While the article makes some valid points, the things that it danced around struck me the most. The article points out that, while the students are overwhelmingly black, the staff itself is 61% white. This is par for the course in NYC schools. Indeed, many schools’ staffs are even more disproportionately white than Explore’s.
As the article introduces some of the teachers at the school, one gets a glimpse into the problems with Bloomberg’s system and the education reform movement in general.
“EXPLORE’S founder, Morty Ballen, 42, grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs, where his father ran several delis. A product of Teach for America, he taught English in a high school in Baton Rouge, La., that went from being all white to half-black.”
East Flastbush is one of the poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods in the city. Yet, the school’s founder is a TFA guy from the suburbs. Should we really believe that this is all that can be found to run a network that serves some of the most disadvantaged kids in the city? Of all the veteran teachers who have been railroaded out of the system, educators who even lived in the communities they served, is a TFA alum from the suburbs really the best person to guide an educational program for Flatbush children?
Education is not a Peace Corps job. I doubt that Morty Ballen gets paid a Peace Corps salary. At the same time, his entire teaching career speaks to the type of White Man’s Burden thinking that defines most TFA people:
“He taught at an all-black school in South Africa started by a white woman, then at a largely black-and-Hispanic middle school on the Lower East Side. The experiences soaked in.
“I’m very cognizant of my whiteness, and that I have power,” he said. “I need to incorporate this reality in my leadership.”
You would be cognizant of your race too if you constantly put yourself in a position where you are the outsider.
Mr. Ballen is merely the head of the fish. His staff at Explore reflects values that are, well, like his own.
“Marc Engel, a former investment banker turned librarian and media coordinator at Explore, is 53 and white. He frets about power differentials and how to transcend race, how to steer the students’ inner compass.”
This is understandable if you jump from high finance into East Flatbush. Maybe race would not be such an issue if you were able to relate to your kids on a human level: know their speech, know where they come from, the conditions in which they are growing up and the cultural assumptions they share.
Mr. Engel feels a cultural gap because there really is one. It is not due strictly to the color of his skin, but from the place where he is coming and the children he tries to reach.
“Darren Nielsen, 25, white, from Salt Lake City, is in his second year teaching, assigned to third grade. Last year, when he taught fourth grade, a student got miffed at him and said, “Oh, this white guy.” He later spoke to the student about singling out someone in a negative way because of his or her race. He overheard students call one another “light-skinned crackers” and “dark-skinned crackers.”
I laughed at this one because it is so typically NYC. I can totally imagine a nine-year-old black girl saying “oh, this white guy” in reference to her Salt Lake City teacher. As a dean, I saw this type of stuff play out in classrooms all of the time. Students usually make reference to the race of their teacher not because of the color of their teacher’s skin, but because the teacher’s way of communicating is alien to the student. I would venture to guess that Mr. Nielsen was, quite simply, acting like a white guy from Utah.
Well, that world is light years away from Flatbush, Brooklyn. I would turn this into a teachable moment for myself rather than the student. It is an opportunity to change the way you communicate with your students as a teacher. I doubt I would have made as big a deal out of the girl’s comment as he did. The way he handled it seemed to only heighten the child’s consciousness of her race and how different Mr. Nielsen is from her.
But my favorite part of the article, the part that made me dry heave into my hand, was this:
THE sixth-grade social studies students swept into Alexis Rubin’s classroom. She slapped them five, bid them good afternoon. To settle them down, Ms. Rubin said, “Students are earning demerits in one … two …”
She handed out a test on Colonial Williamsburg. She said, “Every scholar in this room will get a sheet of loose-leaf paper for your short response.”
Of Explore’s teachers, Ms. Rubin, 31, is perhaps the keenest about openly addressing race. She is in her third year at the school, is white and grew up on the Upper West Side.
Outside school, she is the co-chairperson of Border Crossers, an 11-year-old organization troubled by New York’s segregated system that instructs elementary-school teachers how to talk about race in the classrooms……
Ms. Rubin does Border Crossers exercises with her students like MeMaps, in which both students and teachers list characteristics about themselves, then create a “diversity flower,” with petals listing each participant’s unique traits.
