Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The Scars of Poverty


My grandparents on my mothers side came over in steerage from Russia when they were twelve years old. They married at the age of 15 and 17 respectively.and never lived in anything but walk up tenements until they reached the age of 60. Their children slept four of five in a bed and they took in borders to help pay the rent. They often did without toilet paper and rarely went to the doctor. My grandmother had six children three of whom lived and had several abortions on the kitchen table. My grandfather, when he worked, was a presser in the garment trades; making extra income as a bartender and bootegger. He was a strong arm man for his union who fought gangsters from Murder
Incorporated in the streets of the Garment district. He never learned to read English and read Yiddish imperfectly. When I was child, he regaled me with stories of killing rats with a broom when they were corrnered and leaped up at him in rage. He was dark enough to pass for "colored" but somehow got defined as "white" when Jews managed to became semi-acceptable Americans after World War 2
My mother was permantly scarred by the experience of growing up amidst this kind of poverty and violence. Educated, brilliant, an incredible teacher, she felt catastrophe lurked around the corner and tried to transmit that fear to me, a child brought up in much more promising conditions.
I say all this to remind us that while my family ultimately benefited from the journey that took them to whiteness and middle class status, they were haunted by what it took to get them there and NEVER secure in where they were. And in that respect, I suspect they were not alone. The scars of poverty. like the scars of racism, NEVER go away. And are sometimes passed from generation to generation.

Do Whites Lose Or Gain When They Fight Racism?


One of the big problems I have with "white privilege" discourse is that it suggests whites will be losing something when they fight racism. This is the EXACT OPPOSITE of the approach radicals took during the Great Depression. When demanding that whites challenge white chauvinism and white supremacy, they argued that racism was a weapon that the ruling class used to divide the working class and that white workers hurt themselves by drawing the color line on the job, in their communities and in their political decisions. As an example they pointed to the fact that the Jim Crow laws and lynchings ended up destroying the living standards of working class whites by breaking unions, removing them from the polls, and leading to the election of elites who underfunded schools and refused to pass child labor laws. THAT was a perspective that worked- leading to the formation of interracial unions in industries that had previously been unorganized and leading to much greater white support for campaigns against lynching and an end to the color line in many American work places. That approach also led to many whites to interrogate their own racism and their relationship to Black culture. And it led to real material change. The time of the fastest economic progress for Blacks in the US, both absolutely and relative to whites was between 1940 and 1950, when per capital income of blacks rose from 44% tp 57% of the white total when white per capita income was rising quickly.
Fast forwarding to today, I realize that times are different and people have the right to invent new language to deal with the persistence of racial hierarchy. But an approach which sees dignity, respect and fair treatment as a privilege rather than a right has some downsides that need to be addressed.I am not saying that white privilege discourse should be relinquished, but that its use should be more limited than it is now. Perhaps an approach which emphasizes the material and moral interest whites have in fighting racism might be considered as an alternative path.

Monday, August 22, 2016

What a Job Interview Will Sound Like After Competency Based Education is Institutionalized

Summary of a Job Interview held in 2030- when Competency Based Education has been fully implemented for more than 10 years:
Employer: Hello Miss Jones. I have up here on my computer screen your personal workforce badge, and notice that you only got a 2 on your 3rd Grade ELA test. Can you explain that?
Miss Jones: I am 23 years old. How can I remember what I was doing in 3rd grade?.
Employer: Everything about you is up on this screen, even an assessment of your performance in recess when you were in Pre-K.
We expect full accountability from our employees retroactively as well as going forward.
Miss Jones: Now let me get this straight. What you are telling me is that from the time I was 4 years old, every single thing I did inside school and out has been recorded and preserved in a national data base which any employer can access
Employer: Yes. That is the world we live in. Making every child accountable is the only way we can meet the demands of Global Competition and keep our businesses and society up to the challenge.
Miss Jones: I loved to play as a child. I loved to dream. And now you are telling me that those traits make me unemployable
Employer: Yes. I am sorry to say that you are in fact unemployable.
Have a nice day.

