Yohuru Williams asks – What Would Dr. King Say About the Corporate Assault on Public Education?

Dr. Yohuru Williams is one of my heroes, as well as a fellow education blogger and activist.  Dr. Williams is also a professor of history and a dean at Fairfield University in Connecticut.

This wise and powerful commentary piece first appeared in the Progressive on January 16, 2015.  It has since been reposted on many blogs.

What Would Martin Say?  (By Dr. Yohuru Williams)

This year marked the fiftieth anniversary of Mississippi Freedom Summer and the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, one of the most important pieces of civil rights legislation in US history. It also has marked a renewed push by the proponents of corporate education reform to dismantle public education in what they persist in referring to as the great “civil rights issue of our time.” The leaders of this effort, including US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, are fond of appropriating the language of the civil rights movement to justify their anti-union, anti-teacher, pro-testing privatization agenda. But they are not social justice advocates. And Arne Duncan is no Reverend King.

In a 2010 speech observing the forty-fifth anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery March, Duncan boldly invoked the words of John Kennedy: “Simple justice requires that public funds . . . not be spent in any fashion which encourages, subsidizes, or results in racial discrimination.” Duncan enjoined those in attendance, “Let me repeat that, President Kennedy said that no taxpayer dollars should be spent if they subsidize or result in racial discrimination.” Yet Duncan and the Obama Administration—through Race to the Top, a program similar to the Bush Administration’s No Child Left Behind—have pursued policies that exacerbate segregation and racial inequality.

In a 2010 interview with then-chancellor of the New York City Department of Education Joel Klein, Duncan went even further, invoking the name of Martin Luther King to justify attacks on public schools. Dr. King “explained in his powerful Letter from Birmingham Jail why the civil rights movement could not wait,” said Duncan. “America today cannot wait to transform education. We’ve been far too complacent and too passive. We have perpetuated poverty and social failure for far too long. The need is urgent and the time for change is now.”

But there is plenty of evidence that King would never have endorsed corporate education reform or privatization. Consider how King defined the role of education.

While still an undergraduate at Morehouse College in Atlanta in 1947, King said: “I too often find that most college men have a misconception of the purpose of education.” They “think that education should equip them with the proper instruments of exploitation so that they can forever trample over the masses.” He continued: “Still others think that education should furnish them with noble ends rather than means to an end.”

Here, King plainly laid out two visions of education that continue to war against each other. While he acknowledged the importance of an education in preparing persons for the workforce, enabling “man to become more efficient, to achieve with increasing facility the legitimate goals of his life,” he also saw a much deeper purpose.

“We must remember,” King warned, “that intelligence is not enough . . . Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education.” He asserted, “The complete education gives one not only power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate.”

King saw the goal of education as more than performance on high-stakes tests or the acquisition of job skills or career competencies. He saw it as the cornerstone of free thought and the use of knowledge in the public interest. For King, the lofty goal of education was not just to make a living but also to make the world a better place by using that production of knowledge for good. “To save man from the morass of propaganda,” King opined, “is one of the chief aims of education. Education must enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from the fiction.” The notion that privatization can foster equality is fiction.

King was born into a world in which privatization was the enemy of equality. In the 1930s, for instance, the NAACP struggled against agents of the Democratic Party in many southern states that tried to define it as a private club; they cut off avenues to full political participation through vehicles like the white primary. Poll taxes and literacy tests were also still employed in many locations to deny African Americans political participation. It is hard to imagine King under any circumstances endorsing either testing or privatization as the means of ensuring equality.

In fact, King by implication strongly rebuked the privatizers in his observations regarding Senator Eugene Talmadge, the notorious segregationist governor of his home state of Georgia.

Talmadge, King observed, “possessed one of the better minds of Georgia, or even America,” and “wore the Phi Beta Kappa key.” King reflected, “By all measuring rods, Mr. Talmadge could think critically and intensively; yet he contends that I am an inferior being. Are those the types of men we call educated?”

