Sunday, October 11, 2015

My Eight Years of Education Activism

I am not, by training, an historian of education, or a teacher educator. My degree is in American History, and most of my research has been on African American history, labor history and the history of popular culture. I only began writing about education issues when the community history projects I was working on in nearly 20 Bronx schools were pushed out by a testing mania that swept through the Bloomberg Department of Education in 2007/2008, and when the wonderful teachers I worked with became the subject of a campaign of demonization in the media. These teachers, mostly women, many Black and Latino, quite a few of whom grew up in Bronx neighborhoods, found themselves blamed for every ill that beset the public schools of the Bronx, and by implication, growing inequality in the entire society. I was so enraged by these attacks on Bronx teachers, which were coming from politicians of both parties- with Mayor Bloomberg leading the charge- and a startling array of pundits, that i began speaking out in their defense.
Nothing I have seen in the last eight years suggests that I was wrong in speaking out. It is convenient to blame teachers and public schools for inequality in educational performance, and the failure of our society to overcome vast gaps in income and wealth along racial lines. It is also morally wrong- as is any attempt to find scapegoats for complex problems- and profoundly counterproductive. When you ramp up the stress on teachers by making them a convenient target for public attacks while taking away their autonomy and on the job protections, you remove a precious source of inspiration, guidance and comfort for children. And ironically, the children you hurt the most are those growing up in poverty, who need that guidance and inspiration the most.
It is hard to think of a major leader in American public life who has not, in some manner, contributed to the toxic atmosphere in which the nation's teachers work.
So as much as I would like to return to the research I have devoted my life to, I cannot do so, in good conscience, any time soon.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Don't Let Gentrification Be The Main Consequence of the Reclamation of the Bronx's Cultural Legacy

It is great to see the cultural landmarks of the Bronx, such as the street jazz great Maxine Sullivan lived on, be officially recognized by the New York City Council. And great to see the incredible musical legacy of the Bronx honored by programs like the Bronx Music Heritage Center of WHEDCo.
But it will all go to naught if the Bronx becomes a hot tourist site, is discovered by developers, and rents start to skyrocket, so that current residents are forced out and the young people who now live in the neighborhood will not benefit from the inspiring history that is being uncovered and shared.
Given what has happened in Park Slope, Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, Williamsburgh, Harlem and the Lower East Side, and given what is starting to happen in Bushwich, Bedford Stuyvestant and Washington Heights, that scenario is hardly a remote possibility.
The late Morgan Powell warned us what was coming when he sounded the alarm about the market rate housing that was being approved for the West Farms area, and those alarms should go off extra loud given the luxury towers slated to be built across from Harlem near the 3rd Avenue Bridge.
The many people who have worked so hard to gain recognition for the diversity and resilience and cultural creativity of Bronx neighborhoods before during and after the disinvestment cycle hit the borough did not do so to make the Bronx a site of real estate investment and cultural tourism that would leave its working class and immigrant population out in the cold, or displaced into nearby suburbs.
But unless its residents and community leaders and elected officials mobilize NOW to make sure Bronx communities remain affordable and prevent displacement, the worst is sure to come

Turn Maxine Sullivan's House into a Cultural Center Honoring the Bronx's Jazz Traditions

Today, I had the honor of participating in a street naming ceremony to honor the great jazz singer, radio personality, and community leader Maxine Sullivan. Neighbors, elected officials, jazz musicians and educators came from all over to pay tribute to this giant in the world of jazz who opened her home to neighborhood children, became chair of her local school board and in the middle of a time of devastation in her Bronx neighborhood opened a community center - The House That Jazz Built- which became a safe haven for neighborhood youth.
The renaming of Ritter Place in honor of Maxine Sullivan is part of series of initiatives to publicize and reclaim the musical heritage of the Morrisania and Hunts Point communities, who during the 1940's 1950's and 1960's produced more varieties of popular music than any place in the US with the possible exception of Treme in New Orleans.
But there is an irony in this process of cultural reclamation. Now that the once devastated areas of the Bronx have been rebuilt, and the Bronx's great musical heritage is being recognized, not only here, but around the world, there is a danger that developers might come in and push out the very people who created the music and rebuilt the communities that were once endangered.
Today, we all felt that threat when we saw for sale signs outside Maxine Sullivan's beautiful house-818 Ritter Place. And in response, the great jazz pianist and educator Valerie Capers came up with an idea- Why doesn't the Bronx Borough President buy the house and turn it into a cultural center to honor the Bronx's jazz traditions.
I think this is a GREAT idea. And through this post, I am inviting all people who love the Bronx, love its people, and love its culture, to work together to make this happen
If you are with me on this, weigh in here and contact your elected officials- including the Borough President- to help make this a reality!!

