Tag Archives: Corporate School Reform

THOMAS JEFFERSON: PATRON SAINT OF THE ED REFORM BACKLASH

Far from being the right-wing, gun-toting, fundamentalist Christian libertarian he is made out to be by the Glenn Becks of this country, Thomas Jefferson is the spiritual fountainhead of American education.

Far from being the right-wing, gun-toting, fundamentalist Christian libertarian he is made out to be by the Glenn Becks of this country, Thomas Jefferson was the spiritual fountainhead of American education.

Thomas Jefferson’s gravestone reads:

Here Was Buried
Thomas Jefferson
Author of the
Declaration
of
American Independence
of the
Statute of Virginia
for
Religious Freedom
and Father of the
University of Virginia

These words were chosen by Jefferson himself. They reveal what Jefferson was most proud of. Nowhere does it say Minister to France, Secretary of State, Vice President, President, Humbler of the Barbary Coast, Purchaser of Louisiana or Founder of the Republican (later Democratic) Party, even though these are some of the things for which our textbooks celebrate him.

“Father of the University of Virginia” has a place underneath “Author of the Declaration of American Independence.” Jefferson’s work in the field of education is eclipsed by his other mammoth accomplishments not to mention his affair with Sally Hemings, the woman he held in bondage for so long. Yet the University of Virginia was never eclipsed in his own mind.

It is instructive that the man himself was so proud of the University of Virginia. According to the university’s website:

Thomas Jefferson founded the University of Virginia in 1819. He wished the publicly-supported school to have a national character and stature. Jefferson envisioned a new kind of university, one dedicated to educating leaders in practical affairs and public service rather than for professions in the classroom and pulpit exclusively. It was the first nonsectarian university in the United States and the first to use the elective course system.

Jefferson wished to draw the brightest youth to Virginia so they could be educated to serve the fledgling republican (small “r”) nation. In 1800, Jefferson wrote of his vision for such a university:

“We wish to establish in the upper country of Virginia, and more centrally for the State, a University on a plan so broad and liberal and modern, as to be worth patronizing with the public support, and be a temptation to the youth of other States to come and drink of the cup of knowledge and fraternize with us.”

Therefore, it would be a public university funded by public money to serve a public purpose.

The foregoing should act as a caution to all of the so-called education reformers. Jefferson was proud of creating a publicly-funded university to serve the public interest. The current wave of creating privately-run charter schools would have probably struck him as counterproductive to the public good. The notion that the function of school is to produce workers to benefit private capital he would have probably found anathema.

It is true that Jefferson’s vision was what some might call “elitist” today. The University of Virginia was not for everyone, just the “brightest” youth (not to mention male and white). These “brightest” most likely would come from well-off families whose children could afford the time for idle study rather than the backbreaking work of farming that was the occupation of most Americans at the time. By our standards the University of Virginia’s mission as conceived by Jefferson was elitist and narrow.

But by the standards of his time Jefferson’s vision exemplified republican egalitarianism. Rather than birth determining how far one could rise, like it did in Europe, Jefferson saw a country where people rose according to their abilities. The University of Virginia reflected the Jeffersonian ideal of a meritocratic republican society.

By the time Jefferson founded his university in 1819 he was already an American icon. He had served two terms as president between 1801 and 1809 in which his greatest accomplishment, the Louisiana Purchase, ended up doubling the size of the United States. Today’s school children learn that the Louisiana Purchase was born out of America’s desire for the port of New Orleans, Napoleon’s need for cash and Jefferson’s willingness to push presidential powers to the limit to further the young nation’s interests. All of this is true but it certainly is not the whole story.

The title of Gordon Wood’s most recent book Empire of Liberty, which covers the early days of the American republic, is lifted from Thomas Jefferson. One of Jefferson’s goals for the Louisiana Purchase was to divide the territory bought from Napoleon into individual plots to be sold to American homesteaders at cheap prices. He hoped it would draw the growing American population out west and ensure that every American would own a certain minimal piece of land. This type of economic equality was necessary for political equality in Jefferson’s view. Enormous concentrations of wealth, which he saw as a tendency of the proto-capitalist system emerging in the north at the time, was anathema to a Jeffersonian republic of equal citizens.