The same could be said at present for the cadre of corporate education reformers touting Ivy League degrees and billion-dollar bank accounts without an ounce of empathy for those harmed by their efforts. Like Talmadge, they fail to see beyond the narrow confines of their own self-interest the inherently dangerous and corrosive impact their policies are having not only on the nation’s youth but also the foundations of American democracy. When Arne Duncan suggests, for instance, as he did in a speech at a Brooklyn charter school in 2009, that based on high-stakes testing, “we should be able to look every second grader in the eye and say, ‘You’re on track, you’re going to be able to go to a good college, or you’re not,’ ” there is a serious problem. In neglecting to address how the nation would deal with the so-called failures on these high-stakes tests, he is not only betraying the movement but the very function of education as King imagined it.

King would never have endorsed high-stakes testing. “The function of education,” he explained in 1947, “is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically.” Furthermore, he never would have supported any individual or group that promoted a view of education simply as a means of ensuring job efficiency without human compassion. Education that “stops with efficiency,” he warned, “may prove the greatest menace to society. The most dangerous criminal may be the man gifted with reason, but with no morals.”

King saw how school privatization was used to maintain segregation in Georgia. He witnessed the insidious efforts of Eugene Talmadge’s son, Herman, a distinguished lawyer, who succeeded his father in the governor’s office. Herman Talmadge created what became known as the “private-school plan.” In 1953, before the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, Talmadge proposed an amendment to the Georgia Constitution to empower the general assembly to privatize the state’s public education system. “We can maintain separate schools regardless of the US Supreme Court,” Talmadge advised his colleagues, “by reverting to a private system, subsidizing the child rather than the political subdivision.” The plan was simple. If the Supreme Court decided, as it eventually did in Brown, to mandate desegregation, the state would close the schools and issue vouchers to allowing students to enroll in segregated private schools.

What we are seeing in the name of “reform” today is the same plan with slight modifications: brand schools as low-performing factories of failure, encourage privatization, and leave the vast majority of students in underfunded, highly stigmatized public schools.

This effort will create an America that looks more like the 1967 Kerner Commission’s forecast, two societies separate and unequal, than Martin Luther King’s Beloved Community.

For King, the Beloved Community was a global vision of human cooperation and understanding where all peoples could share in the abundant resources of the planet. He believed that universal standards of human decency could be used to challenge the existence of poverty, famine, and economic displacement in all of its forms. A celebration of achievement and an appreciation of fraternity would blot out racism, discrimination, and distinctions of any kind that sought to divide rather than elevate people—no matter what race, religion, or test score. The Beloved Community promoted international cooperation over competition. The goal of education should be not to measure our progress against the world but to harness our combined intelligence to triumph over the great social, scientific, humanistic, and environmental issues of our time.

While it seeks to claim the mantle of the movement and Dr. King’s legacy, corporate education reform is rooted in fear, fired by competition and driven by division. It seeks to undermine community rather than build it and, for this reason, it is the ultimate betrayal of the goals and values of the movement.

Real triumph over educational inequalities can only come from a deeper investment in our schools and communities and a true commitment to tackling poverty, segregation, and issues affecting students with special needs and bilingual education. The Beloved Community is to be found not in the segregated citadels of private schools but in a well-funded system of public education, free and open to all—affirming our commitment to democracy and justice and our commitment to the dignity and worth of our greatest resource, our youth.


A special opportunity to hear the truth about “Education Reform”

In a time of universal deceit – telling the truth is a revolutionary act. – George Orwell

Hosted by Robert Hannafin, Dean of Fairfield University’s Graduate School of Education and Allied Professions comes a unique opportunity to hear from Wendy Lecker, Jonathan Pelto, Madison School Superintendent Thomas Scarice and nationally renowned Education expert and advocate Yohuru Williams.

In their one and only joint appearance


March 31, 2015

6:30 p.m. -8:00 p.m.

Oak Room

Barone Campus Center

Fairfield University

Open to the public and free [Very much the corporate education reform industry]


Another MUST READ article by Connecticut professor Dr. Yohuru Williams

Yohuru Williams is Chair and Professor of History at Fairfield University.  Dr. Williams is also a powerful, leading voice for public education, both at the national level and here in Connecticut.

His latest column for the Huffington Post is entitled, Lies My Corporate Ed Reformers Told Me: The Truth About Teacher Tenure and the Civil Rights Movement.

