Category Archives: Politics

The DOE’s Future and MORE’s Winning Strategy

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I became a tenured teacher in 2003. Between September of 2000 and June of 2003, I would walk into the main office of my school to see my name on the list of probationary teachers. These were the teachers who had yet to receive tenure. Then, at the start of the 2003 school year, my name was off the list. I did not throw myself a party nor did my principal make any type of to-do about it.

However, I think receiving tenure in the New York City Department of Education today is an accomplishment that calls for the throwing of a party, like a Bar Mitzvah or Confirmation. In fact, I cannot remember the last time a teacher with whom I have worked has received tenure. There is an excellent and dedicated teacher at my school who is in her 4th year and, not surprisingly, got her probation extended another year last year.

This is a trend happening all over the city. Teachers are being denied tenure one or two years in a row before they are unceremoniously herded out of the system. How dedicated or effective a teacher is matters not. Principals are obviously under pressure from the DOE to deny tenure as much as possible. Even worse, tenure is not what it used to be, especially with the Race to the Top evaluation system now in place.

Many veteran teachers, myself included, have expressed outrage over the lack of ownership demonstrated by NYC teachers over their profession and their union. The vast majority did not even bother to cast a vote in the most recent union elections.

Yesterday I ran into a former colleague who retired last year. She looked very rested and happy. I saw on her face the joy she must have felt for not having to be evaluated by exam scores or implement a set of ill-conceived standards. My words to her were “you got out at the right time” and she totally agreed.

This is a teacher of the baby boom generation, that massive sector of the American workforce who is starting to collect Social Security and Medicare. Many baby boomers in the DOE must feel as if they are sprinting through a mine field, hoping to make it to retirement safely before a bad evaluation hobbles their chances of a peaceful dotage.

With the exodus of the baby boom generation, as well as the revolving door of Gen Xer and Millennials brought about by the rampant denial of tenure, we should wonder no more as to why teachers in NYC are not taking ownership of their working conditions. The fact of the matter is very few teachers in the system look into the near and distant futures and see themselves working inside of a DOE school building.

So voting in union elections, going to union meetings, attending protests of the Panel for Educational Policy and the rest of the things that activist teachers do must seem like a whole bunch of useless work to young and veteran teachers alike. They cannot be blamed for this. There surely are many young teachers who intended to make education their life’s work, or many older teachers who would have wanted to stay on just a little bit longer, but cannot do so due to the efforts of Pharaoh Bloomberg and his Queen Consort, Dennis Walcott, to turn public school teaching into a temporary gig.

And then there is that other group of younger teachers who are working on their administrative licenses. Generally speaking, they tend to teach non-core or non-academic classes, tend to not be very dedicated to what they do inside of the classroom and tend to not be very good at whatever it is they do inside of the classroom. This is just what I have seen from my experience. I am sure there are plenty of exceptions. This young crop, many of whom are more likely to get tenure if they do not already have it, may not be longed for the DOE either.

With the prospect of a Bill de Blasio mayoralty starting in 2014, many people are expecting big changes to Department of Education headquarters at the Tweed Courthouse. De Blasio has never really been a fan of Tweed. I hear stories everyday through the grapevine of Tweedies and people from the various DOE networks jumping ship to other jobs in anticipation of the de Blasio era. There seems to be a general sense that he is going to clean house once he inhabits Gracie Mansion, which is certainly welcome news to teachers who care about public education. If this is indeed the case, where will these young people with administrative hopes go?

Years ago there was a young teacher at our school who fit the description of the bureaucracy-climber described above. He taught with us for one year before getting an assistant principal’s job somewhere else. He was an AP for around one year before going off to work at Tweed doing God knows what. From what I saw of him, the only skill he mastered was the ability to kiss the right posteriors, and he mastered this better than most anyone I have ever seen. What will become of him and those of his ilk? Will the ass-kissery that is their stock-in-trade be less of an asset (no pun intended) in de Blasio’s DOE?

Chances are, the field of administrative sinecures at the DOE will greatly decrease in the near future. That means these young teachers either have to be really lucky, really connected or really dedicated to making things work as a classroom teacher. Barring these things, they will have to find another profession or another school system.

That means that the next few months and years will be a time of great flux in the DOE. Current and aspiring Tweedies are going to be jumping ship. Principals will be trying to weed out the probationary teachers to whom they have refused tenure. More baby boomers will retire once they get the chance. And, finally, if the recent Daily News and New York Post hit pieces are any indication, Bloomclot is on one last push to get those teachers awaiting termination hearings out of the door.

