Monthly Archives: July 2012

The Human Stain: The Myra Richardson Story

We have already read about the tragedy of Mary Thorson and the movie that sheds light on it. When I first heard about the movie, I figured that whoever did it must have had a reason. Then I learned that the filmmaker, Myra Richardson, had a deeply personal reason.

In many ways, Mary is an anagram for Myra. Her story, although thankfully not ending in suicide, is deeply disturbing in its own right. Like Mary Thorson, it is an instructive case of teacher bullying in the age of education reform.

The winter of 2002 was before the nationwide charter school wave had taken effect. There were a few urban locales at the time that served as laboratories for chartering, especially Arne Duncan’s home base of Chicago. Myra Richardson was working at a Chicago charter called Sullivan House at the time.

Sullivan House served high school students from Chicago’s South Side, one of the most impoverished areas in the country. As a lifelong resident of Chicago and Chicago’s vibrant black community, Myra took a personal interest in her students. She was a popular teacher due to her dedication both inside and outside of the classroom. If a student needed extra help, she tutored them. If they needed breakfast, she fed them. If they needed shoes, she bought them. Like Mary Thorson, Myra considered the children in her class her babies.

Little did she know that she was not the type of teacher valued by the overlords of the education reform movement. Arne Duncan was in his second year as CEO of Chicago Public Schools at the time. His “Chicago Miracle” entailed firing veteran teachers. Female teachers of color like Myra were disproportionately terminated under his watch. The movement Duncan represented, and continues to represent, values low-paid suburbanite transplants as inner-city teachers over knowledgeable fixtures of the community.  It was the perfect workforce for hedge fund managers and bankers with an eye on chartering Chicago’s school system.

Hence, Myra was caught in a perfect storm. She was the wrong type of teacher at the wrong time in the wrong type of school. Many of her coworkers and administrators, the ones who were the “right” type of educators in the burgeoning age of school reform, did not understand Myra’s methods. On top of that, she was wrapping up her second year at Sullivan House. She threatened to become a permanent presence in a school that thrives on transient workers.

The principal, Lynn Nuzzo, knew exactly the type of school she was running. Charter school teachers, in 2002 as now, have no union, no due process, no rights. She decided to take advantage of this by doing something that was going to derail not only Myra’s career, but her entire life. It is the perfect argument in favor of granting teachers workplace protections.

Nuzzo pulled a 16-year-old girl in Myra’s class aside, a student who had benefited from Myra’s dedication and largesse, and tried to get her to lie. The principal then spread this lie to the other students in Myra’s class. It was the worst type of lie one could spread about a teacher, or anyone else for that matter. The principal was saying that Myra had molested the 16-year-old girl. Students in Myra’s class started mistrusting her and asking her why. After two weeks of the principal’s machinations, she presented Myra with the non-choice of resigning voluntarily or being terminated on the spot.

Without a union, Myra had no rights and nobody to advise her on how to fight back against these lies. She only had two choices. Seeing as how she was innocent and had no reason to resign, Myra was terminated. She received a final paycheck, a glowing letter of recommendation from Sullivan House and an escort out of the building under the darkest pall that could ever be cast upon a teacher.

As any teacher who has been bullied knows, the accusation is the start of a long fight to retain one’s livelihood and reputation. Myra filed a defamation lawsuit against Sullivan House in August of 2002.

Sullivan House’s defense in this lawsuit was, ironically, Myra’s defense from their accusation: nothing ever happened. Sullivan House claimed they never accused her of anything. The absence of any criminal charges or parental complaint was their proof that no child molestation accusations had taken place. This is exactly what Myra had provided to everyone, her lawyers and family included, as proof that she had never laid a hand on a child. A tragic instance of teacher bullying had descended into the realm of the surreal.

Throughout the lawsuit, Sullivan House claimed that Myra was mentally disturbed and was making up the story for attention. She was spending her every waking moment to clear her name from an accusation that never happened. It was an untenable position. This is why they ultimately ended up offering her a settlement in the defamation case.

But Myra was not out for money. She wanted her day in court and for it to be on the public record that she was not guilty of the sins of which she had indeed been accused. This is when the story took its next surreal turn.

Chicago has always had the reputation of being a big city of corruption. It was the city of Al Capone and those political gangsters, the Daley family. They control one of the most effective and enduring political machines in American history. It just so happened that Myra’s case was being heard in the Richard J. Daley center under Judge Bill Taylor. Myra’s lawyers, Kevin Besetzny and Daniel J. Stohr, knew that Myra wanted her day in court. They were determined to not let that happen.

What happened or what was discussed in that room in 2006 with Judge Taylor and Myra’s lawyers could never be known for sure, although these court documents go a long way towards an explanation. Up until that point, Besetzny and Stohr had spent nearly half a million dollars on fighting this case, which they took on contingency. Yet, for some reason, on a day that Myra was not there, her signature magically appeared on a settlement agreement with Sullivan House for $17,000. Judge Taylor issued a court order for Myra’s lawyers to sign the checks. The case was over.

And why would two lawyers who had spent nearly half a million dollars settle for $17,000? It is a question that answers itself. We can never know for sure what was discussed in that room between the judge and the lawyers, but chances are it involved many more zeroes than 17,000.

Myra’s is not an encouraging story for those teachers who go to the courts in search of justice. Her long fight to clear her name ended in disillusionment. Seeing as how she could not find satisfaction via the system, she wrote a book and then did a documentary about her horror story. These were the only avenues of justice she had left.

The final bit of irony is how Myra continues to be affected by what happened in Sullivan House in 2002. Her lawsuit, book, movie and websites have all made the accusation of child molestation a matter of public record. Any Google search or background check will turn up her name in conjunction with the sordid accusation. It is as if she is really part of the sex offender registry. It has prevented her from getting teaching jobs or making any kind of living at all. Like Christine Rubino, she is the mother of two children. If Myra would have left Sullivan House quietly with her letter of recommendation, she could have probably been in a teaching position right now. However, as with most teachers, her good name was the most important thing of all. Her quest to clear it ended up unjustly mucking it up in the public eye.

It has also prevented her from fully exploring the possibilities of the movie she made for Mary Thorson. Teachers who follow the blogosphere know about Mary Thorson and they also know that a movie has been released documenting her tragedy. Along with The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman, it is probably the most important documentary a teacher can see. That is why it was scheduled to be shown at the start of the upcoming Save Our Schools convention in Washington, D.C.

Yet, when the SOS committee found out about Myra’s tragedy, they pulled the plug on the movie. Myra herself was originally invited to introduce the film, an invitation that has since been rescinded. While I respect SOS’s need to protect themselves and their fledgling movement, I am saddened by what seems to be a blind spot in the overall campaign to fight against education reform.

If my experience as a chapter leader and now blogger has taught me anything, it is that the bullying of educators is an integral part of the education reform movement. I do not mean teacher bashing, which is generalized and hurts all of us directly. I am talking about the targeting of individual teachers by either school administrators or school districts. I am talking about false or embellished accusations designed to deprive individual teachers of their livelihoods. Every time a teacher is wrongly accused or unfairly terminated, the entire profession is weakened and dishonored. What happens to one of us happens to us all.

