Tuesday, June 28, 2011
Wednesday, June 22, 2011
Teach for America and Me: A Failed Courtship
Dr Mark Naison
Until Teach for America changes its objective to training lifetime educators and raises the time commitment to five years rather than two, I will not allow TFA to recruit in my classes. The idea of sending talented students into schools in high poverty areas and then after two years, encouraging them to pursue careers in finance, law, and business in the hope that they will then advocate for educational equity rubs me the wrong way”
It was not always thus. Ten years ago, when a Teach for American recruiter first approached me, I was enthusiastic about the idea of recruiting my most idealistic and talented students for work in high poverty schools and allowed the TFA representative to make presentations in my classes, which are filled with Urban Studies and African American Studies majors. Several of my best students applied, all of whom wanted to become teachers, and several of whom came from the kind of high poverty neighborhoods TFA proposed to send its recruits to teach in
Not one of them was accepted! Enraged, I did a little research and found that TFA had accepted only four of the nearly 100 Fordham students who applied. I become even more enraged when I found out from the New York Times that TFA had accepted 44 out of a hundred applicants from Yale that year. Something was really wrong here if an organization who wanted to serve low income communities rejected every applicant from Fordham who came from those communities and accepted half of the applicants from an Ivy League school where very few of the students, even students of color, come from working class or poor families
Since that time, the percentage of Fordham students accepted has marginally increased, but the organization has done little to win my confidence that it is seriously committed to recruiting people willing to make a lifetime commitment to teaching and administering schools in high poverty areas.
Never, in its recruiting literature, has Teach for America described teaching as the most valuable professional choice that an idealistic, socially conscious person can make, and encourage the brightest students to make teaching their permanent career. Indeed, the organization does everything in its power to make joining Teach for America seem a like a great pathway to success in other, higher paying professions. Three years ago, the TFA recruiter plastered the Fordham campus with flyers that said “Learn how joining TFA can help you gain admission to Stanford Business School.” To me, the message of that flyer was “use teaching in high poverty areas a stepping stone to a career in business.” It was not only profoundly disrespectful of every person who chooses to commit their life to the teaching profession, it advocated using students in high poverty areas as guinea pigs for an experiment in “resume padding” for ambitious young people
In saying these things, let me make it clear that my quarrel is not with the many talented young people who join Teach for America, some of whom decide to remain in the communities they work in and some of whom become lifetime educators. It is with the leaders of the organization who enjoy the favor with which TFA is regarded with captains of industry, members of Congress, the media, and the foundation world, and have used this access to move rapidly to positions as heads of local school systems, executives in Charter school companies, and educational analysts in management consulting firms. The organization”s facile circumvention of the grinding, difficult but profoundly empowering work of teaching and administering schools has created the illusion that there are quick fixes , not only for failing schools, but for deeply entrenched patterns of poverty and inequality. No organization has been more complicit that TFA in the demonization of teachers and teachers unions, and no organization has provided more “shock troops” for Education Reform strategies which emphasize privatization and high stakes testing. Michelle Rhee, a TFA recruit, is the poster child for such policies, but she is hardly alone.
Her counterparts can be found in New Orleans ( where they led the movement toward a system dominated by charter school) in New York ( where they play an important role in the Bloomberg
Education bureaucracy) and in many other cities.
And that elusive goal of educational equity. How well has it advanced in the years TFA has been operating? Not only has there been little progress, in the last fifteen years, in narrowing the test score gap by race and class, but income inequality has become greater, in those years, than any time in modern American history. TFA has done nothing to promote income redistribution, reduce the size of the prison population, encourage social investment in high poverty neighborhoods, or revitalize arts and science and history in the nation’s schools. It’s main accomplishment has been to marginally increase the number of talented people entering the teaching profession, but only a small fraction of those remain in the schools to which they were originally sent.
But the most objectionable aspect of Teach for America –other than its contempt for lifetime educators- is its willingness to create another pathway to wealth and power for those already privileged, in the rapidly expanding Educational Industrial Complex, which offers numerous careers for the ambitious and well connected. An organization which began by promoting idealism and educational equity has become, to all too many of its recruits, a vehicle for profiting from the misery of America’s poor.
Tuesday, June 21, 2011
Why President Obama Must Remove Arne Duncan As Secretary of Education if He Hopes to Win Re-Election
Professor Mark Naison
The 2008 Election Campaign of Barack Obama inspired a spirit of sacrifice and idealism that I had not seen among close friends since the early days of the Civil Right Movement. My upstairs neighbors, both in their mid 70’s, camped out in Virginia a week before the election to help get out the vote in that state. My best friend and his wife did the same in Florida. At least ten people in my circle took regular trips to Pennsylvania and Ohio on weekends to help move those “swing states” into the Democratic camp. And my dear friend Rich Klimmer, now deceased, spent three months in a hotel room in Philadelphia, while undergoing dialysis three times a week, coordinating the labor campaign for Obama in Pennsylvania.
