Friday, March 28, 2014

Why Scripted Learning Sucks!

Scripted learning SUCKS. It totally inhibits teachers from displaying the creativity they need to best reach their students. Let me give an example. I was part of a panel on Race and Activism in the 1960's at the University of Maryland. I spent six hours working on what I thought it was a great speech. I was really proud of it. However, I was the third speaker on the panel and the two young presenters who preceded me gave talks that were so startling and original that it made sparks go off in my head-- and in the audience too. Was I going to break the momentum by reading my speech, as much as I loved it? I just couldn't do that so I decided to throw away the text and speak from the heart, incorporating insights from the first two presentations that highlighted some main points from my speech but turned it into something very different than what I had intended. The result: the crowd instantly saw the connections with the other two presentations- leading to a great question and answer period. If I just read my speech as if the other two talks had not taken place, it would have bored the audience to death! ‪#‎Evaluatethat‬.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Where is The Human Touch?

To me, one of the most powerful experiences in education is when a student comes back to the school they attended to visit with a teacher who had a large impact on them. This happens to me on a regular basis and it is one of the best parts of my job. But current education policies emanating from Washington are making this impossible. Not only are some of the best teachers quitting in protest against the Scripting and Micromanagement they face on a daily basis, but a good many schools are actually disappearing, shut down when they fail to achieve the desired results on test scores. Think of what this means in a city like Chicago, or Newark. A student influenced by a great teacher in a middle school or high school is not only unlikely to find that teacher still working, but they are also likely to find the school they attended gone. What kind of message does it send to students? How does this help build strong communities? And what kind of society do we live in when students, teachers and schools are viewed as disposable parts to be moved around or disposed of at will by policy makers on the basis of "Data" they gather. Where is the human touch?

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

My Long and Convoluted Path To Anti-Racist Scholarship and Activism

Speech at the University of Maryland
Dr Mark Naison

The subject of my talk today is my own evolution as an anti-racist activist, which led from cautious participation in the Northern Civil Rights movement, to involvement in the Columbia Strike and NY and National SDS as a theoretician on race and Black nationalism, to the founder of an anti-racist and anti-war organizing group in the Bronx, to my becoming what was most likely the first white scholar hired by a Black studies program or Department in 1970.

Though this odyssey was unusual in some respects, it paralleled a generational experience for many white Baby boomers who became political activists.  What I would like to do today is explore my own upbringing and experiences in post war Brooklyn to explore the different cultural traditions which shaped my own encounters with race and then discuss how these made my experience slightly different from those of most white anti-racist activists I met at Columbia or in National SDS
   I grew up on a lower middle class family in a Jewish and Italian working class neighborhood in Brooklyn which had handful of Black  families.  My parents, school teachers who were second generation immigrants, were strong trade union supporters who could probably best be classified as liberal Social Democrats.  They came from a tradition which saw all workers as having common interests, but which did not emphasize the fight against anti-Black racism in the United States as a moral commitment equal to that of fighting for workers rights. This led to a series of complicated negotiations with the lived reality of race in American society that I often, as a child found confusing. To start with, my parents never used the word “nigger” and if I had they would have washed my mouth out with soap. They despised southern racists who denied Blacks their constitutional rights, and spoke very highly of Black leaders like Martin Luther King who took the moral and intellectual high ground in fighting for civil rights.  But at the same time, they regularly used the term “schvartes”—and not in a flattering way- to refer to Black people who lived worked  and went to school in New York city, and periodically had conversations in Yiddish, which I couldn’t understand, when referring to those mysterious individuals.In their personal dealings with African Americans, whether it was with the house keeping person they hired, our building  superintendent, or in my mother’s case, with teachers and students in the vocational high school she taught in, they seemed decent, fair, and occasionally  caring.  But there was no question that there was a deep undercurrent of resentment, even contempt, in those discussions they were having in Yiddish about  Black people as a collective entity, something I would come to understand, in more explicit form, when I became and adolescent and showed some interest in Civil Rights activism. But until them, what I encountered was a mixture of confusing, even contradictory views about race some of which my parents seemed embarrassed to share with me

    Another powerful influence in my childhood was popular culture, where the dominant influences were  sports and music- each in forms that were commercially marketed to totally dominate the lives and horizons of working class boys and male adolescents in the highly gendered world of post war Brooklyn.  As television and radio evolved in the post war era, driven by an impassioned and chaotic entrepreneurship that gave small enterprises and media hustlers as much or more power to shape media content than large corporations, my peers and I were bombarded with images and sounds that presented a racially hybrid society in the making  before anyone was able to set forth  a clear understanding of what was taking place, or even say that this was important or revolutionary.

      From the time I was 6 years old, televised sports were a major influence on my life, from the Friday night fights that I watched with my grandfather, to the Dodger, Yankee and Giant games that were televised regularly, to the National Basketball association and National Football league games that were broadcast, to regularly televised New York City high school basketball.  And in every one of those televised spectacles, except the Yankee games, Black athletes were part of the picture that entered my living room without anyone  EVER commenting on that fact. These images normalized something that was in fact quite new, contested, revolutionary, and in many places extremely controversial.  As I child, I never thought of Ezzard Charles as a Black boxer and Rocky Marciano as a white one, or Mickey Mantle as white, and Willie Mays as Black. And because the members of my family and extended family never commented on this either, at least not in English, I found myself identifying with athletes based on their movements and body language rather than their “race.”  In fact, I even lacked a language to distinguish athletes based on race because no announcers EVER mentioned race!   Was this strategic and planned? I doubt it. It was probably  done  both to reach the maximum market and to avoid controversy in Cold War America. But the result was that in a highly subliminal way, as an emerging athlete in a multiracial neighborhood, I internalized images of Blacks and whites playing together and of Black athletes as sports heroes I would want to emulate.  That this experience was profoundly different from that of anyone in my parents generation I would only realize later, but  it made for a somewhat  relaxed approach to playing ball with the small number of black kids in my neighborhood or the black kids I would encounter when playing ball outside of my neighborhood. I don’t want to make it seem that therefore I was free of racial prejudices or fears- merely that this experience of race through mass sports media was juxtaposed to family influences in shaping how I would respond when  racial tensions in Brooklyn and the national civil rights movement emerged as major themes in my life in the 1960’s.