Unfortunately, I have seen too many teachers willing to throw their colleagues under the bus by refusing to support those teachers who are in trouble. It ranges from the indifference most teachers within a school building show when one of their colleagues is reassigned for a frivolous accusation all the way up to what SOS did with Myra and Mary Thorson’s film. By refusing to help or be associated with a teacher in crisis, we help the bullies to accomplish their goal of destroying lives, careers and reputations.

And if you ever wanted to bust a union, engendering callousness and distrust among its members is a great way to do it. With that type of attitude, a union can never be a bastion of solidarity.

The system is not designed to weed out the truly incompetent or, more rarely, the truly dangerous teachers in our schools. As with Sullivan House, it is designed to weed out the teachers in it for the long haul, those who take an active and compassionate interest in the lives of their students. The longer we allow the bullies to get their way by treating the victims as persona non grata, the longer we allow the truly incompetent and dangerous teachers to survive in the system.

Myra’s case is a prime example of this. Since 2002, she has faced a long train of suffering due to a false and vicious accusation. As teachers, we can defend ourselves from the bashing we get in the media. However, it is much tougher to defend ourselves from a false or frivolous accusation. Save Our Schools, I fear, is out of touch in this regard. It is a shame, because what happened to Mary and Myra has and is probably happening to many teachers who will be in attendance at the conference. It will continue to happen until we take an active and fearless stand against it.

Growing up, those kids who bullied others in the schoolyard stamped their victims with the label of being a coward. It then made it easier for others to bully that same victim. “Oh, that kid is a punk, he deserves to be picked on.” In schoolyard politics, labeling people was the first step towards doing them harm. If your schoolmate is a punk, they are not a human and, therefore, fair game. The sad thing is that, in teacher bullying, the same dynamic is at work.

Like the victim in the schoolyard, Myra is a label. She is fair game to be accorded less respect than the average human being. To SOS, she is a liability, much like being seen hanging out with the victim in the schoolyard makes one a victim by association. Like kids at the cool table in the cafeteria, SOS will not allow Myra to sit with them. The principal that bullied Myra 10 years ago is affirmed every time someone rejects Myra due to the accusation. The whole epidemic of teacher bullying is affirmed when c0lleagues shun those who have been victimized.

Myra is innocent, much like Mary Thorson was innocent. Like Mary, the only thing of which she was guilty was dedicating herself to a career she loved, and of refusing to play the corrupt game of education reform. Mary gave her life because she understood that the bullying of teachers was ingrained in the system. She gave her life for teachers like Myra. Myra and Mary are anagrams.

Despite SOS’ complicity in the regime of teacher bullying, the film will catch on. It will catch on because the message resonates with teachers everywhere. Sadly, most bullied teachers I have spoken with have mentioned suicide. I will venture a guess that many teachers who will attend this year’s SOS conference have been in a similar place.

It is a shame that SOS is on the wrong side of this issue. Part of saving our schools means putting an end to bullying in our schools no matter who the victims are. Putting an end to bullying means acting in a way that makes the bullying regime unsustainable. It means treating people with compassion, love, humanity and understanding, which are values anathema to bullying and the entire regime of education reform it serves.


The DOE’s Long War on Christine Rubino

Casualty of war: the arbitrator’s first decision

When we last saw Christine Rubino, the New York State Supreme Court vacated the Department of Education’s penalty for comments she made on her private Facebook page.

The penalty was termination. The arbitrator who came up with the penalty, Randi Lowitt, knew that this was the outcome the DOE wanted. She was probably the only arbitrator ever to have the head of the DOE’s Administrative Trials Unit, Theresa Europe, stare daggers at her throughout the hearing to ensure she came to the right decision.

As we have seen, in June of 2010, Christine wrote on her private Facebook wall that it was a perfect day to take her students to the beach. This was a day after a NYC student drowned off the coast of Long Island.

Christine was one of the first, if not the first, teacher in NYC to be brought up on charges for something she wrote on Facebook. This was before the DOE’s social media policy. This was also at a time when working people nationwide were being fired for things they said on the internet, especially teachers. The case of Christine Rubino was the morning star of a movement aimed at depriving working people of their freedom of speech.

This movement found many well wishers in the media and the general public. Newspaper articles made Christine out to be some sort of loose cannon. Readers who left comments on the NY and Huffington Post were quick to call for her termination, to exclaim that she was unfit to be around children and to say that this warranted her being deprived of her livelihood.

The drums of hypocritical American Puritanism beat heavy and constant in the case of Christine Rubino. The general public wants to bully teachers, call them names, blame them for low test scores and poverty, say we are underworked and overpaid and are drawn from the meanest part of the intellectual bell curve. Yet, at the same time, they want us underworked, overpaid idiots to be held to a moral system that Oliver Cromwell himself could not follow. They want us to smile at the grocery store, wave hello to them every morning and, if we use Facebook, to do nothing but post pictures of us grading exams and write thoughts about how every child is special like a snowflake.

We are to act like Mr. Rogers and be treated like Mr. Gotti.

Yet, Christine did something that these reporters and jurors in the court of public opinion have rarely done in their own lives: she took responsibility for what she did. Three days after she posted her comments, she erased them from her wall. This was before any investigation or inkling she would be in trouble. She took down her comments because she realized they were wrong. She did not need the specter of public controversy to all of the sudden force her to acknowledge she had made a mistake. Instead, she tried to rectify the mistake on her own accord.

Unfortunately, as we saw previously, a coworker of hers had already printed up her words and had designs to show it to the principal. This is a teacher that has since been removed from his classroom to await 3020a charges of his own; charges that could land him a lengthy jail sentence. Schools always have their resident snitches, the ones who inform on their colleagues because they are unable to let their professional work speak for itself. It is often the case that these snitches have dark skeletons of their own to hide. Finding ways to get their colleagues in trouble is a way to throw the scent off of their own often hideous wrongdoing. So it was in this case.

If it was not for this snitch, Christine’s comments would have dissolved into the ether. No reporters or private hypocrites would have had the opportunity to establish themselves as her judge.

Throughout her entire hearing, Christine was remorseful about what she had said. At no point did she stand by her words or try to defend them. She owned up to her actions for what they were: a mistake, a lapse of judgment, a regrettable action. This was not enough for the DOE or Randi Lowitt or the media or the lynch mob of public opinion. Terminate her, ensure her children starve and never allow her around children again. Meanwhile, the accused child molester who ratted her out gets to work another year in a public school building. Way to go, all of you.

The bright side is that, one, Christine Rubino did not give up the fight to salvage her career and her good name; and, two, the New York State Supreme Court under Barbara Jaffe is wiser than the DOE, Randi Lowitt, the media and the hypocrites. She vacated Lowitt’s decision and ordered her to come up with a less draconian punishment.

That punishment has turned out to be two years suspension without pay. That means that Randi Lowitt thinks it is fitting for Christine to face another year of being unable to support her children. Perhaps this is the “children first” policy the DOE speaks so much about.

Randi Lowitt’s new decision reads like something written by a woman scorned, an arbitrator who had her ridiculous ruling overturned, a primal scream of vindictive pettiness. She makes very little mention of Christine’s Facebook comment and, instead, bases her two-year suspension on the fact that one of Christine’s friends lied during the investigation.

