The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2013

All Issues
NOV 2013 Issue

BATS Step Up to the Plate

They call themselves BATS, an acronym for Badass Teachers, and they’re mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.

Photo from

According to the group’s website,, “The Badass Teacher’s Association was created to give voice to every teacher who refuses to be blamed for the failure of our society to erase poverty and inequality through education. BAT’s members refuse to accept assessments, tests, and evaluations created and imposed by corporate-driven entities that have contempt for authentic teaching and learning.”

Their goals are broad: To reduce or eliminate high-stakes testing in public schools; to increase teacher autonomy in the classroom; to ensure that parents, students, and teachers have input into policies that affect them; and to end the one-size-fits-all pedagogical model promulgated by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, pro-testing and anti-union activist Michelle Rhee, and funders including Charles and David Koch, ExxonMobil, and Bill and Melinda Gates. What’s more, BATS also opposes the hiring of low-cost, short-term Teach for America participants instead of more traditionally educated teachers, a policy that has become common throughout the country.

Given recent attacks on public education—many of them targeting unionized teachers—it is not surprising that the Badass Teacher’s Association has grown rapidly. Mark Naison, a Park Slope resident and longtime teacher who helped launch the BATS with Oklahoma education activist Priscilla Sanstead, told the Rail that, "This summer, on June 14th at 4:30 p.m., she and I created a Facebook page for the Badass Teacher’s Association. Three hundred people signed up the first day. By June 22nd we had 8,000 BATS.” As of October, the group now has about 30,000 members.

In the face of the bipartisan push for education reform, Naison is proudly defiant. “While some people object to the name, many teachers realize that they can’t trust the Republicans or the Democrats so they might as well be badasses,” he says. “We now have groups in all 50 states and have seen the most growth in places where unions are weak. There’s been a lot of BAT activity in Michigan, North Carolina, and Tennessee, states where workers are under tremendous assault.” Yet even in New York, where labor remains strong, activists want to keep union leaders from cutting too many deals with the Democrats.

High-profile supporters of BATS include Diane Ravitch, former Assistant Secretary of Education under President George H.W. Bush and author of the recently released book, Reign of Error, and Karen Jennings Lewis, President of the militant Chicago Teacher’s Union. But most importantly, they have the support of people directly affected by public school policies. In fact, a recent Gallup poll found that 77 percent of Americans believe that the relentless use of standardized testing as a measure of achievement detracts from true educational progress. In addition, 94 percent of those surveyed reported that they oppose cuts to music, drama, art, and sports programs and said that they would like to see schools value athletics and the arts as much as they value academic instruction.

The BATS agree. “We want kids to have something to come to school for,” Naison continues, “something that expands their abilities and sense of worth and gets them excited about learning. Testing is unbelievably expensive and is usually punitive rather than diagnostic. It leaves teachers feeling demoralized, beaten down, over-observed, and over-assessed.”

Lauren M. Cohen, a teacher since 2005, is a case in point. She says she received a “verbal lashing” from her former school’s principal after she was overheard telling a third grader that he did not need to be concerned about the upcoming reading exam. “The principal’s attitude was, ‘How dare I tell him not to worry!’ She told me that I had given this boy permission to blow off the test.” Cohen was further instructed to inform the child that it was “up to him whether he passed or failed.” Now a BAT, Cohen presently works at P.S. 321 a Brooklyn elementary school that is less focused on scores and ratings than her previous workplace, but she has nonetheless found it hard to shake off her earlier experience.

Similarly, many high school instructors resent the many hoops they have to jump through to stay employed. BATS member Aaron Barlow, an English professor at New York College of Technology (CUNY), teaches in a program that allows students at two Brooklyn secondary schools—P-Tech and City Poly—to complete high school and obtain an associate’s degree within five years. In late October, President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan visited P-Tech in Crown Heights.