Williams writes,

The champions of corporate education reform insist that efforts to strip teachers of the procedural guarantees of due process embedded in tenure are somehow an extension of the Civil Rights Movement. In the latest iteration of this make-believe history, former CNN anchor Campbell Brown and her ally, lawyer David Boies, wax philosophical about how their campaign to end tenure is really “about Civil Rights.” While the rhetoric plays well in the press, it deliberately misrepresents the actual history of Civil Rights. In reality, teachers played a critical role in the movement. In some cases, they were able to do so because they were bolstered by tenure, preventing their arbitrary dismissal for activism.

Early in its campaign to challenge segregation in the courts the NAACP chief attorney, Thurgood Marshall recognized teachers as important allies. In Simple Justice, his seminal study of the history of Brown v. Board of Education, historian Richard Kluger observed,

“teachers were of special importance because there were so many of them, because they were generally leaders in their community, and because they were paid by the government, which in theory was not supposed to discriminate against anyone on account of race.”

What Kluger described of course, was the thin but important layer of protection offered by tenure that allowed teachers to participate in lawsuits and other actions that would have proved difficult for those with no such guarantee of due process. During the Jim Crow era, one of the most effective weapons segregationists had in their arsenal of terror was the power to fire or refuse to hire those who engaged in acts of civil disobedience or challenged the status quo. With the higher duty to protect children, many teachers bravely faced this challenge, using their classrooms not only to teach basic skills, but also to encourage critical thinking skills and inspiring young people to challenge second-class citizenship. Recent scholarship as well as personal memoirs captures this important role played by educators. In a 2009 biography Claudette Colvin, who at 15 refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus nearly nine months before Rosa Parks, credited her teachers with inspiring her to make her courageous stand against Southern apartheid.

Not all Black teachers were awarded tenure. In fact, very few states in the South offered the basic guarantee of due process to Black teachers but, in those states where teachers were protected, they were able to speak and testify openly and honestly about the detrimental impact of Jim Crow on their students.

Their professionalism and candor underscored the damning nature of Jim Crow, not in the lack of quality instruction but in the substandard facilities, large class sizes, lack of resources, and psychological impact segregation had on students — not to mention the disparities in pay and benefits including tenure.


So when so called “reformers” like Campbell Brown try to make the case that tenure extends teachers an unfair guarantee of employment unlike other public servants, she is more than stretching the truth. To be clear, when confronted with inequalities in pay and the denial of tenure to Black teachers, the NAACP did not argue for an end to tenure, but for the extension of the same basic protections of due process to Black teachers. In addition, when her allies like David Boies try to claim they are carrying on the legacy of the movement, they are not. Instead, they should address the issues of poverty and inequality; the same issues raised by the NAACP in 1950s and1960s that continue to plague American education. The lack of resources, bloated class sizes, high stakes testing, and zip code discrimination are real problems — not teacher tenure.

At the end of the day, what made teachers so critical to the Civil Rights Movement is partly what makes many of them dangerous to the agenda of the so-called education reformers today. Why is divesting tenure at the top of their list? In stripping away due process and removing basic protection against retaliation, they will effectively silence the strongest line of defense against those practices, such as high stakes testing, and re-segregation that remain harmful to children. In the process, they will clear the way for the ultimate corporatizing of American education in opposition to both the history and legacy of the Civil Rights Movement. Fortunately teachers have already begun to organize to make a stand in an effort to shield and protect those who stand to be harmed most — our children.

You can read the entire column by going to: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/yohuru-williams/campbell-brown-teacher-tenure_b_5807346.html

Also follow his work via:  www.twitter.com/yohuruwilliams

All I Really Need to Know about Corporate Education Reform (and why we should fight it) I Learned in Kindergarten – by Dr. Yohuru Williams

Dr. Yohuru Williams is a professor of history at Fairfield University and a Badass Teacher Activist.  Diane Ravitch recently featured Dr. William’s piece on her blog.

