Saturday, April 28, 2012

Why High School Students Will Ultimately Take the Lead in Protests Against Corporate School Reform- A View From the Bronx

This spring, one of my best students just completed a brilliant senior thesis on what the school experience is like for students who attend the six high schools, in what was once Roosevelt High School, across the street from Fordham’s Bronx campus. The picture is not a pretty one. Students have to pass through metal detectors to enter schools with “zero tolerance policies” for infractions ranging from wearing a hat, to being found on a different floor than the one your school is located on to going to the bathroom without permissions. Some of these infractions lead to suspensions; if you protest too vigorously, they could lead to arrest. The classroom experience is little better. Student describe classes almost strictly confined to memorizing material for New York State Regents exams. When students begin discussing interesting subjects, teachers shut the discussion down for fear it might undermine student performance upon tests which their own careers now rely on. Though teachers try to help students and clearly care for them, they are visibly under extreme stress because of fear that if test scores don’t improve, their schools might be closed and they will lose their jobs The fear spills over into the treatment of students who repeatedly fail tests or who have multiple behavioral infractions. Such students are subtly and not so subtly encouraged, by school administrators, to drop out of school lest they undermine the schools test profile or the atmosphere of disciplined obedience required for relentless test prep Students at the schools in question are resentful, but not explicitly politicized. They rebel, but the ways they rebel take the form of what historian Robin Kelley called “the hidden transcript’ rather than strikes and walkouts. Students who have been disciplined for violating school rules, or are just resentful about the police state atmosphere, have all kind of ways of showing their contempt- they go out of their way to argue with or “bait” police and security officers; they come late and leave early; they start fights with fellow students or insult and challenge teachers; But at some point, as the communities they live in become more politicized,- which is starting to happen in the Bronx, especially around the issues of police violence and racial profiling- these students are going to ask some hard questions about what they are being put through in the name of getting an education. And what they conclude may be something like this- “Wait a minute, we are being asked to spent six hours a day doing nothing but sitting at our desks memorizing material for tests, so we can graduate from high school and do what? Go to a college we can’t afford? Get a job working in a fast food restaurant or a big box realtor? Join the military? And even if by some chance we do go to college, is the result worth it when we finally graduate? What do we get? Tens of thousands of dollars of student loan debt and jobs that don’t offer salaries sufficient to pay them off?” The young people my student interviewed are nowhere near that point yet, but they are starting to realize that something is very wrong. It is one thing to subject yourself to prison like conditions and militarized discipline if the result is escape from poverty and a ticket to the good life. But what if neither of those result from all this sacrifice? When that realization begins to sink in, and as students see protests in their neighborhoods against racial profiling, evictions and foreclosures, and closings of day care centers and after school programs, don’t be surprised of these students follow the example of neighborhood activists. They may begin organizing strikes and walkouts to demand that schools be places where real learning takes place and where there are extracurricular activities which make school interesting and nurture skills the students themselves value There are signs of these kind of high school protests happening around the country- in Detroit, in Maryland, in some portions of New York City, but they are going to expand incrementally in the next few years as justice activism spreads into working class neighborhoods and as Corporate Education reform erodes even more student rights. In elementary schools, parents will be the ones taking the lead against Corporate School Reform; in high schools it will be the students. From my point of view, anything we can do to promote this day of reckoning is positive. Organizing Freedom Schools in inner city and working class neighborhoods which allow students to critically assess their surrounding would be one big step in that direction. April 28, 2012

Practical Ideas for Young-And Not So Young People-Trying to Survive in Hard Times

Here are a few ideas about how to survive, and maybe even thrive, in hard times. Some of them I've done myself, some of them I haven't. If you have additional ideas, please share them 1. Form communes or living cooperatives with friends and classmates. Housing costs are too high for most people to rent their own apartments on the salaries entry level jobs offer. As an alternative to living with your parents, get a group of friends together and rent a house, or a loft, in town or a neighborhood where housing prices have fallen and there are significant numbers of unoccupied houses ( I can tell you where these neighborhoods are in NYC). Share living expenses, food expenses, transportation expenses (share a car if you can't get around by bike) and if relevant, child care expenses. You can cut your living costs in half, or more, by doing this, plus have fun in the process. I lived this way for many years in the late 60's through the early 80's. It was a pretty cool way to bring up my children! 2. Start growing your own food, either indoors or outdoors, or make an arrangement with a farmer to share labor for food. Almost any backyard or roof can be turned into a garden, and there is technology that allows for growing vegetables indoors. There are also more and more progressive farmers who develop food and labor shares for urban customers. These kind of arrangements can radically reduce your food costs, and also promote healthy eating 3. Create small cooperative enterprises that provide services that people are willing to pay for even in a depressed economy. Among such services are repairs of computers and electronic devices; commercial and residential cleaning, child care, dog walking, catering, fitness training. In some cases, you will be serving the wealthy, on other cases, people struggling to get by. In the latter instance, you can engage in barter, or labor exchanges These suggestions are all practical and relatively simple to implement if you have a group of people around you whom you trust.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The EP Subcommittee and My Affirmative Action Seminar- How Scripted Curricula Stifle Creative Teaching

