Friday, November 30, 2012

What Education Reform Has Really Meant on the Ground

Let's be clear: Education Reform, if we date it from the passage of No Child Left behind, has produced no gains in the US standing in global tests in science, math or reading; no shrinking of the test score gap by race or class inside the US; no reductions in child poverty, no narrowing of income inequality; no diminution is the size of the US prison population-- however it has results in huge profits for testing firms; the reduction of teacher morale to its lowest level in history; and the proliferation of six figure jobs as education consultants and leaders of charter schools, mostly for children of privilege. Looked at clinically, in the name of equity, it has been a giant subsidy to corporations and a jobs program for graduates of the nation's elite colleges. Look at what's going on in your city and your community since reform policies have been imposed. Have students in poor and under served communities being empowered? Are they enjoying school more? Are their families being energized by the new choices they now have? Or have precious portions of the school day-arts, music, sports, gym- being sacrificed as schools are deluged with tests? And special needs and ELL students marginalized and humiliated because they might lower a class or school's test profile? There is a story to be told here, school by school, city by city, state by state Please tell it.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

School Closings and Public Policy: The Anatomy of a Catastrophe

School closings, the threat of which hang over Chicago public schools, and which have been a central feature of Bloomberg educational policies in New York, are perhaps the most controversial features of the Obama Administration’s “Race to the Top” initiative. The idea of closing low performing schools, designated as such entirely on the basis of student test scores, removing half of their teaching staff and all of their administrators, and replacing them with a new school, often a charter, in the same building, is one which has tremendous appeal among business leaders and almost none among educators. Advocates see this policy as a way of removing ineffective teachers, adding competition to what had been a stagnant sphere of public service, and putting pressure on teachers in high poverty areas to demand and get high performance from their students, once again based on performance on standardized tests. ********* For a “data driven” initiative, school closings have produced surprisingly little data to support their implementation. In New York City, there has been no perceptible decline in the test score gap between Black and Latino, and White and Asian, since the school closings were initiated ( more than 140 schools in NYC have been closed). More tellingly the percentage of Black and Latino students in the city’s specialized high schools, admission to which is based entirely on test scores, is the lowest in the city’s history, prompting a lawsuit from the NAACP. ********* But the opposition to the closings is not just based on lack of “hard” evidence to support their implementation. It is based on three broadly observed consequences of the closings- their propensity to ignore the voices of students, parents and teaches and ride roughshod over the democratic process; their creation of pressures which transform teaching into test prep and lead to the elimination of art, music, physical education and school trips; and the destabilizing of already wounded neighborhoods by undermining relationships between schools and communities and teaching staffs and families. ********* In New York City, where school closings have been public policy for more than four years, I know of no example where parents and students have mobilized to demand the closing of a troubled school, but many instances where they have mobilized to oppose school closings. With few exceptions, their voices have been ignored by the Panel for Education Policy, the Bloomberg controlled arbiter of school closing decisions. Test scores and Department of Education recommendations have ruled the day. With the elimination of local school boards and the imposition of Mayoral Control, there is no institutional channel that has any power to represent community interests. Children and parents are being given a devastating lesson here – that their voice doesn’t count. Only those who think the goal of public education is to create a passive , disciplined, labor force will to accept any work offered to them should take comfort in this. ******** A second consequence, even more devastating, is how the threat of school closings ratchets up stress levels in low performing schools. Not only has this led to epidemics of clinical depression among teachers and stress related disorders in children, it has led many schools to drastically transform their curricula to assure students pass tests. First to go are art, music, hands on science and school trips; but there have also been many instances why gym, and recess and after school programs have been reduced to make room for test prep, magnifying already serious obesity problems among children in places like the Bronx where there is little access to healthy food and few out of school opportunities for regular exercise. The conditions I have described, in some schools, have reached levels which could best be described as Child and Teacher Abuse. It is time that those making these policies take responsibility not only for what happens when schools close, but the kind of pedagogy schools in high poverty neighborhoods implement to assure that they won’t be closed ******* Finally, there is the issue of neighborhood stability. In poor neighborhoods, it is common for young people to move from household to household, sometimes from household to shelter, in response to the economic instability of their caregivers. Many children are being brought up by grandparents or other relatives; some are in foster care, some are homeless. In this situation, schools are often the main point of stability in children’s lives, and teachers important mentors. I know of many teachers in such communities who financially support their students, take them on trips, sometimes have them come to their home on weekends. Closing schools and removing teachers undermines the critical community building function of public schools, leaving young people without an important anchor in their lives. Given this, no one should be surprised by rising levels of violence in communities where this policy is being applied. We need schools in such communities to be safe zones- not places of Fear and Dread where everyone involved is waiting for the hammer to fall on the instruction of someone downtown who has no idea what people in the neighborhoods are living through or just don’t care ********* I urge all who have read this piece to think very carefully whether school closings are in fact an instrument to promote greater equity or whether they intensify the problems they were meant to remedy and create new problems in their wake.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Positive Ideas for Our Schools

