Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Obama Supporters and the Coming Spring Offensive of the Occupy Movements

The way things are looking now, the Occupy movement is going to come back stronger than ever this spring. Occupy activists have been implanting themselves in working class communities around the country, resisting evictions and foreclosures, helping teachers, parents and students fight school closings, organizing against tuition increases and student debt, helping organize community movements against racial profiling and police violence. All of these movements are likely to grow in the spring months, leading to fierce confrontations with Mayors determined to continue current policies in all these areas. There are going to be marches, rallies, sit ins, building occupations, sing ins in the courts, as well as attempts to revive the actual occupations that were cleared out in the late fall and early winter. This time, the protests will be far more multiracial and connected to labor and working class issues than they were when Occupy Wall Street began, and the protests and disorder could occur in working class neighborhoods as well as downtown business districts

Based on the response I and others have gotten when we raise sharp criticisms of the Obama Administration's education policies, we can expect Obama supporters to urge protesters to "chill out." lest they jeopardize the Presidents re-election campaign. These pleas are likely to fall on deaf ears. The vast majority of activists I know believe cultivation of grass roots protests and the creation of a new vision of popular democracy is the transcendent priority, not making sure the Democratic Party controls the White House. In their view, this President is in no moral position to ask activists to sacrifice their goals, because he has sacrificed so many of the goals activists had hoped his Presidency would work towards. Their view of his historic moment can be summarized by the late Historian/Activist Howard Zinn "It is less important who is sitting in the White House than who is sitting in."

So prepare for a tumultuous spring and a long hot summer. No one is going to stop anything they planned to do to influence the Presidential election, especially since no one really knows what effect on elections protests will actually have

As for Obama supporters, they are welcome to join our protests, or better yet try to persuade the administration to change some of its policies with respect to education, criminal justice, environment, civil liberties and issues of war and peace. all of which have left many activists profoundly dissatisfied.

Two Black Women, Education Policy and the Shame of a Nation

Two black women, Tanya McDowell, sentenced to 12 years in prison for providing a fake address to get her child into a better school system in Connecticut; and Pacale Mauclair, attacked and humiliated by the New York Post as "the worst teacher in NY" on the basis of bogus Teacher Data Reports even though she was a great teacher at a great school, symbolize the insanity of current education policies promoted by both major parties. Hypersegregation,universal testing, privatization and demonization of teachers is what they offer in the face of growing racial and economic inequality. And their desperation to achieve results with ill considered, unproven policies leads to cruelty and scapegoating. The stories of Tanya McDowell and Pascale Mauclair are the Shame of a Nation, a shame in which many people are complicit. If there is a worse time in the history of US Education in the last 50 years, I have trouble figuring out when that was

Monday, February 27, 2012

Shame of a City, Shame of A Nation- Publication of Teacher Data Reports in NYC Leads to a Media Attacks on individual Teachers

This morning, when they return to work after vacation, teachers at more than twenty New York City public schools will face a gauntlet of reporters asking them about the Teacher Data Reports that were published during their winter vacation. Some will be singled out for personal humiliation, others will be asked to comment on their colleague’s abilities. What began as effort to quantify teacher performance has ended up as a spectacle of public humiliation of individual teachers unparalleled in the City’s history, the moral equivalent of the Salem Witch Trials or the purge of Hollywood Communists, with all the power and ruthlessness of commercial media unleashed. Some of the city’s best teachers – whom this ridiculous system assigned low scores- are going to be treated as though they were politicians caught frequenting Hookers or baseball stars caught using steroids, all in front of the children they teach

Although none of the people who developed this pernicious rating system, from Columbia Law Professor Jim Leibman who served as Department of Education “Accountability Officer when it was created to then Chancellor Joel Klein would say that this is what they had in mind, it is exactly what critics of the system WARNED would happened when It was first introduced. But neither Leibman or Klein, who are both lawyers, took those criticism seriously because, like many people driving education reform in the US today, they had become expert at blocking out the voices of teachers and principals “on the ground,” whom they regarded as too self-interested to be trusted with needed reforms.

Now they will reap the whirlwind- an atmosphere of public hysteria surrounding teacher performance- based a rating system so flawed it is an embarrassment to anyone who can understand it[ that will damage teacher morale for years and ratchet up tensions between teachers and parents, teachers and students, and between teachers, principals and the Department of Education leadership.

What makes this spectacle all the more appalling is that it was endorsed by US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan- another expert at blocking out educator voices- who publicly supported publication of the Teacher Data in a statement to the press. To put the matter bluntly, Teacher Bashing has now become official national policy

What we have here is not only the Shame of a City, it is the Shame of a Nation

Anyone who thinks this will help improve the quality of schools for America’s children, especially those living in poverty, or on the edge of poverty, is densely ignorant of History as well as of Teaching and Learning

Friday, February 24, 2012

Letter to Planned Parenthood on Accepting Support from Michael Bloomberg

Dear Planned Parenthood,

I love you all. I've been a longtime supporter. I give money when I can. And I do things like make pro-Planned-Parenthood t-shirts for family to wear when you're under attack. I'm currently a college professor, and was formerly a NYC public school teacher.

I'm writing because I'm deeply troubled by Mayor Bloomberg's recent decisions. I believe them to be in direct conflict with Planned Parenthood's commitment to equity and access. In the past week, it has come to light that Bloomberg has overseen the NYPD infiltration of university-based Muslim Students Associations. Now today, despite the concerns of so many, NYC released teachers' value-added data test score data to the public. Even the level-headed economist who helped develop these measures and data reports states that the decision to make them public is, "unwise at best, absurd at worst."

As I know you are aware, Muslim Americans are at the forefront of the new racial profiling; when you accept Bloomberg's money, you become part of a network that elevates his status and makes it difficult for others to take strident positions against him. What comes at some benefit to the organization, comes at a great symbolic cost to justice. Likewise, let me remind you: teachers are overwhelmingly women; that is not unrelated to the ease with which politicians and billionaires so readily dismiss and demean them. New York City public schools teachers work with the children of the very families you claim to serve. These teachers do not have the luxury of Bloomberg's bankroll, but if they did, I can assure you, you'd be receiving $250,000 many many many times over. If I had it to give myself, it would be yours for the taking.

Here is my ultimate point: as an organization, there is nothing more critical than staying true to your admirable mission - a mission that inspires so many of us, and keeps alive in our hearts the hope of more equitable access to high quality healthcare, particularly in the area of family planning and reproductive health. Give Bloomberg back his money. It's tied to practices that stand in stark contrast to everything you represent.

I know these are such tough times, but it is in tough times that we look to our established equity warriors to make decisions on principle.

If there is some wayI can be of assistance, please let me know. I'm a humble supporter, but a committed one.


Lauren Anderson

The Voice of a Teacher the Educational Reformers Don't Want Us to Hear

This is an excerpt of a letter I just received from a veteran public school teacher in Philadelphia sent me, someone who has spent more than 25 years in that system. It represents a voice that has been erased from the debate over education policy. Please remember it the next time you hear a politician, or a business leader blame veteran teachers, not only for everything that is wrong with our schools, but everything that is wrong with our country.

I don't know what makes students like me, my classes or go beyond the call of duty to "help" me.
I am not pretty, I speak my mind whether it is deemed appropriate or not. I joke with them; by that I mean they are often the butt of my jokes. I am demanding; will not accept anything less than what I want from them.

I dog them at school and at home. I continuously "drop a dime" on them to their folks even though I don't know all the languages of students I teach. I exposure them to their peer group, but ONLY after they start with me first.

I will drag them to the Teacher's bathroom if they are infusing the classroom air I so graciously let them breathe with their body odor to bathe, counsel and groom them.

I teach them to write storybooks online, do PowerPoint presentations from grade 2 onward, have made them use Photoshop and Dreamweaver to do projects even though they are English Language Learners.