Here is the full piece; 

Sometimes the simplest explanations are the best ones. Robert Fulghum’s hugely popular All IReally Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten offers the basis for a brief but illuminating mediation on Corporate Education Reform and why teachers and parents everywhere have united to fight it. Fulghum identified 16 lessons—centered on the golden rule—that he argued remain valuable beyond the days of A is for apple. I have combined a few and eliminated a few others for the sake of brevity to reduce 16 to seven—but the larger point is the same. So without further ado:

Share everything. (Presumably, this was the impetus for Corporate Education Reform but the evidence suggests otherwise). The barter for charter system, for example has done little to eliminate the barriers to equal education posed by poverty and racism. In addition, few familiar enough with the Common Core to speak honestly about it would argue that it has democratized access to education. I suggest that you ask the so-called reformers themselves, if you can get them to “share” the podium. The problem is that they are more adept at dictating than collaborating. The heavy-handed manner in which they have attempted to stifle opposing viewpoints—see Chris Christie, John King, and Michelle Rhee – clearly reveals the need for some remedial education in the area of share and share alike.

Play fair.  (Of course, this is impossible when the ultimate measure of a student’s success is reduced to how well they perform on standardized tests). Recent cheating scandals, involving some of the luminaries of Corporate Education Reform, illustrate the danger of a hyper-competitive model of education that substitutes standardization for innovation instead of more organic and battle-tested measures of student achievement.

Don’t hit people. Or yell at people (Chris Christie), or make up facts (Stefan Pryor), or denigrate parents (Arne Duncan), or brag about taping the mouths of children shut (Michelle Rhee), or lie about test scores. Take your pick.  But seriously, the crass manner in which the apostles of corporate education reform have “engaged” parents and teachers from Connecticut to California demonstrates how little respect they have for the communities or “children” whom they claim to value. See also: Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.

Don’t take things that aren’t yours. Give back our school boards, our instructional time, our tax dollars, our instructional spaces, our professional development, our arts and recreation programs, our professionally trained teaching staffs and our right to speak. Corporate Education Reform very much resembles bullying in this regard. Nearly everything that it has “accomplished” has come by force. At the same time, we have seen national initiatives to challenge bullying in our schools; the intimidating and confrontational manner in which the Corporate Education Reformers have attempted to steamroll, teachers, and parents, into submission is as frightening as it is undemocratic. 

Wash your hands before you eat. There is nothing worse than to share with dirty hands. While the agenda of most Corporate Reform agents is painfully clear, the insistence that what has drawn them to education is anything other than the desire to exploit public schools (like any other market) is insulting. Many of the apostles of Corporate Education Reform have become quite wealthy serving as consultants for charter schools and companies looking to turn a profit. The not so artful re-imagining of corporate raiders, as champions of education reform are just plain dishonest. Consider former Bridgeport Superintendent of Schools Paul Vallas, touted as an education guru, who left a wide swath of destruction in his wake. Their narrative has become stale—our schools are in crisis, teacher unions are the problem, charters offer the best hope for the future—that you can smell the stench of failure from a mile away. If they would ever agree to honest debate and collaboration with parents and teachers over bulldozer politics, I would share the wisdom of Kindergarten teachers everywhere, if you have ideas—we are perfectly willing to engage but remember this is a dialogue not a monologue – don’t break bread with dirty hands and expect us to eat in silence. See also Flush.
Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you. Let children be children. The goal of education is not the creation of automatons, test-taking machines, to fuel the creation of a new technological workforce. The goal has always been to educate knowledgeable and productive citizens who can think for themselves and act to safeguard our democracy. Of all of the vocabulary words they will ever encounter, democracy is the most essential.  Our children have a right to an education that allows them to grow and develop organically as well as preparing them for the labor force without robbing them of their individual identity.
Live a balanced life – learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some. This one is self-explanatory—but let me rephrase it for the sake of clarity . . . Restore music and the arts to public education.

The final admonition, is not so much a message for the Corporate Education Reformers as a reminder to those who have banded together to challenge their efforts to dismantle public education. “When you go out in the world,” Fulghum concluded in his masterful culling of those early lessons,—learned at a teacher’s knee, “watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together.” For all of the parents, teachers, and students who have made the battle against Corporate Education Reform a central part of their lives, this is good advice. As long as we continue to share, challenge, and grow together, we will overcome. In the words of Winston Churchill, “All the great things are simple, and many can be expressed in a single word: freedom, justice, honor, duty, mercy, hope.” We fight for these things and so much more—the future of our children.

Dr. Yohuru Williams is a professor of history at Fairfield University and a Badass Teacher Activist. 

Bridgeport Voters: This is the single best article to read before you vote.

