Tag Archives: School

A Look at the New Orleans Charter Experiment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No excuses

What Does Reign of Error Mean?

reign-of-error2

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bullying Problem

bully

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Petition to reinstate Francesco Portelos to the classroom.

What IS the Common Core?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did the DOE Just Do Something Right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Might This Mayoral Election Mean?

Is Bill de Blasio a symbol of an age of political transition?

Is Bill de Blasio a symbol of an age of political transition or is he something else?

The post-mortems on the New York City Democratic mayoral primary have been pouring in, despite the fact that the election is not over yet. Democratic voters had choices from Christine Quinn (Bloomberg’s 4th term), Bill de Blasio (a city liberal of the old mold), Bill Thompson (who staked out a third way between Quinn and de Blasio) and Anthony Weiner (who might have had a chance if not for his personal foibles, which are many). A de Blasio victory in these primaries might presage a new era in American politics.

In 1977, a Democrat named Ed Koch won his party’s nomination and then the general election running a campaign promising law and order and fiscal responsibility. Three years later, Ronald Reagan was elected president after running a campaign that touched upon similar themes. The late 1970s up until today has been an era defined by Reagan’s program, a program ratified by Clinton and the New Democrats of the 1990s and continued by Bush and Obama in the new millennium.  Both Koch and Reagan appealed to young voters. Teenagers and 20-somethings of that era had come of age at the moment when America’s great experiment in liberalism, the New Deal, was falling apart. The era of Vietnam, urban riots and dishonest government was ripe soil for a new generation of voters receptive to something different, something that repudiated the programs that gave birth to the rotting world in which they had been raised. In 1977, it was the voters of New York City who were the bellwethers of a changing national mood bent towards conservatism. In 2013, many on the left are hoping the same scenario is playing out conversely here in NYC. (This article is a compelling read of this prospect.)

The general election will, presumably, feature the Democrat Bill de Blasio against Republican Joe Lhota. Lhota will be a tough candidate, especially if Bill Thompson is able to secure a runoff election. A Democratic runoff is already conjuring up memories of 2001, when Bloomberg won his first term as Pharaoh partially due to the internal wars of city Democrats. But runoff or not, Lhota’s strategy against de Blasio will be predictable: paint him as an irresponsible liberal who will return the city to the bad old days of the 1970s and 1980s. The message will certainly resonate with older New Yorkers, not to mention the younger business-minded voters on Wall Street.

But political futures are not made on old voters, a lesson the Republican Party nationwide has been slow to learn. De Blasio has tapped into the same vein of young voters as Obama did in both of his elections. The late teen and early 20-something of today is more likely to be part of a minority group and tolerant on social issues like gay marriage and marijuana than the young voter of 35 years ago. They also have been coming of age in the world of the conservative revolution and that world is just as rotten as the liberal world of the Koch and Reagan ascendancies. Their overall liberal views on issues of class and culture make them less susceptible to the fear of class and culture warfare preyed upon by conservative candidates. In short, the past 10-15 years have been ripe soil for future voters who reject the Reagan Revolution.

Perhaps a Bill de Blasio mayoralty will be a laboratory for a new national political program, a role New York City has played many times in its history. A good way to discern how much of a laboratory the city might be with de Blasio is to look at what he does on education. Many educated people are hoping and predicting that the de Blasio victory means that Democrats at least reject Bloomberg’s corporatization of public schools that has erroneously been dubbed “education reform”. Their hopes have some foundation considering de Blasio’s generally friendly history towards labor in the city, not to mention his out-and-out rejection of most of Bloomberg’s legacy as the “education mayor”. He consistently took the most anti-Bloomberg stance whenever he was asked about education policy, famously saying that “there is no way in hell that Eva Moskowitz should get free rent” when asked about charter school co-locations. Those types of quotes were probably good enough to pry many teachers away from Thompson and give heart to the defenders of public education, me included.

However, promises in the primaries and promises in the general election are two different things. And promises in general compared to action while in office is something else entirely. Education reform has been a sharpening stone on which politicians of both parties, but especially Democrats, have honed their credentials for national office. Cory Booker and Andrew Cuomo have become up-and-comers largely owing to their school reforms, which included taking on unions and injecting the private sector into education. In order for Bill de Blasio to truly set himself apart from the rising New Democrats (who are not so new anymore) in the Clinton/Obama mold, he must keep singing his current tune on education throughout the general elections and then in office. As mayor of New York, de Blasio would be in the national eye. Bold leadership on his part might point the way to a new path in American politics. Will he sacrifice a bold education policy that respects schools as public institutions to bold reforms in other areas on which he might make more headway? If he does this, the new road he paves will make corporate school reform a reality for at least another generation. This is why Democrats can be much more dangerous to the American left than Republicans.