The same was true, even more, of the musical explosion that entered my life in the form of rock and roll. Much has been written about how small record  companies and enterprising dj’s figured there was a large market in reinventing and renaming and African American urban musical form popular in the post war era  rhythm and blues for a multiracial, but predominantly white, teenage audience, but  it hit my pre adolescent Brooklyn world with  the force of a hurricane.  When I was 11 years old, a mixture of television and radio influences managed to convince everyone of our friends that we has to listen to, dance to, watch, and if possible, sing and play this amazingly energized musical called  Rock and Roll. Here however, the images were even more insurgent than in sports, because a majority of the groups we ended up following and admiring were black, particularly Frankie Lymon and the Tennagers, the Drifters, and Little Anthony and the Imperials.   And though we were aware of Elvis, and Buddy Holly and Little Richard, and Fats Domino, and love their music, it was the urban harmonic groups , all of them based in  NY, that  most captured our imagination and until Dion and the Belmonts came along all of those groups were Black.
In retrospect, this was an incredible form of cultural insurgency in a segregated society, all the more bizarre because it took place without commentary, and without any explicit connection, but anyone in the industry, to any political event, be it the 1954 Supreme Court decision, the Emmett Till Lynching, or the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Indeed the only event of those three which I was dimly aware of, growing up, was the Montgomery bus boycott.
But my imagination was FIRED by uncontrolled images of Blacks and Whites playing ball together, singing together, dancing together and as an athletic, but intellectually inclined child in a tough neighborhood, these images defined who I was and who I wanted to be and especially who I wanted to be—a ball player and a rock and roller compensating for the glasses I wore and the two grades that I skipped to make myself attractive, or even just plain acceptable, to girls I was interested in.
   These experiences left me with a rather optimistic, if totally unspoken and inarticulate perspective on race in the US as well as in my own life.  In the two main sports I played, basketball and tennis, I competed with and against African Americans with little anxiety or fanfare, although the parks and schoolyards I frequented were 80-90 percent white.   I don’t recall feeling fear or aversion. But I didn’t forge any strong friendships either.  However, as I reached my teens, I became increasingly aware of racial tensions in my own and nearby Brooklyn neighborhoods.   Kids in my neighborhood started to speak somewhat fearfully of two Black Brooklyn gangs centered in Bedford Stuyvestant, the Chaplains and the Bishops, and we all heard of an all out brawl between Black students who took the bus to attend the high school near where I lived, and tough Italians teenagers who lived near the school. I don’t recall being surprised to hear that, or unduly upset about it. I figured I would just play my sports, love my music, and do well enough in school to keep my very overprotective parents off my back
       My response to what some might have interpreted as a racial incident when I entered that high school as a 13 year old sophomore  reflected what some would think of as a lack of race consciousness. As an up and coming tennis star, but an extremely young and physically immature one, I found myself in gym class with some much older and tougher black kids on the track team.  They began teasing me regularly and when I refused to accede to a somewhat humiliating request- to tie one of their shoelaces- I got in a fight with them and got knocked out cold.  I was prepared to go back the next day, but my parents, against my will,  arranged for a transfer to a high school out of the district with a much better academic reputation and a much whiter student population.
   And here began a rapidly proceeding sense of alienation from my parents on the subject of race which eventually turned a division into a yawning chasm
   My parents , following this incident, suddenly started making their once private spoken in Yiddish comments about race increasingly explicit. They began describing blacks in Brooklyn as the source of  a contagion that was destroying once safe and vibrant neighborhoods,  and used what happened to me as an object lesson of the dangers  Brooklyn’s white and Jewish residents faced
    I, in contrast, just viewed what happened as a fight with some tough kids that I happened to lose ( I had been in MANY fights in my childhood) and saw no racial implications in it whatsoever, since I had faced comparable bullying from Italian kids in my elementary school. 
   But this was more than a disagreement over interpretation of the incident. Something in the way my parents referred to Black people deeply offended me on some visceral  level.  And I am not sure why, since my feelings didn’t come from any explicit political difference, or anything I read or heard on the radio.  I was not, at this point, a very political person.   Rather, it was that, through sports and music, I was so deeply and subliminally identified with black people as figures shaping my identity and imagination that my parents  negativity seemed directed at ME as well as Brooklyn’s Black community. It was as though a bell went off in my head that said. “These people are crazy, These people are wrong. I am not threatened by what they are.” And moreover, although I don’t think  I would have used the word, I began to see my parents if not as racist, as “prejudiced” in some way which was profoundly disturbing
      It was in this confused, angry frame of mind that I arrived at my new high school , Erasmus hall high school in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn and was exposed to the third major influence on my racial attitudes- the civil rights activism of “red diaper babies”- Children of Communists who had been brought up to believe that fighting racism was a profound moral imperative of any person who cared about justice.  It took me a little while to find these people, or to put it more accurately, for these people to find me.  My first priority was to make sure I made my new school’s tennis team, which I did, easily and to establish myself as a star in basketball and dodge ball in all my gym classes. That being done, I started reaching out to make some new friends, largely through the honor classes I was enrolled in, and was intrigued to discover that several of them  were forming or joining protests organizations like the Student Peace Union and the Congress of Racial Equality , each of which had  informal chapters at my new high school
       Here, my incipient identification with Black people and the Civil Rights movement  was reinforced by people who had literally grown up with such an identification and were immersed in a culture that reinforced it.   Not only did they introduce me to organizations I had never heard of, they exposed me to music that I had never known ab out, particularly songs byBlack artists like Odetta, Paul Robeson, Josh White, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee, which highlighted how the legacy of slavery still lived in a southern system that ruled blacks by force and intimidation and in  a system of less formal, but still potent discrimination, that handicapped Blacks at every turn in the so-called liberal north.
     There were some ironies in my political re-education that even I noticed at the time. All of the students in these circles introducing me to civil rights activism and folk and protest music were white, and comfortably middle class, unlike the kids I played ball with in my gym classes and even the group of top tennis players I was part of in Lincoln Terrace Park.   These passionate advocates of integration led more segregated lives than I did.  However, I welcome the opportunity to give words and a political analysis to some of the feelings I had and started going to some of the protests they invited to as well as the parties, something which enraged my parents. Who started saying things like “ if you want to help someone, why don’t you help the Jews.” Implying that any efforts I made to help Blacks in Brooklyn would backfire on me in some potent but undetermined way
      My parents reaction to my emerging anti-racist consciousness led me to view them,  increasingly, not just as willing  participants in a racist social order, but dangerous saboteurs of my personal independence.  I was somehow becoming almost , but not quite-as identified with the civil rights struggle as with my identity as an athlete and rock and roller.   It was murky, conflicted, confusing, still somewhat articulate, but here I was, entering college as a white  adolescent who was living “race” in some way that hadn’t quite been invented yet- a split personality with a large element of rage and defiance when it came to dealing with any kind of racism