Even with ALL I do they deem I am in need of help. They are at the school door to carry my laptop and whatever else up 58 steps to my room. I am unable to prepare my own classroom for the first class' lesson without their help. I also need help to eat my lunch. I need help after school. I cannot lock my room or carry my things down at the end of the day. I need help to my car. I simply cannot survive without them, so they think.

After being such a ruthless, persnickety, demanding and ridiculously helpless individual, so many of my students tell me they want to be teachers when they grow up; just like me.

'Splain THAT Loo-cee!

Don't give up hope Mark.



Those Involved with Releasing Teacher Data Reports Belong in Education Hall of Shame

The Teacher Data Reports being released today by major NY newspapers are profoundly inaccurate, as well as deeply demoralizing, according to principal after principal I have spoken to. They are based on narrow statistical variations in test scores from year to year that have no meaning in real life. Some of the best and most respected teachers ( as judged by their colleagues, parents and students) score lowest, while some of the least respected teachers score at the top. A more counterproductive strategy for school transformation could not have been invented. Anyone who thinks this kind of publicly humiliation will motivate teachers to improve is, to put it bluntly, profoundly misguided because it will drive people with pride and talent out of the profession, and make those who run the NYC Department of Education a laughing stock to everyone who works in the New York City public schools. This is what happens when people who know nothing about teaching and learning are put in charge of the nation's largest urban school system. Every single person involved in creating, computing, disseminating and publishing these reports deserves a permanent place in the Public Education Hall of Shame

Thursday, February 23, 2012

"Goodbye Kotter" The Transformation of the Image of the Inner City Teacher in American Popular Culture

When I was driving to work today, I was thinking how strange it is that the inner city teacher has become the subject of a discourse of demonization in almost every portion of American society, from Hollywood, to the press, to business and foundation leadership. to the White House and the US Department of Education. The defining moment for me, in terms of the teacher as scapegoat for the nation’s problems, was when the Secretary of Education and the President praised the mass firing of teachers in Central Falls Rhode Island, but the barrage has continued with the production of the movie “Waiting for Superman,” the Hollywood film “Bad Teachers” and the vicious attacks on teachers and teachers union recently made by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. If you followed this argument, you would think that “bad teachers” and their defenders, were responsible for the persistence of poverty, the Black white test score gap, and the weakness of the US in the global economy.
It was not always thus. While teachers have always been a subject of bemused contempt, with expressions like “those who can do, those who can’t teach” being part of the national vocabulary, it is also true that there were once many powerful images of the inner city teacher/principal/.coach as hero in American popular culture. From “Up the Down Staircase” to “Dangerous Minds” to “Stand and Deliver,” Hollywood gave us portraits of teachers who devoted their lives to helping students in tough circumstances gain confidence and realize their potential. This positive portrayal also extended to sports and the arts, where three of my all time favorite movies showed the power of teachers who worked in those areas to work miracles—“Fame,” “Wildcats” and “Remember the Titans.” And finally, in the world of television sit com, there was the show “Welcome Back Kotter” which presented a humorous, but ultimately inspirational picture of a person who returned to teach in the Brooklyn high school he attended.
I feel a deep sense of sadness in writing this. There are still heroes teaching, and serving as principals, in some of the nation’s toughest neighborhoods I know scores of such individuals in the Bronx- one of whom, Principal Paul Cannon of PS 140 in the Morrisania section of the Bronx, has become a dear friend, yet popular discourse about education erases their accomplishments in inspiring and motivating students, n favor of a narrow obsession with test scores
How can we inspire young people devote their lives to the teaching profession if 90 percent of what we say about teachers is disparaging or contemptuous?
The answer, of course, is that we can’t and we won’t. If we stay on the current path, teaching will become a temporary job and students will have teachers who have little emotional stake in their jobs and who view them in strictly instrumental terms, as takers of tests upon whose results the teachers professional status rests
Then if we are going to produce a sitcom, we could call it “Goodbye Kotter” because the real teachers, the ones who love their students and see their careers as a lifetime calling, are going to be driven out

Other People's Children

Hello Michael Moore and Matt Damon! I have a title for a new movie we would like you to make about the corporate school reform movement. We could call it "Other People's Children" because no school reformer would DREAM of sending their child to a school which had as much testing and drilling as the public schools and charter schools reformers have “transformed” to conform to No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. You can juxtapose images of enthusiastic children of many nationalities doing art and science projects in groups of 15 under the aegis of a smiling teacher ( think Dalton or Sidwell Friends) with groups of 30 Black and Brown children sitting in rows memorizing material for tests under the direction of a grim faced teacher who looks as stressed out as the children in from of her. This will show the real life consequences of corporate education reform- schooling for the children of the wealthy that emphasizes creativity and student agency; schooling for everyone else that emphasizes drilling and regimentation. You won’t have to do much research to make this film- you can find both kinds of schools in every city in the United States, though there are probably 10 times as many schools that fit into the second category as into the first.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

When Will the Sleeping Giant Awake? The Coming Response of Young People Beset by Police Harassment, Regimented Schools and a Grim Job Market

The other day, I was at a meeting in the Bronx where a group of activists were presenting evidence of police misconduct to someone from the US Justice Department. The stories they were telling, of sweeps and searches, home invasions, arbitrary arrests and beatings, threats made to those who challenged police violence, were frightening and depressing, but most ominous of all was a comment made by a local activist who, in his own words, was near the end of his rope with the way police were brutalizing people in Bronx communities. Young people in the Bronx, he warned, were more likely to” go to war” with the police than join non-violent protests against police misconduct. He didn’t say what form such a war would take and I didn’t ask, but none of the scenarios that came to mind were very comforting.

Then today, less than a week later, I read a powerful article on the dismantling and reorganization of New York City’s public schools by the Bloomberg Department of Education which contained the following comment on students whose lives are being turned upside down by these policies: "Bloomberg's Children," refers to the victimized students created by Bloomberg policy, the ever increasing student population of low functioning, antisocial students entering High Schools. Freshmen are increasingly disruptive and disrespectful to teachers and staff, fearless toward authority with no inclination to obey regulations. Many are apathetic and most of them believe they are entitled the freedom to act as they please. Some ominously display no sign of conscience and have little to no self-control or respect for the law, no less rules.”

When I put two and two together, I concluded that people in New York and other major cities were sitting on a time bomb. Over the past 15 years, the War on Drugs and increasingly invasive School Reform movement has vastly increased the police presence in the lives of young people of color inside their neighborhoods and out, while subjecting them to increasing regimentation in the schools they attend. In New York City, the number of young people stopped and frisked,87 percent of whom are young people of color, has multiplied six times since 2003, while schools have vastly increased the number of standardized tests and the weight assigned to them, while phasing out vocational programs and cutting sports and the arts. Everywhere young people turn, they are being regimented, evaluated, and placed under surveillance, and if they show too many signs of resistance, taken into custody. Their voices are rarely heard, and even more rarely solicited, not on matters of police policy, not on matters of what goes on in their schools. They are objects of an incredibly concentrated effort to regulate their behavior, which, whether intentional or not, keeps them confined in the hyper-segregated neighborhood where they live, and confines what they learn to preparation for entry level work in the lowest wage sections of the economy, or for the military

This confinement strategy is not likely to work forever, especially since there is no carrot to accompany the stick. There are no good jobs to parcel out as reward for good behavior- there is only more of the same regimentation and surveillance in retail sales the fast food industry, and security work their education prepares them for. At some point, these young people will begin to rebel and in the right circumstances their rebellion will spread with the rapidity of Occupy Wall Street. It could be school walkouts that are the trigger, it could be commodity riots in the form of Flash mobs; it could be mass resistance to intrusive policing; it could be none of the above.

