Last month I was asked to speak at the Friday Night Lecture Series of the original chapter of the Catholic Worker in Lower Manhattan. Founded by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin in 1933, the Catholic Worker has since established “houses of hospitality” all over the Untied States and indeed the globe. The Worker is, to my mind, the most truly Christian of all nominally Christian organizations — perhaps the only one — and I considered it a great honor to speak in the house of Dorothy Day.
The subject of the evening was the “reform” movement in education, a movement consisting almost entirely of billionaire businessmen and the politicians in their employ who are rapidly and insidiously remaking education in their image.
It is a movement that should it succeed – and it is succeeding – will leave the United States an even crueler and more ignorant nation that it is now.
Following is the transcript of my talk.
The Union Busting, Dumbing Down, Corporate Hijacking of American Schools
A Talk On Education Presented at Mary House, The Catholic Worker, NYC on Friday June 11, 2010
I am here to speak of something that I have given a great deal of thought to and something that is very dear to my heart: that is the state and future of public education in America. I believe we are smack in the middle of what is by far the greatest and most concerted assault on the public school system in its history, that this assault is part of a much larger ideological war on all public institutions and the principles and ideals that led to their creation, and that the aim of this assault is to privatize these institutions and to privatize or, more specifically, to corporatize them.
I believe that if one casts a cold eye on the education reform movement, one can see in bold relief all of the intertwined forces currently undermining the best and noblest traditions of this nation fueling the assault upon the public sphere: a more and more aggressive and contemptuous plutocracy; an increasingly oppressive use of technology; the ever more insidious and corroding influence of corporate interests and corporate values into every nook and cranny of the American body politic and the American psyche; the constant and often brilliant appeal to the basest of human impulses: greed, envy, indifference, cruelty, and the need for power over others as the core of one’s identity.
My fear is great that, as it now stands, our public institutions are on the losing side of this war .
Naturally, the attack is also on all institutions standing in the way of absolute privatization and corporate domination, namely labor unions, specifically in the case of schools, the teacher unions. As I speak, teacher unions remain the last vital standing union of any size and power in our nation, the last remnant of an American labor force that afforded rights and dignity to millions while producing the most equitable distribution of our wealth in our history. For these reasons there has been a relentless, often insidious and largely successful political and public relations campaign to undermine teacher unions on all levels across the country. In cynical and inherently unfair schemes such as “merit pay,” — - an absurd system that aims to base teacher salary on how well or poorly students perform on standardized tests – the campaign is meant to undermine any sense of solidarity, collaboration, and community among teachers and replace them with selfishness, greed, and narcissism.
It is also an attack on rationality itself in so far as the attackers – non educators Bill Gates and Eli Broad leading the way — would like us to believe that, contrary to decades of research, common sense and any semblance of decency, the tragedies of poverty, broken families, and horrific living conditions are somehow no longer a factor in determining a child’s educational achievement just as long as that child is taught by a mythical “great teacher.” And what, pray tell, is a “ great teacher?” Why, one who raises a student’s standardized test scores, of course!
How convenient to those of us who might be mildly troubled by the ever widening pool of poor people and our own complicity in the same !
Lastly, it is an attack upon the remains of our attenuated democracy, a form of government which can only begin to be realized with a citizenry capable of discernment and critical thinking, both of which are highly unlikely to be found anywhere in or even near a corporate based or sponsored pedagogy.
“ Public schools,” writes Professor Henry A. Giroux “ are under attack not because they are failing or are inefficient, but because they are public, an unwanted reminder of a public sphere and set of institutions whose purpose is to serve the common good and promote democratic ends, values and social relations. The forces poised to destroy public schools are ideologically motivated to destroy all vestiges of the common good, just as they are enraptured economically by the possibility of reaping big profits through an ongoing campaign aimed at promoting vouchers, privatization and charters, all of which are intended to slowly and successfully convince the public to disinvest in public schooling and transform it into a private rather than public good.”
Let me say for the sake of full disclosure that, even as I am aware that unions contain the imperfections common to all human institutions, I am unabashedly, unambiguously and very proudly a unionist. I come from a union family. I currently have the honor of serving my fellow teachers as the representative of the United Federation of Teachers in the school in Harlem where I teach.