     My freshman year at Columbia was mainly devoted to surviving academically, and proving myself as an athlete. I tried out for and made the tennis team, and tried out for and failed to make the basketball team, and joined one of the sports fraternities. Most of my first cohort at the school  were composed of other athletes, which ended up ironically, cementing my own “anti-racist identity.” First of all, it put me in touch with some of the few Black students at Columbia –including two players on the basketball team who became my friends, and secondly it put me in close proximity with some wresters and football players from the South whose  were private defenders of segregation and the impassioned arguments I got into with them held affirm  how much my Brooklyn upbringing- which I was increasingly proud of had made me feel that multiracial social and cultural patterns  were far superior to  anything homogenously white. I even found myself passionately defending interracial dating and interracial marriage in these conversations, although at this point I had never myself so much as danced with a Black girl at a party.
     It was only during my sophomore year at Columbia, after reading James Baldwin’s Another Country and viewing the March on Washington, that I acted on my increasingly passionate political convictions and joined  the college Civil Rights group, Columbia CORE.  Here, more ironies emerged. The Columbia CORE group was, like the Red diaper baby circle at my high school, all white, composed of hip looking men and women  who came from middle to upper middle class families. Many had gone to liberal private schools. Initially intimidated by their sophistication, I signed up to do community work rather than campus work, a decision which led me to an amazing experience doing tenant organizing  in East Harlem working with Black and Latino working class families who  were a notch below economically the people  I grew up with in Brooklyn, but with whom I found myself more comfortable with than some of the  CORE people at Columbia.  I loved the music, the food, the camaraderie  I experienced in this hard pressed New York working class neighborhood and incorporated it into my own emerging identity as a product of New York streets and schoolyards bringing my own unique cultural capital into an Ivy League school which was, for the most part, accustomed to socializing people like me into being part of the American elite  I was now an anti-racist activist in the formal as well as the informal sense- but one with a distinct urban working class sensibility very different from virtually all my white civil rights peers at Columbia.  I was now some odd combination of an athlete, a civil rights activist, and  a New York street guy. And soon  I would add to this, the persona of an historian in the making
  That process began with a great European history course I took in my sophomore year and continued into American history course I took as a junior, where I wrote long research papers on subjects in African American history, a subject not taught at Columbia at the time. I had such a great experience writing those papers that I imagined myself, with lots of hard work, becoming a history professor with whose specialty was civil rights and race in America, journey which I launched , ironically, in history classes where there was not one black faculty member, and almost no Black students.   I started to see myself, implicitly if not explicitly, as part of some emerging academic vanguard which would help make American universities  attuned to the world outside its gates, using my  New York Street  background as well as newly acquired skills in scholarship, to undertake this mission.
  I cannot emphasize enough how idiosyncratic this vision was, along with the chosen identity that undergirded it. No one else in the Columbia civil rights group wanted to be an historian. Nor did anyone in my fraternity or the team I played on.  And none of the history majors I knew wanted to concentrate on race in America  This was the Brooklyn me coming into my own at an Ivy League school, inventing a persona the school had never seen before.
       This persona,, along with the idiosyncratic identity I was creating, added many new layersr when I met, and feel in love with an African American woman who I met at a Columbia basketball team party. This romance, the most powerful I had ever experienced,   pushed me out of my own family, made me part of an extended Black family  with roots in the South,, and forced me to look deep inside myself to interrogate my own racism and decide how committed I was to overcoming it.   On every level, this relationship, which lasted six years, forced me to deepen my understanding of how race shaped every aspect of daily life in the United States.  Every encounter when we were together became a potential challenge, from walking down the street, taking the subway, to going to a club, restaurant or party. There was nothing I had ever experience before which prepared me for what it felt like to have “all eyes on me” and to be seen by strangers as a deadly threat to their sense of how society should be organized
        My willingness to immerse myself in this life changing experience – while in large part shaped by my joy in finding a woman as beautiful, intelligent, loving and compassionate s my girlfriend-also reflected certain idiosyncratic elements in my background and personal history. First of all, I was by now so alienated by my parents  racial attitudes that I was prepared to break with them completely over their disapproval of my girlfriend, especially since I had several fellowship offers to pay for graduate school for the next four years.  Secondly I was a large physically intimidating person who was fully prepared to face down or even fight people on the street who expressed hostility to the sight of a white man and a black woman holding hands. And third, because of my Brooklyn upbringing and experiences tenant organizing in East Harlem, I felt full comfortable  spending time eating, drinking and socializing in a working class Black family .In some ways, I felt more comfortable with them eating collard greens and neckbones  with them  than I did eating cucumber sandwiches  History Department  receptions at Columbia. It was almost as though I could have my cake and eat it- I could expand and deepen my understanding of race in America while still remaining in touch with my Brooklyn working class roots – something that would definitely mark me off as unique in the world of the Columbia History Department or anywhere else I would get my PHD.
           The result of all of these experiences was that I entered the doctoral program in History at Columbia, and approached the political upheavals of the late 60’s, with a unique and idiosyncratic anti-racist identity, especially among the anti-racist whites I met at Columbia, or  would meet later in SDS. I respected the courage and passion of many of these people, but saw myself as more grounded  in real life experiences with race,  because of my working class upbringing, my sports background, my immersion in a Black family, and my willingness to be part of a highly public interracial couple at a time when  this was highly controversial among Blacks as well as whites.   For me, anti-racism was something  I wanted to live in  real time and space with real people, not just pursued as an abstract principle, and I wanted my anti-racism to connect me to Black people rather than separate me from them.  When the civil rights movement separated into Black and White wings, with most white doing anti-racist work in all white organizations, I remained with one foot in the Black community through my work in the Columbia Upward Program, through the basketball and football teams I played on, and through the time I spent with my girlfriend’s family.   I was willing to do this even if I was the only white person in many of the circles I was part of; indeed, a part of me took perverse pride in doing this. But there was a large issue at stake here which I had trouble articulating at the time- that people had to work through the challenges of undoing racism and white supremacy through personal relationships as well as political actions.- that it had to be tested in friendship and love as well as political comradeship.
          It is that belief, more unspoken than explicit, that led me to take a job as an instructor in the Institute of Afro American Studies at Fordham over jobs teaching History in area community colleges. I wanted  the challenge of teaching students about race in America not from the safety of an all white academic department, but as the only white faculty member in an insurgent Black academic unity where I was the minority, and a controversial one at that.  It was a decision I never regretted. And one which helped make me a scholar who never shied from asking difficult questions, and drawing upon personal experience as well as research to help provide the answers.

