Tag Archives: public education

The Fault Lines of Education Activism

I will never know what it is like to be black. Despite the fact that I grew up in black neighborhoods, went to mostly black schools, keep black friends, teach black students, listen to black music and, sometimes, use black slang, the truth is that I will never come close to knowing what being black in America is like. Furthermore, I cannot begin to fathom the types of advantages conferred upon me merely for being a white man (a tall one at that). Despite the fact that I grew up poor and my ancestors were Eastern Europeans who never owned slaves, I know on some level that the color of my skin has played a role in where I am today. When approaching the race issue, a healthy amount of deference must be paid to these factors.

Education reform, and the backlash against it, largely turns on issues of race. Elitist reformers try to occupy the moral high ground by implying that their programs are designed to uplift the chocolate parts of urban areas. The results of these reforms, especially in places like Washington, D.C., speak for themselves. The “achievement gap” is as wide as ever. In New York City, the schools that have been closed have been the ones that serve minority students. After 10 years of No Child Left Behind, not to mention the Race to the Top initiative that has accelerated NCLB’s goals, it is safe to say that the elite’s concern with children of color has proven to be disingenuous.

On the other hand, the people who stand against these reforms do have a genuine concern for children of color. Educators, parents, students and concerned citizens that have endured these reforms are under no illusions as to what they have done to inner city schools. The reason why so many veteran teachers like me harbor a deep mistrust of the Teach for America program is because we know the philosophy that gave birth to it. Teaching in the inner city is not charity work. If you are not in it for the long haul, then you should not be in it at all. If your concern with the schooling of brown children is about allaying your own liberal guilt, then your concern is not real.

Ironically, the activists who are genuinely concerned with children of the inner city are divided on the race issue. On the one hand, there are those who point to the persistent achievement gap and segregation in public schools as evidence that race needs to be the starting point for the battle against education reform. The other hand points to the impacts of poverty on schooling and believes class struggle needs to be the centerpiece of public education activism. These types of squabbles over strategy and priority have traditionally torn leftist movements asunder in the past. The one thing both camps have in common, and the thing that distinguishes them from the elitist education reformers, is that they actually believe what they claim to stand for.

Unfortunately, a genuine concern for public education is not enough to take back our schools. At some point, we will need actual victories and concrete plans. I do not know how to reconcile the two camps and I do not know which side has the better strategy. What I do know, however, is a little bit of history.

Historically, movements that have centered on racial issues have had some success. The abolitionist movement, despite initially being reviled by most whites, helped nudge the north and Lincoln over to its cause. The civil rights movement was wildly successful in getting the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act passed through Congress. During the 1990s, the culture wars led to more sensitive treatment of minority topics in public schools and universities, ushering in the era of “political correctness.” This was on the heels of decades of affirmative action programs that were, albeit, continuously weakened over the years . With the exception of abolition, these victories were limited, but they were victories nonetheless.

On the other hand, movements that have centered on issues of class have largely failed. The Populist Party of the late 1800s took form after uniting white and black farmers in the west. Indeed, many of their early victories on the local level were due to the combined voting power of black and white men. But with the advent of women’s suffrage in western states, the co-opting of the Populists by the racist Democratic Party and the institution of Jim Crow in the south, ruling elites were effectively able to drive a wedge between the races of the lower classes. The communist protests of the early 1920s were viciously suppressed by the Palmer Raids. The Black Panther Party, which really was a movement that attempted to fold all oppressed people under the umbrella of communism, was hounded and eventually destroyed by the FBI. (You can read my treatment of the Black Panthers here). Martin Luther King himself was assassinated when he started concentrating on the rights of poor workers. Something seems to scare the ruling elites about overtly class conscious movements, causing them to work overtime for their destruction.

In a book that I often cite on this blog, “Downsizing Democracy”, the authors dedicate some time to modern civil rights leaders like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson. They point to their fights for fairer hiring and promotion practices in corporate America, as well as their battles over use of the “N” word, as bread and butter issues of middle class blacks. It is unlikely that the poor minorities of the inner cities cared much about these things. Perhaps they have learned from history to keep issues of poverty and issues of race separate.

