Friday, June 29, 2012

The Battle Against Corporate School Reform Must Be Waged Locally Before It Can Succeed Natinonally

For the foreseeable future, the battle to save public education from uncontrolled testing and Corporate control will not be won at the national level. Both political parties are in the pockets of the Billionaire reformers, and the national leadership of teachers unions are desperately trying to save their organizations by making compromises that will leave them free to fight another day, if in fact there is anything left worth fighting for. This means that teachers, students and parents are on their own in challenging policies which dumb down the curriculum, undermine creative thinking, squeeze out the arts, and put young people’s health at risk by eliminating physical activity both during and after school. Every policy being promoted nationally, by both political parties, works to turn schools into zones of fear and stress for students and those who work in them. All across the nation, these policies are producing a simmering rage. But since that rage gets no support or recognition from elected officials, and is largely disregarded by commercial media, most people nurture their rage in private, or in small groups discussions among families or friends. This is where we- education activists- come in. Whether we are teachers, principals, parents, students or just concerned citizens-we must provide leadership on the local level which affirms the validity of this rage and turns it into action. The first step is to join the discussions about how public education is being destroyed wherever it takes place. At the workplace, in the hair salon, at little league practice, in the doctors office, at PTA and union meetings. Let people know that they are not alone, that there are national organizations working to help people fight back to against excessive testing, restore play arts and recess, and stop the closing of schools against the wishes of the communities they are located in. Wear buttons, pass out flyers, make everyone in contact with you know where you stand. And don’t worry about political affiliation. When it comes to fighting to make sure children enjoy school and are not beaten down by testing,, you will find support runs the gamut from the Tea Party to revolutionary Socialists. Then start organizing local actions that are winnable, whether it involves picketing school boards to demand the restoration of sports arts and music, or collective actions that involve opting out or walking out of tests. Make your protests fun and sponsor dinners and picnics and benefit concerts to promote your activities. And once you get a following, start working on local elected officials to get them to support you. You are much likely to make headway with people who depend on their election for parent and teacher votes, than with national party officials who depend on big contributions from billionaire education reforms to fund their campaigns. Having raised my voice about the threat to public education at every venue I have mentioned- at the salon where I get my hair cut, at my grand daughter’s track practice, in my office at work, at my tennis club and at family gatherings and parties to which I have been invited, I can assure you that a growing variety of people agree with me that excessive testing is destroying our schools. So don’t give up and don’t beat your head against the wall because your Governor and both Presidential candidates won’t listen to a word you stay. This battle has to be won one neighborhood, one school, and one city at a time. When something this wrong has been unleashed, we have to give people the confidence to follow their own best instincts.. We must not only become leaders, we must try to become the heroes we spent our lives looking up to. The crisis we face demands nothing less.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

I Am A Teacher

I am a teacher. Just for the record I did not give a Triple A rating to 5,000 worthless mortgages bundled into derivatives so they could be sold around the world at a huge commissions by the world's great financial institutions I did not take a 40 million dollar golden parachute for running an auto company into the ground and requiring to get a federal bailout I did not close a factory in the middle of the night and move it's operations to Southeast Asia, leaving 2,000 people without jobs they had held for decades. I did not buy up buildings in Harlem and raise the rents, forcing longtime tenants to move to apartments in the Bronx where they were sometimes doubled and tripled up with other families I did not sit on a Fiscal Control Board that require New York City Public schools, in the late 70's, to close their after school programs and night centers and shut down music programs in the schools that were the best in the country and probably the best in the world I did not decided to use stop and frisk tactics to terrorize and intimidate young people of color in cities and towns around the country, nor did I pass drug laws which ended up putting more than 2 million people in the nation's prisons and jails So if you want to blame poverty, inequality, racism and the decline of the middle class on me, be my guest History has a way of taking revenge on liars and thieves.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

