It’s been a year of robust student protests that have effectively highlighted racial and economic inequality in both K-12 and higher education. And unlike previous years, 2015 has made it clear to students that these protests can yield results.
From student debt activists attending meetings and public hearings with U.S. Department of Education officials to college executives stepping down from their posts after students of color demanded a more respectful climate on campus, protesters have proven that activism has a meaningful purpose in reducing inequities in education. Here are some of the most influential student protests of 2015:
Fighting to prevent AP history classes from erasing racism
AP American history courses have become a political battleground in the past few years — particularly after the College Board released new guidelines that included the history of violence against Native Americans, as well as a mention of the growing influence of social conservatives.
Conservatives railed against the standards, arguing that it’s unpatriotic to focus on more negative parts of U.S. history, such as slavery and Jim Crow laws. They said the guidelines should have included more information about the Founding Fathers and military victories. (The College Board, for its part, said it didn’t initially mention the Founding Fathers because it seemed obvious that a teacher would include them in a class on American history.)
The controversy got so heated that the RNC even asked Congress to stop funding the College Board, saying it “emphasizes negative aspects of our nation’s history while omitting or minimizing positive aspects.” Former Republican presidential candidate and soon-to-be former Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal fanned the flames of conservative anger over AP history standards by suggesting that if history were included in Common Core standards, it would be about “victimhood” and “America’s shortcomings and failures.”
CREDIT: Brennan Linsley, AP
But some students fought back. After the Jefferson County, Colorado school board voted to create a committee to review the AP history course for similar reasons as those cited by the RNC, high school students protested and walked out of class, telling CNN, “True patriotism ought to be based upon accurate understanding of American history, and not a biased promotion of American exceptionalism.” Soon after the protests, the Jefferson County school board canceled a review of the standards. And the conservative members of the board who supported the review have since been voted out.
The College Board did agree to change the framework of AP history standards after outcry from conservative legislators in a few states like Georgia, Nebraska, Tennessee, Texas, and North Carolina. The Board now includes more information about “American exceptionalism” and more mentions of the Founding Fathers.
However, despite the fact that the College Board caved to conservative pressure by including the phrase “American exceptionalism,” it doesn’t appear that it has backed down on presenting an unvarnished and accurate account of American history. Mentions of slavery will be “roughly the same” as they were in previous standards, according to Newsweek.
Speaking up for racial justice on college campuses
CREDIT: Jeff Roberson, AP
Protests against universities’ poor handling of racist incidents and an overall hostile campus climate for students of color ramped up this fall. One of the first protests to gain national attention was the decision of the University of Missouri’s mostly black football team to go on strike after several racist incidents against black students on campus, including a swastika drawn with feces on the bathroom wall and the harassment of the African American student association president by men in a pickup truck. The president, Tim Wolfe, resigned soon after the strike began.
Only a week later, Mary Spellman, the dean of students at a small California college called Claremont McKenna, resigned after students protested against the administration’s lack of response to situations such as students of color being spit on at parties, white students posing in racially offensive Halloween costumes, and vandalism of posters supporting Black Lives Matter.
At Ithaca College in upstate New York, a group of students of color called “POC at IC” are also demanding the resignation of an administration official, President Tom Rochon, for his lack of reaction to similar incidents, such as two white male alums calling a black alumna a “savage” during a recent alumni panel. Hundreds of students have protested, and 78 percent of full-time faculty joined students in a vote of “no confidence” for the president last week.
Student protests also spread to Yale University, after a faculty member responded to a mass email suggesting students not wear racist Halloween costumes and suggested students of color simply look away when white students wear blackface.
CREDIT: Julio Cortez, AP
There has also been a movement across several well-known, centuries-old campuses to rename buildings emblazoned with the names of slaveowners and white supremacists, with the aim of making students of color feel more welcome on campus.
Georgetown University will rename two campus buildings — Mulledy Hall and McSherry Hall — that are currently named after slaveowners, following protests and sit-ins from students demanding increased awareness about the institution’s racial legacy. Students at Princeton University, Yale University, and other Ivy League universities have asked that buildings named after white supremacists and slaveowners be renamed. Princeton students recently staged a sit in to demand Woodrow Wilson’s name be removed from campus buildings.
Holding predatory for-profit colleges accountable for scamming students
The media has been highlighting the problem of crippling student debt for years, but recent protests by student debt activists have resulted in a real policy discussion about what the government can do to relieve students of the debt that is preventing them from reaching major life milestones. And although the focus used to be primarily on middle-class students attending expensive traditional colleges that left them with a mountain of debt, attention has now shifted toward low-income students who may have attended for-profit colleges — students who have less student debt, but who also have fewer job prospects.
CREDIT: Craig Hammond
After two major for-profit college companies — Corinthian Colleges and Education Management Corporation, or EDMC — were investigated by multiple state and federal government entities for defrauding students, coverage of for-profit colleges has been extended to questions about what the U.S. Department of Education intends to do to relieve the financial struggles of those students. After the Debt Collective erased nearly $4 million in student debt by purchasing that debt for $100,000, and over 1,000 former students of Corinthian Colleges protested the lack of government action on student by by refusing to make payments on their debt, the message that the higher education game is rigged became a popular sentiment echoed by protesters across the country.