Along with these homesteads, Jefferson hoped to reserve land in the new territory for public schools. He dreamed of a school system accessible to all (white male landowners) where people would be educated in republican virtues and Enlightenment thinking. These schools would instill a set of republican core values within the population and ensure the continued survival of republican government. Jefferson dreamed of a public school system that was a civic institution. This, along with cheap land, would be tremendous steps towards making all people equal, thereby fulfilling the promise of his Declaration of Independence.

Jefferson hoped that after a generation of homesteading and public schooling the population would be firm believers in equality. A continent of free and freedom-loving Americans united by common values, language and customs was Jefferson’s dream of an “Empire of Liberty”. Such an empire would have no use for a central government. Jefferson hoped that the state would no longer be necessary after the people were sufficiently “equal” and republican. At the very least he envisioned an American continent of 4 or 5 smallish countries living in peace due to a common belief in republican equality. Schools were to be an integral part of Jefferson’s Empire of Liberty.

While Jefferson certainly is not the first American to articulate a vision of public schooling he was probably the most important. The Pilgrims who landed in Massachusetts made public education a centerpiece of their “city upon a hill”. Under British rule, the Anglican Church established schools throughout the colonies to ensure loyalty to British institutions. Jefferson is important because his was a vision of schooling uniquely American, embodying American values as he saw them. We can never totally ignore nor totally escape the Jeffersonian influence upon our education system.

But that has not been from a lack of trying. Self-styled school reformers of our age prey upon public assumptions of what schooling is: a way for Americans to learn skills so they can “get a job” thereby keeping America “competitive” in a “globalized economy”. Essentially, schools are seen as the handmaiden of capital producing cheap labor for those who own the capital. This is why the reformer program of privately-run charters and results-based education (as measured by standardized testing) have resonated for so long.

This is because the school system as we know it today was largely the brainchild of capital. It was the Carnegies and Rockefellers of the world, the first generation of capitalists, who lobbied for the creation of a public school system. It was seen as a way to save the capitalists the trouble of training the workforce themselves. They found ready allies in nativist Americans who were put off by the strange new immigrants entering the country around the turn of the 20th century. For them, schools were a way to train the children of immigrants in American values. The nativists were closer to the Jeffersonian ideal of schooling than the capitalists.

In 2013 it is safe to say that the capitalist influence has won. The biggest engines for reform are modern-day tycoon families with names like Gates, Broad and Walton. The language they use to describe schools reflects the jargon of an economics classroom, as do the charts they use to measure the learning process. Education reform as we know it today can be seen as an effort on behalf of the capitalist class to press their claims regarding the school system to its ultimate conclusion.

If the corporatists win the battle for our public schools then Jefferson’s vision of schooling dies. Jefferson was a champion of publicly-funded schools serving the public good for an egalitarian republican nation. The reformers see the public good in terms of what is good for the corporate class. The nation, republican values, egalitarianism are anathema to them.

And why shouldn’t they be? Modern-day corporatists know no nation. They move money and jobs around the globe with ease no matter what impact that might have on the United States, not to mention the rest of the world. Republican values are seen as a threat to the corporatists since it might stir up the citizenry enough to demand the government curb the abuses of capital. Egalitarianism might as well mean pure “socialism” to the corporatists who wield their influence over the state to create a wholly stratified nation.

Jefferson is the biggest enemy of corporate school reform.

Those of us who oppose the corporatist takeover of our schools should draw from the deep Jeffersonian reservoir. He reminds us that schooling does not have to be about myopic policies to foster “achievement” and “competitiveness”. He reminds us that schools were a way to put all people on an equal footing, With the moral progress we have made since the time of Jefferson, equality has come to take on a much broader meaning. His equality was one between white males. We know now that we have the tools as well as the duty to broaden the meaning of equality, taking it places that Jefferson himself dared not dream.

Public schooling should be a civic institution that helps bring that most perfect of Jeffersonian documents to fruition. Public schools should be part of a grand project to fulfill the Declaration of Independence, the accomplishment Jefferson himself was most proud.

These are the ideological foundations for the backlash against corporate school reform. Look to Thomas Jefferson and then go beyond the limitations of his era.

The Death and Birth of Teacher Unions

USA Today claims that the nation’s largest teacher’s union, the National Education Association, has lost nearly 100,000 members since 2010. That is a decrease of 16%.