What did all these people have in common, other than a passion to elect the first African American president in American History?
Every single one of them were college professors or public schools teachers! No group worked harder for Barack Obama’s election than America’s teachers, who not only contributed funds to his campaign, but were the campaign’s most effective “grunt workers”, doing everything possible to reach voters in swing states, whether by participating in phone banks or by travelling long distances to reach voters door to door.
Today, America’s teachers stand so disillusioned with the Obama Administration that their participation in the 2012 is a big question mark. Teachers I know may ultimately vote for Barack Obama, but they will do so only because they fear the Republican candidate will do more damage, not because they think the Obama Administration’s policies are moving the nation in the right direction. When it comes to education policy, most teachers and professors see the Obama administration as promoting national initiatives which strip teachers of their autonomy, make them scapegoats for the nation’s problems, and promote formulas for assessing teacher quality that will, if accepted, turn reduce instruction at all levels to memorization and test prep. They are very likely to sit out the next Presidential campaign unless the Administration switches gears and embraces a teacher centered strategy for improving American’s schools and universities.
But to do that, President Obama will have to remove the Harvard trained lawyer who runs the US Department of Education, Arne Duncan. Not only does Duncan promote policies which force schools and universities make testing and assessment a far more significant part of classroom learning, in his comments to the press and elected officials, he literally oozes contempt for teachers and school administrators. In Arne Duncan’s field of vision,, America’s schools and universities are islands of backwardness and inefficiency in a dynamic society where competition produces excellence and those who can’t compete lose their jobs. Obsessed with quantifying success and punishing failure, he is on a mission to turn every dimension of classroom learning, from kindergarten through graduate school, into something that can be measured and evaluated with the simplicity and clarity of sales figures in a bank or corporation, thereby allowing for ironclad measures of teacher evaluation on a national scale. When anyone suggest that teaching involves more than preparing students for tests, and involves characteristics likes nurturing, mentoring and character building, or involves stimulating imagination and creativity, Duncan responds with impatience and contempt. He sees himself as single handedly driving the nation towards educational competiveness by shaking up the nation’s teachers,, made soft by tenure and union protections, and forcing them to be as success driven and fearful as those who work in the private sector.
While Duncan’s approach has succeeded in making teachers angry and fearful, nowhere has it improved the nation’s schools. The strategic mix of school closings, teacher assessment protocols based on student test results, and the closing of “failing” schools, mandated by No Child Left Behind has not raised tests results in a single major urban school district, nor has it brought new idealism and energy to teaching and learning. Instead it has enraged teachers, confused administrators, and led to protests by students and parents who feel that their input has been erased by the national formulas that determined a larger and larger portion of school policies.
On the University level, Duncan has forced rating agencies like Middle States to require assessment protocols that vastly simplify what goes on in college classrooms and strip faculty members of powers of peer evaluation that have been in place since the 1960’s. The same obsession to find out if teachers have been “successful” according to a one size fits all formula, forced down the throat of local school districts through the financial incentives of Race to the Top,, has been forced on universities through the threat of the cutting off of federal funding. As a result, faculty members throughout the country have been forced to used a language in evaluating their work that has no standing or credibility in their discipline ( what “outcomes” and “goals” would one measure in a course on Greek philosophy or Hip Hop Dance) and violates every norm of academic freedom that faculty members have fought for since the McCarthy Era.
The negative effect on teacher morale of such policies is well documented, but they have also started to inspire resistance. All over the nation, teachers are taking to the streets to resist attacks on their autonomy and professional status, and university professors are starting to mobilize against the threat posed by academic freedom and departmental self-governance by nationally designed and enforced assessment protocols. Everywhere you go in this country, the name Arne Duncan inspires outrage, not only among teachers, and college professors, but among school administrators and college presidents
If President Obama has any hope of being re-elected in 2012, he’d better pay attention to this groundswell of outrage and replace Arne Duncan with a Secretary of Education who shows more greater respect for the idealism, creativity and hard work of a group that played a central role in his 2008 campaign.-America’s Teachers
Saturday, June 18, 2011
by Jenna Schlosbon on Saturday, June 18, 2011 at 9:43pm
Shame on you, Barack Obama. I voted for you. I campaigned for you. I donated to you AND raised money for you. When I heard you speak about the problem of educational inequality in this country at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, I felt inspired. This is an issue that has been extraordinarily important to me for some time now, and I believed that you actually intended to do something about it. But instead, you continue to support the high stakes testing agenda and business-like competition among our public schools.