This past summer and fall, former EDMC students began protesting in front of open houses to prevent other students from making the same mistake they did — attending an institution that did not prepare them for the industry they studied for and left them with thousands in student debt. On November 12, the Million Student March, which includes many for-profit college graduates as well as students and graduates of traditional colleges, demanded a debt-free college education and called for all student debt to be erased.
CREDIT: Brandon Yadegari
Their requests have influenced the way presidential candidates talk about student debt. All of the Democratic presidential candidates have introduced plans to reduce the burden of student debt. Hillary Clinton introduced the most moderate plan, under which students could attend a public university and not have to take out loans for tuition. States would be encouraged to gradually increase spending on public colleges and curb a rise in tuition through $175 billion in grants. Meanwhile, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has proposed a bill that would eliminate student debt at public four-year universities entirely and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley released a debt-free college plan that would let students refinance their loans at lower rates, automatically enroll students in income-based repayment plans and freeze tuition rates.
Republicans have also paid lip service to concerns about student debt by proposing income-share plans that allow investors to pay for students’ tuition as long as they agree to pay back a certain percentage of their future income through the years, as Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie have suggested.
And now, the Department of Education is creating a process for deciding whether students have a worthy claim for borrower defense to repayment, which allows students defrauded by their college to erase their debt, assuming they took out Direct Loans. The department is taking its time on this but without the attention that came from student debt activism over the past year, it’s possible the decades-old provision would have continued to go unused by defrauded students. Democratic senators are also holding the department of education and the U.S. Department of Justice’s feet to the fire when they fail to hold for-profit colleges accountable and provide financial relief for students.
Standing up against the closure of a Chicago school
To protest the closure of Dyett High School in Chicago, a small group of community activists and parents underwent a weeks-long hunger strike. The hunger strikers argued that the school shouldn’t be shuttered because the alternatives for students in the neighborhood won’t work.
Many other public schools in predominantly black neighborhoods in Chicago have closed in the past decade, thanks to an approach that began when Arne Duncan, now education secretary, served as the head of Chicago Public Schools. Duncan’s aim was to close low-performing schools and open new schools with the hope that students would have a better chance to succeed.
But new doesn’t necessarily mean better. Looking at the school closures from the 2001-2002 school year to 2011-2012 school year, school closings and school turnarounds have disproportionately affected schools in black neighborhoods. Many of those closings were near former Chicago Housing Authority Developments, and only 15 percent of replacement schools were rated “high performing” by CPS. Thirty-two percent received the lowest rating.
CREDIT: CREDIT: COURTESY OF DYETT GLOBAL LEADERSHIP & GREEN TECHNOLOGY HIGH SCHOOL’S FACEBOOK PAGE
That trend continued under new leadership. In 2013, Chicago Public Schools announced a plan to close 54 schools mostly located in black neighborhoods. The Chicago School Board later voted to close 49 schools.
On Day 17 of the hunger strike, protesters went to Washington, D.C. to deliver a letter to Duncan to urge him to support the school. The strikers held a press conference with National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, among other representatives from various education advocacy groups, showing that the Chicago hunger strike had become a national issue.
The strike got results, although they weren’t the exact results protesters asked for. On Day 18, CPS announced that it would reopen the school for the 2016-17 school year as an open enrollment, arts-focused school.
Pushing to spend less time on testing
Over the past year, parents and students have protested what they consider to be over-testing of students, as well as tying teacher evaluations to test results, by opting out of standardized tests. The growing “opt-out movement” became especially active in states such as New York, Colorado, New Jersey, Indiana, Michigan, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, Oregon, and Wisconsin.
The movement became particularly visible in New York, where 20 percent of students opted out of tests in 2015. The number of New York students opting out quadrupled from last year and many of the participants were concentrated in wealthy areas of the state, such as Long Island. Because of the substantial difference between the number of test-takers last year and this year, it will be difficult to make comparisons when analyzing student performance.
CREDIT: Matt Rourke, AP
The opt-out movement also put tensions between administrators and teachers on full display. Administrators have the incentive to ensure a 95 percent participation rate, lest schools face sanctions from the Department of Education — while teachers have reason to encourage opt-outs, given the fact that many of them are evaluated on test scores or may resent “teaching to the test.” Some education advocates argue that by focusing on how to prepare students for standardized tests, teachers are less able to focus on other important parts of learning, such as fostering critical thinking skills and encouraging creativity.
Recent developments on the state and federal level suggest the out-out movement has been heard, however. The Obama administration has released guidance on testing that suggests keeping time spent on tests under 2 percent, not using test scores as a major consideration in teacher evaluations, and making sure that the tests states do continue to administer are “quality” tests. The administration will release more detailed guidance in January.
In New York specifically, Gov. Andrew Cuomo heard critics loud and clear. In September, the governor created a task force to review the Common Core standards and Common Core-aligned tests. And earlier this month, the task force released a report recommending overhauling the current system completely with an emphasis on reducing the number of hours spent on tests and the role of test scores in teacher evaluations. Although the New York legislature passed a 1 percent cap on time spent on state tests, schools are actually spending closer to 2 percent of class time on tests when you factor in pre-test and post-test activities, according to a recent report from The Benjamin Center at SUNY New Paltz.