Sunday, April 13, 2014

Another Reason Why Public School Teachers are Silenced: They Might Expose the Wounds of Poverty

A disinterested observer, coming from another place or time, would find it odd that the voices of American public school teachers are systematically excluded by those making education policy. No better example of this is the "Education Reform" gathering sponsored by NY Governor Andrew Cuomo- Camp Philus- where the admission fee is $1,000, guaranteed to assure that public school teachers won't be present.

However, if you examine the economic trends of the last thirty years, particularly the concentration of wealth at the top, the shrinking of the middle class, and the freezing of social mobility for the nation's working class and poor, you might find one possible explanation for the exclusion of teachers voices- they know "where the bodies are buried." 

No one knows better than American public school teachers the toll poverty takes on a sizable portion of the nation's students and families, and how much pain this causes on a daily basis. Their students bring the wounds of poverty in every day, both directly and indirectly- the poor diets, the overcrowding in homes and apartments, the constant stress adults are under paying rent, or gas and electric bills or putting food on the table; the violence that often breaks out in response to that stress, not only in the streets, but behind closed doors; the health problems that come from poor diet and lack of sleep along with lack of access to medical care; and the constant disappearance of loved ones due to economic pressures or just an accumulation of tension from living in a world where everyone is on edge. Teachers not only see all these things, they try desperately to heal the wounds, with love, with food, with encouragement, sometimes with money and a place to stay.

More importantly, they know that this many wounded children is a symptom of a deeply wounded society, of a nation whose child poverty rate, dwarfs that of almost all other industrialized nation, and whose inequalities cannot be erased by changing curricula, closing schools, breaking teachers unions, and adding more tests.

If public school teachers voices were heard, the cries of suffering children would be heard loud and clear and the "no excuses pedagogy" being promoted everywhere would be exposed as either smokescreen for preserving privilege or a newly minted version of the "Big Lie" elites in authoritarian societies love to disseminate

Put teachers voices in the forefront and we will finally have a real accounting of the full impact of poverty on the nation's children, which, I guess is the last thing that politicians of either party want to hear.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

A Committee to Restore Childhood- Some Principles

"Nothing Without Joy"

Everywhere we look, self-titled "School Reformers" are driving every ounce of joy and spontaneity out of the childhood years

.*They are evaluating teachers as early as Pre K and Kindergarten on whether their pedagogy contribute to their charges "college and career readiness."

*They are putting so much emphasis on testing in rating schools and teachers that recess is disappearing in schools all over the country
* The are introducing rubrics for rating teachers that result in any sign of idleness or contemplation on the part of their students will result in negative ratings
* They are forcing students as young as the 3rd grade to sit through tests that are 3 times more time consuming than the MCATS and LSATS
* They are putting so much emphasis on testing and spending so much money on tests and assessments that art, music, plays, talent shows, field days and school trips are disappearing from many of our schools.
As a result
Children all over the country are starting to hate school and dread going to class
Large numbers of children suffer from such acute test anxiety that they have to get medical attention.
Health problems are multiplying because many children no longer have the opportunity to get adequate exercise and because they are under constant stress
It is time for Parents, Teachers and Students to Fight Back.
To Help do this, we are creating a "Committee to Restore Childhood that will fight for the following.

* No standardized testing AT ALL before 3rd Grade
* A maximum of 90 minutes TOTAL for all tests
* No use of recess or physical education for testing or test prep
* No rating of schools or teachers on the basis of test scores
* Restoration of art, music, school trips, field days, plays and talent shows to our schools.
*Scrap the CC$$

If you agree with these, begin fighting for these demands in your local school district.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Don't Underestimate New York City PUBLIC Schools!