But one thing is almost certain. You cannot beat down and repress such a large number of people without generating a response. Where it comes, and when it comes may be a mystery, but come it will. And when it does, it will shake this nation to its foundations.

Monday, February 20, 2012

How Test Mandates and Budget Cuts Result in “Cruel and Unusual Punishment” for the Nation’s Children

Yesterday evening, I was at a dinner with a group of activists from Eastern Long Island who shared many disturbing stories about what was going on in local schools. One narrative centered on the consequences of growing poverty- the fact that a significant minority of students were coming to school hungry; the other on budget cuts. In the school districts in question, budget deficits, without exception were being answered by cuts to programs deemed “non-essential,” e.g. pre-K, sports and the arts, as well as by laying off teachers and increasing class size. No district was contemplating saving money by reducing or eliminating standardized tests as this might threaten their state and federal funding.

These stories are a microcosm of a poisonous atmosphere that has afflicted public education in the United States in the current recession. School districts filled with children from economically distressed families are being assailed by government mandates that require more and more standardized tests, while programs that allow students to be nurtured and inspired and connected to school through programs which build on their cultural capital are being eliminated right and left because they have become “too expensive.”

Make no mistake about it, the punitive, stressed filled environment that No Child Left Behind and Race to the Hop has created is good for no ones children. But it is especially damaging to children who come to school hungry and fearful because their families are living on the edge. The last thing these students need is for school to become a place where stressed out teachers yell at them, drill them and make them sit still for hours on end because those teachers jobs will be in jeopardy if the students don’t score well on tests. But that is exactly what the policies pursued by US Department of Education lead to when they require that student test scores be a central component of teacher evaluation. This is happening in very state, including New York which has competed for Race to the Top funding. But it also occurring in states which have not sought those funds because of a national obsession with testing and assessment. Not one state in the union has decided to sacrifice testing, rather than pre-K sports, and arts programs, when they need to save money.

The amount of testing being required by current mandates would be unwise even in a prosperous society where every child comes to school well housed, well clothed and well fed. But in a society where a over a quarter of the nation’s children live in poverty another quarter are in danger of falling into it, taking away activities that make school enjoyable in favor of relentless drilling for tests constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. These students need schools which are safe zones, places where they can get love and attention, have new skills developed, and have their cultural traditions honored and recognized. Instead, they now enter a fear filled environment where people’s livelihoods depend on their achieving success on tests totally disconnected to their lived experience

I supposed there have been societies where schools try to whip children into submission to get them ready for their appointed roles in the lowest rungs of a rigidly stratified labor force. Perhaps this was the norm in Charles Dickens England, or in the plantation districts of the Jim Crow South. But the thought of this becoming the norm in the public schools of the United States in the 21st Century fills be with sadness

As citizens of this nation, we face some very hard choices., If testing and regimentation all we can offer the young people of this nation during their formative years, then we should continue with current policies

But if we think our children deserve better, we have no choice but to revolt and demand that tests be rolled back and public schools become places where children are nurtured and loved, and imagination and creativity are honored.

Mark Naison
February 19, 2012, .

Saturday, February 18, 2012

On the “Low IQ’s” of Working Class Americans- A Response to Charles Murray and His Defenders

Author Charles Murray has recently published a book which claims that a large section of the white population in the US is pulling the country down because they have poor work habits, don’t marry, and are indifferent to schools, all reflecting the emergence of demographic pockets where people of low intelligence congregate. Funny thing, no body complained of the Low IQ’s of working class Americans when they mined coal, harvested wheat, made steel, worked the docks, picked cotton, sewed hats and coats and dresses, assembled cars and planes and boats at breakneck speed, and risk their lives in slaughterhouses so that meat could be an integral part of the American diet. The grand parents and great grand parents of America’s poor, Black and White and Latino, supplied the labor that made the United States the world’s greatest industrial power and now that you’ve closed most of the factories or moved their operations abroad you complain that their descendents are holding America back because of their lack of intelligence and questionable moral standards. We have tens of millions of people in this country who have been used and discarded by those who control big corporations and now scholars like Charles Murray say THEY are holding the nation back. What has held this nation back is leaders of this nation who have sold out America’s working people to enrich themselves, And more and more working class Americans are smart enough to recognize this..

Friday, February 17, 2012

Living in a Mayoral Police State: The Violence and Intimidation that Underlies New York's Emergence as a City for the Global Elite

No matter where you come from, New York is a great city if you have money. There are great universities and medical centers, unmatched theater dance and music, fantastic restaurants and cafes open all hours of the day and night, cool hip neighborhoods in Brooklyn Manhattan and Queens where you can sample the global counterculture, terrific architecture, beautiful parks, and interesting ethnic neighborhoods to visit if you are adventurous. But it is a very different city if you are poor, or a young person living in the hyper-segregated working class neighborhoods that cover half of Brooklyn and Queens and nearly all of the Bronx. There, the city's huge police force, unchecked by the law, the Constitution, systematically harass and intimidate young people through relentless searches, through armed sweeps of neighborhoods and occasionally of schools, and by the fierce and sometimes deadly application of force not only to major acts of resistance, but innocent, peaceful questioning of police tactics and motives. The result:- young people of color walk in fear in the neighborhoods where they live and in the schools they attended, and rarely dare to enter the prosperous neighborhoods where the global elite live, work, eat and enjoy the city's unmatched cultural opportunities. And this is exactly what the Mayor wants. A city where the working class majority is beaten, cowed, and fearful, providing the labor that keeps the global elite playground humming, but never disturbs that elite's reveries with their presence. Control is the key to Michael Bloomberg's New York, control of the streets through an overpowering police presence, control of the schools through a regime that uses testing and evaluation to compel obedience, not only on the part of the students, but of teachers and administrators as well.

Will this regime of control last? Time will tell. The Occupy Movement has made a small crack in this facade of omnipotence, but the Mayoral Police State, reinforced by the War on Drugs and the sol-called "War on Terror" is confident, wealthy and deeply entrenched and it will take a much higher level of protest than we have seen this far to bring even a modicum of democracy and human rights to the working people of this global metropolis

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

A Case of Misplaced Blame- How The REAL Culprits in America’s Decline are Shifting Responsibility to Schools and Teachers

After the publication of my first book, in 1983, I went on a lecture tour that had stops in several Northeastern industrial cities. My travels took me to Buffalo, Youngstown, Bridgeport, Newark, Detroit ,Trenton, Philadelphia, and Baltimore and since I was speaking about labor history, my hosts always took me on tours of the city’s industrial districts. What I saw sent chills through me. I watched the great Ford River Rouge plant in Detroit, which once employed 44,000 workers, be reduced to rubble. I drove along ten mile of the Mongahela River near Youngstown and saw the skeletons of steel mills, surrounded by tires and rotting lumber. I took tours of the East Side of Buffalo where every other house was shuttered and every other lot was empty, where beautiful cathedrals were half abandoned, their stained glass windows covered with wood planks, and abandoned warehouses dotted the landscape. I drove through sections of Baltimore and North Philadelphia where once proud row houses were boarded up and crumbling, and where industrial building with shattered windows created a landscape of decay that matched the atmosphere of despair and defeat on the streets.

Here, before my eyes, I saw the consequences of globalization, de industrialization, and economic stagnation, and they were terrible indeed. The people living in these communities, especially the young people, were navigating landscapes that comparable to those you see in the aftermath of warfare, and in their eyes you saw the fear and uncertainty of people who feared they had become as disposable as the industries that once dotted those communities

But in those communities, there was one set of institutions that remained functioning and intact, and those were the neighborhood public schools. No matter what happened in the surrounding area, their doors remained open and they tried to serve young people whose lives were being turned inside out by a catastrophe of a kind that no one thought could take place in the United States of America. I visited those schools and while they showed serious signs of decay, and often seemed overwhelmed by the problems deeply wounded students brought inside their doors, they were in truth, their neighborhoods most important “safe zones,” and at times provided an uplift for everyone through the artistic events they put on and the success of their teams

Now flash ahead twenty years later and these very same schools are being blamed for the economic failures of the communities they are located in, and the educational failures of the students they work with. Their teachers are being publicly pilloried as overpaid and selfish, and a drain on a national economy that requires schools to be run with the efficiency of American business.