Let me also say that I am not an expert in anything I know of, certainly not in education. Revealingly, this puts me in the same rank as those men — and they are almost all men – who are so cunningly, so ruthlessly and so effectively taking down or taking over the nation’s public school system and, like the God of Genesis, remaking them from top to bottom, from head to toe, from A to Z in their own well burnished image.
Unlike Arne Duncan, Barack Obama, Mike Bloomberg, Joel Klein, Bill Gates, Eli Broad, various members of the Sam Walton family and most recently a whole hoard of nameless major hedge fund managers, I do, however, have a few years of actual teaching experience. I know my way around a classroom. In a less demented age the fact that men whose collective experience in the field of education is zero are not only demanding to run schools but demanding to “reform” them would be greeted with a sobering horse laugh. In our time, so accepting or numb have we become to corporate assaults upon democracy , it is greeted largely with applause or silence or indifference. At any rate, unlike these men I have taken children who could not understand a word of English and taught them how to read and write and speak. It was a tedious and difficult and wonderful process. And it’s very hard work. In contrast, Joel Klein, chancellor of education for over one million children in NYC, spent a month or two teaching math in Queens 40 years ago or so, and many, many years since then working as a lawyer and federal prosecutor. As for the rest of these men, their collective experience in and knowledge of teaching is, as far as I can tell, zero. It’s true that Arne Duncan spent seven years as the CEO of the Chicago School System but that fact begs the question: what kind of school system has a CEO ?
There is something going on here that is almost beyond parody. One is almost paralyzed by the absolute vulgarity and craziness of the situation. Almost. But it is a very, very clear indication of the level of contempt our nation has for education and educators.
Let me say too that like Arne Duncan, Barack Obama, Mike Bloomberg, Joel Klein, Bill Gates, Eli Broad, various members of the Sam Walton family and the whole hoard of nameless and hidden major hedge fund managers who are the latest players in the continuing circus calling itself education reform, I too perceive a crisis in American education and I too would like to see profound educational reform. Doubtless, I perceive the crisis in radically different ways than the aforementioned gentlemen and therefore imagine possible solutions that are radically opposed to theirs. To my mind the problem is a long time coming, the rot a long time rotting and stems not from “bad teachers” or “failing schools” , not even so much from a culture of poverty but above all from a poverty of culture and an abiding failure of political will and imagination.
It stems, that is, from a culture that has never taken education seriously.
We have, on the whole, looked upon our public education system as a kind of slow motion job training. From the beginning the idea seems to have been to produce a class of people who were literate and numerate and could therefore function at an autonomous level becoming neither a burden nor a threat to the status quo. In this sense, with painfully few exceptions, all of our schools have been vocational schools. And in this sense, the reformers are offering very much a diet of the same, albeit one that is far more mechanized and fueled , of course, with absurd collections of useless data to give it the patina of objectivity and maybe even scientific research.
A people who have been educated in any meaningful sense of the word — meaning inculcated from the earliest age with a love of language, literature, music, science and learning itself for its own sake and taught the methods and practice of critical thinking — can at the very least discern one thing from another thing. The fact that the people who are now in the process of hijacking our educational system cannot discern a business plan from an educational plan is one example of the terrifying depth and profundity of this crisis. The fact that their actions are applauded is another. The fact that the most passionate and ascendant political movement in the nation at this moment is the Tea Party, a group who perceive Barack Obama as a socialist at the same time they paint Hitler mustaches on his portrait is yet another.
We are, as a nation, in very, very deep trouble. And there are no easy or rapid solutions.
So let us have reform. Indeed, calls for reform have been going on since public education began. Such calls have resulted either from external events perceived as threats to the American way of life such as the Soviet launching of Sputnik in October of 1957, or great shifts in the political landscape, such as the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.