The blogosphere is awash with postmortems of the NEA. The explosion of online learning, the rise of non-unionized charter schools, the passage of right-to-work laws in many NEA states, the general disregard for the rights of collective bargaining and the transience of many newcomers to the teaching profession have all been proffered as reasons for the decline of the NEA.

And if the NEA is undergoing such bloodletting, one can only infer that something similar is happening to the other major union: Randi Weingarten’s American Federation of Teachers.

Fewer members means less dues collected, which means less money for PACS, which means a decline in their political power. This year, instead of President Obama showing up to the annual NEA convention in order to court their votes, Joe Biden went in his place. Many people interpret this a result of their waning influence.

The destruction of teacher unions has been a major goal of education reform. It now seems that goal is coming true.

The most perplexing question I have about this situation was prompted by the statement Randi Weingarten made recently about instituting a sort of bar exam for teachers. At every turn, Randi has shown herself to be utterly beholden to the education reformers, the people whose goal is the destruction of the union she represents. The same thing goes for UFT president Michael Mulgrew, who sits on the board of New Visions, an organization that seeks to destroy public schools and build charters upon their carcasses.

Why are our union leaders collaborating with the people who are out to destroy our union?

It is an old question for sure. The strategy of our union leaders has been to collaborate on many points of education reform in order to prevent the image of a stodgy, mossback outfit with no interest in educational innovation from sticking. Yet, despite these efforts (their efforts at collaboration, that is), the image still sticks.

In 2005, when Randi was still the president of the UFT, she agreed to a contract with Pharaoh Bloomberg that gave most of our rights away. Her defenders said that this was the best deal that could have been worked out at the time. The winds were blowing in the direction of ed reform and Randi was shrewd to co-opt some of that wind in order to get something for the teachers she represented. After all, it was better to sway with the wind than to stand against it and get blown over.

And yes, even I subscribed to this notion when that contract was first negotiated.

Seven years later and the statistics have made it apparent: teachers unions are literally dying.

Why did the unions do all of this collaborating if, in the end, they were going to die anyway? The whole point of swaying with the wind was to prevent getting blown over by those winds. Yet, we swayed and got blown over anyway.

It does not make any sense to me. Many say that Randi collaborated because she has her eye on public office. The UFT and AFT positions were merely stepping stones to a cabinet post or some sort of national position. Her decisions were self-serving in that she was totally willing to throw her members under the bus for the advancement of her own career. This might be true, but the historian in me says that Randi has a snowball’s chance in hell of getting any sort of national office. Despite her efforts, she is still perceived as a shrill union hack. The fact that the union she represents is dying (and I am assuming that the statistics about the NEA’s dwindling membership is analogous to what is happening to the AFT) certainly does not recommend her in any way as a competent public administrator. All of this collaboration just so her union and her career can die in the end anyway.

It is maddening. And the question in my mind still stands as to why.

In my mind, it seems we live in a very non-confrontational age. Unions were forged in the crucible of confrontation, oftentimes violent confrontation, which helped win its members some rights. In order to preserve those rights, the threat of confrontation must always exist. For unions, confrontation usually takes the form of protest or a work stoppage. While a good union need not resort to these things the vast majority of the time, the only thing that gives a union real traction is the threat of confrontation.

However, with legislation like New York’s Taylor Law, with Albert Shanker’s refusal to support a teacher strike in the 1970s, with Ronald Reagan’s breaking of the PATCO workers in the 1980s and the general rise of corporatocracy throughout the 1990s and the new millennium, the threat of union confrontation has become non-existent. The street march, the picket line and the work stoppage have become unthinkable for most workers in the United States, whether they are union or not. (Kudos to the MORE Caucus for picketing with the Con Edison workers yesterday.)

Our union leaders were perfectly happy to acquiesce in this state of affairs. We were assured that our collective union dues garnered enough financial muscle to make politicians consider our demands. It was not through confrontation that we would secure our rights, but through lobbying.

And yet, when the millennium changed, the politicians and the reformers attacked us anyway, despite our mighty union dues. So now it is 2012 and the big bad teacher unions that people vilify as corrupt political behemoths are dying.

The brass of both the NEA and AFT will one day have to answer as to why they believed being Quislings was going to help anyone in the end, themselves included. They may not answer to us, the rank-and-file who they have sold out, but they will have to answer to history, and they will not be able to hem and haw like they do with us. The long eye of history will give them no quarter.

