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Do You SUPE?

A growing movement of student activism

By Brenda Álvarez


Hannah Nguyen (pictured left), a sophomore at the university of Southern California, gave Students First founder Michelle Rhee an earful during an education town hall meeting last year in Los Angeles. Although Rhee is unapologetic about her aggressive style of corporate education reform and anti-union sentiment, the event was touted as an opportunity to exclude polarizing rhetoric from school reform conversations.

But Nguyen heard something different that evening. Before her mic was pulled, she told the panel of notables that the event had looked at education policy issues through a divisive lens of reformers against teacher unions.

“Standing here and watching this battle is really disheartening because…this is more than reformers versus teachers…this is a social justice issue,” Nguyen said, explaining that schools needed to take into account “in-school factors.” Simultaneously, she said, schools need to “work on outside-school factors and [care] about the whole child.”

Empowering Future Educators
Nguyen is part of a budding movement at colleges and universities that is empowering future educators to take control of their profession before they enter the classroom as fully accredited teachers.

The movement is driven in part by Students United for Public Education (SUPE), which seeks to defend public education from poorly crafted policies and promote a quality and equitable education for every student.

College and university students are leading the SUPE charge.


Stephanie Rivera is a SUPE co-founder. When she was in her second year at Rutgers University in New Jersey nearly two years ago, Rivera was assigned to read Brian D. Schultz’s Spectacular Things Happen Along the Way: Lessons from an Urban Classroom. Until then, she had thought equal opportunity, especially in education, was real. After all, she had attended a great public school in her hometown of Egg Harbor, N.J., that was diverse and well-funded.

“I thought all schools were like that,” she says. But after reading Schultz’s book that describes how some education systems deprive youth, she says, “I was infuriated.”

Rivera was further infuriated by scripted curricula, high-stakes testing, budget cuts, school closures, and unproven policies pushed by corporate education reformers and people with little to no experience in the classroom.

Rivera took to the blogosphere and created Teacher Under Construction, a blog that spotlighted issues in education. Most important, the blog provided the perspective of a student—one studying education.

The blog piqued the interest of students from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who shared similar concerns.

Rivera says that at the time “there was no dominant voice on college campuses fighting for public education and standing up for the profession.” The only voices students heard came from corporate reform groups such as Students for Education Reform and Teach for America (TFA).

Teaching is ‘a profession, not a pastime’
After a few Skype meetings with UW students, SUPE launched in November 2012. Within two weeks, 500 people—high school and university students, teachers, parents, and education leaders who including Diane Ravitch—jumped on board.

On her own blog, Ravitch says that Rivera “joins our honor roll as a hero of public education because she has bravely taken on powerful forces and dared to ask hard questions. She understands that teaching is hard work, and that it is a profession, not a pastime.”

With that nod of approval, SUPE quickly became recognized as a national organization determined to create a network of students who are committed to educational equity in America.

SUPE works with students, teachers, parents, community members, education professionals, and their organizations to promote, defend, and fight for a quality public education for every student.

SUPE helps to amplify all student voices, especially those that are often silenced, and members advocate for constructive conversations that provide different viewpoints and collaborative thinking based on the principle of equality, not profit.

Chapters have formed in many states, including Florida, Illinois, Indiana, New York, Ohio, and Wisconsin. Activists promote and support student protests and raise awareness of critical education issues through social media and political action.

In Florida, SUPE members organized an online petition against a parent-trigger bill, which failed in the Florida Senate.

Unveiling TFA
But SUPE is more than protests, petitions, and phone calls. The group takes a hard line against fly-by-night corporate education reform groups, too.
The group has taken on Teach for America— an organization with a long history of recruiting on college campuses.

Nguyen says the goal of SUPE’s “Students Resisting Teach for America” is to make prospective TFA corps members aware that TFA’s teaching model and connection to corporate education reform movements threaten to perpetuate inequalities in low-income communities.

“SUPE is not here to completely eradicate Teach for America,” Nguyen says. “This is not simply a campaign against the organization…Instead, we hope that by adding more to the dialogue around TFA, we can begin to work with the organization in an honest, democratic, and productive manner to develop solutions that help communities and honor the voices of students who demand more from the organization.”

SUPE chapters throughout the country, along with other interested college students, will distribute leaflets, hold teach-ins, and serve on panels to raise critical questions and consciousness about TFA to college students and campus communities.

“We hope to build the resistance movement against Teach for America and urge the organization to take serious actions that will reform their model and enact positive change in education,” Nguyen says.

The response from college students has been positive.

Jen Johnson, a Chicago teacher, posted on SUPE’s website: “This cause is just. College students everywhere deserve to hear the other side of the story. I was duped in college into applying for TFA. I was accepted and was assigned to teach elementary school…but I was about to receive a BSed and a teaching certificate to teach high school. [That] showed me what TFA was really about. I woke up real fast. We need to let young people know what effect TFA really has so they can make the informed decision to either become a teacher responsibly or to dabble in some other profession to boost their résumés.”

For more information, visit SUPE.

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