Tag Archives: Education Reform

The Power of Opting Out

There is always a choice.

There is always a choice.

This piece was originally written for Schoolbook who did not see fit to pick it up. Why let it go to waste? 

Opting out is becoming a form of educational civil disobedience.

Certain school districts in upstate New York are starting to opt out of the new teacher evaluation system mandated by Race to the Top. A group of courageous parents in Washington Heights recently opted their children out of a standardized exam that was being given for no other reason than to evaluate their teachers. A nationwide opt out movement has been afoot for some time as a response to the testing mania that has accompanied the current wave of education reform.

Opting out is empowering because it shows the rest of us, whether we are parents, students or educators, that we still have choices in an era of so much top-down control of our education system.

Teachers should take heart from these examples. I teach history in a solid public high school with wonderful students. The new Race to the Top evaluations are subjecting my students to more testing than ever before. It breaks my heart to see them spending so much time filling in bubbles when they can be in a classroom engaged in actual learning.

As teachers, our ratings and livelihoods hinge upon how our students fair on these exams. On top of this, our administrators have to observe our teaching more than they ever have before. Many of my colleagues have been scrambling to bring their teaching in line with the new evaluation regime. For my part, I have decided to opt out.

Sure, I cannot prevent my administrators from walking into my classroom to observe me. I cannot prevent my students from wasting their time taking exams. But I can prevent myself from scrambling to conform with a system that I know for a fact to be odious and destructive.

Teaching is the only career I have ever had. All of my teaching years, 14 to be exact, have been spent in New York City’s Department of Education. My methods have been informed by the veteran teachers who took the time to mentor me when I was green. My style has been shaped by the countless students who have let me know, one way or another, what works and what does not work. If not for my colleagues and my students, I would not be the teacher that I am today.

This is why I have decided to make no compromises with the new evaluation regime. I will not allow the regime to change a single thing I do as a teacher. I owe it to my colleagues to opt out in this way in order to give them hope that we do not have to give ourselves over to this new system. I owe it to my students to shield them, as much as possible, from the odious effects of this so-called “reform”.

This does not mean that I will not take risks with new materials, assessments or approaches to teaching. It is quite the opposite. A good teacher modifies and refines their style all of the time. What it does mean is that the changes I make will in no way be informed by the new system. Instead, I will continue to listen to my colleagues and students the way I have been doing for the past 14 years. This is what opting out means to me.

Bureaucracies, especially one as unwieldy as the Department of Education, have a tendency to make us feel as if we do not have choices in what we do. There are always choices. Sure, all of us have to make certain compromises in order to get along in the system. I have made the decision to make as few compromises as possible when it comes to the quality of education my students receive. This new system requires too many unacceptable compromises of me. Therefore, I will merely opt out of this system by pretending it does not exist in my classroom.

If this results in me being rated “ineffective” then so be it. At least I can sleep at night knowing I did right by the students I serve.

Making it Look Easy

10000hours

How long did it take you to get good?

Last year I took on a student teacher, meaning a college student working towards his education degree, for two weeks. He was being mentored by my colleague next door who teaches 11th grade. His college program required him to teach a unit to a lower grade, so he stopped by for a cup of coffee with one of my freshman classes.

Before he taught his unit, he had to observe me teach the class for two weeks. As many of you know, my teaching style is very traditional. It has inaccurately been dubbed “lecture” or “chalk and talk” by some. This is because my students sit in rows as I stand up and ask questions. With every question we answer, we fill in another part of what are dubbed “Harvard style” notes that I compile on the board. By the end of the period, we have several boards full of pretty detailed notes. These notes answer an aim question that usually begins with the word “how”, like “How did the Renaissance begin in Italy?” or “How did Athens change during the Age of Pericles?” In my world, this is called an old-fashioned developmental lesson.

A few days before my temporary student-teacher started his unit, I asked him how he intended to teach it. He had some activities and questions lined up. Since he had been working with my colleague for quite some time, I did not micromanage what he had prepared. He was developing a style with which he was comfortable and I wanted to see him test it out with a different group of kids learning a different curriculum.

During his first day teaching my class, I sat in the back and took notes on what I was seeing. Whenever I take on a student teacher, I write copious notes while they are in the front of the room running the show. I take note of what happens every second. My hand is usually shot after 50 minutes of continuous writing.

After the period, we sat down to do a post-mortem of the lesson. As is my custom, I asked what he thought about it before I shared my observations. On this particular occasion, I do not remember what he said about his lesson, nor do I remember what I had written about it. What I do remember was his reaction when he found out what I had to say. It probably went something like this:

“The first question you asked was good. Notice how you received mainly one-word answers from the students. Perhaps you should have turned this question into a ‘why’ question. Never be afraid to give them the answer and then ask them why.”

“Remember when so-and-so raised his hand and said that? You basically just glossed over it and moved on. But he made a good point that you could have seized upon. You should praise the students when they participate and build off of what they say. There is a grain of truth in most things they share. If you can’t find the grain of truth, maybe ask the class what they think of that response.”

“Move around the room. Don’t just stand in the front. Be active. Let the students know you can be anywhere at any time.”

“The notes you wrote on the board were good but they need to be organized. Students need to know why this idea goes here and that idea goes there. There should be a logic and progression to your notes so the kids can go back over them later and understand it.”

“Look around the room. Make eye contact with every student. You don’t have to keep calling on the same 3 kids. Spread around the participation. For more advanced students, call on them when you ask a difficult thought question. For students who are shy or struggling, give them the softball questions. Make it so every kid can get involved with the lesson at different points.”

And on and on it went for the next half hour.

I remember him being surprised by how much I had observed and how detailed my observations were. Quite simply, he did not realize how much was involved in actual teaching.

When people observe my class, I think there is a tendency to believe there is nothing more to what I do than asking questions and writing notes. It is as if they believe I just roll out of bed and pull questions from certain orifices of my body, then write what the students come up with on the board. As someone who has been doing this job for nearly 15 years, it looks pretty easy from the outside.

Then, the few who actually try to take my place discover it is one of the most difficult things a person can do. Questions do not come ready-made from a can. You cannot just ask any question and get brilliant responses. Your questions have to be tailored to your kids. Students respond in my class because I make the questions easy to understand. That is not to say that the questions are easy. What it means is that the questions fit into their mental universe. They know there is an answer there but they have to go through their minds to find it. A teacher cannot do this without years of experience.

On top of this, there is the teacher mannerism. The way you look, speak, walk, move, breathe and everything else has to be an act. This does not mean it is phony. What it means is that certain mannerisms make the class run seamlessly. Praising students for great responses, or great questions, is vital. It is easy to forget to do this as a rookie teacher. After years of doing it, however, it becomes second nature. What happens when you’re in the middle of a discussion and a few kids are chatting or goofing off or somehow off task? How do you keep the lesson moving and deal with it without turning it into a “thing”? These are the types of things that separate good teachers from mediocre teachers.

What happens if a student gives a response that is totally off base? How do you fold that answer into the lesson without making the kid feel bad or derailing the discussion? After 15 years, I still get unique and interesting responses from my students. A veteran teacher has an instinct that allows them to think on their feet and use those responses to the benefit of the class.

These are all of the in-class skills of a teacher. Then there is the little matter of knowing your content. The better you know your content, the more connections you can make between lessons. You can ask better questions, present the material in a thorough and seamless manner and make it interesting all at the same time. How about creating homework assignments? How about creating exams? How about grading all of these things? How do you set up a fair grading system, leave useful written feedback and return it to the kids in a timely manner?

Yes, being a teacher is hard work. There are a few college students who have been stopping by my room this year to check out my classes. I wonder if they know what it is that they are seeing? I wonder if they appreciate all that it requires? How many of them are sitting there and saying to themselves “I can do that”? My response to everyone who might be thinking this is: no, you cannot.

One of those college students is going to be teaching a unit to my freshman in a few weeks. I wonder how things will go when it is time to take the reins. The college student I worked with last year had the advantage of having a warm, laid-back personality. It remains to be seen if this new student teacher has the same quality. If he does not, things might get rough for him.

