationships.

I often found myself in situations in which I had to make an active choice between “doing well” and “having friends,” a choice I continue to feel no child should have to make.

When I became a teacher of a group of six- to eight-year-old students who were labeled as having “special educational needs,” I saw immediately the negative results of isolating students who were perceived as different. My own isolation as “the special education teacher” also kept me from developing collaborative, cooperative relationships with other teachers. I worked hard to create a classroom in which students were encouraged to help one another and to celebrate each other’s success.

My teaching experience also taught me, sadly, that many of the things that I thought were best for my students were disallowed by those in positions of power who–although they had never met my students–thought they knew better what those children needed. This experience shaped my belief in the importance of honoring teachers’ knowledge and understanding of children’s education.

Frustrations with policies that were developed by those with minimal relationships to children and their families were clearly a barrier to achievement and the development of family and community connections.

My teaching now focuses on the importance of developing caring, safe, and nurturing communities as the essential groundwork for successful education at any level. I believe that good teaching is about building relationships, and I challenge policies and practice that damage or destroy a sense of community or collective action.

Our Collaboration

The two of us met in 1985 when we attended a conference of the International Association for the Study of Cooperation in Education.

We were both passionately interested in ways to structure teaching and learning that had students work together actively and that used peer support as a primary method of instruction, preparing students to become citizens in democratic communities.

From our initial meeting, we went on to work, present, and write together, focusing our work on what we called “socially conscious cooperative learning”–cooperative learning used to help students become active agents in working for social justice and aware of the importance of their own positive interactions and support. These are the values and practices that we believe are crucial to bring back into public education today.

Nancy’s Resistance Story

For the past fifteen years, I’ve written columns and letters in area newspapers about the dangers of high-stakes testing with examples of more effective ways to assess learning, the lack of evidence to support federal educational policy, the loss of local educational control of public education, and the undermining of multicultural education. I’ve worked in our union to push back against harmful educational policies and marched in Albany, New York, and Washington, DC, to preserve public education. Two stories of organized resistance stand out.

In 2000, a new superintendent in my school district sought to change the district’s progressive, student-centered educational policies to ones that were authoritarian and test-based. Working together with other parents and some teachers, we organized the Education Network, a community-based group committed to educational advocacy.

We held public forums on topics such as the problems with standardized testing, wrote newsletters, spoke at school board meetings, and organized others to join. Our members, including me, ran for the school board in the next few years and won seats. Our school district now has a different superintendent who does what’s possible to put testing in its proper place and supports education with young people at the center.

The result of efforts to push back conservative initiatives at my own institution weren’t as positive. In 2003, for example, the college president at that time eliminated much of the K-12 teacher access to a highly regarded, progressive graduate program in multicultural education. With others–students, faculty, alumni, area educators, national multicultural education leaders, and New York State teacher unions–we organized many voices to try to turn this decision around. These voices weren’t heeded. We experienced a painful loss to these same ambushing policies at work in public higher education.

In both struggles, however, it was the collective effort that was most memorable. The camaraderie, cooperation, and engagement of people working together toward a common goal made our efforts meaningful and life affirming. As we work in our communities and nationwide to challenge threats to public education, whether we meet rewarding victories or intransigence, relish the journey.

Mara’s Resistance Story

My resistance stories focus on attempts to address policies and practices that are discriminatory and oppressive to those in marginalized groups. A commitment to create schools that are inclusive and respond positively to difference is seriously challenged by practices that focus on ranking, competition, and attempts to reward the performances of students and teachers. When teachers are rewarded for the performances of their students, there is a serious disincentive to accept and include students who present learning and behavioral challenges.

I have also served as an expert witness in due process hearings for students and their families who are seeking more inclusion in their public schools. When a twelve-year-old student whom I’ll call John entered sixth grade, all the supports and accommodations he had previously received, which had enabled him to be in a typical classroom, were removed. In the name of “high standards” and uniform curriculum, his teachers were forced to treat him “like all the other kids,” which meant that he failed time and time again. It took a lawsuit (and a lot of money) for the district to acknowledge and respond to John as an individual rather than as a set of data points.

In this case, as in other cases across the country, many educators, researchers, and activists have worked together collaboratively against the identification, labeling, and segregation based on test scores and worked to ensure that we see students as full and complex human beings who cannot be reduced to numbers.

In my work on addressing issues of racism and homophobia in education, I have seen, time and time again, how the current focus on high-stakes testing and a standardized curriculum has made it extremely difficult for teachers to focus on the essential community building and attention to peer interaction that is critical to student achievement and growth. Many teachers have come to me distraught that they are not allowed to address issues of bullying and racism that occur in their classrooms because test preparation has usurped their time and trumped their abilities to be thoughtful and responsive to students and school communities. In an effort to address the critical classroom climate issues these teachers raised, a group of us organized a “Teaching Respect for All” conference on our campus at Syracuse University. We were committed to sharing strategies and deepening the conversation about how to create democratic, inclusive educational programs in which all students are supported and safe. The conference drew so much interest that we had to change the venue to accommodate the teachers, administrators, parents, and students who wanted to be part of this activist strategizing.


By sharing our accounts of the promise and pitfalls of public education in our own experience and by sharing experiences of our resistance to market-driven education, we hope to encourage you to similarly reflect on your experiences. Our own stories can shed light on what is valuable and what is hurtful to public education. You too may have accounts of resistance to harmful policies that are the seeds of further change.

We believe that, despite the grave threat to public education today, we can collectively turn the tide. We hope the vision in this book will encourage you to hold on to hope and join with others to reclaim public education for the public good.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Educational Courage, published by Beacon Press, 2012.

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