Just as instructive as keeping an eye on de Blasio’s education policy in the coming weeks and months is keeping an eye on how the UFT reacts to him. The union endorsed Bill Thompson early in the campaign season, mostly because he seemed like the only potentially successful alternative to Christine Quinn. This was back when de Blasio was polling in the single digits and Quinn was presumed to be the nominee. As usual, the UFT backed the person who did not win, although all of the money and resources they poured into Thompson’s campaign surely helped in smacking Quinn down to the three spot, where a runoff is out of reach for her. However, they continue to back Thompson even when it is clear that he would not win in a runoff, a runoff that would do nothing but allow Joe Lhota to consolidate his resources for the general election. Perhaps Mulgrew is pressuring Thompson behind the scenes to concede. The sooner the Democrats get behind Bill de Blasio, the better it will be for them come the general election.

If de Blasio does become mayor, will he cap charter schools? There are billions of reformy dollars coursing through this city and they could launch a massive propaganda campaign against education policy that threatens their share of the increasing education “market”. If it really does come down to a case of the reformers vs. de Blasio, I am not at all sure where the UFT would stand on most issues. If the UFT feels that de Blasio might lose in a propaganda war for the hearts and minds of New Yorkers, they might cast their lot with the Rhee crowd just so they avoid the “obstructionist” label that unjustifiably dogs them. In short, the question might come down to: will the teachers’ unions be on the front lines of a new leftist direction in American politics or will they try to temper any such development? This will not be the first time this question is asked in NYC, the 1968 strike especially being a moment when the UFT actively stood against a leftward turn in education policy.

But the teachers I know and read on the internet are hopeful that a de Blasio mayoralty will mean a new contract and a renegotiation of the evaluation system. The real dreamers have hopes for retroactive pay and an opting out of New York City from the state’s inclusion in the Race to the Top program. These are the issues by which teachers will largely judge Bill de Blasio. We hope that he is able to recognize how deep the Bloomberg school reforms go. It is not just about charter schools. It is also about the deskilling of the profession and the autocratic line of command that runs through the system. A complete dismantling of the Bloomberg Way in public schooling in favor of a more democratic approach would certainly be a major blow to the nationwide school deform movement.

We cannot be sure if the left here and around the world is resurging or if this is just a tempest in a teapot. We can only be hopeful. In that hope, we have to be mindful that we are living in exciting times where things are shifting and do what we can in our own lives to help shift it in the right direction.

A GENERAL STRATEGY?

Perhaps this might help with surviving the school apocalypse.

Perhaps this might help with surviving the school apocalypse.

Two of the keys to victory in this amorphous war over public education are being religiously practiced by the progressive Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University.

The first key to victory lies in their website. Every paragraph is festooned with reformy language. Their aims seem to be indistinguishable from those of Students First or any other privatizer-friendly “research council”. By speaking in glittering generalities in order to hide their agendas, the reformy crowd has thrown out the rope by which they will eventually hang.

Everyone is for “improved outcomes” and “bridging the achievement gap”. The incessant need for reformers to assure us of their genuine desire to accomplish these things have made these terms tropes with no real meaning. Any group, organization or movement can slip snugly under the covers of this rhetoric to hide their own respective agendas.

The public has become so accustomed to these terms that no organization who hopes to truly affect education policy can afford to not use them. “Closing the achievement gap”, for example, is an idea that a deft rhetorician can use to mean equalizing resources among all schools around the country, just like the reformers usually use it to mean boosting test scores.

In the end, all it really takes is for us to repeat and aver the purity of our intentions  using these terms as frequently as the reformy crowd.

Of course, this rhetorical approach should be coupled by truly progressive action. Annenberg recently kicked off an initiative called A+ NYC aimed at lobbying the mayoral candidates in the name of what parents want for public schools. They recently sent a battered school bus around the city to reach parents who wanted to share their voices.

Not surprisingly, the biggest concerns turned out to be the disappearance of extracurricular activities and over-reliance on testing. This is a far cry from the manufactured clamoring of parents for more charter schools. It goes a long way towards explaining why Eva Moskowitz and her ilk have to get signatures of out-of-district parents to petition for charter schools.

What really needs to be done, and what Annenberg seems on the verge of suggesting, is the creation of the idea of parents as voting blocs. Parents are used to having their names invoked whenever one group or another wants to push some sort of privatization or censorship. Yet, they have never truly been framed as a voting bloc.

