Tag Archives: poverty

A DEFENSE OF SOCIAL JUSTICE UNIONISM

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Social justice unionism, from what I understand, is a philosophy which holds that bread-and-butter union issues are inseparable from wider issues of equality for all people. The union and the society are symbiotic. A setback in the union’s working conditions is a setback for equality everywhere. Increasing inequality somewhere else is a setback for the union’s working conditions.

My understanding of what social justice unionism means could be off but this is how I have understood it up until now. Something like this, I believe, is what MORE means when they claim to be the social justice caucus of the UFT. Again, feel free to correct me if I am mistaken.

Recently, some fellow bloggers I respect have raised questions about MORE’s strategy of social justice unionism. One of them has been Chaz of Chaz’s School Daze. I respect Chaz. We are blogroll partners and always will be. In fact, I encourage everyone to visit and follow his blog.

At one point, Chaz made the following prediction for the 2013 UFT elections:

Union Election: Look for Michael Mulgrew and Unity to easily win the election.  Their only competition will be the newly formed caucus MORE.  However, MORE seems to be drifting more and more to the left, no pun intended.  More’s emphasis seems to be “social justice”and not teacher based issues which will cause many teachers who have been disenfranchised by “Unity” to think twice about voting for MORE. Personalty, I would never vote for TJC because of their emphasis on the “social justice” issues.  However, as ICE and TJC have now merged, the “social justice” issues of TJC appears to have won out over the more teacher-centered ICE as the main platform for MORE. I predict that many teachers will probably sit out the election and result in another landslide victory for “Unity” and that is too bad. It will be interesting to see if those “fifth columnists” E4E actually runs in the elections.  It will be even more interesting to see how many real supporters they have?

To start from the end, I totally agree that the misleadingly named “Educators4Excellence” caucus is a “5th column”. They are the resident astroturf group funded by Democrats for Education Reform who, if they had their way, would immediately hand over the school system to the privatizers. Considering their agenda involves inundating our children with high-stakes tests and a revolving door of inexperienced teachers, there is nothing excellent about the way they wish to “educate”. Most E4E people are rookies themselves. One of them should put their money where their mouth is and show the world how “excellent” they are at teaching.  Why not have a teach-off competition with yours truly? I would put my veteran, professional, “sage on the stage” teaching style up against any E4E rookie.

Chaz is also right to assume that E4E will barely register a blip on the radar in the upcoming elections. Unfortunately for E4E, dollar bills cannot cast ballots. Despite their material advantages their message consistently fails to resonate with the rank-and-file. This makes E4E little more than a rump group of social climbers scattered sporadically throughout our sprawling education system. Their inevitable flaccid showing in the upcoming election will be their death knell. If they don’t make headway this year, then when will they ever do so?

So that means the biggest players in this election will be the establishment juggernaut Unity caucus and the plucky upstart MORE caucus. Chaz believes, with some justification, that Unity will dominate. Why wouldn’t he? Unity always dominates. These elections have traditionally acted as rubber stamps for Unity’s stranglehold on power.

Yet, I believe Chaz underestimates the social justice unionism for which MORE stands. Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that Chaz is correct about MORE’s social justice platform outweighing their concern for the bread-and-butter  issues of teacher rights and working conditions. Even if this was the case (which I don’t think it is), MORE still has a stiffer pro-teacher platform than Unity can ever hope to have. For example, MORE has consistently opposed the Race to the Top evaluation framework to which Unity agreed in negotiations at this time last year. This framework, as I think Chaz would agree, was designed to effectively short-circuit tenure with its “two years in a row of ineffective ratings and you’re out” policy. On top of this, MORE was fundamentally opposed to the un-democratic manner in which Unity handled this whole teacher evaluation fiasco. Not only did they not seek out the input of the rank-and-file, they explicitly stated that the rank-and-file’s input was not welcome.

I think MORE beats Unity hands-down when it comes to standing up for our working conditions and professionalism.

However, I disagree with Chaz’s contention that the social justice unionism aspect of MORE is eclipsing their bread-and-butter stances. Like I said at the start of this piece, social justice unionism is also bread-and-butter unionism. From my perspective, the two work symbiotically and not against each other.

For example, MORE is adamantly against charter school co-locations. In fact, MORE is against the opening of any new charter schools whatsoever. Not only do charter schools drain resources from the public schools with whom they share buildings (taking up classrooms, gym space, auditoriums, offices, etc.), charter school teachers are at-will employees with absolutely zero union protection. A stance against charters entails both a stance against taking resources away from the neediest children and a stance against turning the teaching force into low-skill, low-wage employees. Contrast this to Unity’s support for charter schools, their refusal to fight against co-locations and their inability to unionize even a fraction of the charter school teaching force.

The same types of things can be said for most of the rest of MORE’s platform. As urban teachers, Chaz and myself both see how poverty hamstrings many of our children’s efforts to learn. Both Chaz and myself understand that ameliorating poverty would greatly improve the ability of our children to learn. Therefore, MORE’s stance against the specter of childhood poverty in general would also improve our working conditions as teachers. We would not have to compensate as much for the basic materials, skills and knowledge our children lack due to poverty.

Again, not to continually put words in Chaz’s mouth, but I think he would agree with most of what I said here. It seems as if Chaz’s criticism is that MORE has gone so far “left” that they have lost sight of the importance of protecting our rights as teachers. On the other hand, I say that the best way to improve our rights and conditions as teachers is to go in that so-called leftward direction, although I do not subscribe to the notion that MORE is a leftist group.

Finally, there are two other reasons why it might be wise for us as teachers to hitch our wagons to the star of social justice unionism.

First, as a practical matter, MORE’s social justice stance allows them to say that they are truly putting students first. Michelle Rhee and other so-called reformers in control of school systems around the country have been able to gain traction with the public by clothing their reforms in the rhetoric of putting “students first”. Yet, any real insight into the matter reveals that “students first” is just that: rhetoric. The explosion of a billion-dollar edu industry over the past 10 years, manifested in the form of firms like Pearson and Wireless Generation, demonstrates exactly who has benefited from the age of Rhee-esque school reform. Children mired in poverty still struggle in school as badly as they ever did while edu-biz has ballooned exponentially.

So, if “students first” has worked for Michelle Rhee, why can it not work for MORE? MORE has the added advantage of actually meaning it when they say “students first”.

Second, I think teaching is a social justice act by nature. Teachers play a vital role in a complex socioeconomic system. Their influence can either help children accept the world as it is (including the inequalities by which those same children are victimized) or it can give children the foundation necessary to question the world as it is and the audacity to envision something better. In short, teachers who refuse to see their role as part of a larger, unjust system merely end up perpetuating that system by transferring its assumptions to the next generations. As teachers, we all have a duty to defend social justice.