My reaction to this is "what? American business? Efficient?" Whose failing enterprises left ten miles of waterfront in Youngstown a wasteland of rusting steel, rotting lumber and old tires, took three quarters of the jobs away from the largest auto producing center in the nation and left the majority of its adult males without employment, and created an 150 miles stretch of Amtrak from Newark to Baltimore that contains at least 500 abandoned factories and warehouses that never have been rebuilt!

And that was just the 80’s and 90’s! Whose uncontrolled financial speculation led to the failure of Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch and A.I.G. along with the disappearance of 7 Trillion Dollars in wealth once owned by individuals, pension funds, banks and insurance companies? Are 28 percent of the homes in the United States under water because of union teachers? Can they also be blamed for the 44 percent Black unemployment rate in the city of Milwaukee?

America’s public schools were never perfect. But they helped hold the country together through wrenching economic crises that left many communities deeply wounded and many Americans wondering if there was a real future left for them. And it was never easy. Some of what went on in our most economically depressed schools involved real courage and heroism. All of it required patience and hard work.

And one of the things these schools did is show that you could effectively run institutions without huge salaries and bonuses for executives and without a huge gap between the employees and their managers. In most public schools, the principals salary was never more than a third higher than the highest paid teacher, rather than the 400 to 1 CEO to work ratio that now exists in American industry. And maybe that was one of the reasons that public schools survived economic crises better than private companies, whose top executives never missed an opportunity to pillage a failing firm for their “golden parachutes.”

If I sound ironic, and maybe a little bitter, it’s because I think most elected officials have it all wrong. It is not American business which is the great success story and public education the dismal failure, but the other way around. Maybe it’s time to bring teachers and administrators into our top firms and have them show how to run things without wasting huge amounts of money on executive salaries, and without making people work in constant fear of being fired

But though that vision is unlikely to come to pass, perhaps it is time to look more realistically at the role our public schools have played in America’s transition from an industrial society into service information society which has left huge portions of our population out in the cold. And to give educators the respect they deserve for handling one of the most difficult jobs in the society with a lot more endurance and courage and generosity than their counterparts in the private sector

Mark Naison
February 15, 2012

It's Time For Progressives to Stop Talking About "School Reform": School Revitalization Is What We Need

It's Time For Progressives to Stop Talking About "School Reform": School Revitalization Is What We Need

It's time for progressives to cede the term "School Reform" to those promoting testing and privatization and declare our commitment to "School Revitalization." Not only has the term "School Reform" been corrupted by policies which have taken power away from teachers and parents, but the language -Re FORM- suggest that it is the structure of the school that is problematic rather than the atmosphere and it's connection to the surrounding community. Those of us seeking to revitalize schools look to bring in all resources available, from local community groups as well as universities and non profits, to make learning and teaching more dynamic and have schools and neighborhoods grow stronger together. We do not seek to have schools compete with one another under threat of closure, but work together to help all of them progress simultaneously. Re-FORM initiatives divide communities, Re VITALIZATION strategies will unite them to maximize their cultural vitality and political influence. There is a great initiative of this kind taking place on Buffalo's East Side under the direction of Dr Henry Taylor at SUNY Buffalo's Center for Urban Studies and we need more efforts of this kind which transform schools and neighborhoods together.Let them Re-Form. We need to Re-Vitalize!

The Crime of School Closings

School closings are a crime no matter who is responsible. I just learned this morning that one of Brooklyn's great institutions, Nazareth HS in East Flastbush, is slated for closing by the Brooklyn Diocese even though its girls basketball team is rated #1 in the US among Catholic girls teams. Closing schools-whether for economic reasons or low test scores- erases history, fractures communities, and smothers dreams. When the history of Urban America is written in the last 30 years, the legacy of poverty and inequality will be easily traced by what happened to the schools in these neighborhoods, abandoned by those with money, used as experiments for those seeking reform. I hope the parents and students and alumni can keep Nazareth open And the same those for all the public schools the DOE is trying to shut down

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Why Child Development is No Longer Discussed by Those in Charge of Education Policy

Child development is not "in vogue" any more because poor and working class young people- the subjects of the most aggressive school reform efforts- are not really regarded as children! If they were, they would not be treated so abusively and contemptuously! They would be given a chance to play, to explore, to learn and grow at their own pace, not forced to sit still most of the school day and prepare for tests. But since they are regarded as future criminals or recruits for the nation' s low wage work force, they must be disciplined, regimented and whipped into shape! The elite would never treat their own children this way in the private schools they send them to.This is not only a shame , it is a crime against the majority of the nation's children. Those who are complicit with this have a lot to answer for. To quote Bob Dylan , from Masters of War, "Even Jesus would never forgive what you do"

Monday, February 13, 2012

Removing the Mad Hatter as Secretary of Education

A lot of my friends are worried that our petition drive, aimed at changing the administration's education policies, will jeopardize the President's re-election campaign. But think of it another way. Since it looks increasingly likely- thanks to the current Republican candidates- that President Obama will win again, our petition drive is insurance against another four years of having a Mad Hatter as Secretary of Education who is now turning his testing and assessment obsession upon college professors as well as public school teachers. His latest scheme is to rate college education programs on the test scores of students taught by their graduates. This will virtually guarantee that no professor will want their students to work in low performing schools! If you want to restore sanity to American Education at all levels, please sign and circulate this petition!

Sunday, February 12, 2012

When the "Best and the Brightest" Don't Have the Answers- President Obama's Flawed Approach to School Reform

When Barack Obama ascended to the Presidency, he was fired up with a desire to improve America’s schools, which he felt were falling behind those of other advanced countries. He decided to bring “the best minds in the country” in to help them with this task- CEO’s of successful businesses, heads of major foundations, young executives from management consulting firms- to figure out a strategy to transform America’s schools, especially those in low performing districts. He promised them full support of his Administration when they finally came up with effective strategies including the use of federal funding to persuade, and if necessary, compel local districts to implement them

Notably missing in this brain trust were representatives of America’s teachers and school administrators, but their absence was not accidental. Because the President and his chief education adviser, Arne Duncan, believed that a key problem in America’s schools was the low quality of the people working in them, they felt no need to include principals and teachers in the Administrations education planning, especially since those plans involved putting pressure on them to perform and then removing those who couldn’t meet the new standards.

From a management standpoint the reforms developed, which including promoting competition, universalizing teacher evaluation based on student test scores, introducing merit pay, made perfect sense. However, since none of the people developing the reforms had spent much time in a classroom, or were willing to spend a significant part of their lives performing the jobs they were reshaping, they had little idea what their reforms meant “on the ground,” and even less evidence that, when implemented, they would be effective

Now three years later, after all of these new policies have been put into effect, from New York to Chicago, to Philadelphia to Buffalo, there is no evidence than America’s schools are performing better than when the President entered office, or that the test score gap between wealthy and poor districts is being reduced. But evidence and experience doesn’t seem to matter when you bring “the best minds in the country” together to develop a strategy. Come on, how can Bill Gates, Eli Broad, Michael Bloomberg, and the Ivy League gurus from Teach for America be wrong, and graduates of state teachers colleges and teacher education programs be right?