Since I first began teaching it 12 years ago, my senior values seminar on Affirmative Action has been one of my most popular and successful courses at Fordham. Offered both the Rose Hill and Lincoln Center campus, the course presented historical and legal dimensions of affirmative action that few Americans were aware of, and generated an enthusiastic response from students in it who went on to law school or graduate school. Virtually all students who took the course felt it gave them a unique viewpoint on a subject which continues to generate great controversy. One of the things I wanted students to learn was how to discuss a subject that stirred fierce passions, often along racial and ethnic line, in a principled, civil way, drawing upon carefully reasoned, well documented arguments rather than raw passion. Since my classes were almost always racially diverse, what resulted was a space for a frank discussion of racial issues that could take place almost nowhere else in the society, and in truth, rarely took place on most University campuses. During the fall 2011 Semester, our class discussions led to two class projects that were quite literally “history making” in character. The first was a “REAL Affirmative Action Bake Sale” which the class organized in response to the “Increase Diversity Bake Sale” at University of California, Berkeley, which sought to dramatize the advantages women and under represented minorities allegedly received in college admissions. My class had just read portions of two books, Color and Money: How Rich White Kids Are Winning The War Over College Affirmative Action and The Game of Life: College Sports and Educational Values, which demonstrated that the greatest beneficiary of college admissions advantages were athletes and the children of the very wealthy. Enraged by the Berkeley sale’s misrepresentation of the college admissions process, they asked if I would allow them to take two weeks from the class discussion to organize a bake sale of their own which would attract national media attention. I gave them the green light and they divided themselves into committees which wrote positions papers, developed press releases, secured the space and support of other clubs, and did the baking for the sale. The result was an event which attracted national media attention, including reports from CNN Latino, Fox Business and the Huffington Post, all of whom presented the student's position sympathetically and said “they had the facts on their side.” In all my years at Fordham, I had never seen a class organize an event of this kind in response to course material, much less attract this kind of media attention for it. But that wasn’t all. As the students read Supreme Court decision after decision which whittled away the basis of “race based affirmative action:” in colleges and professional schools they became concerned that Universities were increasingly being closed to children of the poor and to minorities who didn’t come from middle class or wealthy families. The only way they could think of to keep educational opportunity alive for their generation of working class, minority youth was for Universities to “adopt” nearby public schools and guarantee admission to their students. They asked for permission to develop a proposal for Fordham to adopt the six high schools in the Roosevelt High School Building across the street from Fordham’s Bronx campus and I gave it to them. The result was a fifteen page, meticulously documented proposal which included practical suggestions about how Fordham could use its resources to improve educational opportunities for thousands of Bronx students, and as the program developed, increase the economic and racial diversity of the Fordham students body by admitting a critical mass of Roosevelt students. The proposal they developed was sent to the Fordham College Dean’s Office and is currently being discussed by Fordham’s United Student Government Given the accomplishments of this class, I was shocked to discover that, in line with a new curriculum Fordham College had adopted, I could no longer teach this course in the future unless it became an EP (Eloquentia Perfecta) Seminar with special provisions for writing, public speaking and critical thinking. Since my course ALREADY provided for all those things, I thought this was ridiculous, but with the help of my Chair, I dutifully made some small additions to my syllabus to have it fit the new EP requirements. Yesterday, I was shocked to receive an email from the EP Committee saying my course didn’t meet the requirements for public speaking and expository writing and I would have to add material to the syllabus to assure both of those were more formally incorporated into the course. Needless to say, I found these comments infuriating. Clearly, the members of the Committee who evaluated my syllabus knew nothing about the class projects that had taken place last semester, both of which gave students priceless experiences in those very attributes the EP Seminars claimed they hoped to foster- public speaking, expository writing, critical thinking. Except that my students didn’t just display those attributes for their classmates- they did it for the entire University and a national audience! And herein lies the problem. If you “script” a syllabus as thoroughly as the EP Committee wanted, you leave no room for the kind of spontaneity which I have always made room for in my pedagogy. You leave no room for student initiatives which transform the syllabus and create new forms of discourse which even the professor didn’t imagine. You leave no room for the professor to respond to new information students bring to the discussion. And you leave no room for a class project which take two weeks of a semester, but might change lives in the process I don’t blame individual members of the EP Committee for what they did- they were just following the logic of an approach to classroom education which takes power away from teachers and students and places them in the hands of administrators or faculty committees. Not only does this take much of the creativity out of teaching, it discourages innovation and discovery on the part of students I have been at Fordham 42 years and have seen curricula come and go. But the kind of “scripting” we are seeing now undermines everything I have learned about how to inspire and motivate, and threatens to remove the joy from the part of my work that I care most about- my teaching. I am sure there are gains to be made from the new curriculum Fordham has instituted. But there are also very serious losses, and we need to take a really close look at whether we are undermining some of the very things that made Professors like me love to teach at this school April 25 2012

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Undermining Democratic Citizenship in the Bronx Through Relentless Testing

Reports I am getting from teachers, in the Bronx and around the city, and from my own students who do volunteer work in schools, is that test prep is swallowing up all other activities, including after school programs. Students have less and less time to build community and explore their talents through extracurricular activities, be they sports programs, arts programs, school trips or even moments of free play. This not only makes school more stressful, it undermines the relationship building that is the key to successful education in low income and immigrant communities, be it between students and teachers, or between students from different backgrounds. This may be a sound strategy for creating an obedient and demoralized low labor force, but it undermines the power of the schools to shape active citizens in a democratic society. Perhaps that is why so many billionaires fund policies which deluge our schools with tests. Thank you, Gates, Walton, Bloomberg and Broad for trying to insure that the conditions which allowed you to accumulate your great fortunes will last for the forseeable future.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Hollis 99 Pct Club and Occupy Queens Show Southeast Queens “This is What Democracy Looks Like”