A Culture Of Intimidation for the Poor- The Ugly Underside of Hipster New York

During the last two weeks , I visited two remarkable restaurants and gathering spots in once struggling sections of Brooklyn and the Bronx,the Clock Wine and Martini Bar on Lincoln Avenue in the Bronx, just South of the Bruckner Expressway, and Peaches on Lewis Avenue in the heart of Bed Stuy. In both places, the atmosphere was hip, and informal, the crowd multiracial and clearly at ease. Thought I was there on the invitation of friends, these were both spots I might come back to on my own because I felt so comfortable there This is not the first such experience I have had in neighborhood spots in what were once considered tough neighborhoods. I felt the same way at Teddy’s Bar and Grill in Williamsbugh, where I have guest dj’d at the invitation of my friend Dennis O’Neill, at the Bruckner Bar and Grill in the Bronx, and at Camaradas El Barrio, the amazing bar, restaurant and music venue owned by my friend and former student Orlando Plaza in the heart of East Harlem I love places where the clientele is multiracial, where the food is affordable and good ( and in the case of Caramarads El Barrio, better than good) and where I can find my favorite beers. If I looked at these places in isolation, I would think New York, under Michael Bloomberg, had become a kind of Hipster Heaven, where young cool people from different racial and cultural backgrounds, and from all over the world, could find their culture and sociability institutionalized in neighborhood spots all over the city But when meeting my friend and former student Tiffany Raspberry, a political consultant who lives on Myrtle Avenue, two blocks from the Marcy houses, I got a chilling picture of how Hipster Heaven is maintained in neighborhoods which adjoin large low income housing projects. Tiffany said, quite bluntly,” you never see kids from the Marcy Houses on Myrtle Avenue.” The police, she said, send a message that they are not welcome on those streets, where hipsters ride bikes and Hasidic families can be seen in growing numbers shopping and sending their kids to school. “So this is what stop and frisk accomplishes” I asked her. “Exactly” she said. I then thought about a couple of similar situations I had been in recently where a similar dynamic was at work. Every Thursday afternoon, I take my grand daughter Avery to track practice in Red Hook Park, passing by the Red Hook project on my way to and from the track. On the more than fifteen occasions I have gone to Red Hook, I have not seen one group of tough looking adolescents congregating in the school yard, hanging in the street, or walking through the park. If this had been fifteen years ago, their presence would have been unmistakable, and something to be ignored at one’s peril. What happened? Are all those kids working? We know that can’t be true, given Black, Latino and youth unemployment rates? Are they all in jail? As full as the jails are, they aren’t holding the majority of adolescents in the city’s low income projects What seems to be going on is that intrusive, intimidating policing, and stop and frisk tactics, are keeping young people of color confined to social spaces where they aren’t seen as a threat to middle class people. Where those spaces are it would take young people themselves- or an urban ethnographer- to enumerate, but it sure isn’t in Red Hook park , it sure isn’t on Myrtle Avenue, it sure isn’t on the Smith Street Restaurant district, it sure isn’t on 7th Avenue in Park Slope, and apparently, it sure isn’t outside Peaches on Lewis Avenue or the Clock Win Bar in the South Bronx! And though I believed Tiffany, it took something I saw heading down to Peaches to hip the point home. As we were heading into Bed Stuy, four blocks South of the Marcy houses, I saw a group of five, young white cops walking together in a group, heading North. Never had I seen so many police patrolling in those numbers. But that was nothing! Three blocks south of that, I saw a group of eight policy officers,two black, six white ( or Latino) walking north in the same direction. This totally freaked me out. I had never seen so many police officers walking in a group? Why were they there? Why this concentration of overwhelming force. And then I thought about what Tiffany said. It required this concentration of police manpower to keep young people trapped in poverty penned into their project grounds while the increasing wealthy people moving into their neighborhood enjoy the upscale restaurants and cafes without fears for their safety. I certainly felt safe in Peaches, surrounded by Black folks of all ages, but at what price my safety. New York is the greatest city in the world if you have cash in your pocket and love culture and the arts, but if you are poor, and a person of color, Michael Bloomberg’s New Y ork can be an expensively maintained prison that nullifies your existence.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Why Business Leaders Make a Mess When They Are Put In Charge of Schools- A Personal Reflection

