In an attempt to discredit public schools and the teachers who teach in them, Brill ends up mostly discrediting himself.
Posts Tagged ‘charter schools’
Class Warfare: Inside the fight to Fix America’s Schools, Steven Brill’s ethically challenged, error ridden, incoherent yet highly illuminating love letter to the corporate education reformers bent on privatizing public education, is an extraordinary and illuminating document and one that, in a sane world, could easily serve as an indictment against the very process and people it was written to lionize. Perhaps, in time, that day will come. Perhaps, indeed, it is closer than we think.
In the main, Class Warfare tells the tragic and true story of how a handful of extraordinarily wealthy and ruthless private citizens in league with their corporate and political allies have been able to undermine the democratic process in order to try to remake the public school system in their image: that is to say, to remake it as another cog in the wheel of the ever more destructive unregulated free market which has brought the globe to the brink of chaos and profited no one but themselves.
Class Warfare is a virtual bestiary of corporate reformers and their machinations, none more revealing and repulsive than Brill’s almost joyful accounting of when, just after Obama’s election, the hedge fund group Democrats For Education Reform, ganged up on the brilliant Linda Darling Hammond — she who had been criss-crossing the country with Obama as his educational advisor — to not merely torpedo her chances of being selected Secretary of Education but to insure that Arne Duncan or Joel Klein or Michelle Rhee would be. Imagine a school system run by someone with the integrity and knowledge of a Linda Darling Hammond instead of the increasingly despised Duncan and you will begin to understand just how destructive and vicious the “ reformers” truly are. You can also see that these folks found themselves the perfect scribe in Brill.
In short, Brill reveals how men (and they are almost all men) with no knowledge of education whatsoever, and no mandate except their own sense of an almost regal entitlement, came to impose their myopic and disastrous schemes (charter schools, high stakes testing, value added metrics and the like) upon a nation before it knew it was happening, who was making it happen and for what reasons they were doing so. Students across the country, from sea to shining sea, are now suffering the consequences.
An essential part of this process was and is a public relations campaign designed to defame a profession of a singularity, magnitude and ferocity wholly unprecedented in American history. By ceaseless repetition of expertly produced nonsense – such as that poverty, class size, nutrition, and parental care are all rendered irrelevant by the presence of a Super Teacher, who by definition is a twenty something Ivy League educated, non-unionized Teach For America educational hobbyist – a previously honored profession somehow became responsible for the fall of a nation. Those professionals, of course, are teachers – specifically unionized public school teachers — who for the past ten years have been demonized and scape goated by pundits and politicians who have absolutely no idea what they are talking about but are too ideologically chained and arrogant to care. Stephen Brill is more chained, more arrogant and less knowledgeable than most but this has not stopped him from being catapulted into the status of instant education expert. Indeed, Time Magazine named him one of the 11 Most Important Education Activists of 2011 , largely on the strength of Class Warfare and two related articles that pretended to be about education but were actually little more than skillful union bashing. Brill, in fact, is a master of the arts of insinuation and elision. And at these oily arts he is a formidable figure in the repulsive and underhanded campaign against unions and teachers.
It is that campaign that I write about here for it is my school and to some degree my person who Brill uses to falsely malign an entire system.
Diane Ravitch, Valerie Strauss and Michael Winerip have all pointed out that Class Warfare is not really about education at all but about power politics and how they have played out in education when a group of very, very rich people get together and decide they know better than anybody else in the country how children should be educated. That at least was the pretense. As times goes on and more is reported it becomes clearer and clearer that there are immense fortunes to be made in privatizing education and many, if not all, of the corporate reformers are very, very interested in making them. What Ravitch, Strauss and Winerip did not mention, however, was how remarkably ignorant Brill is of even the most fundamental realities of how schools are run and who is responsible for running them. Class Warfare is chock a block full of scenarios that not merely reveal just how little Brill knows about education but also how little credibility he has. At the same time the same scenarios reveal how skilled a propaganda artist Brill is and in this way, Class Warfare can stand as a model for most corporate reform writing.
For example, in chapter one the author pulls the first and worst of a number of journalistic stunts that call his credibility into very serious question. In fact, it should expose Brill as an outright fraud. On page 17, Brill takes a page out of the Jason Blair/ Stephen Glass School of Fictitious Journalism and describes the horrendous performance of a public school teacher who doesn’t exist.
Or, if the ”teacher” does exist, he is completely unknown and unrecognizable to any of the people who ostensibly work with him. I know. I am one of those people. What makes the matter that much more egregious is the fact that the non existent teacher is the only description of a public school teacher at work in the 400 plus pages of Brill’s tome. Such, I believe, is not a coincidence.
But I am getting ahead of myself. First, a little background.
Brill begins and ends Class Warfare by contrasting two schools in Harlem, New York, a locale that outside of New Orleans is ground Zero for the charter school takeover of the public school system. It is that section of Class Warfare, slim though it is, that I deal with in this writing as I, unlike any other reviewer, have first hand knowledge. The two schools, PS 149, a traditional public elementary school, and Harlem Success Academy One, the first in Eva Moskowitz’s burgeoning charter school empire, share or, in the parlance of the New York City Department of Education, are “co- located” in the same building, “separated”, in the words of Brill, “only by a fire door.”
Actually, they are separated by a gulf that Brill dares not mention or perhaps even glimpse as to do so would shatter his fiction that the two schools are somehow on equal footing. Following are some of the differences Brill somehow fails to mention. As Brill well knows or should know, charter schools can make demands on parents – forcing them to sign contracts that they will participate in school programs, check their children’s homework for example — that are unthinkable and wholly illegal in public schools. Charter schools can make demands of students – children must walk with one arm behind their back, for example, that could be considered corporal punishment and might cost public school teachers their careers. Charter schools can also jettison any child deemed a problem – and this they do, the moment that child threatens their sacred test scores, a luxury not granted to public schools. What’s more, there are immense differences in materials, computers, desks, chairs, and even the lighting in the two schools. If everything in Harlem Success Academy seems newer, brighter, cleaner and better it is because it is. The differences are so appalling that after a walk through by leaders of the NAACP last year, the organization wound up filing a law suit against charter co locations not dissimilar to the landmark Brown vs. the Board of Education on the basis that the schools were separate and unequal. The lawsuit led to the surreal sight of hundreds of African American children in HSA orange and blue uniforms standing in front of a statue of Adam Clayton Powell protesting the NAACP in support of Moskowitz. The protest took place during school hours, a political act that would have found a public school principal in deep trouble had they ever been small enough to use children in such a way. Brill saw the same schools as the NAACP but apparently was not troubled in the least.
