By now, you have probably read about 13-year old Jada Williams, the 8th grader at School #3 in Rochester, New York. She wrote an essay describing how her mostly white teachers merely hand out “packets and pamphlets” that they expect students to complete on their own. This is a recipe for “mismanagement” because “most of my peers cannot read and or comprehend the material that has been provided.”
Jada compares this type of non-education to the type that slaves received in the United States. She quoted a part of The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass where Douglass’ master, Mr. Auld, scolds his wife for teaching Douglass how to read. “If you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there will be no keeping him,” Auld says. “It will forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master.” Different era, same scenario. Her white teachers had knowledge that they refused to share with their mostly minority students.
For her essay, Jada was reportedly harassed out of School #3, ending up in an even worse school reserved for troubled teens.
It certainly is a story pregnant with meaning. As a history teacher, I applaud Jada for the type of insight it took to use slavery as a way to shed light on what is happening in black education today. If the school really did harass her because of this essay, then it is something that needs to be dealt with. While it is tempting to call Jada “courageous”, I simply think she was fed up and at a point of total alienation. Her words are like a bolt of lightning in the night, momentarily illuminating the darkness in which American education finds itself.
There could be no more appropriate name for the school than “School #3”: generic, cold and interchangeable. It sounds like a school that was rolled off an assembly line and stamped by an inspector. There are literally thousands of School #3s around the country. In the current age of education reform, we are facing a situation where every school that does not serve the very wealthy promises to be a School #3.
Arne Duncan chimed in on the Jada Williams story by reciting the usual bromides about the “achievement gap”. Yet, few people have done more in this country to ensure that the achievement gap becomes a permanent state of affairs. Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top program basically calls for two things: more testing and more charter schools.
The tests that Duncan wants are in no way designed to help students learn or even truly measure what they know. They exist to rate teachers. Jada describes a mechanical classroom where teachers hand out packets and expect students to work on them independently. Now that teachers stand to be rated by the test scores of their students, classrooms stand to become nothing more than test prep centers. There will be more packets consisting of old exams, test-taking strategies and frequently asked questions. There promise to be many practice exams that teachers will give on their own just to see how much “value” they are “adding” to their students. So while Arne Duncan talks about closing the achievement gap, he is ensuring the institutionalization across the board of the type of classroom that Jada describes.
Through simplistic multiple choice questions, standardized exams boil all learning down to trivia. They are a series of decontextualized bits of “information”, most of them having no connection to each other. Instead of “information” as a byproduct of the study of the human condition, information will be the end-all-be-all of education. Teachers will have no reason to require their students to reflect on the world around them and make their own judgments based on inductive thinking and synthesis. Instead, the only thing that will matter is how much information students can regurgitate. The worst thing of all is that this information will be determined by a corporate apparatus that has no interest in educating anybody, let alone poor minority students. The exams, prep materials and text books will all be handled by the few megacorporations who have the resources to pump out millions of pieces of paper and the ability to vie for government contracts.
Duncan is also ensuring that the test prep coaches that pass for teachers under his regime will remain white. During his eight years as head of Chicago’s public school system, Duncan fired 1,800 teachers, most of them black women. To replace these veteran educators, who were fired no doubt because they made too much money for his taste, he called in young college graduates at half the salary. I wonder how many of them were from Teach for America, the program that brings in privileged temps to experiment on inner city children.
Teach for America has done nothing but expand on Duncan’s watch. School districts across the country have seen veteran teachers harassed out of the system. Many of these teachers, like the ones fired in Chicago, were members of the communities they served. They dedicated their lives to being role models for children who desperately needed them. Teachers of this breed are quickly dying out as Teach for America expands its corporate tentacles.
The situation in New York City is no different from the situation in Chicago. As Mayor Bloomberg closes more schools, displaces minority congregations, supports gentrification and promotes stop and frisk by the NYPD, the black population has taken the hint that there is no place for them in his vision for New York City. While other groups are expanding, the black population of New York City is steadily declining.
Despite these glaring truths, Bloomberg is still desperately trying to salvage his legacy as the “education mayor”. While over 100 schools will be closed by the time he leaves office, he has been quick to erect charter schools over their carcasses. This is the other part of Arne Duncan’s corporate Race to the Top agenda. These charter schools are building their mythical, propagandized reputations around the idea that they have raised student test scores. The fact is that charters skim the best students, kick out the kids they find too difficult to educate and institute corporal punishment.
Jada Williams wrote in her essay that she wants her white teachers to be held accountable for the learning of their students. The reality is that Arne Duncan and the rest of the education reform movement want more white teachers and less learning. They want nothing more than to build glorified test prep centers (charters) that educate who they feel like educating in the manner they feel like educating them, which is rote memorization in the name of passing government mandated exams.
And those students who truly need educational services, like students with learning or emotional disabilities, or students still learning English, are the students Arne Duncan does not want educate at all. They are the students that have no place in corporate charter schools. Instead, those students are being relegated to the same public schools that Bloomberg and Rahm Emmanuel continue to shut down. Despite the fact that there are more public and private dollars floating around education than ever before, these are the schools that are being squeezed due to “budget cuts”.
So this is why Arne Duncan can offer nothing in response to Jada Williams other than the same old clichés about closing the achievement gap. The fact is that Jada Williams has caused us to confront head-on what the true goal of education reform is. It is about turning teaching and learning into a mechanical process of test prep. It is about displacing veteran teachers who used to be part of the community in favor of underpaid and underskilled temp workers. It is about shutting out anybody who cannot afford to choose their own school from any access to true knowledge of the world around them.
The end goal of all of these reforms is a form of slavery. Corporations are telling our children what they should learn by making the exams and building the charter schools. Just like Frederick Douglass was cut off from anything that might put big ideas in his head, today’s students are being forced to not think about anything higher than the next bubble to fill in. Charter schools, through their rigid discipline codes, are training children to follow orders without question. Education reform seeks to pump out generations of passive citizens. Citizen perhaps is the wrong word, since it entails some sort of active democratic participation.
There is an area between citizenship and slavery that we and our children are increasingly being forced to occupy. The station at the very bottom of a hierarchy of wealth where the only thing that matters is following orders can properly be labeled as serfdom.
Jada Williams has called attention to this condition of serfdom. Despite being harassed out of her school, she has at least proven that there is still room to speak out against it. The end game of the privatizers is to take away any public space that allows us to speak freely. We need to take the opportunity now to speak out while there is still public space to do so.