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Learning at its Best

I Am the Ninety-Nine Percent, And Actually I’m Pissed

So, a few days back, I wrote about privilige and power.  It might have come across as complacent or sanctimonious.  However, I want to make this really clear: I’m pissed.

I’m pissed that we continue to fund war without question while schools are stuck hawking “holiday paper” (because, you know, there are a ton of people buying Kwanza presents), candied hams and cookie dough.

I’m pissed that my students spend almost a quarter of the year taking tests and that the annual 30 hour test is longer than the Bar Exam, the MCATS, the teacher certification test and pretty much every other test required of adult professionals.  And I’m pissed that when a teacher points out the flaws of the test, he or she is accused of “low expectations” and trouble-making.

I’m pissed that the laws are formed by transnational corporations who create curriculum, “advise” on standards, push for accountability and then provide the resources, tutoring and conferences that help people reach a standard that they cannot attain (as long as every question is re-normed for fifty percent).  It’s more rigged than a casino and Chuck-E-Cheese combined.

I’m pissed that a president who won the support of labor unions applauded the firing of all teachers at a Rhode Island school and chose a man who committed fraud in his “Chicago Miracle.”  Arne Duncan’s teardrops did not really cure leprosy, but you’d never guess that when listening to the media gush over his accomplishments.

I’m pissed that we have shipped off factories to other countries and yet we continue to run school in a factory model.  And I’m pissed that so few people are even asking whether or not school should exist to serve the economic markets in the first place.

I’m pissed that the solutions are more of what doesn’t work: extra homework, traditional grades, longer hours, more accountability, merit pay, etc.

I’m pissed that the government holds eight-year olds to a higher level of accountability than the folks on Wall Street who bankrupt our nation.

I’m pissed that the government demands that Palestine and Israel show tolerance for one another and yet we tout Zero Tolerance as the conflict-resolution solution within our schools.

I’m pissed that teachers can’t afford to pay for their own children’s health care and yet we are labeled as “free loaders” who feel “entitled” when we fight against the attack on collective bargaining.  I’m pissed that we’re told that we need to “share the burden,” when we never got to “share the blessings” during the bull market era.

I’m pissed that the media, the corporations and the politicians have framed the debate so that educators fight against one another instead of fighting for real, authentic, meaningful change.  The war is not between un-school, home-school, private school, charter school or public school.  In fact, it’s not really a war at all.  It’s a grassroots movement.  It’s an unstoppable rhizome of people saying, “it’s time for us to take back our voice.”  Ultimately that voice is why I shift from anger to hope.

What about our demands?  What about that list, that agenda, that bulleted list of talking points?  How can you claim to occupy education if you don’t have a goddam list?

I can’t speak for everyone, but I can tell you my list that I wrote down in five minutes:

  • Listen to students, parents and teachers and allow them to be an integral part of the decision-making process.
  • Foster creativity. Bring back theater, music and art.  Let kids do plays and paint murals.
  • Abolish grades, standardized tests and homework
  • Get rid of coercive, behaviorist methods of discipline
  • Let kids move.  Bring back recess and PE
  • Provide healthy meals.  Let kids plant gardens and pay attention to where their food comes from.
  • Encourage critical thinking and questions that can’t be answered in a worksheet.
  • Support the caregiver’s right to choose a model that fits his or her own child
  • Adequately fund education so that teachers are paid a living wage
This is by no means comprehensive, but I think it’s a do-able start.
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John T. Spencer is a teacher in Phoenix, AZ who blogs at Education Rethink. He recently finished Pencil Me In, an allegory for educational technology and A Sustainable Starta book for new teachers. He also wrote the reform-minded memoirs Teaching Unmasked: A Humble Alternative to Waiting For a Superhero and Sages and LunaticsHe has written two young adult novels Drawn Into Danger and A Wall for ZombiesYou can connect with him on Twitter @johntspencer


About John Spencer

I teach. I write. I live. I want to do all three authentically.


19 thoughts on “I Am the Ninety-Nine Percent, And Actually I’m Pissed

  1. Isn’t it frustrating that we can create lists in 5 minutes of things which would help improve education, but that we have worked for decades, and not been able to implement anything on our lists? It seems to me, in both our countries, that there is a fear of letting schools be accountable only to their local community, and that there is a push to use kids as inputs to the labour market, rather than actually letting them participate in democracy.

    When I hear statements like “we need 10,000 engineers, so we need to fix schools,” I’m reminded of the neoliberal attitude toward education; it is a process by which we should use children to fill our manufacturing and labour needs. I can’t really think of any reasons to educate children which are less democratic.

    Posted by dwees | October 15, 2011, 12:41 pm
    • I think the grassroots movement is powerful. What it will look like and the extent to which it penetrates the political system is hard for me to imagine. But I think there are shared values and a shared philosophy of what authentic education looks like.

      Posted by John T. Spencer | October 15, 2011, 9:01 pm
  2. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! Another group has just come out with their own list, which I’ve posted here: More and more Americans are waking up because of people like you.

    Posted by Edit Barry | October 15, 2011, 12:52 pm
  3. Finally! Someone is mad as hell and encouraging the rest of us to not take it anymore. Well done. Now what?

