Category Archives: An Embattled Career

A Look at the New Orleans Charter Experiment

What have the charter schools in New Orleans accomplished, beside forcing students to walk in straight lines?

What have the charter schools in New Orleans accomplished, besides forcing students to walk in straight lines?

As if Baye Cobb is not enough anecdotal proof about the failure of the New Orleans charter experiment, a much deeper analysis of it can be found in the Daily Beast:

But eight years after Hurricane Katrina, there is evidence that the picture is far more complicated. Seventy-nine percent of RSD charters are still rated D or F by the Louisiana Department of Education. (To be sure, some charter operators argue that the grading system in Louisiana, which keeps moving the bar upward, doesn’t sufficiently capture the improvements schools have achieved.) Sci is one of two RSD high schools to earn a B; there are no A-rated open-admission schools. In a school system with about 42,000 mostly poor African-American kids, every year thousands are out of school at any given time—because they are on suspension, have dropped out, or are incarcerated. Even at successful schools, such as the highly regarded Sci Academy, large numbers of students never make it to graduation, and others are unlikely to make it through college.

The bottom line is if a public school system was delivering the types of results as the largely chartered school system of New Orleans, Arne Duncan, Bill Gates and the rest of the reformer army would be screaming bloody murder. Instead, when these poorly rated charter schools fail, they are replaced by more charter schools:

The premise of the New Orleans charter-school experiment is that charters can educate all children. However, the experience of kids like Lawrence Melrose, another Sci Academy student, does not support that claim. Now 18, Lawrence’s life is a testament to both high levels of social dysfunction, including poverty and violence, and the inability of some charter schools to meet the needs of the most disadvantaged kids.

It is hard to know when Lawrence’s life began to spin out of control. It may have been when his grandmother who raised him was diagnosed with cancer and he began shuttling back and forth between Georgia, where the family moved after Hurricane Katrina, and his great-uncle Shelton Joseph’s house in New Orleans. It may have been during a basketball game, near his great-uncle’s house, on a hot August day of his 14th year, when another kid shot him in the back, nearly killing him. Or it may have been during his dizzying spin through half a dozen struggling RSD schools in the two years before he enrolled at Sci Academy.

But we are told that poverty and all of the problems that come with it are just “excuses”. All children should be college ready by the time they graduate. In the privatized system of New Orleans, this should be changed to if they graduate. Yet, the operators of some charters are not only making “excuses”, they are copping out altogether:

Paradoxically, as New Orleans encourages existing charters to take over the last of the schools the RSD directly runs, the charter system is finally being forced to confront the flaws in its one-size-fits-all college-prep model. Some of the city’s charter schools have begun experimenting with alternatives, like vocational programs and so-called alternative schools designed specifically to help students who have struggled in, or dropped out of, school. This spring, John White, Louisiana’s superintendent of education, in a notable departure from the state’s college-for-all mantra, unveiled a proposal to revamp high school diplomas by creating a vocational track that would qualify graduates for technical careers. Although Louisiana already has a “career diploma,” it is widely seen as a dead-end certification, because it neither prepares students for college nor provides them with specialized training.

What does it mean when privately-run charter schools, that were sold to the public as places that would make all students “college ready”, start experimenting with vocational training?  Is this not an admission of defeat?

Ironically, these New Orleans charter schools are starting to come full circle. As Diane Ravitch explains in Reign of Error, the original vision of charter schools was for them to be a laboratory for innovative instruction for students who tended to not do so well in traditional public schools. It seems that is what some of the charters in New Orleans are starting to do, albeit under private management.

To date, the charter operators cannot point to one example of how a privatized, no-excuses model of education can work for an entire school district (and not just skimming the best students off the top of that district). The closest example they have is New Orleans and it has been an abysmal failure.

“But there is so much poverty in New Orleans and families are still returning after Hurricane Katrina.”

No excuses

What Does Reign of Error Mean?

reign-of-error2

 

Diane Ravitch has always been my go-to person for matters of American schooling.

Back in 2004, I was 25 years old and starting my fourth year as a history teacher. It was the year I decided to branch out and create a philosophy elective at my school. I wanted to enable my philosophy students to deconstruct the world around them. Since they had already spent a good portion of their lives sitting in American schools, I figured I would be derelict in my duties if I did not help them deconstruct the American school system.

Yet, I knew next to nothing about the history and structure of American schooling. It was an embarrassing knowledge deficit for a history teacher to have. Before I could break down the school system with my students, I would have to break it down for myself. This meant a spate of independent research for me. It was at this point when I first read Diane Ravitch’s work.

Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms was an honest, direct and well-researched survey of the American school system. Diane’s simple yet informative prose led me to read The Language Police and The Great School Wars as well in order to prepare for my unit on American schooling. Reading these books early on in my career, when I was thirsting for a deeper understanding of the institution in which I worked, meant that Diane Ravitch would have a major impact on my teaching style and educational outlook.

Yet, I was still largely unaware of this phenomenon known as “education reform” and Diane Ravitch’s role in it. I was also unaware of the fact that I was teaching in a system that was considered one of the hubs of this education reform:  Bloomberg’s Department of Education. What I did know was that Diane was appointed by two different presidents from two different parties to the Department of Education. In my mind, this not only made her even more of an authority on American education but also signaled to me that she must have a great deal of integrity. She did not carry water for any party’s agenda.

This was all back in 2004, before Diane had totally broken from this education reform movement. Even in her reformer days, Diane Ravitch was honest about her beliefs, persuasive in her arguments and informed about what goes in America’s schools. It was the education reformer Diane Ravitch who had such a deep impact on my career when I was a fourth-year teacher. She helped me construct the meaning and context of American schooling.

So one can imagine my excitement years later when I finally matured enough to understand the lay of the current educational landscape and Diane’s role within it. What disturbed me was not how she had changed her mind about education reform, but how so many people criticized her for it, as if it was a sign of opportunism or dishonesty. Being familiar with Diane’s work beforehand, I knew that neither of those accusations were true. It is the mark of intellectual integrity to change one’s mind about an issue after reviewing new evidence, especially if one does so publicly so millions of people know about it. I could not wrap my mind around those people who seemed to believe that “integrity” meant sticking to an idea no matter how wrong or destructive it is.

Now that I am in my 14th year of teaching and about to start my 35th year of life, I understand things a little bit more clearly now.

Reign of Error demonstrates, in typical Ravitchean fashion, how people are able to cling to ideas long after facts have passed them by. Many people much more able than myself have already written reviews of Diane’s latest book. What I hope to do instead is to locate this book in the context of the history of American schooling. What does Reign of Error mean as an historical event?

Critics of Reign of Error have already been trying to answer this question, even before they have bothered to read it. Most notably, Arne Duncan supporter Peter Cunningham wrote a hit piece this past summer in which he expressed sanctimonious outrage over a quote in the New York Times where Diane Ravitch questioned the Common Core’s focus on college readiness:

“We’re using a very inappropriate standard that’s way too high… I think there are a lot of kids who are being told that if they don’t go to college that it will ruin their life… But maybe they don’t need to go to college.”

The obsession in America’s schools with getting kids into college has always been questioned by Ravitch, even in her reformer days. Yet, it is only now that reformers like Cunningham see fit to try to twist her point into something that it is not:

“When Dr. Ravitch says, ‘But maybe they don’t need to go to college,’ who exactly is she referring to? It’s certainly not rich white kids. It’s definitely not the children of middle class parents, who view college for the kids as one of the core pillars of the American Dream. That leaves low-income and minority children. It includes the children of immigrants who come here with an 8th grade education and desperately want their kids to do better than them — the kind of parents you meet at a graduation who speak little English and can’t stop crying for joy.”

Notice how, in typical Waiting for Superman fashion, he invokes the imagery of teary-eyed minority families to push his own agenda. If Cunningham would have read Ravitch’s book, he would know that she calls for America to invest more heavily in the schools of those teary-eyed minorities. Not only does this mean smaller class sizes and more materials, it also means vocational training. These things are of course expensive but, as Diane points out in her book, we somehow have the political and financial will to pour money into testing companies and for-profit online schools thanks in large part to Cunningham’s hero, Arne Duncan.

Vocational training is good enough for countries with stronger education systems. It was good enough for Americans 60 years ago. Many of our grandparents, including the grandparents of reformers like Peter Cunningham, could go to high school to learn a trade, then go out into the world and support themselves and their families by plying that trade. This was because we invested not only in education but in our economy and our workers. We provided more options for our young people than just retail and fast-food work. We had strong unions to ensure a measure of job and salary security. These are all things for which Ravitch passionately calls in Reign of Error.