Every time I have a conversation with someone who has been successful in business- something that happens more than you might think because of the sports I play, tennis and golf- it strikes me they have no understanding of what motivates a teacher. As people who have marked their own success in life through the accumulation of income, investments and property, they find it hard to respect people whose personal satisfaction comes largely through non-material rewards. They think it odd that a person as competitive as I am on the court could possibly devote myself to a field which has no chance of making me rich and look on most teachers and professors with a bemused contempt that I only get an exemption from because of my sports skills. This is why it is frightening that business leaders have taken charge of education in the United States. Because the only things they take seriously as motivation are material rewards and fear of losing one's job or business they are convinced that schools in the US can only be improved a business style reward and punishment system is given primacy. They love the idea of performance evaluation based on hard data ( with student test scores being the equivalent of sales figures and/or profits), of merit increments for those who succeed, and removal of those who fail. However, because they fail to understand how much of a teachers job satisfaction comes from relationship building and watching students develop over a lifetime, they create systems of evaluation which totally eliminate such experiences because they cannot be reliably measured. The result, sad to say, is that measurement trumps real learning. The inevitable results are massive demoralization of the teaching force,(teacher morale is now at the lowest in recorded history),a narrowing of the curriculum to constant test preparation, and a "brain drain" of talented teachers from high poverty schools to those located in more prosperous neighborhoods Why we actually allowed people who are successful in one field to be given control of a field in which they have no experience and no track record is a question historians of the future will need to ponder, but the results, so far, have been near catastrophic. All across the country, we have more and more teachers who hate their jobs because their job security has been destroyed, and more and more children who hate school because of the constant testing It's time to change course.The Great Recession should have shattered once and for all the idea that the measurement and motivation systems of American business are superior to those in the public sector ( eg Do we want the same quality of teacher ratings as Moody's and Standard and Poors applied to mortgage based derivatives?) American business needs to clean up its own act, not applied its flawed methods to other fields. If we continue on the path we are on, we may well see the American Education system become as corrupt, and unstable as the Global Financial System.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

A Tale if Two Bronx Neighborhoods

Two Bronx neighborhoods I have studied through a research project I direct, the Bronx African American History Project ( havve produced more varieties of popular music than any neighborhood in the world. From the 1940's through the 1970's these two neighborhoods, Morrisania and Hunts Point, were the home to musicians, and students in the public schools, who helped create Mambo, Be-Bop, Rock and Roll,Doo Wop, Salss, Funk,and Latin Soul.. Some of the key artists who lived , performed in those communities were Tito Puete, Arsenio Rodriguez, Thelonious Monk,Mongo Santamaria, Donald Byrd, Herbie Hancock, the Chords, the Chantels, Lou Donaldson, Nancy Wilson, Eddie Palmieri, Ray Barretto, and Ashford and Simpson. Later, from the 1970's to the present, when Grandmaster Flash was living and performing in Morrisania, these same neighborhoods helped spawn hip hop, and more recently Bachata, Cumbia, and Hip Life, the music of Dominican, Mexioan and Ghanaian immigrants. The key to the musical creativity of these communities was their unique ethnic mix. In the 1940's and 1950's, African Americans, West Indians, and Puerto Ricans moved into these neighborhoods which were largely populated by Jews and Italians. The Jews and Italians didn't move out right away, creating communities which were more racially and culturally diverse than any other neighborhoood in New York City, quite possibly the country. The result, people shared their music and created hybrid musical traditions, and the schools, which had great music programs, helped nurture them. When people discover how many great artists and great musical genres came out of these neighborhoods, they get very excited. Today, I hold musical walking tours of these communities for people from all over the country and all over the world!

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Cruelty at the Heart of School Reform

The cruelty at the heart of current school reform initiatives was tellingly revealed in New York City yesterday when 3,500 pink slips were sent out to teachers, administrators and school workers in 24 schools targeted for closing as part of the national "school turnaround" strategy supported by the Obama Administration and most Republicans. Who are these people? Most of them are people from working class families, a good proportion women of color, who grew up in the same or similar communities these schools were located in. That they are being blamed for the failures of these schools is unconscionable, but their firing also shreds the social fabric in hard pressed neighborhoods suffering terribly during the current economic crisis. Tens, possibly hundreds of thousands of people around the country have lost their jobs as a result of school turnaround initiatives and thus far, the only gains that we see have been in profits for test companies, contracts for charter schools, and jobs for high paid consultants who Departments of Education locally and nationally hire to evaluate the data. School Reformers say they are in a life and death battle- for what To undermine the middle class in communities of color? To fill schools in low income communities with fear lest they too be closed? To make students hate school by deluging them with tests which are necessary to determine which schools and teachers are effective? To crowd out arts, play and recess less they get in the way of testing? Where are the results in equity and performance that justify this level of pain? Of does profit and greed, in a country this unequal, undermine compassion and common sense