The thing is that our union leaders have always coasted by on the excuse that they had to travel in the direction in which the winds of change were blowing. It is a course of action that most groups, most leaders and, I would even say, most Americans have lived by in our day and age. As a civilization, the last 35 years has been defined by an ethos of being ahead of the curve, of getting in at the ground floor of things. We value the skill of setting our course after testing the breeze. After all, it was always the 80s or the 90s or the new millennium or the digital age or the era of globalization. There was a constant demand on us to not only keep up, but to adapt, to constantly discard and take on new values and ways of doing things because that is what society demanded of us. It was always fly with the wind or get blown over.

Therefore, what the teacher unions have been doing is reflecting the value of the times.

This constant imperative to keep up, to be in tune with the future before it happens, has something of authoritarianism within it. Whether it has been changing our fashion sense, or getting on board with the latest technology, or adapting to a new type of job market or, in our case, bringing education into the 21st century, we are constantly being exhorted to use things and ideas not of our own creation. Our choices have already been made for us, usually by a wealthy organization with the media savvy to market its wares as the latest in sleek efficiency. Something is the future because someone else says it is. Ours is not to reason why, ours is but to follow and obey.

The public life of Randi Weingarten reflects this state of constant reorientation. She has no values aside from how far she can ride the current tide. The result for her will be nothing but an underwhelming and sad legacy in American labor history. The result for the rest of us can be seen in the moribund state of our national teacher unions.

For those who wish to save public education, there is no easy fix. Education is about transmitting values between generations. Educators have a duty to transmit these values in a critical way, meaning one that demonstrates to the pupil the underpinnings of those values, their elegance and contradictions. The end goal is not to transmit, but to challenge the next generation to improve upon those values. It is the work of cultural evolution. A teacher union that passively accepts the self-interested values of those in power in hopes of some sort of gain is a teacher union that sells out its mission as teachers, not to mention as union leaders.

Instead of trying to be ahead of the curve, of getting in at the ground floor, of constantly testing the winds, of allowing the rich and powerful to set the terms of education discourse, teacher unions need to be both teachers and unions. We need to teach in that we formulate our own values based upon what we know to be beneficial for the students we teach and the civilization that charges us with doing that teaching. Those values need to be communicated, refined, discussed and debated publicly as a means to educate. It is a not a matter of testing the winds. It is a matter of helping determine where those winds blow from the start.

And we will only be successful in this if we act as a union. Unions were forged in the crucible of activism and confrontation. They must be forged again in the same manner. Only now our society is too authoritarian and atomized to sustain a union strictly of workers. For teachers, our activism must involve not only the teaching work force, but the entire teaching community, which entails parents and students. It means not a union, but a movement. Only a movement can shape the course of the winds, much like labor started as a movement in the late 1800s.

Education reform in its current incarnation is a movement brought about by money, wealth and propaganda. We strive for a movement brought about by community, dialogue and social justice.

This is exactly what the Caucus of Rank and File Educators have started to do in Chicago. It is exactly what the Movement of Rank and File Educators are starting to do here in New York City. These are the eyes of the storm of the next education movement. Around them have been coalescing all of the seething opposition to corporate education reform, and to corporatism in general. It means not only a reclamation of the teaching profession, but a redemption of the entire education system.

Michael Mulgrew sits on the board of New Visions because the winds now say there is profit to be had in education. Yet, the next movement will totally reject the notion of private profit in education.

Randi Weingarten wants bar exams for teachers because the winds now say that teachers need to be held to higher standards. Yet, the next movement will question those who think they are qualified to determine those standards.

Standardized testing is in vogue because it is a boon to testing companies and chimerically measures “learning”. The next movement cares not for testing companies and asserts that learning is a dynamic state of the human mind, not a pile of data.

Online schooling is popular because it is cheap. The next movement cares not for educating on the cheap, because you usually get what you pay for.

Teach for America is powerful because their alumni come from prestigious universities. The next movement believes that the college or suburb from which you came has nothing to do with being a good teacher. Instead, it is where your passion for teaching comes from and how likely it is to sustain you for a lifetime.

Education reformers claim that poverty, community and family life are not factors in the learning process. The next movement will assert far and wide that this is the stuff of the learning process. We will not allow the suffering of millions of children and female-headed households to remain invisible any longer.

It is not about educating for the 21st century. It is about making the 21st century better for all humankind. The future does not happen to us, we happen to the future. The winds of change only blow to where we determine as a people, not to where the rich and powerful tell us it blows.

