by Dave Stratman

Nearly 100 teachers, with a number of parents and students, came together in Brockton, MA on Nov. 18 in a conference on high stakes testing in Massachusetts. The conference was sponsored by New Democracy and planned in conjunction with eight local and state leaders of the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA), the 90,000 member teacher union in Massachusetts.

The fight against MCAS has been growing rapidly but has stayed within very narrow bounds, refusing to point out the obvious—that the tests are being promoted by the largest corporations in the state—and refusing to criticize the many other very destructive reforms of which MCAS is part. New Democracy has been trying to expand the debate, showing that high stakes testing is part of a 30-year-long corporate attack on working people, to lower their expectations and to strengthen corporate control of society. We also argue that the alternative to high stakes testing is not some other form of tests but to change the schools.

In its story on our conference, the Boston Globe reported: "The Massachusetts Business Roundtable created the pro-MCAS non-profit group MassInsight. Cathy Minehan, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, is co-chair of MassInsight. FleetBoston, Bell Atlantic, IBM, Intel, and the Boston Private Industry Council are also members."

The conference included terrific speeches. Joe O'Sullivan, president of the Brockton Education Association, compared MCAS with "a drive-by shooting: inaccurate, indiscriminate, and destructive."

Carol Doherty, a New Democracy editor and former president of the MTA, chaired the conference; she said, "It's not enough to stop the tests; we must also change the schools."

Tim Collins, president of the Springfield Education Association and an outspoken MCAS critic, described the terrible toll the tests are taking in Springfield, a city that is 80% minority. Collins said, "This isn't just a drive-by shooting; this is educational genocide."

Dave Stratman, former Washington Director of the National PTA and editor of New Democracy, showed that education reform is part of a corporate strategy to force students to accept their place in a more unequal, less democratic society and to strengthen corporate control of society.

Susan Ohanian, author of One Size Fits Few: The Folly of Educational Standards, delivered a very moving keynote speech focusing on poignant stories of student success and failure in the face of educational "standards." Ms. Ohanian declared that the real problem isn't the tests but the educational standards that lie behind them. There were also break-out sessions on topics of critical interest to the anti-testing movement.

The afternoon plenary session focused on a fundamental question: Should we downsize human beings to fit the needs of the economic structure, or should we change the economic and political structure to allow the full development of human beings? The battle over education reform confronts us with the question of revolution. New Democracy is against both capitalism and communism. What are we for? Real democracy, in which ordinary people shape the society with their best shared values.

New Democracy is based on a simple insight: that most people, in the little piece of the world that they think they can control, try to shape the world with values the opposite of capitalist values, with love and trust and mutual support and equality and commitment. This means that most people are already trying to create a better society; a revolutionary movement already exists in the everyday lives of people trying to do the right thing. The problem is that we don't get very far–because our struggle is under constant attack and because we are not aware of the earth-shaking significance of our efforts.

The fight over testing is a window into the most fundamental conflicts over the direction and goals of society. Our efforts should not be directed to talking with legislators but towards reaching out to our communities, explaining what the struggle is all about and connecting with the democratic values shared by the great majority of people to build a movement to change all of society. We had forty-five minutes of exciting open discussion of these points.

The whole day was a great success. You could have heard a pin drop during the speeches. There was a wonderful spirit of commitment in the room. The break-out sessions and the afternoon plenary were very lively. The conference certainly succeeded in broadening the debate over MCAS, and raising forthrightly the corporate motivation behind it.

When I was being interviewed by a Boston Globe reporter the week before the conference, I said that MCAS is not about education but about social control. The reporter said, "If you can get 100 teachers in a room discussing MCAS as a form of social control, that is an historic event." In fact we had 100 teachers and others in a room discussing the corporate role in education reform and democratic revolution as the logical solution to corporate domination of society.

The MTA local presidents and state leaders who are on our planning committee were thrilled with the conference. They were, after all, sticking their necks out by working publicly with an organization that says that the answer to corporate domination of society is democratic revolution.

The planning committee will continue to meet and to grow; three more local MTA presidents have joined us since the conference. The planning committee is now discussing how to build on our success.

The New Democracy conference showed that it is possible to discuss forbidden subjects—the destructive role of corporate and government elites in our society, and the possibility of breaking their power over us—in a democratic, thoughtful way. People left the conference at the end of the day more inspired, more confident, and more committed to win this important fight. The New Democracy conference was truly historic.

Originally published in New Democracy Newsletter, January-February 2001.