Friday, August 19, 2016

School Reform in the US and Italy: A Critical Analysis


It is very disturbing to learn that the same attack on teachers, public schools, and public education that has taken place in the US in the last 20 years is also taking place in Italy. In the US, this attack has been bi-partisan, endorsed by Democrats as much as Republicans, and implemented as aggressively by Barack Obama as it was by George W. Bush. It has been enthusiastically promoted by foundations and non profit organizations financed by some of the wealthiest people in the country such as Bill Gates, Eli Broad, the Walton Family, Michael Bloomberg, along with new billionaires in the hedge fund sector. Initially, teachers and advocates for public education were caught by surprise by the sheer force of this attack. In the last 8 years, they have started to fight back, with resistance taking the form of the Save Our Schools Coalition, the Badass Teachers Association, United Opt Out and Network for Public Education, along with a wide array of local resistance groups. But the amount of money and political muscle the self styled “School Reformers” have at their disposal makes resistance difficult, especially since the Reformers have co-opted the language of Social Justice and Civil Rights to argue for policies which increase testing and reduce teacher power and autonomy. They have argued that it is “bad” or selfish teachers who are responsible for the persistence of racial and economic inequality in school performance, if not in the whole society.
Why has this top down, data driven approach to education policy, which devalues teachers and teaching gained so much currency? One part of it is sheer economic interest. The education market in the US is enormous, with total expenditures exceeding 600 billion dollars. Capturing this market for private investment is an irresistible temptation for economic elites who have seen opportunities in the housing market dry up with the onset of the global financial crisis. Opportunities to invest in testing, software, educational consulting firms, new charter schools that arise when public schools are closed, destabilized, or subject to centrally imposed testing and evaluation norms, are well nigh irresistible to tech firms and hedge funds who saw their profits drop when the market crashed. And given the high concentration of wealth at the top in the US, and end to restrictions of political contributions by very wealthy people, these groups have used their wealth to gain political influence at the local and national level by contributing to candidates who endorse School Reform Policies. There are cases when people have spend billions of dollars in local elections to get the candidates they want, not only in mayoral positions and in legislatures, but on local school boards. No doubt about it, Big Money and Profit, both in the short run and the long run, are the driving forces behind current education policies.
The long run considerations involve shaping the labor force of the future in the interests of Big Capital. Those shaping the economy of the future want to have a pliable, individualized low wage labor force that does most of its work in front of a computer, a labor force that is atomized, disorganized and unable to form or sustain unions or other means of self-organization and protection. One of the obstacles to their strategy of labor force socialization is education that builds relationships, not only between students and teachers, but between students and other students and thereby promotes collective action. Another problem is pedagogy which promotes critical or independent thinking. Getting rid of educational strategies which impart confidence and group spirit among students is essential to having a smooth adaptation from school to workplace, or for those who are recalcitrant, school to prison. The best way to do this is to minutely script teaching so that classes have no spontaneity, little group activity, no in depth reading or careful historical study, and little in the way of arts. To do that, dedicated veteran teachers, especially those that are members of unions, must be replaced by disposable teacher temps provided by groups like Teach for America.
Why do elected officials support a strategy which atomizes students and fill schools with stress? For them, the
Incentive is cutting costs. Getting rid of veteran teachers saves huge amounts of money, not only on direct expenditures but pensions. So budget and tax conscious representatives, whose political campaigns are funded by wealthy Reform advocates, think these cost cutting policies will help their political careers.
The combination of forces I have identified is very difficult to fight on the political level because most elected officials are bought off. It takes a long time, and lots of money and effort to elect pro public education officials to positions as Mayors, governors, and heads of local councils. It is happening, but very slowly. We are new to this and the Reformers have been doing it for 20 years
The only effective tactic in resisting implementation of reforms is the “Opt Out Movement”- organizing parents and students to refuse to take tests which have placed students under intolerable stress, made them hate school, and squeezed out activities that students love such as art, music, sports, school trips and special projects involving scientific or historical research. This movement has been particularly effective in New York State, where 22% of students refused to take state tests last year, and in New Jersey, where the number of those resisting exceeded 15 percent. In New York, the movement led to a reduction in the time allotted to tests and the use of testing in teacher evaluation and may even have led to reduced replacement of charter schools by public schools. This parent led movement is sweeping the nation and is also prompting student and teacher walkouts. It is an initiative which insists that schools must be wholistic in their approach, meeting the needs of students rather than employers or test companies and value teachers who build relationships with their students more than driving them to perform well on tests. The movement, which started in middle class communities and is spreading to working class communities has put Reformers on the defensive because it invokes powerful image of what schools at their best should do- nurture students and practice real democracy. I hope it can spread to Italy
Despite this powerful and much needed initiative, I don’t want to be too optimistic. Reformers and Profiteers will be looking to circumvent the Opt Out movement by promoting individualized “competency based” learning in front of a computer where students are assessed daily on their mastery of subjects and teachers are little more than computer tenders. They will claim this treats each student as an individual and promotes social and emotional growth.
However, parents and teachers will not be so easily fooled. They understand that relationship building, play, the arts and group projects are at the core of what makes school enjoyable and valuable to students and will insist that all those features remain in school, along with experienced teachers who love children and love their jobs.
They will fight for all those things, knowing their children’s future depends on them being decision makes and agents of history, not obedient drones of test companies and powerful corporations.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Lies My Union President Told Me- Whitewashing the AFT's History by Sean Ahearn