Then there is the political favoritism granted to charters, particularly the charters of Eva Moskowitz that have continued to open throughout the city in the face of ever fiercer community opposition. In February of 2010, Daily News journalist Juan Gonzales exposed the cozy relationship Moskowitz shared with then Chancellor Joel Klein when he published their emails following a Freedom of Information Law request with an article titled, “ Eva Moskowitz has special access to Schools Chancellor Klein and support others can only dream of.”
Then there is the issue of funding. While my colleagues and I are compelled to buy pencils for our students, HSA has more money than they know what to do with and, apparently, more privileges with which to do what they want with they money they have. Some weeks ago I returned home and was shocked and disgusted to find a glossy Harlem Success Academy (HSA) postcard bearing my seven year old daughter’s name and address on it inviting her to “Learn more about Success Academy Charter Schools” and “Attend an Information session in your neighborhood.” Leaving aside the deeply disturbing ethical issue of how the DOE, a public institution charged with the education of children, gave my daughter’s personal information to the likes of Eva Moskowitz, the mass mailings highlight the political pull figures like Moskowitz hold in the DOE that are simply unimaginable in a public school. It is estimated that HSA has a budget of over a million and a half dollars for public relations. Like everything else that throws a light on his narrative, Brill simply ignores the immense funding provided to HSA by its corporate allies.
Herein is another incident that is wholly unimaginable in a traditional pubic school: One afternoon in the midst of the 2008 presidential campaign I exited the tiny teacher’s lounge and literally bumped into presidential candidate Mitt Romney with his security men. (Mitt started blabbing to me immediately but in person he appeared so disturbingly artificial and strange I was shocked into momentary silence.) Romney was leaving the building following a tour of Moskowitz’s then just opened school. Needless to say smiling Romney’s tour did not include PS149 as Mitt’s concerns lay elsewhere than with our students or teachers or parents.
Brill finds such things not important enough to merit a single word. This is something worse than simply being disingenuous. Instead, Brill talks about test scores. Like many people who confuse technology with science and standardized tests scores with academic achievement, Brill is gaga over HSA’s stupendous test scores and contemptuous of PS149’s lack thereof.
Therein, for Brill, is the beginning and the end of the story.
It must be comforting to dwell in so simplistic a world that everything can be reduced to data. Like a good cheerleader for corporate education reform Brill betrays not a hint of doubt concerning the importance of the magic tests, even if like virtually all of the reformers, except to her credit, Moskowitz herself, Brill sent his children to private schools that hold such practices in complete disparagement.
Meanwhile, Moskowitz has publicly stated that she intends to create 40 such schools which would give her essentially her own private district. With the help of her well heeled allies, she is well on her way.
PS/MS 149 on the other hand is a struggling school that has been making incremental improvements for years, even according to the reductive criteria of standardized tests, which since the passing of the No Child Left Behind act in 2003 have become the only criteria allowed in whatever passes for the education debate in America. It has struggled in other ways as well, ways that are not measurable by data. In the last five years, for example, PS 149 has suffered the death of no less than six staff members, most of them teachers, as well as the loss of an entire floor of their building and a good part of their schoolyard to Harlem Success Academy. Somehow, behind the backs of the PS 149 School Leadership Team, PTA and staff, the school yard in which children played softball and kickball in the warm weather, was ripped up because Eva Moskowitz wanted a mini soccer field built there despite the fact that there was another such field some fifty feet away. This too merited an article by Juan Gonzalez.
The loss of physical space is called “sharing the building “and, as in every school in which a charter has moved in, it has forced teachers at 149 to share classrooms, teach and eat in storage closets and hallways and other grossly undignified scenarios that the reformers would never allow their own children or their teachers to suffer for a moment.
I was assigned a “room” that was, in fact, a space designed to store books. It had no phone, abysmal ventilation, horrific lighting and the feel of a place of abject desolation. The only way to reach me was on the school PA system. I would like to see, say, Bill Gates or Mike Bloomberg or Obama or any of these “reformers “ simply be forced to hang out in such a room, never mind have their children educated in one.. As a result of HSA expansion, the teachers lounge, an increasingly vital retreat in a school in which space and quiet are increasingly rare, was reduced to a 12 x 15 space which also contains lockers for the paraprofessionals. It too was built as a storage closet, an apposite metaphor for what was happening to the profession in general.
Class Warfare is to journalism what the much ballyhooed Bill Gates funded propaganda film Waiting For Superman is to documentary film making. It operates on the same principles and makes the same arguments as that shamelessly dishonest film; makes them, that is, until the fantasies of a Peter Pan like teaching corp, like Teach For America, willing and able to work 80 hour weeks breaks down under the weight of its own cruel and infantile absurdity.
Both book and film begin with a conclusion: because of its unionized workforce the public school system is an irredeemable disaster and must be immediately replaced by a system based on a corporate business model before the United States slips even further into becoming a third world country. Next, they both cherry pick “facts” or, better still, vignettes suggesting that the absolute worst situation or scenario is, in fact, the every day reality. (Davis Guggenheim’s ‘ Waiting For Superman was so low it included 15-year-old grainy video footage of a teacher reading a newspaper in his mid western classroom suggesting this was a common occurrence. Brill, however, goes further. Much further. Brill apparently conjures a very bad teacher out of thin air.