This does not mean that I believe Chaz is unaware of any of this. Quite the opposite, it is obvious Chaz is keenly sensitive to his role as a teacher and cares deeply about the well-being of his students. Honestly, I think the issue here is one of semantics. It is understandable that some teachers might be put off by the language of “social justice”. It conjures up imagery of angry young idealists breathing fire against “the system” or mohawked anarchists shattering windows in a fit of childish “rage against the machine”. Who wants their union run by people like this? Not me and not Chaz.

However, social justice unionism is nothing of the sort. Indeed, it is a rational, reasonable, sensitive, pragmatic and just approach to unionism. Just like Chaz, it understands that the lives of teachers and the lives of students are inextricably linked. It understands the realities of poverty being the number one determinant in scholastic achievement.

While I understand that many of my union brothers and sisters might be put off by some of the language of social justice unionism, I think many of them have far more in common with the cause of social justice than they want to admit.

And what is the alternative? The same conciliatory, top-down, corporate unionism that has seen our rights, our working conditions and our schools deteriorate over the past decade? Not only have the corporate unionists who have wielded power for so long seen this happen, they have helped make this happen.

I readily admit that our union has gained for us many rights over the past few decades for which we should be thankful. The bulk of those rights were won during the 1960s and 1970s, when the political consciousness of the nation was more awakened. There would be no way the union could act corporate and get away with it. But now it is 2013, the dystopian future of urban wastelands and dumbed-down electorates that was predicted in many a 1960s novel. The union no longer has to fear the wrath of a shrewd people. They have taken advantage of this situation by enriching themselves and selling us out in this modern age of reform. In order for the union to make a comeback, to gain the kind of traction it had when it won all of those rights for us, it must help awaken the population again, even just a little bit.

If yesterday’s rally at UFT headquarters was any indication, that awakening is happening. This is why I support social justice unionism

 

The Obama Phone and Other Nonsense

The “Obama Phone” lady is the latest viral video on the net. Here it is for those who have not seen it:

Not surprisingly, the likes of Rush Limbaugh have already jumped all over it as proof of Mitt Romney’s “47%” comment. One of my favorite comedic radio shows had one of the hosts ranting for 30 minutes about how the woman in the video represents the “entitlement” mindset common to most Obama voters. It is tough to see the planet on which these people are living.

The equation for Rush Limbaugh, the aforementioned comedy show host and the rest of their ilk seem to be the following. Obama is black. Therefore, most black people support him. In return, they believe they will get increased entitlements like welfare, food stamps, public housing and now, cell phones. The fact that black people have been slipping ever deeper into poverty since Obama’s election seems to be lost on them. In reality, Limbaugh and company are thinking in caricatures left over from the days of Reagan’s war on mythical “welfare queens”. It bears little resemblance to actual black people, whether they support Obama or not.

Obama will win this 2012 election. This is something I have said since he won in 2008 and I was not exactly going out on a limb then. This is not because Obama has done such a bang-up job, although there are plenty who seem to think so. Rather, it is because the other viable alternative, which includes not just Romney but the entire apparatus supporting him, has proven too odious and out-of-touch to be relevant to anyone but a small delusional percentage of the population. To be sure, this small delusional percentage comprises an active voting bloc. Yet, I think 2012 will prove that this bloc will no longer be able to swing elections like they did during the Bush Era. It seems the Tea Party was the last dying gasp of their influence, a swan song made possible by the infusion of money and organization from the corporate class.

It has been pointed out elsewhere that the “Obama Phone” is nothing of the sort. What the woman in the video is describing is the federal program designed to provide cell phones to low income, elderly and disabled people started in 2008 while George W. Bush was president. My mother had one of these phones. It was a no-frills, antiquated cell phone with 250 minutes a month. My uncle, who is a Vietnam veteran, also has one. Although it was a help when my mother needed to communicate with me, I bought her a Blackberry with an unlimited plan because those 250 minutes never seemed to last her more than 20 days.

Are these the “entitlements” that Rush speaks of? Is this the free ride that 47% of us expect according to Romney? If it is, the ride certainly does not go very far.

One of the other tropes trotted out to buttress the idea that Americans in the Obama Era feel more “entitled” is the fact that the food stamp rolls have increased over the past four years. Is this due to some sort of mass laziness brought about by Obama’s presence in the White House?

When people get hired at Walmart, they are also given an application for food stamps. This is because Walmart welcomes their new employees to the world of the working poor. The food stamp program is available to anyone making enough money under a very strict definition of poverty. This includes people on welfare (whose rolls have been declining in many states, thanks to Bill Clinton’s reforms) and the ever-growing number of Americans who are joining the ranks of the working poor. The new jobs that have supposedly ended the Great Recession are the types that qualify people for food stamps.

Listening to that small delusional part of the population, one would think that this country is saddled with legions of unproductive people sucking at the government’s teat. Our ingenuity and creative energy as a nation are being sapped, the thinking goes. Those who style themselves “education reformers” add the coda that “failing” public schools are graduating incompetent and uncreative workers.

And yet, the Gross Domestic Product of this nation has been increasing over the past 30 years. Even throughout the Great Recession, our GDP has been rising other than the years of the toxic assets brought about by billionaire banks. This means that the American workforce has been more productive. There is something wrong with this picture. If the workers of this country are more productive, why are people poorer? (and how are schools “failing”?)

This is the million-dollar question. The answer seems to lie somewhere within the growth experienced by the wealthiest Americans during this Great Recession. Americans are producing more wealth for the wealthy.

Occupy Wall Street was born of this state of affairs. Now that the occupations have been swept away, the small delusional sect of the population is back to pointing to the “Obama Phone” lady and the mythical caricature she represents as the crowd on the prowl for handouts. Sadly, many in that small delusional sect of the population qualify as poor as well. It is the poor blaming the poor for why they are so poor.

The crooked railroad magnate Jay Gould famously said that he could always get one half of the poor to kill off the other half. It explains why the myth of the lazy, entitled (and black) Obama supporter still has traction. It explains why the corporatists behind the Tea Party were able to find so much support. It explains why Libertarianism has been considered some sort of independent “middle way” between Democrat and Republican, rather than the deformed Neoliberal ideology it is. It explains why the Republican Party still has any support at all, and why the Democrats of today are somewhere to the political right of Richard Nixon in the 1970s.

Entitlements in this country are going to predominately one place: up. Steven Perlstein’s Washington Post article over the weekend captured it perfectly:

I am a corporate chief executive.

I am a business owner.

I am a private-equity fund manager.

I am the misunderstood superhero of American capitalism, single-handedly creating wealth and prosperity despite all the obstacles put in my way by employees, government and the media.

I am a job creator and I am entitled.

I am entitled to complain about the economy even when my stock price, my portfolio and my profits are at record levels.

I am entitled to a healthy and well-educated workforce, a modern and efficient transportation system and protection for my person and property, just as I am entitled to demonize the government workers who provide them.

