Strategy and Analysis to Defend and Transform Public Education
Here we take a look at a fraction of the Mexican teachers’ union called the CNTE. La CNTE works within the larger union (the SNTE)–and outside the SNTE in larger social movements–in a variety of ways. This snapshot of their work focuses particularly on Escuelas Integrales (holistic schools). These are schools run by parents and teachers with locally developed and relevant curriculum that stands against the push towards curricula oriented towards standardized tests. They were established through protests and won government funding through more protests. This model offers interesting alternatives to developing locally rooted schools that are not charter schools and not part of the attacks on working class students and teachers. Clearly, we should investigate them more. In the meantime, however, let us know your reaction to them in the comment section below. Also we’ve included discussion questions below if you would like to study this with friends and allies.
Author’s Note: The information within this article about education struggles in Mexico comes mainly from a conversation with one Mexican teacher who works with a part of the Mexican teachers union called the CNTE. This article represents that perspective with limited outside information and does not represent all education struggles happening in Mexico nor all of the different currents/projects within the CNTE. We hope to illuminate more of this in future issues and please contact us with any other perspectives that you have.
Resistance to Education Attacks in Mexico: Lessons for Oakland
By Margarita Monteverde
At the beginning of August, a group of Oakland educators met with a teacher from Michoacan, Mexico to discuss her organizing and teaching in Michoacan and share about the current situation of the US public education system. The conversation with Graciela was refreshing and humbling. Although the differences between Mexico’s struggles and ours were evident, we are both fighting similar privately funded neoliberal “education reforms.”As we, in the US, continue to fight against privatization and for quality fully-funded public education, Michoacan’s models are useful to push our imagination of what is possible here, what our unions or other teacher organizations could look like, what kinds of collaboration between parents, teachers and students could exist and ways to take back our schools that don’t rely on charters, private funding or non-profit organizations.
Graciela, a veteran teacher in Michoacan, has been working over the last couple years with the left wing of Mexico’s teacher’s union, La Coordinadora Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación (CNTE). CNTE define themselves as an independent mass organization (not connected to the ruling class, the state, any unions or political parties) fighting for internal democracy their union, against their union bureaucracy in an effort to force the SNTE (Mexico’s teacher’s union) into the hands of its base of teachers. They were formed in the late 1970s and have engaged in many struggles since with the orientation that they are “ready to fight for their class interests, for the solution of their economic, social, labor, professional and political demands” (http://somoscnte.blogspot.com/). In past decades, the CNTE has not only engaged in struggles around education but has been at the forefront of national movements challenging the Mexican government against austerity measures including cuts to wages, housing and social services. They have engaged in these struggles as workers demanding their rights and also with the knowledge that these basic needs must be met for all communities in order to have a just, equitable and effective education system. They have strong groupings in 22 of 31 states in Mexico. Within the CNTE there are also many currents with varying politics, some of the currents have been infiltrated and are now strongly influenced by mainstream political parties while others have remained fiercely independent and closely connected to the radical roots of the CNTE. Michoacan is one of the states where they are more organized and have the highest percentage of teachers involved in their work.
In a document produced at a conference in August, 2012 they explain their commitment to “the struggle for the defense of public education against the official attempt to transform it into a commodity (business)… [we will] continue shutting down the steps of neoliberal education reform, and instead move forward in the development of our alternative education project.” Two main aspects of the neoliberal education reform that Graciela discussed with us were:
1. The implementation of a multiple-choice based standardized testing system that would be required of all states in Mexico at various grade levels and would determine much of the curriculum taught (similar to the U.S. policies of “No Child Left Behind” and “Race to the Top” which has seen only small attempts so far at resistance from teachers and parents).
2. A pathway into teaching jobs for professionals from other fields that would take jobs away from current teachers and those in teacher training programs entering the field. These professionals would merely have to take a test and upon passing that test would often have priority for teaching positions over trained and experienced teachers. This is also an attack on the teacher training programs that have historically had radical politics. (In some ways this is comparable to Teach for America and programs like the Broad Institute for Superintendents that take high achieving college students or professionals in other fields and streamline them into education.)
Graciela was clear that these reforms were coming not only from the National government but also from neo-liberal economic interests such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
What has the response been from the CNTE? There have been militant responses to these policies especially in the states of Oaxaca, Guerrero and Michocan including strikes and mass marches. According to Graciela, one of the main component of the Alternative Education Project that is being implemented in Michoacan are “Escuelas Integrales” (holistic schools) – which are based on the individual and specific needs of their communities. All of the subjects are taught in ways that incorporate the problems and strengths of that community. The curriculum and school programming is developed collectively with parents, teachers and students. The schools provide not only an education for students but also support for families in their economic survival (growing food, producing artificial flavor-free candy, etc that can be consumed or sold to support families). This model began at one school where the teachers and parents rejected the mandated structure and developed curriculum of their own in its place. For this first year, they refused to follow state mandates around curriculum and school structure and thus lost state funding. At the end of the year, they demanded that the government continue to fund their school through public education money. Through local and national protests and large support from the CNTE they won this demand. Today there are 40 “escuelas integrales” in Michoacan that are controlled by local teachers, students and parents but funded by the state and the numbers are growing every year.