A voting bloc needs to be united behind at least one common idea. For parents, “great schools” are not enough, since that is a trope and not an idea. This is where the reformers fail and from whence the next great school movement has to start. Parents as a voting bloc must be connected to the idea of a “better school day”. An idea like this, on which the Chicago teachers put their fingers during their strike, is general enough to unite a wide swath of parents while having enough specific connotations to mean something.

And these specific connotations would be decidedly at odds with the reformy agenda. Instead of equalizing “outcomes”, the focus needs to shift towards equalizing resources. What will be important is what we as a society put into the schools, not what we can get out of the schools in terms of trained labor, higher test scores and no-bid contracts.

Who would be able to argue against an idea that wants great schools for all children?

Discarding the vapid terminology utilized by the reformies is a mistake. Instead, true public school advocates have to flay the reformer beast and walk around wearing its skin.

THE GOLDEN RULE

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THIS IS THE THIRD POST FROM GUEST BLOGGER, MS. ORTIZ.

Growing up, I was taught by those who raised me that we should treat each other with respect. The Golden Rule, treat others the way you would want to be treated, always came up in these conversations. I try to live by this rule as much as I can, although I fall short from time to time like everyone else. So many adults drummed the Golden Rule into my head as a child that I just assumed it was universally followed. It was, after all, a Golden Rule.

Now that I am sitting in different classrooms, learning how teachers  interact with their students, I have noticed that the Golden Rule is not being followed by everyone. You probably think that I am referring to the students and you are partially right. I have seen students be disrespectful to their teachers countless times, both when I was a high-school student and now that I am observing classes. In high school I assumed that students deserved their punishment when the teacher deemed them “disrespectful”. My upbringing taught me to respect both the Golden Rule and authority. However, I now see that this outlook was based on certain assumptions, assumptions that failed to consider the antecedents of certain disrespectful student behaviors.

My classroom observations have been teaching me that some teachers are not following the Golden Rule, even though they insist their students follow it. If a teacher demands respect, they should also show some level of respect in return. Even though students know of the Golden Rule when it comes to their teachers, it gets difficult for them follow if some of those teachers do not model that behavior. There have been instances when I lost respect for a teacher because they showed little consideration toward their students when addressing them. I was conditioned to just let it slide because, if I got into an argument, I felt there was no way for me to win. However, not all students will let an insult pass by without them having a say about it. This usually ends in an argument with the teacher. If a teacher says that students have to respect them and the rest of the class, but then the teacher calls them names, makes them feel stupid or perhaps insults them out of frustration, how can a teacher expect respect in return?

Students are human beings with feelings, even though they may not always understand those feelings. If they feel as if they have been debased, they usually answer back in kind. This is by no means a justification for poor student behavior, just a call for some empathy. How would you react if you were told that what you did was dumb, even though you were not taught how to do it? How would you react if you were constantly put down instead of being encouraged to constantly to do your best? How would you react if your culture was insulted in any way, shape or form, intentionally or not? If it was one adult saying these kinds of things to another adult, there would be an argument between them. Even though teachers are supposed to have authority, some students will not allow a teacher to insult them, especially in front of the entire class. They will speak up and possibly insult the teacher in return. One also has to take into account the fact that students usually close ranks when a teacher insults one of them, especially if the insult has to do with one’s culture and/or values. This diminishes the teacher’s authority and makes it difficult to maintain control of the class.

Yes, unfortunately I have seen such situations in the time I have been observing classrooms. In an era when NYC teachers have virtually no recourse in disciplining unruly students, the only authority at their disposal is moral authority. It is tough to see how a teacher can make it to June without it.

Even though I have seen teachers who say things to insult students, this certainly is not the norm. The majority of the teachers I have had, and the majority of the teachers I have known throughout my life, generally followed the Golden Rule even when their students did not. Furthermore, I believe the times I have seen teachers lose control of themselves was when they were frustrated, a point all human beings reach from time to time. Perhaps the teacher felt that saying something shocking or especially mean was the only way to get their students’ attention.

A teacher should not let their frustrations drive their actions because it may end up alienating their students completely, reducing the influence they exercise in the classroom. This has the potential to create a vicious cycle of frustration and alienation, each feeding off the other and making it progressively harder for the teacher to have effective classroom management. From my perspective, it is easy for me to talk about the Golden Rule because I have yet to be charged with controlling a classroom. In a way, I am grateful for the opportunity to witness these candid classroom moments. They have taught me much about the dynamics of student behavior. There is value in learning what to avoid when I start my own career.