Thursday, October 8, 2015

The Harsh Truth About What Is Happening to Teachers, Students and Schools

Teachers all over the country are shell shocked at the speed with which their jobs are being ruined, eliminated or destroyed. Whether it is scripted curriculum, demeaning observations, test based teacher evaluations, or the threat of their schools being closed and replaced with charters, our best veteran teachers are being asked to commit professional malpractice as the price of losing their jobs. Some can't take it and quit. Others put themselves under a doctors care and need medication to get through the day. Others just suffer sleepless nights because they know what they are being asked to do in their classrooms is wrong
Unfortunately, none of this is unintentional. The powers that be in this country have decided that veteran teachers, especially unionized veteran teachers, are too expensive for our schools to afford. Their plan is to plan to replace them, in most of the country's schools, with teacher temps, and fresh out of school teachers, or TFA Corps members who work 12 hour days until they burn out and leave.
And if students suffer, what of it. Since over 70 percent of the new jobs in the country are going to be at or near minimum wage, without security or benefits, we don't need caring inspired instruction in our public schools. All we need is caretakers and disciplinarians who teach students to sit at computers, absorb and regurgitate information, and obey orders. Why? Because that is what they are going to be asked to do in the workplace.
In short, what is happening to teachers is no accident. It fits with our elite's vision of where the society is going, and the niche where most of our young people, especially those growing up in poor and working class families, are destined to inhabit in the workforce of the future.
We need teachers to have grim present to prepare students for a grim future.
Is this scenario too cynical?
You tell me.

Some Historical Ironies Regarding Elite Support for Charter Schools in New York City

One of the main reasons why many parents in low and moderate income communities send their children to charter schools- in spite of the scripting, intimidation, and rigid discipline many feature - is that most of these schools keep children from 7 AM to 7 PM. This is a huge boon to working parents, especially those who work more than one job to make ends meet. Neighborhood public schools who do not have fully funded after school programs cannot compete. Parents in the city's poorer communities need schools to be child care centers as well as centers of instruction. In New York City, charter schools provide this more effectively than public schools. And they are able to do this because they force teachers to work far longer hours than public school teachers for the same pay.
What is ironic about this situation, given the enthusiastic Hedge Fund and Celebrity support for charter schools, is that ALL New York City public schools once provided excellent after school programs for the city's children. From the late 1940's through the Fiscal Crisis of the late 1970's, every New York City public school was open 3-5 and 7-9 for supervised activity. These after school centers and night centers were beacons of hope and activity for New York City children as well as places to escape the gangs and violent streets you had in some neighborhoods. They featured sports programs, arts and crafts, music and talent shows. World famous athletes and musicians, some of them living in the city's poorest neighborhoods, were products of these programs
What happened?. In 1976, when New York City was put into receivership to avoid bankruptcy, with fiscal decisions make by a banker controlled Emergency Financial Control Board, huge cuts were mandated in the city's educatiom budget Within a year, ALL of the great after school centers and night centers in the New York City public schools were shut down, along with the great music programs you had in the city's middle schools and high schools. They were deemed too expensive for the taxpayers of New York to afford. These programs were NEVER restored! New York City public schools only have a fraction of the after schools programs and music programs that they had in the 50's and 60;s and those often have to come from outside grants.
Now, through the medium of charter schools, bankers are restoring SOME of what they took away from the city's children in the 1970's. But they are not doing it for all the city's schools and all the city's children. They are only doing it schools where teachers lack union protection and work 12 hour days, and where
school administrators have the power to summarily fire teachers and remove children who don't test well or conform to rigid discipline.
In short, elites are restoring much needed services to children and families only if they can be done far more cheaply than they were in the past, and if they reinforce the kind of intimidation they are trying to foster in the workplaces they own and control.
As a result, parents in poor communities are caught between a rock and a hard place. If they want to keep their children safe and supervised during 12 hour work days, charter schools may be their most viable choice. Even though the teachers in those schools are browbeaten and intimidated and transfer that intimidation to their children.
If you think this is a sad commentary on the cholces we provide to children of the poor, you would not be the only one.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

How to Deal With the Charter Onslaught- A Short List

1. No charter expansion until all empy seats are filled in existing charter schools
2. Prohibit charters from expelling students without hearings before an impartial board
3. Fully fund pre-school, after school, sports and arts programs in public schools before any additional funds are given to charters.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

The Silver Lining in the Appointment of John King-These Are Perfect Conditions for Revolt!

These are perfect conditions for revolt!
Education Activists! What are you waiting for?

It is hard to applaud John King's appointment as Interim Secretary of Education to replace the much hated Arne Duncan. In New York, he was legendary for openly displaying boredom, even contempt, when teachers, parents and students spoke out at open hearings held around the state on the newly unveiled Common Core Curriculum and the tests aligned to it. Moreover, his experience with public education was almost as limited as Duncan's consisting of three years as a charter school administrator before he moved in the New York State Education Department.
However, there is one positive aspect to this appointment. Because Dr King never had to go through confirmation hearings by Congress to get appointed to his position, and because he left his Commissioner position in New York at a time of unprecedented teacher and parent unrest, his ability to launch any new initiatives is severely compromised. At best, he will continue administering Duncan's policies, but even there his ability to defend existing initiatives, or penalize those resisting them, will be far less powerful than Secretary Duncan would have been able to do.
What does this mean on the ground?
That local and state education officials who disagree with Department of Education mandates, whether on testing of special needs students, use of tests in teacher evaluation, or closing low performing schools rather than helping them, can openly defy them with less chance of retaliation.
University faculty and administrators can do the same with burdensome assessment protocols imposed on their schools.
Duncan had limited credibility, but much power. King has almost no credibility and far less power.
These are perfect conditions for revolt!
Education Activists! What are you waiting for?