The next teacher union will be equal parts teacher and union. In that, it will be the next great movement.

The New White Man’s Burden

This cartoon can easily be from 2012.

The New York Times ran a story about the impacts of segregation in NYC schools. It features Explore Charter School in Flatbush, Brooklyn. The school is even more segregated than the community, with black students comprising nearly 93% of its student body.

While the article makes some valid points, the things that it danced around struck me the most. The article points out that, while the students are overwhelmingly black, the staff itself is 61% white. This is par for the course in NYC schools. Indeed, many schools’ staffs are even more disproportionately white than Explore’s.

As the article introduces some of the teachers at the school, one gets a glimpse into the problems with Bloomberg’s system and the education reform movement in general.

“EXPLORE’S founder, Morty Ballen, 42, grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs, where his father ran several delis. A product of Teach for America, he taught English in a high school in Baton Rouge, La., that went from being all white to half-black.”

East Flastbush is one of the poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods in the city. Yet, the school’s founder is a TFA guy from the suburbs. Should we really believe that this is all that can be found to run a network that serves some of the most disadvantaged kids in the city? Of all the veteran teachers who have been railroaded out of the system, educators who even lived in the communities they served, is a TFA alum from the suburbs really the best person to guide an educational program for Flatbush children?

Education is not a Peace Corps job. I doubt that Morty Ballen gets paid a Peace Corps salary. At the same time, his entire teaching career speaks to the type of White Man’s Burden thinking that defines most TFA people:

“He taught at an all-black school in South Africa started by a white woman, then at a largely black-and-Hispanic middle school on the Lower East Side. The experiences soaked in.

“I’m very cognizant of my whiteness, and that I have power,” he said. “I need to incorporate this reality in my leadership.”

You would be cognizant of your race too if you constantly put yourself in a position where you are the outsider.

Mr. Ballen is merely the head of the fish. His staff at Explore reflects values that are, well, like his own.

“Marc Engel, a former investment banker turned librarian and media coordinator at Explore, is 53 and white. He frets about power differentials and how to transcend race, how to steer the students’ inner compass.”

This is understandable if you jump from high finance into East Flatbush. Maybe race would not be such an issue if you were able to relate to your kids on a human level: know their speech, know where they come from, the conditions in which they are growing up and the cultural assumptions they share.

Mr. Engel feels a cultural gap because there really is one. It is not due strictly to the color of his skin, but from the place where he is coming and the children he tries to reach.

“Darren Nielsen, 25, white, from Salt Lake City, is in his second year teaching, assigned to third grade. Last year, when he taught fourth grade, a student got miffed at him and said, “Oh, this white guy.” He later spoke to the student about singling out someone in a negative way because of his or her race. He overheard students call one another “light-skinned crackers” and “dark-skinned crackers.”

I laughed at this one because it is so typically NYC. I can totally imagine a nine-year-old black girl saying “oh, this white guy” in reference to her Salt Lake City teacher. As a dean, I saw this type of stuff play out in classrooms all of the time. Students usually make reference to the race of their teacher not because of the color of their teacher’s skin, but because the teacher’s way of communicating is alien to the student. I would venture to guess that Mr. Nielsen was, quite simply, acting like a white guy from Utah.

Well, that world is light years away from Flatbush, Brooklyn. I would turn this into a teachable moment for myself rather than the student. It is an opportunity to change the way you communicate with your students as a teacher. I doubt I would have made as big a deal out of the girl’s comment as he did. The way he handled it seemed to only heighten the child’s consciousness of her race and how different Mr. Nielsen is from her.

But my favorite part of the article, the part that made me dry heave into my hand, was this:

THE sixth-grade social studies students swept into Alexis Rubin’s classroom. She slapped them five, bid them good afternoon. To settle them down, Ms. Rubin said, “Students are earning demerits in one … two …”

She handed out a test on Colonial Williamsburg. She said, “Every scholar in this room will get a sheet of loose-leaf paper for your short response.”

Of Explore’s teachers, Ms. Rubin, 31, is perhaps the keenest about openly addressing race. She is in her third year at the school, is white and grew up on the Upper West Side.

