Friday, August 28, 2015

R.I.P. Avis Hansen "Teacher for Life"

One of the greatest teachers I have ever met passed yesterday evening. Her name was Avis Hansen and for more than 30 years, she was a teacher, English chair and advisor to the student newspaper at two Bronx high schools, Morris and Taft. . Among the many great students she mentored was Dr Clara Rodriguez, Professor of Sociology at Fordham University and an internationally known pioneer in Latino Studies. Avis Hansen's interview with the Bronx African American History Project, one of the most eloquent we ever conducted, will be in the book of the BAAHP's oral histories Fordham Press will be publishing. In it, she described how her West Indian family, looking for better educational opportunities for their children,found their way to a predominantly Jewish section of the Bronx during the Depression years when landlords began advertising vacant apartments to "select colored families." The neighborhood her family moved to, Morrisania, not only became her home for more than 20 years, it was the site of the high school where she got her first teaching position, Morris High School, which was a short walk from where she lived. As someone who knew poverty as a child, who knew discrimination, Avis Hansen welcomed students of all backgrounds who entered her classroom at Morris, provided they showed the same passion for learning that she did. She burned with a fire for knowledge and a passion for justice that lit up the lives of those fortunate to know her. Never married, Avis Hansen survived into her early 90's, still in touch with her favorite students and those she mentored.
RIP Avis Hansen. You embodied what it means to be "a teacher for life.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

What a REAL Education Commissioner in NY would fight for

1. Restore the local diploma for high schools graduation for students for whom Regents exams are developmentally inappropriate. Let all young people who work hard and pass their courses get a high school diploma
2. Cut the length of exams in elementary school to 2 days with no more than 90 minutes of testing each day.
3. Eliminate the use of standardized testing to rate teachers, principals, schools and school districts. Use such tests for diagnostic purposes only to help individual students.
4. Enforce complete test transparency and end punitive test secrecy
5. Radically expand the number of consortium or portfolio schools in the state that are exempt from state tests and develop holistic strategies for assessing student performance
6.. Bring back vocational and technical education through out the state in collaboration with community colleges and local employers.
7. End the requirement that all tests in the state be aligned to the Common Core standards and end all contracts with for profit test companies. Go back to the system of having teachers and teacher educators devise state tests.
8. Prohibit cancellation of recess or physical education for test prep and work to promote play and physical activity among students

"Opt Out- Stop the Abuse" Message from an Educator in Upstate New York

The New York State Education Department released the student test data to the school districts on Friday, August 21, 2015.  I have spent two entire days entering student test data into the computer.  That is, I entered a 1, 2, 3,or 4 for specific students.  In many cases, only one student took the test.  What this means is that one student will determine a teacher’s growth score.  One student will be the deciding factor if a teacher is rated: developing, effective, highly effective, or ineffective.  One student.  Is this statistically sound?    Most would call this inhumane or even insane.  Is this ethical?

A teacher who may be a single working mom supporting her family stands to lose her income if deemed ineffective two years in a row.  We are fortunate to have some local assessments in place that may save her job----maybe.  It’s hard to plan for a family’s future when your job and entire livelihood lies in the balance.  This is an unnecessary amount of pressure.  Most would call this inhumane or even insane. Is this ethical?

So, what most people do not know is that these state tests DO NOT truly measure a student’s reading skills or math skills.  These tests Do Not measure a teacher’s effectiveness.  The tests have been purposely designed to reduce the public school teaching staff exponentially.  Most would call this inhumane or even insane.  Is this ethical?