Lies My Union President Told Me
Letter to the American Educator re AFT President Randy Weingarten’s “Honoring Our Past and Inspiring Our Future” (http://www.aft.org/ae/summer2016/wws)
President Randy Weingarten’s “Honoring Our Past and Inspiring Our Future,” written on the 100th anniversary of the founding of the AFT is an exercise in “perception management.” Weingarten claims that she has “pored over historical documents from our archives” and concluded that the AFT “has been a vehicle to fight for positive change both in public schools and in society.” Further on she states her case even more explicitly:  “For 100 years, the AFT has worked to build power and use it for good.” 

As a member of the UFT for the past 17 years, son of a UFT retiree, brother to a former UFT teacher and CSA principal, product of the NYC public school system (1959-1971) and father of three, all of whom graduated from NYC high schools, I proudly count myself as a witness to the last 50 years of UFT/AFT history.  Based on my experience and knowledge I challenge her very one-sided findings for failing to point out major examples of how the AFT has been a hindrance to “positive change both in public schools and in society.”
I do not write to honor Albert Shanker and those who followed the course he took. It is my hope that through a full review of our AFT history, rational and thoughtful working people, acting in their own class interests, will conduct an internal critique, identify the wrong turns, and bravely set a new course for our union. It is my hope that current and future generations will overcome the seemingly willful blindness that is found in Weingarten’s article.

Weingarten’s airbrushed history offers a textbook example of how to frame a narrative by omitting all evidence that contradicts her thesis.  This method is not one of historical inquiry seeking educational enlightenment.  It is the method used by a defense attorney to sway a judge or jury, guilt or innocence aside.
   
In business and politics this is the method used to win market share, frame political campaigns and control the hearts and minds of the people. 
The sociologist and historian James W. Loewen has critiqued this method when applied to global and US history textbooks in his widely read Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Book Got Wrong (1995, 2008).  It is a method that seeks to produce a generation that is misinformed, politically unaware, and lacking in self-knowledge and self-esteem.  It casts pedagogues as society’s thought police.

There is much in in AFT history that should be critically examined.  When the full story is told it should include honest and in-depth criticism of key positions taken since Albert Shanker ousted his former mentor and colleague David Selden and rose to the Presidency of the AFT over two generations ago.   

The 1968 UFT strikes against community control, led by then UFT President Albert Shanker weeks after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., became arguably the longest hate strike in US history and was part and parcel of the “white” backlash and neo conservative/neo liberal counter revolution which we still suffer from today.  I was a high school student at the time in one of the community control districts where progressive teachers and students kept the school open during the strike.

With community control ended decentralization still afforded parents the power to elect local school boards.  Efforts by UFT members to interfere with minority parents voting in the 1973 District 1 school board elections on the Lower East Side were successfully overturned in Federal Court and upheld on appeal.
“In their complaint, filed on September 18, 1973, the Coalition for Education in District One, various unsuccessful candidates at the election and members of minority groups (Black, Hispanic and Chinese) challenged the validity of the election under the Equal Protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 as amended in 1970, 42 U.S.C. 1971, 1973 et seq.” http://bulk.resource.org/courts.gov/c/F2/495/495.F2d.1090.74-1296.74-1204.1017.1018.html    

To be cited in violation of the 14th amendment and the 1965 Voting Rights Act hardly constitutes an “honor” to be conferred upon a supposedly liberal northern city and a largely “socialist” union leadership that prided itself on its support for civil rights in the 50’s and early 60’s.  I attended public school in this district from 1959 – 1971.  Weingarten apparently missed this case while she “pored over” the AFT archives.

