I grew up poor in New York City. My mother was on and off welfare throughout my 13 years in NYC public school. She instilled in me a sense of social justice that later germinated into the full-blown leftism you see today. One of the reasons I became a teacher was because I wanted to relate history to kids who were similar to me growing up. I was under no illusions about turning all of my students into future historians. No matter what would become of my students in the future, I wanted them to get an appreciation for the art of history and what it might teach us about social justice.
I had these expectations because I knew poverty. The countless hours I spent growing up with peers and friends on the basketball courts, in the classrooms and at their homes gave me a picture of what poverty is. For every poor city kid like me who had a parent actively interested in their education, there were countless others with absent or indifferent parents. I had friends that did not eat at home, where the television was always on and all the male role models were drinking, fighting or selling drugs. They lived in a universe of small horizons and expectations. Teachers played a limited role in our lives. Even the best high school teacher only saw us 45 minutes a day. That is a drop in the bucket compared to the hours daily spent within our neighborhoods and the years already spent mired in poverty. I had to keep these memories alive when I started teaching, lest I get carried away on fluffy white clouds of idealism. Instead of thinking I can correct for years of injustice by turning all of my students into future historians, I thought it more realistic to think of myself as a strong male role model who might expand my students’ horizons.
But I had the good fortune of starting my career at the moment the education deformers brought their agenda to New York City. Many teachers at my first school were young like me, so I did not think it strange. The big difference was that they tended to be from upstate New York, Connecticut or New Jersey. Sweatshirts with Columbia or New York University were everywhere. Usually, they were the types that sat their kids in groups, allowed the kids to make up some of the class rules and used a lot of construction paper and paste. Only later did I find out that many of them were from the Teach for America program, where the only training they had was a 5 week seminar over the summer. They cared about their students but they were damned if they knew how to reach them. They were teaching kids in a totally different way from what most of them received growing up. Kids in their classes were frequently kicked out for insubordination (which usually means they cursed the teacher out) and would end up spending the period with me when I was a dean. Students acted out in these classes when there was a failure to communicate: either the student misinterpreted something the teacher said due to the tone in which it was said, or vice-versa. For example, a student who yells “balls” during class might be maliciously attempting to disrupt the class or offend the teacher. But if I ever had a kid who yelled “balls” in my class, I took it as a sign of boredom, corrected the behavior and moved on.
After a few years of working alongside many TFA “grads”, I started to get a clear picture as to why so many of them had behavior problems. Aside from the loose classroom environment they seemed to encourage, they also addressed the kids like babies. The “balls” kid, if not kicked out of class, might get a talking to from their TFA teacher in a tone of voice one might reserve for toddlers or kindergarteners: “Now John, you know you can’t say that word in class.” A speech like that might be met with a roll of the eyes and a hollow nod of agreement that they will not say that word again. Rarely was it the type of interaction that would engender respect and understanding of student for teacher. As a teenage boy, I certainly could not respect an adult that spoke to me and treated me like a baby. I would never do it as a teacher.
The other thing I did not know at the time was that the Teach for America program was the vanguard of the education deform movement. The thinking behind TFA, very turgidly, was that bright, fancy-college-educated suburbanites would bring their experiences into the classroom and the inner city students would benefit from it. By 2011, many TFA teachers have given themselves platforms from which to advocate for certain aspects of the deform agenda. December 19th’s Daily News ran an op-ed piece written by a TFA teacher where she recited the Michelle Rhee-ish philosophy of “No Excuses” for students. The South Bronx School blog very ably pointed out how condescending and arrogant someone who has never struggled with poverty has to be in order to tell poor students that they have no right to make “excuses”. But this is the entire deform movement in a nutshell. People who have never struggled with poverty, never taught a class of students, never bothered to spend any real time in the communities from which public school students come are telling us that we have no more excuses.
To trivialize poverty as an “excuse”, rather than a tragic human condition, is callous. When the mayor, the Secretary of Education or the President say such things, it is laughable. These are the people responsible for sustaining the conditions of poverty by not using their power to do anything about it. They have abdicated any responsibility they have to poor children. They will not build housing in the inner-cities or encourage job growth in inner cities but they will say they care about the kids living in the inner cities. And how do they show their care? By saying to those kids, “pass this test, no excuses. If you fail, your school gets closed.” It is a mad recipe that has led nowhere except to enrich some already wealthy people who own charter school chains. One would think that the biggest child advocates, the teachers, would stop this nonsense. But our tenure has been made meaningless, so we feel afraid to speak up. The untenured ones from TFA, by and large, have been reared on the no excuse philosophy. Just like our political leaders, TFA teachers come from relative privilege. They certainly had no excuses growing up. So why do they recommend for inner-city kids the same solution?
Because the unspoken assumption, from TFA, from Rhee and from the entire deformer movement, is that people are poor because of some personal disorder. The poor are lazy, drug-addicted and base. They are poor because they make excuses for themselves. The deformers think they will break a “culture of poverty” by reciting the “no excuse” cant. It explains why so many TFA teachers I saw treated their teenaged students like babies. In their minds, these poor kids were lesser beings. Their goal was not to teach as much as it was to civilize. “No Excuses”. Do something that I consider disruptive to learning and get kicked out of class. “No Excuses”. Fail the test and we close your school. “No Excuses”. Apparently, all poor people have to do is stop making excuses for themselves, pull themselves up by their bootstraps and do what needs to be done. The people in the gated communities know this, why don’t the poor? In his book, America’s Struggle Against Poverty in the Twentieth Century, historian James T. Patterson describes one constant throughout all of the ideas we have had to help the poor: they all assume it is the poor’s fault. Out of work? You need to attend training so you can learn how to write resumes and go on interviews, as if the poor are illiterates without the social grace to shake hands or respond to questions truthfully. Need unemployment? Take this drug test, since we know the poor are unemployed because they show up to work high and they will buy drugs with taxpayer money. Maybe one of the reasons the education deform movement is such a failure is because it treats the people it is supposed to help as if they are wrong, wrong in their lifestyle, wrong in their choices.
The deformers need to chant the “No Excuses” mantra right at themselves. There is no excuse for over 20% of children in the United States to live in poverty. That is not a failure of millions of children and their teachers, that is the failure of everyone, especially those with the wealth and influence to prevent it. Of course the deformers want to gloss over the realities of childhood poverty. Talking about it would shine a light on the failures of those very same deformers. When children come to school hungry and hopeless, that is a failure of our leaders: our Presidents, Mayors and Tycoons. They have abdicated responsibility for poverty, for the existence of poverty as a result of economic and political choices. What is your excuse for that? What is your excuse for the corporate-tax-break-giving, job-outsourcing, union-busting, corporate welfare policies you have supported that caused such horrific poverty in the first place? And all those TFA teachers who leave the profession after two years, treating teaching poor kids as nothing more than Peace Corps charity work, what is your excuse? You expect students to succeed in school without food and hope, why can’t you survive in a profession where you get no support or respect? I know it’s tough, so what? No Excuses. We can play the No Excuse game all day. The longer we do, the longer we trivialize the rampant poverty in our country. There is no excuse anymore for doing so. True school reform will start when we reform poverty.