In a move to avoid acknowledging the collective responsibilities for what Jonathan Kozol has called the savage inequalities of contemporary American education directly attributable to the savage inequalities in American life, Brill parrots one of the more egregious self serving fantasies of corporate education reform and one absolutely beloved by Hollywood liberals: that of the Super Teacher whose dedication makes the misery, broken homes, abject poverty, homelessness, or absent parents absolutely irrelevant. ( For dramatizations of this cynical and infantile fantasy, see To Sir With Love, Freedom Writers, Stand and Deliver, Dangerous Minds or for that matter, Waiting For Superman )
Accordingly, Brill selects one teacher from Harlem Success Academy for whom he does nothing to disguise his admiration, who seems to fit the Hollywood model to a tee. Conversely, Brill selects a teacher from 149, a horrifying exemplar of the “civil service mentality” that Brill (and doubtless many the corporate reformer ) discerns in all public school teachers and for whom Brill does nothing to disguise his scorn.
For Harlem Success Academy Brill writes almost worshipfully of one Jessica Reid, an admirable, extremely dedicated young woman who Brill describes as teaching her students something called “juicy words “ and also, disturbingly, praising a student for making “total eye contact with the teacher throughout the lesson,” as if the poor kid was being hypnotized. As in many instances of pointing out differences between a public school teacher and a charter school teacher, Brill seems totally unaware that a NYC public school teacher could be reprimanded and even cited for corporal punishment by the Department of Education for demanding a student maintain “total eye contact “ with a teacher — as well they might be. As a parent I’d raise the roof if a teacher demanded such behavior from my child.
On Reid, Brill spends many, many words – some of them so sexist and absurdly inappropriate to the subject matter as to be beyond parody. Indeed, he writes a kind of People Magazine style mini bio of Reid built largely of stuff like this: “Standing in front of her new class in black stiletto heels, a black and pink crinoline dress, and a black and gold buttoned jacket not quite covering five different bracelets Reid called on them (students) one by one, to line up at the door.” As a product of Wendy Kopps’ deeply problematic absurdly praised Teach For America program, Reid, who “has her mother’s Swedish face, blue eyes and blond hair”, serves as Brill’s script perfect model of corporate reform’s solution to the problem of poor urban schools: the creation of an ephemeral army of eternally young Ivy league educated white people blessing the classrooms of the ghetto, inspiring them by what the brilliant Linda Darling Hammond sardonically called Teach For America’s “ innate superiority”.
Reid is told by her teacher mother that teaching is a profession in which “you can never sit down, ” and Reid, bless her heart, attempts to live up to this impossible dictum. Some of Brill’s other charter school super teachers are said to “teach with their hair on fire, “ yet another example of the reformers confusing the subtle craft of teaching with some kind of physical fitness program or even a state of frenzy. But, then again, what can you expect from people who have not spent a single minute of their lives in front of a classroom ?
Curiously, Brill seems to live in a narcissistic stupor so profound he seems utterly oblivious as to how his graphic descriptions of Reid’s Nordic beauty might be received in a community whose student body is almost 100 % African American, or how grossly offensive his pathetic worship of all things Ivy League, or his cringe inducing genuflecting before the obscenely rich reads in the working class community he is ostensibly not merely writing about but trying to save. Consider the following passage on Democrats for Education Reform ( DFER) co-founder and instant education expert Ravenel Boykin Curry IV: “At first look, Ravenel Boykin Curry IV seems the typical preppy socialite. He and his wife have homes in Manhattan (Central Park South), East Hampton, and the Dominican Republic. His father, Ravenel Curry III, also runs a money fund. He and his wife frequently appear in society columns , and she’s a well known high- end interior decorator. He went to Yale and Harvard Business School and is involved in all the de riguer charities.”
It almost twinkles.
When New York Times reporter Michael Winerip asked Brill a question concerning the grotesque disparity of wealth in America and how it played out in Brill’s narrative, Brill made this surreal reply: he did not see the “class warfare in American education as the rich versus the union guys, although now that you say it, I can see how you can draw that line.” Here’s Brill cheerleading for the richest individuals and the most powerful political forces in the United States who have joined hands in a ten year struggle and multimillion dollar public relations campaign to demonize teachers, break teacher’s unions and privatize education and Brill needs some one else to point out to him “ how you can draw that line.”
Unlike the unnamed “teacher” Brill describes working in 149, Brill’s selection of Reid has the distinct advantage of Reid being an actual identifiable human being, locatable in time and space, with a social security number, employed in the capacity Brill ascribes to her. Indeed, as her classroom was directly across the hall from the storage closet to which I was assigned, I saw her buzzing about day after day.
Sadly, Reid, like all of her colleagues at Harlem Success Academy avoided making eye contact with teachers from 149 even as they passed us a dozen times a day with their “scholars” , the pretentious, erroneous moniker Eva Moskowitz orders her teachers to call the students of Harlem Success Academy. (Apparently Moskowitz thinks the two related but very different words are synonymous.)
Then, one day, mid year, just like that, Reid was gone. I learned later that, with her health and marriage collapsing under the strain of the pressure cooker pace that Brill, like so many reformers, finds so necessary for all who would teach, she jumped ship mid year and was now working at a traditional public school. I wish her well.
In contrast to the lengthy hagiographic portrayal of the admirable Ms. Reid, Brill sums up the quality of work at PS 149, and by extension all unionized public school teachers across the nation with the following brief, devastating and disturbing description of an unnamed fourth grade teacher: “ Across the hall and one floor down from where I watched Reid coach her kids on essays, juicy words, and personal biographies – maybe a fifteen second walk – I looked in on a goateed teacher in jeans and a sweatshirt sitting back in a chair in front of eighteen fourth graders. His feet parked on the desk, he bellowed: “How many days in a week?” No answer. Half the children had their heads down. Most of the others were chattering away, except for two boys who were wrestling on the floor. The teacher asked again, louder. Still no answer. Then louder still, rocking almost to the point of falling backward in the chair. Then, “”Okay, let’s move on to something else.”
Holy Moly! No wonder the Chinese are kicking our ass !
As a parent and a teacher I would be far more appalled than Brill to encounter such a sight in any school, that much the more the school in which I work and serve. And I would do whatever I could do to see it was immediately addressed.
But there is a problem with this description and it is a problem shared by literally every member of the 149 faculty who read Brill’s depressing, distressing passage – read that is, by the only people who could know that it’s a lie. The unnamed bellowing slob is wholly unrecognizable to every single one of his supposed colleagues. He doesn’t exist.