Yohuru Williams: The perils of top-down school reform 

Dr. Yohuru Williams is chair and professor of history at Fairfield University. Follow him on Twitter @yohuruwilliams.  This commentary piece was first published in the Connecticut Post on November 1, 2013

The latest debacle involving Bridgeport Superintendent of Schools Paul Vallas is a not-so-subtle reminder of what is truly at stake in Bridgeport and around the nation with regard to so-called school reform — American democracy.

One of the primary criticisms of the Bush-Obama model of market-driven educational reform is the dictatorial style in which many of its so-called champions operate and the chilling effect this has had on local control of schools. In most cases, administrators like Vallas parachute into communities to which they have no real ties with an “I’ve got all the answers” approach that seeks to limit rather than encourage community participation. In the race to receive federal funds, the voice of “the people” is diminished as administrators pursue a scorched earth policy aimed not only at teacher unions but school boards and local PTAs.

There is no room for a diversity of voices in the corporate hierarchy. Many of the so-called reformers want to run schools like mini- corporations, with administrators beholden not to communities, but appointed boards of directors — a far cry from the days of the popularly elected school board. It is not only this model of corporate management but also its language that has seeped into the structure of public education. In Maryland, for instance, school superintendents are now called CEOs.

Disregarding the voluminous data in educational research that discounts the changes they seek to implement, they nevertheless assume more power in the dismantling of public education. When their haphazard model of action is exposed, as it was last week with the dismissal of Principal Byron Williams, of the newly formed military academy, less than three months into the job, the real dangers are revealed.

Responding to criticism over the dismissal of Williams, whom he praised just two months earlier as “outstanding,” Vallas highlighted the school’s poor performance, complaining that “discipline is weak,” and “instruction needs to be stronger.” But how exactly could he make such determinations in just nine weeks? Is this merely another example of the duck and cover language often employed to shield the rhetoric of top-down reform, where incompetence parades as progress and the staples of democracy, transparency, due process and democratic decision-making are the first casualties?

Although never enamored with the idea of a boot camp dressed up as “military academy” as the solution to Bridgeport’s problems, I nevertheless have to ask the question: What was the real reason for Williams’ dismissal? If we don’t have reasonable expectations for principals, how can we ever expect to have them for teachers or even students? We are not managing a McDonald’s or stocking the shelves at Walmart. Schools are not assembly lines.

Let’s be clear. The Common Core, a military academy, and a sprinter superintendent won’t fix Bridgeport’s public schools. I borrow the term “sprinter superintendent” from Stanford Professor Emeritus Larry Cuban. In an Aug. 4 blog post, he outlined the formula employed by “reformers” such as Vallas who swing into crisis cities with a cookie-cutter program for change. They scurry about in their haste to bolster student achievement, measured by test scores, while introducing changes that often leave stakeholders disappointed and their communities in shambles. Like Cervantes’ fictional hero Don Quixote — an appropriate analogy since their narratives are also the stuff of fiction — they charge at windmills, dragons of their own making, including teacher unions, underperforming district administrators and, in some cases, such as in Bridgeport, democratically elected school boards, all in the name of the fixing the “crisis” in American education.

They often seem more interested in how their actions play in the media, never missing the opportunity to lambaste teachers, parents and apparently even the persons they appoint. Their impatience with change is equally quixotic. Firing a principal after nine weeks is extreme even by corporate standards. Most companies offer three months’ probation.

The real issue in this case was Williams’s alleged failure to secure the proper certification to head the school, ironically the same issue that should have already assured Vallas’ ouster as superintendent. Unfortunately, as we have seen time and time again, the rules operate on a sliding scale. Rule-breaking at the highest levels is celebrated as take-charge innovation rather than the worst kind of malfeasance — that which threatens the future of our children.

Vallas, like his colleagues in other states, has instituted faux community involvement through community conversations. In reality, these events have proved to be little more than public relations ploys, giving the specter of community engagement while blocking any meaningful dialogue. Mostly dominated by the superintendent with a brief and tightly regulated period for questions and answers, they mock real engagement.

The question for us all is: is this the model we want to present to young people of democracy in action? In communities already short on patience and long on frustration with the failure of the democratic process, it is not unreasonable to think of the chilling effect not only on the parents but the students, whose first glimpses of democracy in action have been skewed by market-driven educational reform.