I pride myself in knowing the students in my school.  I know their families.  I know their day-to-day performance in the classroom.  In many cases, I have known these children since Kindergarten.  I know their joys and their sorrows.  I know the teachers in my building.  I know their joys, their struggles, and their hardships.   I cannot help but think about all of this as I proceed with the mind-numbing task of entering a 1, 2, 3, or 4 into the computer system.  A numbers game with human beings, that I am being manipulated to participate in, coerced if you will.   This I know is wrong with ever fiber of my being, my heart and my soul.  I saw 2’s for students who should have gotten a 4.  They would have gotten a 4 if the test was written on their grade level, and if there were no trick questions with extremely close choices for answers.  I saw 2’s for students who read above their grade level.  That tells me that they are not test takers and/or the answers were so close that they may have picked the wrong one, or they may simply have run out of time due to the length of the reading passages.  I cannot analyze this, because, I do not have the test questions  nor do I have the answer sheets.  I cannot have a conference with parents and show them where their child needs assistance.  Most would call this inhumane or even insane.  Is this ethical?

How can I trust the validity of any of this?  How can I trust what the new Commissioner of Education dictates?   She is new to her position.  She has not yet earned the trust of New Yorkers.  I understand she has concerns about ethics. 

I think about the student who vomited on her test.  We followed protocol, and put her test in a zip lock bag.  She was escorted to the Nurse’s office, and needless to say, she did not finish her test.  I don’t have a test score to enter for her. These tests put several stakeholders under undue pressure.  Is this ethical?

I wake at 2:00 am and see the computer screen right before my eyes.  I can see all of the data, but what I really see before my eyes is unethical practices of the New York State Education Department. 

I consider the Commissioner’s comments that I am an extension, or an arm , if you will of the New York State Education Department.  I view all of these manipulations, and lies as abuses of power.  There, I said it.  Abuse.   Abuse of children.     Abuse of teachers.   Abuse of parents’ rights.  Malfeasance.   If I continue to blindly obey, and remain silent, am I an accessory to the abuse? 

I think about Maya Angelou’s quote:  “ I did then what I knew how to do.  Now I know better, I do better. “

In my humble opinion I feel, that we the people/ parents have the right to do better.

Opt Out.
Stop the abuse. 
It’s the principle of the thing. 
My moral compass tells me that the State Education Department and the new Commissioner are attempting to rule with an iron fist.  Personally, I feel that I have a responsibility to the taxpayers who pay my salary and to the children that are entrusted to my care.  Each and every child deserves to be treated with kindness, and handled with velvet gloves.

Truth to Power.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Six Good Reasons for Parents in NY State to Support the Opt Out Movement

1.Testing in the state has reached abusive proportions. Third graders in NY take six days of tests that are more time consuming than the LSAT's, the MCAT's, and the SAT's There are too many tests which take too much time
2. The mathematical forumulas used to rate teachers on the basis of the tests are wildly innacurate. Some of the best teachers in the state. at some of the highest performing schools have been given unfavorable ratings, prompting lawsuits which are likely to increase in frequency.
3. The tests have been so poorly designed that the state was forced to cancel the contract with the major test vendor- Pearson- replacing it with another company whose track record is barely better.
4. The use of testing to designate schools or school districts as "failing" and in imminent danger of closing or a state takeover has led to the transformation of all instruction into test prep in high poverty districts, and the cancellation of recess and school trips to create more study time for students.
5. The stress levels imposed by high stakes testing on students, families and teachers has reached such proportions that many have to seek medical care to deal with the anxiety
6. The inappropriate adminstration of tests to students with special needs, and to ELL students, has led to systematic humiliation of our most vulnerable young people.
Opting Out is the most effective strategy we have to force governments to reduce the level of testing in our schools, and remove the "high stakes" which have filled our schools with anxiety and stress
Please feel free to share these with parents, teachers, principals, superintendents and school board members

Friday, August 14, 2015

How Broken Windows Policing Leaves Large Numbers of People Unemployable

  The other day, one of my friends and tennis partners, a criminal lawyer, gave a chilling account of what a good part of his law practice involves. Many of his clients, he said, are working class people who have been arrested for non violent crimes ranging from shoplifting, to possessing small amounts of drugs, to passing  bad checks,  to getting in bar room brawls, to arguing with police when stopped for DWB or WWB ( Driving or Walking While Black). What he tells these clients is that they are paying him to make sure that they won't have an arrest or conviction record that will show up on background checks. And why is that worth it? Because employers simply won't hire people, even for entry level jobs, if they have criminal convictions on their record.