Cunningham’s faux outrage is the stock-in-trade of the reformer movement. As Ravitch discusses in Reign of Error, reformers set themselves up as new age civil rights heroes fighting for the dispossessed and disenfranchised. Yet, their solutions involve pouring billions of public dollars into private pockets and breaking unions. Our anemic economy and impotent political leadership has led to the greatest rates of childhood poverty and infant mortality in the western world. Reformers like Cunningham are completely silent on these matters. In fact, their enthusiasm for union busting only ensures more childhood poverty and infant mortality. They want to tinker around with schools, pretend as if they are the new millennium’s version of Martin Luther King and then do and say absolutely nothing to improve the material conditions of the teary-eyed minority children they are so fond of invoking.

Another reformer who has criticized Diane Ravitch is the financier and human spambot Whitney Tilson. Tilson starts by citing the hit piece written by Peter Cunningham. He goes on to cite a Teach for America alum by the name of Grant Newman, who expresses the same sanctimonious outrage as Cunningham regarding Diane’s comments about college :

“Her line of thinking perfectly demonstrates the out-of-touch mentality of anti-reformers, who because of privilege (race, class, educational opportunity, health, etc) can make statements that demean the capabilities of all students without any retribution or questioning. Dr. Ravitch’s notion that ‘they don’t need college’ speaks volumes about what she will never understand–teachers CAN and ARE capable of dramatically impacting the lives of their students.

The sad irony however is that the students Dr. Ravitch writes off as possibly not having the potential to reach college are exactly the students who need that opportunity for any chance at upward mobility. Rich kids from Scarsdale can do fine in life through connections and experiences that grant them solid jobs and clear options.

My students in Bushwick, Brooklyn have little chance of reaching the same success as that peer from Scarsdale unless they get the most extraordinary education to somehow level the playing field. While she consistently says she is a supporter of teachers and students, it is clear that she actually doesn’t think either group can do much and instead should settle for maintaining the current state of affairs.”

Notice, once again, how the reformers invoke the image of minority children, this time from Bushwick, Brooklyn. In Reign of Error, Diane explains how the students in Scarsdale have experienced teachers. Yet, here are these children in Bushwick, Brooklyn who have a teacher who was trained for 5 weeks over the summer. In fact, Whitney Tilson says that Newman “taught for 4 years at Achievement First in Brooklyn”, meaning that he probably no longer teaches there or anywhere else. This makes Newman’s final paragraph about “my students in Bushwick, Brooklyn” misleading to say the least. He should have said “my former students”. Accuracy like that would only confirm Ravitch’s observations about TFA that she makes in Reign of Error. Not only are TFA teachers poorly trained compared to their more experienced counterparts, not to mention fellow rookies who went through an accredited teacher’s college, there is no evidence they do any better than any other teacher, and some evidence to suggest they do worse. What TFAers like Newman excel at, on the other hand, is using the schools of these poor minority children in Bushwick as springboards to other, more remunerative, employment. Newman is now either selling bonds on Wall Street or running a school somewhere in which he continues to push inexperienced teachers on the children of poor people.

One thing Whitney Tilson and Grant Newman are not doing right now is helping to ameliorate the poverty and suffering of children in Bushwick or anywhere else in America. If teachers do have as much of an impact on the lives of students as Newman suggests, then TFA and the rest of the reformers would have ended poverty a long time ago. As Ravitch mentions, the reformers are the status quo. TFA has been around for 20 years and yet inequality has just gotten worse. Could it be that wunderkins like Grant Newman are not as great as they think? Or could it be that the Wendy Kopps of the world are merely selling snake oil?

Tilson ends his post against Diane Ravitch by citing this “balanced” review of Reign of Error in the Atlantic written by a charter school teacher. Some of the criticisms the author has with Reign of Error are in the following passage:

“Ravitch presents Reign of Error as an overture to dialogue with opponents, but her subtitle suggests otherwise: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools. Her tour of the research is littered with bumper-sticker slogans—she indicts, for example, the “Walmartization of American education”—likely to put off the unconverted. The book reads like a campaign manual against “corporate reformers.” The first half challenges the claims of their movement; the second offers Ravitch’s alternative agenda. Her prescriptions include universal pre-K, smaller class sizes, better teacher training, and more measures to reduce poverty and school segregation.

These are worthy goals—and not one of them is necessarily incompatible with many reformers’ own aims. Yet Ravitch doesn’t address competing priorities or painful trade-offs. Further reducing class size in better-off suburban districts, for example, may leave less money for more urgently needed early-childhood programs in poorer communities.”

While seemingly “balanced”, the author betrays his own biases with phrases like the book “is littered with bumper-sticker slogans… likely to put off the unconverted.” My reading of Reign of Error did not uncover any bumper-sticker slogans. The one example he gives of such a slogan, the “Walmartization of American Education”, is not a slogan at all and certainly does not make for a good bumper sticker. How such a phrase is likely to put off the unconverted the author never explains.

The trade-offs the author mentions in the last paragraph are not trade-offs at all. How might reducing class size in one district leave less money for another district? Again, the author never explains his thinking behind this. Reign of Error is more than just a call for greater investment in our public schools. It is a call for greater investment in our communities. Ravitch shows that poverty and scholastic achievement are heavily linked. It is a statistical fact that the reformers themselves have failed to disprove, either through alternative statistics or through examples of their reforms in action. As Ravitch points out many times, a charter company or private organization has yet to take over an entire impoverished school district and show the rest of us how their reforms can overcome poverty.

So, if poverty is the greatest predictor of achievement in school, does it not stand to reason that ameliorating poverty would help boost achievement? This is one of the central arguments of Reign of Error. While reducing poverty is not necessarily at odds with what the reformers want, it is something on which they have been silent. What is worse, their insistence that poverty is merely an “excuse” downplays the impact poverty has on learning. In short, the reformer agenda acts as a smokescreen for the very real and very structural problems that exist in our economy.

The author goes on to try to quote Ravitch’s earlier writings to shed light on Reign of Error and demonstrates he has misunderstood both:

“Ravitch the counterrevolutionary may be right that the reformers’ cause is primed for derailment. But Ravitch the historian once foretold what typically follows a contentious drive for school improvement: ‘It was usually replaced,’ she observed in 2003, ‘by a movement called back to basics, or ‘essentialism,’ which didn’t herald new progress but rather ‘a backlash against failed fads.’ Ravitch herself is the ‘essentialist’ now, urging that we go back not to basics but to a past when issues of equity and adequate funding dominated debates about education. At a time of growing income inequality, this correction is overdue.

But let’s not get too nostalgic about those old debates. There’s a reason the younger Ravitch was impatient decades ago to discover new choices for families in America’s worst-off districts. I hope I’m not alone in searching her new book for traces of the writer who, as recently as 2010, could still see beyond a politicized landscape to understand what draws many hard-pressed parents to charters. They’re not set on this curriculum or that pedagogy, as some reformers suggest. They’re looking, as Ravitch appreciated, for academic ‘havens’—which is what parents at the inner-city school where I teach, once nominally parochial and now a charter, often tell me. They want a place where their children can join peers already driven to achieve in school—a search with another bleak trade-off. The departure of these students leaves other peers, without parents resourceful enough to find better alternatives, stranded in schools that become all the harder to improve.”

Ravitch’s analysis that waves of school reforms are usually followed by waves of “back to basics” referred to pedagogical fads. It is one of the driving themes of Left Back. Throughout the book, she never explained whether she preferred one wave to another. To Ravitch, that was just the ebb and flow of American schooling.

Yet, Reign of Error does not discuss pedagogical fads. The reforms to which she refers in Reign of Error are fundamental disruptions to the way schools are governed and how they are funded. In Left Back, the reformers she mentions usually meant well but either misunderstood how children learned, how teachers would receive their recommendations, or both. In Reign of Error, some reformers mean well while others are out to ruthlessly push their agendas in order to benefit themselves. In Left Back, the worst the reformers ever did to public schooling was foist on it some fuzzy-headed curriculum. In Reign of Error, the reformers are destroying the public school as an institution.

Diane Ravitch is not a “counterrevolutionary”, as the author states. A counterrevolutionary implies that one is an old mossback bent on bringing back the status quo ante bellum. Diane Ravitch is nothing of the sort. Reign of Error is revolutionary. It is revolutionary in the sense that she calls for the amelioration of poverty and inequality. It is revolutionary in that she wants society to make a serious investment in the schools of the disadvantaged. It is revolutionary in the sense that she calls for the children and parents of the poor to get adequate medical and prenatal care. It is revolutionary in the sense she calls for the elevation of the teaching profession. To call Diane Ravitch a “back-to-basics” counterrevolutionary is to imply that America has already done these things at some previous point in our history.

The author says that Ravitch has “politicized” the education debate. This assumes that the debate was not already “politicized” by the reformers themselves. This assumes that a discussion about education policy or practice can at all be separated from politics. Education is political. The education system is a reflection of the political, social and economic priorities of the nation. This is a point Diane Ravitch argues with great eloquence in Reign of Error.

