Astroturf Activism: Who is Behind Students for Education Reform?

Astroturf Activism: Who is Behind Students for Education Reform?

Astroturf Activism: Who is Behind Students for Education Reform?

SFER, a student network that has exploded on more than 100 college campuses across the country since it was started in 2009, is an “education reform” front for a lobbying firm, exploiting college idealism for corporate profit.


In late November, a small crowd of Columbia University and New York University students organized by Students For Education Reform (SFER) marched from the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) building in downtown Manhattan to the steps of the Department of Education building, demanding that public school teachers reach an agreement with the Bloomberg administration over new evaluation standards. Hanging in the balance is $450 million worth of state aid that will be withheld from city public schools by Governor Cuomo if a deal is not reached by January 17. Students sporting red and green Christmas hats called on teachers to “Make a deal!” and “Compromise!” in a spectacular show of misplaced activist spirit.

The “compromise” would place teachers at the mercy of a counterproductive test-based system, allowing up to 40 percent of their evaluative ratings to come from the standardized test scores of their students. It's even worse than it sounds though, because New York state requires that “teachers rated ineffective on student performance based on objective assessments must be rated ineffective overall,” as education historian Diane Ravitch explains, “a teacher who does not raise test scores will be found ineffective overall, no matter how well he or she does with the remaining 60 percent. In other words, the 40 percent allocated to student performance actually counts for 100 percent.”

SFER, a student network that has exploded on more than 100 college campuses across the country since it was started by two students at Princeton in 2009, is an “education reform” front for a lobbying firm, exploiting college idealism for corporate profit. The group’s website declares: “We believe student voices matter. For too long, policymakers have not heard the voice of the stakeholders affected by education policy: students themselves.” But the pitch should replace stakeholders with stockholders, because the dollars behind the “grassroots” movement say more than the students themselves.

SFER has received $1.6 million from Education Reform Now, whose PAC, Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), shelled out $1 million to attack the Chicago Teachers Union. DFER worked with the Koch brothers and ALEC to push Proposition 32, which if passed, would have blocked labor unions from using automatic payroll deductions for political purposes. Though SFER claims neutral territory, its motives are laid bare by its rallying around the funding of charter schools, the issue of limiting tenure, and its strict focus on testing. The testing corporations and charter school CEOs might agree with hedge funder and DFER founder Whitney Tilson’s explanation for his interest in education: “Hedge funds are always looking for ways to turn a small amount of capital into a large amount of capital.”

Attending a counter-rally planned to coincide with SFER’s day of action, I met Stephanie Rivera, a “future teacher” and “educational equity activist” currently studying at Rutgers University. She believes that educational reform “benefits organizations that look at education like a business. It benefits testing companies like Pearson, and groups like StudentsFirst, Teach for America, and DFER rather than the students themselves.”

Elaborating on the campus-corporate connection, public school teacher and education activist Brian Jones noted that “these are well-funded Astroturf groups with very specific agendas that try and sprout campus organizations to represent them on the idea that this is some kind of grassroots initiative, when really its very tightly scripted, controlled.”

At the counter-rally, I approached SFER activists about their understanding of the proposed evaluation plan’s implications for teachers and wider impact on students, but many deflected, declaring a singular focus on the $450 million at stake. I was surprised at the apparent shortsightedness, as the funds are part of Obama’s Race to the Top initiative, which encourages high-stakes testing and the expansion of charter schools. A participating NYU student named Danny told me, “I’m in no way anti-union, I’m in no way anti-teacher. In fact, I don’t even really like standardized testing.” When I asked him why he thought the UFT was not on board with the proposed standards, he shrugged.

After the march, Columbia sociology professor Shamus Khan rebuffed the claim that NYC students would benefit from the funding regardless of its consequences, explaining that despite the “well-meaning impulse, it doesn’t actually matter how much money you’re pouring into schools. The New York school system spends almost $20,000 per student on education, which is a tremendous amount. It’s not doing well because how can you expect that putting a kid in a space for six hours a day will overcome all conditions of poverty?”

Other SFER students became sensitive when pressed about the organization’s funding, brushing off donors as irrelevant and never stopping to consider why test-making corporations and hedge fund moguls were bankrolling an “activist” movement.

The most difficult part was considering that the consequences of bowing to the requirements of state funding could exacerbate the situation for the public school kids that many SFER student members genuinely want to help. SFER’s general body chair was quoted in the Columbia Spectator as saying, “There was one child talking about how he needed money in his art class and it was something that manifested itself every day in his life and he knows that we can do better.” The problem is that turning classrooms into test prep centers won’t provide the space and supplies for his creativity.

After the protest and counter-rally, I emailed Ravitch about her response to SFER. She responded:
"I find it bizarre that students at any level would demand more standardized tests, and would demand that teachers be held accountable based on student test scores…Why would students promote a method that testing experts say is inaccurate for measuring teacher quality and that promotes narrowing the curriculum and teaching to the test? Clearly, none of the members of Columbia's SFER chapter plan to become public school teachers."

After all, teachers don’t teach for money, they teach for students. Until SFER understands this, their avenues for real reform will always miss the point.

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