But reality has a way of intruding even on “the best and the brightest” when the fundamental assumptions that guide policy are wrong. This happened during the Vietnam War, when an indigenous nationalist revolution was treated as an arm of a global Communist conspiracy, and it is happening now when school failures due to poverty and inequality are being blamed on incompetent teachers and administrators.
So as in Vietnam, we will invest hundreds of billions, maybe trillions of dollars in a cause, which, at the end of the day, will turn into a Fool’s Errand, undermining the careers and demeaning the efforts of the nation’s teachers, dividing communities against themselves, while fattening the pockets of consulting form, test companies and on line learning firms.
And ten years down the road, when all the damage is done, policy makers will wake up and call America’s teachers back in to ask “What do you think we should do?” And they will say that teaching has to be a life time calling, and that when dealing with children, there are no miracles- opening minds, and changing lives, requires hard work, persistence, imagination, and a love for the young people you are working with. And those are tasks that cannot be performed by computers or “managed” by people who have never worked with children themselves.

Mark Naison
February 12, 1012

Saturday, February 11, 2012

When A Cult Takes Over Your Profession

Imagine that you work in a profession where every important institution that controls your destiny has been seized by leaders of a cult which seek to reduce the accumulated wisdom of a lifetime to a few simple principles that can be incorporated into tests and tracked by mathematical formulas. That's what it feels like to be a teacher in the US today. Under the leadership of chief cult leader,Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, the US Department of Education is seeking to transform teachers into foremen on an educational assembly line stamping out out uniform products rather than a mentor/leaders who seeks to help students maximize their potential through a multiplicity of strategies. If you are an educator, a parent or a concerned citizen who thinks this approach is just plain wrong, please consider signing this petition. The mind you save may belong to someone you know

Friday, February 10, 2012

Is This What Democracy Looks Like?

The NYC Dept of Education is now staffed with high paid "quality control consultants" who go from school to school poring over test scores, evaluating teachers and principals and closing schools if they do not meet standards mandated in Washington and Albany. If this sounds like Henry Ford's assembly line, the resemblance isn't accidental. Only this isn't cars being manufactured, it's children's minds allegedly being awakened and their character molded. Unless, of course, you want to produce a generation of obedient test taking automatons willing to take their place in a society which offers them little more than low wage work under conditions even more stressful and oppressive than the schools that are going to produce them. If this is what democracy looks like count me out!

Thursday, February 9, 2012

A Historians View Of School Reform: Speech to a Principals Workshop at Columbia Teachers College