I think the education reformers who have barely stepped inside of a classroom believe that teaching is a matter of discussing stuff with students. They do not think we work hard enough, so they have invented all of these rubrics, exams and buzz words to ensure that we are not skating to collect a check. In their years as young reformies, they probably observed many veteran teachers who made the work of educating look easy. They probably thought to themselves “I can do that” and concluded that we are a bunch of lazy union hacks who are not doing any actual work.

If I had the ability, I would force every college student who observes my class to teach it. Perhaps just one day of being thrown into the deep end of the pool and allowing them to be devoured by the sharks might preempt any idea they might have that teaching is unskilled labor. By doing this, maybe us veteran teachers can prevent the next generation of Michelle Rhees (who was such an awful teacher she had to duct tape her kids’ mouths shut), John Kings (who spent 6 minutes teaching kids cherry picked by a charter school) and Wendy Kopps (who never taught anything to anybody) from springing up among us.

Next time you walk into a classroom and see a teacher who is making it look easy, just know you are in the presence of a master who has spent countless hours and years honing every last inch of their craft.

 

The Gooey Center: More Goo Than Center

This is your brain on education reform.

This is your brain on education reform.

I happen to believe that Americans who consider themselves political “centrists” are the intellectual midgets of the electorate.

Centrists and Democrats love to decry Tea Party types as the dumb ones. Sure, they show up to rallies with misspelled signs and tell the government to get their hands off of their Medicare. Obviously, their ideas are force fed to them by Fox News, Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh. Definitely, they have been voting against their own interests by electing Koch brother-funded troglodytes to local and national office. Worst of all, there is a streak of understated fascism in everything they say. Their vitriol against President Obama is punctuated by dog whistle racism. However, there is one thing that recommends them to me better than self-professed centrists: their vile ideas at least have conviction.

That is to say, Tea Partiers do not delude themselves into thinking they are open-minded. Many might even tell you they are proudly close-minded, which might be synonyms to them for being simple or traditional. At least one knows where one stands with them. Someone like me in their eyes would be just another big city, northeastern leftist who drinks lattes and wants to redistribute other people’s wealth. I respect this characterization, especially considering how it is not totally inaccurate.

Centrists, on the other hand, live in the delusion that they are fair and rational. They believe that listening to “both sides” and taking a little from each is Solomon-like. The past does not exist to these people. The notion that political discourse has been manufactured in such a way over the past 40 years that today’s Democrats were yesterday’s Republicans and today’s Republicans were yesterday’s frothing crypto-fascists does not exist in their world. Obamacare to them is a liberal program, despite the fact that it was created by a Republican think tank and implemented first by a Republican governor. To today’s centrists, the past does not exist and the present is merely an exercise in splitting the baby.

There is no other area of public concern in which centrists have run amok more than education policy. My favorite poster child for this type of centrist is Andrew Rotherham, a centrist Democrat who runs the Eduwonk blog and a reliable cheerleader for the cause of education reform.

Yesterday, Rotherham linked to an article from Politifact that ham-fistedly claimed Diane Ravitch’s interpretation of the NAEP scores in Reign of Error was “mostly false” .  Diane herself ably destroyed this claim. Both Rotherham and Politifact pride themselves on being rational centrists. Unfortunately, their attempt to split the baby of education policy does nothing but put them squarely on the side of education reform. It is unfortunate because education reform, as it is understood today, is a wholly radical endeavor.

Nothing captures the self-satisfied  attitude of education centrists than the comment left under Rotherham’s link:

” I completely agree about the confusion. I heard Ravitch speak last week in DC and found her rhetoric though inspirational at times, mostly divisive and combative, I have seen the same dramatics from hearing the reformers speak as well. I feel that the idea of proving one side right or wrong by cherry picking which test scores to use and which school systems to look at is almost completely missing the point. We aren’t in politics, we are in education. And as educators we need to do what we preach, work together, to find a solution.

I will continue to be optimistic and hope that one day Ravitch and Kopp will start a campaign to simply get all passionate educators talking to work together. That’s my two cents.”

This sounds like a laudable goal until one digs beneath what the commenter is actually saying. He essentially wants all educators to “work together”. Under the label of “educator” he includes Diane Ravitch, a professor of education, a former cabinet member in the Department of Education and someone who specializes in researching the history of education. On the other hand, he includes Wendy Kopp, a woman who wrote a thesis in Princeton on education, got millions of dollars to put her thesis into action and has been busily peddling her money-fueled program to school districts all around the country.

This is the first problem with education centrists. Anyone who has an opinion on education automatically becomes an “educator”. All opinions are valid, no matter the credentials, experience or motives of the person offering the opinion. Diane Ravitch is put on a par with Wendy Kopp or Michelle Rhee or anyone else who has jumped into the world of education policy without spending any appreciable period of time in a classroom teaching students. In this way, education centrists are just like political centrists who put Fox News, MSNBC and CNN all on the same par and believe the truth lies somewhere in between them.

Just like Fox News represents what used to be considered a radical brand of conservatism, Kopp, Rhee and others who have made millions from dabbling in education policy are arms of a decidedly radical brand of reform. Much like Fox News, their radicalism is a radical capitalism or, more specifically, radical corporatism.

Kopp and Rhee essentially advocate for a temporary, low-skilled and low-paid work force of teachers. Trade unionism and professional experience to them are not only antiquated notions, but notions antithetical to the types of reforms they wish to institute. It is the educational equivalent to the state of peonage to which big chains like Walmart reduce their own workers.

This type of workforce is in itself a reflection of a radicalized form of capitalism. Add to this the private charter and online schools that are hallmarks of education reform. Add to this still the standardized exams for students and prospective teachers created by private corporations. Finally, to top it all off, throw in private education data companies who wish to compile all types of sensitive information on children. What you have is a neat program of privatization punctuated by a creepy type of corporate surveillance. It is a wholly radical scheme.

Karl Marx rightfully saw capitalism as a revolutionary force. It seeks to turn everything into a commodity, whether consumer products, the natural world or education. Left unchecked or, even worse, aided by the power of the state, capitalism has the potential to dominate every facet of human life and civilization. The move to privatize education is of the same ilk as the move to privatize prisons. Both of these developments are part of a wider historical epoch that has seen the growth of massive multinational corporations. Education reformers are revolutionaries who champion the growth of unaccountable private power.

This is why people who strive for some sort of gooey center in education policy effectively turn out to be education corporatists. They accept the underpinnings of education “reform” and then expect its opponents to meet them halfway. However, there is no meeting a revolutionary force halfway. Once one accepts its legitimacy, one automatically rejects any opposition. Indeed, that is the very definition of revolution. It is major, historical change. One is either with it or one is against it.  This is the decision that the privatizers of education have forced people to make. Those who consider themselves part of the gooey educational center have already cast their lot in with the revolutionaries.

Yet, centrists in both politics and education serve the purpose of making the opponents of revolutionary radicals seem like nutty, fringe characters. Political centrists today accept the legitimacy of the far right that has masked itself as modern conservatism. This means that radical leftists, or even legitimate liberals, are off the political spectrum and not part of civilized political discourse. They locate themselves within a very narrow range of political thinking that goes from far right crypto-fascists to centrist Democrats. This basically gives the field over to the political right.

This is why education centrists see people like Diane Ravitch as “divisive” or “radical”. They have already accepted that education reform is true reform and not revolution. They fail to see the greater revolutionary force of which education reform is a part. In so doing, they have inoculated themselves from seeing the validity in any of Ravitch’s, or any other public education advocate’s, ideas. To them, it is only a matter of total reform or less reform. If they were alive during the French Revolution, they would be debating over whether Robespierre should behead 100,000 people or 20,000 people and think of themselves as fair minded if they believed he should only kill 50,000. Whether anyone should be beheaded at all, or if Robespierre should even be in power, they would consider the talk of divisive fringe characters.