So who is left in the system that has the most vested interest in improving our students’ learning conditions? First, there are teachers like me, the veteran 30-somethings to whom retirement is a distant prospect. Second, there are the first-year teachers who have come out of traditional teacher education programs (that is to say, not Teach for America), whose prospects for tenure might be better in three years under a de Blasio DOE than they are now in the Bloomclot DOE. Finally, there are the teachers of the Absent Teacher Reserve, the ATRs, who generally are veterans who continue to rotate from school to school without classes of their own.

If MORE wants a shot at winning the next UFT elections, these are the groups to whom they must appeal. These are the people who will most likely hunker down in the DOE for the long haul. If recent history is any guide the younger generation, the ones who elected Obama and de Blasio and started Occupy Wall Street, will be receptive to the “social justice” aspect of MORE’s platform. Social justice, however, must ride the coattails of bread-and-butter union issues and not the other way around.

MORE must paint for teachers a picture of what the teaching profession can look like. Solid workplace protections, small class sizes, a deemphasizing of standardized testing and a respect for the autonomy of educators as professionals, these are the things that will matter in the upcoming union elections. Thanks to a crop of new principals who have imbibed the Bloomclot method of systematic workplace bullying; thanks to the budget cuts that have swelled the size of our classes; thanks to the Race to the Top evaluations that have institutionalized the standardized testing regime; thanks to the prospect of Common Core that takes so much of the joy and creativity out of education, the imprint of over a decade of reformer philosophy will be felt in our schools for some time. MORE must attack each of these things head-on with an alternative vision of what the teaching profession in NYC can be.

Doing these things will paint MORE as a stark and highly desirable contrast to the Unity leadership of our union that has been complicit in this reformer legacy. They can paint the Unity method of caving to the reformers as the stuffy old status quo. Seasoning their rhetoric with the right amount of social justice will set them up to be the next wave of civil rights leaders, much like the reformers started using the language of civil rights over a decade ago to give their destructive policies a pious sheen into which the general public bought. MORE, by properly tailoring their message what promises to be the backbone of our union in the decades to come, can become a legitimate threat to the Unity stranglehold on power.

MORE will take a step towards building this new union coalition tomorrow with the “Win Back Wednesday” rally tomorrow at 4:00 pm outside of UFT headquarters at 52 Broadway. I will be there and hope to see you there as well.

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How New York City Can Rid Themselves of the Race to the Top Evaluations

There is no crime against wishful thinking, although it might not be part of Danielson's rubric.

There is no crime against wishful thinking, although it might not be part of Danielson’s rubric.

Teachers at my school keep asking me: “What is the union going to do about this new evaluation system?”

My response is: “Nothing. Absolutely nothing.”

This new evaluation system is brought to you by our union. It was Michael Mulgrew, president of our beloved UFT, who accompanied Andrew Cuomo to Washington, D.C. when New York State was applying for Race to the Top.

It was Michael Mulgrew, as well as NYSUT president Richard Ianuzzi, who negotiated the framework that mandated 40% of our evaluations be based on standardized test scores. We were assured by UFT leadership, including Leo Casey, that collective bargaining would cushion the blow of this framework at the local level.

When collective bargaining broke down earlier this year over Mulgrew and Pharaoh Bloomberg’s inability to agree on a “sunset clause”, it was Mulgrew who signaled his willingness to abide by any system that State Education Commissioner John King saw fit to foist upon us.

Every step of the way, Mulgrew and Unity leadership were there telling us how great this new system would be. They told us it will be “objective”, thereby preventing abuse by administrators. They said it would give us valuable feedback about our teaching practices.

The bottom line is: our union has been complicit in this evaluation system. They have cast their lot in with this evaluation system. How likely will they be to do a complete 180 and say “sorry, our mistake”?

Not bloody likely at all.

Some teachers in New York City have been heartened by the prospect of a new mayor, one who promises to be more sympathetic to public workers. While all signs point to a Bill de Blasio mayoralty, which would be a major improvement after 12 years of Pharaoh, do not fool yourself into thinking that this new system is going away.

There are two reasons why I say this. First, the evaluation framework is state law, something over which New York City mayors have no say. Second, our union will not fight to get rid of this framework since they helped give birth to it.

Some teachers envision Mulgrew and de Blasio sitting down at contract negotiations next year, exchanging laughs and slapping each other on the back. They envision retro pay, a cost of living increase and an end to this evaluation system. While the former two things might happen (indeed, they might be the only things to come out of negotiations), the latter will not happen.

Michael Mulgrew will never push de Blasio to do away with the system he helped conceive.

If we want a chance to do away with this system, there is only one way to go about it: fight.

The rank and file of the union has to band together and move the Unity leadership of the UFT to change things, at least the things about this system that can be changed at the local level. We can start by signing the petition being passed around by MORE.