The median salary for a NYC public school teacher in 2016, discounted for inflation and the extended day, is less than it was in 1973.  Add to that the explosive costs of education and housing and it is fair to conclude that a teacher with 7 years on the job today is worse off than their counterpart was over 40 years ago.  Top salary is now reached after 22 years on the job as opposed to 8 years in 1973. Even those few nearing retirement are just on par with their counterparts of 43 years ago.  I ask President Weingarten the simple question:  Who has the AFT been building “power” for? Surely the salary schedule is in the AFT archives and should figure in any assessment of the AFT’s “power” or lack thereof.

Jerald Podair in his Strike That Changed New York (2002) suggests a causal linkage between the 1968 strike and the decline in power, of both the UFT and the Black community.  Among his most striking and relevant observations is:

“…the Ocean Hill-Brownsville crisis had so damaged the UFT’s standing with black New York that Shanker, even if he had possessed the fire in the belly to attempt a cross-class interracial assault on the champions of fiscal austerity, would have found few friends there.  Black New Yorkers were as angry about the decimated schools as Shanker, but they viewed him, and the union he led, as an enemy…Community control in black neighborhoods was dead, replaced by a decentralization structure that gave the UFT more influence than black parents…the failure of the UFT and black citizens to work together to oppose school service cuts was as predictable as it was tragic.  The union would now cast its lot with the banks.  And the black community, politically marginalized, economically expendable and no longer in control of the language of “community” – would be unable to do anything about it.” (Pp194-195)

In the 1970s Shanker went on to become a leading national opponent of Affirmative Action, submitting a brief on Allan Bakke’s behalf.  The brief, submitted in the name of the AFT, is not mentioned by Weingarten though it is in the Shanker Papers and the AFT Papers that she claims to have “pored over.”

The current wave of “Education reform” was launched with the 1983 publication of A Nation At Risk: The Imperative For Educational Reform towards the end of Reagan’s second term.
For over 30 years the leadership of the AFT has been a partner in this latest wave of “education reform” and thereby maintained their “seat at the table” alongside the “reformers.”  This is a matter of public record.   When questions were raised that strongly contradicted the claims made by “A Nation At Risk” (see the Sandia Report, Bracey, Berliner and Bidell, Emery and Ohanian) the AFT and those closely associated with Shanker (including Diane Ravitch, then Assistant Secretary of Education in the Reagan Administration) chose to ignore and even suppress a devastating critique that potentially could have deflated the bubble of “reform” a generation ago (See http://projectcensored.org/3-the-sandia-report-on-education-a-perfect-lesson-in-censorship/ ).

Comfortably based on the education reformers  bogus critique of the state of public education and its politically motivated remedies, Shanker, Feldman and Weingarten are all on record in support of the “reforms” themselves: high standards for students and teachers, standardized curriculums, high stakes testing for students and teachers (for how else to measure whether the high standards are being met), charter schools (to counter the states monopoly over education and to give parents “choice”) and mayoral control in large urban systems serving predominantly Black, Latino and Asian students which has been the means through which “reform” was foisted upon school communities.
  
Most recently, the “reformers” and their corporate cabal attempted to hoist the AFT on its own petard.    It was only the death of Supreme Court Justice Scalia that averted a negative ruling in Vergara v California that would have done away with the agency shop. The stay of execution is only temporary, there are more cases to follow.  Is this what Weingarten means by “building power?”  Power for whom?  Power for what? 

I challenge president Weingarten to go before any large urban local delegate assembly and defend the AFT’s record over 30 years in support of education “reform.”  Does she have the gall to tell us to our face that school closings, privatization, elimination of sports, the arts, electives, vocational programs, attacks on tenure and seniority, the disappearance of Black and Latino educators, increased segregation, high stakes testing and value added teacher assessments are to be viewed as “collateral damage,” and not the central defining features of a neo conservative/neo liberal, corporate led consensus on the proper role and direction for public education?  She wouldn’t do such a thing, so she redacts the record of AFT collaboration with the “reformers” and then presents herself as a teacher and student advocate.