What's Most Damaging in Schools Today:

In looking back at my own public school experience in Brooklyn in the 1950's, I get an interesting reading on what is going wrong in Education Policy today. It's not just the scripted curriculum. We had that then. There was a whole lot of memorization and rote learning in pubic school classrooms I was in. We also had a bunch of testing and drilling, most but not all of it created by our teachers.
But though class was often boring, what we had, which students today are losing, because they are constantly prepping for tests which their schools and teachers will be rated on, is a lot of free time and a chance to show our talent and creativity outside the classroom. We had lots of recess. We took many school trips. We participated in, and occasionally even wrote and produced, school plays. And students had ample chance to exercise responsibility, if they earned it, by serving as crossing guards or hall monitors or members of the audio visual squad. There were so many fun things happening during the school day that I looked forward to going there even though classes were often a drag.
THIS sense of excitement about the overall school experience is what I fear students are losing as testing and the fear of testing controls every portion of the school day, and play is erased.
Do we really want to turn children into grim faced, fearful adults in the making or can we once again provide the time and the space to allow them to be kids?

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Is High Stakes Testing the Best Way to Improve Educational Performance Among Students of Color and Students Living in Poverty?

    Since the passage of No Child Left Behind, there has been a concerted effort to reduce gaps in educational  performance  by race and class by promoting regular testing in all grades and subjects and rating schools and teachers on the basis those tests.  As a consequence of such policies, thousands of  public schools in low income neighborhoods and communities of color have been closed, tens of thousands of teachers removed from their jobs, and charter schools promoted  as the best strategy to combat educational inequality.
   Given the failure of these policies to achieve their stated goal- namely, to  reduce the Black/White and Latino/White Achievement Gap as measured by test scores or college completion rates-  we would like to call for a reconsideration  of High Stakes Testing by elected officials and educators in Low Income Communities and Communities of Color, along with a search for alternative strategies which might produce better results.
   Before we provide a critical examination of some of the negative consequences of High Stakes Testing- we would like to call attention to another approach, put forward more than twenty years ago, which has been neglected in the years since No Child Left Behind- namely community schooling and culturally appropriate pedagogy. In the 1980’s and early 90’s, many educators of color were urging that public schools in Black and Latino neighborhoods develop curricula centered on Black and Latino history and culture, that schools be transformed into round the clock community centers, and that schools should be involved in social justice organizing in communities under stress.  These measures were fiercely resisted on the state and local level and for the most part were not implemented;  however, the few schools created with this model were highly successful. They were rejected not because they failed- but because they could not attract sufficient funding in the public and private sector
   Enter No Child Left Behind. All of a sudden, leaders of both parties get behind an initiative which appears to make a national commitment to reducing educational inequality by race and class especially since there is unprecedented private sector support for educational initiatives which follow the models this effort puts forward.  
  However, the model systematically rejects key features of the approach Black and Latino Educators were putting forward in the 80’s and 90’s
1. It throws culturally appropriate pedagogy out the window.  Schools in Black and Latino neighborhoods, and students in those communities, are to be rated strictly on the basis of standardized tests developed for all schools in the country. Not only is there no incentive to teach Black and Latino history; but putting an emphasis on such subjects, to the exclusion of materials on the test, would be to commit professional and pedagogical suicide
2. It treats public schools in low income communities and communities of color as disposable, to be closed and replaced if they don’t perform on the tests described above, rather than as vital community institutions to be strengthened, nurtured and opened to new constituencies
3. It pushes any kind of social justice organizing to the side as a diversion from the mission of schools which is to reduce gaps in test performance as determined by a national pool of schools and students
   Despite these significant departures from strategies once widely accepted in Black and Latino communities, strategies employing high stakes testing and school and teacher accountability targeted to results on national and international tests  have, over the past 13 years, commanded wide support in Black and Latino communities, especially among Civil Rights Leaders and elected officials, and have been institutionalized in the Race to the Top policies of the Obama Administration.
   This, we would suggest, has produced some truly tragic consequences, so much so that we think it is time to revisit the policies put forward for schools in Black and Latino Communities 20 years ago..

Time to Close the GATES on an Ugly Chapter in American Education History.

When historians review the last 20 years, the rise of Bill Gates to the position of education power broker supreme and the most important single person shaping public education policy in the US will be one of the most curious phenomena they study. Here is a man who never taught a day in his life and never attended public school who presumes to know how to reshape public education in the United States. More astonishingly, he has managed to convince a cross section of the nation's political leadership- in both parties- and most media pundits that he is the right man for the job, even though not one of his ideas, when put into effect, has achieved the promised results. Is there any precedent for this in American History. Has any other person ever achieved this kind of power over social policy, whereby he can organize a dinner and have 80 Senators attend?
In my judgment, Gates rising influence over education policy is not the sign of a healthy society, and I suspect future historians will concur. He is basically a snake-oil salesman whose great wealth has turned him first into a false prophet, and more recently into a new kind of policy dictator.
Let's hope the American people wake up and see the damage he is doing.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Hip Hop Commentary on the Prison System: An Unrecognized Antecedent to" The New Jim Crow

 You ain't gotta be locked up to be in prison
Look how we livin, thirty thousand niggas a day
Up in the bing, standard routine
They put us in a box just like our life on the block

Dead Prez  “Behind Enemy Lines”

 When Michelle Alexander published The New Jim Crow several years ago, many people were shocked to discover the devastating impact that the drug war and mass incarceration had on Black communities throughout the nation.  The narrative her book contained was not one which had wide dissemination in commercial media, and was certainly never presented with the power, authority and mixture of statistical evidence and storytelling that The New Jim Crow displayed

   However, there was one place where the story Michelle Alexander presented was highlighted with equal eloquence, and at times, even greater vividness and that was Hip Hop. From the late 1980’s through the beginning of the 20th Century, as the crack epidemic and the drug war it triggered led the number of incarcerated people to exceed 2 million and the number of people it indirectly affected by it to reach at least 10 times that number, a number of the most talented hip hop artists in the country, some commercially successful, some not, told heartbreaking stories in their music about what the prison system and the drug war were doing to individuals and whole communities.

   Hip Hop artists, on the ground in the most affected communities, coming from the generation of young people who gravitated to the drug business as the legal economy in their communities produced only low paying service jobs, began spinning out prison narratives in great profusion, some of them filled with political commentary, some of them offering personal stories in grim detail.

 In the first category is Brand Nubian’s “Claimin’ I’m a Criminal” which sees the police apparatus developed during the drug war as  something used to crush dissent in the Black community and  views prison as a place filled with rebels against mass impoverishment

I know the game so I just roll with the procedure
Illegal search and seizure, somethin that they're doin at their leisure
Down at the station, interrogation is takin place
Overcrowded jails but for me they're makin space
Tell the devil to his face he can suck my dick
It's the whole black race that they're fuckin with

But even amidst their rage at the incarceration of a generation of Black youth, Brand Nubian offers this heartrending portrait of what jail feels like to any inmate, activist or not- when you are alone with desperate angry men, separated from your crew, your children, your wife or girlfriend, fearful for your life, afraid you are going to losing everything you had on the outside.

I was frustrated, I can't do no more push-ups
Niggas be swole up, locked down cos of a hold-up
"The devil made me do it" is what I say
Got some bad news on my one phone call the other day
"I love the kids and I teach em to love their father
I'll get you some kicks and try to send some flicks
But it's over, baby, yes it's over"
Ain't much you can do when you're holdin a phone
A million inmates but ya still alone
You're not cryin but inside ya dyin
You might cry in the night when ya safe and outta sight
Damn I miss my peeps and the rides in the jeeps
And my, casual freedom, where's my crew when I need em?

  An even more detailed look at prison life, without the explicit political commentary , is presented what most think is the greatest hip hop prison narrative ever written, Nas’s “One Love.’ which appeared on his landmark album “Illmatic”  which appeared when he was only 19 years old. Nas ( Nasir Jones) who grew up in the Queensbridge Houses in New York creates a narrative in which prison, along with early death, has become the fate of an entire generation of Black youth living in the inner city in the late 1980’s to mid 90’s. The conversational intimacy of Nas account, which juxtaposes portraits of prison life to those of street life, is the stuff of great literature, presenting an alternate reality which middle class Americans, Black as well as white, had little direct exposure to:

What's up kid? I know shit is rough doing your bid
When the cops came you should've slid to my crib
Fuck it black, no time for looking back it's done
Plus congratulations you know you got a son
I heard he looks like you, why don't your lady write you?
Told her she should visit, that's when she got hyper
Flippin, talk about he acts too rough
He didn't listen he be riffin' while I'm telling him stuff
I was like yeah, shorty don't care, she a snake too
Fucking with the niggas from that fake crew that hate you
But yo, guess who got shot in the dome-piece?
Jerome's niece, on her way home from Jones Beach - it's bugged
Plus little Rob is selling drugs on the dime
Hangin out with young thugs that all carry 9's

 Nas’s intimacy with the dangers on the inside, of rapes and beatings and deadly beefs, whether on Rikers Island or in upstate prisons ( Elmira) gives the song a chilling quality. Here is a 19 year old artist who lives in a world where death and humiliation lurk around every corner:
But I heard you blew a nigga with a ox for the phone piece
Whylin on the Island, but now with Elmira
Better chill cause them niggas will put that ass on fire
Last time you wrote you said they tried you in the showers
But maintain when you come home the corner's ours

In the final verse, Nas acknowledges that nothing he has ever learned in school, or read, prepared him for the realities he and his friends face, and  proclaims writing them down in verse as his personal mission

Sometimes I sit back with a Buddha sack
Mind's in another world thinking how can we exist through the facts
Written in school text books, bibles, et cetera
Fuck a school lecture, the lies get me vexed-er
So I be ghost from my projects
I take my pen and pad for the weekend

   Nas was Michelle Alexander before  The New Jim Crow warning anyone who would listen of the tragedy befalling his generation. But it was 1994, and no one much outside of the a hip hop audience,  listened.