It is hard to put in words how honored I am to have been invited to speak to this group. I can think of no gathering whose work is more important to the future of this nation, or have handled this responsibility more honorably, than public schools principals in the state of New York. You are the last line of defense between public school teachers and a political juggernaut of unprecedented proportions seeking to change the way public education in the United States is organized. This movement, led almost exclusively by people who come from business and the law rather than education, is responsible for the public demonization of members of a human services profession unprecedented in American history, yet it commands virtually unanimous support of the press and broadcast media, leaders of both political parties, the nation’s wealthiest foundations and some misguided civil rights leaders. What other cause can you think of that can unite Barack Obama, Newt Gingrich, Al Sharpton, Bill Gates, The Koch Brothers, The Walton Family, Scott Bradley, Andrew Cuomo, Michael Bloomberg and Chris Christie? The unlikeliness of this coalition would be amusing were its consequences not so tragic- the closing of schools which have served hard pressed communities for generations, the development of testing protocols that crowd out science, history and the arts, the development of school and teacher evaluations whose results defy common sense, the erosion of the democratic rights of school professionals and a daily numbing attack on the teachers that destroys the morale of the best people in the profession.
But I don’t have to explain these events to people in this room because you live with their consequences every day. You watch your schools be deluged with unnecessary tests. You watch “value added” systems for rating schools and teachers be developed which use minute variations in test scores as the basis for life changing decisions about schools and the people who work in them. You watch your teachers collapse in tears as their profession is attacked almost daily in the pages of the Times, the News and The Post, and as people from the President to the Governor and the Mayor Blame them for everything from poverty, to racial inequality to the inability of American workers to compete in a global economy. And in the face of all of this, you hold your school communities together. You stand up for your teachers and let them know you have their back, you educate your parents about the craziness of current school evaluation protocols and warn them not to believe what they read in the papers, and you make sure your students in spite of all the testing still have room for imagination and play and community building. I know this because I have seen it first hand in working with several extraordinary principals at high poverty schools in the Bronx, as well as from someone many of you in this room know- of the greatest leaders I have ever met in any capacity, in any profession- my wife, Liz Phillips, principal of PS 321
But you have done more than just protect your school community. Many of you have spoken up publicly against the policies coming from Washington, and Albany and The New York City Department of Education which undermine the best practices you have spent your life learning and implementing. The Long Island School Principals letter, which some people in this room helped to launch, and some of you have signed, is one of the most important grass roots initiative in the nation challenging the stifling, and ultimately reactionary testing and teacher evaluation features of Race to the Top. You have set a standard of professional integrity for the entire nation, and I feel profoundly honored to be in your presence.
Because of this, I have not come to you today to talk to you about issues you know more about than I do, whether it is how to teach reading and writing, how to identify and nurture good teachers, , or even how to distinguish between the useful and the irrelevant on standardized tests, but rather, I am going to try to draw upon some of my own training as a historian to put the current Education Reform juggernaut in historical perspective. But before I do that, I want to explain why someone whose fields of study are African American, urban and labor histor, suddenly became involved in speaking about and writing about education issues.
My emergence as an education blogger flows directly from my experiences doing community history projects in Bronx schools under the auspices of a public history project I launched ten years ago called the Bronx African American History Project. We started this project because the Bronx had almost completely been left out of research and writing on New York City African American history, and from the very beginning it was driven by input from community residents who wanted to tell their stories. As we started collecting oral histories, we very quickly became exposed to a narrative of Bronx history that departed markedly from the stories of urban decay, violence and white flight that so often appeared in the media portraits of the boroughs recent history. When talking to Black residents of the Bronx who were born or arrived in the borough between the 1930’s and the 1950’s, we learned about an era when the Bronx was a place of optimism and hope for African American, West Indian and Latino families who moved there from Harlem, resulting in South Bronx neighborhoods, schools and housing projects which were among the most racially integrated in the nation. More than that, we learned of a thriving musical culture in South Bronx neighborhoods, unparalleled in the nation, than encompassed, jazz, mambo and, doo wop and later funk, salsa and hip hop, that was nurtured in scores of small clubs, along with ballrooms, theaters and the neighborhood’s public schools. Less than four years after we began the project, social studies coordinators in the Bronx heard about what we are doing and asked us to present our work at workshops and conferences for teachers. The teachers who attended these presentations got so excited about the potential of the material we had uncovered that we found ourselves deluged with invitations so speak at Bronx schools so that students and their parents could begin to feel a new pride in their surroundings
Within a year of my first presentations, I found myself doing walking tours, workshops and lectures for Bronx teachers through Teaching American History Projects, and then was hired by a network leader in what was then Region 2 to come into 13 Bronx schools and help them launch community history projects involving students, teachers, parents, school aides and neighborhood residents. This proved to be a life changing experience for me. Each school spent two months on these projects, culminating in day long community history festivals that involved everything from photo exhibits, to dance, to documentary films, to food festivals to plays. The hundreds of teachers involved in this displayed amazing creativity and enthusiasm and inspired levels of student and parental involvement far beyond what I dreamed were possible
It is in the context of these experiences with Bronx teachers, many of whom were teachers of color, many of whom grew up in the neighborhoods that they were teaching in, that I began to feel a simmering rage at the ever increasing attacks on public school teachers that were starting to appear in the New York and national media, some of them coming from the Mayor and then New York City School Chancellor Joel Klein. The argument being made- that incompetent and poorly motivated teachers were the major reason for failing schools in high poverty neighborhoods- was contradicted by what I was seeing every day in Bronx schools, where teachers were stubbornly, creatively, and at times heroically, trying to teach young people living in stress filled environments who often brought those stresses to school with them. Worse yet, when it came to rating and grading schools, the Department of Education ended up giving low grades to some of the best schools I had visited, places where the entire staff went the extra mile to create to make students feel nurtured and supported and family members welcomed.
This experience, coupled with my daily conversations with my wife Liz about how protocols for rating schools and teachers were based on ridiculous, minute variations in test scores that had some of her best teachers rated lowest, convinced me to use the platform my academic position gave me to speak out in defense of teachers and principals who were now under ferocious attack by people of influence in politics, the media and business. Very simply, I felt that teachers were being assigned responsibility for patterns of racial and economic inequality which were centuries in the making and had multiple causes. Worse yet, those making these accusations were proposing that schools become the society’s major instrument of eliminating those inequalities through a reform program featuring competition, universal testing, test based teacher evaluations the closing of failing schools, and selective privatization..
To any reputable historian or social scientist, the two pillars of the Educational Reformers argument, that “bad teachers” bore a major responsibility for the persistence of racial and economic inequality, and that transforming schools along a business/competition model would bring immediate results in the form of greater educational equity and economic equality would be so improbable as to defy credulity. Yet this Crackpot Theory not only commanded the support of the bulk of the nation’s editors and business leaders, it was bought hook line and sinker by the incoming Obama Administration which institutionalized these ideas in its Race to the Top Initiative which has proved even more damaging in its consequences than No Child Left Behind.
How could this happen? How could ideas so flawed and divorced from real life experience become the basis of the Nation’s Education Policy no matter what party was in power? I do not pretend I am ready to solve this riddle, at least not yet, but I do want to point out that this is not the first time in our nation’s history that a simple explanation for complex social problems led to a failed attempt at social transformation. Right after World War I, a huge mass movement to ban the production and sale of alcoholic beverages culminated in the passage of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution. Like education reform, prohibition promised an immediate remedy to class and cultural cleavages in American society and was supported by a cross section of the nation’s political leaders, including some feminists and people on the left. Supporters claimed that banning alcoholic beverages would reduce domestic violence, undermine organized crime, weaken urban political machines, and promote the assimilation of recent immigrants. It was promulgated with the same fervor educational reform is today, and had the same level of support in the mass media, but unfortunately, none of the results it promised came to pass and thirteen years later, in the heart of the Depression, Prohibition was repealed
It would be comforting to think that it won’t take 13 years for the Education Reform juggernaut to collapse and its policies to be reversed. But I am not sure I can state that with confidence. While some of the supporters of education reform support it because they hope against hope such policies will reverse rampant and growing in equality in the United States, others are involved because they stand to directly or indirectly profit from the measures they are trying to implement. In the latter category, first and foremost are those who produce the tests that No Child Left Behind and Race To The Top Require as the basis of school and teacher evaluation, or the new software required for their implementation. Figures like Bill Gates, whose involvement in education issues is alleged to be disinterested and humanitarian, or Rupert Murdoch, whose media regularly comment on education issues from what is presumed to be an objective standpoint, both stand to gain financially from the test protocols associated with Race to the Top.
But there are other reasons a cross section of America’s top business leaders support Education Reform as a solution to problems of poverty and inequality, the foremost being that it diverts attention from their own complicity in maximizing those very problems. It is a peculiar species of shamelessness that allows hedge fund directors in Democrats for Education Reform, who have made a fortune speculating while most Americans have lost jobs, income and retirement funds, to make teachers unions and public school teachers responsible for denying poor children education and economic opportunity. On the other side of the political spectrum, the Koch Brothers and the Walton Family Foundation, both of whose companies have prospered in a union free environment, find it convenient to use the attack on teachers as an opening wedge in a broader attack on public employees unions which has spread through states like Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana. After having successfully supported an offensive against industrial unions in the 1980’s and 1990’s, driving executive compensation up, while driving working class incomes down, they have turned their attention to public school teachers as one of the obstacles to the creation of a compliant, non- union labor force in the United States There is no better example of the consequences of their efforts than the CEO/Worker gap at Wal Mart, whose CEO makes $16,000 an hour while the entry level worker in the company makes $6:50 an hour. Public education, where teachers salaries almost equal those of school administrators, represents an alternative model of operation which the Walton Family Foundation, through its support of Teach for America and the American Legislative Exchange Council, is doing everything in its power to undermine and discredit
Given the political momentum of the Education Reform juggernaut, and the powerful interests who stand to profit from it, how can teachers, principals and parents prevent it from totally undermining their profession and turning schools into places of Fear and Dread? I have no simple answers to this question, but I do want to point out three important places where the corporate education reform movement is vulnerable, all of which can be exploited by people trying to preserve space for creative teaching and learning
1. Testing to the Point of Absurdity. One of the things that generated the Long Island Principals Letter is the insistence of US Department of Education that teachers must be assessed on student test scores to receive RTT funding, thereby requiring that students be tested in every grade and every subject to that teachers can be properly evaluated. Once elementary school parents realize the implications of this- namely that students will be tested in kindergarten and in subjects like music, art and gym- some, possibly many will begin to rise up in revolt against a regime that makes their children hate going to school. We as educators must explain to parents, early and often, that accepting Race to the Top requires universal testing of a sort that will squeeze most of the joy, creativity and play out of early childhood education. Perhaps, they will start to assert political influence before these policies are actually implemented, not after they experience their horrible consequences.
2. Gratuitous School Closings that Destroy Communities. This is what we have going on in New York City right now, with over 60 schools targeted by the Bloomberg administration for closing, some of which were schools the DOE created after an early phase of closings. These closings, totally immune to parent and community input, not only traumatize teachers and principals who have worked hard to make these schools work under daunting conditions, they are going to enrage students and parents who have felt invested in school communities and feel their democratic rights are being violated. There are already protest movements being organized against school closings at several schools in the Bronx, as well as at schools in other boroughs, and these movements could pick up considerable momentum when the weather becomes nicer and local Occupy Movements become involved. Which brings up point
3. School Policy is Now on the Radar Screen of the Occupy Movement Which Represents the Most Formidable Ally Teachers Have On the American Political Landscape. Although the Occupy Movement is less than six months old, it has exposed as nothing before it has done since the Depression, the disproportionate power the very wealthy exert over social policy. Nowhere is that influence more prominent than in Education Reform, where a cross section of the American Business elite from Gates and Broad to Koch and Walton, are funding initiatives which take power away from teachers and expand universal testing. Occupy movements around the country are beginning to realize that and are making alliances with teacher activist groups challenging school closings and attacks on teacher unions. These alliances have a huge upside for teachers and have great potential for yielding mass protests on a local scale which will complement what was begun with the Save our Schools March on Washington and which is continuing with the Occupy The DOE protests taking place in late March and early April under the auspices of United Opt Out, a national parents group.

Despite these emerging opportunities, the Corporate Education Reformers still have the initiative. The limitless funds they have at their disposal, which allows them to buy off politicians and neutralize teachers unions, and their virtually complete monopoly on national media, means that school closings, attacks on teacher autonomy, and imposition of more and more standardized tests will continue unabated for some time
But over time, people of courage and integrity, including the people gathered in this room, will turn the tide and begin to restore sanity to educational discourse and develop a powerful alliance of teachers, parents and students, supported first by the Occupy movement, and later by unions, religious organizations and progressive politicians, which will try to make the public schools once again what they were designed to be- a place where curiosity is nurtured, where imagination flourishes and where young people learn the value of intelligent citizenship in a Democratic society

Monday, February 6, 2012

Press Release About Educators Letter to President Obama and Campaign to Remove Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education

For Immediate Release
February 5, 2012

A Letter to President Obama

Two grandparents on opposite ends of the continent each had a concern about the direction of education reform and its effect on their grandchildren. Through a chain of improbable circumstances they found each other on Facebook and conjured up a letter to President Obama expressing their concerns.