Education centrists, much like political centrists, should be disregarded as the vacuous tools they are. They do not have to be won over because they have already internalized the assumptions of a radical ideology. Instead, true defenders of public education should speak to the vast majority of Americans who have not been steeped in the doublespeak that passes for education policy in this day and age. This is the audience that Reign of Error seeks to reach, which is why it is scaring so many reformers.

Do not aim to be a centrist in anything. Instead, take a peek under the accepted paradigms and figure out whose purpose it serves.

John King’s Bully Pulpit

John King measures just how close he is to losing his job.

John King measures just how close he is to losing his job.

October is national anti-bullying month. A recent study suggests that schools with anti-bullying programs actually might have more incidents of bullying. While this might have something to do with the fact that such schools over report bullying incidents, the study confirms a general sense that anti-bullying programs do not work.

The sloganeering involved in most school anti-bullying campaigns is similar to the anti-drug campaigns popular in schools during the 1980s. Both efforts tend to gloss over complex societal issues in favor of hokey slogans. We knew that the crack plague of the 1980s was not going to end by teaching the next generation to “just say no”. Similarly, we know that teaching our children to recite words like “tolerance” and “respect” is not going to end this problem of “bullying”.

Bullying is not going away. This is because the currency of our school systems, the currency of this thing known as “education reform”, is naked bullying. Look at the parent in Maryland who was roughed up by a police officer for questioning the Common Core State Standards. Look at New York State Education Commissioner John King’s recent performance in front of concerned parents in Poughkeepsie where he first tried to talk over their concerns, then canceled the rest of his speaking tour when he discovered that New York parents do not want to be lectured to like children. For good measure, he accused these parents of being beholden to “special interests”.

John King’s comments actually represent the first stage of bullying. What makes it easy for children to bully another child is the sense that the victim is somehow flawed. The child can be labeled a “wimp” or “whore” or “gay” or “weird” or any number of labels. Once that label catches on with peers, it becomes permissible to then torment and torture the victim. This is how seemingly good people could be led to commit acts of unspeakable cruelty. Their “goodness” is reserved only for the acceptable members of society. Anyone who is out of those bounds is fair game. Dictators have used this strategy to persecute groups they did not like. Democracies use this tactic as well, often with greater success.

King’s labeling of concerned parents as a “special interest” is a favored tactic of education reformers. The reformers burst onto the scene with many labels. They labeled the schools as “failing”. They labeled the children as “stupid” or “violent”. They labeled teachers as “incompetent” and “lazy”. Thanks to a massive PR campaign funded by billions of education reform dollars, these labels stuck. This gave the reformers the public traction they needed to go ahead with their agenda. This agenda involved closing schools, disenfranchising parents, firing teachers and other acts of institutional violence that could be properly labeled as “bullying”.

The Common Core is just the latest incarnation of this bullying. The only difference is that now, after a decade of failed education reforms, it is tougher for the reformers to sell their tropes of “failing” schools and “underprepared” children to parents. They cannot make the labels stick, which means, hopefully, it will become harder to foist their will upon our public schools.

People should not be surprised by the actions of Commissioner King. As the founder of the Uncommon Schools charter network, King instituted the type of draconian discipline policies for which many charters have become notorious. As Pedro Noguera wrote about his visit to UC:

“I’ve visited this school, and I noticed that children are not allowed to talk in the hall, and they get punished for the most minor infraction. And when I talked with John King afterwards, I said, “I’ve never seen a school that serves affluent children where they’re not allowed to talk in the hall.” And he said, “Well, that might be true, but this is the model that works for us, we’ve found that this is the model that our kids need.”

So I asked him, “Are you preparing these kids to be leaders or followers? Because leaders get to talk in the hall. They get to talk over lunch, they get to go to the bathroom, and people can trust them. They don’t need surveillance and police officers in the bathroom.” And he looked at me like I was talking Latin, because his mindset is that these children couldn’t do that.

Unfortunately what is often driving these high-performing schools is the idea that the kids need to be broken. That the kids’ culture needs to be taken away from them and replaced with something else, because they come in with deficits. They come in as damaged goods. And these schools believe that their job is to mold the kids into something else.”

There probably is not any bullying at Uncommon Schools because the administration has a monopoly on the practice. King obviously already wrote the children in his school off as brutes. This made it easy for him to institute an uncommonly brutish discipline code that would have gotten him run out of the wealthier school districts in America. He made it a mission of his chain to bully children into behaving in the proper way. In the end, all bullying is ultimately aimed at getting the victim to conform to some preconceived norm.

This was King’s exact attitude towards the parents in Poughkeepsie. In his mind, the children of these parents were “unprepared” to meet the “challenges of the 21st century” and so need the Common Core to make America competitive. When the parents rebelled, he gave them a label reformers have traditionally reserved for teachers and their unions: “special interests”. This means that anyone who disagrees with John King or the Common Core are merely myopic naysayers who only care about themselves. It is a convenient way for him to justify to himself the imperious manner in which he handled the parents in the audience. It is a convenient way for him to justify all of the reforms he has helped force upon New York State up until now.

It should be recalled that King was the one who designed New York City’s disastrous teacher evaluation system. In that system, King called for teachers to be judged by the test scores of students who are not theirs in subjects they do not teach. We can see in this John King’s disdain for teachers. He has already labeled us as selfish “special interests” in need of the same draconian treatment as the students in Uncommon Schools. His evaluation system is institutionalized bullying.

When teachers get fired because students they never taught fail standardized exams, that is bullying. When students as young as 5 years old have to prepare, then sit, for standardized exams with no other purpose than to rate teachers, that is bullying. When the schools of these children close because they are labeled as “failing” due to these exams, that is bullying. When every public school is forced to abide by ridiculous standards that will serve to suck the joy out of learning, that is bullying. When the charter schools who are the shining stars of the reformer movement are exempt from all of these changes, that is bullying. The reformers have labeled a certain group of people, namely public school teachers, their children and now their parents, as failures in need of corrective action.

If incidents of bullying have increased over the past decade, there can be little wonder why. The way students behave within a school building reflect the environment created for them there by adults. If the school building is located downstream from where education reformers dump their effluvia, as most public school buildings today are, then it can be little wonder why bullying takes place there. If children see people like King and Michelle Rhee deride their teachers as “ineffective” and “special interests”; if they know the state wants to close them down because they are “failing”; if they now see their parents shrugged off and insulted by the State Education Commissioner, then it is the adults from whom the children are taking their cues.

The bullying problem in schools will never end until the way schools are run is fundamentally changed. Instead of autocratic mayors having unquestioned control of urban school districts, we need the type of local and democratic control of school systems for which America used to be known. Instead of putative standards enforced with putative tests, we need the type of school system that has a rich and open curriculum.

Many parent groups, understandably, are calling for John King to lose his job. While I sympathize with that sentiment, we all know that the disappearance of John King will only pave the way for another SEC with the same exact agenda. The only difference would be that Governor Cuomo will choose someone who is a more shrewd political operator. I say: keep John King as SEC. There can be no better poster child for the high-handed and bullyish tactics of the education reform movement. Nobody could do more damage to education reform in New York State than John King himself.

The Argument Against Online Grading

Just say "no".

Just say “no”.

Sue me: I do not use an online grading program.

Engrade, Schedula, Jupiter Grades, every school in New York City has adopted their own program where teachers can post each and every grade to each and every assignment online. It is not free either, for these programs can cost the school over $1,000.

For teachers, the selling point is that they no longer have to hunch over a calculator for hours on end come report card season. All they have to do is press a button and the grades are all calculated for them, according to whatever scoring algorithm the teacher chooses.

For students, they can log on to see their latest scores. It is like checking under your pillow to find some money from the tooth fairy each and every day. An ongoing tally tells them the grade they have in the class so far.

For parents, they can closely monitor the progress their kids are making in their classes. The more involved parents can even download the assignments and/or lessons, assuming the teacher has uploaded them. An email link keeps them in frequent contact with their children’s teachers.

Administrators seem to like the idea of being able to pull up any student’s grade from a central database. From what I hear, most administrators exhort their staffs to use the school’s adopted online grading program. Some schools have even mandated that teachers use it, although I am not sure that is 100% contractual.