This is where we stand as a nation. If you believe these criticisms are the result of “class warfare” or “envy” of “successful” people, then you also believe that we live in a “democracy” with “free enterprise” and “equal opportunity”. You probably also wanted to end the “death tax”.

What is more likely: that a woman at a political protest talking about an “Obama Phone” is holding us back as a nation, or that our nation is really an oligarchy with corporate socialism that reinforces economic castes?

 

 

Compassion?: Education Reform’s Separate and Unequal Agenda

When Michelle Rhee was asked if she had any compassion for the principal she fired on camera, she responded, “compassion?”, because she really did not know what that word meant.

“The most important civil rights battleground today is education, and, likewise, the most crucial struggle against poverty is the one fought in schools” says Nicholas Kristof in Wednesday’s piece for the New York Times. After reading this sentence, we are prepped to believe the person who wrote it is a defender of social justice. This impression is reinforced with the very next sentence: “Inner-city urban schools today echo the “separate but equal” system of the early 1950s.”

Basic progressive bromides that lead us to believe that the solutions proffered throughout the rest of the article are part of the progressive canon. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Instead, these are the tactics of the modern-day education “reformer”. An education reformer is a person who couches their rhetoric in progressive prose while pushing for retrograde policies. It is the reason why so many self-styled reformers are wealthy Democrats. Chiming in on the education debate allows them to brandish their progressive credentials while making apologies for the socioeconomic system that has blessed them with such great fortune.

Reformers love to cite the Brown case while totally ignoring its details. Thurgood Marshall, the esteemed NAACP lawyer and future Supreme Court justice who argued Oliver and Linda Brown’s case, demonstrated to the Warren court how segregated schools reinforced notions of racial inferiority and violated the 14th Amendment. Black schools had underpaid teachers, dilapidated facilities and outdated materials when compared to their white counterparts. These were issues Marshall knew of on an intimate level. His mother was a kindergarten teacher at a black school who, by law, earned less than white teachers.

To the Warren court, as well as anyone else alive during the 1950s, it was pointing out the obvious to say that the nation’s black schools existed on a different plane than white schools, a plane of inferiority enshrined in law and tradition. The court ruled in 1954 that this state of affairs indeed violated the 14th Amendment. Historians since have pointed to the Brown case as the unofficial beginning of the civil rights movement. A year later, Rosa Parks was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama and a fiery young reverend named Martin Luther King, Jr. made his debut on the national stage.

For those of us familiar with urban public schools, we know that segregation is alive and well in all parts of the country. We also know that the solutions put forward by the reformers, represented in this case by Nicholas Kristof, have not only failed to ameliorate this segregation in any way, but have exacerbated it and promise to do so indefinitely.

For example, Kristof enthusiastically worships at the altar of value added. This is the idea that students should be tested several times a year so their scores can be used to hold teachers “accountable”. To make his point, Kristof cites the “Gold Standard Study” that makes the case for value added assessments. This was the study released earlier this year which “proved” that “bad teachers” in early grades could lead students to fail later in life, whether it means getting pregnant or dropping out of school. This “Gold Standard Study” has never been peer reviewed. It was funded by the reformer juggernaut Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Its logical inconsistencies, obvious anti-teacher bias and junk science were ravaged from pillar to post, even while the New York Times was mindlessly repeating its findings. Even by the mushy standards of objectivity in the world of the social sciences, this “Gold Standard Study” has never passed muster.

What would have Thurgood Marshall argued in front of the Warren court? The crux of his case was that one set of standards applied to white schools and a totally different one applied to black schools. Kristof does exactly that. While the children and teachers of minority schools must submit to testing based upon junk science that has never been properly defended, justified or argued, the children and teachers of the Chicago Lab School, Sidwell Friends, Dalton and other schools for the rich do not have to deal with this at all. The motto for Sidwell Friends, the D.C.-area school attended by the Obama girls, is “let the light shine out from all”. The motto for everyone else’s schools is “pass these exams or suffer the consequences”. A rigorous curriculum of critical thinking, creativity and free expression for the wealthy. A narrow curriculum of bubble-in exams and endless factoids for everyone else.

It was not just the junk of value added over which Chicago teachers went out on strike. As Matt Farmer said in this great speech in front of the CTU, the reformers have aimed to get rid of art and music from public schools while reserving those programs for their own children. The new Common Core Standards, to which the schools of the reformers’ children will never be held, aims to squeeze out literary analysis and creative writing in favor of informational texts. In short, wealthy children will be free to develop and indulge the most abstract reaches of their minds. They will continue to be inspired to think creatively and see big pictures. Everyone else’s children will get the drudgery of standardized exams, the minutiae of factoids and the compartmentalized thinking that comes with a narrowed curriculum.

One group of children are educated to lead. Another group of children are educated to respond to prompts. This is the reformer agenda. While using the rhetoric of civil rights and the imagery of Brown vs. Board of Education, the reformers push policies that will enshrine segregation and inequality in law.

Perhaps the most revealing part of Kristof’s piece is when he says “some Chicago teachers seem to think that they shouldn’t be accountable until poverty is solved.” He says this while acknowledging “it’s true that the main reason inner-city schools do poorly isn’t teachers’ unions, but poverty. Southern states without strong teachers’ unions have schools at least as lousy as those in union states.” He understates the case by saying non-union schools are at least “as lousy” as unionized ones, since non-unionized states have the lousiest school systems in the nation. South Carolina and Mississippi come to mind.  Yet, it is rare for a reformer to admit that poverty plays any role in a child’s education. After all, there are “no excuses” for filling in the wrong bubbles.

Again, let us take a look at what Kristof is actually saying when he writes that poverty is the biggest deciding factor in schooling. Poverty can mean many things in the concrete, including a child not having a home to stay in, malnourishment or undernourishment, sickness, lack of positive male role models, gangs, violence, dysfunctional family life, the list goes on. There are actual physical and psychological impacts poverty has on students, children that could be as young as five years old.   They can come to class everyday with their stomachs growling or feeling weak. They could have walked through gang territory to get to school or to get home, exposing them to all types of destructive behaviors or psychological trauma along the way. They could have been beaten by their parents the night before, or been in the next room while their parents did drugs. More often than not, it is a case of a parent neglecting them by failing to ask about their day or sitting them in front of the television all night as a way to avoid interaction. This is what poverty means in the concrete, no matter how much reformers like Kristof try to make it an abstract sideshow.

When I was in high school, my best friend was shot and stabbed right in front of me. He spent weeks in the hospital where he almost died. During that time, what did he or I care about school or the upcoming exam? It did not matter in the least. Growing up in my poor neighborhood, I went to the homes of friends where the television was on 24/7 and the parents were barely around. There was no dinner on the table and, oftentimes, there was no table. In this situation, what does testing matter? What did holding our teachers “accountable” matter? It would have had no impact or bearing over our lives.