Through this strategy they have successfully retained fully trained, politically conscious and experienced teachers and have been able to stop the implementation of the national standardized test in Michoacan. In their resistance to these neo-liberal policies they have created concrete and successful models of what schools and education should look like. The collaboration between teachers, parents and students has not only created a dynamic and engaging curriculum, it has also supported families financially – improving student’s in-school success as well. What began as a push for self-determination from a single school community of teachers, parents and students is becoming a challenge to the fundamental impositions of state-mandated curriculum, standardized testing and top down neo-liberal policies shaping public education. This is not to say that there are not some weaknesses in this strategy. As many experienced educators know, we can change many things within our schools but as long as high levels of poverty, violence and exploitation exist in the communities where our students live we will not be able to provide an effective and liberatory education for all of them. This strategy does not confront that fundamental issue and in some ways that is a step backwards from the radical ways they were demanding that the state address these issues in past decades. Yet, this strategy does challenge certain systematic, destructive impositions like “teaching to a standardized test” and hiring untrained teachers that are very damaging to students. In the U.S., we often see the resistance taking place in the classroom through holistic and liberatory curriculum as separate from systemic resistance to oppressive national and international privatization policies. Here, we see these two forms of resistance working in conjunction with each other to deepen the effectiveness impact of both.
In the U.S., parents and teachers have begun to see charters as the answer to school communities gaining more autonomy or creating an education that traditional public schools don’t allow. Yet, the move to charter status forces teachers, parents and students to make compromises (destroying teachers unions, local school boards) that attack the very liberation, justice and self-determination they are seeking. Going charter can, in rare instances, provide an environment for liberatory and social justice education practices but at the heavy cost of worker’s rights, student’s rights and corporate funding.
Keep in mind, the charters that rise out of community frustration and solution-seeking are relatively few in number. The nationwide push towards charter schools is not a grassroots, community led movement but a top-down push from the government to commodify public education, meaning taking control away from teachers, parents, students and voters and putting it all in the hands of companies and foundations. We should not be forced to be bought out by business interests in an effort to provide a quality education to our children. We must refuse to make that choice. We need both strong teachers unions and working class control of public education. We should not have to sacrifice the fundamentals of a public education system in order to create curriculum that serves our students.
What would it look like to demand, from the traditional public school system, curriculum that would most benefit and facilitate student’s intellectual and emotional growth, while also demanding full allocation of public funding determined by the public without making the sacrifices that charters impose?
A possible model for this in a school site could be:
1) Collective creation of curriculum with parents, teachers and students.
2) A coordinated refusal of teachers to base curriculum around standardized tests as well as a refusal to assess students learning ability, intelligence, and growth on test scores.
3) A parent and student testing strike (a school-wide refusal to take standardized tests)- parents have the right to have their students opt out of testing and MANY students have a strong natural inclination against testing.
4) Demand that the school continues to receive funding despite not having participated in the tests.
5) Development of an organized contingency plan with parents, teachers, school workers and community for the occurrence that the state refuses to fund based on this resistance.
The aforementioned program is possible but simplistic because it fails to address the perpetual underfunding of education which unless addressed we will never be able to provide the crucial necessities for our students. Nor does it address the fundamental conditions of our society where working-class communities will always be exploited and oppressed in ways that make just, equitable education impossible no matter how radically we are able to transform and collectively take control of our schools. The concept of “escuelas integrales” and this article’s proposal is a challenge to understand new possible ways of transforming our schools, an exercise in imagining something different than the usual ways we engage in struggle, in pushing our internationalism beyond romanticizing movements in other countries and complaining of a lack of struggle at home. It is necessary to think about how to create more liberatory and holistic schools that are not charters because, as the “escuelas integrales” prove, charters are not the only way to create these kinds of educational communities. For teachers to be able to shape our classrooms, students to be able to shape their learning and parents to advocate for and shape their children’s education we must challenge larger powers that seek to control all of this. Our individual resistance helps us survive under these conditions but we will need larger, coordinated, unified struggle to fundamentally transform them. We must continue to ask ourselves how we can make accomplish this larger struggle and look to other places for inspiration.
Margarita Monteverde is a high school teacher in East Oakland.