Monday, June 18, 2012

Undermining What Works in Low Income Communities to Install Standardized Tests

Only people with little understanding of life in low-income communities and no sense of history would allow arts and after school programs to be cut to make room for standardized tests, as is currently happening in New York, Pittsburgh, Chicago, much of California, and communities around the nation. In the more than 300 oral history interviews we conducted for the Bronx African American History Project, person after person referred to a music teacher, a coach, or a director of an after school center, as the person most responsible for saving them from the streets and/or inspiring them to pursue higher education. As someone who attended NYC public schools, went to "night center" three days a week, and ended up on a team and in the school band in high school, I can testify to the accuracy of those observations. Teacher/mentors whom help students develop strengths in things they are passionate about and which bring joy in to their lives are a priceless resource in working class and poor neighborhoods. Turn them into drill instructors for tests and you undermine the transformative power of schools in the very places that power is most needed

Friday, June 15, 2012

Some Stories Which Reveal the Elitist Character of Teach for America

Both of These TFA Applicants Came From Families of Modest Means Having (regrettably) participated in the program, having come from a low-income family, and finding myself completely out of place there by many who were even far above upper middle class, I highly, highly concur. My favorite story was when I was attending a TFA meeting with 100+ other TFA corps members, and someone anounced "Whoever parked their black Bentley out front needs to move it", and about 5 people stood up at the same time. Yes. 5 early 20-somethings, with black bentleys, each of which costs upward of $100,000..teaching at the most impoverished inner city schools I went to a TFA interview and sat next to a girl from Harvard who had flown to NYC from Boston, and was flying to Philly for a different interview the following day. Another highlight of TFA is how they pitch the program saying, "TFA members have gone on to work for JP Morgan Chase, Merrill Lynch, etc., etc." - exactly the motivation teachers in inner cities need most.. Regarding the girl flying from city to city - at that point (graduating college) I could hardly afford the bus. My first job out of college ended up being a stint as a porter/doorman in the Upper East Side (partly why I was desperate enough to approach TFA in the first place). First Responder's Addendum Another story was also when I was interviewing for TFA. They do some kind of sales pitch presentation about how great TFA is before they actually interview us, and so while I was sitting there waiting for the presentation to begin, a guy next to me who was also going to be interviewing, decided to regale me with stories about his family's castle on the Chans de Lise and about several of the racing horses he owns that professional jockeys race and the races they have won. Then he asked me about myself and I told him I just got back from Food Lion where I got all different flavors of ramen noodles for less than 3 bucks, on triple coupon day (yes I mentioned this my neighborh and he changed seats. TFA is an organization run and funded by the 1%, and it feeds its own. Teaching low income children of color for a couple of years is really just a resume builder for them, as they move on to executive positions afterward. They admit it openly, that they are doing it just so it will "look good on their resume." It is actually a selling point when TFA folks come to recruit, they are not ashamed to admit it. I became disgusted after a while by how openly these snotty rich kids were using and exploiting children of color for their own career boost. But at this point I was already a corps member. Thankfully, after the initial summer internship and a few saturday classes, I really didn't have to deal with these morons much anymore. I was in a school, and could focus on becoming a better teacher. Would I do things differently if I had to do them over again - probably so - TFA is a despicable organization,a nd this is coming from someone who saw it from the inside. However, my passion, transformation, and radicalization came from working with the very kids that TFA placed me with. So at least for me, it was an important part of my life. Of course, I grew up in those very schools, so I was far from the usual TFA teacher. I continued to teach long after the 2-year commitment, as well, and went on to get my licensure the proper way, and commit myself to these issues, not just use these kids for my own selfish gain

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Price of Neglecting the Community Building Functions of Public Schools

