My journey into education activism began in the Spring of 2003 when I was asked to start an oral history project documenting the African American presence in Bronx Neighborhoods, which had been neglected by scholars of Bronx History as well as African American History in New York City. The project was embraced by scores of community residents, who wanted to tell stories that defied common stereotypes about Black neighborhoods in the Bronx being places of menace and danger. I found myself conducting as many as three interviews a week during the first two years of the project and before I knew it a portrait was emerging of the Bronx as a place of hope and opportunity for African Americans, West Indians and Puerto Ricans living in crowded Harlem neighborhoods in the 1930’s and 1940’s- a place where they could find safer streets, better housing and better educational opportunities for their children. This was a story that had never been told in print or broadcast media and was completely absent from the few existing books on Bronx history. It was an inspiring and important story of community building, but there was one feature of it thats eemed to capture everyone’s imagination, the creation of an incredible live music culture in two multiethnic Bronx neighborhoods, Morrisania and Hunts Point, which included jazz, Afro Cuban music, doo wop and rhythm and blues. The mixture of three cultural traditions, the African American,the West Indian, and the Latin Carribbean, inspired extraordinary musical creativity, present in live form in clubs and theaters, schools and churches, and occasionally in apartments and on street corners. What we came across was truly incredible: Here were two neighborhoods inthe Bronx, largely Black and Latino, with a few remaining Jewish and Italian residents, who contributed as much or more to American popular music as any places in the country.
When we started publishing our findings and having articles written about our research in New York’s major newspapers, our work was discovered and seized upon by teachers and administrators in Bronx schools as something that could be incorporated into their curriculum and inspire their students, many of whom had a negative self image because they lived in the Bronx. When this happened, my life began to change, and quickly. First, I was invited to make presentations to meetings of social studies teachers working in Bronx high schools and middle schools ; then to offer musical walking tours of then neighborhoods we studied to teachers participating in Teaching American History projects; and finally, and most astonishingly, I was invited to train the staffs of 13 Bronx schools in how to organize community history projects.This latter initiative was a huge undertaking. Over a period of two months in the spring of 2006 , I was asked to supervise half day training sessions in all thirteen schools and regularly visit them while them while they drew parents, grandparents, school aides, security guards, and church and community leaders into student research projects, heavily dependent on oral histories,that were going to culminate in day long community history festivals at the end of April.
What took place in those schools provided some of the most inspiring moments I had had in a forty year career as an historian and history teacher. The teachers and principals in these Bronx schools, many of whom had grown up in the neighborhoods they taught in,showed incredible creativity in bringing neighborhood history to life in their classrooms. With the help of students and parents, they organized food festivals; choreographed dances and plays; produced documentary films, created wall exhibits and collections of memorabilia, put together short books of essays and poetry. One school, PS 140 in Morrisania, actually created a permanent “Old School Museum” to honor neighborhood traditions in their building, and every school invited neighborhood residents on festival day to see what their students had accomplished.
As an historian, this was a dream come true. Research I had done had been brought to life in the most concrete and meaningful form, to tens of thousands of people by a group of amazing teachers and school administrators. I was looking forward to expanding on these projects in coming years as our research turned to new subjects, such as African immigration in the Bronx.
But then, the boom was lowered on the teachers and principals in Bronx schools with startling suddenness, first through rating systems that forced them to cancel any programs that took time away from standardized tests, and then, when further escalated, turned them into places of stress and fear where there was no room for community history,and precious little for activities that students enjoyed like art, music,recess and school trips.
The first sign of the test obsession that was to have such negative consequences came when the New York City Department of Education decided to create and publish letter grades for public schools based on a rating system developed by statisticians working under a Columbia Law School Professor named James Leibman who became the school system’s first “Accountability Officer.” Leibman’s goal in doing this was in the words of the New York Times to help the city” get rid of incorrigibly deadbeat principals and under performing city schools” but he managed to create a rating system that was both wildly inaccurate and deeply demoralizing to the city’s principals and teachers. One sign of this wast that the elementary school where my wife was principal, widely considered one of the five best elementary schools in the city, got a “B” rating, but what infuriated me the most was that the best inner city school I had ever spent time in PS 140, the school which had created the Old School Museum, and whose Principal Paul Cannon spent 7 days a week in the school, was giving a rating of“C”
For me, the C rating given PS140 was a huge wake up call. Somehow, number crunchers with no experience on the ground in schools were seizing control of education policy and in the name of “shaking up the system” were unfairly attacking and stigmatizing some of the best educators in the system. Almost every day School Chancellor Klein and Mayor Michael Bloomberg were quoted defending the ratings and denouncing the staffs of the schools getting low grades-which included many of the schools in the Bronx I worked with- as ‘failing.”