Imagine a group of one hundred plus people marching through the streets of Southeast Queens with drums signs and bullhorns chanting “ We are the 99 Percent” and “This is what democracy looks like!” That’s what happened today, twice, when Occupy Queens and the Hollis Prebyterian Church 99 Percent Club organized a housing forum and then a protest march and rally to demand that two blocks of abandoned buildings owned by millionaire landlord Rita Stark be turned into affordable housing and a community center. Anybody who thinks the Occupy movement’s language and symbols only have relevance to young people with counter cultural lifestyles needed to be at this event. At least half of the people marching down Hollis Avenue were senior citizens, mostly African American, and their energy and passion and noise level matched that of any Occupy Wall Street march I had ever been one. But why should anybody be surprised by this. Many of the marchers were civil rights movement veterans and they were fighting for the life and health of a neighborhood that was under siege by the One Percent- not only wealthy landlords like Rita Stark who owned the two blocks of buildings being targeted- but banks that were foreclosing on hundreds of neighborhood homes. The streets of Hollis, a beautiful tree lined community, were pocketed with boarded up homes that had been recently foreclosed, and speakers at the Forum that preceded the march- representing Take Back the Land and Organizing For Occupation – had provided inspirational stories of how such homes were being occupied by activists and transferred to needy families. So the march and rally became something more than an attempt to two blocks of long abandoned buildings into affordable - it announced the emergence of a coalition that would develop strategies of transforming all forms of abandoned property in Hollis into community space that would serve needy families and individuals. It is hard to put in words how moving it was to hear longtime neighborhood residents, some of whom had lived in Hollis for 50 years, articulate their concerns while standing shoulder to shoulder with members of Occupy Queens and some of the most brilliant housing organizers in the nation It was also exhilarating to see the response of people along the 9 block line of march from the church to the abandoned buildings, who were overwhelming supportive of the group’s objectives But to me, it was the energy of the two marches that left the deepest impression. The joy on the faces of the members of Hollis Presbyterian Church In being part of a group large enough, committed enough, experienced enough and tactically flexible enough to help their community fight back against forces threatening their security and well being was a beautiful thing to be part of. I hope the pictures of this protest come out soon because in a society where democratic rights are being chipped away at daily, Democracy came alive in the streets of Southeast Queens! Anybody who thinks the Occupy movement is fading into the woodwork is in for a big surprise. The 99 Percent are alive and well and ready to make history!!

Friday, April 20, 2012

Two Protests Which Changed the Course of American History- Flint 1936, Birmingham 1963

It’s December of 1936. America is now 7 years into the worst Depression in its history. At its peak over 1/3 of the labor force was unemployed, 1/3 working part time, and millions of people were without food and shelter. People all over the country rose in protest against forced impoverishment. There were hunger marches, strikes, protests against evictions and foreclosures, many of them organized by Socialists and Communists. but change came very slowly. It wasn’t until 1933, after the Franklin Roosevelt was elected president, that the first federal relief dollars came pouring into the states, and slowly began to reach individual families, allowing at least some of them to remain in their homes and apartments. This was soon followed up by programs of work relief, the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Public Works Administration, and later the WPA, which created millions of jobs for unemployed Americas, many of them building roads and bridges, creating national parks in rural areas, even creating dams which gave people in poor rural area electricity for the first time in their lives
On the labor front, though, things were still extremely tense. When the Depression began, only 3 million workers were members of unions, and none of the nation’s largest industries were unionized. The big steel, auto and electronics companies all had been successful in keeping unions out. After FDR passed the National Industrial Recovery Act in 1933, unions all over the country began to organize again, a major strike wave broke out in 1934, leading to a significant growth of unions in transportation, particularly trucking and the mining and garment industries, but the nation’s biggest companies General Motors, Ford, US Steel, Westinghouse, General Electric, still refused to accept collective bargaining. In 1935, John L Lewis of the United Mine Workers left the American Federation of Labor to form a new federation, the Committee for Industrial Organization, aimed at organizing workers in the biggest companies across lines of craft and skill, and FDR and Congress passed the Wagner Labor Relations Act aimed at providing for workplace elections which could confer union recognition, but not one major companies targeted ended up granting union recognition to its workers. The stalemate continued into 1936 even as organizers were sent into the nation’s biggest factories. Executives in those firms held out, hoping the Wagner Act would be declared unconstitutional and that all the tactics that they had used in the pasty to keep workers from organizing- including spies and private police- would continue to be effective
One of the companies most infamous for use of spies and informers was General Motors. The newly formed United Automobile Workers decided to target GM by organizing its plants across the country, in cities ranging from Cleveland to Detroit to Atlanta, but much of its effort was focused on Flint, a General Motors company town, where the infamous Black Legion, Ku Klux Klan type organization had some influence in the plants. The organizers the UAW sent in first decided to create a secret organization of workers they could trust and then began doing actions in the plant to show workers that they could stop foreman and managers from intimidating workers on the job. Then, after they built a following with small actions, they decided to do something dangerous and dramatic to force General Motors to come to the bargaining table. They seized and barricaded two plants and refused to leave. General Motors tried everything to evict them. They used private guards, they organized vigilante groups, they called on the local police. Nothing could get the workers inside, who had thousands of supporters outside, to leave. They even drove off the Flint police who refused to use guns, and when the police finally used guns against picket outside, it backfired. The occupation went on for several weeks. General Motors asked the newly elected Democratic governor to send in the national guard, which he did, but he refused to use them to pull the workers out. He, and President Roosevelt, who refused to send in federal troops, thought the country would be better off if GM recognized the union. Then, at the fifth week of the Occupation, the Governor finally told workers in the plants he was going to use the guard to take the workers out. But the workers instead of leaving the plants, decided to up the ante. After half of those occupying the factories signed “Ready to Die” agreements, a phalanx of workers seized yet another factory in the 9 Plant General Motors complex and barricaded that.
The Occupation had now lasted six weeks, shutting General Motors production down almost completely on a national level. Half of the country wanted the workers in the plants taken out and shot; another half supported what they were doing. Finally, just as it looked like there was a bloodbath on the horizon as the National Guard prepared to take the plants, General Motors decided to negotiate with the UAW and give collective bargaining rights to workers in the occupied plants. Within two years, General Motors, the nation’s largest industrial corporation was completely unionized