In a society whose economy is crumbling, with net worth plummeting,the middle class shrinking, child poverty skyrocketing and more and people becoming homeless or doubling and tripling up with other families, it is a terrible mistake to turn neighborhood public schools into zones of fear and stress, where children are terrified of failing tests and principals and teachers terrified of losing their jobs. Instead, schools need to be place where children feel supported and nurtured, where parents and community members feel welcome round the clock, and where community programs are held which support and strengthen families. Unfortunately,none of our major school reform initiatives, which emphasize competition, between schools, between teachers, between students, value the community building functions of schools in hard times. Indeed, the "no excuses" philosophy driving testing and teacher evaluation is rooted a conscious effort to pretend that hard times don't exist. But since times are likely to get harder, not easier, the pressure schools are putting on already severely stressed communities is going to generate significant opposition. Those of us who anticipate this need to respond with practical suggestions of how schools can better serve the communities they are located in

Monday, June 4, 2012

The Power of the Arts: A Bronx Tale

= The following are excerpts from an oral history interview I did with trumpeter/composer/educator Jimmy Owens who grew up in the Morrisania section of the Bronx, and learned to play his instrument in the public schools of that borough. As public education is under attack throughout the nation, I want to take this opportunity to give a sense of the incredible arts instruction that once existed in the public schools of New York City, that allowed young people who made the band and orchestra in the junior high school to take home musical instruments to practice and offered music instruction from teachers who themselves were often great musicians. As more and more arts instruction is being pushed out of our schools by test prep, and as public school around the nation are starved of resources, I thought this little vignette might capture how something precious is being lost if we continue to follow current policies to their logical conclusion MN: Who were your teachers at Junior High School 40 that had the biggest influence on you? JO: I think the first teacher was the person who was in charge of the music department, Mr. Lightner. As I said before, he was the person who come to P.S. 99 to give the students who were selected, the special music aptitude test to see if we could go into a special class when we went to Junior High School 40. I was lucky to pass the exam to be in that class. After Mr. Lightner a new teacher came in the eighth grade. Her name was Edna Smith. I found out that she was a professional bass player who worked with a group called the Sweethearts of Rhythm. I played the trumpet. Ninth grade came the time for the exam for the High School of Music and Art and I said to her “I want to take the exam for Music and Art” so she started to ask me questions and I didn’t know them well. She then said “ You can’t just play good and get in. You have to know music theory.” So she started to teach me the scales, and she started to team me the key signatures. I remember she taught me key signatures up to four flats and four sharps MN. So you had not been reading music before JO. Well I was reading music but I was kind of cold reading my music. It wasn’t something that was emphasized. So she- Ms Smith- taught me this stuff. I had three or four weeks before the exam and I would go to her room after school for individual instruction. Then on Saturday, sometimes I would go and meet her at her house. She lived over on Fulton Avenue near Bronx Hospital. Sometimes, she would meet me at the beauty parlor rather than her house because she was always there getting her hair done While she was in the chair, she would say “What’s the key with one flat? What is that flat? Explain the scale to me.” MN What did the other people think? JO. I never thought about them, but she was nice and would introduce me to all the people by saying “He’s going to be a great young musician.” I would up getting into High School of Music and Art thanks to MS Smith and stayed in touch with her for the first year, periodically going back to JHS 40 to see her. Then she left one or two years after and went to teach somewhere else. I lost track of her. MN: When you were graduating from Junior High School 40, were you playing in any venues in the community? JO: Yes. MN: Where were some of the places you would be performing at that time? JO: The only places that I could perform was at the community centers and auditoriums. There was a group of us who were learning how to play and we would use the these places for jam sessions. . MN: Who were some of the people in these jam sessions? JO: We would go into Harlem and there would be a trumpet player named Faruk Daud, who wrote the song “Daud” for his father Talib Daud. He played with Dizzy Gillespie. Pianist Larry Willis and alto saxophonist Johnny Simon were from the Bronx. . At P.S. 99, we used the auditorium because there was a guy by the name of Mr. Tibbs. He was a real community person who took us all under his wing. Mr. Tibbs was a Physical Education teacher. He would present a concert and have alto saxophonists Lou Donaldson and Jackie McLean come by and play in the auditorium.