After a wonderful long weekend , I thought it might be appropriate to momentarily drop my Junkyard Dog/ Badass Teacher persona and offer some positive ideas about how to improve our educational system. *******I think we need to drop the test based, one size fits all model of education and allow for far more experimentation in school design. To this end, I would suggest that the following approaches to school organization and design be encouraged, in some cases beginning at middle school age, in others beginning in high school, ********1. An expansion of "portfolio schools" which have assessment based on holistic evaluation of student academic work, rather than performance on standardized tests. New York City's "Urban Academy" is a great example, a multiracial school known for high levels of student/teacher engagement. ********2 The revival of vocational and technical high schools teaching skills connected to the rebuilding of the infrastructure, sustainable design, repair and maintenance of information systems, along with traditional skills that such schools once offered such as plumbing, electronics, auto repair. Not only will such schools create an entry into existing job markets for their students, they will ease the transition to a nation less dependent on fossil fuels. ********3. The creation of schools organized around sustainable agriculture, and health centered food preparation and delivery. Such institutions would not only contribute to the improved health of their students, and the communities in which they are located, they would create jobs, and open entrepreneurial opportunities for students in an economic niche which is expanding locally and globally. Such schools could be located in cities as well as rural areas. ********4. The creation of schools built around community redevelopment and democratic participation by local residents. Dr Henry Taylor is experimenting with this model of school organization in Inner City Buffalo and it is an approach that could help stabilize and revive resource deprived neighborhoods while promoting broad community involvement in the schools, along with student involvement in neighborhood design and revitalization. *********If those in charge of the nation's schools would give exemptions for schools that follow these models, it would do far more for teacher morale and student engagement that having every school adapt to a unitary set of national standards and dish out rewards and punishments based on their success in mastering them. It would also help our stagnant economy by producing graduates with the practical and entrepreneurial skills necessary to help us move beyond a dependence on fossil fuels and compulsive consumerism that is steadily threatening our collective health as well as our quality of life.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Accumulated Weight of Tragedy That Hangs Over New York City

This morning, as I drove my wife’s car to the local gas station at 5 AM to fill it up, I felt a twinge of fear as I turned the corner to the station, expecting a long line. There was no one there, and I breathed a sigh of relief, but I also realized that waiting on line for the last two weeks had left a residue of anxiety, just as beating beaten up in a station house when I was 22 years old made me still feel fear every time a police car comes near me *******And I realized something else. That we, in the New York metropolitan area, had taken a considerable emotional battering in the last twelve years. Between 9/11, the economic collapse and Hurricane Sandy, we had experienced three events of such traumatic power that they were bound to leave emotional scars, even among those who had not lost love ones, homes, or what little economic stability they had in one or more of those tragedies. *******It would be comforting to say that hardship makes you tougher, that crises can bring out extraordinary generosity and compassion in the people around you, that New York has a tradition of coming through hard times, and all those things would be true. But it is also true that such events can instill levels of anxiety and fear that never wholly disappear, and are can be triggered by things that occur years or decades later. *******We have a convenient label for this Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and some might find comfort in giving what they feel a name. But I just hurt thinking of all the suffering I have seen, and that I will still see as I struggle to help those whose lives have been uprooted by Sandy and it mingles with what I saw and felt after 9/11 *******And I don’t like the feeling. I need to be strong for the people around me, and instead I feel shaky and vulnerable. ******The only comfort is knowing that so many people feel the same way, and will be there to help me if I should stumble, fall or grow weak trying to do what must be done. No one can handle this alone. We need each other more than ever

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Occupy Sandy Builds on a Longstanding Progressive Tradition of Mutual Aid and Communal Advocacy