But that wasn’t all, US. Steel the nation’s second largest corporation, which faced a similar organizing drive from the United Steelworkers Union, decided to voluntarily grant recognition in its plants to the USW rather than go through what General Motors just had. This meant that by the time the US economy started reviving in 1939, the nation’s two largest corporations were unionized, and workers in both of those companies were making far more money than they ever had in their lives, and could walk into factories knowing that foremen and managers would treat them with respect. This resulted, ultimately in those workers becoming bulwarks of a strong consumer economy that emerged right after WWII, and helped make the US a far more equal nation than it had been in the 1920’s.

Birmingham 1963

It is March of 1963. It has been nine years since the landmark Supreme Court decision, Brown V Topeka board of education which had declared the separate but equal doctrine, used to justify racial segregation in the South, unconstitutional. It was seven years since the Montgomery bus boycott, which ended bus segregation in that city, and two years since the student sit-in movement which ended segregation in some downtown business districts and two years since the Freedom Rides which ended segregation in terminals involved in interstate travel. Yet despite these landmark events, the vast majority of the South remained segregated. Hospitals, parks, swimming pools, restaurants, theaters, department stores, gas stations, factories and offices buildings, in both the private and public sector, all kept whites and blacks totally separate, in the process subjecting Black Southerners to almost daily humiliation. President Kennedy, preoccupied with foreign policy issues, refused to put the prestige of his office behind Civil Rights legislation that would compel the South to end these practices. Lobbying and legislation couldn’t move him. Even a year long protest in Albany Georgia, where there were thousands of arrests, but no violence, could not prompt federal intervention

Dr Martin Luther King, the most important leader of the non-violent protest movement was getting desperate. He saw the gains that Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam were making among frustrated blacks and feared that his entire movement could be disrupted unless he could force federal action to end segregation. So he decided on a gamble every bit as desperate as occupying the flint factories. He decided to lead a movement to desegregate the downtown business district of Birmingham Alabama, where the local sheriff, Eugene Bull Connor, would be almost certain to try to repress any protests with such extreme violence that it would create an international scandal. King moved to Birmingham and started mobilizing that city’s Black churches He persuaded hundreds of well dressed peaceful marchers to go into downtown Birmingham where they would enter Department stores and restaurants and demand to be served. Bull Connor, as expected, arrested them in enormous numbers, filling the jails, but avoiding for the most part, flamboyant acts of brutality for which he was known. The movement dragged on for a month, with thousands of arrests, but no visible results. People in the Black community were getting tired and discouraged. King had trouble getting enough people to march downtown to sustain the momentum of the movement. Finally, he decided on a truly desperate strategy. In the face of several local criticism, he organized thousands of Black high school and junior high schools students to march with him downtown. This so enraged Sheriff Connor that he decided to unleash police dogs and hoses on the youthful demonstrators, creating scenes of brutality sent around the world. Not only did this enrage people around the globe, it so enraged people in Birmignham’s black community that they started throwing rocks and bottles at police in the city’s Black neighborhoods.
This unrest finally forced the Kennedy administration into action. The President not only sent his brother Robert, who was US Attorney General, to Birmingham, to negotiate an end to segregation in that city’s downtown business district, he decided to make a nationally televised address putting his full support behind the goals of the Civil Rights movement and announcing that he would submit an omnibus Civil Rights Bill to congress that would put the full weight of the Federal Government’s power behind ending segregation, a bill that ultimately passed, after President Kennedy’s death, in 1964

These two examples show how protest movements that involved grave risk, that broke the law, and that used extremely controversial and disruptive practices, helped organize America’s workers and significantly raise their standard of living and bring an end to legal segregation in the American South.

Monday, April 16, 2012

How Occupy Wall Street Has Revitalized Neighborhood Based Protest- The Hollis Example

In the Hollis Section of Queens, a working class and lower middle class African American community, two blocks of apartment buildings owned by a multi millionaire real estate operator named Rita Stark have sat vacant for more than 16 years on that community’s major commercial strip. Ugly and decayed, occasionally used by neighborhood drug dealers as a safe haven, they sit across the street from a junior high school and two churches. The local development corporation, elected officials, and ordinary citizens have tried to get these buildings fixed up for years by writing letters, filing petitions, organizing meetings with the owner, all to no avail- but now, all of a sudden there is hope of action. Why? Because of the Occupy Movement and the example it has set.

Let me explain how. During January of 2012, education scholar and activist Ira Shor and I decided to try to create a support group for Occupy Wall Street at predominantly African American Church in Queens where a dear friend and colleague, Rev. Dr Mark Chapman was the pastor. The idea was to create an organization for people who supported the general goals of Occupy Wall Street, but felt uncomfortable sleeping in a park or risking arrest on a regular basis. The congregation of Hollis Presbyterian Church, consisting largely of senior citizens who had been civil rights activists, and remained active in community affairs, seemed ideal for this purpose so with Rev Chapman’s help, we set up a first meeting. More than 25 people showed up, indicating how much Occupy Wall Street had captured the imagination of people in this Southeast Queens community, and after agreeing a club should be formed, they began debating what local issues they should take up. After a short discussion, the group decided to take up the cause of the 2 blocks of abandoned buildings on Hollis Avenue whose wealthy landlord had stubbornly defied community pressure to sell them or fix them up.