Ironically, the author of the review quoted above confirms Ravitch’s point about charter schools skimming the best public school students. He says parents send their children to charters because they want them to sit in classrooms with other motivated students.  This is because charters, by and large, do not want to teach students with special cognitive or emotional needs. They do not want to educate children who come from other countries and are still learning English. They find inventive ways to bar or expel these types of students, something public schools cannot do.

Public schools cannot do these things because public schools are public, in that they belong to all of the people. Charters take the students who are easiest to educate, siphon money away from public schools and then dump a whole bunch of private money in on top of it. Despite these advantages, there is no evidence that charter schools outperform public schools. Therefore, what kind of education are the children of these parents who are fleeing public schools actually getting? With inexperienced teachers, militaristic discipline codes and an obsession with test prep, charter school children on the whole are not getting educated much at all.

What Diane Ravitch has accomplished in Reign of Error is a distillation of everything that is wrong with what has been dubbed education reform. All of the facts and arguments are laid out in plain language backed up with compelling evidence, or “data”, as the reformers love to say. She has hoist the reformers with their own petard by measuring their failures with the same yardstick with which they have been measuring public schools: test scores. In 100 or 200 years, Reign of Error will be an invaluable primary source about this episode in America’s educational history. She has rolled up into one convenient book the spirit of our educational times. This is why the criticisms of Reign of Error that have been proffered impotently melt away when one starts analyzing them. Their view is to push a narrow agenda now. Ravitch obviously wrote this book with one eye on the long view of things, both the history of the past and the history of now that has yet to be written.

Just like Diane Ravitch helped me construct my view of American schooling almost 10 years ago, she has helped deconstruct what education reform is about. Moreover, she has pointed the way towards how to reconstruct our public schools.

Hop into Bed Against the Common Core

Starnge-Bedfellows

 

The buyer’s remorse is starting to set in on the Common Core. Potentially strange bedfellows of unionized teachers and states’ rights Republicans are taking strong stands against it. I say potentially because they have not quite hopped into bed yet. As with many a courtship, the two sides are on different wavelengths even though they both ultimately want the same thing. In this case, we all wish to shake off the yoke of the Common Core before it can be fastened upon us.

Take the case of Robert Small, the Maryland parent who dared to speak out at a “public” meeting held by state education officials on the CCSS. Those in the audience who had questions were asked to write them down. By most accounts, the educrats on stage cherry picked which questions they would answer. This did not sit well with Small, a Maryland native who graduated from the University of Maryland, College Park.

Small broke with the format of the meeting by standing up to state his belief that the Common Core is designed to prepare children for community college, rather than the ivied halls of Harvard as its proponents have stated. He then said he moved his family to Howard County, Maryland because the schools there have a stellar reputation. With the advent of Common Core, he fears the quality of instruction in Howard County will deteriorate. It was at this point that a security guard, an off-duty Baltimore police officer, came over to him and said “let’s go”. When Small continued his oration, the guard manhandled him, pushed him out of the meeting and arrested him.

Of course, Robert Small’s critique of the Common Core is in step with what many other parents and educators have been saying. The stress placed on non-fiction texts at the expense of literature discounts the role of imagination. Its mile deep and inch wide nature risks narrowing content for the sake of building skills. Most importantly, students will be assessed on these skills with fill-in-the-bubble exams, ensuring in the end that the only real skill at which students will become proficient is gaming a test.

The publishing and education data companies have been busy designing textbooks, materials and exams that are Common Core “aligned”. They have been pulling in billions of dollars in government contracts for their troubles. The wealthiest corporate interests in the nation have been pushing for the Common Core for some time. It has been the 1% who has been the engine of this Common Core “movement”, making it not so much a movement as much as a scheme concocted by a cabal. (Does this make me sound too much like a “conspiracy theorist“?)

Yet, Robert Small has become a minor hero in the circle where one would expect this giant step towards education privatization to be celebrated: the far right.

“Small, 46, has been discussed on Glenn Beck’s radio show. Sean Hannity has reached out to him….

On his Monday morning radio program, Beck said Small’s arrest was ‘a warning sign to the American people. I believe my job is to tell you the signposts. My job is to tell you how far down this road are you and how much farther do you have to go. Not much.’

State Del. Patrick L. McDonough characterized as “outrageous” the failure of education officials to give Small a chance to speak. The Baltimore County Republican plans to introduce legislation that would put a moratorium on the implementation of the Common Core standards in the county’s schools. Del. Ron George, a Republican candidate for governor, said Monday he wants address the common core standards in the next General Assembly session.”

On what grounds do these conservatives oppose the Common Core?

” Many conservatives oppose the implementation of the new Common Core standards on the grounds that it is a federal government intrusion into local school control. Beck and others have talked about the new standards for months.”

So when the Glenn Becks of the world see Robert Small being hauled away by a police officer, they see good old fashioned state repression. In fact, they see the Common Core itself as an effort by egghead, limousine liberal, latté-sipping elitists to indoctrinate our children in what they might call “secular humanism”. The fact that the CCSS is a key part of the Obama Administration’s Race to the Top program only confirms their worst fears that Washington is out to prevent local school districts from teaching such time-honored ideas like creationism.

No matter how distasteful the likes of Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity might be, they are not totally off in their criticisms of the Common Core. The fact of the matter is that limousine liberals are huge supporters of the Common Core. Coleman, Obama and Arne Duncan resemble this remark. The overweening power of the state was on display when Robert Small was dragged out of the meeting. The Common Core, along with the rest of Race to the Top, does represent an unprecedented federal overreach of power over what we teach our children. These are legitimate criticisms which, unfortunately, might be somewhat delegitimized as soon as they exit the mouths of hucksters like Beck and Hannity.

There is one fatal flaw in the conservative attack on the Common Core: it does not go far enough. The overweening power of the state, whether in the form of federal education policy or in the form of an overzealous Baltimore police officer, is merely a proxy for the power of the corporate class. It is this that separates the conservative and progressive critics of Common Core. Somewhere within this continuum we must also reckon with the pedagogical issues with CCSS, especially the narrowing of horizons that come with excessive testing. The progressive, conservative and educational forces opposed to the Common Core cannot jump into bed together until they can square this circle.

Ironically, it is a conservative who points the way to the rhetoric that just might be able to unite the bedfellow forces against the Common Core:

” Harford County Executive David R. Craig, a Republican candidate for governor, said Monday that he does not support the Common Core because he believes what is taught should be left up to classroom teachers. The former teacher and administrator said he believes the new standards are no better than what was required by the state under No Child Left Behind and that he is opposed to the amount of testing that would be required.”

Looks like the right does not have a problem with teachers exercising professional autonomy when it acts as a shield against state power. Let us pick up on this concession by the right so we can use it to hold our noses and make common cause with them against the Common Core.

Lord Bankenstein Addresses Education Nation

Lord Bankenstein has written a stirring speech for Education Nation.

Lord Bankenstein has written a stirring speech for Education Nation.

Goldman-Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein will be a panelist at the upcoming Education Nation event on NBC. In an amazing scoop, the team here at Assailed Teacher (which consists of me and my cat) have uncovered the speech Mr. Blankfein intends to give for this occasion. It is reprinted in its entirety below:

Jesus was a teacher. He chased the money-changers out of the temple in Jerusalem. Instead of making money, he wanted people to focus on doing good works to help poor people. Some people used to say that teachers were doing “God’s work”, maybe because they had taken up the same profession as Jesus.  Some people also used to say that banking was a sin called “usury”, maybe because Jesus had chased the usurers out of the temple.

But times have changed. Where is Jesus now? Crucified. Where are the bankers now? We run the world. What better evidence can there be that God favors us bankers? This is why I shifted the paradigm in 2009 by saying us bankers are doing God’s work. Two thousand and nine years after Jesus’ birth, the world finally came to see that he was wrong.

The money changers are still here. The meek have not inherited the earth. We have inherited the meek, as well as their money. All of this has happened without so much as a lightning bolt striking any of us dead. Me, Vikram Pandit, John Thain, Jamie Dimon, all of us are still here and still swimming in vaults of gold like Scrooge McDuck.

There is but one sliver of meekdom left for us to inherit: education. By inheriting education we would inherit the legacy of Jesus himself. Us money-changers will then have the last laugh, again.

You see, Jesus had it all backwards. He exhorted people to uplift the least among us. The beggars, the aesthetes, the prostitutes and the unwashed are all worthy of the same respect as the wealthy, the noble, the patrician and the royal. He invented a God that would reward those who lived their lives by these guidelines and punish those who did not. There was something about a camel passing through the eye of a needle or whatever. And where are we today? The least among us are as least as ever while the money-changers are passing quite easily through the eyes of solid gold needles.