You and your Secretary of Education support tying teacher tenure/hiring/firing to standardized test scores. In so doing, you reduce children, particularly children of color who are living in poverty, to data points, forcing us to reduce our curriculum to incessant test prep for fear of a)having our schools shut down or b)losing our jobs. This is NOT education. This is fear-based. This puts a tremendous amount of stress on teachers and students alike. This is rote. This strips joy, curiosity, and creativity from learning. What about socio-emotional development? What about varied learning needs and learning styles? We need to educate the whole child, which these policies will not allow us to do. (And by the way, President Obama, Sidwell Friends, where you send your daughters, has stated that they do not believe tying teacher pay to student test scores is an effective measure of learning, evaluation, or progress.)
By upholding said policies you are just as bad as Klein, Bloomberg, and all of these other milllionaire/billionaire pro-corporate "education reformers" who are "reforming" (destroying) our public schools in an effort to create something that benefits the corporate structure which controls this country: a mass proletariat who can unquestioningly obey, follow directions, and complete rote tasks INSTEAD of citizens who can question, or dare I say challenge the status quo, formulate an opinion, think critically and creatively, or have any semblance of a moral compass.
We need freedom from high-stakes standardized tests and the freedom to make our curriculum more relevant to our students' lives, not only in an effort to engage them, but to show them how to be active citizens in their own communities, and perhaps even empower them to improve their communities.
President Obama, improving our public schools does not mean ridding schools of tenured, experienced educators and filling them with droves of 22-year-olds (via TFA and other similar programs) as is the trend under current leadership in New York City. This only creates an atmosphere of chaos, confusion, stress, and eventual burnout and teacher turnover as these young teachers do not have the support of older veteran role models to show them the way. Although filling schools with young, un-tenured teachers, burning them out, and then cycling through the next batch may be smart financially (new teachers are the cheapest labor), high teacher-turnover leads to further instability in our urban public schools which does very little to help impoverished students who, very often, already lack stability and structure at home.
Stop scapegoating and punishing teachers who do the best they can with the limited time and resources they have, and address the real reasons why our public school children, particularly urban public school children of color, are behind their wealthier white peers: poverty. Poverty affects students' nutrition and health, supervision and structure at home (which in turn affects attendance and homework completion/studying), living conditions...both inside and outside the home, parental education level, and these are only just a few examples. Our students' families need living wage jobs. Tax policy must be adjusted. No self-respecting, educated, hard-working professional can withstand being blamed day in and day out for the wounds of poverty that directly affect student learning and/or having his or her job threatened year after year due to "numbers" on these innane standardized tests.
Mr. Obama, you need to set the tone for real education reform, not the faux-"reform" that these non-educator millionaires are propagating. End the teacher-blaming. Let teachers teach. Stop supporting privatization, union busting, and charter school takeovers, and start supporting our teachers and students by acknowledging that poverty impedes academic performance and actually discussing ways to address poverty in America. Tax policy and labor policy are two places to start.
Until you remove Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education and/or begin to acknowledge that the high-stakes testing business model is flawed and detrimental to our schools, I don't know that I can give you my vote in 2012, and educators across the country agree.
You will be hearing from me again and thousands upon thousands of educators, students, and other supporters at the Save Our Schools March on July 30th in Washington D.C.
Saturday, June 11, 2011
My Trip to A Rally Against School Budget Cuts At Lehman High School: Thoughts on Neighborhood, Teaching and School Reform
Professor Mark Naison
On Friday, June 10 left my office at Fordham around 2 PM to drive to a rally against education budget cuts at Herbert Lehman HS in the East Bronx, where I was slated to speak. I took the Bronx River Parkway South at Fordham Road and got off at East Tremont Avenue and began a two and a half mile drive through the Bronx on East Tremont through crowded, vital neighborhoods which most residents of Manhattan and Upscale Brooklyn will never see.
On streets clogged with cars, trucks, city buses, gypsy cabs, and school buses, I observed a social and architectural landscape which resembled the Brooklyn of my youth, with the faces changed to reflect New York’s current demographic profile. There wasn’t a single luxury high rise in sight. The housing stock consisted of two and three family houses, some brick, some wood covered with aluminum siding, and apartment buildings ranging from 4 story walk ups to the twenty plus eight to ten story buildings in the huge Parkchester development built in the 1940’s that are now middle income co-ops. The commercial strip was vibrant, filled with diners, furniture stores, used car lots and body shops,, and rows of stores ranging from nail places and hair salons to travel agencies, ethnic restaurants and banks. There were several schools along the way, public and Catholic ( including St Raymond’s HS) and school buses everywhere. The sidewalks were as crowded as the streets, filled with school kids, mothers with young children , elderly people taking a stroll or going to the diner, and strong looking men loading trucks and making deliveries. But what was most striking is that there were no visible signs of great poverty or great wealth. There were no vacant lots and storefronts, no food lines outside storefront churches, no idle young men hanging outside bodegas; but neither were there health food stores, sushi bars, and hip young professionals sitting at tables outside cafes. What you had were crowds of working class and middle class New Yorkers of multiple ages, colors and nationalities, some Black, some Latino, some South Asian, some white, going about their business purposefully on a hot Friday afternoon. To an old Brooklinite raised in a New York where the wealth was much more equally distributed than it is now, it felt familiar, it felt good.