What gave these long time neighborhood activists hope that they could now finally make headway in solving a festering neighborhood problem was the prospect of bringing the young activists from Occupy Wall Street into the community to shake up the landlord and local elected officials. They saw Occupy Wall Street as a new, and welcome force, that could strike fear in the hearts of the wealthy, not only through a language that held them responsible for monopolizing the nation’s resources at the expense of the majority of the nation’s people ( the 99 percent), but because of its capacity to mobilize hundreds, sometimes thousands of young people to take to the streets in support of economic justice. They decided on a step by step strategy to build support for a major protest, beginning with research on the abandoned properties, complaints to the department of buildings to insure violations on the properties were up to date, and the filming of a short video explaining why neighborhood residents were determined to get the buildings fixed up.

All of these actions were undertaken, but it was the last one which had the most effect. Someone from Occupy Queens saw the video on Facebook and immediately asked Rev Chapman if they could come to the next 99 PCT club meeting to support the initiative.. When Rev. Chapman said yes, 15 activists from Occupy Queens came to the next 99 Pct Club meeting, The chemistry between the two groups was extraordinary. Though the Hollis Group was mostly senior citizens and almost all black, and the Occupy Queens groups was mostly young and middle aged and majority white, they possessed a shared understanding that working class and middle class people were suffering terribly in the current economic crisis and something had to be done about it. When Occupy Queens described how they were blocking foreclosures in the local courts by “singing in the courts”(!) people from the Hollis Group saw an immediate connection to what was happening in their neighborhood, where many homes were foreclosed, as well as the sign of the re-emergence of an energy and courage and tactical flexibility that had marked the civil rights movement in its glory days. The two groups decided to create a coalition centered on the transformation of the Rita Stark buildings into community space, building up to an April 21 demonstration at the buildings which was aimed to attract Occupy activists from around the city as well as Hollis Residents.

The April 21 event will begin with a Forum at Hollis Presbyterian Church, sponsored by Occupy Queens, where speakers will discuss local and national initiatives to transform foreclosed homes and abandoned commercial and residential spaces into housing for the homeless, and to defend tenants and homeowners from evictions by landlords and banks. The participants in the Forum will then join Hollis residents for a six block march to the Rita Stark properties where a rally and demonstration will take place which includes an
“open mic” for members of the community to say how they think the properties should be developed. This protest, expected to attract several hundred people, will be the first of many actions taken till the issue has a positive resolution.

What is occurring next Saturday is an example of how Occupy Wall street has not only changed the conversation about economic inequality in the United States, but given people around the nation hope that they can do something about it! It has done that not only by popularizing a language that puts the onus for the nation’s economic difficulties squarely on the wealthy and the powerful, but by showing that innovative protests that link new groups of activists to existing ones can win victories large and small, in neighborhoods as well as states, and municipalities, and eventually in the entire nation.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Education Reformers and "The New Jim Crow"

If somebody told me, 15 years ago, when I was spending many of my days working with community groups in the Bronx and East New York dealing with the consequences of the crack epidemic, that you could solve the problems of neighborhoods under siege by insulating students in local schools from the conditions surrounding them, and devoting every ounce of teachers energies to raising their test scores, I would have said “what planet are you living on?.” Students were bringing the stresses of their daily lives into the classroom in ways that no teacher with a heart could ignore, and which created obstacles to concentrating in school, much less doing their homework , that people living in middle class communities couldn’t imagine. To be effective in getting students to learn, teachers had to be social workers, surrogate parents, and neighborhood protectors as well as people imparting skills, and at times, the interpersonal dimensions of their work were more important than the strictly instructional components.

Now, such thinking is considered a form of educational heresy. The leaders of the Education Reform movement, from Secretary Arne Duncan, to the head of Teach for America, to Michelle Rhee to the heads of almost every Urban School System, regard any discussion of neighborhood conditions as an impediment to the quest to achieve educational equity and demand that teachers shut out the conditions they are living in and inspire, prod, and discipline their charges to achieve results on standardized tests that match those of their middle class counterparts living in more favorable conditions.

But the position they are taking, that schools in depressed areas can be radically improved without doing anything to improve conditions in the neighborhoods they are located in, flies in the face of the common sense of anyone who lives or works in such communities, so much so that it represents a form of Collective Madness! The idea that an entire urban school system
( not a few favored schools) can be uplifted strictly through school based reforms , whether it is eliminating teacher tenure, or replacing public schools with charter schools, without changing ANY of the conditions driving people further into poverty is contrary to anyone’s lived experience and has in fact, never been accomplished anywhere in the world!

Let me break down for what the “No Excuses” approach to School Reform means in common sense terms.

Basically, reformers propose to raise test scores, and radically improve graduation rates in entire urban schools systems without doing anything to
1. Reduce homelessness, residential instability and housing overcrowding as a factor in student’s lives.
2. Deal with hunger, poor diet, and obesity as factors impeding education performance
3. Challenge racial profiling and police violence in student’s lives, not only in their neighborhoods, but in the schools
4. Deal with unemployment, underemployment, and wage compression as factors in the lives of students and their families
5. Deal with the impact of the prison industrial complex on students and their families, particularly the psychic and economic stress of having close relatives in prison and having them unemployable when they leave.
6. Deal with the trauma of domestic violence and peer violence as it impacts student’s lives and their educational performance.
7. Deal with the way students are profiled by police, storeowners and ordinary citizens when they leave their neighborhoods and go into downtown business districts or middle class neighborhoods.

