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UMass grad students take to the airwaves to reform education

BY RACHEL THIBAULT

Department of Communication

Education Radio is an activist-oriented radio program created primarily by UMass grad students and local educators in response to what they see as a growing need for attention to the destructive nature of market-based education reform. The VOICE asked the collective to answer some questions about their show, their goals, and the future of education reform.

Local grad students Hannah Mills, Deborah Keish Polin, Tim Scott, Timothy Sutton and Kate Way, along with Barbara Madeloni who teaches at UMass School of Education and local high school teacher Chris Herland currently constitute the collective. They invite graduate students and others who share their concerns and commitment to join their efforts. Education Radio can be contacted at educatradio@gmail.com. Listen to their show on WXOJ FM: Valley Free Radio, Northampton: Wednesdays, 4PM (EST) at 1680 AM/95.3 FM. Also check out their blog at http://education-radio.blogspot.com.

 

Q. Tell me about how Education Radio was formed. What was the impetus? Did you always have a radio program in mind, or did you consider other forms?
Although Education Radio is gaining relevance within the national public education movement, it originated as an effort to build local and regional resistance to the neoliberal education reform agenda.
In 2010 a group of UMass students and faculty collaborated with a Boston-based group called Citizens for Public Schools (CPS) to organize a conference at UMass called Saving Our Schools: Defending Public Education. It turned out to be a very compelling conference that was attended by academics as well as teachers, parents and students from the community.
Two of us from Education Radio who were organizers for the Saving Our Schools (Tim Scott and Deborah Keisch Polin) conference continued on, attempting to start a western MA chapter of CPS, calling ourselves Western Mass. Advocates for Public Schools.
Deborah and Tim called on other public education activists in the area to join our fledgling group, first by organizing a community screening of the film Teach along with a panel discussion made up of area teachers, parents and school committee members. We held this event as a means to build our group as well as a way to raise awareness about the destructive nature of market-based education reform policies.
For various reasons, Western Mass. Advocates for Public Schools was not finding traction, so one of its members (Tim Scott) put out an email to a list of public education activists (in the hopes of recruiting more members to co-host and produce the show) in March 2011.
This call received a significant enough response to proceed with a first meeting. Those who showed up (including current collective members Deborah Keisch Polin, Barbara Madeloni, Tim Sutton, Chris Herland and Tim Scott) were interested but skeptical, but we proceeded to take the first steps in figuring out what we would be trying to do and how we would do it. Few of us had radio or podcasting experience, so breaching a basic technology divide was prioritized. Another major concern involved, and continues to involve, capacity – due to the fact that we all already had full lives and the ongoing production of weekly shows requires many hours of labor. Both of these concerns continue to present challenges.
In July 2011, Education Radio participated in the Save Our Schools conference and rally in Washington D.C. This event drew education activists from across the nation, and the interviews we did and stories we collected at this event became the material we used for our first few shows. We also began to develop more formal relationships, as Education Radio, with education activists and scholars, and thus this event also marked the beginning of Education Radio’s involvement in what is a national movement fighting corporate education reform.
Kate Way, Hannah Mills, Dani O’Brien (graduate students from UMass and Smith)  and Bill Brown eventually joined the collective.
After returning from the SOS conference, we decided very quickly that we would not be doing recorded live local radio shows and would instead focus our efforts on producing pre-recorded, one-hour, weekly magazine shows that could easily be syndicated nationally via radio and the internet. We had every intent of becoming a social movement based program, that would directly support and join with those who were already or beginning to organize against so called education reform efforts–Wall Street and corporate foundation led efforts, insidiously disguised in social justice rhetoric, that are designed to destroy the very idea of universal public education (a foundation of any true democracy)  as a means to ensure that schooling further sorts students according to race, class and ability; to intensify social controls in the service of global capital, and most importantly so that education is a private-profit generating enterprise.
This is not to say that those of us with Education Radio as well as other public education activist in the movement want to return to the public education system of the past, which also primarily served as a function of social control to reproduce existing orders concerning race, class, gender, ability, etc. We recognize that the current education reform efforts are designed, and are in practice, intensifying those historic orders. The goals of the resistance movement we are a part of vary in scope and vision, yet the common vision involves a new direction all together, breaking from the neoliberal model and many aspects of the past public education system. Instead the idea is to reform public education to be more public, to live up to its potential as a public good – truly universal and equitably funded and structured – to become a vital public site for struggle and contestation – where all can participate, question, interrogate and imagine what true democracy and an equitable political economy can look like. Education should be a public commons where our children can imagine what a society can look like that serves the common interests of all. That is the exact opposite of what Wall Street and their lackeys in the Democratic and Republican parties are currently imposing on us.

Q. As a collective, Education Radio must make group decisions on programming and content. Can you describe how you work together? What is the creative process for an education radio program?
We have not established any formal processes and structures (such as consensus decision making) around decision making as a collective. Like many small groups that are not structured hierarchical, we mostly rely on developing trusting personal relationships – to varying degrees – where constructive honesty can assist us in building and maintaining respectful and shared decision making processes concerning all aspects of the project. This is not to say that things don’t get messy and frustrations do not flair, or that informal power does not exist. We are still working a lot of that stuff out. Fortunately, our commitment to the work and the movement has helped us all at different levels push through the messy stuff.
Shows are produced by one or two members, who take the lead in interviewing, research, and writing narrative. Education Radio meets weekly to review ideas for upcoming shows, share ideas for contacts and resources, and, as shows get closer to production, review the content and form of each show. Not every decision at each level is a group decision, but we support each other in the shaping each program.