What happened was that, in an attempt to save Christine, a friend of hers lied to investigators and said she was the one who logged into Christine’s account and wrote the incriminating things. In the world of Randi Lowitt, this means that Christine put her up to the lie. What evidence does Randi Lowitt have to substantiate this? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

That does not matter. In the world of 3020a, a teacher is guilty no matter what the evidence, or lack thereof, says. Randi Lowitt, understanding that the jig was up as far as the Facebook comment is concerned, instead based her two-year suspension on the fact that Christine Rubino’s friend lied to investigators.

This is how the equation works in Lowitt’s head: Christine’s friend lied, which means that Christine was behind the lie. Yet, every time I ask Christine about her lie, she insists she did not lie. What a liar! Not only that, she never apologized for putting her friend up to the lie. Why does she just not take responsibility for the lie she never told? This is unacceptable! Looks like her and her children need another year of starvation.

She should have lied and said she put her friend up to the lie, then she would not be such a liar! Instead of giving her a two-year suspension for being a liar, I would have given her a two-year suspension for being a liar.

Thankfully, Christine is fighting this most recent round of viciousness on the part of the DOE. Her story teaches us a lot about how teachers in similar situations can find some measure of justice.

First, everyone associated with the 3020a process knows it is a joke. The investigators are retired detectives from the NYPD. When they get a case, they know whether or not the principal or the board wants that teacher out. Their job is not to find the truth as much as it is to use the truth in a manner conducive to punishing a teacher. For example, at a recent 3020a hearing about which I will write more in the future, one of these investigators found that a comment a teacher made on Facebook was a total joke. Case closed, right? Wrong. According to the investigator, he has children and he would not want his children’s teacher joking around in this manner. Therefore, he believes the teacher should be terminated.

This investigation takes about 6 months to a year. In the meantime, the teacher is reassigned and usually does not know why they are being investigated. They are in the dark and they wait. It is here where the DOE hopes that the teacher will save everyone the trouble and quit. If the teacher is sufficiently scared, they might go the way of Mary Thorson. To the DOE and the investigators, it is all the same.

If the teacher sticks around this long, they finally get to the 3020a process. First, they meet with the lawyer who is paid with the teacher’s union dues. Most of the time, the lawyer will encourage the teacher to resign or settle for some ridiculous punishment all out of proportion to what the teacher is accused of. Part of this is laziness. The other part is that these lawyers know that the hearing itself is a joke and they would rather save themselves the embarrassment.

By this point, a great many teachers opt out of the game. They will either resign or drop dead during the investigation, or get railroaded out by their union lawyer. For those hearty souls that decide to go through with a hearing, their union lawyer will tell them the hearing is private. Nobody from the outside will be allowed to witness it. If the teacher wants to make it a public hearing, count on the lawyer throwing a hissy fit. They will make a million and one excuses as to why everything should be done in secret. This is because they want to take the 10 or so cases on which they are working, sit down with the arbitrator and DOE lawyer, and go down the list to tick off the names of which teachers get fired and which do not. It does not matter the merits of each individual case. They would prefer to sit there and divide the spoils, so to speak.

If you get your public hearing, be prepared for one of the saddest jokes this side of the Mississippi. The DOE lawyers will introduce the charges, then they will introduce more charges that they never showed you or your lawyer beforehand. They will then ask the arbitrator, and receive from the arbitrator, permission to add more charges, evidence and witnesses as the hearing progresses. They literally make it up as they go along. Many of these DOE lawyers would be selling apples in the subway if this 3020a process did not exist. They call themselves lawyers, but they are more like law school dropouts and graduates of online JD courses, where all one needs for a degree is a printer and mouse that clicks.

And why not? The DOE does not need good lawyers when the process is so skewed in its favor.

The arbitrators sit there and take notes, allowing the DOE lawyers do whatever it is they want to do. In their mind, it is not a matter of a teacher being guilty or not guilty. It is a matter of what they will find the teacher guilty of and what will the penalty be. Teachers that get to keep their job are so thankful that they have made it through this process that they will take their punishment and move on. Those that get terminated are so demoralized and beaten down by the process that they just want to pick up the pieces of their lives and find some form of employment.

That is exactly the way the DOE wants the process to work. They understand that 3020a is a joke, that the process is a sham, arbitrators are in their pockets and the lawyers are court jesters. They know that the rulings that come out of that building on Chambers Street bear little resemblance to truth or justice. The DOE gets it. This process is designed to get teachers to go away on their own. Most teachers do just that.

Not Christine Rubino. She is the worst nightmare of the DOE and arbitrators like Randi Lowitt. She will not roll over and die while these hucksters make off with her career. She makes the DOE fight for every inch they get. She is now out to appeal the two-year suspension. This explains why Randi Lowitt’s decision reads like the ramblings of a hurt 10-year-old and not a venerable figure of justice. It explains why the DOE releases information to Sue Edelman of the NY Post so she can do one of her trademark hatchet jobs.

A teacher who tries to fight the DOE in its own court is a fool. Everyone, including the union lawyer, is in the DOE’s back pocket. The real fight is in the press, on the blogs and in real courts of law where the DOE’s filth is exposed to the light of day.

All the same, the toll is heavy on people like Christine Rubino. Yes, she fights, but that means the DOE spends more time judging her and her character. That means more hatchet jobs in the press, more assassinations on her character by rank-and-file morons and more opportunities to live and relive this walking nightmare.

Most importantly, this means that Christine Rubino is still without the means to support herself or her two children. It means that poverty and desperation define the lives of her and her kids. How the likes of Randi Lowitt, Theresa Europe, Dennis Walcott, Michael Mulgrew, Sue Edelman and the base fools who leave anonymous comments about her character can still live with themselves is beyond me.

A Paypal account has been established to help Christine and her family make it through this rough time to come. You would think the union would help her, but she does them no good because she cannot pay them dues anymore. Please, give whatever you can. She is fighting not just for herself, but for every teacher who has been, or will be, the target of the DOE and the handmaidens of education reform.


The Disuniting of America

An interesting article I read not too long ago describes some problems with the study of history in the United States today.

The author starts by describing a recent case heard by Montana’s Supreme Court. The court upheld the state constitution’s ban on corporations donating directly to political campaigns. In order to justify its decision, the justices cited many works of history in order to recreate the thinking of the time period in which the ban was instituted, which was almost 100 years ago. As a history teacher, it is good to see courts using history to come to what seems like a just ruling.

However, according to the author, most of the books to which the justices referred were all published before 1977. The reason, according to him, is that books of political history have been hard to come by since that time. Instead, the study of history has been dominated by gender and race. To him, this is an unmitigated tragedy and a blow to the more traditional historical concentrations, like politics, war and foreign relations.

My own feelings on this issue are mixed. History, by its definition, tends to be a conservative field of study. I remember the tragedy of 9/11 taking place during my second year as a history teacher. People were walking around saying “this is the worst day in American history”. Although their feelings were justified given the magnitude of the tragedy, I thought back to things like Pearl Harbor or the Battle of Antietam and realized that there were days when our country had it worse. 9/11 was certainly the defining tragedy of our era, sort of Generation X’s version of the Kennedy assassination, but I will never concede that it was the worst day in our history.

