Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Notorious Phd’s “Achievement Rap” A Tribute to Those Who Invented the Achievement Gap

While some people call “the achievement gap”
Inspired me to write an achievement rap
Exposing the hustlers who rule our nation
Who’ve hijacked the train and left us at the station
They’ve exported our jobs, treated us like fools
Now they are poised to take over our schools
And run them for profit, like they do our jails
So they make up some lies to say that we’ve failed
When the failure is theirs, cause they’ve stolen our wealth
Whatever is good, they’ve reserved for themselves
Now they’re saying that we hold the whole nation back
If we don’t pass the tests their companies fast track
When reality is they’re the ones who need testing
To see in whose pockets school profits are resting
From Murdoch to Klein, from Gates to Rhee
The achievement gap hustle is one big crime spree.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Top Ten Things to Do in the Bronx That You Probably Won't Read About in New York Magazine

The Top Ten Things to Do in the Bronx That You Probably Won't Read About in New York Magazine

Mark Naison

Fordham University

10. Hit tennis balls in Heffen Park in "The Valley" section of the Northeast Bronx, one of the real hidden jewels in the NYC Park System

9. Walk up White Plains Road from 219th Street to 241Street and experience one of the great Caribbean business strips in New York City

8. Play golf at the Pelham/Split Rock Golf courses and see the largest herd of wild turkeys in New York City ( but watch out for the poison ivy!)

7. Go to the "Bronx Classic" a professional tennis tournament in Crotona Park in late to mid-August whose winners get a wild card into the US Open Qualifiying Tournament

6. Go to "First Friday" at the Bronx Museum of the Arts on 165the Street and Grand Concourse which features great music and films that reflect the cultural diversity of the Bronx

5. Check out the Sunday Brunch at Giovanni's on 150th Street and Grand Concourse, where you will be served huge amounts of excellent food.

4. Visit the Rebel Diaz Arts Collective at 478 Austin Place near 149th Street and meet the hippest group of rappers, poets, music producers and political activists on the East Coast

3. Eat lunch at the Crab Shanty on City Island which has the best and most affordable seafood lunch specials in New York City

2. Go to the Thursday Night Old School Hip Hop James in Crotona Park during the summer, which feature some of the artists who created Hip Hop Culture in the middle and late 1970's

1. Starve yourself for a day and visit Johnson's BBQ at 163rd Street between Union and Tinton Avenues, where you will get the best BBQ and largest portions in New York City. Say "the professor sent you" and your portion may double!

Friday, July 22, 2011

My Problem With Charter Schools-Too Many Are"Bad Neighborhood Citizens"

I am not in principle against charter schools. Experimenting with new models of school organization can be a good thing, and giving parents more options within the public school system can promote an atmosphere conducive to better teaching and learning

But in a society dominated by trickle down economics,where there is little commitment to improve public education as a whole, charter schools have not fulfilled their original promise. With rare exceptions, they have functioned as though their success requires the failure of neighboring institutions, refusing to work cooperatively with traditional public schools when they share a building, pushing out or excluding special needs, elll children, and those marked as "behavior problems" and embracing what amounts to a two tier styemm in inner city schools- one favored and amply funded- the other looked on with suspcion and contempt

Charter schools can lead to improvements in the quality of education, but only if they embrae all children and try to work with and support public schools they share space and neighborhoods with,not quarantine them as if they were carriers of a contagious disease

Right now, based on what I have seen in the Bronx, and other parts of New YorkCity, charter schools have not improved the quality of education in inner city neighorhoods. The best have supplied a small number of families with better educational options. But on the whole, charter schools have been "bad neighborhood citizens," viewing everyone outside their ranks as a threat to their educational mission,and doing everything possible to "stack the deck" against traditional public schools by indirectly or overtly excluding students who might not test well or be compliant learners

This "us againnst the neighborhood" is the last thing New York, and the nation's immigrant and working class communities need asthey find themselves starved of resources by budget cuts at the city, state and federal level

Until charter schools start fighting for ALL the children and families in the neighborhoods they are located in, rather than the 10 percent enrolled in their institutions, they will be unable to make a positive contribution to the struggle for racial and economic equality in the United States

Mark Naison
July 22,2011

NOTE: While there are some neighborhoods in which 10 percent of the students are enrolled in charter schools, in the nation as a whole, as Diane Ravitch points out, only 3.5 percent of students are in charter schools

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Where I Find The Courage To Resist An Unjust Social Order-An Historian an Activist's Personal Credo