Teachers and their unions face grave pressures and are in a more defensive posture than they were 50 years ago.  What power?  What positive changes have been brought about?  No doubt Weingarten and her supporters will point to the fact that teachers have a job with benefits and a defined benefit pension plan, a rarity now among US workers.  What is the message here? Do senior teachers shut up and thankfully crawl to the finish line? Do new and mid-career teachers count their lucky stars that they are not suffering the same hardships that the majority of our students, their families and communities face?  Is this then the real meaning of “professionalism;” to divide us from the rest of the working class?   Should the membership cast a blind eye to the AFT’s quisling response to the neo conservative/ neo liberal consensus on education, the U.S. empire and the economy so that at least some of  the so called “professionals,” (most importantly the paid staff and retainers at AFT Inc.) will be spared because the oligarchy has need of an ideological police? 

The isolated individual, teacher, parent, student, may opt to save their own skin when no alternative option is in sight, but experience shows that this is a losing proposition for the large majority.  The greatest good for the greatest number comes not from dog eat dog competition, but from collaboration.  Acknowledgement of this historical fact has led working people at important moments to embrace the fundamental credo of solidarity and act accordingly.  Such a moment is upon us.

There is no defending the AFT record of betrayal of this credo and the self-destructive impact it has had on the membership and the communities we serve.  Weingarten simply casts a blind eye over what needs to be understood and corrected. If teachers applied this same method to reflect on our own classroom practice we would never learn a thing.

I urge the American Educator to open its pages to a real discussion of AFT history.  I urge my sister and brother educators to study and reflect upon AFT history.  As William Faulkner wrote, “the past is not over, it’s not even past.”
Peace,
Sean Ahern

Delegate to the UFT Delegate Assembly. Member of the Movement of Rank and File Educators (MORE) caucus.  August 7, 2016

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Purging Veteran Teachers is a Crime Against Children

After seeing young teachers benefit from the wisdom of educators with thirty plus years of experience at our Bronx Teachers Seminar today, I find myself all the more appalled by the purge of veteran teachers that took place in NYC when 168 schools were closed and the large high schools were broken up into small academies.
How many young teachers were deprived of the mentoring they needed to do their jobs well by these policies, which forced thousands of mostly older teachers into the ATR pool, and how many students suffered because no one in the schools they were at really knew what they were doing.
The idea that age and experience were drawbacks to successful pedagogy and miracles could be done with scripted curricula imposed on inexperienced teachers is one of the the great fallacies of our time, one which still has sway in the minds of most elected officials and is the guiding philosophy of Relay Graduate School of Education and Teach for America.
The tragedy is that some of the best teachers in this nation have been pushed out of their jobs or are languishing in "rubber rooms" where their talents are being wasted. And the best young teachers are suffering the consequences...

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Why Sanitizing US Slavery Will Never Work


A new version of the old white supremacist argument that slavery in the U.S. wasn't so bad because "slaves were well fed," promoted most recently by none other than Bill O'Reilly, fails as badly as its 19th and 20th Century antecedents. Like its predecessors, it overlooks what slaves themselves saw as the most destructive features of the the system- the systematic buying and selling of human beings for profit- which destroyed the possibility of family and community life.Indeed, the most important recent books on slavery, especially Edward Baptists "The Half that has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of Capitalism" and "The American Slave Coast: The History of the Slave Breeding Industry", show that slavery in the US, was much more cruel and brutal than previously thought, with the greatest cruelty coming in the systematic and calculated selling of slaves away from their communities and families. Slaves were the most profitable asset that slaveholders possessed, far more valuable than their land or buildings, and the systematic breeding and sale of slaves was an integral feature of the US plantation system that went on to the eve of the Civil War. Slave markets where this humiliating and soul destroying practice took place were important institutions in almost every Southern city. Those who talk about the diet and life expectancy of slaves miss the point. This was not domestic slavery as it existed in many other societies. This was the transformation of people into commodities to be sold in the marketplace and transported long distances away from everything and everyone they ever knew.