Outside school, she is the co-chairperson of Border Crossers, an 11-year-old organization troubled by New York’s segregated system that instructs elementary-school teachers how to talk about race in the classrooms……

Ms. Rubin does Border Crossers exercises with her students like MeMaps, in which both students and teachers list characteristics about themselves, then create a “diversity flower,” with petals listing each participant’s unique traits.

What a way to motivate your class: threaten them with demerits. If you do that when a guy from the Times is there, what do you do when he is not there?

Ms. Rubin is from one of the wealthiest Congressional districts in the nation. While she is from NYC and has a leg-up on the school’s founder in that regard, the Upper West Side and Flatbush are different worlds all the same. Seeing as how she instructs other teachers on how to talk about race, she must have a leg up on all the new TFA people coming into the NYC system as well.

And what is Border Crossers’ way of solving the race chasm in NYC classrooms? That’s right, a “diversity flower”. I smelled the liberal guilt through my computer screen when I read that one.

The race issue will not be solved with “diversity flowers”, nor will it be solved by all the richies from the Upper West Side and the suburbs having pow-wows about the best way to say the word “black” in front of black kids.

Every diversity flower and every discussion about how to broach the topic of race is a step further away from building those bridges you seek with your students, Ms. Rubin. They dehumanize children by treating them like problems to be solved or riddles to be figured out.

This is the problem with the driving philosophy behind charter schools and Teach for America. It is the idea that outsiders know best how to teach poor students. People from the community have nothing to offer. After all, they might treat and talk to their students like actual human beings and we cannot have that now, can we?

The major impact of all of these factors can be found towards the beginning of the article:

Explore students wear uniforms and have a longer school day and year than the students in the other schools in the building, schools with which they have a difficult relationship. A great deal of teaching is done to the state tests, the all-important metric by which schools are largely judged. In the hallway this spring, before the tests, a calendar counted down the days remaining until the next round.

Explore’s academic performance has been inconsistent. Last year, the school got its charter renewed for another five years, and this year, for the first time, three students, including Jahmir, got into specialized high schools. Yet, on Explore’s progress report for the 2010-11 school year, the Education Department gave it a C (after a B the previous year). In student progress, it rated a D.

“We weren’t doing right by our students,” Mr. Ballen said.

In response, a new literacy curriculum was introduced and greater emphasis was put on applauding academic achievement. School walls are emblazoned with motivational signs: “Getting the knowledge to go to college”; “When we graduate … we are going to be doctors.” Teachers are encouraged to refer to students as “scholars.”

And when did any of the people at Explore, from the founder to the teachers, ever stand up and say that these exams are wrong for their students? When did they ever say that, given the poverty and hopelessness they see on a daily basis, testing is the last thing their kids need? When did they ever call for better jobs, housing, investment or more humane treatment for the people of Flatbush?

Certainly not in this article.

No, it is all about getting along in the system. It is all about making those bucks by opening up more privatized charters. It is all about padding your resume and salving you guilty liberal conscious by teaching in Flatbush.

Merely calling students “scholars” and posting a bunch of saccharine clichés all around the school will do the trick. That will certainly overcome decades and centuries of oppression. Why did I not think of that? I have been living in the city all of my life, hanging out in ghettos and projects and teaching poor children and not once did I ever think that all they needed was some nice-sounding words to make things all better.

What we need, actually, are home-grown teachers from the communities who have shared in the struggles of their students. What we need are teachers who do not need diversity flowers. What we need are teachers who understand that their students are human beings first, not “minorities”. What we need are teachers who make social activism and political consciousness part of their job description.

And this is exactly the type of teacher the education reformers do not want. Instead, they want friendly faces who have zero attachment or dedication to the communities they serve. They want a generation of schools that will force kids to wear uniforms, march in order and fill in bubbles. We want teachers who will give “demerits” if students do not toe the line exactly as they are told.

After all, there are “no excuses”. Poverty, race, crime, none of these are “excuses” for filling in the wrong bubbles on exams. All the kids of Flatbush need is some discipline. They need role models from Utah, Wall Street and the suburbs to instill that discipline. This is the new magic bullet in education: educational imperialism.

This is the new White Man’s Burden.

The New Civil Disobedience

As I have said before, teachers, parents and students who care about  preserving public education have been backed into a corner where the only weapon they have left is their bodies.

A quality education has come to be seen as a human right. Despite the fact it is not written into the Bill of Rights, we have learned that education is a hallmark of a functioning and healthy democracy. As citizens, we have come to expect a quality education as our due.