The most charitable explanation offered by teachers — and, rest assured, none were feeling very sympathetic toward this apostle of accountability after reading what he wrote about our school – was that Brill “looked in” on a substitute teacher and was simply too lazy or arrogant to check the facts: that much the more when such a figure fit so perfectly into Brill’s ceaseless anti union narrative. But not a one had any memory of a substitute fitting Brill’s description nor one so appallingly inept. I, myself, have no idea how Brill came up with his disturbing image.
I am sure of three things, however. First, no faculty member at 149 has any idea of who Brill is talking about, especially the two female fourth grade teachers who most assuredly do not bellow, do not allow students to wrestle on the floor and do not have goatees. The second is that this is an excellent example of journalism of the lowest, most manipulative and sleaziest order. The third is that in a society which is as fragmented, ill educated and encouraged to seek scapegoats as is America in the age of the Tea Party, Brill’s horrifying description could go a long, long way toward turning decent well meaning, ill-informed people into the arms of the corporate education reformers; into the arms, that is, of those engaged in a two pronged billionaire backed propaganda campaign whose reach and financial backing is likely without parallel in American history. The first prong seeks to place responsibility for a culture in collapse on a single profession: public school teachers. The second prong is to convince the people of America that the evil unionized teacher is the cause of its deep decay and the only solution is to hand over the education of its children to the very 1% who have brought the globe to the brink of economic Armageddon and are rapidly making the USA into a Third World nation.
Of course, the idea of any serious journalist “looking in” on a class room – even the classroom of a teacher who verifiably existed — and then using this anecdote to malign an entire school is, on the face of it, laughable. But what Brill does with his bellowing phantom is far worse: the bellowing slob is the only description of a public school teacher in the entirety of Class Warfare. And just to make sure it sticks, Brill drudges it up a couple more times to insure its fresh in the reader’s mind.
Think about that.
Make no mistake about what Brill is doing with his phantom. Brill is doing what Brill does best: engaging in the slimy rhetorical trick found in all of the writing he has done on education but which Brill takes to another level altogether in Class Warfare: Brill insinuates. Here, Brill insinuates that this is the quality of our public school teachers. This is what the teacher’s union guarantees a “job for life”. This, and not our grotesque level of poverty, Third World disparity of wealth and poverty and insidious corporate culture preying on kids, is why our children are not learning like the children in Finland and Singapore – or for that matter, Harlem Success Academy and KIPP. And this, ultimately, is why America is not, in Barack Obama’s solipsistic coinage, “winning the future” and why we need to destroy all teacher’s unions and hand our school system over to the likes of Bill Gates and Geoffey Canada and Michelle Rhee and all their millionaire hedge fund buddies.
Indeed, had Brill done something vaguely approximating an ethical job as a journalist, he could have walked “another fifteen seconds, “looked in” on say, Mississippi born Rosa Brown, a master teacher who has been nurturing, guiding, comforting and in the deepest sense of the word educating New York’s urban poor for over 30 years now, albeit not in “black stiletto heels, a black and pink crinoline dress, and a black gold buttoned jacket not quite covering five different bracelets.” Or he could have walked a little further still and looked in on South Bronx born special educator and musical maestro Kevin Hill who for the past 28 years has touched the lives of hundreds if not thousands of kids, serving not merely as an excellent teacher but as a surrogate brother, wise but stern uncle, and knowing father to many who return years later to thank him for the life lessons they did not understand while his student. And for the music, the music that reached into their souls and told them in no uncertain terms that there was more to this life than we can know from a book.
Or he could have walked just a little more and sat in on Jaffar Smith, a Georgia born African American and the sole Muslim faculty member in a community where for many, Islam is the center of the world. Smith, an NYC Teaching Fellow who relocated his family from Egypt to teach in Harlem worked tirelessly both as a teacher and as a kind of ambassador to the Harlem Muslim neighborhood, constantly making home visits and building community in a neighborhood that needed it more than many.
Brill could come back and see Brown and Hill at work anytime he wished, I suppose, but tragically not Jaffar Smith who, after two years of satisfactory ratings was denied tenure and discontinued. Months after his dismissal, Smith’s absence is felt throughout the school like the loss of a limb. In the first week of September PS 149 received word of the sudden death of one of our Muslim students. The school leadership wanted to respond in a way that was sensitive to the family’s Islamic sensibilities and traditions but no one know what to do or how to do it. In a meeting where we stumbled and fumbled around searching for an adequate response to the child’s shocking death, one of the AP’s suddenly verbalized what everyone in the building immediately understood: “We need Jaffar Smith. “ And Jaffar Smith, being who he is, came back to 149 and helped prepare a dignified and culturally appropriate memorial service for the child and his family at the school.
Even now, months and months later, once or twice a week one of Smith’ former students approach me and ask me where he is, when he is coming back and if I can take a message to him. The message is always the same: ”please come back.” The look in their eyes and the confusion in their voices break the heart, as does the fact that, as yet, they cannot understand that he is not coming back. What these children are experiencing, I believe, is something akin to a death and it is the most striking condemnation of those who will reduce a school to a collection of dubious data and abstract edu-babble that I can think of.
In fact, Brill could have gone into any class room at all in 149 and witnessed teachers teaching and students learning albeit, none with their “ hair on fire” or engaging in semi-cult like practices such as demanding total eye contact. Instead, Brill chose to not speak to a single teacher at 149. (By his own admission Brill spoke to no less than 18 former or present teachers at Harlem Success Academy, every single one of them, , like witnesses against the mafia, requested anonymity. ) Instead Brill strolls down the stairs to interview Interim Acting principal Karol Burgess-Harper. On the way Brill observes the following: “Outside some children wandered the halls, while those moving from class to class did so boisterously, as if in the school yard. On the first floor, about forty kids were in the auditorium watching what seemed to be an action movie.”
Brill, almost as smitten with Burgess Harper as he is with Reid, is so utterly clueless as to how schools actually run that he seemingly has no idea that the chaos he writes about above is striking evidence of the total incompetence of Interim Acting Principal Karol Harper, an administrator with not one, not two, but three assistant principals in a school of some 433 students. Instead Brill praises Burgess-Harper, a recent product of Joel Klein’s Leadership Academy as a “new breed of principal.”