One thing this has taught me is that the classroom is a reflection of the teacher. It is ironic to learn all of these theories in college that take the view that the teacher who teaches best teaches least. Since classrooms take on the personality of their teachers, does this mean that the teacher who teaches least has students who learn the least? Is this not also a manifestation of the Golden Rule?

For now, it seems as if the Golden Rule is the only pedagogical theory that holds water.

CAREER DAY 2013: WHY TEACH?

The next generation of teachers must be warrior who defend the pass at Thermopylae.

The next generation of teachers must be warriors who defend the pass at Thermopylae.

Today was career day at my school. There used to be a time when I delivered a spiel to my students about the teaching profession. This year, however, I thought it best to keep my mouth closed lest my foot find its way in. If I were to give a spiel, it would probably go something like this:

“Good morning. As many of you might know, I am a high school history teacher. How many of you have ever considered being a teacher? That is what I thought.

There was a time when becoming a history teacher seemed like a good idea. My mother raised me by herself. She was a firm believer in the notion of education as the great equalizer. Everything she did was for the sake of getting me an education. This was certainly the most fundamental factor steering me towards a career in teaching, although I did not know it at the time.

For someone from my background, teaching was a step up. It was a way to move from the poor class to the middle class. When I got my first teaching job, I felt I had achieved a dream. It is strange for me to see these kids from middle-class and privileged backgrounds today who treat teaching as some sort of temporary charity work. I had always seen it as a career, a vocation and something to be cherished.

But money was the furthest thing from my mind. I grew up with exclusively black and Hispanic friends. Like many urban children coming of age in the early 1990s, I embraced the hip-hop culture. Groups like Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions were our heroes. We looked up to them not because they were “gangsta” but because they were conscious. They spoke about history and gave us a sense that knowing the past was important. I was always drawn to the respect that groups like them received for their intelligence.

As a junior in Brooklyn Technical High School, I learned about other forms of respect as well. One day, me and my three best friends went to a Wendy’s in downtown Brooklyn to take advantage of some bargain hamburgers. As we were feasting, a group of at least 10 street toughs surrounded us brandishing box cutters. For whatever reason, they took a bad shine to our crew and let it be known that we were toast as soon as we stood up to leave. Suddenly, one of them recognized one of my friends. They smiled and gave each other a pound (a dap or handshake, if you will), at which point the menacing crew exited the establishment. It turns out that my friend’s father was the kid’s math teacher, a man who was respected by some real tough hombres.

This type of respect impressed me. A man did not have to be violent or aggressive to be respected. Respect can be earned from being a part of the community.

Boys like myself who grew up without fathers usually have to scrape the meaning of manhood together from bits and pieces they pick up from the outside: the media, the streets and our friends. I suppose my image of manhood consisted of conscious rappers and upstanding members of the community. While I was fortunate enough to internalize the right lessons, I realized that youth like the ones who almost hurt us that day might be internalizing the wrong ones.

Being a history teacher, therefore, would be the culmination of everything I knew about manhood. If I could gain the respect of my students, perhaps I could use history as a way to help the next generation unlock the meaning of the world around them. Perhaps I could help set some wayward youth on the right path. Perhaps, above all, I could be a role model myself. I could be Chuck D, KRS-1 and my friend’s father all rolled up into one.

These were the things going through my mind when I decided to be a teacher.

As I started my career, I began to become obsessed with history. Not only did I appreciate it for its own sake, I appreciated it for how I could make it relevant to the lives of my students. Public Enemy was constrained by verses, beats and rhyme schemes. I, on other hand, could let the history fly freely through lesson planning. Not even the silly Regents Exam could hold me back from being the best history teacher in the city.

Teaching started out as a personal mission for me. Thirteen years later, I can safely say that it remains so. I still wake up in the morning excited to share the secrets of the past with my students. Every day is different. Every day has its own dynamic. Every day is another brushstroke helping paint a picture of the world for my students that they will never encounter anywhere else. You might understand why, at this point, I do not use the textbook.

Everything used in my class comes out of my own brain. All of the lessons, notes, handouts, questions, exams and projects are my creations. The job does not end when I leave the building. Once I go home, I might relax for a half hour before I start grading homework assignments. The weekend is nothing more than an opportunity for me to write the next unit, the next homework sheet and the next batch of lessons for one of my preps. If I am lucky I might have the time to read a book, always history or philosophy or a literary novel. All of the girlfriends I have had, the ones who were not teachers anyway, questioned why I was working so much when off the clock. I am 34 years old and have never been married. I am married to my work.

In those moments when I am not planning or grading or reading I am on the internet reading and writing. Part of being a teacher, the part of my career that developed too late, is keeping abreast of what is happening in the world of public schooling. If we do not like what is happening, and we never do, it is our duty to speak against it.