Essentially, Reformers are asking everyone involved with schools in under-resourced communities, especially teachers and administrators to block out all the conditions that Michelle Alexander has highlighted in her book The New Jim Crow. Not only will this approach fail miserably, it gives a free pass to economic and political elites who policies helped create the very conditions that lock people into poverty.

No wonder billionaires love this policy. It takes the onus off them for concentrating so much of the nation’s wealth in the top 1 Percent of the population. No wonder politicians love it It absolves them of responsibility for building the largest prison system in the advanced world and filling it with poor people and people of color and creating huge police forces and drug enforcement policies that assure such prisons are filled.

Essentially, current school reform policies represent a brilliant tactic to avoid dealing with the real causes of poverty and inequality in society, while finding a convenient scapegoat in public school teachers and their unions.

It is transparent, ill-considered and immoral. And over time, as its true character is revealed, people of the communities most targeted by these reforms will rise up in protest against policies which discourage them from organizing to improve their communities and their lives.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

An Ill Wind Blowing Though the Nation

There is an Ill wind blowing through this country. Sometimes incorporating the language of national security and international competitiveness, sometimes the language of equity, it is relentlessly stripping us of our personal freedoms and civil liberties while lowering the standard of living of the majority of the population while leaving the concentration of wealth at the top untouched. Wherever we go, whether it is on the job, in school, moving from place to place or participating in recreation or civic activity, we feel the weight of its surveillance and if we protest, the iron hand of police power. The United states of America, 2102. This is NOT what Democracy looks like

Monday, April 9, 2012

What the Masters Golf tournament Can Tell Us About Education Policy

Anybody who watched the Master's Golf tournament yesterday saw genius at work in the shot Bubba Watson hit out of the woods on the final playoff hole. It was a shot that no one would dare to teach, created out of the imagination of a self-taught player who never took a lesson in his life. Yet the traits that make Bubba Watson so brilliant are being relentlessly squeezed out of children in the nation's public schools by a regimen of scripted lessons and continuous test prep. Students unique learning styles and aptitudes are being smothered by a one size fits all standard that not only penalizes students with disabilities, but smothers creativity and innovative thinking. The idea that such an approach will make the US internationally competitive and contribute to future economic growth would be laughable if it were not entrenched as official policy on the national state and local level. Unless people challenge the obsession with testing and uniformity, our schools will be Racing toward mediocrity and intellectual sterility at breakneck speed

Why The Most Talented Teachers and Administrators Are Opposed to Race to the Top

It is no accident that our most talented and experienced teachers and administrators are the one’s most opposed to the Race to the Top initiative coming out of the US Department of Education. RTT, with its attacks on teacher tenure and emphasis on scripted lessons, continuous testing, and merit pay, incorporates two principles that are profoundly insulting to people who have devoted their lives to the teaching profession- the presumption of incompetence (the idea that teachers will do as little as possible if they have job security) and the belief that material incentives are superior to moral ones in prompting high performance. These management techniques almost precisely duplicate those practiced by major industrial corporations during the heyday of welfare capitalism in the 1920’s, when they helped produce short term gains but long term catastrophe ( the Great Depression). Removing all creativity and autonomy from any portion of the workforce is questionable- doing this with teachers and school administrators will be disastrous.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Disparate Impact Gone Awry:How the Misapplication of Civil Rights Law Encouraged the Demonization of the Nation's Teachers

One of the unexamined dimensions of the history of the School Reform Movement is the role that Civil Rights lawyers played in shaping its guiding assumptions and strategies. I was reminded of this the other day when reading an unpublished manuscript by an Oklahoma City based teacher named John Thompson, who pointed out that civil rights lawyers typically demonstrated the existence of discrimination by documenting statistical disparities between underrepresented and privileged groups, which is precisely the approach School Reformers used in devising remedies for the achievement, or test score gap, between black and white students. Reformers looked at statistical disparities between schools in Black and White neighborhoods and inferred that the lower test scores and graduation rates n the former could best be remedied by removing teachers and administrators in the underperforming institutions and replacing them with more skilled people and/or by closing such schools and replacing them with new schools that had greater flexibility in hiring.

As I read these passages, they struck a chord on multiple levels. First, I thought of my own research on the evolution of affirmative action and how civil rights leaders and federal officials developed a rationale for it. Affirmative action began when policy makers required employers to do statistical analyses of the percentage of underrepresented groups they hired or enrolled, and based remedial action on those statistics, rather than demonstrated discriminatory intent. The main agency responsible for enforcing anti-discrimination law in employment, The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission pioneered this approach, When companies complained that under representation of minorities was not the result of intentional discrimination, they complaints were rejected, by both the EEOC and the federal courts, who invoked a doctrine called "disparate impact" (enshrined in a Supreme Court decision Griggs v Duke Power) which stipulated that practices which reinforced historic patterns of discrimination, even when they were neutral in intent, and even in application, were considered discriminatory under federal law, and could be subject to remedies that increased the number of employees from the group in question even if the institutions normal standards for hiring were set aside.

Now let's move ahead 40 years later. Civil rights lawyers began looking at disparities in achievement between Black and White students through a similar lens, treating such disparities as if they were the product of discrimination. But rather than viewing those disparities as the result of discrimination in criminal justice policy, the housing and employment markets, and access to family wealth, they chose to isolate the school from the depressed neighborhood they were located and put continuous pressure on underperforming schools to do a much better job educating Black and Latino students.

