Bad to the bone – teacher movement adopts rebel yell to confront critics
Mark Naison is one bad ass teacher – and he’s not afraid to admit it.
On the contrary, the Brooklyn native and Fordham University professor, inspired earlier this year by a large-scale testing revolt in his home state, created a Facebook group for discourse among educators like himself who are fed up with federal education policy that he believes casts teachers as villains and as largely indifferent to the crisis in schools.
Within a week of launching the group page last June, nearly 500 people had signed on, and the Badass Association of Teachers had gone from an idea to a movement with a mission.
The group has now grown to nearly 31,000 members with chapters in every state and is planning a march on the U.S. Department of Education next July – 50,000 marchers is the goal.
“We realized, we’ve touched a core like we can’t believe of teachers who are totally fed up with the testing and demonization of teachers from both political parties,” said Naison, the husband and son of public school teachers as well as the recipient of a public school education growing up. “You call us bad teachers and we’ll come back with no, we’re bad ass teachers – we’re tough, we’re resilient, we’re proud and we’re not going to take any crap from you anymore. We’re fighting back. Enough is enough.”
Naison said many teachers’ hopes for a better system under President Barack Obama were shattered by his Race to the Top program, which awards schools millions of dollars for developing curriculum that produces college- and career-ready students and for basing teacher and school effectiveness on student test scores. States were also offered waivers from some of the more onerous provisions of the Bush-era No Child Left Behind law – but those waivers, like the RTTT funding, were conditioned on similar requirements.
It’s bad policy, say group members who call themselves BATs, and they want the program scrapped. No more rewarding states for tying teacher evaluations to test scores; no requiring states to close schools whose test scores are low and replace them – often with charters – rather than try to improve them, and no more pitting states and schools against each other.
“We’re not in a race against each other; we’re not competing,” Naison said. “We’re trying to improve the quality of education by helping people, not playing them off against one another to compete.”
So far, the New York-based association has yet to receive any major media coverage, but it has been recognized by a few key insiders, including Diane Ravitch, a former education advisor in both the George H.W. and George W. Bush administrations, as well as that of Bill Clinton.
Ravitch, who no longer supports many of the ideals ushered in by No Child Left Behind and has called Obama’s Race to the Top a mere continuation of Bush’s goals, recently wrote a blog supportive of the group’s mission, if not its name.
“I was uneasy with the name, but I got over it,” wrote Ravitch, now a research professor of education at the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development at NYU. “The reality is that the Badass Association of Teachers fills a need. Teachers have been beaten up in the media, and have seen state after state strip away their academic freedom, their rights, their status in the community.”
The blog was an open letter to BAT, which had invited Ravitch into its fold. She accepted, writing, “Thank you for counting me as one of your own.”
Others have blogged about being booted from the group for posting comments unacceptable to its site monitors, including attacks on other members’ political affiliations.
BAT membership includes teachers from the far left to those aligned with the Tea Party and everything in between, but they are asked to put political differences aside and focus on their unifying mission – and for the most part, says Naison, they do.
Race to the Top isn’t the only federal policy in the BAT’s crosshairs: Common Core State Standards, while having been adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia over the past several years, is in various stages of implementation across the nation. In fact, a few states have repealed or scaled back Common Core under pressure from both political and education groups who’ve argued that the standards are everything from government indoctrination to just poorly designed academics.
Naison says in the absence of a complete shutdown of the Common Core rollout, his group wants to see an analysis of the standards, based on scientific trials, before full implementation in schools.
“We think this has been almost like a stealth attack – something developed behind the scenes that most people have never heard of,” the professor of African-American studies and history said. “It’s an incredibly undemocratic process. We want the Common Core slowed down and put through various trials and made something that local school districts, rather than entire states, have to examine and see if it’s appropriate.”
Perhaps the BAT’s most critical mission, said Naison, is to see that teachers are included from the beginning in any education policy discussion – from the federal to the local level. The overwhelming sentiment from members of the group, he said, is that they feel devalued and underappreciated because no one listens to them.
“Teachers are being micromanaged, scripted, minutely observed – and talented people are not going to work under those conditions when they’re constantly being watched; when they’re constantly being tested,” Naison said. “There’s no freedom, there’s no creativity, there’s no respect. You’re not going to get talented people to go into the profession under those conditions.”
Education needs more BATs, said Naison, who for years has taught his classes (some of the school’s most popular, he says) his way, using techniques from rap – he’s known on campus as Notorious PhD – to protest simulations to pique and hold students’ interest. He’s also never held back when it comes to speaking out, even when it made him unpopular with the administration, he said.
“I’ve always been a bad ass teacher but I’ve always thought I was alone, so the idea that there are all these other people wanting to do this is kind of mind blowing,” Naison said.
“The BATs are America’s angriest and best teachers speaking out. We’re the people who love our jobs; we’re the people who’ve been here 20 or 30 years; we’re the people nobody listens to and we are saying you are screwing up big time.”