In the end, I do not know the best route to take for public school activists. As a white man, it is easy for me to lump race in with issues of class and tell black leaders that they should hitch their wagons to the star of economic equality. What I do know for a fact is that whether we stand against education reform because it is racist or because it is classist, our convictions are genuine and born out of first-hand experience with what has been happening to our schools. Perhaps this should be our starting point. Perhaps instead of trying to push our individual agendas to the forefront, we should unite over the issues that promise victories against education reform. I have no answers to provide in this regard. But perhaps education activists can unite behind the practical question of from what direction is our next victory likely to come?

Reflections on Martin Luther King Day

We do not celebrate the entire Martin Luther King. There will be many video clips on television today of his I Have a Dream Speech or him walking arm-in-arm with other protestors to illustrate his nonviolent values.  People will write paragraphs about his bravery in the face of extreme hatred, kids in school tomorrow will be asked what Martin Luther King means to them and we will all congratulate ourselves on how far we have come in race relations since King’s time. Thank goodness we live in an enlightened era where whites and blacks can meet as equals. We even have a black President now, who will surely say a few celebratory words today for MLK and what he stood for.

This has become the function of Martin Luther King Day. It has served as our annual exercise in self-delusion.

The first delusion is our view of Martin Luther King. I have written before about the lousy treatment he gets in the history textbooks. The fact is that we really only celebrate pre-1965 King. We remember the man who led the Montgomery Bus Boycott, wrote a letter from a Birmingham jail, gave the I Have a Dream Speech and stood behind President Johnson as he signed the Civil Rights Act into law. The other MLK, the one who criticized the war in Vietnam and marched against poverty, scarcely receives a mention. His struggles in the name of oppressed people all over the world remain more or less invisible. We want to crown Martin Luther King as the head of an entire race. In reality, he was the leader of a class.

The sanitizing of King’s legacy serves a purpose. It makes it seem as if the only oppression that exists in the United States is racial. Towards the end of his life, King had fully realized that the struggle for racial equality at home was part of a worldwide struggle against oppression in general. The source of this oppression was economic. Inequality in all of its forms was sustained by an economic system that favors very few and impoverishes the rest. After his fights against southern segregation, he turned to struggles against economic inequality. He supported union activism and started the Poor People’s Campaign. His anti-poverty activities and anti-war stance got him labeled a communist by many of his critics.

Our celebration of King’s accomplishments is actually a deception. While personal relations between black and white may have improved over the years, poverty has gotten much worse. Since MLK’s death, millions of Americans who used to be middle class have slid down into the ranks of the poor. At the same time, a select few have risen to the ranks of the super-wealthy. The misdistribution of wealth in the United States would go on to define the post-King era of American history. Celebrating Martin Luther King Day the way we do is part of the American tradition of ignoring that growing poverty.

In truth, we have not even come close to fulfilling MLK’s dream. 22% of the black population lives in poverty. The privatization of prisons and the more strict anti-drug laws of the past 35 years have made jail the only end point for that 22%. Education deform has ripped community schools out of minority neighborhoods and replaced them with charter schools. The veteran teachers that used to serve those areas are mostly gone, replaced with the inexperienced half-teacher preferred by charter school operators. Education deform is part of a larger process of re-segregation that has taken place over the past 35 years.

And that re-segregation is not being carried out by rabid racists, like the types that blocked the door to the schoolhouse to prevent black children from entering. Instead, re-segregation has taken place with the complicity of both political parties in every part of the country. It has been clothed in the language of free markets and small government. Instead of blocking the door to the schoolhouse, they build a sparkling new schoolhouse that masks the cheap education being offered inside. Instead of bringing back Jim Crow laws, they destroy any part of the federal government that was designed to redress the imbalance between rich and poor. Medicaid, Medicare and welfare have all been destroyed or severely attacked. Minimum wage laws and worker rights have been denuded. Instead of lifting up the least among us, which is what MLK really fought for, we pick on the weakest and blame them for America’s problems.

This re-segregation is not purely physical, although spatial separation is a large part of it. Instead, it is a segregation of class. The conservative ascendancy of the past 35 years has been a long-term attempt to ensure everyone stays in their proper classes. Anything that could account for social mobility, like a good education, is being eroded away. In place of free opportunity, we are left with a static arrangement of neo-feudalism where everyone knows their place. The wealthy are entitled to buy politicians and do whatever they want in business and in life. The poor get stricter drug, speech and anti-workers laws designed lock them into a hopeless existence.