What the reformers are saying when they want to hold teachers “accountable” is that they wish to hold teachers accountable for all of these circumstances, circumstances over which teachers have absolutely no control. They want to allow society to continue to damage our children, to make them physically and psychologically sick, and then lay the entire blame at the teachers’ doorsteps. They want to continue to push people off welfare rolls, off-shore jobs, cut back on the most basic social services, air mindless garbage through the media and then turn around to the teachers and say “you fix it”. This is what accountability means to Kristof and the reformers. These are the implications of their policies.

Kristof at least mentions poverty, but he still shrugs it off in the end. Every columnist and billionaire reformer does that because, to them, poverty is not real. They can only approach poverty in the abstract, as a curiosity, as a statistic, because they are so far removed from its actual meaning. This does not mean a dictionary meaning but a three-dimensional meaning, one that is felt in the flesh and lived in real time. They are billionaires, pundits and opinion-givers. They sit in their air-conditioned offices and luxurious homes while their bank accounts get larger without them even noticing or doing anything. They want for nothing. It is all too easy for them to say poverty is not an excuse, to brush it off as a non-issue, to treat it as an abstraction because that is exactly what it is to them. That is all it can ever be to them.

In reality, poverty actually means something. So does education. When my friend was in the hospital, I bought him Gza’s Liquid Swords album, which we had been anticipating for a long time. Classmates of ours brought in artwork they made to put up in his hospital room. I started reading poetry and philosophy as a way to get a handle on life and look for solace. These things: music, art, poetry, abstract thought, are the things the reformers want to deny the poor children of the United States today. These are the things that got us as poor children through trying moments and made us aspire to great things. They might be great for wealthy children, but they are necessary for children of the poor. These are the things that help people understand their role and purpose in this world, and the ones that bring us beauty in times of darkness. The fact that the reformers want to totally eliminate this for children of the poor and leave them nothing but facts, tests, bubbles and computers is tantamount to child abuse. It is a civil rights travesty, no matter how hard reformers try to pass themselves off as new-age civil rights crusaders.

This is why the teachers of Chicago were striking. Anyone who has never lived in urban poverty, or who lacks basic human compassion or empathy, can never understand the destruction education reform means for our school system. These qualities, compassion and empathy, are what the reformers lack. Through their horrid educational programs, they want to turn our children into microcosms of themselves.

The New Gilded Age

A recent article in Salon neatly describes how the current era of U.S. history mirrors the Robber Baron era of the late 1800s-early 1900s, also known as the Gilded Age. The familiar bugaboos for progressives are there: wealth inequality, political corruption and corporations run amok.

There is another similarity I see between the two time periods, which is the increasing tendency today to ascribe one’s station in life to inborn characteristics. During the Gilded Age, this tendency manifested itself in Social Darwinism and, more ominously, Eugenics. Today, we see it in the celebration of the 1994 book The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, co-authored by Charles Murray. Turgidly. the point of the book is to prove how innate intelligence largely accounts for one’s socioeconomic class.

In the well-worn debate between nature and nurture, it seems nature wins out in static and conservative eras. It is a convenient way to justify gross inequality.

During the Gilded Age, Social Darwinism and even Eugenics were fundamental beliefs. Both conservatives and progressives subscribed to these ideas in some form or another. Even Woodrow Wilson, the Progressive’s progressive, believed in Eugenics. Then, by the end of World War II, Eugenics fell into disrepute because of its association with Hitler. The Great Depression damaged the entire nature side of the nature/nurture debate. It was proof positive that destiny was shaped by forces well beyond one’s natural gifts, like volatile business cycles. Post-war conservatives still clung to some form of “nature”, but it was persona non grata in liberal intellectual circles, and liberal intellectuals would be in the saddle for most of that era.

Today, it is not only conservatives like Murray who are reviving Eugenics. Liberal education reformers, like the one who wrote this essay, seem to be hung up on it as well. The article’s title asks the question, Can Schools Spur Social Mobility?

Before he answers that question, however, he delves into the world of Charles Murray. He explains that Murray answers that question in the negative. It is negative because we have already done a bang-up job of moving all of the cream of society to the top. There is simply nothing left for schools to do to increase mobility. Society is as mobile as it is going to get.

For the author, this creates a crisis of sorts. Agreeing with Murray “gives cover to educators who look at a classroom of low-income children and diminish their expectations—thinking that ‘these kids’ aren’t capable of much, educators who don’t buy the mantra that ‘all children can learn’”. It is tough to image which educators the author, Michael Petrilli, has in mind. Why would educators even choose the profession if they believe kids cannot learn? In Petrilli’s mind, it must be because of those fat paychecks and summer vacations.

Yet, in the very next breath, Petrilli pretty much concedes Murray’s point by asking “would we be shocked to find that the average intelligence level of such a classroom is lower than a classroom in an elite, affluent suburb?” But then he backtracks by stating:

“Yes, intelligence is malleable, not innate. Yes, an exceptional school/teacher/curriculum may boost that average intelligence level. But can those factors boost it enough to overcome the disparities Murray describes? If not, what can educators do?”

He then dedicates the rest of his essay to describe what educators can do. This means his recommendations aim not at boosting intelligence per se, but at boosting them within the very limited range of improvement allowed by Murray. So, he believes poor minority children can get smarter with a better education system, but not much smarter. For him, more gifted classes and online learning can help. Why he thinks these things can help he never really explains.

Petrilli ends by saying we will not move poor kids from the projects into Harvard overnight, but we can move them from the projects into police work, firefighting, nursing and plumbing.

For Petrilli, sky is not the limit. It seems to be about 90% genetic and 10% education system, especially the teacher.

What is absent from the ideas of both Murray and Petrilli is socioeconomic circumstance. Petrilli cites Murray by explaining elite universities overwhelmingly serve the children of the intellectual elite because their parents were of the intellectual elite. They both assume that the students at these schools are in fact the best and brightest the country has to offer. This means that George W. Bush, who went to Yale, got there on his merits and not because of his family legacy.

There is something to be said for the idea of moving students from the projects into professions like plumbing. Rather than call for more online classes, what Petrilli should be calling for is vocational education. Unlike endless batteries of standardized exams, vocational learning might actually bear some fruit in the future. Unfortunately, so-called progressive reformers like Petrilli, the prescription is the same no matter what you want the outcome to be: more education reform. There is no room for vocational education in that program. Online learning, testing and charters are where the money is at for deformers.

Both Murray and Petrilli are out of touch. While Petrilli starts off the essay as if he is going to disagree with Charles Murray, he essentially concedes Murray’s salient points. Yes, kids already in elite schools are smarter, as are by and large the social classes those kids represent. Petrilli disagrees with Murray only peripherally. For Murray, nothing can be done to make America more equal. For Petrilli, we must expend a lot of effort to get the few gems from the poorer classes into Harvard. The vast majority are destined for the life of working for a living.