Some people were shocked when Occupy Wall Street, a protest movement that aimed to expose the excessive power of the financial industry and its corrupting influence on government suddenly came to life through grass roots efforts to bring relief to individuals and communities devastated by Hurricane Sandy *****They shouldn’t have been ******This was not the first time that a radical movement known for its uncompromising and confrontational stance toward government and corporate power decided to provide direct services to individuals who suffered extreme hardship as a result of the conditions those movements exposed ********During the early 1930’s, the American Communist Party, whose first response to the Great Depression was huge hunger marches on city halls and private charities demanding “work or wages” began to shift to neighborhood based action to aid individual families. In 1931, the Communist led Unemployment Councils began organizing people to put back the furniture of families evicted for non-payment of rent and organize huge protests against police and marshals who returned to finish the eviction. These anti-eviction protests, starting small, kept thousands of people in their apartments in cities from New York to Chicago to San Francisco, and in some communities like the Bronx, made it virtually impossible for landlords to evict tenants. Then, in 1933, when the Roosevelt Administration appropriated billions of dollars to create relief programs for the unemployed, the Unemployed Councils, and its later manifestation, the Workers Alliance, became an informal bargaining agent for unemployed individuals and impoverished families at city relief offices, helping them get the aid they were entitled to and upon occasion leading sit-ins at relief offices if they were denied it. These protests helped the Communist Party build a strong base of respect, if not loyalty, in many working class neighborhoods and proved a tremendous asset in having unemployed workers and their families organize on the side of industrial unions when they fought for union recognition, rather than providing a core of strike breakers. ******* Now lets jump ahead thirty years to the Black Panther Party. The BPP’s claim to fame was organizing armed surveillance of police who patrolled Black communities. and insisting on the right of people in Black communities to bear arms in self defense. These BPP policies were the ones which created the greatest controversy and attracted the greatest attention, but within two years of the Party’s founding, it was organizing free breakfast programs for children all around the nation, and creating pioneering health care programs in underserved Black communities, a strategy documented by Alondra Nelson in her brilliant book Body and Soul. While some sections of the BPP suffered fierce government repression and others self-destructed, these service programs had a lasting positive impact on many of the communities they organized in. ******** These two historic examples should be borne in mind by those who might be prone to criticize the Occupy Movement for providing services to those in need rather than concentrating all their energies on attacking the underlying conditions that lead to massive levels of suffering. They are making a turn to communal action and mutual aid that the most effective radical organizations in American history all employed at key points in their history. And which helped insure that their contribution to progressive change in America would be deep and lasting.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

A Little Iowa History That Might Put Its Vote for Obama in Perspective

Some people are astonished that a 92 percent white state, which is heavily agricultural, voted for President Obama in two straight elections, in contrast to states with similar demographics and similar economies like Kansas and Nebraska, But if you historical research takes you back to the 1930's you won't be surprised. Because Iowa was the organizational center of one of the most radical agrarian organizations in American History, the Farm Holiday Association ********The Farm Holiday Association was organized by small farmers who felt they were being driven into poverty by low prices for what they produced and by bank foreclosures on their farms when they couldn't paid their loans or mortgages. On the verge of losing everything, they picked up their rifles and engaged in highway blockades which prevented agricultural goods from being transported to markets until prices went up, and armed occupation of courtrooms to prevent judges from seizing farms that had gone into arrears. So large was he support for these actions among Iowa farmers that truck traffic ground to halt in large portions of the state, and judges were forced to extend payment periods on farm loans or drastically reduce their interest and principal. *********These actions began in 1931 and continued into the early years of the New Deal when parity payments under the Agricultural Adjustment Act allowed many farmers in the state to have enough income to stave off foreclosure, but in the interim, they prevented mass impoverishment and displacement of the state's family farmers. ********I don't know if today's Iowa voters have a historic memory of these events, but it has been my experience, from my own family, that stories of resistance struggles do get passed down from generation to generation and can shape people's identities long after the initial event to place Mark Nason

Monday, November 5, 2012

Apology to the Occupy Movement

I want to take this opportunity to apologize to my friends in the Occupy Movement to underestimating the movement’s resilience. ***** I have said, both publicly and privately, that the Occupy Movement has transformed the discourse of contemporary American politics, and begun a process of reversing a thirty year trend toward greater inequality and concentration of wealth at the top, but I was skeptical that the Occupy Movement itself would be a vehicle of that transformation. Rather, I thought that its activists would spark and join forces with other movements for change at the neighborhood, city and national level, rather than being a primary instrument for those changes themselves. I saw Occupy as something that radicalized a generation- but not as something with organizational resilience in and of itself ******Well, Sisters and Brothers, you proved me wrong. The transformative role that Occupy activists have played in coordinating relief to the hardest hit victims of Hurricane Sandy has shown me that the Occupy networks that survived the evictions were much stronger than I realized. The movement to the neighborhoods which followed the evictions, apparently, did not dissolve the movement or change it into something entirely different. It made the movement more multiracial and connected it more closely to the lived realities of working class Americans without totally dissipating the original spirit or the networks that created the Occupations. ****** In any case, America, Occupy is BACK. And this is a good thing given the complete absence of discussion in this election campaign of some of the most important issues that Occupy raised before its encampments were evicted

Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Land that God and the City Had Forgotten