Because history tends to be conservative, it is true that high school and college curriculums used to focus on the doings of dead white men. In order to counterbalance this, the 1960s and 1970s saw a new wave of historians, writers and researchers focused more and more on the struggles of ethnic minorities and women. The pinnacle of this movement is probably represented by Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. A walk through the history section of the bookstore, or a quick scan of history classes offered at universities, shows a thriving movement of historical study as seen through the lens of minorities and women.

On the one hand, I believe this movement was necessary because minorities and women were indeed made invisible in the history curricula of old. On the other hand, I sympathize with the sentiments of those who believe that the ethnic and gender movement in historical study has gone too far. The people who believe that it has gone too far are not all right-wingers either. The eminent historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. wrote a book entitled The Disuniting of America towards the end of his life where he bemoaned what ethnic and gender studies have done to history. More recently, one of my favorite historians,  and probably the greatest living expert on early American history, Gordon Wood, has made no secret of his distaste for the same. Conservatism cuts in many ways. Both of these men, while sensitive to the need to include minorities and women in all historical accounts, are merely defending what they see as the dissolution of the traditions that have made history a valuable subject and art form.

A story from my own experience can perhaps demonstrate what these scholars are criticizing. Years ago I had to take one of those graduate level education classes for my permanent state license. Most of my classmates were elementary school teachers in their early-mid twenties, most of them women. One of our assignments required us to give a presentation of a unit we would teach to our classes. One of my aforementioned elementary school teacher classmates gave a presentation about a unit on early American history. I do not remember all of what she presented. What I do know is that, over and over and over again, she said to us “and the Founding Fathers got their idea of the Constitution from the Iroquois.” or “did you know that it was the Iroquois who gave the Founding Fathers the idea for the Constitution?” She said it with rapt enthusiasm. You could tell that she expressed the same type of enthusiasm when she taught it to her own students.

Whenever students come into my class with plain wrong ideas of American history that they picked up from elementary and junior high school, I always think about that teacher. She was referring to the Iroquois Confederacy and how it bears resemblance to the federalist structure of the Constitution, or the division of powers between state and federal government. This was a popular thesis during the 1980s, a time when many ethnic and gender reinterpretations of American history were coming out. Here is the problem: there is not one shred of evidence to conclude that the Founders were at all inspired by the Iroquois. Now, this does not mean that the Iroquois did not have an enlightened and effective system of decision-making, one that united many tribes of the northeast United States. It simply means that there is no evidence of direct influence of the elegant system of the Iroquois on our own elegant system.

The Founders who were at the Constitutional Convention bequeathed to us thousands of pages of writings: transcripts from the convention, newspaper articles debating pros and cons of specific measures and personal correspondences. Together, they give us a wonderful glimpse into the time period. This means not only the things they debated, but the assumptions they held. A close reading gives us a sense of the intellectual universe they shared. One thing is painfully clear from their writings: they moved in an intellectual universe that was heavily European. James Madison, the Father of the Constitution, buried himself in histories of ancient Greece and Rome, as well as studies of British common law and the British constitution (which is not a written constitution as we know it), in order to prepare himself for the Constitutional Convention. He was also intimately familiar with the workings of each colonial government, which themselves were heavily influenced by England. Furthermore, the Founders shared the European arrogance towards Native Americans in thinking they were savages with very little to contribute to civilized life, including the workings of civilized government. In short, not only were the Founders not inspired by the Iroquois Confederacy, they had no motivation to be inspired by them.

This is where Schlesinger and Wood believe the ethnic and gender movement in history has gone too far. In a mad dash to give a more prominent place to groups who have traditionally been ignored, our bookshelves and our curricula have been littered with specious and questionable historical theories. By teaching her students that the Iroquois influenced the Founding Fathers, that teacher gave her students an incorrect impression of American history. While we as teachers of inner city students might feel a need to make minorities and women an important part of our curriculum, we also have to keep in mind that the end goal of history is not to boost self-esteem. We merely cannot pervert and distort facts to come to wrong conclusions just to make ourselves and our students feel good about themselves. By doing this, we lose the art, the interpretation and the pursuit of truth that the study of history is meant to be.

In fact, there is no need at all to lie or distort history to give women and minorities a prominent role. Any history teacher that knows the subject will be easily able to provide examples of the contributions of all types of groups to the American story. Lying or stretching the truth only ends up doing a disservice. It is intellectually dishonest. Even worse, what if the student later finds out the truth about a lie they were taught about a woman or minority group? The damage can have long-lasting impacts.

The bright side is that there are still political, military and diplomatic histories out there. They are tougher to find for sure, but these traditional histories are still around for anyone determined enough to track them down. What is more, owing to the push for greater inclusion since the 1970s, these more traditional types of histories are sure to have the women and minority characters that histories of a previous era might have lacked. Gordon Wood himself is a prime example. His breathtaking renditions of early American history seamlessly include the roles of dead white men and women, as well as those dead people of color. Looking at most of the histories associated with the Oxford History of the United States, I would say most of them do the same thing. What Hath God Wrought by Daniel Walker Howe is especially adept at weaving the experiences of white men, upper class women, free blacks, enslaved southerners, Native Americans and Hispanics into an era of American history that has traditionally been associated with one racist white man: Andrew Jackson.

Students often ask me “when are we going to learn about my people?” This is the type of divisive tribalism that has been engendered by the overreach of the ethnic and feminist movements in the study of history. There is so much I want to say to the student who says this. “Why don’t you study it yourself?”, “who are your people?”  or “what does it mean to have a people?” However, what I often say is “all people are our people”. Anyone who has read history to any extent realizes that it is impossible to separate these people from those people. There are usually six degrees of separation between any two cultures. Somewhere along the way, cultures have borrowed ideas, goods and practices from other cultures, who have adapted it from other cultures. It is common for a student from, say, Puerto Rico or the Dominican Republic to blurt out “what were my people doing at this time?” when studying ancient Rome. They are shocked to hear that Puerto Rican or Dominican culture as they know it was still a long way off from being forged. That lesson will have to wait until Columbus’ major mistake of 1492.

I fear that this is one of the destructive legacies of the ethnic and feminist movement in history. As the title of Schlesinger’s book, The Disuniting of America, suggests, studying history in this way encourages us to see people as part of an identity. We atomize history into black history, feminist history, Hispanic history, Asian-American history and we lose sight of the fact that we inhabit this country and this planet together. Critics like to call people who study history in this manner “Marxist”, but I doubt Marx or any champion of the working class would approve of dividing people in this way. I would label this merely “liberal” because it is in step with the identity and culture war politics in which elitist liberals of today excel. It is a great way to get the poor classes to divide from each other, argue over what group gets which month and take our minds off of the class oppression that transcends all ethnic and gender identities.

This brings me to another point made in the article I cited in the beginning. The author bemoans how university history departments across the country hire a disproportionate number of Democrats. How he can be sure that this is the case is beyond me. I will concede, however, that most historians I know of and read seem to have a leftist bent. The author ascribes this to discriminatory hiring practices. For my part, I think things are a lot less sinister. Quite simply, historical facts tend to have a leftist bias. As I have heard others express it before, “facts tend to lean to the left.”

It is tough to imagine how one can call themselves an historian and a Republican in 2012. Being a Republican today not only requires the traditional GOP faith in markets and the private sector, but it requires an entire reading of American history that bears no resemblance to any history book I know of. What historian is going to believe, in good conscience, that the Founding Fathers were Christian fundamentalists  who believed cutting taxes for the wealthy and allowing corporations to do as they please was the “American way”? In Nixon’s era, it was possible for one to be an historian and a Republican, since the GOP had yet to go off the deep end at that point. Today, however, you either know something about American history, or you are a Republican/Libertarian.