   I left this conversation extremely upset. Not just because it confirmed what i knew about criminal records disqualifying people for employment-I knew this from unsuccessfully trying to help young men who had recently been released from prison find jobs-but because this disqualification covered even people who were arrested for non violent offenses who would never spend a day in jail, a group whose numbers have been growing astronimically in the last few years because of "Broken Windows Policing."

    In many parts of this country, it is the official policy of police departments to arrest people en masse for  minor non violent offenses. In New York City, the stated logic of this policy is to prevent more serious crimes and to engage in searches which take guns off the street; but in many other communities, such as Ferguson Missourri, a side effect of the policy is to  fine local residents in such proportions that it helps balance strapped city budgets. In any case, it is now official public policy to maximize arrests for non-violent offenses and to promote police officers based on the number of such arrests they make through a computerized system called Comstat.

   Now put two and two together. Basically, we have a system of police governance whose major side effect is to render large numbers of people unemployable!!!

   And who are these people? Are they college students who possess or sell drugs? Or wealthy people who smash their luxury cars? Overwhelmingly, the people arrested for these offenses are poor people and people of color, especially young men of color.

   Is this really just? Is this really fair? Is it in the national interest to conduct public policy in a way that renders a high proportion of young men of color unemployable?

   We need to challenge this on two fronts. First, take a hard look at Broken Windows Policing. And second, look at how backround checks are used to disaqualify people for employment for conviction of non violent offenses.

   if we don't we are heading for an explosion. We may be at that point already

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The Terrible Price of Fearing for Your Child's Safety- A Very Personal Response to "Between the World and Me"

This review essay was originally written for "Jewish Currents"

Let me say at the outset that I cannot be objective in reviewing Ta-Nehisi Coates new book, "Between the World and Me," which is addressed to his 15 year old son, who burst into tears when learning that the Ferguson  Grand Jury refused to indict the police officer who killed Michael Brown.   I have a 11 year old bi-racial granddaughter who is  the light of my life- she is beautiful, smart, athletic  with a great future.   But when Michael Brown was killed, the first thought that came into my mind was “Thank God she is not a boy.”  No grandfather should think such thoughts, but those are the thoughts Black parents have to think every day. Because as Coates reminds us,  Black bodies, for as long as we have been a nation,  have littered the pathways that whites have walked toward their version of  “The American Dream,” and even today, the life of a Black person can be snuffed out if he or she is in the wrong place and the wrong time and those who do the killing will rarely be punished.

  The image of America as a nation whose progress has been built on the exploitation and murder of Black people is not going to win any popularity contests in mainstream political discourse. There are historical works, such as Edward Baptist’s "The Half  Never Been Told," which provide concrete evidence for such an argument, with a tone that is less confrontational, and with a less pessimistic vision of the American future.

   But what Coates does, with unmatched clarity, is to describe how Black parents, and children, and entire communities have been traumatized by the fear that  Black life is cheap and could be sniffed out at the drop of a hat with little recourse from  the law because the law is complicit in its devaluation. And he does so in a way that may be more effective than an historian or a sociologist presenting data because he takes us into the mind of a parent terrified for the life of their child, a perspective any parent can readily identify with

Here is how Coates  describes this fear to his son. There is no distance in his writing. Just imagine what it takes to address your own child this way:

“I am afraid. I feel the fear most acutely when you leave me and in this I was unoriginal. When I was your age, the only people I knew were black, and all of them were powerfully, adamantly, dangerously afraid….