For over 100 years, this country has been trying to lift up the least among us through public education. There once was a belief that all children, including the children of beggars, aesthetes, prostitutes and the unwashed, were worthy of true learning. Even worse, people believed that these children were capable of true learning. Worst of all, these children might use what they learned to create better lives for themselves. Educators once fancied themselves fishers of men, and even women.

100 years of fishing has gotten us nowhere. Our education system was created in a period of history when the money-changers dominated the meek. In 2013, the money-changers still dominate the meek. The kingdom of heaven on earth has not come to pass, despite our best efforts to heed the advice of Jesus. God in heaven has not sent down a plague of locusts upon the heads of the money-changers. Our yearly harvests are as bountiful as ever.

So it is time that this country scrap the protagonist of the New Testament in favor of the money-changers. It is time we recognize that it is not God’s will for the meek to inherit the earth. Over 2000 years of history has showed us that the wheat always separates from the chaff. We are the wheat. They are the chaff. If we are to have a system of schooling, it must recognize this reality once and for all.

I am glad to say that this reality is already recognized by many of us here today. Wendy Kopp was one of the first to understand that the wheat must teach the chaff. They must teach the chaff not in order to uplift them, but in order to prepare them for their roles as chaff. Over the past two decades, her minions of Pharisees nationwide have displaced those educators who foolishly believed they were doing God’s work. These were the educators who spent their lives in a classroom, sending a message to the community that their children were worthy of dedication. But Kopp’s minions have shown us the way. They recognize that one does not need any skill or preparation to instruct chaff in how to be chaff. They recognize that they are too good to be around chaff for more than a few years. They recognize that one of the best ways to teach chaff their true value is to leave them after two years. Any longer than that and they might start to identify with, or even believe in, the chaff they instruct. What is worse, they might start learning how to actually teach, how to be fishers of men and women, which would puff up the chests of the chaff and make them believe they are actually wheat. This would be the worst kind of wheat, the kind that is not even wheat: puffed wheat.

Also with us today is Eva Moskowitz, a woman who has given us the template for how the education of the masses should look. She deserves nothing less than our total approbation. There are many poor children in New York City. However, a portion of those poor children come from families who actually believe in them. They have good manners, a good vocabulary and might even be hard-working. Eva takes the poor children from these families and teaches them what they need to know. They need to know how to sit up straight. They need to know how to march silently. They need to know how to look like they are giving their undivided attention to the Kopp acolyte who stands in front of the room. They need to know how to jump to every command of Kopp’s acolytes. If they do not jump fast or enthusiastically enough, they will be penalized. This is exactly what these types of children need. If these children were to go to a regular public school taught by one of these fisher of men and women, they might actually learn something about the world around them. What good would that be for them? It would only succeed in giving them ideas too big for their stations. And, you guessed it, their station is to be chaff. I do not need the person who shines my socks to know why the Confederacy fired on Fort Sumter. I only need them to know that I require my socks shined now, before I meet with the Secretary of the Treasury. This is what Eva Moskowitz is doing for us. She is taking the best of the chaff and preparing them to jump to our every whim without a thought. If every one of these kinds of children spent a solid 13 years in one of Eva’s schools, every money-changer in America would have an able, willing and supplicant sock-shiner. Who can argue with that?

Another one of my heroes is here today as well: Ms. Michelle Rhee. Michelle showed us that we cannot separate the chaff of tomorrow from the wheat of tomorrow without thoroughly subjugating the teachers of the chaff. Michelle took over a typical urban school system where teachers had tenure and a measure of autonomy. This means they walked into their classrooms every morning as if they were the cock of the walk. Morning after morning, year after year, these tenured “professionals” sent the message to their students that there were jobs out there in which people can be happy, fulfilled and useful. Teachers like this tend to have an enthusiasm for their careers and for life in general. In turn, these traits might rub off on their students. Enthusiasm is a dangerous quality for the chaff of tomorrow to have. It gives them a false impression that their destiny is in their hands. Michelle came in on her, I mean with her, broom not to sweep up the bad teachers but to beat all teachers in the head with the bristles as one would do to a mouse in the kitchen. By tying each teacher’s career to the test scores of their students, she made them dread coming into work every morning. Instead of learning about the world, D.C.’s students would learn how to fill in bubbles with a #2 pencil. Above all else, teachers knew that the fate of their careers hinged on value added models over which they had absolutely no control. The Sword of Damocles was not hanging over their heads. It was swinging wildly at their heads. Whether or not one lost their head was a completely random affair. The fear that teachers had of not being in control over their own destinies inevitably spilled over to the kids. It taught them the implicit lesson that their destiny was not theirs. Their destiny is ours. We are the ones who swing the sword. They can duck all they want, it still will not ensure they keep their heads. Look at all of the schools she closed. Look at all of the children who were shuffled around. Look at the hyper-segregation that took place. Children learned that they are in a world where things are done to them by us. They have no choice. No free will. Ideals of goodness, fairness, stability and justice are not only antiquated, they never existed in the first place for them. Michelle was just preparing them for the roles they will play on the earth that we, the money-lenders, have inherited.

This is where Goldman-Sachs comes in. Despite the fact that it is God’s will that the money-lenders keep a firm boot on everyone else’s throat, that type of imagery does not play well in this very image-oriented society. Even the pretentions of Kopp, Moskowitz and Rhee of being some new-age group of civil rights leaders who want to help the disadvantaged rings hollow when one looks in detail at what they are actually doing. The only thing that saves them is a little Goldman-Sachs.

You see, throughout the 2000s we posted record profits and gave out record bonuses, mostly to me. We did this even though we were making rotten deals that would end up sinking the entire financial sector, and then the rest of the economy. We purchased mortgages from lenders, bundled them up and then sold them as assets. We could not sell these “assets” fast enough, so we pressured the lenders to make more and more loans. To fulfill our demand, they lowered the standards for who got mortgages. They started giving mortgages to people they knew could not afford them. Why wouldn’t they? We were buying those mortgages outright from them, so there was no risk to them. Since so many of our former or current employees also worked for rating agencies like Moody’s, it was nothing for us to get these assets backed by bad mortgages rated “Triple A”. Everyone thought it was a safe bet because of it. Everyone, that is, except for us. Deep down inside we knew we were selling garbage, so we hedged our bets by convincing insurance giants like AIG to insure these crappy assets. That way, if we were holding the bag when these assets tanked, we would not lose anything because AIG would rescue us. In effect, we were betting against the assets we were selling and laughing all the way to Scrooge McDuck’s vault. All the networks, especially CNBC, were crowing about how well we were doing and how I, along with every other money-lender, were geniuses. And when this whole house of cards finally got blown over, two presidents in a row from two different parties bailed our asses out.

Wendy Kopp, Eva Moskowitz, Michelle Rhee and the rest of you in this room today watched us and learned from us. Deep down inside you all know that you are selling poison. But you have all done bang-up jobs of skewing the numbers. We posted record profits on crap assets in the same way you post high test scores with garbage education. You fudge your numbers, skim your students and cheat on exams so you can show that you outperform public schools. The general public, all of whom are chaff who do not like to think, sees a graph with a rising line and considers all of you education geniuses. Much like nobody questioned whether or not rising stock prices and absurd executive bonuses actually reflected the underlying value of our companies, nobody questions if rising test scores actually reflects better education. They do not even stop to consider if the test scores are really rising at all. Just like us, you education reformers have your own echo chamber. You have think tanks and media outlets who will repeat everything you say without question. Organizations like Democrats for Education Reform are to you what Moody’s is to us: an incestuous group who rubber stamps everything you peddle to the public. NBC and Oprah and John Stossel are to you what CNBC is to us: a mouthpiece extolling how great everything you do is. These interlocking entities create the public perception you want. Just like we had the country and the government eating out of our hands as we were leading them off of an economic cliff, you have led people to believe you are modern-day Horace Manns and Martin Luther Kings when, in reality, you are just like me: a Pharisee.

Yes, we are all Pharisees. We all occupy a God-given place at the very tip of the societal pyramid. We have lickspittles at every level of government and media ready and willing to shine our socks. But you are the ones who are truly doing God’s work. By siphoning off education to the money-lenders, you are ensuring that the generation in school now and the generations to come will also be lickspittles. You are helping etch in eternity what God has obviously always intended: to keep us, the money-changers, in the temple. Even more than Pharisees, you are also Romans. For just like the Romans crucified Jesus the teacher for the sake of keeping the money-changers in the temple, you are hammering the nails into the flesh of everyone in this country who has chosen teaching as their life’s profession. You do this so the elite will remain elite; so the money-changers can remain in the temple.

We are well on our way to truly completing God’s work. Do not let this cup pass you by. It will not be too much longer until we realize the true kingdom of heaven here on earth. It will not be too long before all of us inherit the meek.