What a way to motivate your class: threaten them with demerits. If you do that when a guy from the Times is there, what do you do when he is not there?
Ms. Rubin is from one of the wealthiest Congressional districts in the nation. While she is from NYC and has a leg-up on the school’s founder in that regard, the Upper West Side and Flatbush are different worlds all the same. Seeing as how she instructs other teachers on how to talk about race, she must have a leg up on all the new TFA people coming into the NYC system as well.
And what is Border Crossers’ way of solving the race chasm in NYC classrooms? That’s right, a “diversity flower”. I smelled the liberal guilt through my computer screen when I read that one.
The race issue will not be solved with “diversity flowers”, nor will it be solved by all the richies from the Upper West Side and the suburbs having pow-wows about the best way to say the word “black” in front of black kids.
Every diversity flower and every discussion about how to broach the topic of race is a step further away from building those bridges you seek with your students, Ms. Rubin. They dehumanize children by treating them like problems to be solved or riddles to be figured out.
This is the problem with the driving philosophy behind charter schools and Teach for America. It is the idea that outsiders know best how to teach poor students. People from the community have nothing to offer. After all, they might treat and talk to their students like actual human beings and we cannot have that now, can we?
The major impact of all of these factors can be found towards the beginning of the article:
Explore students wear uniforms and have a longer school day and year than the students in the other schools in the building, schools with which they have a difficult relationship. A great deal of teaching is done to the state tests, the all-important metric by which schools are largely judged. In the hallway this spring, before the tests, a calendar counted down the days remaining until the next round.
Explore’s academic performance has been inconsistent. Last year, the school got its charter renewed for another five years, and this year, for the first time, three students, including Jahmir, got into specialized high schools. Yet, on Explore’s progress report for the 2010-11 school year, the Education Department gave it a C (after a B the previous year). In student progress, it rated a D.
“We weren’t doing right by our students,” Mr. Ballen said.
In response, a new literacy curriculum was introduced and greater emphasis was put on applauding academic achievement. School walls are emblazoned with motivational signs: “Getting the knowledge to go to college”; “When we graduate … we are going to be doctors.” Teachers are encouraged to refer to students as “scholars.”
And when did any of the people at Explore, from the founder to the teachers, ever stand up and say that these exams are wrong for their students? When did they ever say that, given the poverty and hopelessness they see on a daily basis, testing is the last thing their kids need? When did they ever call for better jobs, housing, investment or more humane treatment for the people of Flatbush?
Certainly not in this article.
No, it is all about getting along in the system. It is all about making those bucks by opening up more privatized charters. It is all about padding your resume and salving you guilty liberal conscious by teaching in Flatbush.
Merely calling students “scholars” and posting a bunch of saccharine clichés all around the school will do the trick. That will certainly overcome decades and centuries of oppression. Why did I not think of that? I have been living in the city all of my life, hanging out in ghettos and projects and teaching poor children and not once did I ever think that all they needed was some nice-sounding words to make things all better.
What we need, actually, are home-grown teachers from the communities who have shared in the struggles of their students. What we need are teachers who do not need diversity flowers. What we need are teachers who understand that their students are human beings first, not “minorities”. What we need are teachers who make social activism and political consciousness part of their job description.
And this is exactly the type of teacher the education reformers do not want. Instead, they want friendly faces who have zero attachment or dedication to the communities they serve. They want a generation of schools that will force kids to wear uniforms, march in order and fill in bubbles. We want teachers who will give “demerits” if students do not toe the line exactly as they are told.
After all, there are “no excuses”. Poverty, race, crime, none of these are “excuses” for filling in the wrong bubbles on exams. All the kids of Flatbush need is some discipline. They need role models from Utah, Wall Street and the suburbs to instill that discipline. This is the new magic bullet in education: educational imperialism.
This is the new White Man’s Burden.