“It was always right in front of me. The fear was there in the extravagant boys of my neighborhood,  in their large rings and medallions, their puffy big coats and full length fur collared leathers, which was their armor against the worlds. . . . I think back on those boys now and all I see is fear and all I see is them girding themselves against the bad old days when the Mississippi mob gathered around their grandfathers so that the branches of the black body might be torched, then cut away. The fear lived on in their practiced bop, their slouching denim, their big T-shirts, the calculated angle of their baseball caps . . . .

“I heard the fear in the first music I ever knew, the music that pumped from boom boxes full of grand boast and bluster.  The boys who stood out on Garrison and Liberty up on Park Heights loved this music because it told them, against all evidence and odds, that they were masters or their own lives, their own streets, their own bodies. . . .

“ And I saw it in my own father, who loves you, who counsels you, who slipped me money to care for you. My father was so very afraid. I felt it in the sting of his black leather belt, which he applied with more anxiety than anger, my father who beat me as if someone might steal me away. Everyone had lost a child, somehow, to the streets, to jail to drugs to guns. . . .And now they were gone and their legacy was a great fear”

     In all of African American memoir literature, and in all memoir literature I know of, there is no comparable passage  to this written to speak to one’s child.  Can you imagine what depths of despair it took for Coates to write this?

      This is a book which sees nothing but continuity between the slave ship, the overseers whip, the slave market auction, late night rapes and seductions, the mass murder of black union soldiers, Black Codes and the Night Riders,  Jim Crow Laws, lynchings and prison farms and  today’s  toxic mix of ghettoization, the drug war, stop and frisk, and police murders of unarmed Black men and women. All of these Coates suggest, so that white people can feel virtuous and secure and able to say the violence was all in the past or that black people’s marginality is their own fault. When in fact their entire society, which they proclaim has been a beacon to the world’s peoples, was based on murder and theft

       Is this world view credible?  Yes, but it is also incomplete, especially when considering economics.. Over the last thirty years, the exportation of jobs, the destruction of unions, and the financialization of the economy, coupled with wage compression and a housing and credit card bubble, have brought unprecedented economic insecurity into the lives of working class and middle class whites.  Coates talks about the American Dream as though it is still intact for most white people, when it is in fact quickly slipping out of their grasp. He erases distinctions between white elites, who are monopolizing the nation’s wealth, a still secure upper middle class, a floundering and shrinking white middle class, and a white working class which is steadily being driven into poverty and insecurity, and is, in some places, intermarrying and/or becoming part of extended families with Black and Latino working class people stuck in the same predicament/ And this is hardly accidental.  Coates, who grew up in inner city Baltimore, attended Howard University, and found his career in a world of insurgent, and counter cultural journalism where the whites he would meet were liberal intellectuals, had little experience living with, or working with working class or blue collar whites, and it is not surprising their angst, rage or confusion about their declining status has little place in this book.

       But though Coates book may erase distinctions between whites, and underestimate the ways class and economics shapes current forms of white privilege, his descriptions of how Black people have internalized the multiple traumas  they have suffered and how they fear for their children at a time when state violence against and police harassment of black people is an ever present danger have an authenticity that cannot be reduced to statistics.

      Coates stories, of the Baltimore community he grew up in, of his family he visited  in the South, of  his friends at Howard,  of the people he lived with in New York’s inner city neighborhoods show a people who are vibrant, resilient, creative and at times brilliantly insightful, yet can never shake off the fear that something terrible could happen to them at any moment. And no one can from outside can say that is not real!  How could you, in the wake of the deaths of Travon Martin, Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and now Sandra Bland?