   The combination of intimate details of prison life and acute consciousness of tragedy, which Nas song highlights, appears in a great many Hip Hop prison narratives which followed “One Love” including those which were circulated only locally in various cities.  A Dominican Hip Hop group from Washington Heights, displays these features in  song widely circulated in NY called “Going All Out”  First the duo describes the virtual inevitability of incarceration among young men in their neighborhood:

Whats all my nigga's is getting rich by breaking the law
Going through banded walls
Soothing the pain up with alcohol
Living the criminal tradition of organized crime and cooking mines
Playing with nickles and dimes
And then millions civilians is still snitching
Dangerous for legal living that is caused by the amunition
Uncle sam is mad win again
Everytime we get locked up we feel somebody's throwing the coffins

That done, they move on to a fear filled narrative of what awaits them in prison

Ayo my drug infectected sections got me infected what a selection direction
Department of corrections Check though I left my castle unprotected
On a bus with these addicts stressing my necklace bullpens full of hooligans bull
Many vipers and mad syphers for the phone you get blown to the bone
. . . .
Me that body be in the infirmary emergancy look at the shit that I got
Into for the American Curency Guliani got new laws got me looking at
Great walls bangs are being made in the mess hall

There is no pretense that this is anything but normal reality for young men in Washington Heights, as it was for those in the Queensbridge Houses. Did anyone outside this world notice, or care. Not much- at least in the 1990’s.

   At the end of the decade, some politically conscious hip hop artists began to directly address the indifference towards the mass incarceration of young men in inner city communities on the part of the vast majority of the American population. Some artists came together on an album called “ No More Prisons”  and one of the most powerful contributions was a song by Chubb Rock and Lil Dap, “The Rich Got Richer” with  a chorus that presents a chilling view of life in the “hood:”

Because life ain't shit, you got to work for yours
Got to hustle from the bottom just to feed the poor
Niggas think shit is funny, got to work for yours
See the rich get, rich, the poor get poor

But the most powerful song is Chubb Rock’s enumeration of major New York  and New Jersey prisons along with matter of fact references to the things that happen to people in them, along with a cry of rage at the rich who profit from crime and somehow never end up behind bars

The JFK niggas died in cellblock 9
From the crack lackeys, hold your asshole in Coxsackie
Green Haven nigs in pens sweatin like pigs
Niggas get clockwork for five to ten blockwork
Then cry for balance, then toss the salads
Of the long wrong life, beaten knife, wound cabbage
Greenvale niggas at night, for bail adage
. …..
The Guiliani's, Armani's, who launder
The ducats from the Mexicans sweatin niggz from Rahway
How the fuck can street crack rule the NASDAQ?
That's like a rap nigga getting a check from ASCAP --
-- can't happen, after Attica rule the Rectu
The poor went raw and the rich got richer
       The song, which in some way prefigures Michelle Alexander’s entire argument, ends with a passionate shout out by Chubb Rock to people he knows behind bars:

D-Rock, peace peace and one time peace
Freeze Love, peace peace and peace peace
Cocksachie, Greenvale, Greenwald
Attica, one more time, hold on
Rahway, come back cell block H
And everybody in Riker's, one love
One love..

At around the same time, Dead Prez came out with a song called “Behind Enemy Lines” that may be the most powerful  direct indictment of mass incarceration and its impact on the Black community ,ever recorded  As you review the lyrics I quote  from, please remember that this song appeared at least ten years before the appearance of   The New Jim Crow:

   The song begins with an invented dialogue between  a guard and prisoners that goes as follows:

Let's go fellas, shower time's in five minutes
* sounds of prison bars slamming shut *
Get those feet off the table, whaddyou think this is, home?
(This is bullshit - yo son let me get a ciggarette)
(I'ma go.. back to my cell and read)

That's it - five more minutes and that's it
Back to work fellas, back to work!

  The song then moves on to a narrative of someone who Dead Prez describes as a political prisoner, Fred Hampton Jr, setting the stage for their analysis of mass incarceration as a form of political repression:

Yo, lil' Kadeija pops his locks, he wanna pop the lock
But prison ain't nuttin but a private stock
And she be dreamin bout his date of release, she hate the police
But loved by her grandma who hugs and kisses her
Her father's a political prisoner, Free FredSon of a Panther that the government shot dead
Back in 12/4, 1969
Four o'clock in the mornin, it's terrible but it's fine, cause
Fred Hampton Jr. looks just like him
Walks just like him, talks just like him
And it might be frightenin the Feds and the snitches
To see him organize the gang brothers and sisters
So he had to be framed yo, you know how the game go
Eighteen years, because the five-oh said so
They said he set a fire to a a-rab store
But he ignited the minds of the young black and poor

Dead Prez then produces the first of two incredible choruses where they present their political analysis:

Their next verse presents a devastating portrait of a Black youth abandoned, growing up in a devastated neighborhood, who ends up with a gun in his hand and a life behind bars, viewing his story as a metaphor for several generations  of Black youth discarded, their potential squandered, their passion directed into a struggle for survival that leaves many casualties. Or as Dead Prez puts it “Another ghetto child turned into a killer.”

Lord can't even smoke a loosey since he was twelve
Now he's 25 locked up with a L
hey call him triple K, cause he killed three niggas
Another ghetto child got turned into a killer
His pops was a Vietnam veteran on heroin
Used like a pawn by these white North Americans
Momma couldn't handle the stress and went crazy
Grandmomma had to raise the baby
Just a young boy, born to a life of poverty
Hustlin, robbery, whatever brung
The paper home
Carried the chrome like a blind man holdin cane
Tattoes all over his chest, so you can know his name
But y'all know how the game go
D's kicked in the front door, and guess who
They came fo'?
A young nigga headed for the pen, coulda been
Shoulda been
Never see the hood again
Their final chorus presents a simple concept: Prison has become a metaphor for Black life in inner city neighborhoods throughout the nation. Never has their been a more elegant description of what sociologist  Loiq Waquant has called “ The Prison Hood  Symbiosis,” than this chorus from Dead Prez:

You ain't gotta be locked up to be in prison
Look how we livin, thirty thousand niggas a day
Up in the bing, standard routine
They put us in a box just like our life on the blocks
(behind enemy lines)
You ain't gotta be locked up to be in prison
Look how we livin, thirty thousand niggas a day
Up in the bing, standard routine
They put us in a box just like our life on the blocks
(behind enemy lines)