Christine Rubino’s Spring Break

break

During this past school years’ Spring Break, I attended the latest act in the ever-unfolding drama of the NYC Department of Education versus Christine Rubino.

Christine was terminated in 2011 after some comments she posted on her personal Facebook page. The DOE’s arbitrator, Randi Lowitt, believed that this one incident made Christine unfit to teach forever, despite 15 years of spotless service. Facing financial and professional ruin, Christine hired the Teacher’s Lawyer, Bryan Glass, to appeal Lowitt’s decision to the New York State Supreme Court. Justice Barbara Jaffe found that Lowitt’s decision was “shocking to the conscience” of the court and mandated that Lowitt come up with a less harsh penalty.

Meanwhile, the DOE appealed Jaffe’s decision to the New York State Appellate Division. While the case was working its way up the calendar, Lowitt handed down her new decision: 2 years suspension without pay. This decision kept Christine in poverty just long enough so that she had to sell the house in which she was raising her two young children. I suppose it makes sense in some twisted universe somewhere for Lowitt to traumatize two young children for the sake of protecting countless other children from Facebook statuses they will never see.

Right after Lowitt’s new decision was handed down, the DOE’s appeal was ready to be heard by the Appellate Division. As opposed to the State Supreme Court, whose cases are heard by one presiding judge, the Appellate Division has a panel of 5 justices. I arrived relatively early and was able to listen in on some of the other cases being heard. The justices on the panel seemed fair. They were patient with people who did not have lawyers and asked pointed questions that showed they had not only listened to the arguments, but read the background of each case. How would they receive the Christine Rubino case? Christine’s future literally hung in the balance.

Christine’s case was called. Bryan Glass headed to the podium as did the DOE’s lawyer, Deborah A. Brenner. The litigants at the Appellate Division have only a few minutes to make their cases before the justices start asking their questions. Brenner started the case by painting Christine Rubino in the worst possible light. Not only had Christine said something bad on Facebook, she lied about it, tried to have her friend lie about it and did not show any remorse for her actions. Brenner basically summarized Lowitt’s original decision and justification for terminating her.

Bryan Glass pointed out that Christine did show remorse. After all, she had taken down the comments three days after she posted them, well before she knew of any investigation against her. He also called into question the idea that Christine tried to cover up the matter. As I have written here before, the DOE investigators pretty much browbeat Christine’s friend in the back of a DOE car (yes, they have those) until she said what they wanted her to say. The browbeating included threats of going to jail on Riker’s Island for lying to investigators, a bluff on their part since one cannot be prosecuted for such an act. Despite the fact that Christine’s friend had this horrifying experience on tape, Lowitt did not at all consider it when making her decision.

Once Glass had ended his presentation, it was time for the jutices to ask questions. The first few questions sought to clarify the timeline of events, like when the comments were made, when she was terminated, etc. It is difficult for me to remember all of the details now almost 6 months after the case. However, one justice in particular deserves to be singled out for a job well done.

Justice Sallie Manzanet-Daniels saw through Deborah Brenner’s disingenuous arguments. Throughout the previous cases I watched, Justice Manzanet-Daniels seemed to always sympathize with the underdog. She asked Brenner questions along the lines of, “why is termination the only penalty you’re willing to hand down?” Brenner stammered and reiterated the line of logic laid out by Randi Lowitt. Then Justice Manzanet-Daniels picked up on the matter of the supposed cover-up by Christine. She questioned why Randi Lowitt had not mentioned the audio tape of DOE investigators shaking down Christine’s friend in her decision and said that she would like to hear the tape. Brenner responded that the facts of the case are not before the court, just the arbitrator’s decision. Essentially, Brenner was instructing the justice on a point of law and procedure.

At that point, Justice Manzanet-Daniels became visibly ticked off. I am no litigator but I do know that it is not a good idea to try to instruct a judge on what should go on in their own courtroom, no matter how wrong one thinks the judge might be. Justice Manzanet-Daniels promptly closed the giant binder in front of her that contained all of the paperwork of the case and said something along the lines of “you’re right, it doesn’t matter”. She had probably made her decision right then and there. All of the justices had obviously seen the DOE’s case for the sham that it was, but Justice Manzanet-Daniels saw right to the marrow of things. What was revealed on the tape, as well as how the tape was not even part of Lowitt’s decision, was the Rosetta Stone of the entire DOE v. Christine Rubino fiasco, and Justice Sallie Manzanet-Daniels knew it.

Deborah Brenner was beaten from pillar to post by the Appellate Division. All of the justices, in one way or another, questioned the DOE’s rabid opposition to allowing Christine Rubino back in the classroom. All of them seemed to know that this case was about more than just a Facebook post. Yet, Christine Rubino herself was not so sure. After years of being vilified by the DOE and the media, she was not going to bank on anyone helping her get justice. It would be a long few weeks before the court’s decision was known.

When the decision finally did come down, it was not reported on by any of the outlets that had vilified Christine Rubino. Why would they report it? The New York State Appellate Division ruling 5-0 in favor of a teacher who had been wrongly terminated is not in step with the teacher-hating narrative they are trying to spin. That means that 6 judges in total heard the case of the DOE v. Christine Rubino, including Barbara Jaffe, Sallie Manzanet-Daniels and the rest of the Justices in the Appellate Division, and every single one of them sided with Christine. The only people who wanted to see Christine terminated were Randi Lowitt (who receives a DOE paycheck) and the New York print media (who will print any story that maintains their coveted access to Tweed and City Hall). People who have delved into the facts of this case objectively all come out on Christine’s side.

Despite the decisions by the Supreme Court and the Appellate Division, it is hard to say that justice was served. Most people in Christine’s situation would not have fought as hard as she did. They would have licked their wounds and moved on to try to make their way in another profession. Nobody would blame them for doing such a thing either. It becomes almost impossible to believe in yourself when the DOE, the media and the general public are all saying how horrible you are. Because of the efforts of these forces, Christine and her children had to live in poverty for two years. They had their lives uprooted. Christine now has to rebuild her public image. If not for an inextinguishable fighting spirit, Christine Rubino would have gone the way of countless other unfairly persecuted teachers.

This school year marks her return to the DOE not as a teacher but as an ATR. While she has won the first major battle in this war by getting back on the payroll, there is still a long fight ahead. Not only does she, like every other ATR, have to fight to get back into the classroom but she is probably due some major monetary justice due to everything through which she has been put. Whether or not Christine wants to fight these battles is totally up to her. Nobody would blame her if she stopped now.

In a particularly comical turn of events, the DOE is currently appealing the decision of the Appellate Division. However, they have to appeal it to the branch of the court system that handles appeals, which is the Appellate Division. The DOE is appealing the ruling of the Appellate Division to the Appellate Division. They would be wise to send a lawyer who is not going to lecture the justices about procedure. Then again, the DOE has never been known for their wisdom.

The DOE is afraid of defeat. They fear that they would not have the luxury to fire teachers for similar infractions in the future if Christine Rubino is able to ultimately win. If they could fire teachers for Facebook posts, what is to stop them for firing a teacher for a comment they make on a blog or something they say at the supermarket? Christine’s victory has limited their latitude as employers who like to fire people. Apparently, they have no problem with throwing more money into their obsessive quest to crush this one lone teacher who dared to fight them. At what point will they call off their legal dogs?

Whichever way she chooses to go, Christine Rubino has fought the good fight for herself and all other persecuted educators.

That Heroin Teacher

The physical impacts of heroin addiction. Physical impacts for a physical addiction.

The physical impacts of heroin addiction. Physical impacts for a physical addiction.

Would you want a heroin addict teaching your kids?

This is the way the New York media is framing the case of Damien Esteban. Esteban is the Brooklyn teacher who was caught with 20 bags of heroin last year during a search in a courthouse to which he reported for jury duty. He was arrested and the DOE terminated him earlier this year.

The DOE’s grounds for seeking his termination were the following: a) possessing heroin, b) being removed as a juror, c) failing to report his arrest to the DOE, d) entering into a one-day drug treatment program, e) being unable to regain the respect of his students and community after all of the negative publicity caused by this case.

Esteban sued the DOE for wrongful termination. The case went to the state Supreme Court to be heard by Justice Manuel Mendez. Mendez believed the DOE’s termination of Esteban was “shocking to the conscience”. It probably does not matter much anyway to Esteban, since his lawyer has stated that he does not want to work for the DOE again.