The wave of destruction that that descended upon the Rockaways in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, compounded by government neglect and the absence of official aid organizations, is not the first time that section of the city has been overcome with violence and fear. The wave of arson and disinvestment that swept through the Bronx, Harlem and large portions of Brooklyn during the early and mid 1970’s also took a terrible toll on the Rockaways, though I never saw it mentioned at the time, or for that matter in the historical literature about those difficult years in New York’s History. ********I experienced this first hand in 1979 when I drove out to Rockaway to interview a former NYC school teacher and union activist, named Alice Citron, for my book Communists in Harlem During the Depression. Her address put her in a section of Rockaway, Edgemere, where I had spent many summers as a child staying in the bungalow of my grandfather, who was a garment worker. Although the bungalows were wooden, and in retrospect, extremely modest, I remember magical days and nights in that area in the early 50’s, running into the surf, playing ski-ball on the boardwalk, eating delicious knishes, and listening to the adults political arguments. The area had been packed with people, almost all of them Jewish, who had survived the Depression and were enjoying a first taste of prosperity and security. It was a joyous place. ******** Now, in 1979, it had the atmosphere of a ghost town. Alice Citron’s house stood on a beach block where 90 percent of the land consisted of vacant lots, with only three houses standing. Across the el tracks, near the bay side, stood a large public housing project. When I rang the door bell, Alice and her husband came to the door, accompanied by two huge dogs. Before we started her interview, which focused on the role Communist teachers played in fighting for better schools in Harlem and the teaching of Black history, she told me what the neighborhood was like today ******** Rockaway had become the land that God , and the city of New York, had forgotten. In the housing projects across the street, senior citizens, most of them Black, were trapped in their apartments by fear of crime. The Citrons with their huge dogs, and their car, sometimes shopped for them, and brought them to the doctor when they were sick. The neighborhood had become a kind of urban concentration camp for the poor,, a place where the beauty of the surroundings was little compensation for fear, neglect, and the absence of basic neighborhood amenities. The Citrons, who had lost their jobs during the McCarthy area didn’t have the money to move out so they stayed and helped their neighbors cope. They were in their 70’s then, and had no where else to go.. ******* For years after, I was haunted by what I saw that day, and what it told me about class and race in New York City. Ten years later, when I was coaching CYO basketball, I returned with a team from Park Slope play a game at a Catholic parish not far from the Citron home, St Rose of Lima, but I didn’t have the time to drive around. I never found out of the neighborhood had been rebuilt, or whether life had gotten better in the projects of the Rockaway Peninsula ******** Now, with reports of residents living without power, food, and water, surrounded by piles of debris the storm had scattered, terrified of crime, the memories of that visit came rushing back , and along with it, the rage and frustration I had felt at the time ******** Once again, the people of Rockaway were being neglected. Once again, they were reminded because of their color and economic status, they were not really “citizens.,”. And once again, they were living in the land that God, and the City of New York had forgotten. Mark Naison

Friday, November 2, 2012

A Victory for Outer Borough New York

The cancellation of the NY Marathon is a very emotional event for me. Not just because diverting resources for this event in the face of so much hardship and suffering was just wrong, but because the ground swell of protest against this came from the people of outer borough New York that this Mayor, and the global elites he socializes with and represents, do not understand ****** The neighborhoods of the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island are a world apart from those in Manhattan. They are filled with immigrants and their descendants who do the bulk of the hard labor in the city, whether it is running and repairing our transportation systems, working in hospitals and nursing homes, teaching in schools, serving as police, sanitation workers or firefighters, doing the entry level jobs in our restaurants, hotels and stores, or doing construction or working in city agencies. Many of them live in neighborhoods which have the atmosphere of ethnic villages where outsiders are looked upon with suspicion; others in mixed communities where people of different backgrounds coexist, sometimes uneasily, sometimes well. ******* But though the people of these communities don’t always like or trust one another, and certainly don’t vote uniformly- just compare the political party affiliations of people in Staten Island with those of people in the Bronx- they have a common suspicion of privilege, a respect for the hard work it takes, legal or illegal, to keep a family above water, and a nose for hypocrisy, or to use the vernacular, bull…t. ******** And all of those instinct came into play when the Mayor announced his plans to go ahead with the Marathon. The cops, the fire fighters, the EMS workers, the nurses, the Blacks, the Whites, the Latins and the Asian; the people who lost private homes, and the people who were trapped in housing projects, all looked at this and said “ No.” The people working 36 hour shifts helping bring the city back and those without food and water and electricity began speaking in one voice, to the press, to their elected officials, to one another, and to anyone they could reach on social media, to say this was a grave insult to all of them and shocking sign of the insensitivity of a Mayor who was comfortable expecting limitless sacrifices form them while pulling out the red carpet for out of town guests ******** And finally people started listening. The future Mayoral candidates, one by one, spoke out. Then the newspapers, then some marathon runners themselves. And the Mayor’s advisors too, warning him that people were so angry that the runners might not be safe ****** So the event was cancelled. Not because the Mayor came to his senses. But because outer borough New York had risen in revolt. ******** And the city dodged a bullet at a time when the last thing it needed was conflict and division from the task of putting the infrastructure back together and rescuing those in distress