Out of Sputnik came not only the space race but also the National Defense Education Act of 1958, which provided $ 900 million for the advancement of math and science in American classroom. It was the politics of the Cold War grafted on to education. The arts and literature were diminished that much the more: you cannot win wars with poetry. You might with math and science so these became the priorities and have remained so, in a sense, ever since. “Unless there is a true revival of learning”, said Senator William J. Fulbright at the time, “ the United States will be heading for a national disaster.” Until this time, education was almost exclusively a matter left to the states. With the National Defense Education Act, the role of federal government began in earnest — but it was still a role that strengthened public schooling, albeit for reasons of national security that were overtly military in nature. Twenty three years later, prompted by a decade long decline in SAT scores and fear of nascent globalization, the Reagan administration’s National Commission on Excellence in Education issued A Nation At Risk, considered by many contemporary reformers to be the seminal text of their movement. It is, I think, worth quoting at length.
“If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands we have allowed this to happen to ourselves. We have squandered the gains in student achievement made in the wake of the Sputnik challenge. Moreover we have dismantled essential support systems, which help make those gains possible. We have in effect been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.”
The commission was reacting to what they perceived as some of the educational and cultural excesses of the 1960s, the falling SAT scores, and to the external threat of the growing economic power of Germany and Japan.
Sighting what it called the “rising tide of mediocrity” in American schools, it prophesied a grim picture of an American future dominated by our former enemies if something was not done and done soon in American education.
It is instructive to note that neither Fulbright’s “national disaster” nor our economic enslavement came to pass. (At least not due to any actions of Japan or Germany.) It is equally instructive to note that while neither of these reports viewed public education in terms of being a good in and of itself or as the vital element of a vibrant democracy, the suggestions in both cases – indeed as in all of the reforms in between — were stricter and more rigorous curriculum. In other words, even as both spoke in terms of maintaining national supremacy, they countered a perceived crisis in education with an educational vision; and not only an educational vision but also an educational vision that sought at least in some areas to broaden and deepen the educational horizons. A Nation at Risk actually spoke of standards and did so for both students and teachers.
Coming out of the administration of free market apostle Ronald Reagan, it would be natural to see A Nation at Risk as the Ur document of current reform, the precursor of corporate charter schools, merit pay, “accountability” and the like. It would be natural but it would also be completely erroneous. Compared to what came after, the suggestions of A Nation at Risk are a paradigm of responsible, measured, mature and professional minds. Personally, and this is coming from one who abhors Ronald Reagan, I find much in it that is commendable. You can agree or disagree with the suggestions but they are intelligible and reasonable. And note well that they are suggestions made largely by professional educators and not, as in the No Child Left Behind Act, legal mandates made by unelected businessmen and their employees in the United States Senate and Congress.
Fast forward to 2001 when, during the brief moment of national unity following the attacks of 9/11, No Child Left Behind, an extraordinarily bold and extensive program for federal reform in education is put forth by President George W. Bush. The plan is a national version of “ The Texas Miracle” that Governor Bush implemented during his tenure there and which resulted in great leaps in test scores and graduation rates all across the Lone Star State. It also resulted in great increases in drop out rates that somehow did not figure into the graduation rates. Despite serious and credible objections to miraculous stats coming out of Texas, despite serious accusations of institutional fraud, despite scathing criticism from educators over the very premise of the bill, in 2002 NCLB was signed into law.
Like much of what happened during the presidency of George W. Bush, NCLB is a work of staggering contempt, stupidity and shortsightedness sugar coated in the most noble of intentions. Hijacking the language and symbols of the sixties , George W. Bush and his supporters spoke with apparent sincerity about education being the new civil right, about abolishing the soft racism of low expectations, about erasing the “achievement gap” between whites and minorities – and doing so across the face of the continental United States.
Eight years after its implementation, it is tempting to see NCLB as the educational equivalent of the Iraq war: an ideological campaign fostered by hubris and phony information and driven by an infantile belief in easy black and white answers to extraordinarily complex and layered issues. Remove Saddam and democracy will bloom in Mesopotamia and spread throughout the Middle East which will then be redolent with the fragrance of many flowers. Implement NCLB and, despite ever widening poverty and a ceaseless corporate campaign to make children into little consumers from their first moment of consciousness, and children will learn and the “achievement gap” will be history. When things fail – as such childish ideas must fail – deny the failure. Blame the media. When denial is no longer possible, find something or someone to blame. For the war, blame lousy intelligence; for the schools, blame lousy teachers. Blame lousy, lazy teachers and the all powerful teacher unions who protect them. It has to be them by virtue of the argument that it can’t be us.