This, unfortunately, will not be enough. Even if we push the UFT to fight against this system, it is still state law. That means a bigger grassroots effort will be necessary.

We can start with administrators. Many administrators throughout the city are not happy with the new evaluation regime. Not only does it give them more work, those who are veteran educators generally feel demeaned by the deskilling of their job implied by the so-called “Danielson” rubric. Grassroots teachers must make common cause with administrators, even if it means holding our noses in some cases.

While we engage administrators, we also must engage parents. This will be much more difficult. Many of our parents are disengaged. Some of our parents want more testing. Most importantly, many of our most savvy and vocal parents send their children to charter schools, where this new evaluation system does not affect them. We can at least make common cause with sympathetic parent organizations, like Leonie Haimson’s Class Size Matters and the feisty Change the Stakes group.

Even if we pull all of these things off, an unlikely scenario under the best of circumstances, it still will not get the state law repealed. The reformy money wields too much influence in Albany and Cuomo is too infatuated with his self-image as a dyed-in-the-wool education reformer and a “lobbyist for children.”

So why do all of this?

Recall earlier in the year when Mulgrew and Pharaoh Bloomberg reached their impasse over the sunset clause. It looked like NYC would not have a new evaluation system after all. That is when John King stepped in and threatened to withhold Race to the Top money, as well as Title I money.

Grassroots pressure from teachers, administrators and parents will not work on the Albany crowd but it might just work on Mayor Bill de Blasio. As a public school parent, he might come to oppose all the new testing mandated by this evaluation system. Even if his son, who attends my alma mater at Brooklyn Tech, would be shielded from these tests, he might sympathize with other parents whose children come home from school with testing anxiety. With enough public pressure, he might be the one to pull NYC out of this system.

Predictably, King will huff and puff about withholding funds. Let him huff and puff. Those Race to the Top funds are only enough to pay for new testing anyway, so he can keep it. When he threatens to cut off Title I money, let him be sued by the union and every major civil rights organization with a chapter in the State of New York. Not only will he eventually be forced to fork over that Title I cash, he will ruin his own and Cuomo’s reputation to boot.

As far as I can see, this is the only formula for totally getting rid of this evaluation system. If it seems far-fetched, that is only because it is. The moral of the story is that these evaluations are here to stay until our union or our political landscape change radically.

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?

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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.

Occupy’s Two-Year Anniversary: It’s All in the Data

occupy

Occupy Wall Street was the first major event that I wrote about on this blog. Until this day I feel fortunate for working in such close proximity to Zuccotti Park. It afforded me an opportunity to be part of an event that I believe will eventually define the coming historical era. While the original occupations fizzled out due to general disorganization and authoritarian repression, that does not mean the movement itself will not resurface at some point in some form in the future, bigger than before. Yet, one would be hard-pressed to agree with this prediction if they were in downtown Manhattan a few days ago on the second anniversary of Occupy.

Walking past Zuccotti Park at seven-thirty in the AM on that day was a depressing sight. The entire perimeter was blocked off with metal police barricades, not to mention police. They were allowing the first trickle of protesters in as I was on my way to work. Seeing 5 or 6 young protesters in the middle of the square setting up shop while dozens of officers ringed the park was a far cry from what the place looked like two years ago. Back then a sea of humanity overflowed the benches, the floors and the sidewalks while the police tenuously occupied a sliver of the curb on Broadway, helplessly looking on as people exercised all types of freedoms right in front of them. Now it was the police who overflowed the park, firmly entrenched on all four sides while protesters sheepishly trickled in between the blue uniforms.

Later in the day, as I stepped out to grab lunch, I bore witness to a tame march of protesters circling the block of Zuccotti Park. They were relatively quiet, controlled in their movements and all held up signs with exactly the same size fonts and lettering. Each sign hearkened back to many of the messages of the original protest: “Stop Stop and Frisk”, “Get Money Out of Politics”, etc. But the spontaneity, the disorganization and the general exuberance were gone. The police looked on seemingly pleased at the good behavior of the young people who quietly passed through the narrow corridor of sidewalk they had left available. As the old police cliché goes, there was truly nothing to see here.

In fact, the real spectacle was on my side of Trinity Place across the street from the park. As I loitered by the phone booths smoking a post-lunch menthol, a different sea of humanity was passing by me as well. This humanity was much nosier and much less organized than the protesters across the street. Instead of holding signs with political messages, this sea of humanity was holding cameras and maps of Manhattan. That is right: it was a sea of tourists stopping to gawk at, and snap pictures of, the puny exercise in democracy taking place across the street. Ironically, this sea of unruly tourists did not have any NYPD officers circumscribing where they could walk.