And here I am, one of the last teachers in the city to not grade my students online. I am the only teacher in my school who is not online, which leads to some interesting exchanges come parent-teacher night.

One teacher recently referred to my absence from the world of online grading as me “taking a stand”. I do not see it that way. For my part, online grading is not compatible with my teaching philosophy or my philosophy in general. Many teachers swear by it and that is their decision. If a teacher believes online grading helps them do their job better or more efficiently, then I certainly am not one to try to convince them otherwise. Teachers should be free to make these types of decisions based upon their styles and experience.

I understand all of the arguments in favor of online grading. Now I would like to present my arguments against it.

Teachers should make the effort to inform their students of how they are doing in class. But what does this actually mean? Is “how a child is doing” mean a number grade? I told my students on the first day of school this year that I do not want them caring about grades. They are not sitting in my classroom to earn a number. This bit of information caused many a furrowed brow on many teenaged faces. My goal for them is to gain an appreciation for history.

This is a quaint notion, especially in the era of data (!). Kids have this idea that they come to school to earn good grades so they can get a diploma so they can go to college so they can get a good job. These are assumptions that most students, no matter what their background, tend to share. This is all the more reason why they must be reminded of the fact that there is actual knowledge, actual learning, to be done inside of a school building. If on the first day, or even the second or third day, I did the standard thing by giving each student their pass codes to log into their online grade account, I would merely be confirming their deeply held assumptions that school is about numbers. There will be more than enough time for them to fret over numbers throughout their lives, whether in the form of grades, salaries or bills. For the 45 minutes or so they are in my classroom, I want them to worry about history.

At the same time, I do not see why those students who are particularly hung up on their GPAs cannot remain hung up. They get homework every evening that is returned to them graded the very next day. They get exams every two weeks that are returned to them graded, also the very next day. Their projects are graded in a timely fashion, so they have those numbers as well. For class participation, students know whether or not they raise their hands, come on time and complete the little written assignments that are required of them. In short, they have more than enough data (!) to keep track of their own grades. Those students who are grade-driven will know and remember the grades they get throughout the semester, whether those grades are online or not.

Most importantly, there are always students who I do not grade by the strict algorithm required by our department. Every year I teach a class of exclusively English Language Learners. If they were plugged into the same equations as all my other students, as most of the online grading programs demand we do, most of them would surely fail. Instead, I must use a more “holistic” grading method, as teachers like to say. There are students who come to my class speaking and writing very little English and end the year with much more confidence and skill using the language. These students have upside, meaning their English skills will only continue to improve over time. Should I fail these students if I know they would be able to make their way in the next grade, even if they have struggled in my class for most of the year? Not only would this be unfair, it would frustrate them. They would be forced to sit again for a class of which they eventually got the hang. I would be holding them back from applying their new-found English skills in the next, more challenging, stage. Would they continue to improve if they are not continually challenged? For these students, and for students in analogous situations, plugging them into a strict numerical algorithm would be doing them a tremendous disservice.

Teachers are under pressure to bring more technology into the classroom. We are told that kids are using more technology than ever in their personal lives, so we should get with the program and integrate more of it into our practice. The push to record grades online is an extension of that pressure. I see things precisely the opposite way. Since children are spending so much time with technology, they need to have daily reminders that life is not digital. Adults could use this reminder as well, which is an ironic statement coming from someone who keeps an internet blog.

Many parents seem to like how online grading makes keeping track of their children’s schoolwork easier. In an age when the American worker has to put in well over 50 hours at the office to keep their families’ heads above water, it is understandable that many of them like online grading. On parent-teacher night, many parents ask me why I have not posted any grades to the internet. This leads me to summarize to them what has been written above. Most of the parents seem to understand my reasoning. A very bare minority do not and chalk up my rejection of online grading as either laziness or Ludditism. I give them my personal email and school extension and tell them they can contact me at any time they might have a question about their child’s progress.

This always leads me to think about how my mother was able to be so involved in my schooling. She was a single parent who, at times, worked two jobs. After working, cooking and cleaning, she still set aside the time to help me study and do homework. She came to every parent-teacher conference. She came into my school even when there were no parent-teacher conferences. She received every report card and knew all of my grades, which was never a good thing for me as a solid 65 student. She interacted with me and my teachers constantly. The truth is, I would have never pulled even a 65 if it was not for my mother. If she had access to my grades online, how much less would she interact with me and my teachers? How much more would she be inclined to see my schooling as nothing more than a pile of data rather than a daily interaction between me, my teachers and my peers?

While it is tempting to have the freedom to throw away my calculator at report card time in favor of a computer program that tallies the numbers of all of my students with one click of the mouse, I kind of like punching in those numbers and seeing what comes out. A student comes out with a grade of 59? What if they tried their hardest for that grade? What about that unit when they were asking all of those questions about the Enlightenment or the Civil War, went out of their way to watch a documentary about it and then came to class the next day to tell me what they learned? Should I fail this student just because they did not surpass some arbitrary cutoff point? What if this was the first time they ever started to care about something that happened in history? With online grading, those students are locked into whatever number the program says.

This is not to say that I grade students with fuzzy math. I keep meticulous records (on paper of course), add up every single number and adhere to our department’s grading policy. Students are informed as to how their grades are calculated. In fact, as I told one parent who disapproved of me not posting grades online on parent-teacher night, I spend more time than most other teachers going over with my students how their grades are calculated. I walk them through a hypothetical student with hypothetical grades and show them exactly how I calculate during report card season. They get a handout describing in both words and in diagrams what it means for their grades to be “cumulative”. In my mind, there is more transparency in this type of grading than in online grading since, unlike a computer program, I walk them through exactly how the sausage is made.

And then, after I do all of this, I tell them that this is not the point of coming to school. These are merely numbers. Education is what goes on in class all day. It is how they are affected by history. It is how history shapes their lives.  How many online grading programs were used by Socrates? Did Plato respect him because he promptly posted his grades to the internet?

Administrators can twist my arm to go online all they want. They have their reasons for wanting teachers to post their grades to the internet. None of those reasons have anything to do with education and everything to do with the bureaucratic exercise of covering one’s behind. Administrators want to be able to say that their schools constantly inform parents. Granted, some administrators might think that going with online grading is “pedagogically” the best thing to do. If that is the case, they should share their reasoning with their staffs who should, in turn, be free to accept or reject that reasoning. However, in Bloomberg’s Department of Education, it is all about informing parents.

But informing is a one-way street. Informing means explaining to someone a policy decision after it has already been made. Instead of informing, schools should be eliciting. Instead of posting grades and sending home letters, schools should be asking parents what they need. Instead of telling parents what has already been done, schools should be working with parents in designing what needs to be done in the future. Granted, these things are not mutually exclusive. A school can both inform and elicit. Yet, instead of spending a cool grand on an online grading program, imagine a school spending that money on organizing a “parents’ night” or several “parents’ nights”? Instead of mandating that teachers hunch over a keyboard to punch in numbers, imagine schools that would encourage teachers to take a day out of the semester to knock on doors of the parents they do not get to meet on conference night. Instead of more digital interaction, how much face-to-face interaction can a school purchase with a thousand bucks?

Subconsciously, this is probably another reason I have an aversion to online grading. It has the foul stench of Bloomberg all over it. Not only does it conjure up images of Joel Klein-like characters profiting off the backs of school districts by hawking superfluous and/or useless technological wares, it is just another way to inform. One thing the reformers have done well is drive a wedge between teachers and parents, as well as between parents and parents. They have sought to atomize the “stakeholders” of the education system into its constituent parts so that it is more difficult to unite against their harebrained “reforms”. Bloomberg himself has accomplished this by making it easier for schools to inform than to elicit.

Contrary to what we are being told, education is not all about the data (!) I will remind myself and my students of this every chance I get.

A Look at the New Orleans Charter Experiment

What have the charter schools in New Orleans accomplished, beside forcing students to walk in straight lines?

What have the charter schools in New Orleans accomplished, besides forcing students to walk in straight lines?