Brill’s conversation with Burgess –Harper borders on the surreal and again and again reveals how pathetically ignorant both are about what it takes to run a school. When Burgess –Harper informs Brill that making her school a “model of success is non –negotiable” Brill seems to accept this ridiculous statement – who would or even could negotiate for or against such a position? – as something other than the pure bullshit that it is. Brill attempts to give Burgess-Harper bona fides by quoting a series of emails containing such unlovely fluff as, “ We will continue to do our best until every member of our staff wants his /her son/ daughter, niece, nephew cousin and neighbor to attend our schools,” as if these words were somehow not only meaningful but meaningful actions. Brill sympathizes with Burgess-Harper when she sides with union hating education entrepreneur and corporate con man extraordinaire Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone interns against her own teaching staff, who had the audacity to want a quiet and dignified place to eat their lunch and prepare their classes. Even after a number of teachers had lost their classrooms to the ever expanding Harlem Success Academy, Burgess-Harper, without even bothering to inform the UFT chapter leader, told the numerous, very young and sometimes-out-of-control HCZ interns that they too could use the tiny 15 x 12 foot former -storage-closet “teacher’s lounge” to eat and hang out in even as it drove teachers to eat their lunch and seek a moment’s peace in hallways and stairwells.
Brill is wholly untroubled by the abject level of degradation that an increasing number of NYC teachers and school workers have been forced to live with on a daily basis due to the policies of the Bloomberg regime. They appear to have an unwritten policy that anything that serves to undermine the union and that makes the lives of teachers miserable is considered fair game, in fact, a good thing. There is no better example in Class Warfare of Brill’s undisguised contempt for working people than his ignorant defense of Burgess-Harper’s cynical and divisive move.
Brimming with arrogance and disdain for all things union and admiration for all things charter school, Brlll and Harper seem like two peas in a pod. “Give me the ability to hire and fire the ones I want, “ says Burgess Harper, “ and give me a school day from eight to five like they have on the other side “ (in other words, give her a charter school) “and I’ll have hundreds of Little Einstein’s running around here too” says Burgess-Harper.
“Hundreds of little Einstein’s?” One wonders if Burgess –Harper ever paused to ponder how such an original thinker was famously dulled by instructors who insisted on a rote approach to education and were totally blind to his genius, or considered how such a soul might be out right destroyed by the steady diet of corporate reading programs and standardized garbage students have been subjected to in ever increasing amounts since the advent of corporate education reform.
Indeed, Brill and Harper think so much alike they seem to not only echo each other’s contempt for teachers and unions, they even seem to share hallucinations. When Brill tells Burgess-Harper about the unnamed unknown, unrecognizable, wildly unprofessional “ teacher upstairs from her office I had seen yelling about the days of the week, she
( Burgess-Harper ) seemed to know exactly whom I was referring to.”
Maybe so. It would not be the first time that no one in the building had any idea of what Interim Acting Principal Burgess -Harper was talking about.
Burgess Harper seizes the moment to malign no less than a fourth of her teaching staff, predicting, midway into the year, unsatisfactory ratings for “at least” ten teachers. The ten teachers – of which I was one — Burgess –Harper explained, were not merely ” not effective”, they were also mysteriously contagious in that “their attitude and lack of caring affects many of the others.” It need be understood that the overwhelming majority of the ten, myself included, had never received nor even been in danger of such a negative rating before in their careers.
Brill continues with the following passage, remarkable not merely for its undisguised malice but for the fact that under the reign of Bloomberg it is now completely acceptable for an interim acting principal to predict giving ten teachers a highly damaging unsatisfactory rating, midway through the year before they are even properly observed or given an opportunity to correct whatever it was they were said to be not doing correctly to an investigative journalist. The interview took place in January which meant there was ample time for teachers to redeem themselves providing there was an administrator interested in providing the support they are mandated to provide them. In the following passage you can almost feel the delight of Harper’s interlocutor.
“Burgess Harper said that, in fact, at least ten of her forty teachers are not effective and that “ their attitude and lack of caring affects many others.” She had rated three of them unsatisfactory in the spring of 2010 and said she expected to give the other seven U ratings in 2011. This means that Burgess Harper has dared to give, or plans to give 25 percent of her teachers a U rating in a system that gave that rating to 1 or 2 percent of all teachers before Klein arrived. “
Like all true believers in the cult of corporate education reform, Brill is apparently a true believer, not merely in the innate superiority of very rich people and their right to dictate public policy, but also in the infallibility of principals (whatever they do for whatever reason they do it ) and the salubrious effects of firing as many unionized teachers as they feel like, again when ever they feel like doing it.
Brill apparently neither knows nor cares about the ever more numerous, horrifying, and verifiable reports of principals using unsatisfactory ratings to destroy the careers of teachers they don’t like or to retaliate against union activists, a pattern that has grown exponentially since the DOE has filled as many principal seats as possible with the “new breed” of Leadership Academy graduates and simultaneously corrupted the arbitration process to such a degree that, under Bloomberg, a system ostensibly created to provide due process now results in decisions affirming the judgment of principals a preposterous 99. 6 % of the time. These are figures worthy of Stalin and reek of the same appalling indifference to anything but the ability and resources to employ the power of the state to crush people at will. These are statistics, that is, that should terrify and disgust anyone who believes in anything remotely approximating due process even as they dovetail perfectly with the words of Mayor Mike Bloomberg when, with bloodlessly casual corporate depravity, Bloomberg declared that if he had his way he would thrust 40,000 teachers – half of all NYC teachers — out of work and into the streets, double the pay of those remaining and sardine 70 or so odd students into each classroom. Thus it is no mystery why such corruption is becoming or has become institutionalized, but merely a profound disgrace in which the lives of innocent and hard working teachers have been and will be utterly destroyed until this state savagery prodded by corporatism is exposed for what it is and reformed.
The system has grown so corrupt that former Bronx High School of Science teacher and UFT Chapter Leader Peter Lamphere twice U rated for defending the contractual rights of his colleagues, had to go to court to have one of his U ratings overturned. The system has grown so corrupt that charges that Principal Iris Bilge ordered her assistant principals to U rate 12 teachers were substantiated by the Department of Education’s own Office of Special Investigations and Blige, astoundingly, still retains her job as principal.