After a forty minute drive, I finally got to Lehman High School, a huge modernist building that sits atop the Hutchinson River Parkway, parked outside the diner across the street, and started looking for the rally. It was almost 3 PM and kids were pouring out of the School, thousands of them! This was far the most diverse crowd I had seen at the more than ten Bronx High Schools I had spoken at. There were many Black and Latino students, but there were also a significant number of white and South Asian students as well. The students represented every color of the rainbow and multiple cultural traditions. Women in hijabs, mostly South Asian, walked side by side with black, and Latino and white girls wearing tight shorts and low cut tops; and the guys outfits varied from football and baseball jerseys, to hip hop and skater gear, to nicely ironed shirts and pants that could have come out of a JC Penney catalogue. For the most part, the kids looked happy, relaxed and comfortable with one another. I didn’t sense the fear or the air of menace that I sometimes felt outside Bronx High Schools. I had to remind myself that this was a school that had been given a grade of “F” by the New York City Department of Education ( more on that later!) and had been assigned a team of School Turnaround Specialists to raise test scores and create a more positive atmosphere. From the outside at least, the school atmosphere looked just fine!
When I finally found the rally site, where a small group of teachers had assembled, along with a large number of police officers, I introduced myself and began preparing to participate in whatever capacity they wanted me to. The main organizers were two Latino men in their thirties or forties and a white woman in her late twenties who had invited me to the rally, Debbie Looser. Three or four teachers soon arrived to join us, all black or Latino women who appeared to be in their forties, along with a small group of students, and we began walking in a circle carrying signs which had been made up for the occasion chanting “Bloomberg Says Cutback, We Say Fightback.” The line of marchers kept growing rapidly. I was gratified to that see a former student of mine Cathy Chan, who lived in the neighborhood had come to the rally with her boyfriend to show her support for the students and teachers at Lehman, but I was most pleased to see how many Lehman students joined the picket line. After fifteen minutes of marching, the group had grown to sixty plus people, more than half of them students and had created a loud and forceful protest that was visibly supported by many people in the area, including a group of fire fighters who honked loudly in support as they drove by
As the protest grew, a couple of things stood out for me. First was the incredible rapport between teachers and students that I saw on the picket line. The teachers assembled, whose number grew to over twenty by the time the protest ended, clearly knew students personally, and from the comments exchanged and the hugs and high fives, had relationships with them that extended beyond lecturer, tester and grade giver. The rally chants that were unveiled when the students arrived in numbers also were telling
“Stop the Budget Cuts—No More Football”
“Stop the Budget Cuts- No More Baseball”
“Stop the Budget Cuts- No More Art Classes”
“Stop the Budget Cuts- No More Theater”
“Stop The Budget Cuts- No More Computer Classes”
Clearly, at this so called Failing School, students developed powerful relationship to teachers through activities like sports, and the arts and the cultivation of computer skills, activities which were are not seen by the current generation of School Reformers as worthy of preservation in times of fiscal austerity.
And as I marched and chanted with this wonderful students and teachers, who represented the heart and soul of immigrant working class/ middle class New York, I thought, if this is “Failure” our city needs a lot more of it. The camaraderie and mutual appreciation I saw between teachers and students and students may not be quantifiable according to Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind, but it is more important than anything they are now measuring when it comes to determining the quality of public education. In a corner of the East Bronx,
I saw a school of more than 5,000 students that was an integral part of a vibrant, multicultural neighborhood, with teachers who loved their students and worked hard to bring out their talents inside and outside the classroom.
If what I saw and heard and experienced at Lehman HS can’t be capture on existing tests and assessment systems, maybe it’s time to throw out the assessments, not destroy what’s positive in this remarkable school.
June 11, 2011
Tuesday, June 7, 2011
Make no mistake about it, charter schools, if the Bronx is an example , are agents of de-politicization in communities which desperately need to know their history and fight for their rights. Community history is a precious resource which administrators who know and love Bronx neighborhoods are excited to claim. Charter schools, in failing to claim this resource,