        What I hope to have shown here is that almost every important component of Michelle Alexander’s argument was presented by hip hop artists from 10 to 20 years before her book appeared. And in forms that were deeply familiar to the hip hop audience, and touched powerful emotions. That this discourse was neglected, and at times mocked, in virtually every mainstream venue of mass communication does not negate its power and importance.  It only shows how easily our society renders whole sections of the population invisible.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

How Hip Hop Crosses Cultural Boundaries: An Afternoon and Evening with the Bronx Berlin Connection

What an afternoon and evening yesterday with the young people from the Bronx-Berlin Connection and the great program organizers Olad Aden andFabian Farbeon Saucedo! It reminded me of the power of hip hop culture- and the arts, generally- to cross boundaries of language and national origin and unite young people across the globe. The day began with me giving a talk on the role of the Bronx as an incubator of musical creativity- focusing on the role of immigration and migration in making Bronx neighborhoods centers of cultural diversity in the 40's, 50's and 60's, then moving on to the hip hop 60's, 70's and 80's where hip hop arose in Bronx neighborhoods shattered by de-industrialization, disinvestment and arson/ All through my talk I played music by Bronx artists, ranging from Tito Puente and the Chantels to Eddie Palmieri, Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambatta,
Then after a pizza lunch, I led them on a walking tour of the neighborhood, explaining which buildings survived the wave of arson that devastated it in the 1970's and which were new. There were many memorable moments on the walking tour, but the one I will always remember was when two African American boys aged 11 took a look at our group of 20 plus people and said "Who are you?" When I explained that the group came from Germany and that many were rappers, they looked at the group- which was mostly white and included some very large white men- and said "Naaaaah!" I said "Show them" at which point, tour leader Joe Bliese went into the middle of the street and started speed rapping in German (he is the Big Put of the Bronx Berlin Connection). The boys broke out into a huge grin, and went on their way!
With all the great things that happened later--, the amazing performances, which I saw in rehearsal as well as live for the German Counsel General and various groups which funded and helped the project, that moment in the streets of the Bronx will always remain with me as a symbol of what hip hop, and art generally, can do to create a deep human connection between people who speak different languages and come from different places.
We need so many more initiatives like the Bronx Berlin Connection, and we need them to be welcomed in our schools, even though there is no easy way to "test" their value.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Other Wave of School Closings: How the Shutting of Catholic Schools in the Inner City Paved the Way for Charters

Many people have praised charter schools as providing a safe alternative for inner city families to public schools, implying they are creating something that never existed before. However, that is not exactly true. During the 1960's, 1970's, and 1980's, when inner city communities were hit by a wave of factory closings, drug epidemics, housing abandonment and middle class flight, families looking for a save haven for their children were able to find one in neighborhood Catholic schools, which offered low tuition, strict discipline, a rigid curriculum, and which welcomed students of all backgrounds provided they would accept the required Catholic religious instruction.

Not all families could afford the tuition, not all children were willing to accommodate to the discipline, not all Protestants, Jews or Muslims were willing to allow their children to be exposed to Catholic religious instruction, but for thousands of families in battered communities, these schools became important neighborhood institutions. producing many graduates who went on to college and had distinguished careers in a wide array of professions.

Then catastrophe hit. Beginning in the late 1980's, Catholic Dioceses throughout the nation, facing budget crises due to factors ranging from sexual abuse lawsuits to declining incomes of inner city residents, began closing inner city parish schools in staggering numbers. In the Bronx, where my oral history projects documented the important role Catholic schools played for upwardly mobile Black families, two revered majority Black parish schools-- St Anthony of Padua and St Augustine's- were shut down, along with at least 10 others serving Black and Latino student populations.

It is into this educational vacuum that charter schools stepped, providing a very similar approach to pedagogy and discipline that the Catholics once did, minus the religious instruction.

I will leave it for others to say whether this was a good thing or a bad thing. But i will say this- there is always a price to closing schools which have served neighborhoods for generations. And I hope someday, the contributions of these Catholic schools to inner city neighborhoods will get the recognition they deserve.

Friday, March 14, 2014

When It Comes to Education Policy- It's All About the Benjamins

One question we have to ask ourselves is how many of the policies we are fighting, from Common Core, to test based teacher evaluation, to school closings and charter school preferences, would have gotten any traction were it not from the support they have gotten from a small group of people whose wealth has reached unprecedented proportions because of changes in tax laws, deregulation of the financial industry, and other policies which have encouraged concentration of wealth at the very top of our society. Imagine what education policy would look like without the influence of Eli Broad, Michael Bloomberg, the Gates and Walton Foundation, and the hedge fund entrepreneurs funding Democrats for Education reform, Students First, and Stand for Children.

These powerful interests have basically hijacked education policy, in both major parties, and control discourse about it in commercial media. But it is not the force of their personalities or the strength of their ideas that has allowed them to do so, it the obscene wealth they have at their command.

This is why we cannot win this battle in the realm of ideas alone. We need mass movements that so destabilize the implementation of education policy that the will of billionaire vulture philanthropists can be challenged, and the basis of education discourse change. Without such movements, our ideas will have no traction.

Why Charters Can't Always Be Trusted to Serve Inner City Communities: A Buffalo Story

Henry Louis Taylor
· Buffalo, NY ·
This is about Betrayal
The struggle to regenerate the East Side is a protracted fight, which requires tireless dedication. In the late 1980s, a group of Buffalo residents and concerned citizens saved the St. Mary of Sorrows Catholic Church from being turned down and transformed it into a community center, early learning school, and neighborhood anchor institution.
The decision was made to anchor the neighborhood with a charter school, and over time, the King Center Charter School (KCCS) grew to 312 students, with grades from K-7th grade. Because of State law, the charter school was established as a separate entity, with its own board. The original intent was to grow the school and neighborhood in tandem. The axiom was you can't change schools without changing neighborhoods.
Over time, the King Center has slowly changed the face the neighborhood in which it is located. It has completely transformed one block, torn down dilapidated housing, and set the stage for the next phase of regeneration-- it has started the process of restoring hope that had been lost.
Now, the KCCS board wants to “disinvest” in the neighborhood by moving the school to a new and better location. Their message to the children is to escape from the problems in your community, rather than use your talents and skills to solve them.
They say the school needs room to expand, but the King Center has repeatedly said that would invest in the expansion. They would renovate the existing school to specifications agreed upon by the charter, but the charter has repeatedly rejected this offer.
They don’t like the neighborhood, so they want to disinvest in it, thereby setting back the work of the King Center.
When will “do-gooders” learn that you cannot transform the mostly Black East Side by playing a game of “musical neighborhoods”—disinvesting in one East Neighborhood and reinvesting in another East Side Neighborhood. This is a bad idea and the people of Buffalo should oppose it.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Destroying Public Education: A Fourth Inner City Catastrophe?

One of the great ironies in contemporary American History is that top leaders of the Democratic Party are supporting the elimination of public education in Urban America - even though the public schools are the one institution in inner city neighborhoods that survived de-industrialization, the crack epidemic, and the war on drugs.