During the 1970s, well after the protests of the 60s had revealed that the intelligentsia was overwhelmingly leftist, wealthy right-wing interests established an entire infrastructure of their own dedicated to spinning an alternate reality. This included the creation of private colleges dedicated to the teachings of right-wing extremism, like Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. It also included the establishment of think-tanks dedicated to spinning an entire web of right-wing reality, like the Heritage Foundation. These organizations were established because it was feared that the leftist intelligentsia had a hold on the minds of youngsters. During the 1970s, progressive government had been in the saddle for decades, or so they seemed to believe. The youth of tomorrow promised to imbibe the leftist program thanks to liberal universities, then they would go on to be tomorrow’s leftist voters. There needed to be an alternative way of seeing history and public policy, one that could compete with the leftists who controlled the education system. This movement to establish a parallel, conservative universe has been wildly successful. It has been one of the major reasons why ultra-conservative government has been in the saddle since Reagan.

So I believe it when the author of the article says that leftists are in history departments across the country. Liberal arts departments are some of the only places where leftists can wield any type of influence any more. The halls of government are cut off to them, as are the major media outlets. Sadly, the defunding of state universities and the paltry opportunities people have to make a living with liberal arts degrees are choking off even this small enclave for leftists.

What all of this represents, from the way we study history to the way universities hire, is a fracturing of America’s social fabric. The culprits are liberals who partake in identity politics and conservatives who live in a hermetically sealed fantasy world.

More Tales “Shocking to the Conscience”

There might have been a time when the 3020a process had some integrity. Under the reign of Pharaoh Bloomberg, however, whatever integrity it once had has come into question.

When a teacher does not agree with a ruling of the independent arbitrator, their only recourse is to appeal to an actual court of law. For many teachers, the cost of lawyering up and the inordinate amount of time it takes to go through the court system makes appealing the arbitrator’s decision out of the question.

Yet, more and more, teachers who go to the court system see some form of justice served. It must be pointed out that judges generally do not like vacating decisions of labor arbitrators, since doing so reduces the integrity of the arbitration process. The fact that so many judges are doing so proves that NYC’s 3020a process is broken.

Take the case of Nicole Moreno-Lieberman. The NY State Supreme Court vacated the independent arbitrator’s ruling of a $7,000 fine. Judge Lucy Billings’ recent decision says a mouthful about the pitfalls of the 3020a process.

Ms. Moreno-Lieberman was a dean at P.S. 169, a district 75 school. She received a complaint that “Student A” had tried to kiss and grope his former girlfriend, “Student B”. “Student B” complained to Moreno-Lieberman about the harassment, who called “Student A’s” father in for a conference on the following Monday (this all took place on a Friday). “Student A” then wrote a note on a napkin to another student, “Student C”, explaining that he would rather kill himself than allow this complaint to be the reason he has to return to the Dominican Republic. He asked “Student C” to deliver the note to “Student B”, which also contained a request that she retract her complaint. “Student C” dutifully delivered the note to “Student B” and “Student B” delivered the note to dean Moreno-Lieberman.

The note was written in Spanish. A school aide translated the note into English for Moreno-Lieberman. Appropriately, Moreno-Lieberman brought the note to the school guidance counselor. The counselor interviewed “Student A” and required him to write another note promising that he would not hurt himself. She then determined that “Student A” was well enough to return home on his own.

When “Student A’s” father came in for the meeting on Monday, Moreno-Lieberman learned that the boy did indeed try to hurt himself and was hospitalized. Moreno-Lieberman showed the napkin note to the father, at which time the guidance counselor came into the room. They talked about the attempted suicide of “Student A”, then left the room to ask the principal if they could see the distraught boy in the hospital. When they returned to the room, “Student A’s” father was preparing to leave. Moreno-Lieberman did not realize he had taken the note with him. She called him later in the day to ask if he could return the note, but he never did.

Both Moreno-Lieberman and the counselor were brought up on 3020a charges. Moreno-Lieberman’s charges demonstrate the underhanded way the Department of Education goes after teachers. Why Nicole Moreno-Lieberman was brought up on charges at all in this scenario is tough to understand. She seemed to go through all of the proper channels when it came to both the harassment and the threatened suicide. Keep in mind that District 75 is for special needs students, and perhaps scenarios like this are pretty common in this school.

Yet, because a student tried to hurt himself, someone’s head needed to roll. The DOE slapped Moreno-Lieberman with the following four charges:

a) upon learning of Student A ‘ s suicide threat, she failed to notify the principal, allowed Student A to be released from school without notifying his father of the suicide threat, and did not telephone 911 for help for Student A

b) based her conduct set forth in Specification I, she endangered the physical, mental, and moral welfare of Student A, a child

c) based on her conduct set forth in Specifications I and 11, she failed to prevent or contributed to Student A ‘ s suicide attempt and hospitalization

d) She, albeit unintentionally, negligently allowed a student’s handwritten suicide note, written on a napkin and referred to as the “napkin note,” to be taken from the school by the student’s father without preserving a copy of the note. Further, her serious negligence . . . impeded the investigation” by Department of Education into school personnel’s handling of the student’s threat to harm himself.

These charges are designed in a way that, if you are found guilty of the first one, chances are you would be found guilty of the next two. However, if you are exonerated on the first one, then you must be exonerated on the next two. That is why the fourth one is there. If the DOE cannot get you on one major thing, they will throw a trivial thing on there, or several trivial things. As a chapter leader and someone who has read dozens of 3020a charges of teachers across the city, this is the standard way the DOE tries to get teachers.

As an arbitrator, someone who needs to be approved every year by the DOE to retain my position, I would look at these charges and ask “which one(s) will this teacher be found guilty of?” That is how the system is designed. Arbitrators always have to split the baby. The DOE knows this, and always slaps teachers with charges that make it easy for the independent arbitrators to do just that. Therefore, teachers are rarely ever exonerated. This allows the DOE to turn around and say “see, we never accuse a teacher who is not guilty of something”. It makes it seem as if the DOE and the 3020a process have integrity. Yet, “integrity” is the last word that comes to mind when you look at this crooked process.

The DOE’s arbitrator, David Hyland, dismissed the first three charges. On the fourth charge, Hyland found Moreno-Lieberman guilty. She allowed the “napkin note” to walk out of the school with the father, which hindered the DOE’s investigation into how this matter was handled. Hyland fined Moreno-Lieberman $7,000 for her “negligence”.

This ruling was torn apart by Judge Lucy Billings of the New York State Supreme Court:

A review of the testimony by petitioner, the Department of Education investigator Derrick Dottin, the school principal Scallon, and Student A’s father shows that, when petitioner handed the “napkin note” to the father, she did not intend that he keep it. Her distress upon learning of Student A ‘ s suicide attempt, however, overcame her customary professional discipline, so that she neither sought to retrieve the note from the father before he left, nor arranged to copy it. This record supports the Hearing Officer’s decision insofar as he found that petitioner was negligent in failing to satisfy her responsibility to preserve school records.