Mark Naison, from Brooklyn, NY and a Fordham professor prepared a draft of the letter. Bob Valiant, retired school administrator from Kennewick, WA, edited the letter and Bob Valiant Jr. developed a survey form and website, The letter calls for the removal of Education Secretary Arne Duncan and the inclusion of parents, teachers, and school administrators in all administration policy discussions. It insists on the immediate end to penalties and incentives to compel using student test scores to evaluate teachers, require school closures, or install charter schools. Finally, the letter asks for a National Commission, to include parents and teachers, to explore ways to improve the public schools.

Naison and Valiant Sr. began to circulate the letter to friends on Facebook on February 3. The signatures started rolling in and by the start of the Super Bowl on February 12 over 2000 total signatures had been recorded. A map on the website shows they came from all across the country, from big cities, suburbs, and hamlets. All of this happened with a purely volunteer cadre made up of parents, teachers, and other concerned citizens with no financial expenditure. Now the goal is to continue collecting signatures until March 1 when the letter and package of signatures will be delivered to the President.

For further information, consult the website, or phone .............
Petition to dump Arne Duncan
Help insure the long-term survival of the greatest public education system on Earth by signing this open letter to President Obama.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

When Black and Latino Youth Are "Collateral Damage"

In the light of the police beating and police murder of two young men in the Bronx in the past week, I can't help but think that young Black and Latino men in the outer boroughs, especially the Bronx, have become "collateral damage" in efforts to make New York a safe city for the global elite in finance, medicine, media, and the arts. Every time I eat or meet someone for drinks in a chic Brooklyn cafe or bar, whether in Park Slope, Fort Greene or Williamsburgh, I experience the "benefits" of the intrusive and sometimes violent policing which keeps working class youth penned, and intimidated in hyper-segregated neighborhoods, as their presence never disturbs the comfort or even enters the radar screen of New York's ever growing population of the young, hip and prosperous. While Occupy Wall Street has tried to bridge that chasm, in real life, the gulf is as wide as ever, and people need to understand what it entails. The comfort of some is secured by harassing and intimidating others. The Bronx is a place, a local lawyer told me, "where asking a police officer for his badge number is a trip to central booking." Until that changes, any pretense of democratic governance in this city fails to meet the simplest test of decency.

Friday, February 3, 2012

The Transformative Power of Hip Hop: Reflections of a Coach, Teacher and Community Organizer

The sound came outta rusty crates, surrounded by cobwebs,
Beats smooth enough to slide through like bobsled
On the white snow, with the right flow
Wu Tang Niggas they shine and make the night glow"

These lines, from a jam called “The Abduction” epitomize for me the transformative potential of hip hop for marginalized youth around the world. It gives young people a space where they can, without embarrassment or apology, connect the cultural legacy of the past to their current situation, be reflective, poetic and prophetic, and explore the magical properties of language in their own terms. These are goals most educators could only dream of transmitting to their students, yet they are all part of how young people experience hip hop, a vernacular cultural form that is often accused of dumbing down popular music and making those immersed in it difficult to educate.

In the talk that follows, I will discuss how a 65 year old white professor brought up on Doo Wop, Motown Soul Music, Jazz and Acid Rock, stumbled upon the transformative power of hip hop, and how this shaped my pedagogy and community organizing. While I will not be talking about therapy as such- I will be giving examples of how hip hop offered young people I have worked with a model of personal transformation which had therapeutic implications.

My exposure to hip hop, ironically, did not come when I was teaching in the Bronx. Even though the most important indoor venue for early Bronx Hip hop, the Webster PAL, was less than 7 blocks from Fordham’s Bronx campus. My colleagues and I, all great fans of jazz and funk and soul music, had no idea that a musical revolution was taken place right outside our gates and when we did hear the music, when it was finally recorded, had little appreciation of it lyrically or musically

It was not until I began coaching baseball and basketball teams and running basketball leagues in Brooklyn in the early and mid 90’s that I had an in depth exposure to hip hop and began to appreciate what it meant to Black and Latino young men growing up in tough urban neighborhoods. At the peak of my involvement, I was attending more than 120 games a year, many which involved driving basketball teams around Brooklyn Queens and Staten Island and driving baseball teams all around the city, and occasionally, up and down the East Coast. The basketball teams were interracial, but majority black, and the baseball teams were predominantly Latino, with my son Eric, a left handed pitcher and shooting guard, being one of the few white kids.

The issue of music quickly became a bone of contention when I drove around these teams. Although my players didn’t actively dislike the music I had on my radio or tape deck, which usually consisted of soul and rock classics by James Brown, Smoky, the Temptations, Janis Joplin, Aretha Franklin, or occasionally Muddy Waters and the Drifters, but they insisted that I give equal time to “their” music, which they carried around on mix tapes. The mix tapes, containing songs by Wu Tang Clan, Jermaine Dupree, JZ, Biggie Smalls and others were without exception possessed by the young men on the team who were black and latino and came from tough ( and not yet gentrified) Brooklyn neighborhoods like Prospect Heights, Bushwick and Red Hook. They not only had the tapes, they knew the lyrics of every song, which they recited with great passion and confidence even when the jams were not playing on my van’s sound system. And this knowledge gave them great cachet with the middle class players on the team, whether Black or white, who viewed this music as the sound track of choice for the identities they were forging as streetwise Brooklyn ball players. What was going on in the car, it soon was apparent to me, was a total reversal of the dynamic in school, where the dominant discourse often made Black and Latino working class kids feel inadequate, silenced, even paralyzed. Here in my car, the mantle of expertise and erudition fell upon those never assigned such traits in the classroom. They not showed their language and memorization skills by reciting what seemed like scores of hip hop lyrics by heart, they were also informal historians and anthropologists who proudly recited details about the artists lives that their middle class teammates rarely knew, knowledge that derived from word of mouth stories in their neighborhoods or articles in hip hop magazines like “The Source.”

Hip hop in short, “flipped the script” that these young people normally had to live by. The mantle of expertise and cultural initiative had shifted to those who normally were placed on the defensive, yet the middle class kids on the team felt no resentment. In fact they appeared grateful for the cultural capital which this allowed them to appropriate, both when the team was together, and when they went out on their own, because hip hop provided the ultimate standard of urban cool in many youth circles, something they planned to appropriate in their own dealings with young men, and especially young women, in their schools and neighborhoods

Hip hop also transformed my van into a new kind of social space. Although I was still a large, white, somewhat intimidating coach and parent, kids who were viewed by the other coaches as difficult and rebellious now wanted to ride with me. The music, though often loud and violent, actually seemed to calm them down, by offering them a soundtrack where others articulated the emotions that rumbled inside them and the feelings that they found it hard to talk about. The most talented and difficult of the players on a baseball team I coached, a shortstop named Carlos who grew up with JZ near the Marcy Houses in Bushwick, epitomized that dynamic. Before a game, Carlos was kicked out the other van by the head coach who told him he would either ride with me or would have to leave the team. I told Carlos he could ride with me as long as he did not shout insults from the car window as we rode through unfamiliar neighborhoods. Carlos agreed and thus began a year long adventure which began with silent toleration and soon evolved into Carlos serving as the car DJ and folklorist, constantly putting on new songs and regaling us with tales of Brooklyn hip hop artists who came out of his “hood.”
The culmination came when we were driving back from a big tournament in New England. My wife, an elementary school principal, was sitting in the front seat of the van when all of a sudden, Carlos, out of the blue, started interviewing her with the sophistication and` confidence of a New York Times reporter. The other kids of the team, shocked, said “Damn Carlos, we didn’t realize you were that smart!” Carlos replied “ yeah, when I was in third, grade, I got 99 percentile on my math and reading tests.” When everyone asked “What happened?” Carlos responded with a detailed narrative of his life which explained how by the time he got to junior high school, all of his energy had to be put into getting a “crew” to protect him, since he was smaller than most of the other kids and didn’t carry a gun, He totally changed his persona to that of “class clown,” keeping everyone laughing with off color remarks , often at the teachers expense, while displaying conspicuous indifference to the subjects being taught. He was now “Crazy Carlos,” neighborhood character, and star shortstop who got a free pass from the extreme levels of violence which infused his neighborhood and every school he attended in those crack plagued years.