Today, 30 students from a public middle school called West Side Collaborative came to sit in on an upper level undergraduate course I teach, called "The Worker in American Life,." brought by their teacher, Victoria Thomas-Rahiman, who was once my student. I was concerned that they would not be able to participate in the class discussions- which was on Wal-Mart's labor practices and role in the American economy- without a lot of guidance from me. But after a five minute lecture to get them oriented, I leaped directly into the class I had planned, beginning with two music videos which dramatized the travails of low wage workers in the US, and when I asked for comments, the students from West Side Collaborative raised their hands as much as students in my class, and offered remarks which were at times startling in their insight and depth. My students were both stunned and excited by their contributions and the class became the focal point of an incredible discussion of what it means to be part of the working poor in the United States, something which the West Side Collaborative knew from personal experience far more than my wonderful Fordham students. It was also clear that economic inequality and economic justice were issues they had discussed in their classes, and at times in their families, and they had strong opinions about this that my own students found myself listening to intently.

What made the whole experience so remarkable was not only the difference in age between the two groups, but also the difference in background . My Fordham class is about 2/3 white and 1/3 students of color, with many coming from middle class and upper middle class families. The Manhattan Collaborative group was probably 80 percent students of color ( in every possible variety) and included some students who came from working class families and/or lived in public housing. But there was no intellectual or cultural barrier between the two groups. Whatever stereotypes my Fordham students may have had about NY City public school students quickly dissolved from the moment the West Side Coillaborative students began speaking. It made me think that students like this should have more of a presence on the Fordham campus on a regular basis, but it also made me realize how much great teaching and learning is taking place in New York City public schools.

One final point. West Side Collaborative is NOT a charter school. It is regular public school staffed by union teachers. Who have somehow trained middle school students to hold their own with upper level undergraduates at one of the nation's top liberal arts colleges

Food for thought, isn't it?

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Common Core Disregards the Lessons of American History.

As a historian, I am acutely aware that debate over the powers of the federal government have been a continuing theme in American History. The US Constitution tried to create a balance between local and federal power and because of this, major interventions of the federal government into sphere of public policy- whether you agree with them or not- usually came as a result of grass roots movements demanding this change.

A great example of this is prohibition, which was implemented only after 40 plus years of agitation and organizing by temperance groups throughout the country. But the same was also true of Social Security, Unemployment Insurance and Minimum wage legislation, which had been fought for by labor organizations for more than 30 years till they were finally implemented during the great Depression, and for Civil Rights Legislation, which was the culmination of 10 plus years of non violent protest beginning with the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and more than 40 years of lobbying and litigation by groups like the NAACP.

Ever Obamacare, whether you like it or not, was a response to more than 60 years of lobbying and agitation for federal legislation to provide health coverage to the uninsured, first resulting in Medicare and Medicaid during the Johnson administration, and now in Obamacare in this administration.

But Common Core is different. Here is a federal education policy, a blueprint for National Standards ( which is really a National Curriculum) that no grass roots movements, to my knowledge, have ever called for. This is an entirely top down initiative pushed through by business leaders, foundations, and elites in education policy organizations without any social movements linked to it whatsoever.

And this is one reason it is likely to self-destruct. All expansions of federal power are controversial. Many breed strong opposition. But when you engineer an expansion of federal power without ANY significant popular support for it, you are not only treading on dangerous ground, you are moving into uncharted territory.

And don't be surprised if the initiative blows up in your face, as Common Core is now.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Under Pressure: Does Test Stress at School Added to Economic Stress at Home Constitute a Toxic Combination?

During the last decade, America's public school students have seen a steady increase in the amount of testing they have to endure. As a result of state policies and federal mandates, schools have transformed curricula from Pre-K up to raise scores on standardized tests, and have put immense pressure on teachers to do that, putting their jobs in jeopardy if they fail to do so. All over the nation, stories abound of classrooms becoming zones of extreme stress, with teachers and students displaying symptoms of anxiety,rage and depression in response to the new demands. Intentionally or not, our elites have sent a message to public school teachers and students-- produce or else- and have made it seem as though improving test results is everyone's patriotic duty, and that activities which don't contribute to that are not only a waste of time, but a threat to the nation's future

From a strictly educational standpoint, these policies are highly questionable. There is no evidence that students learn better in an atmosphere of fear and stress, and that they will become more productive citizens if they are deprived of play, emotional support and opportunities for self-expression..