Despite a careful, conscientious opinion, the Hearing Officer nevertheless overstated the importance of the missing “napkin note” to respondents’ official investigation of the circumstances surrounding the charges against petitioner. The investigation focused on the possible further step to have been taken by school personnel to prevent Student A ‘ s suicide attempt. Among the school employees, students, and family who read the note, including petitioner, school aide Gabriel, guidance counselor Vartanova, Student A, his father, and Student B, there was no disagreement about the note’s contents. No evidence suggests that the note’s exact wording or appearance was of a consequence to the investigation.

As painstaking as the Hearing Officer’s recitation of other factual details may be, his decision fails to consider these critical circumstances. The Hearing Officer never explains why documentation of the note’s undisputed contents was central to the investigation’s conclusions–because, when the missing record is considered in the context of the consistent evidence set forth above, how the note’s physical absence hindered the Department of Education, in its investigation or otherwise, is inexplicable.

The Hearing Officer admittedly never explains how physical possession of the napkin would changed the investigation’s direction or conclusions, but simply declares that he “will not speculate on exactly how the investigation might have turned out differently had the ‘napkin note’ been available.

In other words, David Hylan found that Moreno-Lieberman hindered the DOE’s investigation when she neglected to secure the “napkin note”. Yet, Hylan at no point explains how the absence of the note hindered the investigation. The contents of the note were never disputed by anyone who had ever seen it. Everyone agreed on what it said. Yet, Hylan still found her guilty of hindering an investigation.

And that cost Moreno-Lieberman $7,000. In response, Judge Billings decided the following:

Yet the Hearing Officer justified the amount of the $7,000 fine he assessed against petitioner on the significance of the missing “napkin note” in somehow obstructing respondents’investigation of the charges, to “teach her a lesson about the importance of preserving Department of Education of records. Petitioner already was punished by losing her position as the dean of discipline. The $7,000 fine, arrived at without reference to any specific criteria whatsoever for the imposition of fines, is excessive to the point of shocking the conscience.

In fact, the absence of any specific guidelines for the imposition of fines in teachers’ disciplinary proceedings shocks the conscience and is a deficiency to be addressed by respondent or a legislative body. While respondents and their designated Hearing Officers unquestionably are authorized to impose fines on teachers for disciplinary offenses, the decision makers must do so fairly, not arbitrarily.

Neither the Education Law, nor the Chancellor’s Regulations, nor any other code fixes any “primary standard” or articulates any objective test or gauge, to guide respondents’ or  Hearing Officers’ exercise of authority and discretion in their assessment of monetary penalties. Their assessment of penalties that they are charged to administer may be upheld if the assessment is rational and not excessive, yet no statute or interpretive regulation articulates a standard or gradation against which to measure the rationality or excessiveness of a monetary penalty.

In sum, the absence of any statute or implementing regulation to guide the evaluation of fines to be imposed allows unfettered, standardless, arbitrary administrative decision making. By delegating unbounded latitude to respondents and Hearing Officers in these administrative actions, the statutory and regulatory scheme leaves their decisions subject to untrammeled discretion.

Translation: the arbitrator had no good reason to slap Ms. Moreno-Lieberman with a $7,000 fine. There is no Chancellor’s Regulation, state law or legal precedent that sets any sort of penalty for failing to secure school records. Therefore, David Hylan could only have arrived at his $7,000 decision arbitrarily. This is dangerous, since arbitrators in these cases have a tremendous amount of latitude in setting penalties. They have a responsibility to do so fairly and not based upon numbers they pull out of thin air.

Judge Billings even goes further and claims that, based upon her reading of legal precedent, the maximum fine for Ms. Moreno-Lieberman should be $1,000. Not only did Judge Billings vacate the findings of the independent arbitrator, but did his job for him in coming up with a just ruling.

Judge Billings is right on with everything she wrote about this case. More and more judges are looking at the rulings of 3020a arbitrators and claiming that they are “shocking to the conscience” of the court. This should not be, since arbitrators should be fair and impartial. However, because these arbitrators are on the DOE payroll and depend on being reappointed every year by the DOE to keep their positions, they will always find something against any teacher who is brought in front of them, no matter how frivolous or arbitrary the charges.

A $7,000 fine is ridiculous for losing a note that everyone had already seen. The DOE spent what must have been millions of dollars in reassigning Ms. Moreno-Lieberman, paying an arbitrator and hiring lawyers to argue the case in front of both an arbitrator and an actual court of law, not to mention an investigation that must have taken at least a year. In the end, the DOE will not even get $1,000 of that back from the teacher they harassed and demoralized.

This is the unseemly underbelly of the NYC Department of Education. If a real reporter (not the clowns at the Post or Daily News) were to do an expose on the waste and corruption that takes place in these 3020a hearings, they would find enough dirt to outrage taxpayers for years. Until that time, the 3020a process rolls along as corrupt and wasteful and secretive as ever.

Let this be a message to any teacher who finds themselves in the same situation. Do not give up. The independent arbitrator’s findings are not the end-all, be-all of the process. It may cost money and time, but if you appeal their ridiculous findings, you have a good chance of being cleared by an actual court of law that does a much better job of meting out justice.

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.

Relay Graduate School of Education is Intellectual Boot Camp

Relay trains its teachers in the questioning of Socrates, meaning the questioning he experienced before he was forced to drink poison.

Carol Burris and Diane Ravitch have been offering insights into a video posted by the Relay Graduate School of Education entitled “Rigorous Classroom Discussion”.

Relay is a newly accredited teacher training program that measures their prospective teachers by their students’ test scores. They must teach in one of Relay’s associated charter schools for a set time. If, by the end of that time, their students’ scores are not up to snuff, no accreditation for the teacher.

This is exactly the type of teacher training that the National Counsel for Teacher Quality has been calling for. As Diane Ravitch points out, prospects do not take classes in cognitive theory or the history of education. It is skill and drill from start to finish. Not to mention, it seems like an ingenious way for the associated charter schools to get some cheap labor for a school year.

At the end of the video the host, who describes herself as the head of middle school programs, says “that’s great teaching”.

And as Burris and Ravitch have pointed out, no, it is not great teaching.

Superficially, the classroom is the education reformer’s dream: a young white female teacher stalking a classroom of minority students in uniforms. She gives orders in cold, halting tones: “hands down, start position, you are back reading, right now.” She cuts off the student Omari while he is in the middle of giving an answer. Before that, she “phones a friend” by calling on a girl who gives a really nice answer. And what is the teacher’s response to this answer? Nothing. She gives no acknowledgement or praise, nor does she let it be known that she is building upon it in any way. She just coldly barks another question to the next student.

Reformers and people in the general public often say they want teachers who are motivated and love what they do. However, this teacher conveys no love or passion for the students or subject. At times, she seems downright hostile, standing there with her hands on her hips, repeating herself over and over again.

Ask yourself, is this how you want your own children to be educated? Is this a healthy classroom environment? If you answer yes, you are not being genuine. This is the reformer’s dream of how minority students should be educated. This is an environment not meant to stimulate young minds, but to stifle their spirits.

I really took a disliking to this video because my teaching method can be described as the “sage on the stage” approach, which is also “teacher-centered”. My students sit in rows while I walk around the room and ask questions. These are where the similarities between my classroom and this classroom end. All I can say is that if this becomes the template for what great teaching is in the future, then the teaching profession is in a whole heap of trouble.