Although early-college programs sound like a terrific way to give kids an advantage, Barlow is quick to point out their many flaws. “There are so many constraints,” he says. “For example, they’ve set up parameters for how texts should be chosen. Around 60 percent of the books we use need to be ‘informational texts.’ What is that? Is The Grapes of Wrath informational? How is that defined? No one knows, but because schools are going to be assessed, they have to be as conservative and narrow as possible. This does nothing to improve learning for students. And because teacher assessment relies heavily on student test results, the upshot is that schools are being made smaller and smaller in terms of intellectual breadth.”

Barlow’s exasperation is obvious and his slight Southern accent gets increasingly noticeable as he lays out his frustrations. “Back in 1992 and 1993, I taught at Brooklyn Friends School,” he continues. “I had the freedom to give the students a real education. To see public high school curricula now, it’s really clear that we are developing a two-tiered system of education where public school teachers are given less freedom to actually teach.”

The disproportionate emphasis on standardized testing angers many veteran teachers. According to Long Island teacher Marla Kilfoyle, who began teaching middle and high school social studies and social science research in 1985, “We now have to take time to do all the testing for our evaluations. Before, in my research classes, I didn’t test. Evaluating kids was based on performance. I now have to give baseline tests and a final exam, which is very sad to me because it means that I have to take time to review so they don’t fail and I don’t get a crappy evaluation.”

Even worse, Kilfoyle says that she feels as though she has to teach to a script. “There is no diversification of practice. We’re just teaching Common Core modules that are a ridiculous and inappropriate way to teach concepts.”

Indeed, the fact that 45 states and the District of Columbia have agreed to adopt the ExxonMobil-approved Common Core curricula enrages the BATS. Members, of course, support education that improves student literacy, general knowledge, and mathematical competency but are critical of formulaic learning like that emphasized by the Common Core model.

It is worth noting that the idea for the Common Core—which essentially creates a timetable for cookie-cutter modules that public school students need to complete—began to take root in 2007 during a meeting of the National Governor’s Association and Counsel of Chief State School officials. After test results placed U.S. students 25th among 34 nations in math and science, lawmakers panicked and sought help from the private sector—enter the Koch brothers and Gates Foundation—to formulate solutions. Although the ostensible goal sounds relatively benign: “to help students from all states get college and career ready for a global economy,” Kilfoyle quips that “Common Core should be called The Stepford Wives Curriculum. A teacher has to keep moving, even if students have learning deficits, in order to meet the deadlines for each module and prepare for testing.”

Moreover, Kilfoyle explains, the Common Core promotes conformity and conventional thinking—something she sees as an even more dangerous affront to teaching and learning. Furthermore, instead of allowing schools to serve as neighborhood hubs, Kilfoyle and the BATS charge that Common Core is making them irrelevant to the people they were established to serve.

“When I was a kid in the 1950s, the schools were open from three-to-five and seven-to-nine, five days a week, for supervised after-school activities,” Naison says. “Teachers ran these after-hours programs and were paid for doing so. We need to do this again. We also need to radically cut down on testing and invest in pre-schools and vocational education, as well as art, music, and sports programs.”

An ambitious agenda? Perhaps, but the BATS are hunkering down for the long haul. They’ve already made quite a splash. In addition to a slew of local actions, during its first five months, Badass Teachers have organized a call-in to the White House to push President Obama to dump Arne Duncan; have been interviewed on numerous national radio programs; protested the pro-testing, pro-Common Core slant of NBC TV’s Education Nation; and are now planning a huge summer 2014 protest at the Department of Education headquarters in D.C. Their Facebook page and website have also proved invaluable, giving disgruntled educators a place to vent, debate, and strategize.

“We would like to be the ACT-UP of the public education movement,” Naison adds. “Members are already having fun, doing things with flair and humor. It’s exciting. We’ve attracted conservative Tea Party members and people from Occupy Wall Street, young teachers and 40-year-veterans, all of whom hate the idea of the federal government imposing tests on kids and curricula on teachers. Last year saw a large revolt, led by parents, against standardized testing, with about 10,000 kids ‘opting out.’ Our job, as BATS, is to keep this outrage alive and promote opting out so that when the tests are again given in April, the number of kids refusing to take them is much, much larger.”


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2013

All Issues