As if Baye Cobb is not enough anecdotal proof about the failure of the New Orleans charter experiment, a much deeper analysis of it can be found in the Daily Beast:

But eight years after Hurricane Katrina, there is evidence that the picture is far more complicated. Seventy-nine percent of RSD charters are still rated D or F by the Louisiana Department of Education. (To be sure, some charter operators argue that the grading system in Louisiana, which keeps moving the bar upward, doesn’t sufficiently capture the improvements schools have achieved.) Sci is one of two RSD high schools to earn a B; there are no A-rated open-admission schools. In a school system with about 42,000 mostly poor African-American kids, every year thousands are out of school at any given time—because they are on suspension, have dropped out, or are incarcerated. Even at successful schools, such as the highly regarded Sci Academy, large numbers of students never make it to graduation, and others are unlikely to make it through college.

The bottom line is if a public school system was delivering the types of results as the largely chartered school system of New Orleans, Arne Duncan, Bill Gates and the rest of the reformer army would be screaming bloody murder. Instead, when these poorly rated charter schools fail, they are replaced by more charter schools:

The premise of the New Orleans charter-school experiment is that charters can educate all children. However, the experience of kids like Lawrence Melrose, another Sci Academy student, does not support that claim. Now 18, Lawrence’s life is a testament to both high levels of social dysfunction, including poverty and violence, and the inability of some charter schools to meet the needs of the most disadvantaged kids.

It is hard to know when Lawrence’s life began to spin out of control. It may have been when his grandmother who raised him was diagnosed with cancer and he began shuttling back and forth between Georgia, where the family moved after Hurricane Katrina, and his great-uncle Shelton Joseph’s house in New Orleans. It may have been during a basketball game, near his great-uncle’s house, on a hot August day of his 14th year, when another kid shot him in the back, nearly killing him. Or it may have been during his dizzying spin through half a dozen struggling RSD schools in the two years before he enrolled at Sci Academy.

But we are told that poverty and all of the problems that come with it are just “excuses”. All children should be college ready by the time they graduate. In the privatized system of New Orleans, this should be changed to if they graduate. Yet, the operators of some charters are not only making “excuses”, they are copping out altogether:

Paradoxically, as New Orleans encourages existing charters to take over the last of the schools the RSD directly runs, the charter system is finally being forced to confront the flaws in its one-size-fits-all college-prep model. Some of the city’s charter schools have begun experimenting with alternatives, like vocational programs and so-called alternative schools designed specifically to help students who have struggled in, or dropped out of, school. This spring, John White, Louisiana’s superintendent of education, in a notable departure from the state’s college-for-all mantra, unveiled a proposal to revamp high school diplomas by creating a vocational track that would qualify graduates for technical careers. Although Louisiana already has a “career diploma,” it is widely seen as a dead-end certification, because it neither prepares students for college nor provides them with specialized training.

What does it mean when privately-run charter schools, that were sold to the public as places that would make all students “college ready”, start experimenting with vocational training?  Is this not an admission of defeat?

Ironically, these New Orleans charter schools are starting to come full circle. As Diane Ravitch explains in Reign of Error, the original vision of charter schools was for them to be a laboratory for innovative instruction for students who tended to not do so well in traditional public schools. It seems that is what some of the charters in New Orleans are starting to do, albeit under private management.

To date, the charter operators cannot point to one example of how a privatized, no-excuses model of education can work for an entire school district (and not just skimming the best students off the top of that district). The closest example they have is New Orleans and it has been an abysmal failure.

“But there is so much poverty in New Orleans and families are still returning after Hurricane Katrina.”

No excuses

Hop into Bed Against the Common Core

Starnge-Bedfellows

 

The buyer’s remorse is starting to set in on the Common Core. Potentially strange bedfellows of unionized teachers and states’ rights Republicans are taking strong stands against it. I say potentially because they have not quite hopped into bed yet. As with many a courtship, the two sides are on different wavelengths even though they both ultimately want the same thing. In this case, we all wish to shake off the yoke of the Common Core before it can be fastened upon us.

Take the case of Robert Small, the Maryland parent who dared to speak out at a “public” meeting held by state education officials on the CCSS. Those in the audience who had questions were asked to write them down. By most accounts, the educrats on stage cherry picked which questions they would answer. This did not sit well with Small, a Maryland native who graduated from the University of Maryland, College Park.

Small broke with the format of the meeting by standing up to state his belief that the Common Core is designed to prepare children for community college, rather than the ivied halls of Harvard as its proponents have stated. He then said he moved his family to Howard County, Maryland because the schools there have a stellar reputation. With the advent of Common Core, he fears the quality of instruction in Howard County will deteriorate. It was at this point that a security guard, an off-duty Baltimore police officer, came over to him and said “let’s go”. When Small continued his oration, the guard manhandled him, pushed him out of the meeting and arrested him.

Of course, Robert Small’s critique of the Common Core is in step with what many other parents and educators have been saying. The stress placed on non-fiction texts at the expense of literature discounts the role of imagination. Its mile deep and inch wide nature risks narrowing content for the sake of building skills. Most importantly, students will be assessed on these skills with fill-in-the-bubble exams, ensuring in the end that the only real skill at which students will become proficient is gaming a test.

The publishing and education data companies have been busy designing textbooks, materials and exams that are Common Core “aligned”. They have been pulling in billions of dollars in government contracts for their troubles. The wealthiest corporate interests in the nation have been pushing for the Common Core for some time. It has been the 1% who has been the engine of this Common Core “movement”, making it not so much a movement as much as a scheme concocted by a cabal. (Does this make me sound too much like a “conspiracy theorist“?)

Yet, Robert Small has become a minor hero in the circle where one would expect this giant step towards education privatization to be celebrated: the far right.

“Small, 46, has been discussed on Glenn Beck’s radio show. Sean Hannity has reached out to him….

On his Monday morning radio program, Beck said Small’s arrest was ‘a warning sign to the American people. I believe my job is to tell you the signposts. My job is to tell you how far down this road are you and how much farther do you have to go. Not much.’

State Del. Patrick L. McDonough characterized as “outrageous” the failure of education officials to give Small a chance to speak. The Baltimore County Republican plans to introduce legislation that would put a moratorium on the implementation of the Common Core standards in the county’s schools. Del. Ron George, a Republican candidate for governor, said Monday he wants address the common core standards in the next General Assembly session.”

On what grounds do these conservatives oppose the Common Core?

” Many conservatives oppose the implementation of the new Common Core standards on the grounds that it is a federal government intrusion into local school control. Beck and others have talked about the new standards for months.”

So when the Glenn Becks of the world see Robert Small being hauled away by a police officer, they see good old fashioned state repression. In fact, they see the Common Core itself as an effort by egghead, limousine liberal, latté-sipping elitists to indoctrinate our children in what they might call “secular humanism”. The fact that the CCSS is a key part of the Obama Administration’s Race to the Top program only confirms their worst fears that Washington is out to prevent local school districts from teaching such time-honored ideas like creationism.

No matter how distasteful the likes of Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity might be, they are not totally off in their criticisms of the Common Core. The fact of the matter is that limousine liberals are huge supporters of the Common Core. Coleman, Obama and Arne Duncan resemble this remark. The overweening power of the state was on display when Robert Small was dragged out of the meeting. The Common Core, along with the rest of Race to the Top, does represent an unprecedented federal overreach of power over what we teach our children. These are legitimate criticisms which, unfortunately, might be somewhat delegitimized as soon as they exit the mouths of hucksters like Beck and Hannity.

There is one fatal flaw in the conservative attack on the Common Core: it does not go far enough. The overweening power of the state, whether in the form of federal education policy or in the form of an overzealous Baltimore police officer, is merely a proxy for the power of the corporate class. It is this that separates the conservative and progressive critics of Common Core. Somewhere within this continuum we must also reckon with the pedagogical issues with CCSS, especially the narrowing of horizons that come with excessive testing. The progressive, conservative and educational forces opposed to the Common Core cannot jump into bed together until they can square this circle.

