Occupy the Department of Education (Part II: Losing Ourselves)

I still remember my first teaching job interview. The summer of 2000 was coming to an end. Principals around the city were reporting for the coming school year. I had a B.A. in history, a file number, a provisional license and a full summer’s worth of paid teaching experience. I called several schools hoping that someone would take a chance on a kid trying to break into the system. The system was called the New York City Board of Education. We did not know it at the time but the BOE’s days were numbered. As the BOE was on its way out, I was on my way in. We lost something when Bloomberg replaced the Board of Education with the Department of Education in 2002, something more than just a name. Throughout all of the DOE’s “reforms” and the dialogue surrounding them, we have lost our sense of schooling as a public institution. As more veteran teachers get purged from the system, we lose our memory of how we used to treat our schools.

In late August of 2000, after discovering that principals were not in fact hovering over the telephones trying to fill vacancies, I was grateful to land an interview at a large, well-known high school in downtown Manhattan. From the sense of urgency the assistant principal of social studies portrayed over the phone, he seemed to need a lot of teachers (perhaps a retirement wave or, something more sinister?). He scheduled me for an interview later in the day. Armed with a scant resume and an unlimited reserve of enthusiasm, I made my way downtown. Arriving at the school, one could see why it is considered a fine piece of architecture. Built in the 1970s, it could compete with some of the more aesthetic school buildings completed by the WPA in a previous age. It still stands as a reminder of a time when we actually invested in public schools instead of shuffling kids around, stuffing them into old buildings or trailers.

The inside smells of marble, especially when it is empty like it was on the day I arrived for my interview. I walked through the wide hallways until I arrived at the social studies office. As I walked in, I saw a man in the back office in his late 50s, sitting down smoking a cigarette. It was the AP and he extinguished the cigarette as I came in. I told him I was a smoker as well. The thought of being able to smoke a cigarette under such pressure was too good to pass up. We immediately lit up and he commenced the interview. The first half of the questions revolved around personal matters like whether or not I was married, how old I was and who I lived with. I think he asked me those questions partially to get an understanding of who I was and partially to see if I would bat an eyelash at such a line of questioning. Fortunately it was a relief for me to field questions that I knew instead of something like teaching, which I knew little about at the time. The last half of the questions revolved around history, like what my favorite areas are and why. This was a test of my passion for history. I made a good enough impression for him to call me back a few days later, telling me to show up on the first day of school.

Unfortunately, I never got to teach there because of a hiring freeze, although I did eventually land a job at the school in which I spent my first six years. Later I learned that the man who interviewed me was one of the most veteran APs in the city, widely respected for his teaching talent and historical knowledge. He retired a few years after my interview, probably around when the Board of Education was retired. In today’s Department of Education, it is rare to hear of veteran principals who are respected for their teaching and knowledge. That is because the rungs of the career ladder in the Department of Education are much closer together than under the BOE. Principals today are not drawn from a pool of senior teachers who have paid their dues by learning what to teach and how to teach it. Instead, they are drawn from a pool of social climbers who teach for three years as a pretense for an administrative career. Many of them are drawn from Mayor Bloomberg’s expensive Leadership Academy, where they are trained in a vision that can be described as thoroughly DOE.

And that DOE vision has sacrificed what is essential in education. Today, it gets increasingly unlikely that a principal will care much about a teacher’s content knowledge or teaching skills. Instead, teachers are required to provide “evidence” of their teaching by showing “portfolios” to a hiring “committee”. Those portfolios better be filled with the latest empty educational jargon, like “differentiation” and other such nonsense, or else the teacher will not get a second look. In August of 2000, a job interview could be a thoroughly human experience. It had to be a human experience because there were people around who still viewed education as a human institution. That assistant principal was testing my human skills. The way I reacted to his unexpected questions showed him how I might deal with unexpected situations in the classroom. Getting me to talk with passion about history showed him if I had any passion to share with the students. Portfolios and standardized exam scores did not get in the way of what is essentially the life blood of education: human interaction and a passion for learning.

There was a time when we referred to our education system as “humanistic”. It was supposed to ask students to reach for abstract thought in hopes of connecting them to a canon of cultural knowledge necessary to partake in this thing we call civilization. But with the advent of the DOE, along with the entire standardized testing regime mandated by No Child Left Behind from which the DOE so enthusiastically takes its cues, our students are converted to test scores, our teachers are converted to “effect sizes” and our schools are converted to letter grades. None of this is real. None of this has anything to do with education. All the DOE does is take that whole human cloth out of which education is made and cut it up into isolated bits of what they call “data”. It is easy to see why. Talking about humanistic education requires a real discussion of what kinds of humans we want our children to be. It requires discussion of civic values, social justice and love of learning. Talking about “data” sterilizes the debate, making education a pointless race for numbers. Not to mention, these numbers are easily manipulated. New York City students have rising scores on state exams, yet stagnant scores on federal exams. New York City graduation rates are up, yet the amount of those graduates who have to take remedial classes at CUNY has ballooned to 75%. There is only one conclusion: the DOE delivers an inferior product. All the promises of “efficiency”, “success”, “accountability” and “performance” are belied by the facts.

The entire corporate mindset of education reform is the problem. Its catch phrases are nothing more than a multifaceted branding campaign. We have become so buried under jargon that we cannot see schoolings’ original role of creating a citizenry. Thomas Jefferson envisioned free public schools so that Americans might be united by a sense of republican virtue. But when you judge students, teachers and schools by standardized exams, republican virtue takes a back seat to memorization. When most of those exams stress science, math or reading, the humanities subjects necessary to teach republican virtue disappear. This is what is at stake in the current climate of school reform. The corporatizers who are currently pushing through their agenda across the country want to totally disconnect us from our sense of citizenship. The corporation is remaking society in its own image. Teachers are underpaid functionaries, parents are consumers and student test scores are products. From this we cannot help but notice that the students of today are the consumers of tomorrow. This is the dream of the corporatizers. Disconnect children from any sense of humanism and citizenship and prepare them to consume. Sit them at computers to learn and make them take exams, since those things will condition them to make choices as individuals, much like a consumer. Make them think that the only good knowledge is technical knowledge that could preferably be boiled down to numbers, since this blunts any ability for abstract thought or independent questioning and makes them ripe marks for advertising. This is the type of vegged out person the corporatizers want our students to become.

And this explains why the reformers never bring the debate to what kind of people they want our children to be. The truth is, their vision for our children’s future is very dark and deterministic. They want a nation of individuals disconnected from any sense of citizenship without enough brain power to resist corporate marketing. In other words: a nation that will internalize and acquiesce in the corporate rule over America.

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