This is why the corporate education reformers have been winning the public debate. They have clothed their privatization schemes in righteous rhetoric about our children being entitled to great schools. They have used their wealth and political power to beat teachers and their unions into submission. In New York, as well as in many other states, they have created a new regime that forces all children to be nothing but test-takers focused on short-term goals. It is no coincidence that the hedge-fund managers and Wall Street bankers were lauded for their short-term thinking of turning fabulous profits overnight.

That was until the economy crashed.

Yet,  they want students to spend 13 years of their lives doing little more than preparing for the next exam. The only number that will matter is the next number they receive on the next bubble-in test. Sounds just like Goldman-Sachs or AIG executives who see no further than the next financial quarter.

Parents across the country are making the connection between the push for more education “data” and the push for ever-higher quarterly earnings on Wall Street. Much like the data of quarterly earnings, the data of testing does not reflect much real value at all. They are arbitrary, incomplete and, sometimes, out-and-out fudged numbers that fuel a myopic system where only a few reap any real benefits.

That is why a National Opt-Out movement is developing. Parents who are involved in their children’s educations, as well as teachers who are aware of what education reform really means, are pushing to keep their kids home on test days. At the very least, they are calling for students to hand in blank exams so the private education data companies (Like Joel Klein’s Wireless Generation), have no data to mine.

National Opt-Out is the new incarnation of civil disobedience. Much like the Civil Rights protestors of the 50s and 60s, National Opt-Out seeks to disobey an unjust regime by using their bodies to bring that regime to a halt. They are defending one of our most cherished civil rights: the right to an education.

A recent article on the New York City Public School Parents website examines the problems with measuring kids by data and gives a sense of the growing frustration that is fueling National Opt-Out.

Also, do not forget to show up to the discussion surrounding the New York State teacher evaluation deal and the role of standardized testing therein. It will take place this Tuesday at 5:30 pm at Murry Bergtraum High School.

From NYC Public School Parents:

As wehavespokenout against high-stakes testing this year, after our family was first directly affected by it through our third-grade son, we have had the wonderful experience of connecting with like-minded parents in New York and across the country who are also determined to put education back into the hands of educators.

We have also heard from many teachers who, unlike parents, are often under the direct threat of being fired for speaking out against run-away testing in our schools. We would like to put forward, with her permission, the thoughts of one such teacher working in Brooklyn. What follows are her words, taken from our recent correspondence with her, with comments from us interspersed in italics.
We wish this teacher’s experiences were unusual. But increasingly this is the norm in our public schools. Professional educators across the country are being prevented from exercising their best professional judgment and are actually punished for responding to children as individuals –all in the name of “standards” and “accountability.”
Our position is simple: we want our children to be educated by teachers like this one, who care about children and learning, who recognize and protest counterproductive teaching methods that are forced on them by the state. We will not rest until parents and teachers are once again in charge of education policy, and teachers are free to use their knowledge and expertise to make learning the joyous experience it should be for all our children.
If you are interested in this issue, please attend the forum Tuesday night, April 17, at 5:30 pm, on the new teacher evaluation system and high-stakes testing at Murry Bergtraum HS; moreinfoattheChangestheStakeswebsite. – Anne Stone and Jeff Nichols
Read the article here.

The NRA’s Opposition to Bloomberg and its Implications for Education Reform

Members of the National Rifle Association criticized Lord Michael Bloomberg at their annual conference in St. Louis this past Friday. Bloomberg has been outspoken in his support of gun control. While I have little sympathy with the NRA, their criticisms put a finger on something important:

“I think Mayor Bloomberg is the epitome of the nanny state, of the elite executives that want to control everything and control people’s lives,” he (an NRA member) said.

A statement Bloomberg made in February illustrates the arrogant and out of touch way he handles sensitive issues:

“The NRA’s leaders weren’t even interested in public safety,” Bloomberg told The News this week. “They were interested in promoting a culture where people take the law into their own hands and face no consequences for it.”

That is a thick and curious statement. To be sure, “Stand your ground” laws are reprehensible. However, I think the goal of the NRA leaders is to prop up the weapons industry. Saying that they want to promote “a culture where people take the law into their own hands and face no consequences for it” falls short of the mark. The talk about “consequences” feeds into criticisms about Bloomberg’s association with the “nanny state”. He is all about using his power to hold people “accountable” for doing things and making choices with which he does not agree.

