Vol. 46, Issue 4 ‣ profile
Mark Naison possesses the soul of a warrior. A professor of African-American Studies and History at Fordham University in the Bronx and a member of the Fordham faculty since 1970, he was a civil rights activist in the 1960s and was once a controversial enough figure to have his house bugged by the FBI.
So it was in keeping with his scrappy nature when Naison co-founded the Badass Teachers Association (BAT) as a “We’re as mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore!” rejoinder to what he saw happening in U.S. schools. He was fed up with what he perceived to be corporate control of public education and the test-driven policies it inspired via Common Core.
BAT began on June 14, 2013, as a simple Facebook page. But a nerve was struck—Badass Teachers’ membership swelled from two, Naison and co-founder Priscilla Sanstead, to 2,000 in less than 48 hours.
“Here we started with this half-humorous, half-provocative name expecting it to be a cute little thing,” Naison recalls. “Instead, almost by accident, we sparked a huge national movement.”
We know that teachers have never lacked passion. What they lacked is a voice that allowed them to speak out against these destructive reform policies that evaluate their performance based on student test scores.
The 16-month-old group today claims a membership of more than 52,000 teachers, professors and educators from kindergarten through university in all 50 states and several dozen foreign countries—the largest and fastest-growing education activist group in the world. Its motto: “This organization is for every teacher who refuses to be blamed for the failure of our society to erase poverty and inequality, and refuses to accept assessments, tests and evaluations imposed by those who have contempt for real teaching and learning.”
The popularity of Badass Teachers has left Naison both exceedingly proud and greatly humbled, as a generation of grateful teachers have responded to his clarion call to unite against a public education system bent on scapegoating the profession.
“We know that teachers have never lacked passion,” Naison says. “What they have lacked is a voice that allowed them to speak out against these destructive education reform policies that evaluate their performance based on student test scores. They are tired of rules coming down the pike that force them to commit what they consider professional malpractice.
“And so it’s like, ‘Oh, they’re going to call us bad? Well then, we’re going to be badass!’”
The establishment of Badass Teachers was really something of a last resort, Naison says. He explains that reasonable arguments were presented to legislators and school officials opposing the cult of standardized testing that took hold in the wake of the No Child Left Behind policy signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2002 and later the Common Core curriculum instituted by President Barack Obama in 2009.
“We tried being nice and polite when discussing the problems posed by this policy while I was with Save Our Schools, another group dedicated to fighting them,” he says. “But it didn’t work. All we got was laughed at. The only thing they respect is militancy. So that’s what we’re giving them by taking our fight to the streets.”
There is little question that the fearless Naison is the right man for this job. His activism includes a 1968 arrest on the campus of Columbia University in New York City for civil disobedience at a protest of Columbia’s plan to build a new gymnasium in a Harlem park. He has also written more than 100 articles as an expert on African-American and urban history and has an affinity for getting in the face of what he considers the establishment. But in giving voice to disaffected educators, Naison has taken his radical instincts and used them to help restore the unity and confidence of a group under assault for the failure of everything that has gone wrong in our school system.
Naison and his BAT cohorts now campaign as an organized force opposing politicians who sing the praises of standardized testing while denigrating teachers. They launch drives on social media to take on those who push tests at the expense of educators, the students in their charge and learning itself. Badass Teachers calls for a significant reduction in standardized testing, an increase in teacher autonomy, and inclusion of teacher-family voices in legislative processes that impact students and learning. It’s about taking the power out of the boardroom and returning it to the classroom, says Naison, with the understanding that teachers are less to blame for the crisis in public education than is the fact that American schools find themselves gripped by the highest poverty rate in the industrialized world.
“This is how you wind up with the lowest teacher morale in history,” he says, “and why teaching careers now average five years instead of 15, which it was 20 years ago. The so-called reforms have led to teachers being totally demoralized. I can’t tell you the thousands of teachers who email me, looking to get out of the profession.”
Never before, believes Naison, have teachers felt more embattled or more alone. Some suffer physically or mentally from the stress of having to fight a system that has worked to usurp their power and presence in the classroom. He reasons that learning is pushed far down the list of priorities when teachers are left to battle their own fear and to ward off retaliation for speaking their mind. And so Naison is only too happy to do the speaking for them.
Evidence is mounting that Naison and BAT are starting to be heard. A Badass Teachers rally in July outside the Department of Education in Washington, D.C., resulted in six demonstrators meeting with a handful of senior Office of Civil Rights staffers to air their grievances. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan himself joined the meeting for its second half. A teacher present at the meeting says it generated productive talks.
It is a promising beginning, Naison hopes—and recognition that a badass teacher is a respected teacher.
“We’re going to keep making noise,” he promises, “because we really have no other choice.”