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.”