One incidental outcome of the application of disparate impact theory to education was the identification of "bad teachers" and the unions which protected
them, as the primary cause of discriminatory outcomes for Black andLatino students. These were factors which policy makers felt they could directly influence, unlike intergenerational poverty and discrimination in housing, employment and criminal justice, and once the schools became isolated from their neighborhood setting as discriminatory institutions, teachers quickly became the main targets of remedial action.

But demonizing teachers was not the only consequence of this style of thinking. Once policy makers began developing statistical models to reliably compare and rate schools, and gauge teacher and administrator performance, they realized that the needed a much more reliable data base upon which to do this and that meant increasing the number of standardized tests, applying them across the board to constituencies which had previously been exempted, such as ELL and special needs
students, and spending huge amounts of money on software to process the
information and consultants to analyze that information

Both results, the demonization of teachers and the proliferation of testing, took place in New York City under the direction of a well known civil rights attorney,' James Leibman from the faculty of Columbia Law School, who was hired by Chancellor Joel Klein, another lawyer who loved to employ civil rights rhetoric, as the Department of Education's first Accountability Officer. Under Leibman' s direction, the DOE created complex statistical models first to grade schools, and later to
evaluate teacher performance, both using criteria that based ratings on complex measures involving variations in student test scores from year to year. On the basis of the models, which were statistically flawed and often defied common sense, schools were closed and teachers were removed and placed in a much stigmatized reserve pool. The consequence was an increase in the number of tests and huge ratcheting up of stress levels associated with them. In New York City, for
example, every third grader must sit through 6 straight days of testing for 90 minutes a day. Those who defend this practice still use the language of equity in explaining why they are doing. But quite frankly, the negatives associated with this level of quantification are far exceeding the benefits.

We now face a situation where school reform policies once descrbed as necessary to achieve educational equity and reduce the racial achievement gap have resulted in uncontrolled testing , profit taking on a grand scale by test companies, and attacks on teacher integrity and collective bargaining rights that have produced the lowest level of teacher morale on record.

Such is the consequence of the misapplication of a once honorable civil rights doctrine to a setting where the most publicized causes of discrimination -teacher apathy and incompetence- are far less significant than environmental factors excluded from the analytical and statistical model, particularly poverty, and societal racism.

The notion that “School Reform is the Civil Rights Cause of the 21st Century has become a cruel joke to teachers and students who find themselves deluged with unnecessary tests and placed under intolerable stress in the name of educational equity.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

A Teacher's Creed

I am a teacher. My pedagogy is not data driven. Nor is it scripted by a test company. I do not do "customer service." I try to stretch minds , stir imaginations, and inspire students to do more than they ever dreamed possible. I am always open to constructive criticism, but I refuse to let anyone assess my work other than my colleagues and my peers. If you can't understand the material I teach, and don't love my students as much as I do, stay out of my way. I have the best job in the world and anyone who tries to ruin it will find out very quickly that I don't roll over at the behest of fools.

Making Play Disappear- What Test Based School Reform and the Suppression of the Occupy Movement Have in Common

One of the most threatening features of the Occupy movement was its playfulness and spontaneity. The beating of the drums, the impromptu marches through city streets, the group discussions that could break out at any moment, the musicians- of all types- who would come to perform and whose performance was immediately captured and disseminated through you-tube, created a festive atmosphere that capture the imagination of people around the country and helped the movement spread like wildfire. It is this playful and defiant spirit, made possible by the possession of communal space in the center of towns and cities, that Mayors and police departments seemed to find especially threatening, as it challenged the order and obedience that they saw as essential to the smooth running of their cities and the maintenance of vibrant economies. Evicting the Occupy camps, something partially coordinated by Homeland Security, removed the threat of a contagion of Freedom and Spontaneity in their midst

The same obsession with order and obedience is dominant in the educational policies being promoted by leaders of both political parties, coordinated by the US Department of Education. Everywhere around the country, schools are eliminating arts, music, and gym, and in the lower grades, play and recess, to make time for more standardized tests. Increasingly, school time, from Kindergarten and Pre-K on, is being transformed into preparation for standardized tests, with the results of those tests guiding the futures of students, teachers, administrators, and at times whole schools. Not only is play time being eliminated, but activities which leave room for imagination and creativity are being squeezed out of the curriculum in one subject area after another. Dreamers and those who express themselves through physical activity find their talents devalued. Those who are uncomfortable sitting still, and who, through no fault of their own, have difficulty absorbing information in the rigid forms that schools increasingly present it, are marginalized and humiliated

Increasingly, we no live in a nation which is declaring war on play.Perhaps this is necessary to manage a society in which upward mobility is no longer possible for a large portion of our citizens, and in which the fate of most people will be to perform low paid work under strict surveillance. It is certainly convenient for sustaining the rule of the 1 Percent.

But lest us be very clear. In suppressing playfulness and spontaneity, we undermine the parts of ourselves which make us the most human, most compassionate, and most capable of adapting to new circumstances. And we fatally weaken whatever vestiges of Freedom and Democracy left in our social order

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Open Letter to the New York State Regents from New York State Professors Against High Stakes Testing

Open Letter to the New York State Regents from
New York State Professors Against High Stakes Testing

March 30, 2012

As lifelong educators and researchers, from across the State of New York, we strongly oppose New York State's continued reliance on high stakes standardized testing in public schools as the primary criterion for assessing student achievement, evaluating teacher effectiveness, and determining school quality. We write to express our professional consensus and concern, and to offer our assistance to the Regents in generating educationally sound alternatives to high-stakes testing as the primary strategy for assessment in New York State.

Researchers and educational organizations have consistently documented, and a nine-year study by the National Research Council has recently confirmed, that the past decade’s emphasis on testing has yielded little learning progress. In New York State and New York City, the consequences of testing policies have been most disappointing.