Like the Iraq War, NCLB is still here long after it has been proven to be a colossal fraud and unconscionable waste.
Corporate in structure and values, completely void of any curriculum, consisting entirely of testing and what is called “ accountability”, NCLB is far and away the most destructive law pretending to be a policy ever passed in the name of public education in America. Nothing even comes close. For a final insult, NCLB promised to fund American education as never before. The promise was broken. Meanwhile, teachers are left dealing with the greatest and most reckless expansion of federal control over education in American history. It’s not merely a case of the emperor having no clothes. With NCLB, the emperor has no head.
It is not enough that there are now 35,000 registered corporate lobbyists in D.C undermining democracy by furthering the goals and agendas of their corporate masters. It is not enough that the corporations are far and away the most dominant and corrosive force in American political and cultural life. It is not enough that corporations have a virtual stranglehold on mass media, reducing news to entertainment and doing all they can to foster the idolatry of celebrities of all and any kinds. It is not enough that by rescinding the FCC regulations regarding children’s TV programs and ads aimed at children President Ronald Reagan (blessed be his name), in effect, invited corporate America to move in on the psyches of American children and give orders.
No, American schools must also be governed by the corporate model, American pedagogy must be infused with corporate values.
That is, American public schools. American private schools are another matter altogether. And you can rest assured that, unlike President Jimmy Carter, neither Barack Obama nor Michael Bloomberg would send their children anywhere near the schools they are creating for our children.
The passing of NCLB into law may be perceived by future historians as the seminal moment when the young of America were truly corporatized: the moment when the last possible defense of children against ceaseless corporate marketing – a real education — was taken over by the same. And that may have been its main purpose.
To understand how thoroughly corporatized American public education is becoming one need only look at the ridiculous language teachers are increasingly forced to use and deal with. Again and again, commonly understood words are being replaced with the vocabulary of corporate America.
“What is your value added to student Y ?”, I’ve been asked by a esteemed member of Mike Bloomberg’s Children’s First Network.
“ What is my what?” I reply. “Do you mean what has this child learned in my classroom?”
“Have you performed a line item analysis on student X?” asks another.
“Have I performed what?” I answer. “ Are you asking me if I’m aware of the child’s academic strengths and weaknesses? ”
Am I insane or is there anyone else out there who cringes at the thought of a supervisor exhorting a teacher to have his or her students “take ownership” of a word, an idea, or a concept? Is it not wiser, truer and infinitely closer to the ideal of education ( and to language itself ) to implore students to comprehend or understand a word, an idea, a concept?
Oh, but that’s what is meant, I’m told. Maybe. Maybe not. At any rate, it’s not what’s being said. To own something is not to understand it and to comprehend something is not to own it. These are radically different things. And the difference is ideological to the extreme, that much the more so because it is unconscious. Words are what separate us from animals. Precision is what keeps us from chaos. Any one who does not completely understand the importance of the proper use of language should not be teaching kids because they themselves are not educated.
Another way of looking at this: as every hustler knows, (regardless if the hustle emanates from the White House, the Kremlin or the corner store) to totally dominate the psyche of your mark you need to totally dominate the language.
One does not use such language as preposterous as “ value added” or “line item analysis” in classroom for precision. One does not refer to teachers as “human capital “ for clarity. One does not speak of “owning” an idea for its poetic beauty. Such language is used to alter the way you look at people and things. Such language is used to alter the relationships between people and things. Such language is meant to turn people into things. This is the language of total domination. And the fact that it is now commonly and increasingly used in many of our schools fill us with horror.
Corporate values can be very clearly seen in the very name of the KIPP Schools, one of the more successful and lauded charter school chains in the nation. KIPP stands for Knowledge is Power Program. Granted there is, in the obtainment of knowledge, an element of gaining power. Power over ignorance, for example. But to perceive or celebrate knowledge only as power or even primarily as power is, it seems to me, to miss the point and to dance gladly and blindly into what Hegel called “ the night when all cows are black. ” Your eyes may well be open but you still cannot see.