Martin Luther King Day should not be a day for self-congratulation. Instead, it should be a day of mourning where we reflect on why we are so far from fulfilling his dream of true equality.

The Anatomy of Education Deform

It starts with a study like this one as reported by the New York Times. A bunch of Ivy League economists get together to study the impact of teachers on students.  “Better” teachers were those whose students had improving standardized exam scores. They then track 2.5 million students over the course of several years. Their findings show students who had at least one “good” teacher between the 4th and 8th grades go on to make $4, 600 more than those who only had one “average” teacher. Furthermore, “students with top teachers are less likely to become pregnant as teenagers, more likely to enroll in college, and more likely to earn more money as adults.” The implication is that we need to evaluate teachers by their students’ exam scores and fire the ones that are “bad”. According to one of the economists who conducted the study, John Friedman, “the message is to fire people (teachers) sooner rather than later.”

This is the embryonic stage of an education deformation. By reading its DNA, we discover everything education deform is and what it is capable of doing.

Scientists deal in the world of inanimate facts. They can use laboratories to create controlled environments, allowing them to eliminate variables to discover true cause and effect relationships. While real scientists in all fields have their hot button debates, those debates take place within a wider tradition of consensus on fundamental ideas. Economists and Educationists, on the other hand, are social scientists who generally have no such consensus. They are divided into ideological camps.Economists can be Keynesians or Neoliberals, Salt Water or Fresh Water. Education “experts” are whole language or phonics, constructivists or traditionalists. Their research has no lab and instead has to take place in the wild, so to speak. That means they cannot control for variables, which means they have no way of knowing if that tax cut was really the thing that boosted the economy or that teacher was the thing that boosted test scores. They observe human interactions as literally millions of factors act upon those interactions and then choose one of those factors as the sole “cause”. Despite the pretense of using data, their conclusions are generally shaped by the ideology they wish to support. After all, in the grand scheme of things, all ideologies in the social sciences have been “proven” at some point with data.

Let us assume for now that their contention is true, that you can assess a “good” teacher by their students’ test scores and that bad teachers adversely impact the futures of their students. Why, then, is “the message …to fire people sooner rather than later”? There is nothing in their research that proves firing bad teachers sooner rather than later is a benefit. First, with whom do you replace those bad teachers? First year teachers would be unknown quantities since they cannot be judged by student exam scores. Would it be beneficial to use them over bad teachers? Why fire anyone at all? The message of their research could just as easily be to mentor or support bad teachers so they can become good teachers. Or maybe the message is we need to do another study on what makes the “good” teachers so good and teach that to all the bad ones. There are literally hundreds of conclusions that can be drawn from this research. Out of all of those conclusions, it is curious that Friedman would choose to spout this one. Logically speaking, it does not necessarily follow from his research.

And the research does not necessarily follow any logic of its own. According the manuscript (which you can read here), they looked at 2.5 million students in the same state. They looked at their enrollment histories, previous test scores and household wealth. If their exam scores went down at the end of a school year with a given teacher, they can tell that the teacher had a negative effect size. In the words of the study, “the jump in the teacher’s impact at the end of the grade taught by that teacher suggests that the observed impact on test scores is most likely due to a causal effect of the teacher rather than systematic differences in student characteristics, as such characteristics would have to be uncorrelated with past test scores and only affect the current test score.”


I teach U.S. History which has a Regents Exam by the end of the school year. The previous year the students take Global History with other teachers, which also culminates in a Regents Exam. Due to scoring rubrics and content, the Global History exam is way tougher than the U.S. History exam. Students who take U.S. History with me generally get higher grades on that exam than they did on the Global exam. Does this mean I am a better teacher than all the teachers of Global? According to this study, the answer is yes. They assume that every test is an equally objective barometer of student achievement. There is no way for the study to control for the varying difficulties of each exam, whether it is the difficulty of the rubric or vocabulary or content. The Global exam also requires kids to remember concepts over a two-year period (Global History is a two-year course), while U.S. History is only one year. Not to mention, students take Global History in their 9th and 10th grades. Everyone knows that 9th and 10th graders are way different than 11th graders. 9th and 10th graders are less mature, less focused and generally in greater danger of dropping out or falling behind. 11th graders are over the hump of their high school years, many of them focusing on getting into college or starting life in the real world. They are young adults, more mature and, yes, generally smarter than kids in previous grades. The economists who did the study, however, believe humans do not change over time. They have fixed “characteristics” as they say, so any change in exam scores must be the result of the teacher. From the top to bottom, the study is wrought with issues like these that fail to take in every single factor that contributes to any given exam score. This makes the study less scientific and more like guesswork.