Not that anything like that would trouble the mind of a man like Brill, who seems to take the position that what ever any principal says about any teacher is not even to be questioned – up to and including the remarkable claim that 10 out of 40 teachers are ineffective, whose “ lack of caring” somehow mysteriously affects others.
It is particularly striking and revealing that Brill, who spends so many words describing the wardrobe of Jessica Reid or the fabulous apartments and lifestyles of fabulous hedge fund corporate education reformers, sees no reason, no reason at all to ask Burgess-Harper to provide a single example — just one — of the ten teachers sudden ineptitude and incompetence; ineptitude and incompetence, and “lack of caring” mind you, that in most was not even remotely apparent before the ascension of Karol Burgess-Harper.
If he had bothered to ask anyone other than Burgess- Harper, he might have learned that several of the teachers so lacking in caring accompanied students home after tutoring them to assure their safety, or had made countless house calls to the homes of struggling students, or designed plans to educate parents and students about the necessity of good nutrition or, with their own time and their own dime, created a coed intramural softball program that served 60 students. And on and on.
Instead, Brill then gets down to his real passion: trashing the teacher’s union. “Burgess- Harper, “ writes Brill, “ explained that as a result of her more aggressive posture, her relationship with the union’s representative at PS 149 is “really tense.’ In what no one around her half of the building thinks is unrelated, she has been the target of anonymous calls to the city Department of Education investigators hotline alleging improper behavior.”
From the above passage any reader would be excused if they concluded that not only did the PS 149 union representative stoop to making anonymous calls against Interim Acting Principal Harper, thus spitefully and unfairly thwarting her appointment as principal proper, but that the entire school somehow knew about these cowardly acts and told ace investigative reporter Steve Brill.
Just to make sure the reader gets the point, Brill solicits this remarkably vulgar and slanderous confirmation of union beastliness from none other than then sitting NYC Chancellor Joel Klein.
“ The union does this to principals all the time, says Klein. If you do anything to piss them off they put a hit on you. They call the hotline or they get parents to complain. It’s like the mafia.”
Union reps “put a hit on you. “
They “call the hotline.”
They are “like the mafia.”
Mind you these are not the words of a spiteful 16 year old on his first drunk. This man went to Harvard. And this man ran the largest school system in the United States for almost a decade.
Just as Brill’s bellowing slob is meant as an exemplar of all unionized public school teachers across the US of A, rest assured, PS 149’s “union representative ” — he who, like a Mafioso will “put a hit out on you”, he who makes the work of the bold heroic Interim Acting Principal Burgess Harper impossible by constantly making baseless claims of harassment, he who engages in ‘petty rear guard actions” like refusing to allow Geoffrey Canada’s “tutor’s commandeer a tiny teacher’s lounge, he who engages in all manner of “thuggery” – is meant as an exemplar for all the boorish and beastly union representatives across the city and the country who, after a decade of total domination by corporate reformers, somehow still stand for the “status quo,” putting teachers before children, and standing in the way of progress.
That person, as it were, is me.
I have neither the time nor the will at this juncture to point out that literally everything Brill says or rather insinuates about my person is either an outright lie – such as his weasel worded insinuation that I made anonymous calls to the DOE Office of investigators — or a distortion of the truth so grotesque as to render any action I took (or did not take) wholly unrecognizable. Of Brill’s oily implication of me making cowardly anonymous calls, I answer him with his own written acknowledgement that he spoke to but four persons, three of them administrators, associated with PS 149. As three administrators hardly equal “no one around Harper ‘s half of the building” , Brill’s writing once again demonstrates his complete lack of journalistic credibility and total ruthlessness in furthering his ideological fantasies at any cost to any one. Furthermore, I know for a fact that Brill communicated with but one teacher concerning the non –issue of anonymous phone calls about Harper for that teacher was me. Brill , a lawyer and the kind of lawyer who gives other lawyers a very bad name, covers himself by including my statement that I had no knowledge of anonymous calls against Burgess Harper in a footnote. He never let on, of course , that by asking the question he was setting me up for these slimy, preposterous and indeed, one could say, Brill-like acts of pure weaselry.
Brill leads the reader to believe that the only issue keeping Burgess-Harper from being named full time principal was a matter of an anonymous call made concerning Burgess-Harper’s acceptance of the offer of a teacher friend to pick up her daughter one day when Burgess- Harper was staying late in the office. This is truly rich.
The truth is that, when it came to education, Burgess-Harper had an extremely slippery relationship with the codes of the DOE and the laws of city, state and federal government. Harper had no problem, for example, allowing unqualified clerical workers to assume pedagogical positions of the most sensitive possible order without any supervision to speak of, or permitting terrified, totally unqualified student teachers to teach unaccompanied by a certified professional as required by law to save money instead of hiring a substitute.
But these things were child’s play compared to what Harper did a short time before Brill’s happy little confab.
In December of 2010, one month before Brill interviewed Burgess-Harper, the woman orchestrated the craziest, most reckless and most reprehensible act I’ve ever heard any principal undertake anywhere. Without any discussion whatsoever with the parties involved, Burgess Harper called the NYPD and swore out three felony arrest warrants for grand larceny against three prominent members of the PS 149 school community. Arrested were 149 PTA President Sonya Hampton, 149 PTA Treasurer Richard White and a former parent coordinator, all charged with alleged misuse of PTA funds. In a move that staggers the moral imagination, both Hampton and White, neither of whom had any idea of what was about to befall them, were led into a room packed with cops then led out of the building in handcuffs while their children were attending school. More horrible than that, the former parent coordinator, pregnant at the time of her arrest at her home, suffered a miscarriage. White, who had served time for a violent crime committed when he was 19 years old, spent nine days and nine nights incarcerated. As a result, he lost his job. In the end, all were exonerated. Their “crime?” Hampton and White spent PTA funds on a Thanksgiving meal for the faculty and kids in the lunchroom in which Burgess-Harper herself indulged.