One of the many things education is supposed to do is elevate people above and liberate people from such vulgarities as the worship and celebration of power. Corporations, on the other hand, thrive on them.
NCLB makes the absurd demand that all American children, no matter what their circumstance, disability or situation, show constant academic improvement (measurable by standardized tests) every year. NCLB also demands that every child in America be proficient in English and math by the year 2014. Failure to do so would result in increasingly punitive sanctions, including teachers and administrators losing their jobs because their school would be closed down as many, many have been. As I write one third of American public schools are considered “failing schools” under the guidelines of NCLB. What happens if they do not improve? The entire staff can be summarily fired (kitchen workers and custodians included) and the schools are shut down. This craziness was realized in Central Falls, Rhode Island, the poorest city in the state containing the largest population of non-English speaking students, a few months back. The day after the mass sacking, a move not seen since Ronald Reagan’s mass firing of the air traffic controllers, the nation was treated to the startling image of a smiling, even jubilant, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan gushing over the news. The next day, we were treated to no less a figure than the president of the United States blabbing on about “accountability “ and applauding the same, albeit, looking a little sad to be doing so. Our president seemed not the least bit troubled by the fact that not a single fired teacher was afforded due process.
Thankfully, due to their union all of the teachers have recently been rehired.
To get some handle on how riddled with absurdities so much of the reform movement is, let’s talk a little about that shibboleth of the reformers, accountability. Teachers, so goes the mantra, must be held accountable. Well, no teacher will argue with that. But accountable for what and for whom? The short answer is held accountable for upping the test scores of every child they teach every year. Do the tests really measure anything? Don’t ask. Failure to drive up the test scores means failure, period. But if the child is homeless? No matter. And if the child is wholly unmotivated? Too bad. And if the child’s a wreck because his or her parents are junkies? Hard cheese, old chap! That’s your problem. The longer answer is that more than any other profession in America today teachers are accountable, essentially, for a failed society.
It is fitting for a movement born of such monumental hubris that so many of the apostles of accountability — Gates, Broad, the Walton’s, and more recently the hedge fund crowd — are accountable to no one. Who are these people and how do they fit into a nominally democratic system? No one elected them. No one legitimized them. No one authorized them. Their sole credentials are immense wealth which they have parlayed into immense influence over vital institutions of which they are wholly ignorant. In fact, the argument could be made that some of these crazily rich foundations – the Gates Foundation and The Broad Foundation in particular – are forming, in effect, a kind of an invisible government, answerable to no one, that due to the connivance of our public servants is hiding right in front of our eyes.
There is something terrible going on in all of this. At the very hour when the toxic combination of globalization and job devouring advances in technology are causing dislocation, social fragmentation, increasing homelessness, ever downward standards of living for the vast majority of Americans, at the very moment when advertising is so pervasive and omnipresent it forms an essentially ceaseless attack upon one’s psyche, at this very hour, the forces that are producing and profiting from these effects — namely corporate America — have the hubris to claim to have the solution to the technologically brilliant, socially horrific culture they have themselves created. And their solution is more of the same. We as a nation answer this madness by having our children fill in bubbles on standardized tests congratulating ourselves for their rising tests scores.
What to make of this tough guy zero tolerance nonsense brought to education? What to make of these crazy demands? Every child in America will be proficient in math and reading by 2014 ? Is this American Exceptionalism in the classroom? (In classrooms that do not, of course, teach about American Exceptionalism even as they may well unconsciously endorse it) Is this not equivalent to demanding that all police commissioners eradicate crime or that all doctors wipe out illness by such and such a date or be labeled failures and when possible, be fired?
One thing is certain: no sane, responsible person with any knowledge of or experience in education, with any informed concern for either students or teachers, with anything other than an elitist contempt for what was once called the masses, could possibly allow this imbecilic nonsense to be cemented into law.
But herein the facts: President Obama has not merely adopted the Bush policy, he’s intensified it. Slowly, and much to their disgust and horror, this realty has begun to seep into the heads of teachers from coast to coast; teachers who did all they could to get this man elected to end the educational idiocy of the Bush years. And what to make of that ?