Justice Mendez made a decision that he most likely knew would be unpopular. Why did he make it? Look at the DOE’s grounds for termination.

a) 20 bags of heroin seems like quite a bit, something that could get a person slapped with “football numbers” at trial, meaning a lopsided sentence. Yet, the amount he had only got him a misdemeanor and the case did not even go to trial. This means that they were either very small bags or regular bags that just had residue.

b) Certainly, his being removed as a juror was understandable. What is not so understandable is why this was grounds for termination. This is the DOE’s classic tactic of throwing as many charges at teachers as possible in order to make something stick.

c) The DOE’s own arbitrator found that Esteban did, in fact, report his arrest to the DOE and threw out that charge.

d) The one-day treatment program was the sentence handed down to Esteban after his arrest. If the judge had reason to believe that Esteban was a hardcore drug addict he would have mandated a much longer stay in rehab. Heroin detox is a long and painful process. The fact that the judge did not order him into detox is proof that Esteban is not a hardcore drug addict, since he obviously did not have anything in his system that needed to be detoxed in the first place.

e) The DOE loves slapping teachers with this charge. The newspapers can run any false, embellished or reputation-ruining story and the DOE would seek to fire them for it. Despite the damage the media hit pieces may have done to Esteban’s reputation, there is no proof that it made his students or community lose respect for him. The DOE did not provide a shred of evidence for this at the 3020-a hearing.

Looking at all of the charges, as Justice Mendez did, it is easier to see why the court found Esteban’s termination to be “shocking to the conscience”.

Sure, I understand that many people, including teachers, still might not be convinced that Justice Mendez made the right decision. I believe part of the knee-jerk reaction to this case has to do with the way we treat drug addiction in this country: as both a crime and a moral flaw. Certainly someone of such weak character should not be allowed around our children.

My response to this is that heroin addiction is not so cut-and-dry. Addiction to all types of substances runs in my family, and the families of many of my close friends, so I have a certain level of experience with it.

Esteban and his family claimed he got hooked on heroin after he suffered an injury for which he was prescribed pain killers. As is often the case, he got hooked on the pain pills. Anyone who knows anything about prescription painkillers like Vicodin, Percocet and Oxycontin knows they are called opiates because they are made from opium. Opium is also what heroin is made out of. It is common for people to get hooked on pain pills and then, when their prescriptions run out, turn to heroin. This is probably what happened to Damien Esteban.

This is where people might judge Esteban for being a moral weakling if not a flat-out criminal. The fact of the matter is people develop a physical addiction to opiates. Going cold turkey when your prescription runs out is not an option. Cold turkey means becoming violently ill for several days. After the physical illness, which is basically anywhere from 3-10 days of hell, there is still the psychological hurdle. This is why rich celebrities stay in rehab for months on end and, even then, many of them relapse and have to start the whole process over again.

What makes it worse is the fact that people who are addicted have to keep it a secret from their families, friends and employers. They will certainly be labeled as weaklings, as nothing more than “addicts” and they will most likely lose their jobs and maybe even their wives/husbands. The United States is about 100 years behind the times when it comes to treating drug addiction, preferring to lock people up rather than treat it for what it is: an illness.

Considering these facts, it is a wonder how Esteban was able to get off heroin at all, let alone to do it in secret without the DOE or the general public knowing about it. It was not until after he got off the stuff that he was found out. At the end of the day, there is no evidence that his addiction interfered with his career or how he interacted with children. He had an illness, got treatment for it and moved on.

Still, after all of this, people will still label him an addict and a criminal. They will label him as such until they fall into addiction due to an injury or surgery or some other unforeseen circumstance. There is really no way to understand addiction until one has seen it up close. Until you have held a loved one in your arms who is shaking from opiate withdrawals, sweating and heaving for days on end, then you cannot understand.

Damien Esteban had an illness and nobody should be fired from any job for having an illness, especially when that illness does not affect your performance. It matters not to me what the popular opinion is on this issue. Oftentimes, the popular opinion and the humane opinion are totally at odds.

The First Day of Philosophy Class

bullshit

 

As some of you might already know, I’ve been teaching an elective philosophy class at my school for the past 8 years. We meet every Wednesday afternoon for 8 weeks. After that, the students choose another elective and I get to teach a whole new group. Our first class of the year this past Wednesday reminded me why I chose to teach philosophy to high school students in the first place.

I came in that morning to find the roster for the philosophy class in my mailbox. Not surprisingly, my eyes started to scan down the list of students to get an idea of the type of class I could expect. Only students in grades 10 through 12 get electives (that is to say, no freshmen), so chances are I would know most of the names even if I never previously taught them. It was a relatively huge roster. There were exactly 30 students listed even though our electives usually top out at around 20. Out of those 30, 25 of them were students to whom I had taught history in years past. At least I would not have to spend too much time introducing myself to them and catching them up on class rules. It was a class I was looking forward to meeting.

What was especially heartening was the fact that many sophomores I taught last year as freshmen had signed up. This was the first time in their high school careers that they had the opportunity to choose an elective and they chose philosophy. What did that mean? I was probably going to start to find out once class started.

The bell rang and they started filing into the room. At this point it would be my usual practice to direct the kids to take seats towards the front. I did not even bother this time because practically every chair in the house was filled before the late bell rang. There was a thought question on the board for them to answer: “what do you think philosophy is?” There were many great answers that I listed on the blackboard. As we wound up this initial discussion, I noticed a look of disappointment on some of their faces when I informed them that the point of philosophy was to ask better questions. I told them that if they left this class thinking they know the meaning of life, then they are doing philosophy incorrectly. Instead, they should leave here knowing which questions are appropriate to ask. This bit of advice seemed like a bitter pill for some of them to swallow.

They started to perk up however when I told them that our first lesson of the year was going to be about how to make people look stupid in a debate. That is how I sold it to them anyway. This is my usual springboard into the lesson on how to construct an argument. We took a tour through the usual introduction to philosophy fare: syllogisms, premises, conclusions, deductive reasoning, inductive reasoning and straw men. While all of these are powerful concepts, they seemed to really take to the discussion we had on the difference between lies and truth.

One of the syllogisms we studied was: “Paul never lies when he speaks. Paul is speaking. Therefore, Paul is speaking the truth.” I asked them whether or not this was a valid argument. Practically everyone agreed that it was. As they thought the case was closed and sought to move on to the next syllogism, they sensed that I was not totally buying their answer. I asked them why this argument might not be valid. When a senior raised her hand to say “just because Paul is not lying does not mean he is speaking the truth”, one of those “a-ha moments” on which we teachers thrive rippled through the room.

It was at this point that we started discussing truth. Can there not be a rather large space between lies and truth? What is more: is this not the space that most of us (and the rest of the world) occupy? This was their first encounter with philosophical grey area. I informed them that the philosopher Harry G. Frankfort might call this space “bullshit“, a tidbit that never fails to cause chuckles. We went through a few daily examples of bullshit that they would know well, like commercial advertising or when teenagers try to deceive adults. Many knowing grins lit up across the room once the kids heard an example of bullshit with which they were able to identify. If we had time we could have even discussed the quote from the great diplomat Talleyrand (one of my favorite historical figures) that “speech was given to man to disguise his thoughts.”

Towards the end of the period we started discussing hidden premises. Most arguments they will encounter in real life are not going to be cut-and-dry syllogisms. People are always injecting their biases into things, and these biases are their assumptions. They seemed to be taken with the idea that they might be able to learn how to recognize someone else’s assumptions. However, what I really believe they learned was the fact that assumptions existed. The bell rang just as we were going to go in depth on the matter. I suppose this is what next week will be for.

I believe this particular class taught me a thing or two about today’s teenagers. They seemed to genuinely appreciate the discussion on bullshit and hidden assumptions. This can probably partially be explained by the fact that they recognized themselves and their own thought patterns in these things. However, I think they also recognized that the world around them, the world of school, pop culture and Facebook, is laden with hidden biases and outright bullshit. They have a general sense that they are being lied to but have not been able to really pinpoint how. By the end of the class, I believe they started to stir with the idea that they might end up being able to expose the world around them for what it really is.

These students have spent most of their school careers in Bloomberg’s Department of Education. They have been bombarded with standardized exams and sanitized curricula for most of their lives. School to them has been a series of fill-in-the-bubble exercises. They have to fill the bubbles in on exams. They have to carry out the appropriate work units in their classes to get good grades. If their grades are lacking, they just ask for extra work units that will help them fill in the gaps until they reach a number with which they are satisfied. On their own time (and even on school time), they fill in the bubbles on their Facebook profiles, Twitter updates and text messages.

All of their time has been spent on exhibiting the appropriate outward behavior. They have learned that certain types of behaviors yield them certain rewards, like good grades or enhanced social status. The obsession with “achievement” and “success” in Bloomberg’s DOE is echoed in society at large. People only seem to care about what they do. However, philosophy reveals to them what they are.

Most importantly, philosophy is one of the only times in their school careers when they will honestly be challenged to question everything. Why are you required to do certain things? Why do you believe you have to do certain things? Why do you believe school/society wants you to do these things but not other things? It is an exercise in critical thinking. It is an exercise that is dangerous to the people in charge.