In all my years of coaching, I had never heard one of my players provide such an honest, self-reflective account of the forces shaping his life. And in retrospect, I think hip hop was the vehicle that allowed him to do that. Some of the artists Carlos most revered, such as Wu Tang and JZ and Biggie, allowed themselves to review their lives with brutal honesty in between boasting and displays of lyrical virtuosity and offered Carlos a language for doing that as well as an affirmation of its legitimacy. Hip Hop had turned my van into Carlos’ space, and he was now willing to take a risk in departing from the grim discourse of urban masculinity that demanded young men suffer in silence. Carlos leap of faith garnered an immediate response from me. I lent him a copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X which he read in only one day, followed by a series of other books which reintroduced him to the world of reading. Carlos was now willing to claim “expertise” in a more conventional area as well as urban vernacular discourse. And this led to me finding him a job, his graduating from high school, and attending community college on a baseball scholarship.

The experience I had with Carlos was replicated on other occasions, sometimes with young men I coached, sometimes with students at Fordham who grew up in inner city communities and felt ill at ease in the middle class suburban milieu which Fordham’s Rose Hill campus recreated. Playing hip hop in my office helped turn it into a space where students from those backgrounds felt welcome, along with suburban students who were “hip hop identified.”
Often these encounters began with little verbal communication, with us sitting listening to music, or exchanging CD’s and tapes. But over time, students felt comfortable talking to me about their lives, their experiences, their fears, their hopes for the future. Hip hop served as the “cultural lubricant” which allowed them to talk honestly about things students rarely spoke about to their teachers.

Over the years, I had many experiences which convinced me that hip hop was one of the best ways to establish empathetic communication with young people, especially those who felt marginalized or disfranchised. When I started doing community history programs in Bronx schools, I actually created a hip hop persona, “Notorious Phd” to make the workshops I was doing more accessible, something which never failed to bring amusement to the Bronx students astonished at the sight of an old white guy rapping either to Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message” or his own original lyrics

But the most dramatic manifestation of Hip Hop’s “therapeutic” power came during a trip to Berlin I made with the Bronx Hip Hop group Rebel Diaz. Rebel Diaz, which then consisted of rapper/dj combination Rod Starz and G-1, and the MC and singer Terasita Ayala ( Lah Tere), was in Berlin to perform and do workshops, with the first workshop to be given to a group of young men involved in an innovative social work project called “Gangway Beatz Berlin” which aimed to use hip hop as a way of engaging out of work, out of school youth in Berlin’s toughest
Neighborhoods. The plan was to take the group from Gangway in the large van we were using to a Hip Hop community center in Berlin called the Hip Hop Stuzpunkt, where Rebel Diaz would make a presentation about how hip hop can convey messages of political liberation and does not have to promote misogyny and violence, When I looked out at the group from Gangway walking from the subway to our van, my heard sank. Here were 12 or 13 of the biggest toughest looking guys walking toward us with “their game faces on.” Mostly middle eastern, a few mixed
Race, some white, they had hardened their faces into a mask which would intimidate anyone who crossed their path. They piled into the van without a word and as they entered the community center, their bravado started taking verbal form as they randomly started shouting out terms they associated with American gangsta rap such as “Crips” “Bloods” “Glock” “Bitch” and others even more vivid and indendiary

When they sat down, the maculinist atmosphere they were creating was so strong that the women in the group- our driver Anna Neumann and Lah Tere-refused to join the circle. The situation improved little when Rod Starz began his lecture about the difference between “gangsta” and “conscious” hip hop. Rod was trying to get them to challenge homophobic and misogynist lyrics in popular hip hop lyrics and they were doing everything they could to neutralize or shut out his message, often making comments about their own sexual prowess or desires. Finally, after 30 minutes of making virtually no progress in holding an interactive workshop, the organizers form the German side told Rebel Diaz to just begin rapping. They brought out speakers and a sound system and after five minutes, they started into one of their most powerful jams “Crush” featuring an extraordinary display of lyrical virtuosity and speed rapping, in English and Spanish, by Lah Tere. Lah Tere, a large , powerful, beautiful Borcua woman went right in their face for three straight minutes of raw breathless spitting, with image after image crashing on them like a verbal tsunami!

When she ended, incandescent and out of breath, it was as though the young men in Gangway had been released out of a prison of their own making. They rushed up to Lah Tere, hugged her, and began sharing their own lyrics. Soon, the Gangway young men were rapping to beats Rebel Diaz were creating, their faces contorted in passion, and sometimes in pain, the themes events in their own lives that made everything around them spin out of control. THIS was hip hop as therapy- a purgation of themes, and emotions these young men had no other way of releasing, much less talking about, behind the masks that they had created to protect themselves on the streets of the tough Berlin neighborhoods they lived in.

I learned more about this dimension of hip hop, in its Berlin context, during a lecture given at Fordham the following fall by Olad Aden, architect of the Bronx Berlin youth exchange. Olad said that he had discovered, during his time as a streetworker, that most of the young men and some of the young women he was working with refused to talk to social workers about their personal problems, whether in individual sessions, or in a group. They had no model for doing so either in the cultural traditions inherited from their families, or the values they learned on tough Berlin streets where, as in Brooklyn or the Bronx, the ethos is “go hard or go home!” But give them an opportunity to express themselves through hip hop and all kinds of otherwise taboo subjects would enter their discourse, including feelings about family, their experience in the streets or in prison, issues of language and religion, thoughts about love and its absence. Hip hop became a kind of communal therapy session for young people who felt blocked, felt trapped, felt disrespected, felt lacking in the language to communicate with teachers, social workers or medical professionals

What to do with this knowledge is not something I wish to offer advice on. However, it is something anyone who works with young people should be aware of. It is important to find languages that empower people who feel trapped at every turn and hip hop represents one such language. It has changed the way I teach and has opened up many doors for me that would otherwise be closed. And it has given countless young people whom schools have failed an outlet to use multiple levels of knowledge and expertise while honing their own unique voice.

Teach for America and the Transformation of the US into a Low Wage Nation

More and more, Teach for America seems to be an instrument for union busting by local school districts. Here's the scenario: A local school district is having budget problems. They lay off, or fire veteran teachers, then bring in Teach for America to replace them. The school districts saves millions of dollars in labor costs, short run, and even more money in the long because of reduced pension costs. The students lose because teachers who devoted their lives to their profession, and live in the community, are replaced by sojourners trained for five weeks who rarely stay beyond their two year commitment. But the community also loses because a sector of the local labor force which has decent pay and benefits is destroyed, thereby making it easier for employers in the private sector to keep wages low. Make no mistake about it, union busting, though it may reduce the tax burden on residents of municipalities and states, accelerates the transition of the United States as a low wage nation ruled by a wealthy elite of CEO's and managers. Teach for America, by actively accelerating this transition, is doing deadly damage to the young people it is trying to help by insuring they graduate into a labor force where work opportunities, for all but a small minority, are low paying and insecure. Those young people who seek to become part of this once admirable organization need to very carefully examine what its role in the United States social and economic system is TODAY.