How Teachers Can Start a Grassroots Revolution for Better Schools

Chris McNutt
June 23, 2021
The Biden Administration offers a space for educators to demand transformation. But that does not mean that we can count on better outcomes coming from the federal government.

This article originally appeared in The Progressive.

The year 2020 was undoubtedly one of the worst for public education. As a high school public school teacher, I saw firsthand how teachers went from being recognized as heroes to being demonized employees facing a crisis of safety.

Our students feel marginalized and distrusted by increasing calls for accountability through panopticon-level surveillance systems and “catch up” virtual curriculums. Meanwhile, government officials are calling for decreased funding and “school choice,” often targeting “radical” teachers unions in the guise of “America First” cultural rhetoric.

At the beginning of the pandemic, educators believed we could reimagine the system, that there would be space to try something new. But much of that didn’t happen. Most schools doubled down on traditional practices and some even went to lengths to institute more draconian measures. Blow after blow, one report found, has led to 27 percent of teachers contemplating quitting this year.

The pandemic has demonstrated that equitable practice in our classrooms is vitally important—not just because the chaos has led to inequitable practices, but because it highlighted the deep inequalities that already existed.

Before the pandemic, we still had assessment systems that ranked and categorized students, specifically students of color. We had over-the-top security measures, particularly in urban public schools. Long before COVID-19, these were all problems that call for a fundamental rethinking of how education works in the United States.

There is now an entire generation of educators who have been exposed directly to inequity. Those engaged in this work now have droves of allies who understand a need for change, and the status quo is shifting.

Just as the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor sparked necessary conversations about police brutality and criminal justice reform, there are winds of collective change in education.

Hundreds of universities did not require ACT or SAT scores in 2020, and many school districts dropped traditional grading systems, shifting instead to a pass/fail rubric or giving out all A’s.

Standard grading systems, argues author Sunil Singh, have become the “Emperor’s New Clothes,” a system that was flawed from the beginning. And, as students are increasingly graded based on their access to technology and resources, it has become even more obvious how inequitable learning is.

“If even one in four students with disabilities, English learners, students in foster care, migrant students, and homeless students have been shut out of education for months,” the Bellwether Education Partners said in a new report, “that adds up to over three million students, as if the entire school-aged population of the state of Florida dropped out of school.”

via Bellwether Education Partners

So what could this change look like? For starters, it would find ways to move away from or eliminate rank-and-file grading. Instead, we should focus on portfolios, feedback, and student growth.

We must dismantle white supremacist curriculums, and invite members of the community and students to co-create a curriculum. We should abolish canned learning and worksheets, and move toward hands-on experiential practice, and bring in student voices. We should teach social justice in schools through training, meetings, actionable systems, handbook reviews, discipline policies, and teacher practice. Eliminate all grading and mandatory homework.

Finally, we would move away from competitive environments to cooperative environments where all are valued. And we would support the teaching profession through unionization, with respect to safety, working hours, and pay.

People will ask: If students don’t have homework and grades, how will they learn?

In fact, these are shifts that private, well-funded schools have already made. So why is it that private schools are eliminating homework, but public schools are so focused on “learning loss?” Or that largely private schools are dropping grades and shifting to portfolios, but more students in public schools received F’s in the first semester this year than ever? Or that schools in countries that focus on emotional well-being have drastically lessened the adolescent mental health crisis?

Despite this gap, those with money and power target “failing schools” as the problem, instead of focusing on societal issues. Meanwhile, public school teachers have to double down on traditional practices that they know don’t work.

Miguel Cardona, Biden’s nominee as Secretary of Education, is a marked improvement on Betsy DeVos—Cardona attended public schools, has been a teacher, and understands inequity—he’s suggested carrying forward the Obama-era concept of “school accountability” that was laid out in the Race to the Top initiative.

While Race to the Top invoked the language of inclusion and equality, it hardened the use of standardized tests as a measure of a school district’s success. In effect, the policy led to further high-stakes standardized testing, homogenized national standards that drew away from student, teacher, and community-designed curriculums, and increased pressure on students, teachers, and districts to “perform,” rather than educate students in a meaningful way.

“If we provide safe in-person learning options for students,” Cardona wrote in a recent op-ed, “we can . . . level the educational playing field and reduce gaps in opportunities for our students.” Again, while this sounds like he’s saying all the right things, Cardona has signaled that he’ll look to standardized test scores to “benchmark” how to “close the gap.”

The Biden Administration offers a space for educators to demand transformation. But that does not mean that we can count on better outcomes coming from the federal government.

Teachers should start with what they know, and the immediate actions they can take. Try something new in the classroom that goes beyond a change in lesson plan. Think about how we can reframe that practice toward equity. Reimagine our classrooms.

Then, as we start this miniature grassroots revolution within our four walls, let’s  showcase these practices to others. Can we invite in the teacher across the hall to show them what we’re doing? How about parents or community members? The classroom could come to life with equitable, human-centered practice.

As we transform from the bottom-up, we immediately have a cause for hope. We’re not waiting around for someone to tell us what to do—we’re just doing it.


Chris McNutt
Chris McNutt is the co-founder and executive director of Human Restoration Project, a nonprofit organization focused on student engagement, well-being, and motivation. His work centers on realizing systems-based change, examining how progressive pedagogical shifts (e.g. PBL, ungrading) reimagine school to best suit the needs of students and teachers alike. He was a public high school digital media & design educator who focused on experiential learning, portfolio-driven assessment, and community involvement.
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