This is the type of stale discourse we would have found in the Gilded Age. While one guy is supposedly conservative and the other guy is supposedly progressive, their ideas demonstrate a consensus in elite circles. They both believe that richer people are just plain smarter. This also helps explain the unquestioning, thoughtless and mechanical manner in which Common Core, online learning and charters have been foisted upon us. Since these are reforms conjured up by the rich and brilliant, then of course us stupid teachers and hopeless inner city students should accept it.

The creation of compulsory schooling during the Gilded Age was an invention of elites who knew what was best for poor people. The recreation of compulsory schooling in the form of education reform during this second Gilded Age is the exact same thing. The more things change, the more they remain the same.

The Third World in America

Having grown up in a poor, single-mother household in the inner city, stories like these about America 2012 are heartbreaking:

“Esmeralda Murillo, a 21-year-old mother of two, lost her welfare check, landed in a shelter and then returned to a boyfriend whose violent temper had driven her away. “You don’t know who to turn to,” she said.

Maria Thomas, 29, with four daughters, helps friends sell piles of brand-name clothes, taking pains not to ask if they are stolen. “I don’t know where they come from,” she said. “I’m just helping get rid of them.”

To keep her lights on, Rosa Pena, 24, sold the groceries she bought with food stamps and then kept her children fed with school lunches and help from neighbors. Her post-welfare credo is widely shared: “I’ll do what I have to do.”

For all of the progress of the women’s rights movement, it still has not stopped the feminization of poverty.

It is unconscionable that someone, especially a woman with a child, would have to live on 2 dollars an hour:

“Among the Arizonans who lost their checks was Tamika Shelby, who first sought cash aid at 29 after fast-food jobs and a stint as a waitress in a Phoenix strip club. The state gave her $176 a month and sent her to work part time at a food bank. Though she was effectively working for $2 an hour, she scarcely missed a day in more than a year.

“I loved it,” she said.

Her supervisor, Michael Cox, said Ms. Shelby “was just wonderful” and “would even come up here on her days off.”

Then the reduced time limit left Ms. Shelby with neither welfare nor work. She still gets about $250 a month in food stamps for herself and her 3-year-old son, Dejon. She counts herself fortunate, she said, because a male friend lets her stay in a spare room, with no expectations of sex. Still, after feeding her roommate and her child, she said, “there are plenty of days I don’t eat.”

“I know there are some people who abuse the system,” Ms. Shelby said. “But I was willing to do anything they asked me to. If I could, I’d still be working for those two dollars an hour.”

The increased poverty during the Great Recession is largely due to Clinton’s welfare reform gambit. Passed in 1996, “ending welfare as we know it” went a long way in winning Clinton a second term. Clinton achieved his short-term goal of reelection. Now we are living with the long-term consequences.

We have spent more on corporate welfare than on any type of assistance to poor people. Since 1996, corporate welfare is the only game in town. In fact, the corporate welfare state continues to expand with no end in sight. Through the Bush Tax Cuts, Obamacare, war and prison contractors, agricultural subsidies and charter schools, public funds are being handed off to the wealthy at an alarming clip. The country does not blink twice over these things.

Yet, when it comes to helping the neediest people in the country, we are met with comments like this which can be found below the article:

“What is the real problem here? We have a 29-year-old woman (Maria Thomas) who has four children she obviously can’t support. And she’s hardly alone. No one should keep having babies they can’t afford to raise. Why should I have to pay to help raise someone else’s kids?

This irresponsible breeding is the number one social problem in the United States today. Everyone has a “right” to have children. But no one should have the right to produce children and then make the rest of us pay to raise them.

I’m not against helping someone who has fallen on hard times get back on their feet. But we must find a way to persuade people who can’t afford a family to stop having children.”

But we are paying to raise other people’s children and we do it all of the time. It just so happens that we mostly pay for the children of the 1%.

The real issue here is that people associate poverty with being a minority. Americans should just cut to the chase and say they do not want to pay for black and Hispanic women and children.

Just do not complain when the people you have forced into desperation do things like this:

“Several women said the loss of aid had left them more dependent on troubled boyfriends. One woman said she sold her child’s Social Security number so a relative could collect a tax credit worth $3,000.

“I tried to sell blood, but they told me I was anemic,” she said.

Several women acknowledged that they had resorted to shoplifting, including one who took orders for brand-name clothes and sold them for half-price. Asked how she got cash, one woman said flatly, “We rob wetbacks” — illegal immigrants, who tend to carry cash and avoid the police. At least nine times, she said, she has flirted with men and led them toward her home, where accomplices robbed them.

“I felt bad afterwards,” she said. But she added, “There were times when we didn’t have nothing to eat.”

But then this will be used as further proof that the poor are somehow immoral people mired in a base “culture of poverty”. This is then used as further justification to end “dependency” and further cut back on benefits.

Oh, what a sick society in which we live.

It would not be so sad if we were not also a so-called religious society. We had a president for 8 years who wore his Christianity on his sleeve and presided over one of the sharpest increases in the gap between rich and poor ever seen.

We do not have to look halfway around the globe for the Third World. The Third World is here. The Third World is living on 2 dollars an hour, pushing people to do whatever it takes to put food in their families’ stomachs. The Third World is mired in superstition, whether it is the superstition of organized religion or the superstition of economics.

There was once a president who promised a “chicken in every pot”. Now our president has no problem with taking those chickens out of pots through proposing slashes to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. When those presidents are supposedly from the same party, then we are in a world of trouble.

We should pay for other people’s children because they are our children. If you do not pay for them now you will end up paying for them later, only at a much higher price to both our wallets and our social fabric.

The Spectre of Poverty

Bill Clinton ended “welfare as we knew it” in 1996. He did this by signing into law a program that replaced the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

According to Friday’s article in The Nation, under TANF:

“States were given wide discretion to determine eligibility, benefit levels and time limits, and the TANF block grant was also frozen at the 1996 level without being indexed to inflation so those dollars don’t go as far now. A majority of states now provide benefits at less than 30 percent of the poverty line (about $5,200 annually for a family of three), and benefits are below half the poverty line in every state.”

The thinking was that by throwing people off the welfare rolls and sending them out into the work force, they would be required to sink or swim. Those that stayed on the welfare rolls would have to do some sort of work to earn their benefits for the limited time the new law allowed them to collect. This was touted as a way to train people on welfare for the world of work.

It is tough to see how mopping hallways and cleaning streets prepares anyone for the world of work. It is symbolic of the twisted way we view poverty. We just assume that people in need are immoral drug addicts with bad values. Putting mops in their hands would show them what an honest day’s work would look like.