Q. What has been the response so far to your programs? Has any particular topic (for example, your recent programming on the Teach for America controversy) sparked a debate either on the show or on your companion website, http://education-radio.blogspot.com/
We have been excited by the response to our programs both locally and nationally. When we attended the recent New York Collective of Radical Educators Conference in NYC and Occupy the Department of Education in Washington DC, Education Radio was recognized as activist media that people listened to and respected. We have heard from educators, teacher educators in particular, locally and nationally that they use our programs in their courses.
Depending upon the content of the shows, we have had strong responses from different communities. You note the TFA show, which led to a lot of action on our blog, as TFA members defended TFA and others commentators continued our critique.
A review of the TFA show by an ally in the movement on the greatschoolsforamerica.org website also provided an opportunity for us to expand understandings of the larger market forces involved in neoliberal education reform.
Other shows that garnered more intense response include the Stand for Children program and the recent show on Pearson Inc and the Teacher Performance Assessment. These shows served to not only inform, but also stirred more activism and are being used as tools for activism (which is central to our goals). The Stand for Children program, for example, is being sent out as a link by Massachusetts Jobs with Justice to support the struggle against Stand for Children’s ballot initiative, and it is also being used by the Massachusetts Teachers Association in the same effort.
The Pearson Inc and Teacher Performance program is being used in one college in California to inform their union members about issues with administering this assessment and has sparked interest from the New York Times. Responses to our programs are often of the nature of, “I am so glad someone is speaking about these issues, now I do not feel so alone with this!” Our hope and our sense of our impact is that we are giving people courage to speak out in their own contexts about these issues.

Q. How have local educators (as well as students) responded to your programs? Do you work with any local organizations that have similar goals?
In our Education Radio programs 8 & 9 (Family Voice and Engagement in a High Needs Public School: Radical Caring as School Reform and Unconditional Positive Regard: Can Radical Love Survive Strict Accountability Structures?), we profiled William Peck Full Service Community School in Holyoke. Education Radio producers Barbara Madeloni and Tim Sutton engaged in ongoing dialogue with teachers, parents, students and administrators to produce these two shows.
Education Radio program 15 (Looking Back with Williams, Kozol, Fine, Meiners and Ayers), included an interview with legendary educator and author Jonathan Kozol. During this interview when we told him about the Paulo Freire Social Justice charter school being developed in Holyoke, Kozol expressed outrage on many levels, claiming “this is an abomination.”
In Education Radio program 7 (The Reality of Virtual Schools) we investigated the Massachusetts Virtual Academy in Greenfield, MA. In this program, Education Radio producer Chris Herland, who is also an English teacher at Amherst High School, interviewed two Greenfield School Committee members who exposed many of the very problematic and questionable aspects of this virtual school, how it came to be, and the profiteering interests it ultimately serves. Chris also interviewed the Greenfield school superintendent behind it. This show included a segment where we ask Jonathan Kozol about virtual schools as well as the one in Greenfield. Again, he clearly and appropriately expressed his outrage. This show spawned a somewhat critical Washington Post article about virtual schools and the corporations behind them.
In the fall of 2011 we screened the film The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman and had more than 60 people attend. This included a class from UMass Amherst and educators up and down the Valley. One of our members, (UMass graduate student) Dani O’Brien, joined after this screening. At this screening, we were also able to connect with Neha Singhal, a SJE graduate student at UMass, which resulted in us collaborating with her to produce our two recent exposés of Teach for America (The Sham of Teach for America: Part One & The Ongoing Sham of Teach for America: Part Two).
We are connecting with activists in Boston at the upcoming Teacher Activist Group conference and, as noted above, attended and presented at the NYCoRE conference. Our goal is to be a national voice for educator activism and resistance to education reform. Local connections are an important part of this, but our connections with activists in Chicago, NY, Boston, California, Washington state, etc. are as much a part of who we are as our local connections.

Q. What goals do you have for the program going forward? Can you provide us with any details on upcoming topics?
There are so many critical issues in education right now, as the assault on public education is broad and takes many forms. One of our goals is to keep exploring each incident of this assault while being certain to make connections to the larger neo-liberal agenda that is looking to privatize not only schools, but all public spaces. To this end, we have upcoming shows on the absence of LGBTQ curriculum in schools, on how high stakes leads to more segregation and the school to prison pipeline, on the insidious work of venture philanthropists like Bill Gates. We want our listeners to not only understand the policies and the forces behind these policies, but also to have a sense of the impact of these forces on the lived experience of young people, teachers, parents, community members. We want to help people see how these macro forces enter our lives and our consciousness. We also, however, see it as essential that we tells stories of resistance and struggle as well as of the possible vision for public education that is liberatory.
The Education Radio collective is also interested in producing a film about the forces behind neoliberal education policies, their impact on communities across the country and the growing resistance movements that is being sparked.  We hope to begin production in the coming months and are currently in the final stages of writing a film treatment.

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