The demands of NCLB are now being called “utopian” by some of its milder critics — even Arne Duncan slipped out of his ideological stupor to acknowledge that — but, like the reckless deregulations that led directly to our ever deepening global economic meltdown, nothing is being done to change them. Eight years after the passing of the law in which a third of American public schools have been categorized as failing and God knows how many teachers have been driven to despair or out of work altogether, eight years after the fact that there exists no credible information to show that American schools are in any meaningful way improving, eight years after billions and billions have been paid to corporate entities such as McGraw Hill for standardized tests, standardized test preparations, standardized tutoring materials and programs, no one to my knowledge is proposing any change whatsoever.
So on it goes.
Some of the discernable results of NCLB so far are as follows:
-The sanctification of the high stakes standardized test.
-The shrinking of curriculum to fit said test
-Massive multi-million dollar data systems created and set up in city after city to monitor student performance on standardized tests and in monitoring student performance measure teacher effectiveness.
Consider the above: Regardless of whether they are implemented by an individual, a private company or by the state, all of the above are corporate strategies, corporate valves, corporate structures rammed into a pseudo educational framework.
They are, at best, accounting strategies dealing solely with the process of measuring the ability or inability to take tests and after measuring this, rewarding or punishing a teacher. Note well that even a factor as obvious as student motivation is absent from the current schema. (What a nightmare I would have been for my teachers had they had to deal with such foolishness? By the time I reached high school all I cared about were sports, James Joyce, Jack Kerouac, rock and roll and getting high — which I did as much as possible. There was no teacher on earth who could convince me then or now that such tests measured anything but the ability or inability to pass them.. These days, if I were my teacher I would be considered a failure. )
As an adjunct to written papers, oral reports, presentations and other forms of student work that measure comprehension, creativity, critical thinking and imagination, I can accept the notion that standardized tests have a place. To me the place would be small. To posit them as the only place is, to my way of thinking, over the moon. But than again, what in the reform movement isn’t? Somehow the words of Bill Gates should be heeded far more than someone who has actually worked in education. Somehow Joel Klein should be taken seriously even when he blathers on insanely about a future of “distance learning”, where the physical structure of the school itself will be rendered obsolete, as kids will learn from the images of teachers projected on computer screens!
NCLB is designed not for education but the semblance of education. It is designed to make students into data and teachers into interchangeable technicians, easily trainable and instantly replaceable. When I speak of the corporate hijacking of education I am referring not merely to the physical ownership of schools — even as corporate charter schools begin to mushroom in cities all across America — but to schools taking on the very structure, tone, goals, language and values of the corporation. Consider Mike Bloomberg stating over and over and over again that he wanted principals — previously known as “the first teachers” and tasked with performing more or less the same role a conductor plays in an orchestra — to conduct themselves like CEO’s.
But Bloomberg then went further. To insure new principals approached the job like a CEO, Bloomberg hit up his rich pals for funding for his Leadership Academy, a training program designed to produce principals in a mere nine months (no educational experience necessary nor desired) and itself run by a business executive with no educational experience whatsoever. The Leadership Academy spit out 150 new principals in three years, some of them still in their mid twenties. Not to be outdone, fellow billionaire Eli Broad created an institute to mint superintendents deliberately void of any and all pedagogical knowledge. Neither of these men seem the least bit humbled by the fact that they are wholly ignorant of the very system they are so arrogantly and narcissistically remaking in their own images. Quite the contrary, here’s Broad speaking at the 92nd Street Y in New York last year: “We don’t know anything about how to teach or reading curriculum or any of that. But what we do know about is management and governance.”
Any of that, indeed. And they know about the mother of all corporate values and that is efficiency. Efficiency has the same relationship to education as ice cream does to physics: very little.
Nonetheless, the corporate cult of efficiency under the cloak of accountability pervades and poisons the whole educational argument. The cult assumes that all children learn the same way, at the same time, by the same methods. The cult assumes a child is less a tabula rasa than an empty glass. Just fill in the info and the child will learn. What’s so hard about that ? If the child does not learn it is not because of any of the hundreds of variables that hinder anyone from learning at one time or other in their lives, it is because the child has a bad teacher.