Disparate impact on students. Numerous studies document that the over-reliance on high-stakes testing bears adverse impact on student achievement and has been accompanied by widening racial/ethnic gaps. Using New York City as an example, we see that large numbers of students are performing below proficiency. High numbers of the city’s public school graduates fail the CUNY entry tests and are required to take remedial courses. Results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) suggest a failure to achieve significant reduction in the achievement gap separating New York City’s white students from African American and Latino students since 2003. The negative effects of our high-stakes testing environment are perhaps most pronounced for English Language Learners for whom the tests were not designed, who cumulatively and consistently fail to achieve proficiency within the limited school time (a year and a day) before they are required to take the exam in English. In 2010, 24% of 4th graders labeled as ELLs were deemed proficient in English Language Arts compared to 58% of non-ELLs. By 8th grade only 4% of ELLs were classified as proficient compared to 54% of non-ELLs. It is therefore little surprise that of the 2006 cohort, only 40% of ELLs graduated after four years compared to 75% for non-ELLs.

Negative impact on educators. High-stakes testing creates adverse consequences not only for students but also for educators. Statisticians and educational researchers have challenged the validity, effectiveness, and ethics of using high stakes test scores to evaluate educators. As argued in an open letter to Mayor Rahm Emanuel by CReATE (Chicago Researchers and Advocates for Transformative Education), “There is no evidence that evaluation systems that incorporate student test scores produce gains in student achievement… [and] Teachers will subtly but surely be incentivized to avoid students with health issues, students with disabilities, students who are English Language Learners, or students suffering from emotional issues. Research has shown that no model yet developed can adequately account for all of these ongoing factors.” Given various value added measures, it is not possible to actually identify with accuracy the teachers who are most effective or least effective. This is already causing some highly effective teachers to leave the profession and may very well serve as a significant disincentive for aspiring new teachers to enter the field. The recent release of New York City Teachers Data Reports unleashed a hugely demoralizing media attack on the professional dignity of teachers.

Disparate impact on children who are disrupted by school closings. Finally, we are extremely concerned about the misuse of test scores as the primary criterion for the closing of schools. The 117 schools closings authorized by the New York City Department of Education since 2003 disproportionately affect children receiving special education services, those who receive free and reduced lunch, and those who are English Language Learners.

In conclusion, we stand with the 1400 principals who signed a petition against teacher evaluations based on high-stakes testing. We offer our intellectual support to the State to help generate public policies that bolster schools to be intellectually vibrant environments where inquiry-based pedagogy is encouraged, class sizes are reduced, educators are respected, parents are welcomed, and students are granted dignity while learning.

We make ourselves available to the Regents to create just policies to transform the public schools in New York.

Bernadette Anand, Instructor and Advisor, Educational Leadership, Bank Street College

Gary Anderson, Professor of Education Leadership, NYU

Jean Anyon, Professor of Urban Education, The Graduate Center, CUNY

Lee Anne Bell, Professor, Barbara Silver Horowitz Director of Education, Barnard College

Douglas Biklen, Dean, School of Education, Syracuse University

Sari Knopp Biklen, Laura and Douglas Meredith Professor, School of Education, Syracuse University

Robert Cohen, Professor of Teaching and Learning, NYU

Edward Deci, Professor of Psychology and Helen F. & Fred H. Gowen Professor in the Social Sciences, University of Rochester

Greg Dimitriadis, Professor, Educational Leadership and Policy, University at Buffalo, SUNY

Arnold Dodge, Chair, Department of Educational Leadership and Administration, Long Island University -Post

Michelle Fine, Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Urban Education, The Graduate Center, CUNY

Ofelia Garcia, Professor of Urban Education, The Graduate Center, CUNY

Beverly Greene, Professor of Psychology, St. John’s University

Suzanne Kessler, Dean of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Purchase College, SUNY

Wendy Luttrell, Professor of Urban Education and Social-Personality Psychology, The Graduate Center, CUNY

Ernest Morrell, Professor, English Education, Teachers College, Columbia University; Director: Institute for Urban and Minority Education (IUME); Vice President: National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE)

Leith Mullings, Distinguished Professor of Anthropology, The Graduate Center, CUNY

Mark D. Naison, Professor of African American Studies, Fordham University

Pedro A. Noguera, Peter L. Agnew Professor of Education, Executive Director, Metropolitan Center forUrban Education, New York University

Celia Oyler, Associate Professor and director of Inclusive Education Programs, Teachers College, Columbia University

Pedro Pedraza, Researcher at El Centro, The Center for Puerto Rican Studies, Hunter College, CUNY

Diane Ravitch, Research Professor of Education, New York University and Former Assistant Secretary of Education

Michael Rebell, Professor of Law and Educational Practice, Teachers College, Columbia University

Richard M. Ryan, Professor of Psychology, Psychiatry and Education and Director of Clinical Training, Clinical and Social Sciences in Psychology, University of Rochester

Ira Shor, Professor of English, CUNY Graduate Center

Louise Silverstein, Professor of School-Child Clinical Psychology, Ferkauf Graduate School, Yeshiva University

Carola Suarez-Orozco, Professor of Applied Psychology and Co-Director, Immigration Studies at NYU

Henry Louis Taylor, Jr. Professor of Urban History and Director of Center for Urban Studies, University of Buffalo, SUNY

Ethel Tobach, Curator Emerita, American Museum of Natural History

Sofia Villenas, Director, Latino Studies Program and Associate Professor of Anthropology and Education, Cornell University

Lois Weis, State University of New York Distinguished Professor, Educational Leadership and Policy, University at Buffalo, SUNY