It was at that point that I realized I was watching history unfold. On the Zuccotti side of the street, you had the protesters who stood against everything Pharaoh Bloomberg’s New York City had become. On my side of the street, you had the tourists who reveled in everything Pharaoh Bloomberg’s New York City had become. My side represented the era of repression and commercialism that is on its way out. The Zuccotti side represented the era of free association and community that is yet to be born.

To the tourists who pass through downtown Manhattan, everything is a spectacle. While Trinity Church, Federal Hall and even the giant-testicled bull at the foot of Broadway are nice photo opportunities, the tourists take things much further. Most of these out-of-towners are either coming from, or trying to get to, the 9/11 Memorial. They skip lightly with their children in tow, oftentimes herded down the street by tour guides with light blue 9/11 Memorial shirts on. “Let’s keep moving. We’re almost there” these tour guides can be heard saying to their pliant charges. They usually form a bottleneck along Cedar Street outside of the Ho Yip Chinese buffet as they shuffle along. Some of them even return the death glares that one lone history teacher throws them as they pass by, although they cannot return the menthol smoke he directs into their faces.

It is always a party atmosphere along Cedar Street. The only problem is that they are going to see two giant holes in the ground where nearly 3,000 people lost their lives 12 years ago. They will snap some pictures and then come back outside where they can stop at the 9/11 Memorial gift store to pick up World Trade Center memorabilia. The entire spectacle, from the obnoxious digital cameras to the pushy tour guides to the oblivious foreigners to the cackling children, is a giant Bloombergian farce.

One cannot totally blame the tourists for what downtown Manhattan has become. Thanks to Pharaoh Bloomberg, Larry Silverstein and the bloodsucking state politicians in Albany, what should be hallowed ground and a national reminder of our shared history is instead a hokey exercise in commercialism. Compare the 9/11 Memorial to the monuments in Washington, D.C. like the Lincoln or FDR or World War II memorials. Sure, those places can have floods of tourists too. However, at the end of the day, they are public spaces. They are shared spaces. They are civic spaces. There are no gift shops around them. There is not a constant parade of tour groups being led single-file by obnoxious guides who admonish them to keep up, monopolizing the small strips of public space that exist. Visitors to these places are not asked or guilted into making “donations” to the monument. One cannot buy a mug with an image of the D-Day invasion down the block from the World War II Memorial.

Even if there were all of those things around our national monuments in D.C., it would still be more tolerable than what has become of what used to be the World Trade Center area. Lincoln was killed 148 years ago. FDR died and World War II ended 68 years ago. There is a good chance that people involved in those events are not living and working in the D.C. area anymore. On the other hand, downtown Manhattan still has many residents and workers who were there in 2001. Some of them might have even narrowly escaped with their lives. Some of them might still suffer illnesses from breathing in the acrid smoke. Some of them, including police and firefighters, might have even saved people’s lives or lost friends that day. And yet, the survivors of this national tragedy have to look on each day as downtown Manhattan turns into a circus. While Bloomberg is not totally at fault for this, it is certainly in step with the Bloomberg plan for the city.

This is what I saw on the 2nd anniversary of Occupy Wall Street. To the tourists, the Occupy protesters were a curiosity and a spectacle much like the 9/11 Memorial. They did not expect to see democracy in action when they showed up that day with their maps and their cameras. Metaphorically speaking, the three-ring circus was featuring the dancing bear but the out-of-towners got the bearded lady as a bonus as well. They oohed and aahed throughout both acts, snapping pictures the entire time.

Bloomberg can say that downtown Manhattan has bounced back. The independent eateries and souvenir shops that were around before 9/11 are certainly crammed with tourists now, many of whom have American dollars burning holes in their pockets after converting from Euros. The Freedom Tower is more or less complete, all 1776 feet of it. Yet, just like Bloomberg’s “successes” with public schools and fighting crime, it is a success on the surface only. One only has to dig an inch deep to find the rot that Bloomberg’s gild conceals.

At the end of the day, whether it is tourist dollars, test scores or crime stats, the only thing that has been accomplished under the reign of Pharaoh Bloomberg in NYC is an artful manipulation of numbers. Those numbers bear very little resemblance to reality. Tourist bucks are flowing in, yet downtown Manhattan still bears a national scar that has not been properly treated. Test scores are up (or at least they used to be), yet our students still have trouble making their way in the world after they graduate. Crime is down (or at least it used to be), yet many average New Yorkers are being robbed by a ridiculous cost of living. For the poorest New Yorkers, the NYPD has terrorized them in their own communities thanks to stop-and-frisk.

That is why when I was standing there between the Occupy protesters and the tourists, I was able to feel the tide of history wash over me. One side represented the dying Bloomberg era of optimistic data that continues to fool so many people. The other side represented the coming era of a mass awakening of what that data was always concealing.

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.