The arrests were shocking as both Hampton and White were not only innocent but were (and continue to be) tireless workers and extraordinarily dedicated parent leaders in an environment in great need of parental involvement. Their real problem was that the PS 149 Parent Teacher Association, legally an organization autonomous from a principal’s authority, somehow had not one but two bank accounts. Stranger still, both, somehow shared the same tax ID number. None of this made any sense or was in any way legal, nor was the fact that on one of the accounts, under the leadership of Burgess-Harper, two DC 37 clerical workers, a teacher, and Burgess-Harper herself were signatories. All of this was completely illegal. I have no idea how Burgess-Harper herself avoided arrest but somehow the entire revolting episode was dropped without anyone, save those falsely arrested, suffering any consequences.
The whole situation beggars sense. And it cries out for justice.
All this squalid intrigue and so much more was in the air when Brill came to visit Burgess-Harper and hear her tales of woe about some low-life union rep making anonymous phone calls concerning a teacher innocently picking up Burgess-Harper’s daughter. As with her “ineffective” teachers and the nightmare with the PTA, things were far darker and more complicated than Burgess-Harper cared to reveal or Brill, an investigative journalist who does not investigate, cared to ask about. Such facts could serve only to confound and complicate Brill’s pre-determined conclusions and narrative.
The fact is that Brill’s “ cheerful but hard charging” interim acting principal bore little if any resemblance to the Interim Acting principal the PS 149 community had to deal with and was only slightly less fictitious than Brill’s bellowing fourth grade teacher. Indeed, one gets the creepy feeling that none of these figures — Reid, Harper, or myself — are any more real to Brill that the non existent teacher, but rather animated abstractions serving to illustrate the preconceived notions of most corporate education reformers.
Had Brill, an investigative journalist who does not investigate, actually been doing the work of a journalist instead of a propaganda writer he would have spoken to more than a handful of administrators. Had he done that he would have encountered voices such as that of Richard White, who wrote of Burgess Harper, “ She has successfully destroyed the lives of parents and teachers. We need to get people like Karol Burgess Harper out of the school system. I submit that Karol Harper is a cancer in the lives of our children and in the development of our school system.” Or he would have run into one of the bright young teachers who was so disgusted by Burgess –Harper she left the school but not before she wrote the following words to the district superintendent:
“This year has been the worst year I have experienced thus far at this school. The staff has never been an issue, but we have definitely had to stick together for support this year. With all of the time we have spent together, I know first hand the demoralizing effect certain members of this administration have had on all of us.
Ms. Harper has proven to be unprofessional, untrustworthy and vindictive numerous times. Last Spring, she attempted to threaten my position because I did not go along with something she wanted me to do. This year, I have witnessed her use of observations to threaten teaching careers. She has stated, informally, on many occasions that she is U-rating teachers to “get them out”. She is very aware that I know this because she has stated in a meeting I should not listen to other teachers and their opinions on how she assesses them because they “like to act like they do work, but they really do not.” She constantly asks me about other staff members and the middle school assistant principal. She instigates situations between members of the school family by telling lies and acting like she is protecting each party.
I am uncomfortable and disheartened by her lack of respect for our school, her untrustworthy behavior, and her lack of care for our students and their families. I do not think she is fit to lead ANY school, she has ruined this one and I hope she is NEVER given the chance to ruin another teacher’s or child’s life.”
Of course, none of this was of any interest to Brill even though all of this had come to pass far before the deadline of Class Warfare. I know. Brill contacted me in April and my quote can be found in his book. Brill came to 149 not to find truth – this, like any ideologue, he believes he already possesses — but to find examples to back up his beliefs and to omit all that did not.
In June, just after she was informed of her demotion and much to the disgust of her soon to be former teaching staff, Burgess-Harper executed her threat and U rated a fourth of the teachers at PS 149 (again I was one of them), effectively ending the careers of the three who were untenured. In the strange world of the DOE, Harper’s demotion had zero effect on the judgments she made on the ten teachers. Apparently, the principal is infallible even when the DOE deems them incompetent. By the time Burgess Harper was finally removed, she had driven out teacher after teacher, including two young dedicated workhorses a wise principal would have built a school around, one of whom was the author of the letter quoted above. By the time she was asked to leave PS 149, the school was completely demoralized.
There is a story in all that transpired there, a story far more illuminating than the fantasies that Brill and his kind like to sell, but Brill mentions none of it. Fantasy is easier. It is where we tend to retreat when reality becomes too impossible to bear.
Someday, perhaps sooner than we know, a book like Class Warfare will be looked upon as and studied as a document of a civilization in decay, an artifact of an age so intellectually and spiritually barren as to permit the education of its children to be placed in the hands of clueless hedge fund hustlers and billionaires, a record of a time when America degenerated into nothing less than a decadent, oblivious fantasy land in which our very children were allowed to be exploited as nothing more than just another commodity.
( Thanks to Natalie, Marty, the Quiz and, as ever, Jeanne for their help with this beast. )
Note: See also Gary Rubinstein’s review @garyrubinstein.teachforus.org/2012/03/20/my-review-of-class-warfare-in-the-journal-of-school-choice/
New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg is obsessed. He is obsessed with his legacy. He is obsessed with abolishing the New York State seniority laws. He is obsessed with the destruction of the United Federation of Teachers. He is obsessed with the privatization of the New York City Public School system.
Like his fellow education reformers Bill Gates, Eli Broad, the Walton family, Jeb Bush, and any number of hedge fund millionaires, Bloomberg is obsessed with imposing his will and his values on every square inch of the continental United States. This is to be done via an utter transformation of the American public school system.
Like the rest of these people, Bloomberg is obsessed, not with education — a subject about which he knows nothing and cares even less — but with using education to transform the American ethos into something of a mirror reflection of himself; obsessed with using education as a means to insure the absolute triumph and domination of the corporate state for decades if not centuries to come.
These obsessions are all intertwined. Recklessly, ruthlessly, dangerously intertwined.