The overwhelming turnout for this first philosophy class of the year was a sign. Their general enthusiasm on the first day of philosophical discussion was a sign. How they received the ideas of bullshit and biases was a sign. Our children thirst for something higher. They thirst for it because they have never been encouraged to explore it. The school system is doing a bang-up job of extracting the curiosity, the thinking, the discovery and the fun out of learning. The reformers of the world want our children to be disengaged students because disengaged students become disengaged citizens. They are being molded into non-citizens.

By the end of this philosophy course, I hope the kids are able to discover why questioning is much more valuable than answering. Perhaps instilling within them a knack for questioning now will keep a fire burning within them that no amount of bubble-in exams can extinguish.

The Bullying Problem

bully

It looks like it has happened again. Another teacher has taken her own life after being bullied in the workplace:

“The stepfather of a Bassett High School art teacher who committed suicide in July has announced plans to file a wrongful death suit against the district after claiming his stepdaughter’s death resulted from bullying by administrators.

A series of incidents led to Jennifer Lenihan taking a stress leave, which left her in such financial turmoil that she took her own life July 1, the day her mother went to give her money to help with rent, according to Manuel Jaramillo, her stepfather.”

Bassett High School is part of the Bassett Unified School District in Los Angeles County, California. You might recall that another bullied teacher who took his own life, Rigoberto Ruelas, taught in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Southern California, much like the rest of the country, does not seem to treat their teachers very well.

The tragic case of Jennifer Lenihan’s suicide seems to have certain things in common with the suicide of Mary Thorson. Both teachers reported regular harassment by administrators in front of students. Both teachers took their own lives while on leave from their positions. Both teachers’ families pinpoint the toxic work environment as the main reason why their loved ones were pushed towards suicide.

As someone who has had a front-row seat to the systematic bullying of teachers by administrators, I know the psychological toll it takes on the victims. Like most victims of bullying, they start to internalize the message that they are somehow flawed human beings. As some sort of hybrid of Stockholm Syndrome and a Manchurian Candidate, they begin to identify with the agenda laid out by the bullies that they are not deserving of a career teaching children. Jennifer Lenihan and Mary Thorson took their own lives while on leave from their schools. The timing might not just be mere coincidence. The fact that a teacher is not inside the classroom is solid proof that the bullies are correct about their fitness to teach. A teacher not in the classroom has all the minutes and hours to think, to allow that message to sink in, to internalize it and, eventually, to lose all hope entirely.

The bullying of teachers has sort of, by default, become my pet cause. It was the reason why I created this website in the first place. It is a particularly insidious form of bullying because it takes place inside of places that are supposed to be safe havens for children. The media, government and school districts have exerted much effort recently to stamp out the bullying of children in schools and on the internet. We know that children who are bullied wind up with deep emotional scars that could take a lifetime to heal, if they heal at all. While children should not be bullied at school or anywhere else, we will never be able to eliminate it if the adults in the building are bullying each other. How can the adults create a bully-free environment for their students if they do not know what it looks like?

Closer to home, we are witnessing another case of bullying with Francesco Portelos. I know Francesco and his case. He is currently locked in a heated 3020-a hearing, the procedure that tenured NYC teachers must face before having their licenses revoked. The charges against Francesco read like a sad comedy. Even by DOE standards, the infractions with which he is being charged are frivolous. One only has to look at the attempted hatchet job done on him recently by the New York Post to see this. Usually, the Post calls teachers perverts, incompetents, child abusers and drug addicts. But the worst the Post could throw at Francesco was this:

“Portelos, 34, allegedly made life hell for colleagues at the Staten Island middle school by slapping papers out of people’s hands, mass-e-mailing complaints and making false theft claims.”

Assuming this is all true, which it certainly is not, should this be grounds for termination?

But it is not true at all. If Francesco made “life hell for colleagues”, why would those colleagues elect him chapter leader while we was languishing in a rubber room? I cannot speak for all teachers but I certainly would not vote for a guy who slapped papers out of my hand.

The Post even went on to reveal, unintentionally of course, the real reason why Francesco is being victimized:

“Portelos was relegated to a succession of rubber rooms more than a year ago, after complaining that Hill broke DOE rules permitting parents and staff to review the school budget.

The technology teacher claims he was a “whistleblower” — and got back at his bosses by writing a scathing blog and streaming live video from rubber rooms to which he had been exiled.”

Heck, they even tag the article at the bottom with the term “Whistleblowers”.

The event that is Francesco Portelos is a product of the systematic bullying of teachers taking place in schools nationwide.  He is doing what everyone should do with bullies: fight back. It is easy for teachers to be cowed when they are written up by administrators for frivolous things or hit with retaliatory charges or have investigators come to their homes and ransack their garbage (which was done to Christine Rubino). But both Francesco and Christine fought back and both are winning.

It should not have to come to this. Teachers should not have to come to work in fear of what lies in store for them once they go through those schoolhouse doors. Not only does it distract from the already difficult job of teaching, it creates an environment of fear that automatically gets passed down to the students. We should not have to be put in a position where we have to waste time and brain power protecting ourselves against bullies. No person in any line of work should have to endure those circumstances.

While we can be heartened by the examples of Francesco Portelos and Christine Rubino, their stories are offshoots of a toxic climate imposed on our schools by the Bloomberg regime here in NYC and similarly odious school regimes nationwide. Now that Bloomberg is slinking out of office and a friendlier administration seems likely to take the reins, it is time for our union to take action.

That action needs to be in the form of an anti-bullying clause in the next contract. Bloomberg has allowed us to languish without a contract for the past four years, which means a new contract will be one of the incoming mayor’s priorities. I and many other teachers would forgo retroactive pay (which we probably will not get anyway) for solid protections against bullying. Administrators should face serious consequences for harassing teachers. Teachers should have viable avenues of protection if they become victims of administrator bullying. Schools should no longer be isolated fiefdoms where principals wield absolute power and destroy people with impunity.

This will take some organizing on our part. Something tells me our union leadership is not too keen on making this an issue at the next contract negotiations. I smell a petition brewing.

Speaking of petitions, here are a few you can sign right now over the internet:

Petition calling for Bassett Unified School District to do a thorough investigation into the bullying of teachers.

Petition to reinstate Francesco Portelos to the classroom.

What IS the Common Core?

What is the Common Core? It certainly is not just this.

What is the Common Core? It certainly is not just this.

Here is an admission I am loath to make: I do not know what the Common Core State Standards are.

I have read them. Not only have I read the parts relevant to the grade and subject I teach, I have been slogging my way through the entire thing as well. I have read the blogs and the papers and the speeches. Not only have I been interested in how the CCSS might impact my classroom, I have been interested in how it was conceived and adopted. All of these elements, combined with its purported aims, constitutes what the Common Core is.

There are people, very intelligent people, who speak about the CCSS strictly in a vacuum. They look at its content and judge its merits based strictly on what is in black and white. Our old friend Leo Casey did something along these lines recently in his latest post on the Shanker Blog. Overall, Leo is in favor of the CCSS because he believes it has the potential to help equalize the quality of schooling across districts. His major bone of contention is with the way it has been implemented so far which, in his opinion, has been too much and too fast. Along the way, he labels some of the most vocal opponents of the CCSS as cranks and conspiracy loons. He quotes people who he dubs “fringe” characters on both the right and the left as a way to contrast them with the reasonable center who accept the merits of the CCSS, a center which he assuredly occupies.

For example, Mercedes Schneider is a conspiracy theorist because she has written articles that trace the money fueling the CCSS movement. Leo does not necessarily refute what she, or any of the “cranks” he quotes, actually say. Instead, he infers that these people are caught up on irrelevancies that merely distract us from the task at hand, and the task at hand is figuring out how we can use the Common Core to erase over 200 years of educational inequality in the United States. As a student of rhetoric, I do appreciate and respect what Leo Casey set out to do in his piece. It is a rhetorical sleight of hand that would make the likes of Roger Ailes over at Fox News proud indeed.

Yet, it is not just Leo Casey who attempts to put a velvet rope around the content of the Common Core. I have been in meetings with teachers, administrators and even savvy parents who get into hair-splitting discussions over the letter of this or that particular standard. However, the way my mind works will not allow me to separate what is in the CCSS from how it was conceived, ratified and implemented. To me, all of these things are what Common Core is.

The Rosetta Stone for deciphering the Common Core is its mission statement:

“The Common Core State Standards provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them. The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers. With American students fully prepared for the future, our communities will be best positioned to compete successfully in the global economy.”

Like many things that pass themselves off as “school reform” in this day and age, the assumptions that lie underneath this statement are downright reactionary. The goal of public schooling is to prepare students for “success in college and careers” so that we can “compete successfully in the global economy.” In this view, our schools are not so much civic institutions as they are places in which to develop the nation’s human capital. They are places that cater to the needs of the marketplace rather than promote the free association of citizens in a democracy.