Any teacher with any experience will tell you that the goals of education are antithetical to the corporate cult of efficiency for the simple reason that any education worth a damn requires the long view. It requires patience, time, and tolerance. It requires confusion and errors. It requires doing some things over and over and over again until at last, in what often seems a quantum leap, something finally makes sense. I have witnessed and experienced this process more times than I know. But what I do know is that at the center of this process stands a mystery, not unlike the mystery that stands at the center of our ability to think, to feel or to love. And I also know that our abilities to think, to feel, to love, to learn are not things that can not be quantified, regardless of how much billionaire businessmen/ amateur educators would like them to be.
To me teaching remains largely a mystery. “It’s not physics”, people have said to me. How true. Physics is logical and orderly and as such relatively, easy to grasp. That’s the beauty and the comfort of science. Physics is science and scientific formulas are by definition predictable. Teaching is neither a science nor predictable, as much as certain extremely vested interests wish to believe that it is both. Teaching, in my experience and that of my colleagues with who I’ve conferred, is akin to the mystery of artistic expression. One day a tune, a sentence, an image appears Athena -like in one’s mind in the same way that a word, a formula, a concept that seemed torturously unintelligible for months before makes perfect sense. From where? Who knows. Why? Don’t know. Suddenly things just come together. We don’t know why. It is the eureka moment known to scientists throughout history in embryonic form. It is a mystery that to my mind has only been partially illuminated by comparison to what our neglectful ignorance and arrogance has taught us (some of us anyway) about the extreme dangers and consequences of imposing fixed ideas on things we know precious little or nothing about.
What I mean to say is this: we have learned, reluctantly and at tremendous cost, that the removal or destruction of a single insect in the rain forest of Brazil, for example, does not result merely in the removal of an insect in the rain forest of Brazil. We have learned that it produces something radically different, often catastrophic and totally unforeseen perhaps in the tundra and perhaps twenty or thirty or forty years later. In other words, such a paradigm shatters our notions of cause and effect, and of time and space and reveals the limits of our understanding. At the same time, it is a call to expand our imaginations.
Imposing fixed and wrong headed ideas on education will not result in a catastrophe as we commonly define these things, in so far as a plague of illiteracy and a-literacy are not considered catastrophic in America perhaps, because they improve TV ratings and as such add to the GDP. What it will result in is tragedy: the tragedy of a needlessly truncated imagination. The tragedy of a debased culture. The tragedy of unlived lives.
Mystery has been a consistent element in my teaching experience. You try this and you try that and nothing seems to work. The sounds make no sense to the student. The grammar is wholly outside of his or her grasp. There is no identifiable cause and effect. It’s all a blur.
Then, one day, there’s a quantum leap. The student moves not from point A to point C but from point A to N seemingly in one inexplicable leap. The kid who could barely say hello is now asking intelligent and fully formed questions. You can no more aid in its arrival than you can predict it. These moments are beyond my ability to understand. When they occur all I can do is smile. There is something wonderfully human about these occasions, perhaps because there is something absolutely data-proof about them. Times like these show to all who care to see that there are things going on in the heads of these children that are over our heads and as such beyond our ability to predict or quantify. Teachers know this. In fact, anyone who has been around kids knows this
Despite its pretence of erasing the “achievement gap”, (a gap that remains as wide now as it was eight years ago) the long term results of NCLB are more school choice, more merit pay, and more and more charter schools. They are ,also increasing deregulation, privatization, and that corporate favorite, ceaseless competition. There is to be competition between students, competition between teachers, competition between schools, competition between districts, competition between states. Somehow, in between all this competition, education is not only supposed to be going on but getting better. What is certainly going on is the ever deepening demoralization of teachers. What is certainly going on is the undermining of the union; teacher turning against teacher all over the land – exactly as it was designed to do.
Add to this a narrowing curriculum diminishing or excluding altogether all those things that won’t be tested — art, history, geography, as pressures to save their jobs force teachers more and more and more to teach to a test.
Add to this the ever increasing certainty of institutional fraud as massive discrepancies appear again and again between the preposterous gains in state test scores and the scores of the National Assessment of Education Progress, (NAEP) considered the gold standard of tests, which flat line across the nation.