    Posted by Sandy | October 15, 2011, 1:29 pm

    Posted by Jen Lilienstein | October 15, 2011, 2:38 pm
  5. I completly agree ! finally someone speaking out LOUD what needs to be said !!!!!!!!

    Posted by wendy | October 15, 2011, 3:39 pm
  6. Let kids move. Bring back recess and PE!!! Well Stated we wonder why kids are overweight and can’t sit still in class.

    Posted by Felicity | October 15, 2011, 4:40 pm
  7. Articulate vent! Well done! I would like to add to your list – Staff all schools with qualified school counselors. I am an unemployed school counselor, and our profession has been increasingly denigrated or, worse, dismissed as irrelevant, or too touchy-feely in this accountability world. I didn’t attend a comprehensive three-year program to obtain a M.S. in Counseling for this! Just as I recently read about the downward pressure on the requirements to enter the teaching profession, counseling positions are now being filled by so-called “guidance technicians.” It goes without saying that these positions don’t require an advanced degree, and pay far less. I have my loans come due this month, and subbing at two districts is just not going to cut it ! I am pissed too! I’d hope that teachers and counselors, as well as their representatives, can join forces for the benefit of all our students, for we both have the same goals at heart.

    Posted by Pascale Claus | October 15, 2011, 4:43 pm
  8. Powerful and well said. As one of the those (lucky) employed theatre teachers, I applaud your anger and your list. I sometimes feel overwhelmed with the frustrations of a broken system and manipulative politicians who decided it was easier to blame the working class than to try and find solutions. Thanks for your eloquence.

    Posted by Jennifer Little | October 15, 2011, 8:42 pm
  9. BRAVO! Finally someone has captured exactly what I have been thinking! Your passion, eloquence, and willingness to speak out against the idiotic policies governing us as educators is admirable. Let’s band together and make REAL EDUCATION happen! Our kids deserve nothing less!

    Posted by Jacquelyn Drummer | October 15, 2011, 9:15 pm
  10. Here’s my starting point: Every educator and family member of an educator opt your child(ren) out of your district and state’s standardized testing. Just pull them out. It’s your right. Why participate in and perpetuate this madness?

    Your students’ parents will observe these decisions and wonder why, as in, “Why in the hell AM I having my child take these tests?” Soon others follow. Few children actually complete tests. Data worship becomes useless. This whole bullshit scheme collapses on itself. Authentic teaching and learning once again become our purpose.

    Think about how simple this really is…start a movement.

    Posted by henry hale | October 16, 2011, 12:47 am
    • Rah! I love this and totally agree. However, in my state of Oregon, there is a big fat double standard. Public and private school students alike are “allowed” to opt out of all such testing, but some standardized tests are mandatory for homeschoolers such as my two kids. We’re planning to exercise a little civil disobedience when the time comes, but it’s hard to say how risky it might be (in some states, districts have sued parents and attempted to force homeschoolers into school, though it’s a highly unlikely scenario in Portland).

      Posted by mindyfitch | October 18, 2011, 4:18 pm
      • That’s insane. I had no idea that home-schoolers were forced to take the tests. I still think it’s crazy that we have compulsory school and that parents are cited when a child misses too many days.

        Posted by John T. Spencer | October 18, 2011, 5:19 pm
  11. Beautifully said, I totally agree.

    Posted by Francesca Blueher | October 16, 2011, 5:59 pm
  12. Please remember to add your voices to Occupy Education at

    we need to reclaim our voice in education. We can not let corp reformers and test makers shape how are schools our run. We need teachers, parents and students to Occupy education, but standing up to forms of schooling that dehumanize our society.

    Join us now!

    David Loitz

    Posted by dloitz | October 17, 2011, 3:32 am
  13. John, Fabulous! This is so good!

    Here’s what I believe, in addition to your list: this is about waking up and making trouble and protesting and saying, we just won’t take it anymore. We are pissed. Once so many of us get up and start making our voices heard, we won’t go back.

    Thanks for leading here. Awesome.


    Posted by Kirsten | October 17, 2011, 8:37 am
  14. Your list is right on, John! I just started a nonprofit called Dream School Commons ( and we’re looking for stories, articles, and ideas about how to re-imagine education. Take a look and contribute. Even just reposting this piece on our site would be awesome!

    Also, I’m in the middle of reading Punished by Rewards by Alfie Kohn. I highly recommend it if you haven’t already discovered it. He does a fantastic job of providing decades worth of research that supports doing away with grades, testing, and other forms of behaviorist tricks to try to motivate students. These tactics and others that are often used actually kill intrinsic motivation, creativity, and problem solving.

    The move to reform education is growing. We’re all listening and many of us are acting. If each of us just does one small thing, like sharing an idea, changing a practice in our classrooms, or educating others about reform, we can make big changes happen.

    Posted by Jaime R. Wood | October 19, 2011, 2:58 pm
  15. I love your two posts back to back John, they help to show the dichotomy that many of us are in. I think this tension is what is telling among those who are the majority in this country. Doing the right things in the world and doing the right things in America are important…doing it on a local and global scale is important, and being a critical thinker about privileged and being pissed off is important.

    Your two posts…both made me analyze, angry, passionate and inspired. Thank you. Let us remember to use our status as a voice against oppression, both in terms of what we directly face and how we can help internationally.

    Posted by caseykcaronna | October 27, 2011, 10:18 pm

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