Ironically, it is a conservative who points the way to the rhetoric that just might be able to unite the bedfellow forces against the Common Core:

” Harford County Executive David R. Craig, a Republican candidate for governor, said Monday that he does not support the Common Core because he believes what is taught should be left up to classroom teachers. The former teacher and administrator said he believes the new standards are no better than what was required by the state under No Child Left Behind and that he is opposed to the amount of testing that would be required.”

Looks like the right does not have a problem with teachers exercising professional autonomy when it acts as a shield against state power. Let us pick up on this concession by the right so we can use it to hold our noses and make common cause with them against the Common Core.

Lord Bankenstein Addresses Education Nation

Lord Bankenstein has written a stirring speech for Education Nation.

Lord Bankenstein has written a stirring speech for Education Nation.

Goldman-Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein will be a panelist at the upcoming Education Nation event on NBC. In an amazing scoop, the team here at Assailed Teacher (which consists of me and my cat) have uncovered the speech Mr. Blankfein intends to give for this occasion. It is reprinted in its entirety below:

Jesus was a teacher. He chased the money-changers out of the temple in Jerusalem. Instead of making money, he wanted people to focus on doing good works to help poor people. Some people used to say that teachers were doing “God’s work”, maybe because they had taken up the same profession as Jesus.  Some people also used to say that banking was a sin called “usury”, maybe because Jesus had chased the usurers out of the temple.

But times have changed. Where is Jesus now? Crucified. Where are the bankers now? We run the world. What better evidence can there be that God favors us bankers? This is why I shifted the paradigm in 2009 by saying us bankers are doing God’s work. Two thousand and nine years after Jesus’ birth, the world finally came to see that he was wrong.

The money changers are still here. The meek have not inherited the earth. We have inherited the meek, as well as their money. All of this has happened without so much as a lightning bolt striking any of us dead. Me, Vikram Pandit, John Thain, Jamie Dimon, all of us are still here and still swimming in vaults of gold like Scrooge McDuck.

There is but one sliver of meekdom left for us to inherit: education. By inheriting education we would inherit the legacy of Jesus himself. Us money-changers will then have the last laugh, again.

You see, Jesus had it all backwards. He exhorted people to uplift the least among us. The beggars, the aesthetes, the prostitutes and the unwashed are all worthy of the same respect as the wealthy, the noble, the patrician and the royal. He invented a God that would reward those who lived their lives by these guidelines and punish those who did not. There was something about a camel passing through the eye of a needle or whatever. And where are we today? The least among us are as least as ever while the money-changers are passing quite easily through the eyes of solid gold needles.

For over 100 years, this country has been trying to lift up the least among us through public education. There once was a belief that all children, including the children of beggars, aesthetes, prostitutes and the unwashed, were worthy of true learning. Even worse, people believed that these children were capable of true learning. Worst of all, these children might use what they learned to create better lives for themselves. Educators once fancied themselves fishers of men, and even women.

100 years of fishing has gotten us nowhere. Our education system was created in a period of history when the money-changers dominated the meek. In 2013, the money-changers still dominate the meek. The kingdom of heaven on earth has not come to pass, despite our best efforts to heed the advice of Jesus. God in heaven has not sent down a plague of locusts upon the heads of the money-changers. Our yearly harvests are as bountiful as ever.

So it is time that this country scrap the protagonist of the New Testament in favor of the money-changers. It is time we recognize that it is not God’s will for the meek to inherit the earth. Over 2000 years of history has showed us that the wheat always separates from the chaff. We are the wheat. They are the chaff. If we are to have a system of schooling, it must recognize this reality once and for all.

I am glad to say that this reality is already recognized by many of us here today. Wendy Kopp was one of the first to understand that the wheat must teach the chaff. They must teach the chaff not in order to uplift them, but in order to prepare them for their roles as chaff. Over the past two decades, her minions of Pharisees nationwide have displaced those educators who foolishly believed they were doing God’s work. These were the educators who spent their lives in a classroom, sending a message to the community that their children were worthy of dedication. But Kopp’s minions have shown us the way. They recognize that one does not need any skill or preparation to instruct chaff in how to be chaff. They recognize that they are too good to be around chaff for more than a few years. They recognize that one of the best ways to teach chaff their true value is to leave them after two years. Any longer than that and they might start to identify with, or even believe in, the chaff they instruct. What is worse, they might start learning how to actually teach, how to be fishers of men and women, which would puff up the chests of the chaff and make them believe they are actually wheat. This would be the worst kind of wheat, the kind that is not even wheat: puffed wheat.

Also with us today is Eva Moskowitz, a woman who has given us the template for how the education of the masses should look. She deserves nothing less than our total approbation. There are many poor children in New York City. However, a portion of those poor children come from families who actually believe in them. They have good manners, a good vocabulary and might even be hard-working. Eva takes the poor children from these families and teaches them what they need to know. They need to know how to sit up straight. They need to know how to march silently. They need to know how to look like they are giving their undivided attention to the Kopp acolyte who stands in front of the room. They need to know how to jump to every command of Kopp’s acolytes. If they do not jump fast or enthusiastically enough, they will be penalized. This is exactly what these types of children need. If these children were to go to a regular public school taught by one of these fisher of men and women, they might actually learn something about the world around them. What good would that be for them? It would only succeed in giving them ideas too big for their stations. And, you guessed it, their station is to be chaff. I do not need the person who shines my socks to know why the Confederacy fired on Fort Sumter. I only need them to know that I require my socks shined now, before I meet with the Secretary of the Treasury. This is what Eva Moskowitz is doing for us. She is taking the best of the chaff and preparing them to jump to our every whim without a thought. If every one of these kinds of children spent a solid 13 years in one of Eva’s schools, every money-changer in America would have an able, willing and supplicant sock-shiner. Who can argue with that?

Another one of my heroes is here today as well: Ms. Michelle Rhee. Michelle showed us that we cannot separate the chaff of tomorrow from the wheat of tomorrow without thoroughly subjugating the teachers of the chaff. Michelle took over a typical urban school system where teachers had tenure and a measure of autonomy. This means they walked into their classrooms every morning as if they were the cock of the walk. Morning after morning, year after year, these tenured “professionals” sent the message to their students that there were jobs out there in which people can be happy, fulfilled and useful. Teachers like this tend to have an enthusiasm for their careers and for life in general. In turn, these traits might rub off on their students. Enthusiasm is a dangerous quality for the chaff of tomorrow to have. It gives them a false impression that their destiny is in their hands. Michelle came in on her, I mean with her, broom not to sweep up the bad teachers but to beat all teachers in the head with the bristles as one would do to a mouse in the kitchen. By tying each teacher’s career to the test scores of their students, she made them dread coming into work every morning. Instead of learning about the world, D.C.’s students would learn how to fill in bubbles with a #2 pencil. Above all else, teachers knew that the fate of their careers hinged on value added models over which they had absolutely no control. The Sword of Damocles was not hanging over their heads. It was swinging wildly at their heads. Whether or not one lost their head was a completely random affair. The fear that teachers had of not being in control over their own destinies inevitably spilled over to the kids. It taught them the implicit lesson that their destiny was not theirs. Their destiny is ours. We are the ones who swing the sword. They can duck all they want, it still will not ensure they keep their heads. Look at all of the schools she closed. Look at all of the children who were shuffled around. Look at the hyper-segregation that took place. Children learned that they are in a world where things are done to them by us. They have no choice. No free will. Ideals of goodness, fairness, stability and justice are not only antiquated, they never existed in the first place for them. Michelle was just preparing them for the roles they will play on the earth that we, the money-lenders, have inherited.

This is where Goldman-Sachs comes in. Despite the fact that it is God’s will that the money-lenders keep a firm boot on everyone else’s throat, that type of imagery does not play well in this very image-oriented society. Even the pretentions of Kopp, Moskowitz and Rhee of being some new-age group of civil rights leaders who want to help the disadvantaged rings hollow when one looks in detail at what they are actually doing. The only thing that saves them is a little Goldman-Sachs.