For these reasons, the conclusion the report makes about the long-term impacts of teachers on students’ live is even more problematic. They say students with good teachers in the younger years go on to have lower rates of teenage pregnancy and higher rates of college admissions and adult earnings. This type of thinking holds teachers responsible for not only the education, but the lifestyle choices of their students, choices made well after the student is out of that teacher’s classroom. Despite the fact that there is no way to account for all the potential causal factors in teenage pregnancy, college admissions and earnings, the economists conclude that teachers have a sizeable impact on these things. There is no accounting for cultural reasons why teenagers might have kids or go to college. The economists assume that just because the students in the study come from the same socioeconomic background, they have controlled for the cultural factor in life decisions. What about a poor kid from a family that sets college as an expectation from a young age? How about a poor kid born to a teenage mother or who lives in a neighborhood where teenage motherhood is common? How can a teacher have an “effect size” over personal decisions made years later? What is the role of the teachers the student has at the time kids make these decisions, teachers who were not part of the study?

Despite all of the problems with studies like this, it will surely become a weapon for the education deformers. They will cite the findings of these three Ivy League economists who conducted the largest and longest study of effect size to date. The reports conclude that we should fire “bad” teachers. The defomers will use this conclusion to ram all types of teacher evaluations into the system, evaluations that are designed to fire not bad teachers, but older teachers that make too much money. The economists and the deformers speak the same language. Instead of talking about kids in the context of their cultures, communities, families and schools, they want to tie kids to teachers and teachers only. It is the problem with all of the social sciences. They take what is essentially an art, whether it is life choices, business or teaching and try to contort it into a scientific study. They create studies that are later used as justification for major policy decisions. Unlike scientists in the physical sciences, the ultimate goal of many social scientists is to have their research politicized by people in power. Each supposedly objective study is really a contestant in the game show of “pick a policy”. The true worth of a study is measured not in the scientific rigor of its findings, but whether or not it shapes policy later on.

Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine describes the role economists have played in privatization schemes around the world. They have been the vanguard of a Neoliberal movement that seeks to privatize every part of the state. Privatization is the favorite policy of Neoliberals everywhere. Public schools are the latest battleground of the Neoliberal push to privatize. The three economists are taking their study on the road, presenting it to journals in hopes it will become a weapon in the policy debate over public schools. Policy makers will point to this “scientific” study as a justification to get rid of tenure and job security in teaching. The general public will unquestioningly embrace it, as they do every fad study that is reported on in the news. There will be more calls for charter schools that do not have things like teacher tenure. In the words of Nobel Prize-winning economist Joe Stiglitz, economics tends to have its fair share of “free market fundamentalists”, people who believe that there should be no public institutions whatsoever.

The three young economists who conducted this study may or not be free market fundamentalists, but they certainly have given the free market fundamentalists in the public school debate a powerful weapon with which to bludgeon public schooling. They are certainly testing fundamentalists and their research assumes the infallible objectivity of standardized exams. In this regard, they are identical to the education deformers.

These economists from this study are education deform ideologues.

Just like deformers, they assume the infallibility of standardized exams. Their research does not even speak to the differences between exams or consider that the exams themselves can be fallible.

Just like deformers, they use that assumption to help conclude that poverty is not destiny. Instead, they all conclude that the teacher is destiny.

Just like education deformers, they say “bad” teachers need to get fired soon, despite the fact that their own research does not necessarily come to this conclusion.

This is not science, it is dogma. What is worse, they use one dogma to prove other dogmas. We will see this study sold as scientific research. What it is really is just another school reform mantra by people with no connection to public school at all. It is just another arrogant set of education deformers who believe their thick assumptions about schools should apply to the education of everyone else’s children.

Governor Cuomo and New Democrats

Andrew Cuomo set to catch a big wad of Wall Street money.