Maybe I am too much the historian, but I am convinced no society can concentrate wealth in a small number of hands the way the US has today without undermining its own legitimacy. The so-called Education Reform movement is a classic case study of the corrupting power of great wealth. The attacks on teachers, the obsession with high stakes testing, the attempts to close failing schools, though presented as strategies to achieve greater equality, in real life clear the way for powerful corporations to profit from privatizing a great public resource. This movement has now been going on for more than ten years and amidst its political ascendency, we have seen the shrinking of the middle class, the improverishment of the working class, the warehousing and imprisonment of minority youth, the squandering of precious resources on cruel and needless wars and the continuing concentrat ion of wealth and power among a small number of people.
In such such a society, telling the truth matters. And while victory is hardly guaraneed for those who decry great abuses of power, it is important that we that we speak up, that we resist, that we organize, and that we set an example for those that come after us. We cannot allow a Plutocracy to dominate our nation's economic, political and cutlural life. We have to fight it on every terrain, in our neighborhoods, in our work places, in our schools and universities, in the political arena, and in culture and mass media. When trying to gain strength for what sometimes seems to be a hopeless battle, I think of Joe Hill, I think of Paul Robeson, I think of Ida B Wells and Fanny Lou Hamer, I think of Martin Louther King and Malcolm X, and in their memory and in their name, I will insist on holding this nation to a much higher standard of democratic ideals and democratic practice than its leaders currently do.
Mark Naison
July 19, 2011

Monday, July 18, 2011

Time to Create a Progressive Caucus in Teach for America?

Although the leadership of TFA is closely allied with forces seeking to privatize public education, and use high stakes
testing as a vehicle to rate teachers and administrators, there are many TFA Corps members, past and present, who believe
that racism, poverty and regressive taxation, not failing schools, are the primary causes of neighborhood distress and economic
stagnation in the United States.

Perhaps it is time that these people, who now number in the thousands, organize a progressive caucus in TFA to fight within the
organizaiton to reduce its emphasis on high stakes testing, encourage TFA corps members to make teaching their lifetime career, and to have TFA
openly repudiate "trickle down economics" and support the redistribution of wealth through progressive taxation..

I for one would be willing to use all resources at my disposal to help such a caucus get started, and I know of many other progressive academics
around the country who would do the same,

TFA Corps members and alumni who think such a caucus is worth discussing should feel free to contact me via my Fordham ( or personal ( email


Mark D Naison
Professor of African American Studies and History
Forham University
Principal Investigator, Bronx African American History Proect

Monday, July 11, 2011

A Bronx Tale: Questions for Those Who Argue That Failing Schools Cause Urban Decay

A Bronx Tale: Questions for Those Who Argue Failing Schools Cause Urban Decay

Mark Naison

Fordham University

It has become fashionable for the Right Wing of the School Reform Movement, along with some progressives, to argue that failing schools are a major cause of the decay and stagnation in inner city neighborhoods.

As a historian of the Bronx, who has traced the borough’s development from the 1930’s through the present, I would like to raise a few questions about this formulation, based on important episodes in the Bronx history.

First, when factory owners in the Bronx began closing their operations in 1950’s and 1960’s, or moving them to other states or other countries, did they do so because the schools of the Bronx were failing and the places they were moving their operations to ( e.g. South Carolina, Alabama, Haiti, the Dominican Republic) had better schools and a better educated labor force? The resulting job losses devastated the Bronx’s economy, but they were the result of factory owners quest for cheaper labor, not for a better educated labor force.

Second, when banks and insurance companies began redlining the Bronx, and landlords in the borough started burning their buildings to collect insurance money ( a phenomenon which reached epidemic proportions from the late 60’s through the late 70’s) did they do so because the Bronx public schools were performing poorly or did they do so because the job losses referred to in Question 1 made it difficult for South Bronx tenants to pay their rent?

Third, when the city of New York during the 1975 fiscal crisis, decided to eliminate music programs in the public schools, and shut down the after school centers and night centers which had been fixtures in every public school in the city since the early 1950’s, did they do so to punish the public schools for failing to educate their students properly, or because banks refused to lend money to keep the city government afloat unless they made drastic reductions in youth services no longer deemed “essential?”

Fourth, when a crack epidemic swept through the Bronx from the mid 1980’s through the mid

1990’s, did it do so because the schools were failing to do their job, or because young people in the Bronx gravitated to the underground economy because there were no legal job opportunities available and because youth recreation programs had been devastated by budget cuts?

Presented in chronological order, these were the four great tragedies that led the Bronx, once a place where upwardly mobile Black and Latino families moved to in search of better housing, better schools and safer communities ( from the 1930’s through the 1950’s) become a international symbol of urban decay and urban violence.