You see, throughout the 2000s we posted record profits and gave out record bonuses, mostly to me. We did this even though we were making rotten deals that would end up sinking the entire financial sector, and then the rest of the economy. We purchased mortgages from lenders, bundled them up and then sold them as assets. We could not sell these “assets” fast enough, so we pressured the lenders to make more and more loans. To fulfill our demand, they lowered the standards for who got mortgages. They started giving mortgages to people they knew could not afford them. Why wouldn’t they? We were buying those mortgages outright from them, so there was no risk to them. Since so many of our former or current employees also worked for rating agencies like Moody’s, it was nothing for us to get these assets backed by bad mortgages rated “Triple A”. Everyone thought it was a safe bet because of it. Everyone, that is, except for us. Deep down inside we knew we were selling garbage, so we hedged our bets by convincing insurance giants like AIG to insure these crappy assets. That way, if we were holding the bag when these assets tanked, we would not lose anything because AIG would rescue us. In effect, we were betting against the assets we were selling and laughing all the way to Scrooge McDuck’s vault. All the networks, especially CNBC, were crowing about how well we were doing and how I, along with every other money-lender, were geniuses. And when this whole house of cards finally got blown over, two presidents in a row from two different parties bailed our asses out.

Wendy Kopp, Eva Moskowitz, Michelle Rhee and the rest of you in this room today watched us and learned from us. Deep down inside you all know that you are selling poison. But you have all done bang-up jobs of skewing the numbers. We posted record profits on crap assets in the same way you post high test scores with garbage education. You fudge your numbers, skim your students and cheat on exams so you can show that you outperform public schools. The general public, all of whom are chaff who do not like to think, sees a graph with a rising line and considers all of you education geniuses. Much like nobody questioned whether or not rising stock prices and absurd executive bonuses actually reflected the underlying value of our companies, nobody questions if rising test scores actually reflects better education. They do not even stop to consider if the test scores are really rising at all. Just like us, you education reformers have your own echo chamber. You have think tanks and media outlets who will repeat everything you say without question. Organizations like Democrats for Education Reform are to you what Moody’s is to us: an incestuous group who rubber stamps everything you peddle to the public. NBC and Oprah and John Stossel are to you what CNBC is to us: a mouthpiece extolling how great everything you do is. These interlocking entities create the public perception you want. Just like we had the country and the government eating out of our hands as we were leading them off of an economic cliff, you have led people to believe you are modern-day Horace Manns and Martin Luther Kings when, in reality, you are just like me: a Pharisee.

Yes, we are all Pharisees. We all occupy a God-given place at the very tip of the societal pyramid. We have lickspittles at every level of government and media ready and willing to shine our socks. But you are the ones who are truly doing God’s work. By siphoning off education to the money-lenders, you are ensuring that the generation in school now and the generations to come will also be lickspittles. You are helping etch in eternity what God has obviously always intended: to keep us, the money-changers, in the temple. Even more than Pharisees, you are also Romans. For just like the Romans crucified Jesus the teacher for the sake of keeping the money-changers in the temple, you are hammering the nails into the flesh of everyone in this country who has chosen teaching as their life’s profession. You do this so the elite will remain elite; so the money-changers can remain in the temple.

We are well on our way to truly completing God’s work. Do not let this cup pass you by. It will not be too much longer until we realize the true kingdom of heaven here on earth. It will not be too long before all of us inherit the meek.

The First Day of Philosophy Class

bullshit

 

As some of you might already know, I’ve been teaching an elective philosophy class at my school for the past 8 years. We meet every Wednesday afternoon for 8 weeks. After that, the students choose another elective and I get to teach a whole new group. Our first class of the year this past Wednesday reminded me why I chose to teach philosophy to high school students in the first place.

I came in that morning to find the roster for the philosophy class in my mailbox. Not surprisingly, my eyes started to scan down the list of students to get an idea of the type of class I could expect. Only students in grades 10 through 12 get electives (that is to say, no freshmen), so chances are I would know most of the names even if I never previously taught them. It was a relatively huge roster. There were exactly 30 students listed even though our electives usually top out at around 20. Out of those 30, 25 of them were students to whom I had taught history in years past. At least I would not have to spend too much time introducing myself to them and catching them up on class rules. It was a class I was looking forward to meeting.

What was especially heartening was the fact that many sophomores I taught last year as freshmen had signed up. This was the first time in their high school careers that they had the opportunity to choose an elective and they chose philosophy. What did that mean? I was probably going to start to find out once class started.

The bell rang and they started filing into the room. At this point it would be my usual practice to direct the kids to take seats towards the front. I did not even bother this time because practically every chair in the house was filled before the late bell rang. There was a thought question on the board for them to answer: “what do you think philosophy is?” There were many great answers that I listed on the blackboard. As we wound up this initial discussion, I noticed a look of disappointment on some of their faces when I informed them that the point of philosophy was to ask better questions. I told them that if they left this class thinking they know the meaning of life, then they are doing philosophy incorrectly. Instead, they should leave here knowing which questions are appropriate to ask. This bit of advice seemed like a bitter pill for some of them to swallow.

They started to perk up however when I told them that our first lesson of the year was going to be about how to make people look stupid in a debate. That is how I sold it to them anyway. This is my usual springboard into the lesson on how to construct an argument. We took a tour through the usual introduction to philosophy fare: syllogisms, premises, conclusions, deductive reasoning, inductive reasoning and straw men. While all of these are powerful concepts, they seemed to really take to the discussion we had on the difference between lies and truth.

One of the syllogisms we studied was: “Paul never lies when he speaks. Paul is speaking. Therefore, Paul is speaking the truth.” I asked them whether or not this was a valid argument. Practically everyone agreed that it was. As they thought the case was closed and sought to move on to the next syllogism, they sensed that I was not totally buying their answer. I asked them why this argument might not be valid. When a senior raised her hand to say “just because Paul is not lying does not mean he is speaking the truth”, one of those “a-ha moments” on which we teachers thrive rippled through the room.

It was at this point that we started discussing truth. Can there not be a rather large space between lies and truth? What is more: is this not the space that most of us (and the rest of the world) occupy? This was their first encounter with philosophical grey area. I informed them that the philosopher Harry G. Frankfort might call this space “bullshit“, a tidbit that never fails to cause chuckles. We went through a few daily examples of bullshit that they would know well, like commercial advertising or when teenagers try to deceive adults. Many knowing grins lit up across the room once the kids heard an example of bullshit with which they were able to identify. If we had time we could have even discussed the quote from the great diplomat Talleyrand (one of my favorite historical figures) that “speech was given to man to disguise his thoughts.”

Towards the end of the period we started discussing hidden premises. Most arguments they will encounter in real life are not going to be cut-and-dry syllogisms. People are always injecting their biases into things, and these biases are their assumptions. They seemed to be taken with the idea that they might be able to learn how to recognize someone else’s assumptions. However, what I really believe they learned was the fact that assumptions existed. The bell rang just as we were going to go in depth on the matter. I suppose this is what next week will be for.

I believe this particular class taught me a thing or two about today’s teenagers. They seemed to genuinely appreciate the discussion on bullshit and hidden assumptions. This can probably partially be explained by the fact that they recognized themselves and their own thought patterns in these things. However, I think they also recognized that the world around them, the world of school, pop culture and Facebook, is laden with hidden biases and outright bullshit. They have a general sense that they are being lied to but have not been able to really pinpoint how. By the end of the class, I believe they started to stir with the idea that they might end up being able to expose the world around them for what it really is.

These students have spent most of their school careers in Bloomberg’s Department of Education. They have been bombarded with standardized exams and sanitized curricula for most of their lives. School to them has been a series of fill-in-the-bubble exercises. They have to fill the bubbles in on exams. They have to carry out the appropriate work units in their classes to get good grades. If their grades are lacking, they just ask for extra work units that will help them fill in the gaps until they reach a number with which they are satisfied. On their own time (and even on school time), they fill in the bubbles on their Facebook profiles, Twitter updates and text messages.