     And Coates has a story that for him, puts these contemporary deaths in terrifying context, a story that helps carry the narrative of this book through to its conclusion. The subject is a fellow student from Howard, Prince Jones,  who became his close friend even after successfully winning the affections of a young woman Coates was in love with.  Jones was chased down and murdered near his own home  by a Prince George County  narcotic detective even though he was unarmed, and had no criminal record. The police officer who killed Jones was Black, most public officials  in the country were Black, and  yet no criminal charges were filed in Jones death. If Jones, a popular talented student at a Black college could die this way, Coates concluded, what Black person would really feel secure. It would be no exaggeration to say Jones death left Coates with something approaching PTSD, whose symptoms recurred with a vengeance in the wake of the police murders that have taken place during the last two years

  Significantly, the book ends with a meeting Coates had with Prince Jones mother, a well respected physician who grew up in a black working class family in  Louisiana.  She is calm, dignified, yet permanently scarred by what would have to be called the worst tragedy that could ever befall a parent, the premature death of a child, made all the more horrible that is was done by agents of a government that is supposed to represent her, and protect her and her loved ones.

This is how Coates interprets the outcome:

“And she could not lean on her country for help.  When it came to her son, Dr Jones country did what it dies best- it forgot him. The forgetting is habit, is yet another necessary component of the Dream.  They have forgotten the scale of the theft that enriched them in slavery; the terror that allowed them, for a century, to pilfer the vote; the segregationist policy that gave them their suburbs. They have forgotten, because to remember would tumble them out of the beautiful Dream and force them to live down here with us, here in this world.”

    At a time when the Dream is seeming out of reach to more and more Americans, of all races, the experiences Coates describes must be confronted in all their complexity and tragic power. The pain of Black parents and Black families feeling their children are unnecessarily and unjustly at risk must be heard loudly and clearly. It must never be pushed aside because some think it inconvenient.  Until we address it, we can never say we are making real social progress.
Coates book  makes sure we will never forget that perspective. For that we should all be extremely grateful

    I want to end with something that took place in one of my classes at Fordham during the fall of 2014. We had just heard the news that the Grand Jury in Ferguson had declined to indict the police officer who killed Mike Brown and the class wanted to talk about it. One of my students, a beautiful, brilliant white student from Sheepshead Bay Brooklyn who taught hip hop dance in local schools raised her hand. I called on her and this is what she said. “When I heard what the Grand Jury decided, I couldn’t sleep, so I called my Black friend. I told her, “I am so angry about the verdict I can’t sleep.” She interrupted me and said “ You have the luxury of being angry.  You’re white. We are terrified.” People in the class started crying, They got it.

 Ti-Nahisi Coates book has that same power. It should  make us cry, and want to so something about the policies, and institutional patterns, that make Black parents, and Black families feel so very vulnerable, and so very alone.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Some Tough Questions for Teach for America and the Charters

The dominant woldview of Teach for America, along with the most popular charter school chains - Success Academices, K.I.P.P., Uncommon Schools etc- implies that low income communities are "toxic" and that for young people in them to succeed, they must be insulated from all surrounding cultural influences and choose as role models and institutions to aspire to people and places far away from where they live. That is why such programs actually prefer teachers who have no connection with the communities they live im, teach for a short time, and concentrate on drilling students for tests whose symbols and cultural references have no connection to the neighborhoods students actually live in. It is also why these programs and schools promote draconian behavior codes which lead to the massive expulsion of rebellious or non-conforming students and families.
To challenge these programs and institutions effectively, we must challenge their worldview as well as their pedagogy and educational philosophy
Here are a couple of questions that might guide this
First, are low income families any more "toxic" in terms of values and impact than the hedge fund managers and real estate developers who fund charters and TFA who have monopolized obscene portions of the nation's wealth while promoting policies that lower wages, cut government budgets and promote gentrification of neighborhoods
Second, does regarding local communities as "the enemy" prevent you from incorporating valuable cultural resources into the school culture, ranging from music, to historical knowledge, to traditions of heroism and resiliance, that might make school communities more joyous and nurturing and inspiring places
Third, does the massive expulsion of non conforming students and families, along with the preference for short term teachers from outside, rather than teachers for life from the communities schools are located in, divide neighborhoods vulnerable to real estate speculation and displacement and prevent them from uniting to defend their children from abusive police practices, the drug war, and other policies which marginalize and stigmatize young people of color
We owe it to our children, all children, to ask these tough questions