Having people do menial work in return for less than the bare necessities of life and human dignity is tantamount to slavery. The whole working for welfare to train people for the real world idea sounds an awful like what planters in the American south said about slavery. In this view, Africans and their descendants would learn civilization under the slave system. The slave owners were benevolent patriarchs, teaching their charges about how to live in white society.

Since welfare reform, life for the poor, especially poor women and children, has taken a turn for the worse. We refuse to revisit our decision because both parties have touted welfare reform as a success. They were touting it as a success even before the law was enacted. Clinton had vetoed similar versions of welfare reform twice before signing it the third time on the eve of his reelection bid. The economy was doing well, Republicans controlled Congress and welfare reform had become a timely and popular measure. Much like everything Clinton did, it was a political calculation.

So we signed the law, patted ourselves on the back and have lived in the delusion that welfare reform was a success ever since. It has been a success, if the goal was to merely kick people off of welfare:

“Prior to welfare reform, 68 of every 100 poor families with children received cash assistance through AFDC. By 2010, just 27 of every 100 poor families received TANF assistance.”

What about how welfare reform “improved” poverty:

“A stunning report released by the University of Michigan’s National Poverty Center reveals that the number of US households living on less than $2 per person per day—a standard used by the World Bank to measure poverty in developing nations—rose by 130 percent between 1996 and 2011, from 636,000 to 1.46 million. The number of children living in these extreme conditions also doubled, from 1.4 million to 2.8 million.

The reason? In short: welfare reform, 1996—still touted by both parties as a smashing success.

The report concludes that the growth in extreme poverty “has been concentrated among those groups that were most affected by the 1996 welfare reform.” The law created the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant, replacing Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), which had guaranteed cash assistance to eligible families since 1935.”

And it has not been as if Congress could not have reversed its decision on welfare reform:

There was an opportunity recently in Congress to address, or partially address—or at the very least debate—the TANF debacle of sub-poverty benefits and declining caseloads. It wasn’t widely reported, but along with the payroll tax cut and unemployment insurance extensions, TANF was also up for reauthorization.

Congress not only took a pass on any serious debate, it threw a little gasoline on the fire.

It extended the TANF block grant through September 2012 but denied funding for the Supplemental Grants which go to seventeen mostly poor states. Dr. LaDonna Pavetti, vice president for family income support division at CBPP, notes that these supplements were created in 1996 because welfare reform resulted in poor states receiving “less than half as much federal funding per poor child as other states.”

“This wasn’t about money,” Pavetti told me. “The money’s already there in the TANF Contingency Fund. Congress could have done the exact same thing it did last year and redirected funds from the Contingency Fund to the Supplemental Grants. Total federal funding for TANF wouldn’t have changed a bit.”

We see the same thing happening with education reform. Both parties are on board behind a Democratic president who has promised to shake up the education system. There is no evidence that the standardized testing and chartering of our public schools has done anything to improve education. Yet, the reformers sit confident in smug satisfaction it all works. The mantra of “no excuses” abounds, whether in pushing people into the work force or judging students by test scores. When all is said and done, both parties will claim success in “reforming” schools.

What will this look like for the children of America? Perhaps similar to what welfare reform looks like for them now:

Jack Frech, director of the Athens County Department of Job and Family Services in Appalachian Ohio, where he has been doing this work since 1973, told me that the state has cracked down on people who fail to meet their thirty-hour weekly work requirement “and in the last six months or so they’ve driven at least 30,000 people off of assistance. The welfare caseload in Ohio is dropping rapidly. ”

He’s traveled throughout the county of late to see how conditions are changing.

“There’s a growing number of families out there—through the combination of time limits and sanctions—who have no cash whatsoever, they’re just surviving on food stamps,” he said. “The housing conditions—people are doubling, tripling up even in little trailers. These kids are hungry, they’re sleeping in chairs, or makeshift beds, crammed together. They can’t afford transportation—they’re stuck out in these communities with no way to go anywhere or do anything.”

Frech used to have funding to help with car repairs and transportation, but that’s mostly been cut. There is some gas money but that doesn’t help with the vehicle or insurance which few clients can afford after covering the basics. But if they can’t make their thirty-hour-a-week job cleaning the dog shelter, or maintaining roads or gravesites, or doing some cleaning for a government agency—“jobs that do very little to prepare them for better jobs out there,” according to Frech—they are cut from TANF.

Here is the problem. America’s economy has been declining overall for over 35 years. Ever since Jimmy Carter’s “malaise” speech (in which he never said the word “malaise”), Americans have had the sense that the future was not going to be as bright as the past. With the rise of the European Union, China, India and other competitors, it was clear that the United States was not going to enjoy the same unchallenged hegemony that people were used to.

So in the world of shrinking horizons, the corporate have decided to take as much as possible while the taking is good. There is no more sense in sharing the fruits of America’s bounty with workers or poor people. Throwing people off of welfare creates a bigger labor pool and depresses wages. Privatizing the school system opens the door to a boom in a new edu-industry. For the past 35 years, the corporate have literally taken to eating the food from the American peoples’ plate. It is the only thing left to do in an era of shrinking horizons.

I was never a Marxist, but it is clear that Marx was dead on when he saw into the future of capitalism. Fewer and fewer people will expropriate more and more of the wealth. More and more people will be dispossessed and subject to a neo-feudal state of dependency on the owners of capital.

After a while, a point will be reached when there will be too few of the corporate and too many of the dispossessed. In the end, “the expropriators will be expropriated”.

Welfare reform has relegated the children of the United States to the third world. Education reform seeks to disarm people’s ability to criticize their state of serfdom. But there will be a time, perhaps not far off in the future, where conditions will dictate responses. There will be a time when so many people are pushed into the ranks of the third world poor and they will have no choice but to criticize, just to have a hope to survive.

Ignoring poverty will only ensure that it metastasizes and eats the country from the inside out.

The Wall Street Journal Fights Financial Corruption

Thank God for the Wall Street Journal:

The Obama administration is far more enthusiastic about boosting food-stamp enrollment than about preventing fraud. Thanks in part to vigorous federally funded campaigns by nonprofit groups, the government’s AmericaCorps service program, and other organizations urging people to accept government handouts, the number of food-stamp recipients has soared to 44 million from 26 million in 2007, and costs have more than doubled to $77 billion from $33 billion.

The USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service now has only 40 inspectors to oversee almost 200,000 merchants that accept food stamps nationwide. The Government Accountability Office reported last summer that retailers who traffic illegally in food stamps by redeeming stamps for cash or alcohol or other prohibited items “are less likely to face criminal penalties or prosecution” than in earlier years.

It seems the WSJ is all for government regulation when it is the neediest people who stand to be regulated.

James Bovard is right about one thing though. It is widespread fraud that has caused the food stamp rolls to increase. It seems that the economy started tanking about five years ago because some dudes and dudettes on Wall Street thought that selling crappy collateralized debt obligations, buying credit default swaps on them and getting the whole thing rated AAA by the “independent” rating agencies that did their bidding was a perfectly legit business practice.