All of their time has been spent on exhibiting the appropriate outward behavior. They have learned that certain types of behaviors yield them certain rewards, like good grades or enhanced social status. The obsession with “achievement” and “success” in Bloomberg’s DOE is echoed in society at large. People only seem to care about what they do. However, philosophy reveals to them what they are.

Most importantly, philosophy is one of the only times in their school careers when they will honestly be challenged to question everything. Why are you required to do certain things? Why do you believe you have to do certain things? Why do you believe school/society wants you to do these things but not other things? It is an exercise in critical thinking. It is an exercise that is dangerous to the people in charge.

The overwhelming turnout for this first philosophy class of the year was a sign. Their general enthusiasm on the first day of philosophical discussion was a sign. How they received the ideas of bullshit and biases was a sign. Our children thirst for something higher. They thirst for it because they have never been encouraged to explore it. The school system is doing a bang-up job of extracting the curiosity, the thinking, the discovery and the fun out of learning. The reformers of the world want our children to be disengaged students because disengaged students become disengaged citizens. They are being molded into non-citizens.

By the end of this philosophy course, I hope the kids are able to discover why questioning is much more valuable than answering. Perhaps instilling within them a knack for questioning now will keep a fire burning within them that no amount of bubble-in exams can extinguish.

What Might This Mayoral Election Mean?

Is Bill de Blasio a symbol of an age of political transition?

Is Bill de Blasio a symbol of an age of political transition or is he something else?

The post-mortems on the New York City Democratic mayoral primary have been pouring in, despite the fact that the election is not over yet. Democratic voters had choices from Christine Quinn (Bloomberg’s 4th term), Bill de Blasio (a city liberal of the old mold), Bill Thompson (who staked out a third way between Quinn and de Blasio) and Anthony Weiner (who might have had a chance if not for his personal foibles, which are many). A de Blasio victory in these primaries might presage a new era in American politics.

In 1977, a Democrat named Ed Koch won his party’s nomination and then the general election running a campaign promising law and order and fiscal responsibility. Three years later, Ronald Reagan was elected president after running a campaign that touched upon similar themes. The late 1970s up until today has been an era defined by Reagan’s program, a program ratified by Clinton and the New Democrats of the 1990s and continued by Bush and Obama in the new millennium.  Both Koch and Reagan appealed to young voters. Teenagers and 20-somethings of that era had come of age at the moment when America’s great experiment in liberalism, the New Deal, was falling apart. The era of Vietnam, urban riots and dishonest government was ripe soil for a new generation of voters receptive to something different, something that repudiated the programs that gave birth to the rotting world in which they had been raised. In 1977, it was the voters of New York City who were the bellwethers of a changing national mood bent towards conservatism. In 2013, many on the left are hoping the same scenario is playing out conversely here in NYC. (This article is a compelling read of this prospect.)

The general election will, presumably, feature the Democrat Bill de Blasio against Republican Joe Lhota. Lhota will be a tough candidate, especially if Bill Thompson is able to secure a runoff election. A Democratic runoff is already conjuring up memories of 2001, when Bloomberg won his first term as Pharaoh partially due to the internal wars of city Democrats. But runoff or not, Lhota’s strategy against de Blasio will be predictable: paint him as an irresponsible liberal who will return the city to the bad old days of the 1970s and 1980s. The message will certainly resonate with older New Yorkers, not to mention the younger business-minded voters on Wall Street.

But political futures are not made on old voters, a lesson the Republican Party nationwide has been slow to learn. De Blasio has tapped into the same vein of young voters as Obama did in both of his elections. The late teen and early 20-something of today is more likely to be part of a minority group and tolerant on social issues like gay marriage and marijuana than the young voter of 35 years ago. They also have been coming of age in the world of the conservative revolution and that world is just as rotten as the liberal world of the Koch and Reagan ascendancies. Their overall liberal views on issues of class and culture make them less susceptible to the fear of class and culture warfare preyed upon by conservative candidates. In short, the past 10-15 years have been ripe soil for future voters who reject the Reagan Revolution.

Perhaps a Bill de Blasio mayoralty will be a laboratory for a new national political program, a role New York City has played many times in its history. A good way to discern how much of a laboratory the city might be with de Blasio is to look at what he does on education. Many educated people are hoping and predicting that the de Blasio victory means that Democrats at least reject Bloomberg’s corporatization of public schools that has erroneously been dubbed “education reform”. Their hopes have some foundation considering de Blasio’s generally friendly history towards labor in the city, not to mention his out-and-out rejection of most of Bloomberg’s legacy as the “education mayor”. He consistently took the most anti-Bloomberg stance whenever he was asked about education policy, famously saying that “there is no way in hell that Eva Moskowitz should get free rent” when asked about charter school co-locations. Those types of quotes were probably good enough to pry many teachers away from Thompson and give heart to the defenders of public education, me included.

However, promises in the primaries and promises in the general election are two different things. And promises in general compared to action while in office is something else entirely. Education reform has been a sharpening stone on which politicians of both parties, but especially Democrats, have honed their credentials for national office. Cory Booker and Andrew Cuomo have become up-and-comers largely owing to their school reforms, which included taking on unions and injecting the private sector into education. In order for Bill de Blasio to truly set himself apart from the rising New Democrats (who are not so new anymore) in the Clinton/Obama mold, he must keep singing his current tune on education throughout the general elections and then in office. As mayor of New York, de Blasio would be in the national eye. Bold leadership on his part might point the way to a new path in American politics. Will he sacrifice a bold education policy that respects schools as public institutions to bold reforms in other areas on which he might make more headway? If he does this, the new road he paves will make corporate school reform a reality for at least another generation. This is why Democrats can be much more dangerous to the American left than Republicans.

Just as instructive as keeping an eye on de Blasio’s education policy in the coming weeks and months is keeping an eye on how the UFT reacts to him. The union endorsed Bill Thompson early in the campaign season, mostly because he seemed like the only potentially successful alternative to Christine Quinn. This was back when de Blasio was polling in the single digits and Quinn was presumed to be the nominee. As usual, the UFT backed the person who did not win, although all of the money and resources they poured into Thompson’s campaign surely helped in smacking Quinn down to the three spot, where a runoff is out of reach for her. However, they continue to back Thompson even when it is clear that he would not win in a runoff, a runoff that would do nothing but allow Joe Lhota to consolidate his resources for the general election. Perhaps Mulgrew is pressuring Thompson behind the scenes to concede. The sooner the Democrats get behind Bill de Blasio, the better it will be for them come the general election.

If de Blasio does become mayor, will he cap charter schools? There are billions of reformy dollars coursing through this city and they could launch a massive propaganda campaign against education policy that threatens their share of the increasing education “market”. If it really does come down to a case of the reformers vs. de Blasio, I am not at all sure where the UFT would stand on most issues. If the UFT feels that de Blasio might lose in a propaganda war for the hearts and minds of New Yorkers, they might cast their lot with the Rhee crowd just so they avoid the “obstructionist” label that unjustifiably dogs them. In short, the question might come down to: will the teachers’ unions be on the front lines of a new leftist direction in American politics or will they try to temper any such development? This will not be the first time this question is asked in NYC, the 1968 strike especially being a moment when the UFT actively stood against a leftward turn in education policy.

But the teachers I know and read on the internet are hopeful that a de Blasio mayoralty will mean a new contract and a renegotiation of the evaluation system. The real dreamers have hopes for retroactive pay and an opting out of New York City from the state’s inclusion in the Race to the Top program. These are the issues by which teachers will largely judge Bill de Blasio. We hope that he is able to recognize how deep the Bloomberg school reforms go. It is not just about charter schools. It is also about the deskilling of the profession and the autocratic line of command that runs through the system. A complete dismantling of the Bloomberg Way in public schooling in favor of a more democratic approach would certainly be a major blow to the nationwide school deform movement.

We cannot be sure if the left here and around the world is resurging or if this is just a tempest in a teapot. We can only be hopeful. In that hope, we have to be mindful that we are living in exciting times where things are shifting and do what we can in our own lives to help shift it in the right direction.