Can anyone seriously argue that” failing schools” were the major cause for this chain of disasters, or were the causes to be found in global movements of capital, investment decisions by banks, landlords and local businesses, and government policies that took resources and services out of Bronx neighborhoods and Bronx institutions, including public schools

Mark Naison

July 11, 2011

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Why I Am Wary of Geoffrey Canada As a Social Commentator

Why I am Wary of Geoffrey Canada As a Social Commentator
Dr Mark Naison
Fordham University
I have been wary of Geoffrey Canada as a social commentator ever since he published a book called "Fist,Knife, Stick Gun" whose first section describes the Morrisania section of the South Bronx in the 1950's and 1960's as a hell hole, a place plagued with violence and negativity. Violence and negativity there certainly was, but there were also great neighborhood sports programs, vibrant churches, great music and arts programs in the public schools, and many mentors and "old heads" who helped guide young people away from trouble. Canada's grim vision of this predominantly Black section of the Bronx, contradicted by liiterally scores of interviews I did with people who lived in the same community, was a disturbing example of literary "tunnel vision"- an author's propensity to make his personal experience universal. By contrast, read Allen Jones "The Rat That Got Away: a Bronx Memoir", set South Bronx housing projects and neighborhoods in the same time period, whch recognizes that the same community could contain hustlers, political activists, striving students, gang leaders, protective parents, drug dealers and inspired teachers and mentors.

Today, Canada's seems to apply the same tunnel vision to education when he views failing schools as the bane of struggling neighborhoods and says that private business would never tolerate such failures. But such a comment could only be made by someone who doesn't examine the role of the private sector in America's inner city neighborhoods,, which was to shut down operations, and move out when neighborhood conditions and global economic trends made them unprofitable. While public schools in these communities remained open,, factories shut own, banks closed their doors,,insurance companies and banks redlined the areas, landlords abandoned and burned properties, and whole business districts disappeared.. In many cases, it was neighorhood public schools, hardpressed and occasionally disorderly as they were ( read Janet Mayer's wonderful book "As Bad As They Say: Three Decades of Teaching in the Bronx") were the one place where young people could find support and inspiration when they were abanoned by private capital, and savage by government cutbacks.

To now hold them up to scrutiny as failures in an otherwise successful society can only be done by erasing what has happened in inner city America in the last 40 years. Global economic trends, coupled with government policies which siphoned wealth upward, destabilized and in some instances destroyed inner city neighborhoods, not teachers unions and poorly run public schools.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Exposing Education Reform's Big Lie: It is Jobs and Political Mobilization, Not Schools Which Lift People Out of Poverty

Exposing Education Reform’s Big Lie: It is Jobs and Political Mobilization, Not Schools Which Lift People Out of Poverty

Dr Mark Naison

Fordham University

Once again, a major cheating scandal has been uncovered in an urban school district. What happened in Houston ten years ago ( but not before it’s allegedly miraculous test score gains helped spawn No Child Left Behind) has happened in Atlanta. A state investigation has uncovered systematic falsification of test scores by teachers, principals, and district administrators in a district where careers could be made or broken by those results, leading to the resignation of the district superintendant and potential suspensions, and possibly criminal indictments, or scores of teachers and principals

To regard what took place in Atlanta as an exception to an otherwise unblemished record of probity in administering standardized tests would be like regarding Bernie Madoff’s ponzi scheme as an aberration in an otherwise healthy financial system. In each instance, unscrupulous individuals took the basic tenets of a flawed system to an extreme. In the case of Madoff, he provided clients with high returns based on non-existent investments, rather than flawed ones ( subprime mortgages packed into Triple A bonds); in the case of Atlanta, officials decided to invent impossible results rather than browbeat and terminate teachers and principals when they didn’t achieve them.

Let us be clear- the Atlanta scandal is the logical outcome of a national movement, supported by government and private capital, to radically improve school performance and hopefully lift people out of poverty, through a centrally imposed and rigidly administered combination of privatization, competition, material incentives and high stakes testing. You would think that a movement which commands such widespread support, and extraordinary resources, has a history of proven examples, either in the US, or other nations, to guide its implementation.

But the truth is that there is not a single time in American history- with the exception of the ten years following the end of slavery- where you can point to educational reform as a factor which lifted a group out of poverty, or allowed an important minority group to improve its status relative to the majority population. The kind of “heavy” lifting required to do that, with that one exception of the Reconstruction Era during which activists founded schools for a people once denied literacy, has come, not from top down educational reform, but from bottom up political mobilization, coupled with changes in labor markets which radically improve earning opportunities for the group in question.