But what makes these policies all the more tragic is that they come at a time when many students face increasing stress at home because of severe economic pressures on American families. During the Great Recession,, according to economists Thomas Saez and Thomas Piketty, blue collar and white collar families suffered a sharp decline in income (12 percent) and have gained almost none of it back in the ensuing recovery in which 95 % of the income gains have gone to the top 1% or earners. The result, making ends meet has become an uphill battle for many Americans, often requiring them to work multiple jobs, put in longer hours at the jobs they have, rent rooms out in their homes or apartments, or move in with relatives. And when this happens, children feel the pressure. Not only do they get less personal attention from the adults in their lives, they see the people closest to them getting beat down and filled with worry, sometimes leading to outbursts which leave children traumatized and filled with fear.

In a time like this, when many families are feeling extreme economic pressure, one would think there would be an emphasis on making schools safe and nurturing places, where children are loved and cared for as well as taught and where teachers are encouraged to be kind and supportive to their charges. But in fact, the exact opposite has taken place. Schools and teachers have been put under so much pressure to get results on tests that they have made classrooms into zones of fear where children are given less and less opportunity for play, exercise and artistic expression- activities which might relieve the stress they have in their lives.

There is an explosion coming and when millions of children begin acting out in ways which make classrooms ungovernable, policy makers will begin wondering "Why did we let ourselves get so obsessed with testing that we forgot we had children in them."

Saturday, April 5, 2014

A Tale of Two School Systems:

The disparity between the amount of testing taking place in the nation's public schools and between the top private schools where most policy makers and business leaders send their children is simply shocking! Not only do none of these elite schools use Common Core, they never rate their teachers on the basis of student test scores, or use the demeaning Danielson and Marzano rubrics to evaluate teachers through observations. Most importantly, the amount of standardized testing in their schools is only a fraction of what currently is administered in public schools, meaning that class time is spent on creative projects and instruction rather than drilling for tests.
If this is what is considered the best education money can buy, and the one that best prepares students for admission to the nation's top colleges and universities, why isn't this model of pedagogy the one that policy makers want public schools to adopt? Why is creativity considered appropriate for their children, but stress filled rote learning appropriate for children of the middle class and the poor.
I have raised this question very sharply to those who see test based school and teacher evaluation and Common Core standards as the only way to insure that low income students and students of color experience equal educational opportunity. If the kind of learning this strategy really prepares one "to compete in the global economy" and " be part of the 21st Century workforce," why don't the most powerful people in the country want this for their own children? Why do they, without exception, choose schools that do the opposite.
As an historian, I am forced to conclude that our elites, looking at the future job market- in which economists estimate that 6 out of 10 new jobs will be minimum wage- want our public schools to train disciplined workers with low expectations who are not exposed to the critical thinking skills which might lead them to question the astronomical levels of inequality in our society or the hardships that exist in their own neighborhoods.
Their children get Leadership Training- our Children get Obedience Training.
To call this "The Civil Rights Movement of the 21st Century" is to defy common sense and turn history on its head.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Why Scripted Learning Sucks!

Scripted learning SUCKS. It totally inhibits teachers from displaying the creativity they need to best reach their students. Let me give an example. I was part of a panel on Race and Activism in the 1960's at the University of Maryland. I spent six hours working on what I thought it was a great speech. I was really proud of it. However, I was the third speaker on the panel and the two young presenters who preceded me gave talks that were so startling and original that it made sparks go off in my head-- and in the audience too. Was I going to break the momentum by reading my speech, as much as I loved it? I just couldn't do that so I decided to throw away the text and speak from the heart, incorporating insights from the first two presentations that highlighted some main points from my speech but turned it into something very different than what I had intended. The result: the crowd instantly saw the connections with the other two presentations- leading to a great question and answer period. If I just read my speech as if the other two talks had not taken place, it would have bored the audience to death! ‪#‎Evaluatethat‬.