Instead of treating schools in those communities, which certainly had their share of problems, as sites of resilience that could be built on moving forward, and their teachers administrators, staff and parents as heroes, Democratic Party leaders bought into the view that these institutions were toxic, fatally corrupted by the trials they had gone through, and that they had to be removed entirely for their communities to progress.

We can blame many current education policies on leaders of both parties, but when it comes to closing Urban Public schools and replacing them with charters, that responsibility falls squarely on the Democrats, especially our current president who institutionalized that policy in Race to the Top.

But what if this policy is flawed in conception? What if replacing public schools with charters will, in the long run, destabilize communities and demoralize, rather than inspire their residents, maximizing existing inequalities

Then we will have added a fourth inner city catastrophe to the three listed above.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Letter from a Los Angeles English Teacher to his Students:

A letter to my students of Los Angeles Unified:
You have been failed.
You have been failed not by the school or your teachers (or their boogeyman union), but by people far removed from the world you inhabit. These people in plush houses and all the creature comforts of life have tried to label the school you are now attending a failure, but the people who know only “of” you--who have never come down to see you in your class and home environment—are more interested in their own profit and aggrandizement than in actually seeing you succeed.

The failure has been on their part and the interests they represent in demonizing you and your situation.

Let me begin by saying I realize as an English teacher that everything is about definition and who gets to CONTROL definition. Thus it is with this powerful word: “education”. It does not mean the same thing to everybody.

There are two models of education that are in play.

One definition of “Education” is defined by people with tremendous power, both political and financial. It is a form of “education” that kids of our school shall receive. There is another definition of “education” that exists that is entirely outside

YOUR sphere because they genuinely believe you are not worthy of it.

Your own LA School Superintendent John Deasy will tell you that you shouldn’t worry about 40 and 50 kids in a class because that doesn’t matter. He tells you that the cleanliness of your school doesn’t matter. He tells you that the lack of electives doesn’t matter. He tells you that the lack of interesting classes, of arts programs of field trip opportunities don’t matter. He tells you that if only you had “better” teachers, your situation in life would change dramatically.

He knows this because what matters is how well you can do on a test. If you do well on a test it PROVES to his system that you are “educated.” Your quality of life in every other aspect is of little real concern to him.

John Deasy’s children and the children of his friends have a different model of education. They DO NOT get what you get. They get the BEST of education in a completely different environment. Look where so many people in LAUSD district headquarters send their kids. Are they the kids next to you in your classes? I would love you to go to their schools and check out what they have and see how wildly different it is from what you have experienced.

Like many school districts across the country, we are now beholden to forces far above that dictate our lives. The Pearson Testing organization (they run ALL the standardized tests that are inflicted upon you through the course of your life) and the Bill Gates corporation (the gagillionaire who is behind the advent of the Common Core and all those “education” software products have recently joined forces to make sure all your younger brother and sisters are under their yoke for good: while controlling and dictating the education market far into the future.

You see, education is Big Business. It is not about what is best for you. It is what is best for people who have power over your lives.

Pearson and Bill Gates KNOW what incredible things are out there in the world and the potential of a real education. Believe me, they make sure THEIR OWN KIDS take full advantage of it. They will give you computer programs and software instead. None of it is designed to challenge you as a thinking individual. There will be a lot of bells and whistles to the programs to simply make you DO the assignments. In their philosophy, they ask, “What has to happen for kids to DO their work?” Simply give you a computer program. Viola!

When was the last time you ever went on a field trip in LAUSD? When was the last time you got out and did something cool, exciting, interesting or mind-blowing? IT IS NOT A PRIORITY. If you did, it was because a teacher did something despite the school district, not because of it.

You get an iPad that you already know is old news and you do scripted assignments on it and are not allowed to take it home to do what YOU want to do with it. You do what THEY TELL YOU to do with it on programs that have bankrupted your district and made a tidy profit for the Testing Companies.

Your School Superintendent believes THIS IS WHAT YOU MOST NEED for your lives. He tells you THIS IS YOUR CIVIL RIGHTS issue. He is Rosa Parks fighting for Apple and Civil Rights is not your packed classrooms or any elective classes that would actually bring joy to your lives. If I had my way, it would be mandated that kids had to go on at least EIGHT field trips a school year. You all know that a SMART field trip is what you remember from school and has the ability to change your life. That means NOTHING to Pearson and Gates. It means NOTHING to many school districts who oversee urban education. They couldn’t care less. If it happens in school, great, but they certainly make ZERO effort to encourage it.

The TESTS are his biggest concern. Not your critical thinking skills. That is lip service since his notion of “critical thinking” and mine are at wild variances.
LAUSD now is LAUSD, INC. Under John Deasy, we are a factory. The goal is to just get you through high school and if we can prove you have done well enough on Pearson Tests, we proclaim you “educated”. Their bar which they believe is the TRUE measure of education is pathetic. It is insulting. It is abusive. It is a joke. He and Eli Broad have staffed LAUSD with like-minded administrators and district hires to oversee his pedagogy. The destruction of public education in LASUD is being cheered by the highest political and business powers while schools and communities are left reeling in the process.

You have heard all your life that we are trying to make you more competitive in a global economy. Another joke. These same powers-that-be have made sure that your lives are going to always be a struggle. For whatever token 1% of you can manage to get a full scholarship to college, the majority of you will have to incur massive student loan debt to “compete” with other kids who have had much higher privilege than you have enjoyed.

They will tell you it’s all about hard work and perseverance (and believe me, I’m not belittling those qualities at all!), but John Deasy got both his education and position through being guided and handled by the billionaires Eli Broad and Bill Gates. You are not likely to be as fortunate as him. He claims all his achievements are due to all his own hard work—again, a joke. Few individuals in life get so pampered and rewarded as he has been, but that is how the society works.

You get all the cheerleading illusions of “you-can-be-anything-you-want-to-be!” but society is still ruled by the powerful elite who protect their own. Thus you are on the short end of a two tiered education system where one group keeps gaming the system for their own while you continue to struggle with the crumbs they throw you.

Your future is not in getting an iPad. Your future lies in realizing these phony gestures are meant to hurt you and KEEP you from getting what you are entitled to.

The education model they give you WILL harm you far more than if you were to just go to any library in the country and start reading all the books that interest you, start searching for websites that intrigue and inflame your brain, skip school to hit up the museums and art galleries and dance and theater performances that your school NEVER takes you to. You will have a much better shot at succeeding in life than if you stay within the Gates/Pearson/Deasy system you are being condemned to.

As a National Board Teacher, I am duty bound to tell you this. To pretend you are not in a grand political struggle is a lie. Deasy, Pearson, Gates, Race to the Top and the Department of Education are all political beasts who are in no way neutral about your life. They pour billions of dollars into school board races and appoint superintendents across the land to make sure their interests are enacted. They are not benign and helpful. They seek to hurt you with their vision for your future life.

Their grand talk is really only about their own selfish interests. You are outgunned by their money and political clout, but you can fight them guerilla style like other smart revolutionaries before you.

That means getting smart on your own terms. Reject theirs. Become aware and fight for our school. Fight for your families. Fight for your community. Fight for all kids everywhere in your situation. Do whatever you can to oppose their plans for you.