I suppose the fact that 44 million Americans are on food stamps has nothing to do with the economy that was sabotaged by these financial terrorists . I suppose all of the deregulation of the financial sector that the Wall Street Journal so faithfully supported, and continues to support, has nothing to do with this either.

Nope, just 44 million lazy, corrupt Americans who have been enabled by the Obama Administration. We all remember how these shadowy food stamp recipients formed PACs to funnel money into Obama’s 2008 election bid.

Good thing we have the Wall Street Journal reporting on the true corruption that is out there:

• Earlier this month, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel revealed that Wisconsin food-stamp recipients routinely sell their benefit cards on Facebook. The investigation also found that “nearly 2,000 recipients claimed they lost their card six or more times in 2010 and requested replacements.” USDA rules require that lost cards be speedily replaced. The Wisconsin Policy Research Institute concluded: “Prosecutors have simply stopped prosecuting the vast majority of [food-stamp] fraud cases in virtually all counties, including the one with the most recipients, Milwaukee.”

• Troy Hutson, the chief of Washington state’s food-stamp program, resigned in April after a Seattle television station revealed that some food-stamp recipients were selling their cards on Craigslist or brazenly cashing them out on street corners (for 50 cents on the dollar) and using the proceeds for illegal drugs and prostitution. Washington state Sen. Mike Carrell complained: “Dozens of workers at DSHS [the Department of Social and Health Services] have reported numerous unpunished cases of fraud to me. They have told me that DSHS management has allowed these things to happen, and in some cases actively restricted fraud investigations.”

• Thirty percent of the inmates in the Polk County, Iowa, jail were collecting food stamps that were being sent to their non-jail mailing addresses in 2009. But Iowa could not prosecute them for fraud because the state’s food-stamp form failed to ask applicants whether they were heading for the slammer. Roger Munns, a spokesman for the Iowa Department of Human Services, told the Des Moines Register last year that asking such questions could make food-stamp applications “unwieldy.” (Many states do make such inquiries.)

Shit, with all of this leeway, who wouldn’t want to be on food stamps and/or incarcerated?

And just in case you don’t believe him, James Brovard provides real photographic proof of this corruption in action. It is quite shocking:

Notice the designer dress and finely-groomed poodle, no doubt all paid for in food stamps. Are those cans of dog food on the check out counter?

Also notice how she is using an actual food stamp instead of the electronic swipe card that is more commonly used today. This must make it easier for her to hide her ill-gotten gains. I’m pretty sure that is an unmarked food stamp.

This woman is pretty overweight to boot. Bovard continues:

• Perhaps the biggest fraud of all is the notion, which the USDA has been touting lately, that the food-stamp program is a nutrition program. (The program’s name was formally changed in the 2008 farm bill to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program—SNAP—to make it sound more wholesome and attractive.) What is really does is boost caloric intake, which is why numerous studies (including a 2009 Ohio State University report) link food stamps to the worsening obesity epidemic among low-income Americans.

Of course! That is why Americans are so fat. It’s not the fast food we eat, it’s the fast food stamp that the government gives out like Pez, which is also fattening by the way.

Seeing as how food stamps are meant to provide food and all, it seems the people who use them should see a net gain in caloric intake. Maybe James Bovard would feel better if everyone on food stamps was starving?

Leave it to the Wall Street Journal to speak lies to the powerless. I don’t know whether to laugh at such Ayn Randian idiocy or vomit.

These Could Be Your Students

If you’re offended by vulgarity, criminality and degrading language towards women, then you probably should not watch the videos below. There is much here that one can take offense to, but that is not the point of me posting them.

This is part of a series that features ghettos all over the country. Here is their venture into Harlem. There are at least 2 high-school-age boys featured here, one claims to be 18 and another one who is 16. Many of the other guys here seem like they are in the same age range. Very easily, they could be or have been students in our classrooms.

They go out of their way to show how thuggish they are. For kids who are so young, they have a certain street wisdom that very few people ever attain. One gets the sense that their entire life is bound up in that little project in which this was filmed.

For all of their flashing of their street cred, they manage to touch on issues like gentrification and poverty. Their perspectives on these things are so honest that it is scary; an unwitting indictment of Bloomberg’s whitening policy for New York City.

With the release of value added data today, one wonders what the teachers of these boys could have done. Should we be held responsible and publicly shamed because our students do poorly on a test or because people find themselves locked in obscene poverty? What does a test matter to any of the boys in this video?

One wonders if the education reformers know how the urban poor live and how incredibly stupid and out of touch they sound when they talk of education fixing all the problems of the country.

I have had many students like the boys in these videos. I have also grown up with many boys that remind me of these youngsters. It is amazing how the most hardened kids, the ones steeped in criminality, have a charisma and intelligence that could be used for so much good in the world if they were just given a chance.

I think it was Sista Souljah who said that the drug dealers and gangsters of the inner cities represented the best and brightest of the black community. The fact that they can find no other outlets for their talents other than criminality is an indictment of a system that preordains their doom.

Put your judgments on hold and watch this as a learning experience. Even if they do not remind you of your students, they make up part of the environment of our students.

Warning: turn your speakers down because it comes in very loud.

The Next Teacher Strike

The last NYC teacher strike drove a wedge between teachers and the communities they serve. The next one will bridge the gap.

New York City teachers are due for a strike.

Leo Casey claims (check the comments section) that the union will fight for something other than standardized exams on the local level. He claims that there are other types of assessments the city can use.

Sure there are.

But what happens when Bloomberg and Commissioner King say that they will not hear of anything else except local exams? How far will the UFT be willing to go to prevent our schools from becoming testing factories?

As Diane Ravitch has said, can you imagine a school system that tests kids 3, 4 or 5 times every year not to help them learn anything, but for the sole purpose of holding their teachers “accountable”?

How far is the UFT willing to go to prevent this madness?

The UFT already lost the fight in court to prevent unreliable, less than garbage “value added” data from being released to the public.  Despite the fact that Bill Gates (!) and Dennis Walcott (!) have warned against the unreliability of these numbers, every major media outlet is set to release them tomorrow morning. Even Gotham Schools, despite getting pats on the back (including from themselves) for vowing not release the reports, will still publish them in some form.

This is the result of a ten-year campaign of teacher vilification from the media, politicians and business leaders who have blamed us for urban poverty and an “achievement gap”.

Enough is enough.

The last major teacher strike in 1968 drove a wedge between the city’s (predominantly Jewish) teachers and the predominately black school districts in Brooklyn.

The next major teacher strike will bridge that gap.

The common theme throughout all of these things is testing. It looms over the heads of students and teachers as a weapon used by people who know absolutely nothing about education to destroy public schools.