There is too much not to like. Teachers are under attack everywhere. There are people who believe we get paid too much, work too little and are not being held “accountable”. They say schools are “failing” and we are to blame for it. Can you imagine that? Their solutions to these so-called “problems” are the scary part: closing public schools, more testing and no job security.

None of this would be too bad if these people who wish to reform the school system actually believed the stuff they say. Unfortunately, their cures for what ails the system are merely fronts for another agenda. In the end, these people do not want you to get an education at all. They are corporate types that would much rather go back to the days when children worked.  Barring that, they want to turn education into a series of barks and bubbles. They want to train you, train all of us, to bark on command. They want you to spend every waking hour training to fill in bubbles, the “correct” bubbles as determined by them, your corporate masters.

Is it not obvious at this point? Good barkers and bubblers are good workers and consumers. If left up to them, none of us would have the capacity to think. They wish to disarm our intellect. A thoroughly vegetated population is a population easily controlled.

The stakes have certainly risen since the days when I thought that my only job was to be a role model. You want to teach? Be prepared to wake up early, sleep late, get paid less, do more, have control over nothing and be blamed for everything. Don’t get me wrong, we need teachers but we need teachers who are warriors. It is not enough any longer to love a subject or an age group, carve out a nice little career for yourself and then retire secure in the thought that you made a difference. There will be none of that any longer. Everything you do, whether you are at school, at home or in the grocery store, must revolve around the preservation of this institution we call “education”.

If, after hearing all of this, you still want to be a teacher, then you might be what we need. If not just remember that, one day, you will have children of your own who need a school in which to learn.

THE ANATOMY OF A CHARTER TAKEOVER

Eva is at it again. This time she is hell bent on invading my community. NIMBY!

Eva is at it again. This time she is hell bent on invading my community. NIMBY!

The neighborhood in which I live is called Astoria in the borough of Queens, New York City. It is culturally diverse with predominately middle and working class families. There is a heavy Greek accent to the neighborhood, even though the Greek influence has certainly waned over the years. It is one of the few neighborhoods left that is both reasonably priced and near Manhattan.

In short, our neighborhood has been getting along just fine. The public schools, generally speaking, have also been getting along just fine. Our largest high school, Long Island City, has a beautifully modern facility built by the same people who did the new Stuyvesant High School campus. The DOE has done everything in its power to destroy LIC, since such a wonderful building is prime real estate for charter school operators.

While LIC teeters on the brink, the DOE is going out of its way to set the other schools in the community on the road to ruin. Take the example of P.S. 122. It is a Kindergarten through 8th grade school that has served the Astoria community for the past three decades. The middle school portion has one of the best gifted and talented programs in the city, known as the Academy for the Intellectually Gifted. Using the DOE’s favored standard of judging schools (test scores) the Academy has been flourishing since its inception.

So, in the world of the DOE, it makes sense to get rid of it.

The DOE wants to reduce the Academy’s share of the middle school from 11 to 3 classes. They then wish to increase overall enrollment, which would turn the Academy into a miniscule  rump of a program. 122’s facilities will be taxed to the limit. Some students would have to be scheduled for lunch as early as 9:30 am. If the DOE does not provide the extra resources necessary to deal with the increased student population (and there is no reason to believe they will), enrichment programs like art, dance and health will be the first to suffer. In short, the DOE is on a mission to destroy 122.

However, the destruction of 122 is not the endgame. These new students will be siphoned off from the other public schools in the area. While 122’s facilities will be pushed to the limit, the other schools will be underutilized.

Underutilized…. Why would the DOE want to create a situation where certain schools will be underutilized?

Word around the campfire is that Eva Moskowitz, head of the Success Academy chain of charter schools, has put in an application to co-locate a couple of schools in the district. Her minions have been seen handing out their glossy fliers to passersby. It is not going out on a limb to say that the DOE is clearing out space for Eva’s Success Academy.

The upshot of this is that the students of 122, who come from working class families, will have their best ticket to a great educational future choked off. Eva can then swoop in and act as their savior by promising “better” schools. However, all that she will provide are inexperienced teachers who are trained exclusively in test prep. Meanwhile, she can line her pockets some more on the backs of working class children.

The PTA of P.S. 122 is having an open meeting tomorrow. They will figure out a plan to fight back against Eva and her merry band of privatizers. I will be there as well representing MORE.

It will be 6:3o pm at 21-21 Ditmars Boulevard. If you are in the neighborhood, or can get to the neighborhood, come on out and be on the front lines against the destruction of public education.