Things got even worse a year later after Barack Obama was elected President. Not only did the President unveil a new education policy, Race to the Top, which required States receiving federal funds to close schools designated as failing, and remove half their staffs, he publicly praised a Rhode Island Superintendent for firing the entire teaching staff of Central Falls HS in Rhode Island who refused to agree to procedures that broke their union contract
The tone and substance of President Obama’s initiative led Chancellor Klein and Mayor Bloomberg to ratchet up their“anti-teacher rhetoric” and close large number of schools they had designated as “failing.” Soon, a wave of demoralization and despair began to sweep through the staffs of the great Bronx schools I had worked in. Everyone was depressed. Everyone was afraid to speak out. I decided I could be silent no longer. I wrote a piece called “In Defense of Public School Teachers” and posted it on my blog. It went viral. Teachers all over the city and all over the nation wrote me to thank me for speaking out. They begged me to tell the world what about the awful things happening to teachers all over the country. I was so moved by this that I decided to start a “Teachers Talk Back Project” that produced videos of teachers willing to tell their stories and created a list serve where teachers could speak their mind under their own or assumed names
By now, I was so deluged with heartbreaking comments from teachers about how people with no class roomexperience were shaping education policy and making it impossible to do their jobs that I was in a constant state of agitation. I could not stop writing about what I was learning, and could not stop telling teachers stories and before long I was contacted by leaders of two education activist organization-Save Our Schools- and United Opt Out- to speak at events they sponsored in Washington.
Meanwhile, things in Bronx schools kept getting worse and worse. By 2010, as schools started closing en masse in Bronx neighborhoods, often replaced by charter schools, and as the fear of closing hung over every school that remained open.- I was no longer being invited to do History projects in Bronx schools,- the public schools were afraid to devote time to them, the charter schools weren’t interested. With“accountability” being the obsession of School Reformers local, state and national-testing and test prep had become the be all and the end of education in Bronx. Community history was a luxury no public school felt it could afford.
But a decline in the richness of the curriculum s was not to be the worst thing that I observed in Bronx Schools. As New York City, in order to receive of Race to the Top funding,began rate teachers as well as schools on the basis of student test scores,people began coming to me with horror stories that indicated that highstakes testing was starting to undermine the mental, and in some cases the physical health of Bronx teachers and students. A little more than a year ago, a chapter chair of a elementary school near Fordham which was in danger of closing told me that a third of the teachers in his school were under medication for Depression and anxiety. When I raised this issue with other teachers I knew in the Bronx, they told me that such conditions were wide spread in every school they knew. The pressure on teachers had become intolerable because they all feared for their jobs.
Worse yet, the pressures had been transferred to their students. All over the Bronx, I was hearing, recess and after schools programs were being used for test prep rather than exercise and play because everyone was terrified by the consequences if test scores went down. Doing that anywhere approaches the definition of child abuse- doing it in the borough with the highest child obesity rates in the nation approaches cruel and unusual punishment. I began shouting this from the rooftops! Does anyone realize what we are doing to these children? Does Michelle Obama realize that while she is trying to fight Child Obesity through better diet and more exercise, her husband’s Race to the Top policies are undermining her efforts by assuring that non-stop test prep is all that goes onin schools in the nation’s poorest communities?
But as it turned out, I was wrong about one thing. The destructive consequences of high stakes testing and test driven teacher ratings weren’t only being felt in high needs school districts, they were being experienced by schools in almost every demographic profile. I learned this in April of last year when I became involved as an advocate and a speaker for a parent led test revolt that emerged in New York State. In that capacity, I met parents all over Long Island whose children had started to hate school, and in some cases, were experiencing clinical levels of stress because they were being forced to take tests that were developmentally inappropriate or because non stop testing had pushed out everything enjoyable from their school experience. They were enraged that schools that worked well had become fear-filled places, that teachers and students were miserable, and that things were about to get much, much worse as all tests were to be aligned to the Common Core Standards. Worse yet they said- no one was listening to them. The politicians had bought into to the idea that schools were failing and that testing and more testing was the only way to improve them. The only way to stop them, they had become convinced, was to stop the system in its tracks-to have their children opt out and refuse to take the tests.
I was deeply moved by the activism of these mostly white, middle class suburban parents and teachers. From my vantage point in the Bronx, I had underestimated the depth and breadth of the Educational Catastrophe descending on the nation. Teachers everywhere were being driven out of their jobs and stripped of their autonomy and creativity.Children everywhere were being deluged with tests, and subjected to a one size fits all curriculum that, in all too many instances, smothered their unique talents and aptitudes. And rather than backing off in the face of these unhappy consequences, the nation’s policy makers were ratcheting up the stress levels on students, teachers and families by imposing an untested , poorly formulated set of Common Core Standards on school districts throughout the nation with breakneck speed.
I don’t know about you, but I can’t live with this happening to so many of our nation’s children. I am going to speak up, and speak out until the Testing madness is pushed out of our public schools and until we built a school experience around what empowers and engages children and makes teachers want to remain in their jobs for life.
Four months ago, my friends and I created an organization which fights for just those things. It’s called the Badass Teachers Association,and it now stands 48,000 strong with local organizations in every state. We invite you to join us in the effort to push back the Test Regime and make our schools a place where teachers love to work and students love to learn.