The game just gets uglier and uglier: a month or so ago ads begannn to appear in the New York Times and in the Daily News beseeching people to “stand up to the teachers union so that our kids get the best teachers, not simply those who have been in the classroom the longest.” These are followed by mass mailings of glossy brochures with the same message. The ads and brochures come from a mysterious organization called Education Reform Now. Education Reform Now it is an arm of another organization called Democrats For Education Reform whose board consists entirely of major hedge fund managers. Hedge fund managers suddenly emerge as the major backers of charter schools in New York and other states. The New York Times describes them as “perhaps the first political counterweight to teacher unions. ” The New York Times, apparently, does not find it in the least bit strange or dangerous that hedge fund managers are not only suddenly interested in education but have emerged as a force in the reform movement.
Meanwhile the public relations machines do all they can to poison the public mind on the subject of unions. Their manta is simple: public schools are failing because of bad teachers. Bad teachers are there because of the teachers unions. You can’t get rid of bad teachers because of the teachers union. We must, therefore, get rid of the teachers unions.
Meanwhile, consider the facts. Nationally, the highest performing state in the union is Massachusetts. Massachusetts’s teachers are one hundred percent unionized. No matter. Internationally, the highest performing nation is Finland. Finland’s teachers are one hundred percent unionized. No matter. Meanwhile, observe the abysmal test scores out Mississippi, out of Alabama, out of Georgia, out of Kentucky – one and all, extremely non-union “right to work” states. No matter.
The problem is the teachers unions.
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan unveils a new education grant scheme called Race to the Top with an unprecedented edge, usually reserved for the Third World. Race to the Top demands that cash starved states link teacher evaluations to scores on standardized tests and lift caps on charter schools to be even considered for the grant. States must, yes, compete for the grant money. The more hard-earned rights teachers’ surrender, the better chance their states have at a chance to actually finance public education. Many states surrender all kinds of rights and still receive not a nickel. The rights remain gone. Duncan seems oblivious to the fact that he has been charged with improving all public schools and that in any race there are winners and losers. The nation seems oblivious to the fact that our government has come to treat its own citizens in exactly the same way the World Bank and the IMF have treated crippled Third World nations for decades: Do as we say or we will starve you.
Corporatism seems so to have become so present and so internalized it’s all but invisible.
Where have we gone when a report issued by the Reagan administration seems positively enlightened compared to what is allowed and implemented by the administration of Barack Obama ?
Our nation is at war with itself. On one side of this war are the remaining elements of public institutions created to serve and protect the commonweal, for the common good of us all, forged as a bulwark against what Thomas Hobbes called the “war of one man against all men.” The crown jewel of public institutions, both for reasons of ideology and money is the public school system. And it is that much the more so now that NCLB has guaranteed the flow of federal greenbacks into every hamlet, every valley and every nook and cranny in the nation. Wherever there is a schoolhouse there is money to be made.
On the other side of this war are those who cannot state outright what they believe because what they believe is that human beings are motivated not by morals, not by belief in fraternity or solidarity, not by spiritual or ethical beliefs but by the negations of these things. They believe we are motivated only by selfishness and fear and personal material gain. Theirs is a very dark, cold and cruel vision and it is fitting both literally and poetically that technology and data – useless, insulting data meant to inform a teacher of a student’s learning more than a conversation or a piece of writing — is so central to their perverse educational schema.
I began this by saying that like Bloomberg, Klein, Gates, Duncan and the rest of these folk, I too, desire reform. I would like to see it begin by seeing language respected. That is to say, when someone says “reform” they mean reform and not “corporate raid.” Likewise, when someone presents a business plan, it is not called an education plan.
I would like to see kids taught to understand what the advertising that has been attacking them from the moment of consciousness is attempting to reduce them to. I would like every child in the richest country in the history of the world to be given the opportunity to learn a musical instrument.
I would like to see kids given the tools to understand what is happening around them and happening within them. I would like to see our students taught to reason and taught to understand the limits of reason. I would like to see them be capable of making meaningful and informed decisions in a society based on democratic principles. Above all I would like to see our public schools do what education in its most profound sense is meant to do: to help release our imaginations so that we may become free and dignified and fully human.
From this perspective, I think what we need in American education is not reform, but revolution.