This entire discussion is in pursuit of a correct answer. The teacher is after a character trait in the story, as well as a definition of this trait. This is low-level, mind-crushing teaching. First of all, Omari starts off by saying “ambition” is a trait contained in the story. What does the teacher do? She harps on this student and puts him on the spot so that she can get him to define what ambition is.

She asked a one-word question: what character trait do you see? She got a one-word answer: ambition. Now, one-word responses are not always bad. I usually get those as a way to move to a bigger question. That is not what was happening here. This one word, ambition, was the entire show. In my mind, the sage on the stage would follow up with the question “how was this character ambitious?” It would not be an Omari question. It would be a question open to everyone in the class. That is because I reserve my one-word questions for the students who do not usually feel comfortable participating. I usually get a totally different group of hands in the air when I ask one of these questions compared to a higher-level question. To harp on that one kid after the fact totally goes against the dynamic and what my students would feel comfortable with. I would praise Omari and move on.

Asking these “how” questions, as most teachers know, requires students to do much more talking. If Omari did not know what ambition meant, it would be clarified by a classmate on the next question. Also, asking a general follow-up question ensures that the other students will be paying attention to Omari’s answer. If they know I am going to harp on Omari, they have no reason to pay attention. They can sit there and wiggle their fingers and pretend they are sending “energy” to him. That is not learning. I do not even know what that is.

This discussion on ambition should have been (and it might have been in this video) part of a larger lesson. Maybe the lesson calls for an overall analysis of one of the characters. In that case, the word ambition is a small thing. It is part of a larger vision and should not require so much wasted effort and pressure. This brings me to the next concern: where are the students recording all of these answers? Why is the teacher not writing on the board? If they are highlighting the traits of a character, why not list the traits and examples somewhere? That way, Omari feels vindicated when he sees his answer go on the board, as do all the other students who participate. The entire class sees that there is a bigger, overarching idea at stake in this lesson, not a bunch of choppy, isolated factoids.

Quite simply, nowhere in this lesson were the contributions of the students validated, praised or justified. There is no give-and-take between student and teacher, or student and student. There is no reason for a student in this class to care or pay attention other than the fear of embarrassment. There is nothing organic in this lesson. Everything is forced: from the tone of the teacher, to the answers of the students to the wiggling of the fingers. Instead of finding what is right and good about Omari’s answer, she harps on what she thinks it lacks. Instead of praising and then using the answers of the other students, she ignores them and rolls on with the lesson.

A great teacher finds a way to use every response from students, no matter how off the wall or off base it seems. A great teacher can take the tiniest grain of truth, thought or insight contained in a student’s response and use it to build the next question. A great teacher can do this by instinct and the students will learn that, every time they raise their hands, they will contribute something and not be put on the spot. Most importantly, students learn that the “truth”  or “knowledge” is a process, not a correct answer to a fill-in-the-blank question.

This is not humanistic education. This is inhuman education. It is a scary glimpse into how reformers, charter school operators and the general public see teaching. Of course, no thinking person would want themselves or their children to be taught in this way. No, this is education for “those” people’s children. The ones that need a warden and not a teacher.

Maybe I am being too harsh here. As Carol Burris says, this teacher was merely showcasing the method they wanted her to showcase. At the same time, many teachers will probably be trained in this program. To think that a generation of people, most likely from affluent suburbs, are going to be trained to teach bright inner city students in this way makes me want to weep. This is authoritarian, thoughtless, soulless education. This is how you train people to follow orders and fill in blanks.

One thing is for certain: this is not the “lighting of a fire” that Carol Burris describes as true learning.

The Killing of Mary Thorson

There is a new documentary out that every teacher, parent, student and concerned citizen needs to watch. It is called Dying to Teach: The Killing of Mary Eve Thorson. Mary Thorson has been mentioned here before. She was the Illinois middle school teacher who committed suicide by standing in the path of an oncoming semi on Thanksgiving Day, 2011. She was only 32 years old.

The filmmaker, Myra Richardson, is herself a former Illinois school teacher whose career fell victim to the machinations of education reform. The film for Ms. Richardson has been a labor of love; love for Mary Thorson, a teacher she did not know personally but with whom she has a kinship nonetheless. Upon hearing the story of Mary Thorson, I too felt a kinship with her. I sense that most of us who teach for a living cannot help but identify with her tragic story.

Mary Thorson was blessed with many gifts, including natural athleticism. This was one of the reasons why she decided to become a teacher of physical education. Before that she enlisted in the United States Army Reserves, knowing full well our country was gearing up for the War on Terror at the time. She found herself in El Salvador and was awarded medals for opening up schools there. These facts demonstrate that Mary was motivated by an abiding civic spirit. Whether it was serving her country, the children of her country or the children of other countries, Mary Thorson found ways to exist for the benefit of humankind.

Yet, we know that teachers of Mary’s stripe are not welcomed by the current overlords of the education system.

While serving in the Army Reserves, Mary attained her certification to become a physical education teacher. She eventually landed a job at Cottage Grove Middle School in Ford Heights, Illinois within school district 169. For part of the school year she coached the girls’ basketball team. Like most teachers, Mary spent a good portion of her salary on materials for her students. Children, especially children of middle school age, instinctively know when an adult is working from a noble plane. So it was with Mary, and her students recognized and respected her for it.

It was Mary’s misfortunate to be working in a school district run by Superintendent Dr. Gregory T. Jackson. Unlike superintendents here in the big city, Dr. Jackson was a frequent presence in Cottage Grove Middle School. In New York City, superintendents tend to be more evanescent than real. Teachers might run into them by chance once every few years. Rarely do they ever deign to speak to us peasant classroom teachers.

Not so for Dr. Jackson. He is intimately involved with the day-to-day operations of Cottage Grove. It is clear that he loves the teachers that work in his district. By love, we mean he loves to intimidate and harass them. Teachers here in NYC have to settle for harassment from their principal or, worse, an assistant principal. But the teachers out in Ford Heights, Illinois have the privilege of being harassed by the superintendent himself. Yelling is one of his preferred methods of communication. Any school administrator worth their salt knows that yelling at a teacher not does count unless you yell at them in front of their students. This Dr. Jackson does with relish. He knows that, in our current era of education reform, students must be made to understand that their teachers are low-level schlubs, not role models. Nothing accomplishes this better than public humiliation.

However, Mary Thorson was a special type of teacher, which prompted Dr. Jackson to bring out the heavy artillery. It started when Dr. Jackson demanded of Mary that she change the grades of many of her students. Under our current education regime, administrators only demand changes in one direction: up. He wanted Mary to give passing grades to students that had clearly not earned it. To Dr. Jackson, whether or not students earned a passing grade was immaterial. The only thing that matters is that students pass. Passing students means the school is doing well, meaning that they will continue to receive funding, meaning that Dr. Jackson gets to keep his very high-salaried job.

This is why Dr. Jackson is an administrator, not an educator. An educator, someone like Mary Thorson, would look at failing grades and ask “how can I help teach my students the things that will help them pass next time?” An administrator like Dr. Jackson asks, “how hard will I have to squeeze in order to get teachers to pass everyone?” To educators, students are people. To administrators like Dr. Jackson, students are data. Like most data, it is meant to be fudged, nudged, and budged in ways that make him look good. Data must paint a rosy picture not only so that he might keep his job, but that the politicians and educrats for whom he lickspittles can make speeches about how their reforms are working.