I wish you a much better life than what they offer.

Together, we will achieve it.


--Your High School English Teacher

A First Year Bronx Teacher Who Loves Her Kids Says "Enough"

There comes a point when you've been shoved around by your job so much that you stop caring. It's scary when that day is a Tuesday in March and you're a teacher. I've been bullied. I've been ignored. My kids IEPs are a catastrophe (I don't do them, we have a "team" for that). I've been told I can't do my EdTPA for my certification with my students because I can't record them when my school is legally obligated to let me do so. I've been observed so many times with so much negative feedback that I shutter ever time the doorknob turns. All this while all the students are requesting my class instead of the other teachers. All this while my fall term students stop by every day to say hi and tell their peers they're jealous that they have me. All this while I have 40 on each of my rosters and I'm supposed to call home every time a kid is late. It's my first year and I feel like I'm drowning. It's my first year and my bosses are telling me I'm the worst thing to happen to my classroom. It's my first year and my bosses talk about me behind my back. Word gets back to me, it always does. It's getting hard to pretend. It's getting hard to smile.

The Perils of "Grit"

Many proponents of Data Driven education reforms, including Arne Duncan,and NY Education Commissioner John King have spoken of the need to toughen up children to prepare them for the Global Marketplace- especially children growing up in poverty-and have claimed their policies were designed to impart characteristics like "Grit" and ability to perform under pressure.
There is a certain cruelty and heartlessness that underlies this approach to schooling, especially in low income communities. Isn't poverty pressure enough. Shouldn't school be a refuge FROM pressure for students living in high stress environments- a place where they are nurtured, comforted and loved?
But even if you think Grit and ability to perform under pressure are important traits in some contexts, you have to question their relationship to school policies like Common Core and high stakes testing. As a former coach known for pushing, his players hard, I am profoundly skeptical that a one size all approach to education builds character in the way its proponents suggest.
During my twenty years of coaching in neighborhood sports leagues in Brooklyn, I approached each player as an individual and developed strategies to build up their skills based on their unique learning styles and aptitudes. I NEVER gave my players the same performance goals for anything other than team work and cooperation, or in the case of basketball, learning offenses and defenses. But if my teams won- and they almost always did- it was because of the individual skill instruction I did on the side and the encouragement I gave each player to perform to the best of THEIR ability.
Pressure without respect for individual differences in learning styles and skill levels is, in my view, a prescription for educational disaster. It is the stick without the carrot.

Monday, March 10, 2014

On the Misuse of Statistics in Testing by the NY State Department of Education: Anonymous Posting by a Friendly Statistician

The Common Core and Departments of Education: Lies, Darn Lies, Statistics and Education Statistics
Numbers have taken center stage in the discussion of education policy in the United States. Test score metrics have become a particularly critical set of numbers. They are seen as objective measuring devices, comparable across years, that provide a reliable evaluation of how students, teachers, schools, districts, and the United States as whole are doing. But are they really objective?
The push for implementation of Common Core exams has caught the attention of the public.  In New York State, as in many other states across the nation, questions have been raised about the motivations of those pushing for the roll-out of these exams and their use in high-stakes evaluations. As we will see below such concerns are definitely legitimate given the history of the New York State Department of Education and the Board of Regents in setting cut-scores and changing exams in ways that serve political and other ends.
Let’s start with Biology, a standard course that almost every high school freshman takes. Remember dissecting that frog? In 2001 the New York State Department of Education changed the Biology Regents to a re-named “Living Environment.” A rather remarkable aspect of the change was the dramatic lowering of the passing score. In the Biology exam a student needed at least 59 points (out of a total of 85 possible points) to earn a passing grade of 65. On the new Living Environment Regents students need only 40 points (out of a total of 85 possible points) to earn a passing grade of 65. In some years (e.g. 2004) a student needed only 38 out of 85 points to earn a passing grade of 65.
The story repeats itself in mathematics. Until 2002 the New York State Department of Education required students to take a “Sequential Mathematics I” exam. That test had a total point value of 100 points. The conversion was simple enough, each point was equal to one point and a student needed 65 points to pass. Then, in 2002, the math exam was switched to a “Mathematics A” exam. On this test students needed to score 35 out of a possible 84 points to earn a 65 and pass. Earning 42% of the possible points led to a 65. Then, in 2008, the math exam was switched again, this time to an “Integrated Algebra” exam. On this test students needed to earn 30 out of a possible 87 points to earn a 65 and pass. Earning 34% of the possible points now led to a 65.
The United States and Global History exams underwent similar changes at the turn of the millennium. Before the changes students were required to write 3 essays accounting for 45% of their final score. After the changes students were required to write only two essays accounting for only 35% of their final score. On one of the essays students are provided with extensive information they can use in their writing.
A couple of years later the exact same process occurred with the English Regents. In 2011 the New York State Department of Education changed the exam from a two part six hour test with two essays to a single part three hour test with only one essay. Again the cut scores were dramatically lowered. The scales on these two exams are very different making comparison difficult. One way to measure the change is to look at the grade a student would receive if s/he got exactly half the multiple choice questions correct and earned exactly half of the possible points on the essay(s). On the old English exam that student would have received a grade of 43. On the new English exam a grade of 50.
A year ago the New York State Department of Education changed things yet again. But this time they did not change the exam. They just changed the cut scores. From 2011 until 2013 out of 286 possible point combinations on the exam an average of 74 resulted in a passing grade. Then, in June of 2013, the number of point combinations leading to a passing grade was dramatically lowered by 23%. Since then an average of 63 point combinations out of 286 leads to a passing grade.
It is disturbing that this change occurred at the very moment when the test results would first be used to evaluate teachers. The research base shows that such value-added metrics are unreliable. For example a  RAND report concluded “the research base is currently insufficient for us to recommend the use of VAM for high-stakes decisions.” A report out of Brown University concluded “the promise that value-added systems can provide such a precise, meaningful, and comprehensive picture is not supported by the data.” Nonetheless New York State passed laws requiring school districts to use test scores in teacher evaluations. Why, at the same time, did the Department of Education quietly change the cut scores on the English Regents? Is it an attempt to ensure that more teachers are rated ineffective? This would allow certain interest groups to declare the law a success and claim that “bad teachers” are now being identified and should be fired. Is it an attempt to create evidence that there is an epidemic of failing students in New York State? This would allow certain interest groups to proclaim that the crisis can only be solved if the new Common Core Standards are implemented without delay.

Advocates of the Common Core are either ignorant of or deliberately ignore this history. A decade ago New York State Department of Education decided that the high school graduation rate was too low. They therefore changed exams and cut scores to make them easier. The graduation rate went up. Now it seems that some powerful interests have decided that it is too easy to graduate. So they want the exams made harder and the passing cut scores raised. It is evident from the history reviewed above that playing with cut scores is not the way to improve education. After all that just leaves us in the very place we are in today. Yet we seem to be condemned to repeat this cycle all over again.  We seem to be enamored of easy solutions.  Make exams harder (or easier). Raise cut scores (or lower them). What we do not seem to be willing to do as a nation is roll up our sleeves and do the really, really hard work of ensuring that every student receives a quality education.