Last Friday, at the conclusion of Teacher Appreciation Week, Mike Bloomberg showed New Yorkers just how recklessly intertwined his obsessions are when he announced that, due to the fiscal crisis, New York would need to lay off some 6000 teachers. 1,500 would go by attrition, 4, 500 by pink slip. By virtually every estimation excepting that of Bloomberg himself and the Department of Education which he has ruled with an iron hand for almost a decade, a loss of such magnitude would be catastrophic for New York’s students as well as a personal disaster for each and every one of the unemployed former teachers.
Well, hard cheese old chap. Should have thought of that before you were born.
Also, by virtually every estimation other than Bloomberg’s, the layoffs are simply not necessary. Alas, says Bloomberg, the city simply does not have the 377 million dollars it needs to keep the 6000 teachers. And for that, says he, blame the state and the federal government.
Note: even as he went to the trouble of secretly finding a stooge to introduce a bill abolishing seniority — a certain Long Island Assemblyman named Flanagan who, though outside of the Mayor’s city is well within the Mayor’s control – Bloomberg has steadfastly refused to help in the effort to retain the so called Millionaire’s tax. And this despite the greatest movement of wealth upwards in American history.
Retaining the tax would have provided the money needed to solve the problem of potential layoffs.
But Bloomberg does not want to solve the problem of potential layoffs. He wants to use the problem to destroy the teacher’s union.
The UFT states unequivocally that there is a multi billion dollar surplus in the city’s education coffers. The DOE’s Dennis Walcott, rather less unequivocally, denies it. What is beyond dispute, however, is the fact that, in the midst of the greatest job loss since the disastrous teacher layoffs of the 1970’s which damaged the school system for decades, Mike Bloomberg has allocated $550 million for next year alone for technology upgrades and computers.
Such an allocation is, even by Bloomberg’s icy standards, a remarkably callous and insulting choice. It is akin to his decision to hire Cathy Black and his failure to fire Iris Bilge to name two of a thousand such Bloombergian decisions in his reign as dictator of educational policy. Such a choice says to teachers: This is what I think of you: a computer is more valuable.
At the same time, of course, the allocation puts the lie to Bloomberg’s claims of having to lay people off.
No matter how you look at it, it demonstrates that the layoffs, like the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq, are a matter of choice.
It is also, like the decision to invade Iraq, nothing short of an act of war.
The object of the war is the total destruction of the UFT and the consequent privatization of the school system. Bloomberg knows that if New York City schools fall, all other cities will fall afterward. Bloomberg’s method is circuitous. The idea is to abolish state seniority laws and allow the slow and ugly weakening and unraveling of collective bargaining rights and the union protections that would inevitably come in its wake.
Indeed, even as Bloomberg has worked to weaken and undermine the UFT at every turn since he was granted dictatorial power over the school system almost a decade ago, the removal of seniority laws — under the guise of “putting kids first” by keeping “the best teachers” in the class room, – would, in short order, plant the seeds and harvest all of the poisonous fruits of corporate business culture in schools across New York.
As rights and protections became weakened, dwindled or vanished altogether and teachers became “at will” employees, fear would become the normative psychological state of the school building. Perpetual and divisive competition between colleagues, informing, and shameless ass kissing would all become commonplace. Moral autonomy would shrink into nothingness. The strong and original would be fired or driven out or beaten down. Students would receive an even more anemic and insulting verison of corporate education than they do now, and that is really saying something. Bubble tests would proliferate even more mindlessly than they currently do.
In short, the abolition of seniority would, in time, produce an education reformer’s paradise. Bloomberg knows this – which is why he has been fighting so ruthlessly and insidiously to abolish the seniority law. It is why he is, in essence, perfectly willing to throw 6000 teachers to the dogs of a brutal economy just to get his way.
As always, the press is only too happy to parrot the Bloomberg/ reformer line, distort the truth and wholly omit why the seniority laws were created to begin with. Seniority laws, imperfect as all man made laws are, were created as a response to cronyism, racism, sexism, and, until very, very recently — indeed, until the sad advent of education reform — were commonly considered the only way to insure some modicum of fairness and some measure of job security in times of economic crisis and layoffs.
Suddenly, in the words of Fox News, seniority laws are “controversial.”
In the coming weeks Bloomberg and his billionaire friend will do everything they can to persuade legislators in Albany to abolish seniority. We can expect no end of teary-eyed stories of young dedicated teachers tragically separated from their charges by the savage union thugs and their lackeys in the state. Indeed, they have already begun. Observe today’s front page of the NY Times.
It is essential to understand that none of this, indeed none of education reform is or has ever been, in any meaningful sense of the words, about “education” or “reform.” It is about transformation of values. It is about the final stages of creating a country in which all public institutions will cease to exist for all will be privatized. It is about the elimination of not only unions but the very impulses and principles on which they are created: the yearning for economic justice, fair play, compassion, fraternity, and solidarity, all of which are in direct opposition to the ethos of the increasingly a-human corporate state.
It is about institutionalizing the Hobbesian “war of one man against all men” and positing this bestial nihilistic high tech savagery as virtuous and divinely ordered. It is about a right-wing revolution by stealth. It is about the absolute triumph of the corporate state and the absolute removal of all opposition to it. It is about driving a stake through the heart of unionism in America.
It is about servitude.
You do not appoint people like Joel Klein or Cathy Black or Dennis Walcott Chancellors of Education of the largest school system in the USA if you have any interest in improving education. You do not demand dictatorial control over a system of which you have no knowledge, no experience, and no interest if you are interested in education. You do not shut out parents from any meaningful discussion of their own children’s education if you have any interest in education. You do not impose business plans and call them education plans if you are interested in education. You do not shut out the voices of real educators if you are interested in education. You do not create Leadership Academies designed to spit out instant principals trained to act like CEOS if you are interested in education. You do not give public school buildings to charter schools empires if you are interested in public education. You do not heed the cynical advice of cynical billionaires who believe it their right to make public policy and experiment on other people’s children if you are interested in education. You do not reduce students to bubble test taking guinea pigs if you are interested in education. You do not hound, harass, humiliate and micro-manage teachers if you are interested in education. You do not purchase technology at the expense of teachers if you are interested in education. Above all you do not lay off thousands of teachers if you are interested in education. You do not set new teachers against experienced teachers if you are interested in education.
You do these things if you are obsessed with power over others. Education is merely the means.
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.
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.