Let us look at the one moment in the 20th Century where the African American population not only experienced a rapid improvement in its economic status, but improved its status relative to whites, the time between 1940 and 1950. During those ten years, black per capital income rose from 44% of the white total to 57%. This income growth was not only a result of wartime prosperity, and Black migration from the rural to urban areas, but a result of the protest movement launched by A Phillip Randolph in 1941 to demand equal treatment for Blacks in the emerging war economy, as well as the enrollment of Black workers in industrial unions. Randolph’s march on Washington Movement didn’t lead to the desegregation of the armed forces, but it did lead President Roosevelt to issue a proclamation requiring non-discriminatory employment in defense industries and to create a Commission to enforce this decree. While huge pockets of discrimination remained, African Americans, women as well as men, found work in factories throughout the nation producing ships, aircraft, and motorized vehicles and were enrolled in the unions that represented the bulk of workers involved in war production.

In Detroit, in Los Angeles, in Youngstown, in Pittsburgh, in Richmond California, Black workers, many of them newly arrived in the South were earning incomes four to five times what they would have made as sharecroppers or tenant farmers and had union protection in their places of employment. This economic revolution spawned a political revolution, with nearly 500,000 African Americans joining the NAACP, and a cultural one as well, with rhythm and blues becoming the music of choice for the emerging black working class, inspiring clubs and radio stations and small record labels to cater to this rapidly growing black consumer market.

Though educational opportunities for blacks did improve in this period, it was changes in the job market, fought for, and consolidated by grass roots political movements, reinforced by strong labor unions, that were the primary engine of change.

There is a lesson here that activists and educators should consider. If you want to improve economic conditions in Black and working class neighborhoods, than it would make more sense to raise incomes, either by unionizing low wage industries, or demanding that tax revenues be directed into job creation, rather than trying to legislate magical improvements in schools based on results on standardized tests.

Children living in impoverished communities cannot be magically vaulted into the middle class by pounding information into their heads and testing them on it relentlessly . However, their parents, and older brothers and sisters, can be lifted into the middle class through jobs that offer decent incomes and security coupled with opportunity for personal advancement through education.

School Reform is the American Elite’s preferred response to poverty and inequality, a strategy that requires no sacrifice, no redistribution nor any self-organization by America’s disfranchised groups. Every day, it is proving itself a dismal failure

It’s time that a new strategy be launched that focuses on jobs, economic opportunity and the redistribution of wealth, one linking civil rights groups, unions, and people living in working class and poor communities who have watched wealth and opportunity be siphoned out of their communities by the very wealthy- the same people, ironically, who are the biggest supporters of School Reform!

Mark Naison

Friday, July 1, 2011

Cerebral Innovators:Four African American Athletes Who Reinvented Guard Play in the NBA Without Unleashing a Single Dunk

Cerebral Innovators: Four African American Athletes Who Reinvented Guard Play in the NBA Without Unleashing a Single Dunk

Professor Mark Naison
Fordham University

Nothing irritates me more in the contemporary popular discourse on race and sports than the presumption that Black athletes have revolutionized the game of basketball, along with other major American sports, largely through strength speed and jumping ability. Such an assumption flies in the face of my own experience, not only as a schoolyard basketball player in Brooklyn, Manhattan and the Bronx-where I met numerous Black players who had only average physical skills, but helped their teams win through their knowledge of the game- but as a close observer and fan of the NBA, where Black athletes changed the game as much through artistry and intellect as through raw physical ability

No where is this more true than in the evolution of guard lay in the NBA. From the mid 1950’s through the mid 1970’s, a revolution in guard play took place in the National Basketball League largely through the influence of four African American athletes whose mastery of the game came through guile, intellect, and a mastery of spacing, angles and spins. At a time when we tend to exoticize Black athletes as physical specimens whose dominant attribute is leaping ability, it is instructive to recall these remarkable individuals who achieved extraordinary success not by outrunning or out jumping their white counterparts, but with body control, anticipation and a uncanny ability to see everything going on around them,, a skill set most often associated with athletes like Wayne Gretsky in Hockey and Lionel Messi in soccer.

The players I had in mind are Lenny Wilkens, Oscar Robertson, Earl Monroe and Nate “Tiny” Archibald, Not one of these players had dunking or high flying acrobatics as part of their arsenal of weapons yet they were unstoppable offensive forces who made their team mates better. For those of you who did not get a chance to see them in person, I want to give brief portraits of each player.