After reading the mission statement, one can either turn the page forward to learn about the standards that are necessary to keep America economically competitive or turn backward to learn about the interests that have concocted and promulgated such a mission for our schools. For those who are interested in the former, you can immerse yourself in the Common Core State Standards by clicking on the link to its website. For those interested in the latter, you can read the accounts of people far more erudite than me.

Leo Casey does mention the abortive movement in the 1990s to implement national standards for our schools. American Federation of Teachers president Albert Shanker had been a major proponent of national standards as a way to equalize the quality of education for all students while also introducing a new form of accountability for school districts that had long neglected their most underserved children. In this he was joined by several progressives who wanted so-called Opportunity-to-Learn Standards whose goal was to de-link property taxes from school districts. Instead, school districts would be funded equally across the nation. Proponents of OTL believe that raising standards must be accompanied by providing more resources to poorer school districts. In the end, the national standards movement of the 1990s was defeated in Washington mostly by Republicans who saw it as a violation of federalist principles.

While many Republicans still oppose the Common Core on the same grounds today as they did in the 1990s (Leo Casey labels all of these Republicans “Tea Partiers”), enough leaders of both parties support it so that it has become a reality in 45 states and the District of Colombia. So what changed between the 1990s and today?

The first thing that changed was our president. While the Clinton Administration was toying with a program that would merely foist national standards on the states, the Obama Administration came up with a scheme that helped many states’ rights advocates overcome their compunctions about violations of federalism. That scheme is Race to the Top and it has worked by tying federal funding of public schools to participation in, among other things, the Common Core.

The second thing that changed was that the Common Core is a completely different animal than Opportunity-to-Learn Standards. Common Core aims to raise standards without even hinting at equalizing resources across school districts nationwide. It does not leave itself open to shrill denunciations of “socialism” from the right like OTL did. Politically, it plays well with a certain segment of the population that not only abhors so-called “socialism” but also believes that “those” children who go to public schools have been coddled for far too long. Instead, all “they” need is a swift kick in the pants so they can pull themselves up by their bootstraps. No excuses.

Third, the litany of textbooks, exams and other classroom “resources” aimed at getting schools ready for the CCSS has been a boon to the McGraw-Hills and Pearsons of the world. It is another case of public dollars flowing into corporate pockets. This sits well with politicians on both sides of the aisle, since many of those bucks will eventually come back to them in the form of campaign contributions. It is a win-win if you are a politician or a publisher, lose-lose if you are anyone else.

Finally, faux progressives of the 21st century like Barack Obama and even Leo Casey himself can freely support the CCSS whilst brandishing their progressive credentials. Leo Casey makes much of the idea that the Common Core will help bring some form of equality to public schooling.

It is a curious equation. By mandating that all teachers in all schools teach to the same “standards”, teachers will somehow magically do so, accomplishing equality of education for all. It does not matter that the standards are generally nebulous. It does not matter that school budgets are shrinking. It does not matter that childhood poverty is out of control. It does not matter that our children’s brains are pickled in pop culture, Facebook and text messages for most of the day. A few black and white standards will do the trick. The Common Core is the “no excuses” mantra writ large. It is an expression of the vapid “pick yourself up by your bootstraps” trope that has been used to avoid serious solutions to inequality for the past four decades.

Yes, I am loath to admit that I do not know what the Common Core is. However, I know what it is not. It is not a recipe to bring equality to schooling in America. It is not a way to make participation in our democracy easier. Leo Casey accuses the critics of Common Core of ignoring its content in favor of tinkering around its edges. Yet, it is Leo Casey and the rest of the Common Core’s supporters who are tinkering around the edges. A focus on the content of the Common Core State Standards turns our gaze away from the material issues of poverty and inequality that have been proven, time and again, to be the biggest determinants of “success” in school and the job market. Any type of school “reform” that ignores these material issues is not really school reform at all.

As far as what the Common Core is: it is much more than the sum of its parts. Aside from being a list of standards for different grades and subjects, it is also a political program that helps Democrats pass themselves off as progressives and Republicans as friends of market-based school reform. It enshrines in law the idea that schools are nothing more than factories for human capital whose widgets exist to serve the imperatives of corporations. It is an exercise in self-serving lip service for the likes of David Coleman and Bill Gates who believe that standards can be raised without the messy work of raising material conditions.

I might not know what the Common Core is, but I do know that it is impossible to understand it without examining its antecedents.

Did the DOE Just Do Something Right?

Did the blind squirrel find a nut? Not so fast.

Did the blind squirrel find a nut? Not so fast.

The New York City Department of Education did the right thing this past Friday by discontinuing its contract with McGraw-Hill. You might recall the debacle into which the scoring of the Regents exams descended this past June. Despite the DOE’s attempts to pin the blame on teachers, the public realized that the blame rested exclusively with McGraw-Hill and the DOE.

The annual scoring of Regents exams was one of the only fairly smooth undertakings of which I have been a part as a DOE employee. Our entire history department would get together with the assistant principal to “norm” the exam, which is a sort of self-training aimed at helping us understand the scoring rubrics in the same way. After we were all “normed”, we would split into pairs and grade piles of exams. We knew each other and we knew the students, making the process relatively painless. Each student would have their grades within a week, meaning they would know where they stood in terms of promotion and graduation.

However, the DOE feared a cheating scandal a la Georgia or D.C. They scrapped the decades-old system in favor of a convoluted scheme that resulted in a big fat contract for McGraw-Hill. The scheme involved having students take the exams, then having the school package the exams in an extremely specific manner (God help a school or a teacher that flubbed this part of the process) and putting those meticulously packaged exams on a truck bound for Connecticut where they would be scanned into a central database. At the same time, certain teachers were pulled from their schools and told to report to central grading sites around the city. These sites were generally larger schools that had enough computers for everyone to use. The process was an absolute train wreck for everyone involved, especially the students.

As one of the lucky teachers assigned to one of these grading centers (Stuyvesant High School to be exact), I had a front-row seat for when this new procedure went up in flames. Not only did the norming process take forever, we had to learn how to use the computer grading program and internalize a whole bunch of new protocols. These were small hurdles compared the biggest obstacle in our way: the gross incompetence of McGraw-Hill.

It would be but a few hours of grading essays before we received a pop-up message on our computers that read something along the lines of “the RIM for this exam is full”. We never fully figured out what RIM stood for but we knew it was McGraw-Hill’s way of telling us that they had not scanned all of the exams. They could not even scan the exams fast enough to keep up with us grading them. This meant that there were many-a-day when we ran out of essays to grade and had to be sent back to our schools. While this was a small matter for me who works within walking distance of Stuyvesant, it was quite the inconvenience for those who taught anywhere else in Manhattan. The big losers in this debacle were the students, especially those who needed to know their results for graduation and did not receive them, which led to students either being deprived of the right to walk down the aisle or being allowed to walk down the aisle with the proverbial “asterisk”. There were teachers who were stuck in grading centers who were deprived of the opportunity to watch their students graduate. All of this thanks to the good people at McGraw-Hill.

This coming June, teachers will still have to report to centralized grading centers but this time they will be graded by hand. The philosophy behind this effort is that teachers should not be allowed to grade their own students’ exams.

There are many things wrong with this philosophy. First off, high school teachers never really graded their students’ exams to begin with. Sure, we graded parts of their exams but the way it works in most schools is that all teachers in the department grade at least one part of all the exams. We are mostly grading students in other teachers’ classes, a practice that both online scoring and centralized paper scoring does not change.

Most importantly, I did absolutely nothing different when scoring the exams of kids in other schools via computer. I graded them the exact way I have graded students in my own school, which means giving them as many points as the rubric would allow. There was not a single teacher who I met that did not do the same. Bloomberg and Walcott really do not give themselves enough credit. They have created such an atmosphere of fear inside school buildings that teachers would be daft to risk their careers on out-and-out scrubbing of exams. There was really no need for such an expensive and inefficient program to prevent a non-existent problem.

At least the DOE has got it half-right for the 2014 Regents exams. We will still be shuffled around like cattle, albeit without having to deal with a lousy computer program. It is in step with the idea that teachers cannot be trusted. However, is it also not a tacit admission on the part of the reformers that testing does in fact skew incentives? It is merely a surface concern of a thoroughly rotten regime that revolves curriculum, instruction and “standards” around exams that not only determine whether or not a student graduates, but now will determine the ratings of teachers. If they think they have to create all of these hoops through which we all must jump for these exams, then perhaps it is a sign that there is something wrong with the way these exams are being used.

This McGraw-Hill fiasco should be Exhibit A against the well-worn argument that the private sector is more “efficient” for education, or anything else for that matter.