August 1, 2011
A contingent of New York teachers joined thousands of protesters from across the country in Washington, D.C. on Saturday to march against the Obama administration’s education policies.
Joining them was actor and budding philanthropist Matt Damon, who railed against “corporate reformers.” In an interview with GothamSchools, Damon exhibited a familiarity with New York City education politics, criticizing co-locations of charter schools and district schools and calling out the Success Charter Network in particular.
The march was the main draw of a four-day event called “Save Our Schools,” which included a conference and a film festival. A coalition of more than 100 teachers came down from New York City, including groups from the United Federation of Teachers (this reporter embedded with a UFT-sponsored charter bus) and the Grassroots Education Movement. GEM also hosted a workshop at the conference and showed its documentary film The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting For Superman to an audience of about 250.
More than a dozen speakers – including Diane Ravitch, Jonathan Kozol, Deborah Meier – spoke at a rally that directly preceded the march. The lineup featured songs, performances, poem readings, in addition to a pre-taped message from The Daily Show host Jon Stewart (here’s an excerpt).
But it was the Academy Award winner Damon who the drew top bill. The audience waited two hours in sizzling temperatures to hear him speak and judging by their response, he did not disappoint.
Damon called the last decade “horrible” and “demoralizing” for teachers and said an overemphasis on high-stakes testing is not what helped him succeed professionally.
“My teachers were empowered to teach me. Their time was not taken up with a bunch of silly test prep, a bunch of drill and kill nonsense that any serious person knows doesn’t promote real learning,” he said to rousing cheers.
Here’s the speech in its entirety:
In an interview, Damon said that he was troubled by the trend of co-locations in New York City, even referencing a recent Daily News report on the marketing expenditures at Success Network Charter Schools.
“Eva Moskowitz just spent $1.7 million in advertising, as in marketing for her…so it’s like, you know, the kind of core inequality has to be addressed,” he said. The figure cited in the article is actually $1.6 million. A spokeswoman for the Success Network disputed the total.
Here’s video of that interview, which also includes an idea to cut the military budget to reform national education policy.
Damon, the founder of Water.org, an organization committed to bringing clean drinking water to third world countries, is known for his social awareness, and attended SOS in part because his mother, Nancy Carlsson-Paige, is a well-known early education professor and outspoken critic of high-stakes testing.
The purpose of the march was to end at the White House to deliver President Obama a list of demands. The demands included an end to high-stakes testing as a factor in teacher evaluations, compensation and school closures; smaller class sizes; less curricular emphasis on math and reading; and a greater role in policy-making by teachers, parents and community leaders.
It’s not clear why the march didn’t end up delivering the list of demands, but it did attract the attention of the Obama administration. On Thursday, Arne Duncan met with several of the SOS March’s core organizers — Duncan called the meeting ‘useful‘ but organizers disagreed — and President Obama invited them back to the White House on Friday. The organizers declined and the two parties did not end up meeting.
Supporters estimated the total crowd at more than 5,000 teachers, but no official estimate was provided by the Washington D.C. police department.
As a kicker, here’s a video of Taylor Mali reading his famous poem, “What Teachers Make”