The states that have Stand your Ground laws are, by and large, those with a healthy streak of mistrust for the state. In a perverted way, the voters who support these laws do have a concern with public safety. They do not trust the government’s ability to protect them from crime, so they will protect themselves. That is not to say lawmakers and lobbyists believe it. Their goal is to keep guns rolling out of factories. They have clad these Stand your Ground laws in a cloak of rugged individualism as a way to sell them to voters.

Gun enthusiasts are fond of quoting the second amendment, not to mention isolated passages from Thomas Jefferson and other Founding Fathers. The belief is that the Second Amendment allows people to bear arms as a way to protect against the tyranny of the state. Indeed, when you couple Bloomberg’s support for gun control with his support for stop and frisk and his statements about the NYPD being his own personal army, it would seem the gun enthusiasts are onto something.

But it is pretty clear that the second amendment was a way to preclude the need for standing armies. The Founders saw standing armies as tools of monarchal tyranny. Having citizen-soldiers in the tradition of Greek hoplites was seen as the proper way for a republic to defend itself. It seems this is what the Founders meant when they portrayed the citizens’ right to bear arms as a defense against the tyranny of government.

The fact is that, in 2012, we do have a standing army. We also have militarized police forces like the NYPD. No matter how many automatic weapons the populace owns, it will not prevent an organized and well-armed military force from having their way if the time comes.

The fact of the matter is, the government does not need to impose martial law or send tanks down Main Street to oppress us. They are doing a good enough job of that through legislation, executive orders and Supreme Court rulings. While the state has become more draconian over the past 35 years, they have done so at the behest of the corporate. Through the control of the media, finance, technology and every other facet of human life, corporations have organized society in such a way that martial law becomes unnecessary.

So when members of the NRA talk about Bloomberg’s association with the nanny state, they put their finger on something. His support of gun control, his education policy, his quality of life initiatives all represent an arrogant paternalism. However, it is not the paternalism of the state exclusively. It is the paternalism of corporatized government. It is the idea that people cannot run their own lives and need business to organize life for them. That is what charter schools are all about. That is why Bloomberg stops short of criticizing the role of gun manufacturers in the NRA.

People on the correct side of the education reform debate may have to make some strange alliances. One of those alliances will have to be with the states’ rights part of the electorate. As more states promise to sign on to Obama’s Race to the Top we will see more blowback from people, mostly in the south and west, who oppose it on grounds that it is a gross federal overreach. We have seen this play out in South Carolina’s rejection of RTT.

The common ground between advocates of public education and members of the political right is the belief in community input into public schools. The tragedy of mayoral control in New York City is how far it has taken us from democratic oversight of education policy. Since the 1960s, local communities in NYC have been prevented from having any say in the schools that serve them. The last vestige of democracy was the popularly elected Board of Education. That was done away with when Bloomberg created the Panel for Educational Policy, the majority of whose members vote the way Mayor for Life Bloomberg wants them to.

Race to the Top represents the paternalism of mayoral control writ large. The fact that states have to sign on to the program is a subterfuge. It gives the illusion of respecting the idea of states’ rights and the traditional role state governments have played as leaders of their own education systems. In truth, once a state signs on to RTT they have abdicated all control of education policy to Uncle Arne in Washington. They must open up more charter schools and evaluate teachers based on data-driven nonsense, or else they do not get federal funding.

America’s schools have never been so top-heavy before. Starting with the president but working its way down to governors, mayors and principals, school systems have been given over to increasing centralization. This runs counter to every educational tradition in the United States. These are the points we must make in order to reach across the aisle to those on the political right. We all want to give communities more control over education policy, since each community knows best how to serve their unique student population.

This is an alliance fraught with difficulty. It has the potential to founder on issues of class and race. Libertarian-minded voters might not mind the corporate aspects of education reform and all of the million-dollar contracts it entails. Community control in places like NYC means giving mostly minority communities a say in education policy. However, areas of the south have used the concept of local school control as a way to bar minorities from equal educational opportunities. These are the major fault lines that would develop in an alliance between us and the political rights.

It is still an alliance worth exploring. The movement known as education reform has so much traction because it is bipartisan. Only a bipartisan counter-attack would have a chance of standing up to education reform. There is room for such a counter-attack if we stick to the themes that unite us for now.