If teachers strike, the issue of testing must be the centerpiece. Everything else: the lack of funding for inner-city schools, the decline of teacher rights, the chartering wave, can all be tied (if tenuously) back to the central issue of testing.

Do the parents of New York City want their children to do nothing but take tests for 10 months of the year? Do they want the teachers of their students to be so repressed, so ill protected, that they cannot speak out against poor treatment and lack of services for their students?

Do the people who send their children to NYC schools, who are the same people being gentrified out of their homes, want to continue to leave the school system in the hands of the mayor responsible for their displacement? Do the inner city communities of New York City want to leave the school system in the hands of the same mayor who has given them nothing but “stop and frisk”?

Negotiating, compromising and lawsuits, which have been the preferred tactics of the UFT, have failed. They have done nothing but provide a rubber stamp for all of these atrocities perpetrated by the Bloomberg regime.

Yes, I know, without the union, things would have been worse. Yes, the union has cushioned the blow against many of these so-called reforms. Even if that is true, which I am not sure it is, that simply is not good enough anymore. Just like the Democratic Party, their “cushioning” ends in disaster for the people they are supposedly representing.

The only thing left is to opt out of this brutal regime. The only way to opt out is by using the only thing over which we have any control: our bodies.

They can make all the laws and evaluations they want. If people are not there to follow them, then it is all irrelevant.

The only thing left is a strike.

But it has to be more than a strike. It cannot just be one sector of workers or one group out for their own interests hitting the streets. This needs to be a movement. It needs to be teachers, administrators, parents and students. It needs to be an eruption of all of the people Bloomberg has tried to suppress. Veteran educators, oppressed minorities, children and the urban poor must hit back and hit back hard.

How fitting if we could get something like this off the ground when Bloomberg is on his way out? What better repudiation of his tenure, his legacy, his entire school-closing, stop-and-frisking, gentrifying, bike-lane drawing vision for New York than to have everyone victimized by this vision to take the streets and shut the city down?

We know the UFT will not support us. The first words out of their mouths will be “Taylor Law”, followed by all the usual hems and haws about why nothing of substance can be done to resist.

So it must be done by going around the UFT. It must be done by going around the entire Neoliberal apparatus in which the UFT has been complicit.

The only question is how? What strategies and what tactics should be used? How do we sustain this action in the face of court injunctions, jack-booted police and media ridicule that is sure to meet such action?

Those questions are still being debated.

But I am reminded of a quote by Nietzsche: “if one has his why, then he can put up with almost any how.”

New York City and the “School to Prison Pipeline”

The most recent issue of Rethinking Schools has sparked debate on how the education system criminalizes children. The issue features an interview with Michelle Alexander, author of the important book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindess. In part, she blames zero tolerance policies in many schools, where small infractions on the part of students are met with heavy punishments like suspension or prosecution. These policies prematurely end up introducing children to the justice system by criminalizing behaviors common to many young people. Inspired by this piece, Alan Singer of The Huffington Post has run a few articles (here and here) about the prison-like atmosphere in many New York City public schools. He talks about how students are introduced to the criminal justice system early for fairly trivial transgressions on school grounds.

They are mostly right. As a basketball coach, I get to see the inside of dozens of different schools in New York City. School Safety Agents, who work for the New York City Police Department, often bark at us as soon as we get through the door. They want everyone to sign in, show ID and go through metal detectors. While my boys only have to endure this for the moment they are visiting the school (our own school does not have metal detectors), the students who attend these schools have to do this every single day. I can imagine how demoralizing it must be to empty your pockets and be scanned every time you walk into the building. Once the kids are inside, there is no coming out until the end of the day. There is certainly something prison-like about this atmosphere.

However, as a high school dean of many years, I have to take issue with the entire zero tolerance issue. There has been no zero tolerance policy in any school in which I have worked. Most principals around the city are actually afraid of suspending kids or calling the police, since that all goes into the School Environment Survey that impacts a school’s report card grade. The schools that have the lowest rate of violent incidents are the ones who best underreport those incidents, not necessarily the safest. In my old school, there would be times when students would assault teachers, bring weapons or sell drugs without it resulting in any disciplinary action at all. Charter schools are a different story, since they have the weapon of automatic expulsion at their disposal, something regular public schools do not have.

There need not be a zero tolerance policy in place for a school to feel like a prison. There was an incident that occurred when I was a dean of a particularly violent and troubled boy assaulting one of his teachers. The police were called and they asked if the teacher wanted to press charges. The teacher refused, perhaps out of fear of sending the young boy back to juvenile hall, at which point the police washed their hands of the matter. We asked the cops what could be done and they advised me to search the boy every day as he arrived at school. Having a naïve concern for civil rights, I asked if that was not a violation of improper search and seizure, prompting the police officer to say “it’s your school, you can search whoever you want. You don’t need a reason” Nothing brought home to me more the type of netherworld schools can be than that statement. It was quite chilling.

The truth is, zero tolerance is just one path in the school-to-prison pipeline. What New York City does is very different, yet the result is the same. When kids are welcomed by metal detectors every day, when they are subject to arbitrary search at any time, when surveillance cameras are installed, they are subject to the same type of unfreedom that exists in the prison system. At the same time, when learning standards are eroded, when standardized testing becomes the engine of all instruction and when the small schools provide no enrichment opportunities, you make it clear that the only thing that is expected of children is criminality. There is very little left that resembles a place of learning. Children of the inner cities already come from a world of limited horizons where they only know their five-block radius. Our schools do nothing to expand those horizons. Our schools merely confirm the culture of low expectations that already exist in the inner cities.

In fact, the utter lack of discipline in New York City schools, through education law and through the underreporting policies of many principals, ensures that children develop a very keen criminal nature. The only enrichment activity that is allowed is criminality. There are no other outlets for children and nothing else is expected of them. Zero tolerance policies criminalize students and introduce too many of them prematurely to the criminal justice system. Our schools in NYC are already prisons. Like all prisons, the end result is not rehabilitation of the criminal nature, but a refinement of it.

To some extent, schools have always had this resemblance to prisons. Only the individual teacher, through providing a nurturing and inquisitive classroom environment, or through establishing enrichment activities, could mitigate the impacts of this prison structure. But today, in the era of education reforms that destroy the power of individual teachers, this type of nurturing classroom environment is tougher to come by. By harassing the most veteran teachers out of the system and replacing them with Teach for America mercenaries from the suburbs, the cultural understanding that veteran teachers used to provide is vanishing. These things, combined with the increasing obsession with standardized testing, turns the teacher into a correctional officer who barks out arbitrary orders to the people in their charge. “Sit down. Answer this question, You need to know this. If you do not pass this test, you do not graduate. No excuses.”

So while Alan Singer is essentially correct in positing that our schools resemble prisons, zero tolerance policies have little to do with it. Instead, our schools are set up to anticipate and foster criminality in children.