I met Eliot Spitzer, former governor of New York State, a few weeks ago. Sidling up to him at a cash register in a Wall Street lunch hour joint, I said, “we miss you and we need you back.” He smiled and said, “they always find a way to get you, don’t they?” Spitzer became New York’s Governor after cultivating the image of a granite-jawed Attorney General who prosecuted Wall Street crimes. He was destroyed early in his Governorship after it was found that he frequently sought the services of prostitutes. The “they” to which he was referring was “Wall Street”, that amorphous shadow of financiers who own our politicians. Governor Spitzer was a threat to “them”, so he had to be destroyed. I usually don’t approach famous people but Eliot Spitzer, in my mind, symbolized a whole lot. Spitzer was what could have been. His story was the start of a long free fall of New York State politics that landed squarely in the lap of the horror show we now have for governor, Andrew Cuomo.

Andrew Cuomo ended 2011 one of the most popular governors in the country. His approval ratings are through the roof. Since becoming governor, he has successfully distanced himself from all of the flotsam and jetsam that usually defines New York State politics. He has kept his distance from the hopelessly dysfunctional New York State legislature, always seen as a den of corruption. He has publicly battled with New York City’s increasingly unpopular Mayor, Michael Bloomberg. He has a last name that inspires confidence and nostalgia in New Yorkers. The Cuomo name is refreshing to New Yorkers after years of the bumbling leadership of David Patterson, who only became governor as a result of Spitzer’s disgrace. No doubt Andrew is getting pointers in political maneuvering from his father, who always tested which way the wind was blowing before spitting. More than anything else, Cuomo has benefitted from having the right name at the right time. He promised hope in a hopeless era of New York politics. Cuomo is New York State’s very own Obama.

Just like Obama, Andrew ran for executive office at a point when the sitting executive was none-too-popular. Obama promised hope and change through words. Andrew promised it with his last name. Both men ran as Democrats, leading Democratic voters to think that “change” meant fighting Democratic battles lying dormant for decades. Obama did this through fiery speeches vague on specifics. Andrew did this by reminding New York of his father, who used to fight some of those battles. Yet, both men have proven that their brand of change is more of the same. Rather than turning back the conservative gains of the past few decades, both executives have solidified and extended those gains. Obama’s work in this field is legendary: more undeclared wars, more surveillance and more handouts to corporations (including Obamacare). They have a Democratic face but, at the core, are identical to Republican policies that benefit corporations. It is the New Democratic Party, same as the Old but totally different from the Original.

And now Andrew Cuomo’s State of the State address, to be given this Wednesday, will be a Roman Triumph for the way of the New Democratic Party. In this speech, he will bring refreshing change by reciting a 20-year-old cant accusing schools and teachers of being unaccountable. Of course, he is talking about New York City’s failure to strike a deal with the teachers’ union (UFT) on evaluating teachers. He will appoint a commission (most likely with zero teachers) to come up with a proper evaluation process for teachers. Nothing will stop Andrew from Obama’s Race to the Top money. Here is the New Democratic Party, declaring war on public workers and public schooling in favor of pro-corporate reform. It is just like the Old and the same as the Republicans.

Andrew will also speak about a “foreclosure relief unit” which, according to the Daily News article, “will serve as an advocate to struggling homeowners.” It will “provide counseling and mediation services designed to help resolve mortgage issues and keep people in their homes.” Translation: instead of going after the corrupt foreclosure system that is stacked in favor of the banks to the point where they can intentionally lie and fudge paperwork to foreclose on people, we will make people feel better about being made homeless by pretending to be their advocate throughout the sham process.

Governor Cuomo’s State of the State speech this Wednesday will be a paean to the New Democratic way. He is a fresh governor with great popularity and the right pedigree. There is no doubt that he has designs on the White House. Andrew is striking out on a new road in American politics that he believes will get him to the Presidency, the office that always eluded his father. It is the Obama juke move, one fake left and then a zip to the right. It represents the acceptance of corporate power and the reduction of all workers to peons.

I wonder if Eliot Spitzer was juking as well. Until the day I met him I imagined him as an imposing man with a Bill Cowher chin. But standing next to him I saw that he was much shorter and more frail-looking than he looked on television. He had a five o’clock shadow of grayish hair that obscured the famous jaw, making him look less steely and vigorous. Perhaps this represents the values of the Democratic Party as well. At one time it loomed large and just. Then Wall Street got its hands on it and it became a husk. I still miss Eliot Spitzer and he may have a future in politics yet. If so, it remains to be seen if he learned his lesson that only pro-Wall Street, pro-corporate politicians remain successful.