Lenny Wilkens, of mixed African American and Irish ancestry, came out of Brooklyn in the 1950’s and was a star at Providence College before playing in the NBA. Though he is perhaps best known as one of the most successful coaches in NBA history, he was an extraordinary force in the league for at least ten years. Less than 6’1” tall, slight of build, Wilkens could get to the basket and score at will even though he only drove left. The key was quickness, timing and an ability to vary the angles of his layups. Everyone knew Wilkens was driving left, but no one could stop him. He understood how small variations in the timing of his drives, as well as his ability to pass accurately when moving at top speed, made trying to block his shots almost impossible. Today, Wilkens legacy is kept alive by guards like Chris Paul. In his time, his game was sheer genius

Oscar Robertson, Wilkens contemporary, was a very different type of athlete, and in his era was widely regarded as the greatest player who ever lived. Robertson, out of Crispus Attacks High School in Indianapolis and the University of Cincinatti, was a 6’5” guard, 225 pound guard whose shooting and ball handling skills were the equal of guards in the league who were half a foot smaller. But Robertson, who was always close to the top of the league in rebounding and scoring as well as assists, impacted the game as much through his fierce intelligence as his physical skills. Robertson was one of the first guards in the protect the ball by backing his defender in and he could do so without losing sight of either the basket or his team mates. As a result, it was virtually impossible to steal the ball from him or to block his shot, which he took from behind his head rather than the top of his leap. With his combination of size, strength, shooting ability and uncanny court vision, Robertson was literally unstoppable. For most of his career, he averaged 30 points and 10 assists as game and was regarded with awe, respect, and more than a little fear by opponents and team mates alike. By showing how you could move the ball effectively up the court, as well as position yourself to score, with your back to the basket , Robertson single handedly forged a place for a tall player as combination ball handler, passer and scorer, a mantle later taken up by Magic Johnson. One of the key’s to his success was his ability to maintain balance and body control with the ball in his possession over all 90 feet of the court/.With movements that were economical, graceful, and single mindedly result oriented, never for show, Oscar Robertson dominated the game with his feet firmly on the ground.

Earl Monroe , our of Philadelphia and Winston Salem College, took Oscar Robertson’s innovations and brought to them to life with a showman’s flair when he entered the NBA in the mid 60’s. Whether bringing the ball up the court, or positioning himself to shoot, Monroe had an uncanny ability to spin sided to side, with his back to the basket, without ever losing control of the ball or his body. No one had ever seen a basketball player move backwards and side to side with such grace and speed, leaving defenders confused and crowds shouting in astonishment and joy.(his nickname in the Philadelphia schoolyards was “Black Jesus!”) Monroe had an artists sensibility as well as an artists grace, but his unique way of moving also created numerous opportunities to score.. Opponents never knew when he was going to interrupt his spins to drive, pull up and shoot, (passing wasn’t Monroe’s forte!) and when he shot, you never could predict its point of release. Unlike Oscar Robertson whose jump shot was a thing of beauty and had the exact same release point, Monroe’s outside shot was a one handed push that he could take in the air or on the ground from a seemingly infinite variety of angles. As a result, even though Monroe, was, at best, an average leaper, with only average foot speed, his shot was virtually impossible to block, and he was a 20 point scorer for most of his time in the league.

Our final basketball innovator was the Bronx’s own Nate “Tiny” Archibald out of DeWitt Clinton HS and Texas El Paso. Archibald, in many ways was the second coming of Lenny Wilkens, a 6’1” guard who could drive to the basket any time he wanted to and whose lay ups could not be blocked. Archibald, like Wilkens had an exquisite sense of the geometry of the game, and could vary the trajectory and spin of his layups as well as their release point, making it almost impossible even for tall players with great leaping ability to figure out when the ball was coming out of his hand. Archibald who could drive right as well as left, unlike Wilkens, added another weapon to Wilkens arsenal of quick slashing drives,, using the basket to protect the ball. If a defender looked like he had great position on one side of the basket, Archibald simply continued through to the other side and laid the ball off the backboard in the reverse, with the rim keeping the defender from reaching the ball. None of the extraordinary variations in Archibald’s lay ups required him to be more than one or two inches above the rim height, yet he was able to average close to 30 points a game during his early years in the league while having only a mediocre outside shot. Archibald, like the other athletes I have discussed, reinvented the physics of guard play, by pioneering new ways of moving that depended on throwing opponents off balance rather than physically overpowering them.

The snapshot portraits of these great players, all of whom I have watched in action on numerous occation, one of whom I know personally, should serve as a reminder not to essentialize Black athletes in ways that erases their intellect, creativity, discipline and skill. The modern game of basketball owes a great deal to these four innovators who changed ball handling and scoring from the guard position, and have made it possible for many different kind of athletes, with a wide variety of skill sets, to play that position in this great and increasingly global sport

Mark Naison
July 1, 2011