This is the Wall Street philosophy of education. Create fake numbers out of thin air. Make everyone think they have value. Then sell that bill of goods to suckers in the general public. Nobody will ever be the wiser unless, of course, it comes time to pay. For Wall Street, that was when AIG woke up one day with a billion dollar hole. For schools, it is when the students they certify as graduates go on to be functional illiterates. In either case, the perpetrators will be long gone: Wall Streeters with their giant bailouts, administrators with their advancement up the bureaucratic ladder.

Mary knew all of this. She refused to help create the next crop of functional illiterates, or whatever the physical education equivalent of a functional illiterate might be. It was going to take more than the familiar Dr. Jackson method of yelling to get Mary to play ball.

It was at this point when Dr. Jackson got the opening he needed. One day, a parent called into Cottage Grove to complain that Mary Thorson had hit her child. Mary, knowing she had done no such thing, explained that the “assault” she had perpetrated took place in the context of PE horseplay. It did not matter. Dr. Jackson’s District 169’s brand of due process called for Mary to be suspended without pay.

Mary Thorson, the teacher of almost a decade, found herself traveling the road that so many strong-willed veteran teachers across the country travel in the age of education reform. One day she is waking up in the morning to make a living doing the job she loves. The next morning, she is waking up without the ability to make a living or pursue her love. The ringing of a phone, the signing of a paper, the snap of a finger is all that it takes. Maybe if Mary had played ball, maybe if she cared just a little less or compromised a little more, Dr. Jackson would make the problem go away.

For someone like Mary, a woman whose entire life was a pursuit of the humane and good, to be unable to render the service you carry out so well is nothing short of torture. Worse than the fact that she could not make the rent was that pall, that accusation, that hung over her head. Talk to any dedicated teacher that has had to face an investigation and chances are they will say the same. A teacher’s reputation is everything. They are accustomed to landlords, store owners and neighbors according them a level of trust that says that they are a member of good standing within the community. The public entrusts their children with them. To go from that to the drawn-out, bureaucratic nightmare that follows an accusation is to go from due north to due south on a dime. For many teachers who have reached that point, it does not matter if they wind up exonerated or not. They have already lost it all.

And so it was for Mary Thorson.

The one bright spot was that the school community knew the type of teacher Mary was. There was no way she would assault any child. The fear among her students that a special teacher was going to go out on her ear caused an outpouring of support. It made its way all the way back to the parents that leveled the accusation. They wrote a letter to Dr. Jackson explaining they knew that Mary was right when she contended that the alleged assault was nothing more than PE horseplay. Mary Eve Thorson did not deserve to lose her career. Please Dr. Jackson, put an end to her nightmare and let her teach again.

In response, Dr. Jackson, ever the magnanimous soul, restored Mary’s pay while keeping her on suspension. This was no victory for Mary. It was the teaching, the coaching, the children from which she was being separated which was causing her existential crisis. She would have rather returned to work without pay than be returned to pay without work.

But Dr. Jackson’s final sadistic flourish took place on the eve of Thanksgiving break. School administrators know that one of the cruelest things they can do is send a teacher a memo right before a long holiday break saying they wish to have an important discussion regarding their career after the break is over. It ensures that the teacher will be consumed with fear in the days school is out of session. While loved ones are supposed to gather and celebrate during these times, the families of these teachers will notice the long face, the bags under the eyes, the one-word responses to questions, the faraway countenance of the teacher in the family. Loved ones might be able to sympathize with such misery, but they cannot empathize. Only another teacher can empathize.

This is exactly the place in which Mary Eve Thorson found herself in the days leading up to that fateful Thanksgiving Day. She was given the memo and told to enjoy her holiday.

The plan was for Mary to be with her parents on Thanksgiving Eve. But she called them and said she was going to wait until Thanksgiving Day instead.

Thanksgiving rolled around. Mary stockpiled on her bed all of the paperwork associated with the fatal accusation. She penned a note, then headed out to her car. She was to drive just over Illinois’ eastern border into Indiana, a state known as the literal crossroads of the United States. It is where many of the country’s superhighways intersect. You can choose a road and go anywhere in the country. Cars zoom through Indiana on their way to their destinations, as do the trucks that carry out much of the nation’s commerce.


Mary Thorson pulled her car over to the shoulder. She opened the door of the steel pod that had been acting as a barrier between her body and the speeding traffic of Indiana’s highways. Her two feet stepped onto the road designed strictly for rolling rubber. An oncoming truck. Mary stepped into its path. The truck driver swerved to avoid her. Mary swerved in the same direction. It was over.

Mary’s final note could have been written by any teacher in the United States. The children that she had taught for almost 10 years were so clearly flesh and blood human beings. Yet, the lords of the education system insisted that they were data. She had tried to explain this many times to no avail. The powers that be, the people that could determine whether or not Mary taught, made it clear that children were numbers on a paper. They were to be fudged, nudged and budged on a whim. What those numbers represented, whether they were accurate or useful, did not matter.

Why was it like this? In her final note, Mary said it comes down to money. Good numbers meant good money. Even bad numbers meant good money. So many people have their hands in the education till: administrators, data companies, test publishers and politicians. If children could no longer be reduced to data, the money train stops and all of these interests would be slightly less wealthy. The educrats would never tolerate this. Education, Mary Thorson says, is a business in America. Children are the widgets. Mary Thorson lets it be known that, counter to the self-righteous wisdom of our esteemed educrats, children are not widgets. They are her babies.

And why are the Dr. Jacksons, the Pearsons, the Bloombergs, the Rhees, the Rahm Emmanuels of the world able to perpetrate such a heinous crime? Because the people who could stop it, the people who have a front row seat to the huckster’s ruse, are being silenced. Those people are the teachers. Through union breaking, through the empowerment of administrators, through media bashing, through rigged legislation, through harassment and intimidation, teachers are being told in so many words to shut up and go along with the whole thing. They are being forced to play ball against the better angels of their nature. There is no room for teachers to be humane, to provide a truly humanistic education whose value is unquantifiable in numbers. Those that try are spit out of the machine either by out-and-out firing or creative methods of subtle psychological torture.

As the title of the movie suggests, Mary Eve Thorson was killed. Like so many of us who teach, she was being killed slowly everyday by a rotten, autocratic regime that cloaks itself in the benign garb of providing an education to children. Mary Thorson’s story, her tragedy, is the tragedy of millions of caring teachers from Anchorage to Atlanta, from Bakersfield to Bangor. What is extraordinary is not that Mary Thorson died for the sake of teaching, but that more such teachers have not taken the same route given the times in which we are living.

Mary Thorson said she did not want her murder to go in vain. Mary’s father, John Thorson, is determined as well. He has an online petition against teacher bullying that everyone should sign.

Furthermore, if you would like a copy of Dying to Teach: The Killing of Mary Thorson you can contact Myra Richardson at Donations can be made via that address as well. All funds will go to Mary’s family, as well as to the foundation that will be founded in Mary’s memory at the start of August.

Rest in Peace Mary. We are determined that you shall not die in vain.